Booker prize winner Graham Swift's new short stories provide 'shots of emotion to the arm'
PUBLISHED: 06:55 21 August 2014 | UPDATED: 12:22 21 August 2014
Graham Swift, the Booker Prize-winning author, is by his own admission not keen on promoting his work publicly. In an interview five years ago, he confessed to being drawn to writing because of the solitude and privacy an author finds at work. He then almost ruefully added: "Publishing means going public."
Today, the 65-year-old’s feelings towards the publicity side of his work seem to have thawed ever so slightly as we discuss his latest literary effort, England and Other Stories, which he will be discussing in an upcoming talk at Hampstead Waterstone’s.
“Do I enjoy the publicity stuff? It depends,” he says, before adding: “It greatly helps if you feel the book is doing well in the first place because you can ride on that wave.
“Generally speaking, authors are people who sit alone at the desk – that is what they do. To speak on a book doesn’t come naturally.
“I suppose in my time I have got used to it.”
England and Other Stories is an extraordinarily powerful collection of 25 short stories, which play out “primitive” human emotions with jaw-dropping effect. Swift clearly prefers to let his books do the talking.
“It is a bit of a circle: if the book is successful it justifies the publicity, and the publicity helps the book,” he explains. “That is how, I think, it works.”
Having made his name with novels like Shuttlecock, Waterland and the 1996 Booker-winning Last Orders, Swift is returning to a form – the short story – which he not only enjoys, but understands expertly. A remarkable feat when you consider it has been 30 years since he wrote “short stories to such an extent”.
“Writing a short story is, I suppose, a more emotional business than writing a novel. You start a novel with a lot of emotion, a lot of inspiration; it is a thing of the heart but you have to keep it going for a long time. You need the stamina.
“With a short story, the original feeling can carry the emotion right through [to the end].”
Each of the 25 stories is a shot of an emotion in the arm. It is compelling to see how Swift can develop a character so much but often using just one or two scenes.
As Much Love As Possible details a man’s love for his best friend’s partner. A common everyday situation which we may read about in a glossy magazine’s agony aunt column, but Swift brings it to life so well.
The toing and froing in the character of Bill’s mind as he assesses each of his gestures to Sue – the apple of his eye – is gloriously maddening.
The theme of nagging self-doubt is played out repeatedly throughout the book’s stories. Swift, though, is keen to highlight the comical aspect of his work as well.
The title story England is certainly humorous. Swift plays on the scepticism sometimes shown by southerners towards northerners in this country.
Once again, the constant doubting is in evidence – this time shown by a Devon coastguard, called Ken Black, as he attempts to get the car of comedian Johnny Dewhurst, a black man from Leeds, back on the road.
“My sense of humour is always there, flickering,” says Swift. “There are moments of real comedy [in the book].
“Writing these stories after all this time was just a great joy. I suppose I would have a kind of feeling of would I ever write them again? So it was a thrill to do so.”
Bearing in mind Swift’s reluctance to throw himself into the media spotlight, can the reader expect any subtle autobiographical references in the stories? (Making An Elephant, an anthology of essays, published in 2009, is the closest Swift has come to a memoir of sorts.)
In short, the answer is no. “Well, I do not take my own direct experience and turn it into stories and novels. I don’t base my characters on either myself or on people I know.
“I very much want to create something that stands the test of time. That is the real excitement for me.”
Graham Swift is at Waterstone’s in Hampstead High Street next Thursday (August 28) at 7pm. Tickets are £3 and £5. For more information, call 020 7794 1094.