Gladys Swan has published two novels, Carnival for the Gods, (Vintage Contemporaries Series), and Ghost Dance: A Play of Voices, (LSU Press, nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award), as well as seven collections of short fiction. Her poetry, essays, and short stories have appeared in many literary magazines and anthologies. Much of her work is set in New Mexico, where she grew up. Though she has spent most of her career as a writer, she has devoted much of the last two decades to painting and exploring the creative process. She was the first writer since the inception of the Vermont Studio Center to receive a fellowship for a residency in painting. She also received a fellowship from the Lilly Endowment for a year’s work in the visual arts and a study of Inuit art and mythology, and a Fulbright Award as a writer-in-residence in Yugoslavia. Her paintings have appeared as the cover art for various literary magazines and books, including her recently published book, The Tiger’s Eye: New & Selected Stories. She has twice been a Guest Writer at the Vermont Studio Center and has held residencies at Yaddo, the Chateau de Lavigny in Switzerland, the Fundacion Valparaiso in Spain, and others. The Carnival Quintet, the outgrowth of her first novel, is being published by Kiwai Media in Paris. The first volume, Carnival for the Gods, appeared in September, 2014. A trilogy of novels set in New Mexico is being published by Serving House Books: A Dark Gamble appearing in February, 2015; Ghost Dance: A Play of Voices (to be reissued in paperback) ,in August, 2015; and Ancestors in March, 2016. She has done the cover art for the books.
Gail Aronson is a fiction editor for Omnidawn and a current MFA candidate at the University of Alabama. She really likes cats and questions. Do you have a question for her? Ask here.
Excerpts from Gladys Swan’s Carnival Quintet follow the interview.
Gail Aronson: Imagination and an exploration of the magical strike me as essential to much of your prose. Omnidawn had the privilege of publishing your wonderful story, “The Tiger’s Eye” in Paraspheres, our anthology of fabulist fiction. Have you always considered yourself a fabulist? How do you see yourself fitting into this genre?
Gladys Swan: Actually, I considered myself a realist for a good many years. My stories begin on a literal level in a known world; that is, they’re essentially realistic. “The Tiger’s Eye” is the first story I wrote that suggests I might be tending in another direction, only I didn’t really recognize that at the time. Strangely enough, the story is based on literal events. The father of a friend of mine became clairvoyant after being completely skeptical of such abilities and did indeed have conversations with a tiger in the Bristol Zoo in England. The tiger thought it was being poisoned by its keeper and the circumstances of its death were told to me as literal events. The story is what came through my imagination—a “true” story.
My first novel, Carnival for the Gods, took me beyond anything I’d done previously—it is indeed another world and the characters came to me out of that imagined landscape. My second novel, Ghost Dance: A Play of Voices was going to be a straightforward realistic novel, so I thought, but it took a direction I never expected and landed in a different territory. I realized then that I had entered a different dimension as well. I now consider the realm of the fabulous my home. I gravitate happily between the real and the fantastic. Considering the amount of time I’ve spent reading fairy tales and comparative mythology, along with the work of Jung and Joseph Campbell, it’s certainly a logical outcome. The great American painter Charles Burchfield said once that he liked working between fantasy and reality because he felt that he could better approach the truth from such a perspective. My sentiments exactly.
GA: Within your surreal subject matter, there is a palpable attention paid to the quality of imagery, and for this reason it makes sense that you also write poetry and paint. Could you discuss how you might see these forms of expression interacting? How did you come to each?
GS: I think I must have come into the world with a particular sensibility for image. When I was perhaps six or seven I was trying to draw a man, but my crayon slipped and to make up for the mistake the figure ended up with wings. Maybe that’s an apt metaphor for my creative life. . When I was ten I begged for a set of oil paints and when asked what I wanted to be as a grownup, I said, “an artist.” I took art classes in high school; I tried to write poetry as well as stories. I could have gone either way, and though literature and writing won out, I finally had to go back to the visual arts. At one point, I was awarded a wonderful fellowship from the Lilly Endowment designed for college faculty members to work for a year in a field outside their own. My project was in art and mythology. I went up to Purdue and took every art course I could and then to the Eastern Arctic to see the context for Inuit art and myth. . I realized that my year’s project would last the rest of my life.
