Monday, 3 March 2014

Interview with Dan Powell

Dan Powell is a prize winning author whose short fiction has appeared across the internet, on mobile phone apps, and in print, most notably in the pages of Carve, Paraxis, Fleeting and The Best British Short Stories 2012. His debut collection of short fiction, Looking Out Of Broken Windows, was shortlisted for the Scott Prize in 2013 and is published on 15th March 2014 by Salt. 

I spoke to Dan about short stories, the Open University, his forthcoming collection and the excitement of publication.

When did you first think about being a writer?

I've always wanted to be one. At about age eight I remember cutting up my comic books and reassembling the images into my own stories. When asked what I wanted to be by my career's advisor in my final year of school my only answer was 'a writer.' He told me to get a job in a bookshop. While studying for my degree I spent time I should have focused on my course reading voraciously and writing my own small press comics and short stories. This all ground to a halt when I started teaching. It was only once I left full time teaching to take care of my young family that I rediscovered my writing self.

I know you did the Open University's Start Writing Fiction course, what made you decide to do the course and did you find it helpful?

The Open UniversityMy enrolling on the OU Writing courses was meant as a very clear statement, to myself as much as anyone, that I was going to seriously concentrate on this writing thing. I reckoned that the feedback I would receive on the course would be a good indication of whether or not my writing was any good. At the time I was suffering from what Ira Glass calls the Gap, when a beginning writer compares his early drafts to the polished, beautiful books he reads and inevitably finds there is a massive gap between the work itself and the writer's ambition for the work. It was this ‘gap’ as much as the lack of time that stopped me writing for at least five years of my life. Like Ira Glass, I wish someone had told me early on that this was normal, that every one writes crap first drafts and that the only way through it is to do a lot of work.

Over the two courses I received critical feedback from both my fellow students and the tutors, feedback which told me that, while I still had some way to go, there was something in my writing that was worth pursuing. In terms of giving me focus and guidance in those years, the OU courses were invaluable. The fact you can now do the Start Writing Fiction course for free is a fantastic opportunity for anyone out there looking for help getting started.

Do you remember your first publication? 

My first publication was a piece of flash fiction called Love Is…' and it appeared on back in 2009. You can read it here. It was one of the first things I ever subbed and I arrived home from a holiday in the Harz mountains to find that it had been accepted. It's a story I still have great affection for and I'd have loved to include it in Looking Out of Broken Windows. In fact, it was in a very early version of the manuscript but as I thinned the stories I realised it didn't fit the emerging theme of the collection and it had to go. Great to be able to share it here though.

I remember publishing 'Looking Out of Broken Windows' in Paraxis. We loved the story; it's clever, funny and warm. Can you describe your writing process? Where do you start when you begin a story? 

My stories tend to unfold out of either an image, some picture that comes into my head or sometimes a picture that I see and have to respond to, or an idea that spawns after reading some unusual news item or hearing a striking song lyric. A handful have been inspired by something that my children say or do that my imagination latches on to. The central image of Half-mown Lawn literally hit me between the eyes while I was mowing my back lawn. Stories like Soiled and Third Party, Fire & Theft grew out of photographs, the Ultrasound trilogy, The Man who Lived Like a Tree, Peekaboo and What Precise Moment all grew out of experiences or conversations with my children, while the latest story I’ve completed, which I just submitted, grew out of a lyric from a Villagers song.

The story ‘Looking Out of Broken Windows grew out of the image of a young woman, eighteen or nineteen, stood looking out of a window that was broken with a single crack that ran the length of the window, the crack running down the window in front of her, sort of cutting her in half. This image hung around in my head for a while until I finally started writing what turned out to be Amy's story. I slowly realised, as the story unfolded, that all the windows in the house were broken in the same way. Mike Zappa appeared fully formed in all his glory as soon as I decided on his name.

For me writing a short story is like that. I start with a single image or moment and I feel my way through a first draft, discovering the story as I write it. It's only once the first draft is complete that I have an idea of what the story is actually about. Redrafting is usually a case of making each element of the story work as hard as it possibly can to achieve what the initial drafting of the story has told me it needs to achieve. Most if not all of my writing choices are made because they feel right. It is only later, when heading toward the final draft that I can articulate the reason why the story had to be the way that it ends up.

Your collection was shortlisted for the Scott Prize, how did that feel?

