Graham Swift on the mystery of creativity and the joy of writing

“There were the white cliffs. There was England looming through a murky early autumn morning. It looked extremely strange, my country; it looked very weird indeed.”

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In an exclusive essay, the Booker Prize-winning author Graham Swift explores the mystery of creativity ... or what makes writers write.

In my partly autobiographical non-fiction book Making an Elephant there’s a piece describing some rough travelling I did when I was 17 and 18 – a rucksack on my back and precious little in my pocket. It tells how in Thessaloniki, near the end of this journey, I found myself reading a book of stories by the Russian writer Isaac Babel and how reading them galvanised my own nascent desire to be a writer. Another point of the piece is to relate how, for reasons I won’t go into here, my final days abroad were thrown into sudden confusion and how I made a bizarre journey all the way back across Europe by train, quite unlike the homeward journey I’d foreseen. The piece ends at dawn, on a night ferry from Ostend, when I got my first glimpse of the country I’d left several months before:

“There were the white cliffs. There was England looming through a murky early autumn morning. It looked extremely strange, my country; it looked very weird indeed.”

This was in 1967 – amazingly, nearly 50 years ago. I couldn’t have known then that I’d one day publish a book of stories called England and Other Stories (I couldn’t have known I’d publish any book at all), but if some voice had told me I would, perhaps I wouldn’t have been totally surprised. In those days I wanted only to write short stories, I hadn’t a clue how to write a novel. I hadn’t much of a clue how to write a short story. But in my rucksack was a paperback of stories by a brilliant Russian writer who’d stirred me to make writing the direction of my life. Isaac Babel remains for me, for reasons I can’t fully explain, a quite unlikely but enduring literary father figure.

I might have used those words “it looked extremely strange, my country” as the motto for the book of stories I’ve now just published. There’s part of me that’s still on that ferry coming into Dover. I’m quite unequivocally English, yet as a writer I very often feel foreign, or I view my own country as if it were foreign. I approach it via some mental elsewhere. Why should I have been fired by a Russian writer? Why in my novel Waterland should I have alighted on a part of my country that in its very geography – or uncanny lack of geography – can seem, too, extremely strange? Why should my working title for my latest novel Wish You Were Here, a novel intensely about “land” in all its senses, have been “Unknown Country”?

There are historical and demographic facts which my 50 years of adult life have witnessed and which my new book bears witness to. England itself has become increasingly less homogenous and definable, so that the very words England or English can seem insufficient, even obsolescent. Yet England, the physical place, is undoubtedly there, and everyone who lives in it has to make some pact with it.

We live in the country which birth, fate or circumstance has made ours. Only a few people live in a country that they have freely chosen. We have to call it ours even if there are good reasons why we should resist the notion that it’s ours. Who indeed are these elect, self-assuming “we” who own a country? And yet the idea that a country is an “us”, that – hugely different as we may be – it’s something we’re in together, runs deep. A “we” is only a conglomeration of “I”s. Perhaps one reason for that powerful need of a “we” is that we can all on occasion become strangers to ourselves, we can lose our clear, customary and reliable sense of an “I”. What ought to be the most certain, definable and dependable territory on earth – our own human frame – can become bewildering and untrustworthy. So we oscillate between two would-be reassuring but actually deceptive grounds, our countries and our persons.

It has always been my feeling that the very primitive human urge for storytelling – an urge which is plainly universal and not peculiar to any country – begins with a sense of the strange. Once the familiar acquires an element of the strange, as it so easily can, then a story can begin. That vision of the approaching white cliffs – what could be more solidly emblematic of the place where I live? – as somehow hallucinatory is like the beginning of all stories.

There’s another reason why that remembered vision might be appropriate to my new book. I began my writing career with short stories. I was happy to do so. Then, somewhat to my surprise, I wrote a novel. Then another, and another. Short stories meanwhile deserted me – or perhaps I deserted them. I put it in that rather ashamed way because I have no sense of the short story being an inferior form only leading to novels. Both forms seem to me equally rich and viable. Much is made of their differences when actually they have a great deal in common. They are both prose fiction, they are both narrative, they both explore the human condition. A novel is a long story, a short story is a short one. I don’t feel a different creature when writing one rather than the other.

Each time I’ve finished a novel I’ve had the thought, tinged with a deserter’s guilt, that it might be nice to write some stories again. But only recently, after literally decades, has this actually happened. I’ve learnt that things just happen in writing, you can’t will them or force them. They happen.

But it has been a joy to return, at long last, to the short story, the only difference being that with my recent stories I felt very quickly that they’d all contribute to some single whole (perhaps this was now the deserted novelist in me), indeed to a single book that came to have the title England and Other Stories, a title at once comprehensive and fraught with a sense of the elusive. A book that derives its coherence from embracing an incoherent, shifting idea.

It has been a joy for many reasons, but perhaps chiefly because it has returned me to beginnings. To my beginnings, and to beginnings generally. How do you begin? What makes you begin? These are questions so big for writers that they are felt more like tinglings in the blood. There are 25 beginnings in this book. It has taken me back afresh to that sense of the enticingly ungraspable that perhaps makes all writers begin, that makes them writers in the first place. It is like being once again that travel-weary youth on the night ferry, coming into Dover at dawn and seeing before me that weird, spectral country that was nonetheless mine.

Copyright © Graham Swift 2014

England and Other Stories, by Graham Swift, is published by Simon & Schuster, £16.99

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