Many of my stories begin with an image that arrests me, that indeed have so takes hold of me I have to explore it. The story emerges from that. For instance, “News from the Volcano.” My husband and I were in New Mexico driving toward Farmington, when, quite suddenly, Shiprock appeared, which is the cone of an ancient volcano just rising out of the land. The visual impact was so powerful, just rising straight up from the land, I couldn’t let go of it. Around the time I was writing the story, I was working on a series of lithographs of volcanoes inspired by the same source. The story was published with one of the images. After that experience, I wanted to do a book of stories with images that were not illustrations but which came from the same source of image. But trying to do that as an intellectual idea was the kiss of death. The two arts continually inform one another, and I feel grateful for that richness, one difficult to put into words.
I don’t think I’ve exactly answered your question. What I see as I look back is that the inclination toward image led me to experiment with various forms, not with any plan, but just because I was drawn to them. Now it appears that they have all come together, and seeing what can be expressed from one to the other, I can choose with intention. I see and express something of the the world through different means.
GA: You mentioned that Inuit art and myth became your life’s work. What first captivated you about the project, and how has this interest developed and sustained itself over the years?
GS: I should have been more clear. I realized that the visual arts and mythology would occupy me the rest of of my life. Inuit art and religion held a great interest for some time, but I kept exploring other cultures as well. I was fascinated by the various approaches to reality, the patterns of living, they encompassed, the ceremonies that emerged from them, and the sense of meaning these gave to a culture.
GA: Was it during your art and mythology fellowship that you became interested in writing about the world of circus?
GS: Not really. My interest in circus and carnival as subject matter didn’t come about until about eight years later, and I can’t say why they took on such a fascination. It’s still a mystery to me.
GA: In addition to your prose, your visual work also seems engaged with an interaction between imagistic and dreamlike spaces, which ultimately becomes an emotional experience. Do you see your fabulist sensibility making its way into your paintings?
GS: Very much so. I let paintings come much the same way a story or poem does. Frequently, I start a painting with a shape or color and continue with it not knowing exactly where I’m headed. Then some figurative element might enter, perhaps a rhythm or a figure, human or animal. It’s a matter of seeing into the painting and finding what it wants to be, then helping it on to that end. .For instance, I did a painting I called “Movements of Horses and Men.” I didn/t come to that sense of it until close to midway. Then what was on the canvas suggested that image, and from that point on, I knew where the painting was going and could proceed with the intention of carrying it through. You don’t see real horses or men, but you do get a sense of their movement. The shape, color and rhythm of the marks suggest it.
GA: How does your process differ (or remain the same) between mediums? I consider it quite special when an author uses his or her own artwork for a book cover, which you do with your newest novel, Dancing with Snakes. I feel that it gives one a personalized glimpse into the book’s own world, as seen through the author. Earlier you mentioned attempting illustrations from the same source of image. Do the paintings for your book covers come from a source? Do you create these visual works in direct conversation with the text or do you arrive at them more abstractly?
GS: I’ve noticed that as my fiction has become more fantastic, my paintings have become more abstract. In doing the covers, I do converse with the text. I want an image that seems really significant for pointing the way to the book, for seeing into it.
The paintings do come from the same source as the story. Interestingly enough, the image for the last novel, Down to Earth, is pure abstraction. I think it has a celebratory feeling. For some reason, various people have responded to that one more strongly than the other covers I did for the quintet. They like the others, but that one seems special, and I’m curious to know what it appeals to in them
GA: In your fiction, I observe an ongoing empathy for unusual characters. What attracts you to these characters? How would you describe your process in making them come to life so substantially
GS: Well, most of them are outsiders, for one reason or another. That was my experience in moving from a small Delaware to New Mexico when I was ten. We were Easterners and Jews in a Hispanic and Anglo culture. I didn’t know who I was or where I belonged. It was painful to me as a kid, but very valuable to me as a writer. I could never write a comedy of manners, for instance. Many of my characters are not based on anyone I know, though they might have characteristics of people I do know or have heard of. They seem to have an independent existence and I have to allow them to lead me sometimes in surprising directions. I leave myself open, and they appear, sometimes quirky and inexplicable. Then they live in me; I’m involved in them. I become the instrument for their appearance. In high school and college I was in plays and wanted to be an actress. The experience taught me to forget whoever I am and live in another persona entirely. I think I do that when I write fiction. Maybe it was the alternative to being an actress.
