SOME OF THE THINGS THEY TEACH ME: an interview with Louise Swinn

Posted on July 23, 2011 by in The Melbourne Review Interviews

BEL WOODS

I have a fondness for the stories that sneak up on you long after you and the story have parted, that seize you when you least expect it. I feel when reading about Sleepers – your beginnings, your accomplishments, the quality of the short stories, your plans for the future – that, you and Zoe are emulating the work you’ve produced, and are sneaking up on the Australian publishing industry. And even with your novels, as varied and unestablished as the authors are, you’re representing the current Australian writers and readers; by producing what is good over what we’re told is in vogue. I know it’s early to say, but in light of past movements in writing, those that have contributed to the evolution of the novel, short story, and publishing in general, do you believe you’re contributing a space for a new type of Australian novel? A renaissance for the short story? And all the while, in keeping a balance between paper and digital media, a new wave of Australian publishing?

LOUISE SWINN

I don’t want to be one of those people who answers “that’s a difficult question” but that is a difficult question to answer when you think self-importance is a big evil. I think we’re contributing something useful and I think we are some of the people helping to make broader the acceptance for different literature in general, be they novels or not, be they Australian or not. There are many good people working in this field right now, and especially here in Melbourne, in Australia; being around it all is part of the thrill.

Short stories have been around for a while, of course, and there are always a few people worried about them but whether this is a renaissance or whether it’s just what is happening right now, I’m not sure. We are called Sleepers, and that is not insignificant – we do want our work to be affecting, if gradually. We do really believe in the books we put out. I think I thought when we first started eight years ago that eventually it would become easier to publish books that we cared less for, and in fact the opposite has become the case for me – I feel, more than ever, that I could not publish, promote and stand by books I don’t love. I guess it’s because now I have a real sense of what goes into them. After eight years with Sleepers, life has stopped being about parties and drinking and it’s become more about getting home after that late meeting to spend the evening sitting at my laptop. There is little romance in this line of business but there is romance in the work itself. I adore the work I publish. I think it’s hard to find a space to express unironically how you feel when you feel the way I do about these books, but I am honoured, on a weekly basis, to be able to read and publish the books we publish. If you think that stories and books can change people’s lives, then books are important to you, and I do believe in our books – I believe they have longevity. There’s also this thing that I read way, way more books that I never end up publishing, for many different reasons. So many of the books I’ve read and haven’t gone on to publish, for whatever reason, have stayed with me – so I am in this fortunate position of having people’s stories in my head all the time.

We read books from anyone, not just through agents, and, because I am a writer too, these are my peers, so sometimes I am in a room and I have rejected books by half the people in the room. This is a curious position to be in, because often these people are my friends. I think what that does for my work as a publisher is that it makes me care more for each book that comes into my Inbox, makes me take real care with each book. I find it terribly hard to reject books – it doesn’t seem to be something that gets easier – even though I have to do it every day. Mainly because many of the books I read are of a very high standard, often better than other published books, and I feel as though if that manuscript could find an editor or publisher who loved it like I love the books I’ve published, it could go well. I have turned down books that are less flawed than books I have gone on to publish, because sometimes you just love something. How can you describe the best love?

What this reading does to my work as a writer is that it can silence me. There is often too much noise. But I am here for the long haul and there is no getting away from the fact that words and books take up so much of my brain, and I can’t imagine it being different in the future. I would like to think that I am helping to contribute to the greater good of books in all the work I do, including the reviewing.

At Sleepers, we are trying to keep a balance between paper and digital media, and I am a big fan of both. There is so much fear out there right now in our microcosm and sometimes it can all get a bit underwhelming how small people’s thinking can be. Aside from anything else, any student of even the most basic history knows that to ignore electronic publishing formats right now would be foolish, but I am really embracing what this will also mean for the paper book and the new ways publishers are forced to think about how they publish and promote their books. I think those who benefitted from the long-lunch, big-advance, only-reading-work-from-agents publisher models are fewer and further between, and that new models need to reflect new readers and new authors. I do believe in fairness and in remaining balanced and sensible, but I do think it is a pretty exciting time to be reading, writing, publishing and selling books right now.

 BEL WOODS

I must admit the idea of digital media had me apprehensive for a while. As a writer it doesn’t bother me, but as a reader… (I don’t enjoy reading more than a few pages of text from a screen, and I know I began buying Sleepers books for their look and feel as much as the content.) This said, I agree we’re definitely in a shift. I know I love being able to flick up a good short fiction piece while working online, but at the same time I love curling up on the couch with a journal. So for the most part I’m torn. I expect, at Sleepers, you’re feeling the pressure to abandon one for the other more than most. The fact you haven’t is commendable, but having lost one prominent journal recently to the digital world, I know the concern out there is that other journals will follow suit. Do you think, for publishers, the question really has become one of progressiveness or diplomacy? Or is this something exclusive to boutique publishers – where there is a smaller, more literary, audience?

LOUISE SWINN

In a sense it’s easier for those of us publishing books, like the Almanac, that don’t really make money, to stick with older methods of publication, i.e. paper books; though it’s a simplistic argument, the reality is that if you aren’t used to making any money from the product, then losing a bit of money or losing a bit more – well, there’s not as much in it as there is in a product that could make big money in one format and lose it in another.

BEL WOODS

You mention in your first answer that the reading you do for Sleepers can silence you as a writer, and I really loved how you’re at peace with the fact this relationship between your life and books is multifarious, especially when I look at the body of work Sleepers has produced. I agree it’s worth the inevitable noise. But your name is one I’ve stumbled across in Meanjin, Overland, Kill Your Darlings etc., so somewhere, somehow, you’ve still managed to produce some sophisticated stories. I’m curious; do you, at certain points throughout the year, take time away from the publishing to write for yourself? Or is it a matter of overcoming the noise and finding the eye within the storm?

LOUISE SWINN

It’s a bit of both but I’m a bit of a late bloomer, by nature – I’m slowly getting there. The reality is that if I did nothing but write right now it would… well, it would be of a higher quality than it would have been ten years ago, but it wouldn’t be my best, not yet – a lot of it would be terribly cringeworthy, not worthy of your fine attention. The rest of the things I do in life are good for my writing, for sure. It always sounds like a cop out when someone says they are ‘always writing’ but there’s some truth in that, isn’t there. I’m not always writing but I am always a writer, I guess, somewhere, in the way I think and see.

BEL WOODS

One of the more exciting things I’ve read about you (Sleepers and your own writing aside) is your involvement in the bid for an Australian ‘Orange Prize’. Considering the amount of years the gender imbalance on shortlists of other Australian awards has been apparent, there are many who’d say it’s been a long time coming. Why do you think it has taken so long for someone (or a group of someones) to step forward and demand this? Was this cautiousness to address our own worth a contributing factor in the imbalance in publishing across the board? Or do you think we were, in good faith, waiting for the writing to be acknowledged on an equal playing field?

LOUISE SWINN

I don’t know. I think there is the sense that it would be great if we could find some other way of fixing this issue than to set up another bloody award, so I think there’s probably been the hope that it would resolve itself. I also think that the people who feel and think the problem greatest are people who have so many things to do outside of their main job/s already that it was just a matter of it being that midnight thought that, by the time the morning came around again, they had more immediate concerns and work and committees they were already devoting themselves to. Plus, it’s a generalisation sure, but I don’t think we like to be whingers. I think we wish so badly it weren’t the case that we’ve been hoping it isn’t for that long, and almost believed it.

BEL WOODS

I’ve long admired the work/life balance you and many other women in the industry manage to maintain. I’m a mother myself and know the obstacles I have to overcome in order to be a part of the writing and publishing world. Do you think being at the forefront helps? Or do you find the further you immerse yourself, the harder it gets?

LOUISE SWINN

I think balancing life – domestic, creative, paid work, volunteer work – is a tricky one and while I appreciate you including me in that, I’m not sure I do achieve it. It is a daily task, to try to balance it all out. Anyone who has multiple passions is always going to be hard pressed meeting their needs, and it’s tough when you sign up for a lot in life, to meet all of life’s demands on you – but I can’t really see any other way. For me, the only alternative would be to have a proper paid job and just work the regular 40 hours a week but then, what would I do with the rest of the time and my brain? I’d probably just start a publishing company again. We’re our own worst enemies.

BEL WOODS

When you talk about your passion and ‘big love’ for writing and all that you do, it’s hard not to get wrapped up in the enthusiasm and want to be involved. There are a lot of new and emerging writers and editors who I’m sure feel the same way. This does lead me to ask, who, in your life, have you found inspirational and/or influential? And if there was a particular person, how did they help you reach where you are now?

LOUISE SWINN

Even though teachers are often the people I knock heads with, I actually think it is a vastly under-appreciated profession – in my next life I’ll be involved in education policy. There are some truly amazing teachers, and some of the biggest influences on my life have been teachers – when I was a kid in the UK, Sue McDermott and Max Markiewicz, and here in Oz, Maureen McFadzean. I have the cliché of particular family members who have been huge influences on me, too, chiefly my nan who used to fume over typos in the Guardian, and my mum – restaurant quality food, a shipshape house, worked while studying, and brought up four kids. I have a bunch of friends who are juggling artistic careers with paid employment and domestic life, and I find them to be hugely inspiring now when it seems easy to lose sight of the things we deemed important at eighteen. You may think this mad but some of the greatest influences have been characters: Jo March, the Salingers, Antoine Roquentin, Denise Lambert, Edith Campbell Berry, Stephen Dedalus – as well as their writers. I’ve had tonnes of good influences, and I’m impressionable. Katherine Graham, Anne Frank, Ingrid Bergman, Jennifer Saunders, Victoria Wood, Hugh Laurie, Amy Witting, Morrissey, Green Gartside, Tracey Thorn, Michael Stipe, my sister, Miranda Hart, Annie Lennox. I do surround myself with a lot of people who inspire me and their influence rubs off – passion and energy I find very attractive. Everybody has self-doubt but I guess what I get from these people is that sense that if you rise above the self-doubt, or at least learn to ignore it, then you can produce good things. Also the need to be useful, to be of use, to create things that are worthwhile, to not waste my time here. These are some of the things they teach me.

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