Saturday, 30 October 2010

SHORT STORY MAGIC from TOM VOWLER

There's a writer I know who lives all tucked away in Devon where no one can properly see him. He's just got engaged, so obviously someone saw him, but I know many more people are going to see him one day because his first book, The Method, a collection of short stories, is blow-away magic. I cried on a train. I have cried on trains before but that was with frustration. This was proper. And The Method won the inaugural Scott Prize so it's not just me.

Tom writes and edits fiction. He’s just finished a novel and has recovered sufficiently to consider another. This is one seriously talented writer, and I say that as one who doesn't really do short stories. But these have really stuck with me. I sure as hell hope Tom's novel will be published SOON because I want to read it.

Here is Tom's blog. And his Facebook page. Here is The Method on Book Depository. And here is the page on Salt's website. And here is Tom's interview.


NM: So, Tom, what is this book? (Published tomorrow, by the way.)
The Method is an award-winning collection of short stories. Its characters are all good at losing things: lovers, children, hope, the plot. The past tends to theme heavily, with its inexorable grip on the present. As does revenge. There is humour, tenderness and tragedy in equal measure.
NM: Why short stories? What's in them for you?
I love the form’s immediacy and intensity, its potential to dazzle, to startle, all in a few thousand words. Whilst it can hold a mirror up to reality, to the nuances of our complex, beautiful and flawed lives, it can also transcend it, capturing the more visceral aspects of what it is to be human. As someone once said: ‘Each of us has a thousand lives, but a novel gives a character just one.’
NM: With a novel, we find ourselves drawn into one complex story. What's different about the ideas for shorts, do you think?
They usually come from the big masquerading as the small. A condemning look between lovers. A barely noticed news item. A throwaway remark. An aside in a waiting room. An anecdote in the pub. Snatched moments, glimpsed, where I ask myself ‘What if…?’ before weaving them into a narrative. I almost never start with character or place, but with something abstract: a concept, a dilemma.
NM: In practical terms, what’s the journey from this initial spark to the final version?
It’s often a longer one than people imagine. Working on a novel, I might write a thousand words a day, two thousand on a good one. But a story seems to require more precision, more consideration, even at this early stage. Once the ideas are all in place and I have some sense of where I’m going, it’s as if that’s the block of ice or marble, and now the careful sculpting can begin. So the bones of a story might take a week or so to compose, but I can be months tweaking it, leaving it to mature between drafts, returning with a scalpel, ruthless. And then some way through this I’ll start to read it aloud, listening for awkward phrases, repetitions, getting a feel for the piece’s rhythm. I check I’ve taken care not to force feed the story to the reader. Finally, I ask whether it would suffer if I took something out, whether a sentence is working as hard as it should be, if there’s sufficient dramatic tension, emotional intensity, conflict.
NM: How much of this process is inspiration, how much technique and craft?
Good question. I’m reminded of a writer saying that they couldn’t write unless they were inspired, and that they made sure inspiration flowed every morning at nine o’clock. If you only wrote when you felt inspired, your output would be rather meagre. So you need technique, craft and habit to fall back on. Inspiration comes in mercurial bursts, for me usually when I’m walking and have forgotten my notebook. Or at 4am. Or standing at first slip waiting for the cricket ball. But writers, as they say, write. Whatever the mood. Discipline and tenacity will always dwarf the wonderful eureka moments.
NM: Some of your stories have formal structures - do you plan that in advance or does the structure come by chance?
Certain subjects lend themselves to different narrative structures. I might have what I believe is a fantastic story with a powerful voice, yet for some reason it doesn’t quite work. And rather than discard it wholly, this is when it’s time to experiment with the piece’s architecture. Perhaps the linear chronology would be more effective were it fragmented. Maybe the story’s arc takes little risk as it is. Is the wrong person telling the story? You have to be flexible, murdering not just your darlings, but sometimes the entire nature of what you’ve written. Break some of the rules. Take a risk or two.
NM: You came to fiction (both as a reader and writer) relatively late; can you tell us a little about how you found books, or how they found you.
Yes, to my shame, with the exception of a compulsory text or two at school, I didn’t read a novel until my mid-twenties, which seems extraordinary now. An acupuncturist started giving me reading lists as part of the treatment. The first was Kafka’s The Trial, which, as first books go, chucks you in the deep end, I suppose. But it was an extended bout of illness that saw me write anything myself. Stuck on a sofa for weeks, months at a time: what else was there to do? I think a brief career as a journalist helped my sense of timing, but it was a creative writing MA that really focused my attentions. For all their criticisms, the course was the first time I took myself seriously as a writer.
NM: So, if you didn't have as many years practising as most writers - all those years of rubbish experimentation - how did you get to this point so quickly and so surely? Teacher? Inspirer? MASSES of reading?
I suppose I have had to catch up, yes. As an editor of short fiction I found myself reading a thousand of so stories a year - good, bad and indifferent. And I rarely stray from reading work removed from what I write - though I certainly intend to - so focused, yes. I'm not a great believer in innate ability; if you put the hours (years) in, it's a fairly even playing field.
[Major disagreement alert. I think Tom absolutely displays innate ability, honed by fantastically focused practice. You just don't get to be this good without innate ability. I've seen the MSS of aspiring writers who've been writing all their lives and are nowhere near as good. So, shut up, please, and behave.]

