An interview with Dan Powell
I’ve known Dan Powell since mid-2009. We stumbled across each other between Constantine Markide’s Fourth Fiction and the inception of #fridayflash. We were both relatively new to writing and wrote shoulder-to-shoulder through much of the second half of 2009. I greatly admired the scope and versatility of Dan’s writing. There seemed to be no style or genre he couldn’t turn his hand to with style and efficacy. In time we fell into a critiquing partnership that has endured the birth of children, moving countries, breakdowns, work pressures, time pressures, and all other things life can, and does, throw your way.
I’ve had the honour to publish three of Dan’s stories (‘This Be The Verse’, ‘Driver and the Beautiful Highway’, ‘Perfect Light’). He is an editor’s dream. In 2012 I had the opportunity to adapt ‘Driver and the Beautiful Highway’ for a short film script.
Behind the scenes I’ve had the joy of watching so many of Dan’s story grow and evolve and go on to find homes in magazines, anthologies and on prize lists. I tell in my editing seminars, in the section on beta reading, how Dan once sent me a story which was just an opening and closing. In the middle was a note: [something goes here. Do you have any ideas what it might be?] Those days are long past for Dan!
Dan’s work is uncompromising and at times uncomfortable in its exploration of taboo subjects or hidden ‘domestic’ situations. I have been disturbed and delighted by the characters and stories Dan has penned. In 2010 I (jokingly!) said to Dan: no more shit stories. Read ‘Soiled’ and ‘Did You Pack This Bag Yourself’ and you’ll understand the comment in context of a stay-at-home Dad going through toilet training!
Dan is one of my writing heroes: his dedication to the writing communities he belongs to (in the early days of the Friday Flash community he read and commented on every story, even when the list blew out to 70 odd stories), his dedication to the craft (his commitment to the Short Story a Day challenge back in 2010 was one of the catalyst in the evolution of his stories IMO), his dedication to Flash Fiction as a form (he has reviewed and shared countless stories from sites such as Metazen) and his work ethic (write, sub, and keeping subbing).
Then there is the huge investment Dan has made my work over the years as my crit partner. He knows my work inside-out and has consistently challenged me to write learner, harder and deeper. His editorial stamp is on so many of my stories, including Elyora/River of Bones.
Today it’s my pleasure to look across my desk and see copies of Looking Out of Broken Windows sitting there… and to grill him about the process of creating a short story collection.
Lou Reed said: I can’t do anything I want to. I mean, I can’t have my own TV show. I can’t have my own movie. But within my little world, no body tells me what to put on the album. It made me think of how writing stories is not too different to writing songs.
That is exactly what I love about writing. I write exactly the stories that I would love to read. That level of control is unique to the prose writer. Every other type of story-telling requires collaboration and as such means you relinquish some of that control, some of that freedom. I’ve written comic scripts and I love collaborating with artists and watching the words come to life in a kinetic fashion, but you cannot beat the raw freedom you get faced with a blank page about to be filled with prose.
I am genuinely excited by what I am writing about at any given time. You can’t beat that feeling of writing exactly what you want to write. Seeing that work go on to be accepted for publication and enjoyed by readers is particularly thrilling. It justifies all those choices, both conscious and unconscious, that you make during the crafting of the piece.
David Byrne said that sometimes there is an unconscious thread that runs through the songs on an album. The same could be said about writing short stories; that as writers we are drawn to tell certain types of stories and or give voice to certain types of characters. How indicative is Looking out of Broken Windows of the types of stories/characters you are drawn to and how did those stories influence the inception of the collection?
This collection is absolutely indicative of the kinds of stories and characters I was interested in exploring over the last four or five years.
I am drawn to the broken and damaged parts of people. In those aspects of character lie the real stories. All of the characters in these stories are a little broken, a little damaged and struggling to deal with the events and actions that have made them that way. This thread emerged in an unconscious process. Once I began filtering the stories during selection, it was very clear that a certain core group would provide the spine of the collection.
Being broken is a major part of the human experience. If you’re lucky you pick yourself up and carry on, hopefully with the help of others. This collection explores that side of being a person.
From that inception point, what was the process of creating Looking Out of Broken Windows? What was the hardest part and what was the easiest part of the process?
The short stories are the backbone of the collection. Once I had that group it was a matter of selecting the flash fictions that best complimented the stories.
The hardest part of the process was realising that certain stories just wouldn’t make the cut for the collection. I knew early on that a good few stories that I really loved, that I thought were good enough to include, just didn’t fit the overall theme and feel of the collection.
