Hi Tom. Welcome to the blog. It’s a pleasure to have you here. So. Your short story collection, The Method and Other Stories – could you tell us a little about it? What kind of stories are we talking about here?
Hello Nik. Thank you for having me. Perhaps I should start with the characters, who are all rather good at losing things – lovers, children, hope, the plot. The past themes heavily in the book, with its inexorable grip on the present. There is humour, tenderness and tragedy in equal measure. Or as some kindly reviewer said: ‘Vowler’s characters hurtle merrily towards self-annihilation so that we don’t have to.’
The collection won Salt’s Scott Prize. Could you tell us a little about that as well?
The Scott Prize is an international annual prize for a first collection of short stories by a single author. This was its inaugural year.
How’ve you found working with Salt?
I was fascinated to see what they’d do with the book, how much input I’d have. Writers are often better at storytelling than putting books together, so whereas I was grateful to have some say in the order the stories appeared, and indeed the cover, I was happy to let Salt make the important decisions. It’s also important to trust your publisher, as you’re handing over a little piece of your soul.
What are your thoughts on Creative Writing MAs? What have you learned from doing one?
That you can’t teach people to write, but also that you can. I suppose I regard the act of writing as more of a craft than an art, so in this sense you can certainly learn its constituent parts: dialogue, structure, character development, viewpoint. You need to know the rules in order to break them. But what you’re really learning on such a course is a critical awareness, of your own and others’ writing. The MA was the first time I took my writing seriously, so for me it focused my energies, gave me the initial motivation to write every day. But no, I think there’s only one way to learn how to write, which is to read. Everything.
So. Short stories. What is it about them that appeals to you? As a writer and as a reader.
In the right hands they are, for me, the most exhilarating, visceral literary form. Combining poetry’s cadence and precision of language with the novel’s narrative dynamism, a great short story, while usually depicting reality, can transcend it, perhaps delighting, shocking and moving the reader all in a few thousand intense words. Or as Kafka said, the story should be ‘the axe to break up the frozen sea within us.’ Some of my favourite short stories resonate more powerfully than, for example, the novels I’ve most enjoyed, which is something I never thought I’d say. As a writer I find them the hardest and most rewarding form to compose.
What do you think a story has to have for it to be great?
Well, it needs to entertain for a start. And I’m not one who believes stories should be overly didactic; I like space to move around in the narrative, rather than it being fed to me a spoonful at a time. For me voice is everything. Essentially, though, a story must reveal some small truth, so that I suffer or laugh or feel shame alongside the character(s). Whether an epiphany occurs or is resisted, I want to be exhausted or breathless or stunned in wonderment once the end is reached. I want to learn something about myself, perhaps something I feared was true. There should be the sense that if anything was added or removed, the story would suffer. Ideally, it needs to make me forget I’m reading.
Who do you think writes great short stories?
I find myself going back to Carver again and again. William Trevor’s deft obliquity and masterly control never fail to astound me. Ali Smith, James Salter and Jane Gardam are also favourites. When I think of younger contemporary writers that excite me, Kevin Barry, Clare Wigfall, Adam Marek and
What advice would you give to someone wanting to be published?
It’s certainly a tough time for publishing, and as new writers we’re at the bottom of all the food chain. But it’s a myth that it’s impossible to find an agent, or to be published. Most submitted work is simply not good enough, so asking yourself honestly if your prose is as strong as you can possibly make it is a good start. The answer will almost always be no. