Librarian and author Mary Swan has been writing since she was 20 years old. Her previous book, The Boys in the Trees, earned accolades from the New York Times (“challenging and beautiful”), and a nomination for the Giller Prize in 2008. Historical bent and a strong voice are her trademarks; more recently, she has employed them in her September release, My Ghosts. Here, she reflects on the influences that shaped her as a writer.
When you started to write, which writers did you revere?
In my mid-teens I started raiding my mother’s bookshelves, which were filled with books by British novelists and short-story writers – Margaret Drabble, Penelope Mortimer, Elizabeth Bowen, Susan Hill – and reading their work made me realize, for the first time, that I wanted to write. At university in the 1970s I was introduced to Canadian writers who also became important to me, particularly Findley and Munro, Atwood and Ondaatje.
Did you imitate any of them?
Not intentionally, although reading Dance of the Happy Shades made me realize that it was quite possible to write about people and places that were not so very far from my own life and experience, growing up in small-town Ontario.
How did you forge a distinct voice? How did you escape their influence?
I think the only way that can happen is if you continue to read widely, and continue to write. For years. The influences will always be there, somewhere, but combined and filtered over time, and by your own experience. In the case of the writers I’ve mentioned, I think I was drawn to a certain sensibility, rather than any particular style.
What is the most dangerous influence or type of influence for a young writer?
Perhaps the most dangerous thing for a young writer is to be in a hurry. It takes time to learn what you want to say and how to say it, and it also takes time to learn when to listen to criticism and advice, and when to trust yourself.
Which author(s) do you think are most influential today?
Judging by the bestseller lists, that would have to be books on vampires and murders and how to fix whatever we think might be wrong with us.
Who do you wish were more influential?
I don’t have anything against bestseller lists, or any of the genres I mentioned above, but I think that if that’s your exclusive diet, there’s a great deal of richness you’re missing out on. There should be room for all kinds of books in the world, including ones we have to take our time with, and think about.
Whose sentences are your favourite, and why?
Hilary Mantel has some crazy sentences, especially in Wolf Hall, ones that shouldn’t work, but somehow do. And Per Petterson, especially in Out Stealing Horses; I remember a number of times going back to the beginning of a sentence to try to figure out how he got to the end of it, and why it had the effect it did. Generally I like sentences that aren’t cluttered with a lot of adjectives and adverbs, and one of my all-time favourites is from The Quickening Maze, by Adam Foulds: “the world is a room full of heavy furniture; eventually you are allowed to leave.”
When you are in a period of writing, do you change your reading habits for fear of being unintentionally influenced?
I don’t tend to read fiction, except for crime novels. That’s not a deliberate choice, but maybe an instinctive one.
This interview, conducted by Globe Books, has been condensed and edited.