Looking at the collection now I can see that I absolutely made the right choices over what to include. And of those that it really hurt to cut, a good two or three have a firm place in the next collection, which they are perfect for, so it all worked out. Conversely, the easiest part was probably the removal of those stories that weren’t quite good enough.
LOoBW has 27 stories in it. How many stories did you have the pool and how did you choose what went in and what was held over?
I pulled the very best stories from the last five years or so of my writing to make up the collection. From a total pool of around 26 stories and 32 flash fictions I ended up with the 27 pieces in the collection. So by that reckoning, I trimmed away just over half of the stories that might have earned a place.
Most of those were cut because they simply weren’t good enough. Others were kept back for my next collection as they simply did not fit the emerging theme of this collection.
The real turning point for selection came with the writing of the title story (which was the last story to be completed in the collection). I knew as soon as I typed the final words that the collection had a story that would act as its figurehead. Once I had that, I had a title for the collection and the rest slotted into place.
Many of the stories in LOoBW were published previously in journals, magazines and anthologies. How does including previously published stories impact on the logistics of putting a collection together?
That side of things was all very simple. All the stories were published at least a year ago and therefore out of any exclusivity that their previous publications claimed. For all of them I have copyright so that side of things was not an issue.
All of the stories that appeared previously elsewhere are mentioned in the acknowledgements of the collection, along with my sincere thanks to all the editors who championed my work by putting it online and in print. Their support was a crucial stepping-stone to this collection being accepted for publication.
Do the previously published stories appear as the fans of your work will remember them? Or did some require re-working to fit the overall feel of the anthology?
All the stories appear pretty much as they were originally published. The exception is ‘Did You Pack This Bag Yourself?’ which you will remember appeared in Chinese Whisperings interconnected short story anthology The Yin and Yang Book as ‘This Be The Verse.’
It was a story I absolutely needed to include, as no character of mine is more broken than poor old Calvinsweetheart. The rewriting was not about making the story fit the theme in this case, but taking the story back to its core, removing the elements that tied it in to the world of the Yin and Yang books, so the story could stand on its own two feet amidst my other work.
In the past when I’ve configured anthology ToCs I’ve been very mindful to place each story so it’s position amplifies the narrative but also builds the stories around it. Who decided on the final ToC order and how do you think your stories are altered/experienced differently in having them together in a single collection?
The final order of stories was totally my own decision. Salt are happy to trust their authors to shape their books. I think they believe that no-one knows the book better than the author and as such they give you a great deal of freedom regarding which stories you include and in what order.
I think my stories all stand up as separate pieces of fiction but hopefully, when read together like this, the reader will see the connections and resonances between the many narratives squeezed between the covers.
Hip hop artist Mos Def says all his albums are snapshots of where he is artistically. How is Looking Out of Broken Windows a snap shot of you are both as an artist and a person?
It is definitely a snapshot of me as a writer between 2008 and 2013.
All of the stories were written during that period and as such can’t help but reflect where I was at that time both as a writer and a human being. Many of the stories focus on the domestic, which is probably a direct result of my being a househusband and full-time-father during that time. It’s why there are so many stories about pregnancy and babies in the book, why there are so many stories about marriages, so many stories about parent and child relationships.
Are there any hints at what might be in your next collection?
My next collection is already taking shape. I have five or six stories for it already. This one is going to be all about the idea of masculinity in the 21st century.
It’s creative process is quite different as I have a clear idea of the general feel of this collection from the off and I am consciously writing stories that have something to say about that idea. Hopefully this will mean that this one won’t take so long to complete. The first of these stories, ‘Rip Rap’, has just been short listed for the Willesden Herald Short Story Prize. With luck some of the others will start appearing in publications and prize shortlists very soon.
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Dan Powell is a prize winning author whose short fiction has appeared in the pages of Carve, Paraxis, Fleeting and The Best British Short Stories 2012. His debut collection of short fiction, Looking Out Of Broken Windows, was shortlisted for the Scott Prize in 2013 and is published by Salt. He procrastinates at danpowellfiction.com and on Twitter as @danpowfiction.
Dan is giving away a signed copy of Looking Out of Broken Windows to one reader of the blog tour; he will post to anywhere in the world. To win just leave a comment on this post or any of the other LOoBW blog tour posts appearing across the internet during March 2014. The names of all commenters will be put in the hat for the draw, which will take place on April 6th.
Looking Out of Broken Windows (Salt Publishing) hits the shelves Saturday 15th March. You can pre-order at the following locations:
The Salt store