Conversations with the Bookless: Rachel Swirsky

In support of the short story, and specifically those talented writers who are currently “bookless,” which is to say those writers who are at that stage of their career where a book is a year or more away, I’ve decided to start a new feature called Conversations with the Bookless. The fact is, if you don’t have a book out, it’s harder to get attention and it’s harder for reader attention to crystalize around you. I hope these interviews introduce readers to some of the great new talent that, in the coming years, will be amazingly and bountifully bookful.

One of those writers is Rachel Swirsky, a Clarion West graduate currently attending the Iowa Writers Workshop. Swirsky impresses me for a few simple but important reasons: her fiction shows range and depth, it is intelligent and curious, and while the style is often both muscular and lyrical, that style (and voice) are almost always in the service of character and story.

Where are you, right now, as you’re writing these answers?
I’m upstairs, in my apartment in Iowa City. The window behind my desk looks down on Gilbert Street, with a Victorian house across the street, and beside that a cornery grocery that specializes in wine.

What do you like most about short fiction?
As a writer, I like the intensity of short fiction. It enables one to concentrate on language in a way that is nearly impossible for longer projects. I like to rewrite things many times, and it’s not always feasible to retype a 90,000 word novel twenty times so you can get the rhythm of the language right in your ear.

Short stories are close to poems. They can have a certain impressionism which approximates thought or sensation — bursts of energy instead of sustained documentation. Novels can have an impressionistic feel, but I think it’s harder to achieve.

What do you most value in the fiction you love?
I was thinking about this in workshop the other day, because we were all sitting around the table talking about these two fairly interesting pieces, and my primary issues were centered around the language. I feel that one has to be very conscious of how words are altering the reader’s experience. As a reader, a really good voice — not necessarily beautiful, but exceptionally crafted — can draw my interest, and often hide other flaws. When I come upon something with a compelling voice, I will often not even notice other problems.

On the other hand, a compelling voice does little for me if it isn’t backed by a compelling idea. In the workshop, we often read very realistic, but very still stories, that are almost the literary equivalent of a still life painting. Often the subjects are very similar from one to the other, a series of different fruits in different bowls. I can recognize they’re beautifully done, but I don’t find them engaging or inspiring.

I like writing that’s tangled and controversial. Often, writing that’s political. I think I savor these things much more than some of the traditional literary values like character or setting. I know writers who think the most important part of a novel is its sense of place. That can be an interesting element of a novel, but it’s certainly not the primary thing I would look for.

You’re at the Iowa Writers Workshop. What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned in the last week?
I’m currently studying with Johnathan Ames, who is an interesting writer. One thing he said this week that resonated me was that writers need to hang out. That’s how we refill our creative energy. Very often, the solution to writers block probably isn’t to sit at the computer and try harder. It’s to find new people and new situations that ignite one’s desire to write. Jonathan Ames said he found interesting material hanging out with police officers in Jersey. Right now, I’m reading a lot of blogs by people who are politically engaged in more intense ways than I am. I don’t understand writers who don’t pursue as much knowledge as they can get their hands on — new ideas open up new stories.

Where can we read your fiction online right now, and where is work forthcoming?
A full list of my publication credits — with links — is available at my website. I write poetry, fiction, and the occasional essay or article.

Some of my favorites of my pieces of fiction that are online right now are “Dispersed by the Sun, Melting in the Wind” which is up at Subterranean Online, “Scene from a Dystopia” which was in the issue of Subterranean Magazine edited by John Scalzi, and “A Letter Never Sent” which is a literary piece of mine featured in the Konundrum Engine Literary Review.

As far as forthcoming work, I’m especially excited to be appearing in a future issue of Weird Tales. I also have work forthcoming in Fantasy Magazine, Electric Velocipede, your anthology Fast Ships, Black Sails, the anthology Dark Fantasy from Subterranean Press, and Escape Pod.

How do you plan to rectify your booklessness?
The first step is writing a book! For me, that’s the major hurdle at the moment. The structure of a novel is pretty different from the structure of a short story. The director of the Iowa Writers Workshop, Sam Chang, says that novelists must be willing to lose control of their work. I’m struggling with that.

