- An Interview with Graham Swift
Graham Swift is one of the most successful and respected novelists writing in contemporary Britain. Since 1980 he has published eight novels, a collection of short stories, and a nonfiction book. His work has garnered critical acclaim and literary prizes, and it has won a large and appreciative audience throughout the English-speaking world and beyond. His most celebrated books are Waterland, from 1983, which is widely considered a modern classic, and Last Orders, which was awarded the prestigious Booker Prize in 1996. Both novels have also been made into films. His latest novel, Tomorrow, came out in 2007.
Swift belongs to a generation of talented novelists born around the middle of the twentieth century—including Peter Ackroyd, Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Salman Rushdie—who, as they came to prominence in the late 1970s and early 1980s, were seen to represent a new wave in British fiction. However, Swift has never allied himself with any literary school or movement, and his work defies easy categorization. For example, it seems too invested in the traditional concerns of the English novel (like exploration of character and storytelling) to warrant the label "postmodern," which can be more readily applied to many of his peers, yet too self-conscious and formally sophisticated to fit comfortably under the rubric of realism.
With fellow novelists Pat Barker, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Caryl Phillips, though, Swift shares an evident and abiding preoccupation with issues of trauma, memory, and recovery. His protagonists—mostly first-person narrators—tend to be humble, unheroic, [End Page 637] vulnerable elderly men who are forced by a crisis situation in their personal lives to face up to an often traumatic individual and collective past. They feel the slipping away of the foundations upon which they, and the society to which they belong, have built their existence, and by means of which they have sought to keep the trauma at bay. The question that they now face is how to respond to this situation of unsettlement and perplexity—whether to hide or flee from it or to try and engage with it in a meaningful way. While denial is shown to have catastrophic consequences, Swift's work also raises the possibility that the process of working through trauma might create the conditions for a viable alternative modus vivendi based on openness to and respect for otherness.
This interview was conducted in the dining room of a beautiful and delicately restored Victorian pub in the South London suburb of Wandsworth, near where the author lives, on January 31, 2008. I had first met Swift some two months earlier at a conference in Liège, Belgium, where he gave a keynote address that I had been asked to introduce. The text of this lecture, titled "I Do Like to Be beside the Seaside: The Place of Place in Fiction," was to find its way into Making an Elephant: Writing from Within, the nonfiction book published in 2009 which he was then working on. The writing of this new book, which involved revisiting and reworking several older pieces, put him in a retrospective mood, as did the introduction for a special anniversary edition of Waterland on which he was then about to start and which he had completed by the time we met again on the other side of the English Channel. The moment seemed right, therefore, for an interview that would focus not only on his most recent novel but also on recurrent concerns and evolutions across his work—an interview, in other words, that would take stock of where Swift stands as a writer twenty-five years on from Waterland.
Q. At your publisher's request, you have written an introduction for the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of Waterland that will be coming out later this year. Am I right to assume that you have mixed feelings about this project? After all, Waterland is a book that has obviously brought you fame and, I hope, fortune, but whose huge reputation has also, to some extent, come to overshadow all your later work, with the possible exception of Last Orders; and now [End Page 638] with...