The richness of everyday life provides seemingly inexhaustible possibility within the novels of Graham Swift, whose Wish You Were Here ranks with his best. It’s a novel of rural England, where destinies appear to be preordained, yet every life, and every decision within it, so profoundly affects so many others.
A man mourns the death of his brother, a soldier in Iraq with whom he’d lost contact, and the delicate balance of his existence begins to topple, threatening everything from his marriage to his memories. Few novelists show more subtle mastery than Swift, whose characters invite the reader’s empathy rather than judgment.
What was the seed of inspiration for this novel?
I never have a grand plan. Novels for me arise obscurely and with a strong sense of the provisional. There eventually comes a point when I know I’m “in” one, but not how I’ve crossed the threshold. I may well have begun with the shotgun—the shotgun that features in the opening pages and has several appearances in the book, in the hands of different characters.
How did the topical element of Iraq and the “war on terror” in this novel change the writing experience?
It all came from my groping for the story behind that first scene. I felt that as well as telling the story of a man and wife, the novel would involve the relationship of two brothers, that there’d be a missing brother—Tom—who’d be much younger than the main character, Jack. I can’t explain why.
At some point I made the leap to the missing brother having joined the army many years ago, thus to Iraq and thus to what became the spine of the narrative—the almost literal “coming home” of that war, the story of the return of a dead soldier.
But I can’t stress too much how all this, with its political, even global implications, arose out of a local, intimate context. This is a novel about farming as much as anything, about all the meanings the word “land” can have, including that of close, heartbreaking physical ties. I seem to write novels that are simultaneously domestic and undomestic, rooted and uprooted
Why did Jack and his wife come together, and why have they stayed together?
They plainly weren’t brought together in any greatly romantic way, more by geographical circumstance and by their limited range of choices, but this is only how many unions are made that prove long lasting.
Their relationship has its strengths, its depths and its significant weaknesses…I love them both, and their seldom-articulated, stubborn love for each other. All this said, it’s clear from the beginning that their relationship has never been so severely tested as now.
Were you conscious of wanting to write something with more of an element of suspense? Are the pacing and chronological structure organic to this novel?
I hope all my novels involve a degree of suspense, if only because storytelling, the process of gradual revelation, is inherently suspenseful. But it’s true that the final chapters of Wish You Were Here have a strong “cliffhanger” element.
Many readers have commented on the roller coaster experience, on how they absolutely couldn’t guess the outcome. I can only say I shared all this myself. I really didn’t know at the beginning how it would end.
Do you think English readers and American ones might identify differently with your novels in general and this one in particular?
Because I try to write about core human stuff and because I believe in empathy, I’d hope the differences are minor. Novels have to be set somewhere, and I’ve said elsewhere, though it’s hardly my original thought, that the local is the route to the universal.
Longtime music journalist Don McLeese is the author of Dwight Yoakam: A Thousand Miles From Nowhere, out now, from the University of Texas Press.