I heard on a night when my MA group was set to meet in a crowded chat room for a session on the nuts and bolt of the publishing world. I had just got the kids to bed and fired up my laptop to find my Twitter feed buzzing with folks congratulating me. It took me a moment or two to realise what had happened. Being shortlisted felt like the end of something I had been working toward since I read my first Salt collections of fiction back in 2008, back when I was just embarking on the Open University courses. Suddenly, here was a publisher I really respected saying that they thought my collection was not only good enough to be published, but in with a chance of winning the Scott Prize. And look at the writers who were on that shortlist. It was great company to find myself in.

Was there time between finding out you hadn't won the Scott Prize and finding out that your collection was going to be published? 

There were about four or five days between my being told the result and the offer from Salt. I was obviously disappointed not to win, but hey, I lost to Kirsty Logan. Losing to a writer whose work I admire was a consolation. This was my first experience of being publicly shortlisted for a prize so while if felt a bit raw at the time, it was actually a very handy insight into the realities of prizes. I feel very lucky to have had my work recognised in that way and having Salt offer to publish my collection anyway felt very much like winning. Life is all about the fact that you win some, you lose some. Here I just did both at pretty much the same time.

What's been the most exciting part of the publication process?

It’s all been pretty exciting. Seeing my cover for the first time was just wonderful. Seeing my name on a book alongside that delicious quote from the brilliantly talented Caroline Smailes was a real highlight. I’ve been very lucky to have some great writers agree to read my collection. To have writers of the calibre of Caroline, Nuala Ní Chonchúir, Tania Hershman and Nik Perring provide such wonderful cover blurbs was thrilling. I’ve just spent a couple of days at the Oxted Literary Festival, teaching a flash fiction workshop as well as discussing short fiction in a panel alongside Alison MacLeod, Vanessa Gebbie and Tom Vowler. A great first festival experience. Beyond all that I am really looking forward to the book getting into the hands of readers. The idea of people engaging with and hopefully enjoying my stories is exciting.

What are you working on now?

I am currently entering the last leg of my MA in Creative Writing which means that I have to produce a finished novel for assessment by the end of September. I am part way through my second draft at the moment and that will be taking up most of time for the next few months. That said, I already have four or five stories ready for the next collection. This one is a little different from Looking Out of Broken Windows, in that I am consciously writing a set of stories that will hang together. The stories I have so far seem to be saying something about what it it like and what it means to be a man in the 21st Century. Itll be a while before I have amassed enough stories to complete it, but hopefully some of the individual stories will start trickling out via lit journals or prizes soon.

Thanks Dan and all the very best with Looking Out of Broken Windows. I'm looking forward to reading it.

Dan is giving away a signed copy of Looking Out of Broken Windows to one reader of the blog tour; he will post to anywhere in the world. To win just leave a comment on this post or any of the other LOoBW blog tour posts appearing across the internet during March 2014. The names of all commenters will be put in the hat for the draw which will take place on April 6th.


  1. Thanks for hosting the first leg of my blog tour, Carys. A pleasure to be here.

  2. I love the idea that Looking out of Broken Windows came from a single image. Interesting post. Good luck with the book, Dan.

    1. Thanks. Glad you enjoyed the interview.

    2. Hi - pleased to say that yours was the name pulled from the hat for the blog tour giveaway of a signed copy of the collection. Please send the address you would like me to send the copy to (along with the name you'd like it made out to and any message) to the email address on my blog's about page and I'll get the copy in the post to you asap.

  3. Thats great. I don't have what it takes to be a writer but I do love reading. Congratulations on the book.

    1. Never say never. For a long time I would likely have said the same thing about myself. Writing is 99% perspiration 1% inspiration. Key thing is to keep trying. In the meantime, enjoy your reading and thanks for the congrats, Julie.

  4. After all these years I get a chance to find out answers to questions that don't end up in emails on during Skype calls!

    Mike Zappa is one of those characters who commands space on a page in a way that is both 'here I am' over the top and quietly squirreling away. He is the antithesis of being broken. And every time I see a truly hairy man, I can't help but think of Mike.

    Your stories, along with Nik's, have given me an intimate understanding of how magical realism works on a visceral level, as much as on a craft level.

    1. Thanks Jodi. I may have to revisit Mike at some point. There has to be more story there.