Tom Vowler is a novelist, short story writer and editor living in south west England. His collection, The Method, won the Scott Prize and the Edge Hill Readers’ Prize, while his debut novel What Lies Within received critical acclaim. He is editor of the literary journal Short Fiction and lectures in creative writing at Plymouth University, where he’s completing a PhD. His second novel, That Dark Remembered Day, was published in 2014. More at www.tomvowler.co.uk
Hi Tom, thanks for speaking to us about your short story writing. Let’s begin with your first story in The Method. The story is narrated by Will, a writer who becomes increasingly obsessed with experiencing the same situations as his central protagonist, to the extent he goes to the extremes of drug-taking and sleeping with various women – all in the name of research. Do you do a great deal of research for your own fiction and to what extent do you think it’s important?
More so for my novels, though that’s not to say a story won’t open up some glorious new subject for me to explore. Factual / technical detail can give a story texture, give the narrator / character a greater verisimilitude. As long as the reader doesn’t ever feel preached to, or weighed down with particulars. Research can be active, but also passive, the absorption of life’s tributaries just as important.
It’s often said that one should ‘write what you know’ but there are plenty of great works of fiction and even genres that can’t possibly be known by their writers. What is your own view on this maxim?
The most interesting writers challenge themselves; elope from their comfort zone. I’m not much interested in what the author does or doesn’t know, only whether they can provide voltage and what Chekhov termed ‘aliveness’ in their fiction. Theme, plot, genre shouldn’t be conscious concerns of the short story writer; far better to come to terms with the essential demands of the form, such as obliquity and subtext. Give me voice, character and traction over authorial masturbation any day.
Will reaches ever further extremes – but you don’t reveal what happens to him at the end. Do you have some idea in your own mind about what occurs – does he continue on the same path or do you see him eventually coming to his senses?
The story ends when it ends. I have no, nor should the reader, any interest in what may or may not follow. Do we really want / need to ‘see’ that final scene in Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’, or discover how Walter’s life turns out in Salter’s ‘Last Night’? Or be present when Mel et al retire to bed in Carver’s classic story? The short story (as with life) is little concerned with neat narrative conclusions; we get a fugacious, self-contained glimpse, nothing more, nothing less. No reveals, no sense of anything beyond its boundaries.
This first story focuses on the many difficulties faced by writer – not just over aesthetics and theory, but also in terms of the practical nature of the business, as other short stories in the collection do (most notably ‘One Story’). What has your own experience been of the publishing industry?
It is what it is: corporate, ruthless, ridiculous and unfair. And yet writers, great short story writers especially, still find a way for their work to reach an audience. I have an unrivalled respect for those authors who stick with the short story, despite untold pressure to deliver ‘the novel’, something that will sell. Generally they turn out to be the ones with all the talent.
The sort story ‘Seeing Anyone’ seemed to me a particularly well-measured story, and while I was reading it I was very much reminded of Ian McEwan. Interestingly, a story later in ‘The Games They Play’ one of the characters, Lucy, ‘was into McEwan, watercolours and submission’. Has Ian McEwan been a big influence?
Not particularly. His collection of stories, ‘First Love, Last Rites’, perhaps left a mark, certainly more so than the novels.
Which authors have most inspired your short stories and longer fiction?
Hard to say. William Trevor was perhaps an influence, and I marvel at the work Graham Mort and Sarah Hall produce. Alice Munroe. Cynan Jones. Proulx, Banville, Coetzee. David Vann. I could go on, but we must carve out our own hinterland, learning from the best and applying their technique to our own aesthetic, our own tonal and thematic range. But we can also learn from flawed pieces, several hundred of which I read a year in my capacity as an editor. The mediocre and unfulfilled. Writers who care little for their work at the level of the sentence. Stories aren’t poetry, but neither are they merely condensed novels: sentences must be troubled into existence. I relish writing that isn’t just about something, but is, in part, of the thing itself. And there are dozens of brilliant writers out there, who won’t be known to a significant audience, whose work is stunning. Frances Gapper comes to mind.
At the end of ‘Seeing Anyone’, there is a curious line: ‘Of all heaven’s gifts, imagination was the cruellest.’ Do you believe this?
I’m not sure how relevant my beliefs are, only that the character thinks such. As it happens, that story is vaguely autobiographical, a relationship breakup mined for setting, texture, elegy, although the content, at least on one of the character’s behalf, is entirely fictional. It’s probably a good job I have at least some small imagination, whether I regard it cruel or not.