GA: In Carnival for the Gods, I see a constant tension between a rather destitute reality and a grand sense of desire that propels these characters, this world, into being. How do you situate yourself in this world? Does inhabiting this space, these characters, require a great deal of research or does is occur organically?
GS: Dreaming beyond the reality we’re given seems an important impulse in human beings. I must have proclivity for that. My mother used to call me a dreamer—it was not a compliment. Certain characters come to me with their desires and strivings. And I take them on. I don’t know exactly why these particular ones, but there they are.
When, for whatever reason, I got caught up in the idea of writing about a circus or carnival, I really had no idea what I wanted to write about. I even had a strong desire actually to travel with a circus or carnival—it seemed absolutely the right thing to do–but my responsibilities at the time stood in the way. I was whining about my situation to a friend of mine, who, after listening to me, said mildly, “Why don’t you invent a circus?” That hadn’t occurred to me. Not long after, I came home from a party in a rather elevated state and lay in bed unable to sleep. The characters began to come presenting various possibilities. Either they came out of the landscape or the and the landscape came with them. I wrote what was to be the first chapter of Carnival in a month, a short time for me. It was acce[ted by return mail and published in the Sewanee Review. Every writer should have that experience at least once..
The research was rather a helter-skelter affair after things got underway. I read, at one point, a treatise in French about acrobats, went to the Ringling Brothers’ circus museum, attended various circus performances here and in Europe, subscribed to a circus magazine called Spectacle, and finally did a stint with the Circus Flora in St. Louis and Phoenix, pulling the back curtain for all their performances. There I met the performers themselves, and that whole experience was a great help to me in writing the last two novels.
GA: Please tell us about your newest novel, Dancing with Snakes.
GS: Dancing with Snakes is the third novel in what is now a quintet, issuing from my first novel, Carnival for the Gods, n which Amazing Grace is an important but minor character, who dances with snakes, and who is seen as the one who will repair their battered fortunes. in the quintet, but the third. I’d already written the finale. Where did she come from? I once read a story about a woman who dances with snakes, and it left a vivid impression. Snakes have taken a bad rap since the Fall, but leaving the Garden did make for consciousness and freedom of choice, as well as suffering and death. In Greek mythology they are connected with the earth, and considered sources of wisdom and healing. They represent the whole sexual force.and also point to the dark side. So they come with a complex and interesting set of implications. They deserve our attention. We need to explore why we’re afraid of them. They belong to the world of circus as well. I didn’t really know Grace until I wrote the novel—how she got her name, what a hard life she’d had, and finally how she emerges from it. Her relationship with the snakes is key.
GA: Could you perhaps speak a bit about the process of writing this quintet over fifteen years? What are some challenges you faced, and how did you arrive at the realization that Grace needed her own story?
GS: I never intended to to return to the world of Carnival and certainly never expected to write a quintet. Ten years after Carnival appeared, I sat on a beach in Crete, where I was trying recover from an illness, and somehow started making notes for a second novel, about the midget Curran; a third, The Dream Seekers came about three years later; and finally, after my stint with the circus, the finale, Down to Earth. I had, so I thought, completed a quartet. Serving House Books published a small book with the first chapters of the four novels, together with a poem I wrote about my circus experience. Recently I felt the need to look into Grace’s story. Perhaps the quartet felt incomplete without more about her. Such things are hard to explain. I did the final draft last summer.
Recently, I realized that the quintet had branched out from the first novel, with its shifting point of view, in which you see the characters as part of a troupe within acontext of the owners’great dream of creating a circus/carnival greater than The Greatest Show on Earth. The other novels follow the individual destinies of those characters. I needed to inquire more deeply into Grace. I’d seen her in action, but I really didn’t know her. There must be something pretty special about someone who dances with snakes. But even more special, someone who barely escapes a hideous death. What is that experience and how has it shaped her life? How can someone emerge from that and live in a positive way? I’m really insatiably curious about such things.
GA: Can you speak a bit more to how snakes inform Grace’s character?