NM: Which short story writers do you read, and why?
I see, sneaking two questions into one. The first part is easy, and for the most part is reflective of what I like to write. Glancing up, a section of my shelf reads: Updike, Proulx, William Trevor (x4), James Salter, Carver, Ali Smith, Mike McCormack, Jane Gardam, Kevin Barry, Clare Wigfall. Andrew Flintoff (how did he get there?). Whilst it would be hard to pinpoint an obvious connection in style or theme between all of them, they are all great storytellers. I read them for their brilliant timing, the subtle slipping in of a phrase, a moment, that might hit you like a train, or stun you with its resonance and wonder. You almost see it coming, but of course you don’t. Perhaps the perfect example of this is the story ‘Last Night’ by James Salter, which, for me, contains one of the most powerful, albeit subtle, scenes in short fiction. Another would be Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’, a story that, I imagine, stays with you a lifetime. But William Trevor is the master at this. I dare say he could kill you with a sentence if he wished.
_________________________

Maybe, but I think Tom's prose is deathless. And that's better.

And he's jealous of me because I once went to tea with William Trevor in his (WT's) house, and there are not many people who can say that.

Tom, thank you and good luck. Everyone, I do wholly recommend this book. Go read.

IN FACT... there's a chance for one lucky reader in the UK to win a signed copy of The Method. All you have to do is say in a comment below why you'd love to win it, and Tom will pick one lucky winner. He might do it by a random method or it might be that your words will woo him, but you can be sure that there will be his method in it...

17 comments:

catdownunder said...

Am jealous of Tom! I wrote a short story by accident and still do not know how it happened. I think it is one of the hardest, toughest forms of writing to get right. I personally admire Joan Aiken for being able to write short stories as well - and write them for children at that. Sigh.....

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Smashing... all strength to the short form, and to 'The Method. I have a feeling it will become a classic.

DotSeven said...

I want to read this collection. Have never read a book that made me cry. Want to see if Tom has a *method* that'll crack me. Seriously, I love short fiction and I need to read this book!

Marisa Birns said...

I am an avid reader of short stories and have always loved the form. It is as Tom says. The immediacy, intensity, and spotlighting of visceral aspects of the human condition in the really good stories make them a glorious read.

Enjoyed the interview.

Charlotte said...

I'm a new fan to short fiction and I have found the short story form incredibly hard to learn (am still learning, in fact). I'd love to read Tom's book.

Karen said...

I can't NOT read it now, after such a glowing recommendation.

I'm a big fan of short story collections and there are all too few of them around. My last buy was Vanessa Gebbie's Words in a Glass Bubble actually, which I can also highly recommend.

Great interview :o)

Bethany Mason said...

I only started considering short fiction when I started my Creative Writing degree. I'm now in the third year and lap up all short fiction and find, as Karen says, that there are simply not enough output of short story collections. Looking forward to reading this one now.

Jane Smith said...

Tom is a wonderful writer, and full of talent. I'd love to read this book, and if I don't win a free copy I will leave rude commants on your blog and eat all your chocolate.

Send it to me NOW!

Jane Smith said...

Comments. COMMENTS.

See, I am so DESPERATE to read this book I have lost my ability to spell things propper. Gah.

Steve said...

An interesting (perhaps) question for both Tom and Nicola.