You don’t shy away from difficult topics, even straying into the taboo: from revenge, rape and murder to incest and paedophilia. Often there is a desire to shock in short stories, but is there something deeper at work here?
There are no taboos in fiction, and I hope I don’t shock for shock’s sake. The pieces in The Method perhaps draw attention to themselves a little too much; certainly my stories now are subtler, a little messier in terms of their donnée– another essential quality that distinguishes them from the novel. Character (albeit a glimpse) is everything in the story, and of course terrible things happen to people. But I’m less interested in these per se, more the contrails they leave in their wake, their impact more felt than known.
Do you think short stories are particularly suited to these difficult topics?
No, in some ways they are less able to sustain them, such topics too dependent on that uncomfortable bedfellow for the story: plot. Some of the best short stories are the quietest ones, functioning on a subliminal level, their heft not entirely understood, their meaning ambiguous, reluctant to reveal itself. It’s why it is one, if not the, hardest of literary forms to pull off.
In ‘Seeing Anyone’ you have the lovely line ‘it could still take all the air from a man, but he realised how photographs and the memory kept the face at the age you last saw it.’ Memory seems to play an important part in your short stories. Often they focus on characters recalling some event or some person. How important are your own memories in creating your short stories?
Our primordial swamp will rise up into the work whether we like it or not. Often we are unaware of the exact emotion or memory mined; other times we’re happy to exploit something from our past. It’s a little like method acting in this sense. And of course memory isn’t fixed or consistent, as we’d like to fool ourselves it is, our pasts merely narratives we’ve chosen to modify, amplifying some, discarding others.
Two of the most common themes in your short story collection, connected to subject of memory, are death and grief. Several stories involve death in one way or another (‘The Last Supper’, ‘Busy. Come. Wait’, ‘Homecoming’, ‘Staring at the Sun’, ‘Extracts of love’, ‘Offline’, ‘The Little man’ etc.). I’ve read many short stories and these themes appear time and time again. Why do you think that is?
The short story has a wonderful universal quality, so regardless of whether it’s set in Munro’s rural Ontario or Proulx’s Wyoming, or a fictional Scottish Island, as with Clare Wigfall’s much lauded story, the vagaries and inimitability of being human are instantly recognisable. We all experience death of others, and we all grieve. But it’s how such themes are exploited that determine a story’s worth. Without a germane architecture, a compelling voice and richly evoked characters, theme becomes gratuitous and too conspicuous.
At the end of your short stories, I was often left with a mildly unsettling sense of curiosity. I wanted to know what was going to happen next. Is this an effect you actively try to achieve, or do you think it’s a result of the short story form and the restrictions often placed on it?
I wouldn’t agree that the form has any restrictions, more that by its nature it asks more of the reader, who is encouraged not merely to passively experience the text, but often to complete it, to occupy the spaces the author has skilfully left. This narrative compression is not just a series of arbitrary holes, but carefully created gaps allowing a heightened intensity, a transcendent quality. Unlike the novel, the story must never explain, must be irreducible so that every sentence bears its weight. It should detonate in the mind, though not necessarily in a way we understand.
A fair point about restrictions, although journals and competitions do often require a word limit – is this something that affects your writing? Or do you ignore word counts all together and only submit a story if it happens to meet given requirements?
I think the short story has its natural length, something between 2000 and 5000 words. That’s not to say great pieces can’t be above or below that. But there’s a different skill to, say, a piece of fiction that’s 500 words; it’s almost another genre/form. As an editor this might be a blind spot of mine, having a preferred length. I’ve also read Cynan Jones’ wonderful short novels recently, which employ many of the qualities one would associate with the short story: lyricism, obliquity, the lacunae I mentioned earlier. As an author I never write to a word limit: the piece finds its length.
That reminds me, I was struck by the juxtaposing brevity of the short story ‘Breathe’ – what can you tell us about this piece?
A piece of what’s termed flash fiction, I suppose, it sits midway in the collection, giving the reader a breather, albeit a macabre one. But it typifies my previous point: it perhaps relies too much on artifice, its impact, I imagine, more diminished than a work ten times its length. This said, I’m reminded of Somerset Maugham’s fabulously chilling story ‘Death Speaks’, which I think is around 100 words.