GS: I think you’d have to go to the novel to get any real sense of that. It’s a process that goes on for about seven years during her youth.
GA: What is next for you? Any projects in the works, fabulist or otherwise?
Well, I will be busy taking the rest of the quintet through the editorial process, etc. and the same thing with what has now become a trilogy. My second published novel, Ghost Dance: A Play of Voices, was the story of a New Mexico town during a recession. It was published in hardcover by LSU. Then I wrote a Western epic, A Dark Gamble, also in that setting, which took its inspiration from from the epic of Gilgamesh. A while ago, I finished the third New Mexico novel, Ancestors. Recently, it occurred to me that there is a strong relation between them, terms of setting and themes. They all make use of the fantastic, but in very different ways. A Dark Gamble is coming out in February; Ghost Dance is being reprinted in paperback in August; and Ancestors is coming out in March of 2016. I’m trying to finish up a new story collection and a book of essays at some point. And I need to do more painting.
Carnival for the Gods
It was the first time Dusty had ever backhanded her, and it was not just the blow, the pain, the blood from her lip flowing saltily into her mouth that gave Alta the shock: it was the sense that something fatal had struck at the roots of her life. Things would never be the same. It was the edge of Dusty’s ring that had cut her lip, a gold ring with a strange little head carved in ivory that he’d bought during a fit of extravagance in Kansas City and said was his good luck and that he’d never part with it. As she stood in the cramped little bathroom, looking into the mirror, teeth all outlined in red as though she’d been eating red-hearted plums or pomegranates, the lip still bleeding, it seemed as though she’d never staunch the flow. This is my life, she thought; this is time leaking away, as it has been doing year upon year. And I’m standing here letting it happen like I was born without a brain.
The whole of the little trailer had shaken with their quarrel, till even words and the clash of voices could not contain the violence. Pansy, the little curly-haired dog she kept, a cross between a poodle and a wire-haired terrier, had taken refuge under the couch and, looking at Alta with brown eyes that seemed full of the light of tragedy, still refused to come out. Dusty meanwhile had thrown himself out of the trailer and into the truck, banging doors all the way, setting up a cloud of dust as he roared off into town, leaving her there alone with the freaks and the animals in the broken-down carnival. She dabbed at her lip as she tried to calm her feelings. She was looking pretty terrible at the moment. Face blotched, bags under her eyes, broken lip, but she wasn’t all that old— forty-seven—and there was still a chance for … what? For love, for money?
Money talks—she’d learned that much. It says yes and it says no. Says, you owe it to yourself, baby; go on and have it. Be my guest. Says, you’re out of luck, sister. Says, go to the city and have yourself a ball; says, stay home and starve your gut. Says, turn on the gold-plated faucet, break out the champagne. Says, stay away, lady, you smell bad, and nobody’s gonna give you a second look. Says, dream—the sky’s the limit. Says, look at the walls peeling. Says, go hang yourself. It says, Alta concluded, you have been with a man who’s brought you nothing but trouble and grief, all the while promising you the world.
The letter arrived innocently enough, without so much as a return address. A fan letter—Curran hit on it at first glance. Seldom did they come, but when one appeared, his ears tingled, a pleasant flutter rippled across his midriff, his mind did a little dance. Recognition. Ah, hit me again, lads. Et maintenant, Mesdames et messieurs, je vous presente: le Grand Curran. (Naturally it would be in French.) And now once more:from the woman who’d watched his act three nights in a row, so hot for the performance not even a kid in tow gave her an excuse to revel in the high jinx. He was sure of it: the woman who’d staged her own disappearing act as soon as his and Donovan’s was over. He didn’t know why she’d struck him that first night as he scanned the audience. No prize certainly. Blowsy: a blown poppy. Bleached hair, painted lips, a certain hectic quality in the cheeks. A face ravaged yet familiar, like a tune, a taste that teases one out of mind. And when she returned the next night, he was not only flattered, but eased, confirmed. His performance mattered. He directed it toward her like a kiss blown in her direction, to the mystery woman who’d come just for him. A gift: he was at the top of his form, making them clap till their hands ached. Even Donovan said as much—quite an admission from the old jaguar. In the old days you’d have had to goose him with a red-hot poker to win even a grunt of approval.
