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An interview with Dan Powell

After working with short story writer, Dan Powell, when he came to Hive Young Writers’ Festival in 2018, I decided he would be the perfect person to interview for my Arts Award. Dan was great to work with and gave me loads of ideas and fresh ways to look at things. Here he talks to me about all things writing including writers’ block, making mistakes and his short story collection Looking out of Broken Windows. Erik Rüder

When did you start to consider writing professionally?
Since I was six or seven, I have written stories. I started by cutting up my comics and reassembling the pictures into new stories. The fact that I am now engaged in a PhD in Creative Writing that involves wrestling with the structure and closural staging of short stories is interesting.

At fifteen, I remember going to my careers advice interview at school and being asked what I wanted to do for a living. I said I wanted to be a writer. The careers advisor paused for a moment and then suggested that I look at working in a bookshop or library. I can see where he was going with that, but I think some advice about college and university courses would have been more help to fifteen-year-old me. I ending up training for a PGCE and teaching English in schools and only really threw myself into writing for publication in my late-thirties.

I had been writing for all that time but my first step toward writing and publishing came when I signed up for an Open University course in Creative Writing. The feedback I got from tutors and the subsequent publication of some of my stories told me that I was doing something right and should keep going.

Do you experience writer’s block? How do you deal with it?
I don’t really suffer from writer’s block as such, I tend to always have an idea of what I want to write, where my story should go next. I suffer instead from what you might call ‘writing block’ which is doing other things to avoid writing. I can always find something else to do, particularly when I know that the thing I need to write is going to be challenging in some way.

I suffer instead from what you might call ‘writing block’ which is doing other things to avoid writing.

The best way to avoid this, I have found, is to set myself a time limit. I put some washing in the washing machine or set an alarm for an hour from now and tell myself that I only need be at my desk for a set period of time. I then sit and write and, hopefully, usually, by the time the washing machine beeps or my alarm sounds, I am deep in the flow of writing and don’t want to stop. Dorothy Parker is quoted as saying “I hate writing, I love having written.” While I wouldn’t go so far as to say I hate writing, sometimes I don’t want to write, but, after working anyway, I always love having written.

What of your own works has been your favourite? Why?
Probably Half-mown Lawn. This was a story that was rejected by many editors and journals and prizes. So many I lost count. But I knew the story was good and kept sending it out there. I had faith that it would find a home. Which it did. First it won the Yeovil Literary Prize for Short Fiction. Then it was published in Salt’s Best British Short Stories. But more than that, this story still resonates with me deeply. The character of Annie in the story felt so present to me when I wrote it and still does today. She had a life before the story and one after. And there is a whole other story embedded under the surface narrative of her dealing with her grief that I might one day return to.

Hard to pick a favourite though. I could easily have chosen The Ideal Husband Exhibition. Or Adopt the Brace Position. Or Storm in a Teacup. Or Rip Rap. Or Dancing to the Shipping Forecast. Or my novel. If we are doing it properly, we grow to care about these characters we write about, we grow to care about their stories. It is because we care about these made up people that readers will too. So, yes, picking a favourite story is hard.

It is because we care about these made up people that readers will too.

Are there any potential mistakes a new writer could make? In terms of the practice itself, and the networking and competition side also.
I think the biggest mistake fiction writers can make is being too eager to publish/enter prizes. This leads to sending out work before it is really ready. Patience really is a virtue for the writer of fiction. It is always best to take time with your stories, to figure out how to make them the best they can be. If you can, put your stories away for a while and go back to them with fresh eyes. In doing so you will see your errors before you hit send or the submit button, which is always better than the alternative.

Conversely, don’t go too far the other way and be too nervous about sending things out when they are ready. Once you know you have done the best work you can, send your story out into the world. It will find its place eventually.

Would you ever consider branching out into different types of writing, like novels or poetry? Does the short story form hold any significance for you?
I have recently completed a novel and am currently working with my agent to edit the manuscript prior to submission to publishers. It is a different discipline and one I enjoy tackling. As for poetry, I dabble with it, writing poetry alongside my First Story workshop groups when I ask them to tackle the form. But I find poetry much more difficult than prose fiction and have only published one poem.

Looking out of Broken Windows makes for a quite unusual study of parenthood and the nature of relationship. What inspired it? How personal of a story would you consider it to be?
The central situation of that story was entirely imagined. I began simply with the image of a house with broken windows and someone coming down the drive and seeing the fractures for the first time. Not sure where that idea came from, but I began writing, following my usual process of letting the character and setting emerge and develop during the first draft, feeling my way toward the story and its eventual end. For me, that is what the writing process is, a slow movement, feeling my way forwards, toward an end that I can’t see but that I know when it arrives.

Though the story, characters and setting are entirely imagined, the central emotional core of the story, probably finds its origins in my own experiences, somewhere deep down, when I was a similar age to the narrator of that story. There is always some emotional truth tucked away inside a story, however imagined its surface is.

Though the story, characters and setting are entirely imagined, the central emotional core of the story, probably finds its origins in my own experiences, somewhere deep down, when I was a similar age to the narrator of that story. There is always some emotional truth tucked away inside a story, however imagined its surface is.

LooBW, as with much of your work, features a fairly significant element of magical realism. Do you have any thoughts on the use of that device- how it might be done appropriately, or misused?
I think you get a sense early on in the writing if the magical realist element of a story doesn’t work or if it is being misused. I have a handful of stories sitting in the depths of my laptop hard drive that misfired in some way, the magical element of the story somehow disconnected or disjointed from the narrative itself. You can’t always say exactly why it isn’t working but you just know it isn’t. Which is why those stories remain hidden away, because I know they is some sort of disconnect occurring in them, but I can’t see how to fix it. This kind of thing is something that is best seen after you have put the work aside for a bit. Coming back to the work with fresh eyes will at least tell you that it isn’t quite right. If you are lucky you will also see how to fix it.

Especially with regards to the somewhat recent International Congress on the Short Story, how do you balance your perspectives on fiction as a reader, academic and author? Does this present a problem? How much would you say they overlap?
I would say they overlap greatly. First of all, in order to write in a particular form, you need to read widely within that form. My writing of short fiction has always been informed by reading short fiction, both consciously and unconsciously. My academic study into preclosure in the short story is an attempt to make some of the unconscious processes at work when I write short fiction into conscious processes. In terms of balance, I have to make sure I don’t get too bogged down with theory as this can stifle creativity.

That said, I am finding the theoretical and methodological restrictions I am putting on myself have forced me to be more creative. I have found ways to both adhere to the writing frames I have constructed while also being creative in my application of the various structural and linguistic elements. If I had not embarked on this PhD journey I would not have been able to write these particular tales, so in that sense, perhaps the one that really matters, the three sides of myself, reader, academic and author are perfectly balanced.

Just generally, do you have any major ambitions for your future career? Are there any interesting projects you are currently working on?

My main ambitions currently are to find a publisher for my novel and to complete my PhD studies. I am looking forward to completing the drafts of my PhD stories and moving on to edit them. Once I do, I can start writing novel number two, the idea for which is burning a hole in my creative pocket at the moment.

Thanks again for taking the time to answer some questions Dan.
You are most welcome Erik. Some fascinating questions here. I hope you own writing continues to go well.