Your characters are often driving or travelling somewhere (‘The Method’, ‘They May Not Mean to but They Do’, ‘There are New Birthdays Now’). I get the sense that place is very important to your characters. Can the same be said of the writer?
Place can ground a story, bring life to it, amplify the fictive dream. Certainly I rely heavily on setting in my novels, but the story, too, is often richer with a felt world, the landscape even a character itself, or acting as metaphor or objective correlative. Character and place are mutually dependent, people not merely inhabitants of their surroundings, but products of them. A well or river or ancient tree can be an allegory, but must never be mere decoration. Proust regarded landscape as four-dimensional, the fourth being ‘time’, the terrain having a past and a future as well as the present.
Speaking of place, ‘Offline’ was the only short story explicitly set in the future. It was an intriguing short story that focused on technology, looking ahead at the increasing impact of the digital age and capitalism (the corpse of the grandfather covered in logos was a particularly potent image). The nostalgia for the past was evident. It suggested a time of greater human contact, a time when both people and objects were less artificial (emotionally and intrinsically). Does this reflect your own uneasiness with the rapid rate of change and the effect it’s having on society?
I’d like to think any agenda I have politically stayed well away from my fiction, but perhaps this is naïve. I think those are more observations in that story, ones I’ve augmented for a faux-comic effect. It suited the story, the character.
This same story touched upon politics (themes such as global warming, war and technology) and one of your other short stories carries this political flavour (‘Reload’). Do you have any particular view about literature that is political, or is used as a political tool?
It’s hard for a piece to be entirely apolitical, even when this is less explicit than, say, Orwell or Atwood or Lessing. But it must be the character’s politics; if they also happen to be the author’s, this must be coincidental and never didactic. A piece may become political, but rarely, I think, starts that way. That’s not to say stories should be well-behaved or decorous. They shouldn’t.
‘Offline’ is told form the first person, as are many of your other stories – thirteen of twenty in fact. What draws you to use this voice so often?
Nothing more than a device to best suit the story being told. Often I’ll switch viewpoint to achieve a greater or lesser psychic distance, depending on my desired effect. At times a piece might not be working in the first-person, so I’ll switch it. I certainly write more in the third-person with my stories now, albeit with an implied first-person narration.
Occasionally you write in the voice of a female character. Is this different for you in any way?
Not at all. I never understand why this isn’t done more often. My first novel, and much of my second, was narrated by a female character. For me it’s no different to capturing the voice of someone from a different culture or generation. The challenges remain the same.
‘One Story’ is about a writer struggling to write one last story to finish off his collection. The narrator is a particularly frustrated man, struggling with writer’s block. Was this written from experience?
No, not if writer’s block is an absence of ideas. Every writer must triumph in their own battles with motivation and discipline, but if ideas are the issue, it might be time to look at something else.
The character is a creative writing teacher and early on he has the following lines: ‘And when did creation of fiction become just another career path to choose. It’s supposed to choose you.’ Is this something you feel yourself, or is this a moment of meta-textual irony, given that you yourself did an MA in creative writing?
That story does explore a little the debate of whether creative writing can be taught, which as a lecturer and PhD student I obviously believe it can. The character is particularly embittered, bordering on a cliché even, but he was fun to write.
Is this the same ironic nod which accompanies the narrator’s complaint about his agent demanding one more story because nine isn’t quite enough (readers may recall J.D. Salinger’s collection title Nine Stories)
Not so much a nod, more a useful narrative device to yield the conflict needed. Besides I don’t know any agents who would advise such. Nor many who are interested in short stories.
Another line I think readers and writers alike will appreciate offers this sage advice: ‘Remember: the first draft of anything is shit.’ How many drafts would you say you do, on average, before you’re comfortable to show a short story to anyone else?
I’m a big editor/reviser, and suspicious of writers who claim allegiance to just two or three drafts. A dissatisfaction with the work is your greatest asset: it’s never finished, it could always be improved, but eventually you have to deliver, move on. My composition of a story, following an initial draft, is a succession of endless rewrites, tweaking, playing with structure, removing all I can, listening to the cadence, scrutinising each sentence, calibrating, reading the piece aloud, turning the emotion up or down, questioning if the first and last paragraphs are working hard enough, are even necessary, testing the subtext on a trusted reader, catching repetitions, observing the physical appearance of the text. My stories are rarely written quickly, and maybe months in the making. But if you get it all right, they are high-wire act of literature.
Interview by Rupert Dastur / The Short Story / 10th June 2015