Are there ideas / thoughts / scenarios (call it what you will) that would make a good short story but wouldn't have enough substance / depth to make a full-length novel.

TOM J VOWLER said...

A very interesting question, Steve. One of the stories in the collection began with a concept that burgeoned the more I sat with it. So much so that it formed the basis of my recent novel. But I think this is unusual. A story’s intensity, its unity of effect, lends itself to narrative compression, and this is reflected, I believe, in the composition, which, for me, has a subtle difference to that of a novel. For the most part I’m not much interested in big ideas, grand, all-encompassing themes, in a story. More the nuance of human behaviour. Quiet epiphanies that nonetheless rupture the reader’s repose. I think a novel requires, not only a grander architecture, but the scope to capture profundity within its narrative arc. In theory, though, an idea or scene isn’t precluded or more suitable to either; more that the writer’s intentions mould it thusly.

Jane, you are a cheeky one.

Rachel Fenton said...

Thanks for the interview - shame I live in NZ!

Mike Jarman said...

I would like to ask Tom just how much time was taken in collating the stories into the order published? It appeared to me that great care had been taken in crafting/ordering them in a way that draws the reader over the edge of a crater and down the steep inner edge. Masterfully done. I strongly urge that if any of you are not lucky enough to win Tom's signed book, that they go straight out and buy it.

Dan Holloway said...

If I can conribute to Steve and Tom's discussion, I think often as a writer it is very clear when a short story won't make a novel - those times when people say "ooh, I loved that, so much possibility. You should turn it into a novel" and you just know that actually, no you shouldn't because every single word is already down on the page. It's VERY hard, though, to say why - it's nothing to do, I think, with backstory and sub-plot and secondary characters - the absence of those is what makes a haiku, not a short story. I think too many short stories, though from what I can gather not Tom's, read like shaggy dog stories, because people think this is what they're about - so everything builds up to "the twist" or "the wrap-up", and you can almost hear the "boom-boom" at the end.

I wonder how novellas fit into the scheme. Because in the UK we are, let's face it, crap at publishing novella, I have a feeling our institutional understanding of them is rather stunted. But a great novella is SO different from either a short novel or a great short story. Take a look, for example, at the stunning titles in translation that Peirene Press have given us this year. For me a novella IS about the unities we often attribute, wrongly, to short stories. It is the literary equivalent of a fugue. It is a single line of music carried to its resolution - whcih is why, I think, it's so great at conveying menace and for stoking intensity. The novel and short story, I sense, have more in common with each other than either has with the novella, but I have yet to work out exactly what.

It's great that we are seeing more and more posts on short stories, and that publishers are seemingly more willing to look at collections of shorts. But can we start looking at novellas as n art form more, please? I have a feeling that this may not be the column to do so, because it's a blog about writnig to be published, and if you're doing that you want to steer well clear of the novella (although we have, TODAY [sorry, that's a plug] published two debut English language novellas at eight cuts gallery press). And that, I think, is a rather damning comment on something.

TOM J VOWLER said...

Thanks for your kind words, Mike. I'm pleased you enjoyed the book.
Initially, I presumed I'd have little part in ordering the stories, that the publisher would assert their authority here. But with the exception of a couple, I was encouraged to do this myself. Easy, I thought, until I began. For me the collection is thematically disparate/eclectic: some comic tales, some dark and disturbing stories, some tender moments rich in pathos. It was tempting to gather these together, perhaps even divide the book into three sections.
But I realised I wanted the reader to come to each story with no expectations, no sense that each story would resemble the last. After all, I wouldn't want a reader to get too comfortable.

Mike Jarman said...

Thanks Tom! Perhaps it's just me, but emotionally, I tumbled into your book. I very much look forward to your next. Someone here is going to be very lucky, and I hope, like me, your collection of stories stops them in their tracks.
Cheers!

Kath said...

Fascinating interview. Thanks to both of you for allowing us to eavesdrop. I was looking forward to reading The Method anyway but after reading such high praise from you, Nicola, I'm incredibly grateful that Tom's book is out today and I won't have to wait too long to get my copy.

Short stories are my drug of choice, whether reading or writing them. They can contain a whole truth or an entire world or offer you a glimpse of a moment in someone's life that tells you more about yourself or the world you live in. I know when I read a good short story that I will feel as satisfied by it, as if I had read novel-length fiction and that the best short stories will stay with me for as long as my favourite novels do.