Graham Swift on the “Big” and “Small” Worlds

Your “Fireworks” story takes place at the end of October 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. What made you want to revisit this period?

Photograph by Colin McPherson / Getty

I think it was the story that made me revisit. It was like that, as it often seems to be. The first few sentences of the story, with their historical annunciation, came to mind – I can’t say why – then everything else followed. But I remember the Cuban Missile Crisis vividly, even though I was only thirteen at the time. I remember the palpable fear in the air. I guess I was at the age where my sense of history, of being a small person in a big and dangerous world, was starting to take hold. I was of the generation born during the Cold War and I could pretty much understand this fact. It was the first serious flashpoint of the Cold War, and there was a real fear that it would be the last as well.

The tension was played out between the United States and the Soviet Union, between Kennedy and Khrushchev. Your story is that of a modest family in Great Britain, without any role in international relations. What attracted you about juxtaposing the two things?

The story quickly passes from the historical and the global to the intensely domestic. I do it often, back and forth, in my work, and it’s out of conviction that you can’t really disconnect the two spheres. We can all wish and strive to live fully in the personal, domestic, small, intimate world of our close relationships – for most of us this is life itself, and this is where I want it. generally situate my fiction – yet we too live in a larger world, which from time to time, like it or not, can overtake us. The family in my story, as it would have been the case for countless families, has no role to play in international relations, but in 1962 this was beginning to be true for my country as well. Even when I was thirteen, I think I was aware that Britain was above all made for a nation among nations. During the missile crisis, we were essentially stuck halfway between the protagonists, the USA and the USSR. Perhaps our underlying helplessness in the situation made it all the more frightening.

Throughout the story, Frank is repeatedly referred to his memories of WWII, when he was in the Air Force and performing bombing missions over Germany. It is obvious that he tried to suppress these memories. Is there a reason – aside from the idea of ​​missiles headed for Cuba, of course – they’re starting to haunt him now?

I think it would have been natural for a man like Frank who had fought in World War II to be brought back there by the missile crisis. The war would have been his last big encounter with the “big world”. There were concerns that the missile crisis could turn into a third world war, which, unlike the second, could be of very short duration. At one point, Frank reflects on the extraordinary “advancements” in technology in less than twenty years. What was done in the past by deploying hundreds of thousands of men and planes can now be done, and much more catastrophically, by a few missiles.

Frank is a survivor. He survived all those terrifying bombings. He – and his daughter’s marriage – survives the Cuban Missile Crisis. He clings to the idea that the world is not will end. Is this the strategy that gets him through life?

He’s a man in his forties, and I think he’s surprised at the perspective his experience of the war gives him now. The story speaks in part of this discovery, of a depth both personal and historical in him. Although he does not want to revisit his war memories, they stabilize him and give him a curious reason, even optimism. Yes, he has the instinct of a survivor. The war was not, at least for him, the end of the world; this new crisis will not be either. There is nothing logical about it, it is instinctive, but useful and justified by events.

But it’s an irony of the story, and hopefully the source of some comedy, that everyone is beset by the girl’s marriage crisis more immediately – is that okay with that? ‘before or not? peril. Frank, while being a center of calm, is no exception. Although he’s been on terrifying bombing missions before, his daughter’s wedding is something he’s never met before, and, inside, he’s just a little scared of it. And, despite these terrifying missions, he always wants to return, via the fireworks of the title of the story, to the innocent excitability of the childhood from which the war must have separated him forever.

I think this is often how the ‘big’ and ‘small’ worlds play against each other in my fiction – through a disparity that can have its comedic side, but can contain some really scary and confusing things. . We all use the phrase “it’s not the end of the world” in a pleasant and reassuring way, yet “the end of the world” always has its dreadful meaning. Are we not all aware of this now? Are we not all aware that we may not have long? And, as a great pandemic sweeps the world, don’t we all cling desperately to our sense of normalcy, to the sense that our private and domestic pursuits must surely triumph over a simple universal disaster?

I’m not Frank, but I care deeply about him. He wins. He is always there. And I care about his wife, Joan, who herself cares about her daughter’s wedding dress even as the world threatens to fall apart. One of the great rewards of writing short stories is the sudden experience of caring about people you’ve never met.

Frank is truly a man of his time. Was it difficult to inhabit his voice? Have you drawn on the memories of the men of your father’s generation?

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