Dan Powell is a prize winning author of short fiction whose stories have appeared in the pages of Carve, New Short Stories, Unthology and The Best British Short Stories. His debut collection of short fiction Looking Out Broken Windows was shortlisted for the 2013 Scott Prize, long listed for the Edge Hill Prize and is published by Salt. He teaches part-time and is a First Story writer-in-residence. He procrastinates at danpowellfiction.com and on Twitter as @danpowfiction
Dan wasn’t able to attend our BSSA 2015 anthology launch on 19th November, in Bath and we are delighted to interview him here. In Jude’s interview with him below, he tells us more about his second prize-winning story Dancing to the Shipping Forecast, his influences, current projects and tips on writing short stories. You can read his story in our BSSA 2015 anthology available from this site, Mr B’s Bookshop in Bath, The BigGreen Bookshop in London and from Amazon (print and digital versions).
- Your 2nd prize winning story for the Bath Short Story Award, 2015, Dancing to the Shipping Forecast was very powerful and evocative. Our short list judge, literary agent, Carrie Kania said “what I admired the most was the building tension and the aching timestamp of a relationship reminding us that every second counts” I agree wholeheartedly with this comment. Can you tell us what inspired you to write it?
The first draft of the story was written during December 2013 and January 2014, a winter of fierce storms and heavy rainfall. Lots of areas flooded and coastal surges destroyed large areas of the coast, damaging both property and the landscape. As the time my family and I were living in an old farmhouse in Lincolnshire and it rained for so long and so hard that water began permeating the brick work. Patches of damp began appearing in the walls, much like those I describe in the story, and it is these patches of damp that the story grew from. This initial setting of an old property, the plaster patched with dark wet stains where the rain seeping in through the drenched brickwork, merged with the images on the TV of coastal waters sweeping up and devouring coastline in seconds. From there I had the coastal location for the story and that was enough to start writing. The voice of my female narrator appeared in the first few lines I drafted and this was one of those rare occasions that the voice took over and led me through the story. Once I knew that this woman had lost someone she had only recently become involved with, the tone and shape of the story became apparent. It’s four part structure mirrored that of the shipping forecast and once I began tying that in by using a forecast for the area in which the story is set on a particularly bad day during that winter, the story came together quickly. It was a quick first draft and slow edit though, hence the twelve months or so spent refining it before I submitted it to the Bath Short Story Award.
- You have recently been awarded the RSL Brookleaze Grant. Can you tell us more about it, and what it means to have received it for your life as a writer?
The RSL Brookleaze grants are intended to provide writers with the opportunity to focus on their writing, whether it be funding a sabbatical from work or a research trip that would otherwise be impossible. My award will enable me to remain in part time work for the next few months, effectively buying me three days a week in which to write. I have been enjoying that privilege for the last few weeks, and I am loving being able to focus on my current works in progress in this way. I have also kept a small portion of the funds aside to help pay for a research trip to London in support of my novel. I plan to undertake this trip during Easter, visiting some of London’s Victorian cemeteries and, amongst other locations, the Hunterian Museum. Receiving this award from such a respected institution is fantastic validation of my writing and a great motivator as I make my way through the final third of my novel.
- You also work as a writing tutor and were recently writer in residence for First Story writer. What do you enjoy about this work? Have you any up and coming workshops that writers could attend?
I work with writers of all ages I am always in awe of the way both students and adults throw themselves into the writing tasks I set in my workshops. In every session there will be so many moments when a phrase or piece of description the share will have me wishing I wrote it. Writing is usually a solitary pursuit and being able to share the creative experience with like minded people is a genuine pleasure and one that energises me for the return to my own work. Working with First Story is a particular privilege as writers-in-residence get to work for a year with a group of young writers. It’s a pleasure to watch them grow in confidence in their work as the year progresses. At the end of the process an anthology of the students work is published and they attend a book launch. What a great opportunity for a young person, to be a published author while still at school. It’s the sort of thing I would have loved to have done when I was at school.
As for up and coming workshops, unfortunately I don’t have anything lined up for the next month or two as I am busy completing an application to study for a PhD in Creative Writing. Hopefully I will have a few later in the new year that people can come along to.
- You are successful as a short story, flash fiction and essay writer. I believe you are also working on a novel. Do you readily move between all forms in your day to day writing and can you tell us more about the novel?
I tend to stick to writing in a particular form rather than jumping between tasks, so I will focus on short stories for a few weeks at a time, rather than move back and forth. With something as long as a novel, I will take breaks from the text to dip back into writing a short story or essay. Though overlaps exist between the different types of writing, I find that each form demands a slightly different mindset and I need to immerse myself in order to produce something of value. Currently I am neck deep in my novel draft. It’s about an undertaker who wakes one day to find that his body has died but he is still conscious within it and somehow able to move. Its part literary existential novel, part body-horror novel. Researching this book has traumatised my web browser.
- You received a runner up prize for your essay on Norwegian short story writer Kjell Askilden for last year’s Threshold Essay Contest. Is he a writer whose work has influenced your own prose? Who are the other short story writers that you currently admire and would recommend reading?
Minimalists like Kjell Askildsen, Raymond Carver and Amy Hempel have definitely influenced my work, particularly my more straight-ahead literary fiction stories. Anton Chekhov is a big influence, particularly how he manages to merge the higher emotions and the base in a single story, even a single scene. That level of control is still something I aspire to pull off. My more surreal or weird stories, like ‘Storm in a Teacup’ or ‘Free Hardcore’, also owe something to writers like Adam Marek, George Saunders and Aimee Bender. As for who I would currently recommend, I am savouring the short stories of William Gay at the moment. His collection, I Hate To See That Evening Sun Go Down, is consistently, story by story, sentence by sentence, one of the most affecting and compelling collections I have ever read. Right now, I am busy being blown away by how good his work is. Soon, I need to start working out how to get that good at this writing thing.
- How do you think entering short story competitions helps writers?
First and foremost they give you a deadline and force you to finish. If you want to enter you have to finish your story and you have to do it within a time frame. Making commended lists and longlists and shortlist can provide validation to what you are doing but getting there takes time for most writers. First of all you need to write and competitions provide motivation and a goal, not necessarily the goal of winning, but the goal of writing the best story you can and submitting it. If you do that, and keep writing better stories each time, success becomes a matter of time.
- What tips would you give writers who are planning to enter the Bath Short Story Award this year?
Read the very best examples of the short story you can get your hands on. Look closely at how good stories work. Then write the story only you can write. Write the story you want to read that no one else is writing. Make it a bold and unique vision which can’t help but stand out when the judges make their selections. Oh, and edit, edit, edit; polish it until it shines
Interview by Jude, December 2015