I have been working on a novel that’s an expansion of a novella I started writing when I was sixteen. It’s something of a love letter for my older brother who attempted suicide when I was young. I feel like I understand the characters and their world very deeply. I need to find the structure to contain them.

Once I’ve got the text in my hands, I’ll have to start pestering editors and agents. Anyone interested in representing a literary speculative fiction writer who wades in both pools?

19 comments on “Conversations with the Bookless: Rachel Swirsky

  1. GlenH says:

    Thanks for the interview – I was very keen on “Heartstrung” (still am actually).

  2. Matt says:

    This is a fantastic idea. I love learning about new talent in the field–and hope other people will feel the same once I have a few stories published.

  3. Nicole Kornher-Stace says:

    What an amazing idea. Being among the bookless myself, I’m really pleased — though unsurprised — to see you’ve got the backs of others in that situation. Looking forward to seeing more in future!

  4. Felix Gilman says:

    Wow. ‘Dispersed by the Sun, Melting in the Wind’ is really, really good.

  5. Yeah, I thought this would be a feature to more or less phase out the walking the plank interviews, which I’m getting bored with. I hope to do at least two a month, maybe more. Still getting it organized.


  6. SarahP says:

    Great interview–thanks! Rachel’s so smart and so lucid about writing.

  7. Jason Boog says:

    Fabulous idea for a series. It’s so hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel as we chip away at books. It really helps to have somebody to identify with. The links to inspirational sites was a nice bonus. I’ll look forward to more…

  8. kellys says:

    I second everyone’s thoughts – this is a great new feature. For a reader, there’s few things more appealing than being introduced to exciting new talent. Keep these interviews coming.

  9. Great idea for a column, Jeff. It used to be that poets were the ones who laughed and said, well, I’m *just* a lowly poet. Now, poets are selling books and it’s the short story writers (like myself) who are low figures on the totem pole. Unfortunately, for those of us truly driven to write, there’s little choice in the matter. We write what we write. Me, I write poetry, short stories, novels, nonfiction, but I love constructing the short fiction the best. And yet it is least likely to find home in a binding these days (besides an obscure journal somewhere). Which means just like every other short story writer, I find myself in that ghetto of booklessness, published widely yet not published at all and therefore, seemingly not worth paying attention to by booksellers etc. because I don’t have anything to peddle.

    All this as a roundabout way of saying, THANK YOU for shining your light on the short story form and the dogged among us (read dogged and dogg-ed) who do it for the love and craft of it. Perhaps our time will come around like it has for the poets?

  10. Thanks to both Jeff and Rachel for this interview. Not to flog the poor horse overmuch, but I am also a bookless wonder (wondering what went wrong?), but for me, the novel or novella is where I feel comfortable working, while trying to write short stories gives me a combined case of stage fright and the heebee-jeebies. But I’m working on it. My question to all of you (us) is this: can a novelist now sell a book, theoretically speaking, without much in the way of short fiction credits, or is it still the traditional “proving ground” that it has been in past eras?

  11. Fred says:

    Thanks for posting this. I think it’s a great idea for an interview series, and I’ve been impressed for awhile by Swirsky’s work.

  12. I don’t think you need the short fiction record. Just depends. Some people seem to think you need a record. I say the most important thing is to have a good novel to sell, in terms of if you want to sell a novel.


  13. Yeah, it’s one thing to ask questions. It’s another to get great answers like Rachel’s.

  14. This is an excellent idea, Jeff. I am unfamiliar with Rachel Swirsky’s work, but after reading the interview, I will definitely seek it out.

  15. What a great idea for a series, Jeff. As an afficianado of the short story I really appreciate you spotlighting writers who specialize in it (for now).

  16. Oh, thanks. When I have a few of these done, I’ll do a post on the Amazon book blog with the links, and feature one anthology each that each writer has appeared in, since Amazon requires there be a book involved.

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