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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.]
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.
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...