In this season of largesse, in the glow of late summer, Curran indulged himself in a few well-earned fantasies—why let Donovan hogthem all? So he was humanity write small: that much more to prize. Royalty had graced its courts with midgets and dwarfs, recognizing a quality so special it was given place among the anointed. Hadn’t the great Velasquez painted them? Goya as well. Immortal now. What the populace had cast aside had been rescued, given blessing. Freaks no longer. As for himself, he hugged a long-cherished ambition. Not to have his portrait painted—but to create one of his own, at least as large as life.
DANCING WITH SNAKES
AMAZING GRACE. Lights all a-dazzle. Streaming, I mean dancing your eyes across the marquee like a comet’s tail. That’s me. Amazing—will you believe it? Featured act here at the new Las Vegas night spot, The Galaxy, the latest shows a play of colored lights and images that take your mind to worlds beyond any you can imagine. Pure magic. I get to show my stuff here and in Atlantic City and Miami too, plus an offbeat little place in L.A. The rest of the time I travel with the circus, where I’d rather be. All the other stuff pays the bills and allows me to save up for my education. I dream of going to college one of these days—soon now. It’s always on my horizon. There’s lots I have to learn.
So tonight I’ll step out onto the stage in my favorite costume, red and gold, sequins and rhinestones on the outside, skin side on the inside. Then with well-timed consideration I remove my veils and girdles and get down to the real thing. I’m there I in my bikini, giving a shimmy, before I invite the snakes to appear. There’s a gasp from the audience—count on it. And I’m on, doing my dance.
What a way to earn to earn a living, you might say. But I’m off into the excitement that holds me breathless, and maybe you’ll get caught up into the wave, into the thrill and fear that clutches at the midriff. Takes you to the edge.
Amazing all right. But that’s not the half of it. What’s most amazing is how I got here in the first place, considering all that happened along the way. And I’m not here for keeps. I’m biding my time. There’s one I’m waiting for, to come and tell me his story. Meanwhile hang on, and you’ll know all.
Whatever drew me toward the snakes lived in my childhood before I was able to reach for words to tell about it. Snakes? Some people are scared spitless by the very idea, let alone having one crawl over your skin. When I was older I read about those Hopi Indians, how they gather snakes and let them crawl all over their bodies as they sit in the kiva, calm and steady as a cedar post. Then they dance with them—rattlers and sidewinders, with their fangs and poison. They call them, “Brother.”
Though I felt a stab of fear at first, I came to feel a kinship. Like they lived inside me.
Humans have always been iffy for me. When I was a kid I hardly had a name. I felt more like I was kin to the animals. Maybe that was on account of something you couldn’t give a name to–a wildness that lived in us both without my seeing any difference.
Wasn’t a whole lot then to tie me to the human. I couldn’t remember anyone calling me by a syllable that drew me to the sound, made me take it on. Oh, I might hear, “Hey you,” or “Get on over here, you little stinkweed.” This from the one who stood for my father, if he stood anywhere at all. Not that I ever called him Daddy. A mouth, that’s what he was, all scrunched up like he’d bit off too much of life and wanted to spit out the taste before it choked him.
His name was Priam Gillespie. He hated his name, people pronouncing it Pry-am or Pree-am. Every once in a while somebody would say, “What the hell kind of name of that?” “It’s what comes of having a librarian for a mother,” he’d mutter. “Damn her hide.”
Every once in a while, maybe in a store or the bank, somebody would call him Mr. Gillespie, and I’d look around for the stranger I thought they were speaking to. Sometime he called me Miss or Missy. “Don’t give me any of that guff, Missy.” Or “Toots” when I was getting on to becoming a woman. “Oh, so now you’re getting ready to strut your stuff, eh Toots.” I wanted to kick him.
Somewhere there was a birth certificate with my paper name. but it just fell off the edge like it had nothing to do with me. Whenever somebody spoke it, I didn’t look around or say a word. “What’s your name, honey?” folks would ask, and when they drew a blank, they’d smile down into my face, as though getting closer would turn on the light bulb, and say, “What’s your dolly’s name? It wasn’t a real doll, just a sock with stuffing in it, and button eyes and a mouth sewed on. “Name,” I’d tell them. “Name—that’s her name?” That would tickle them all right.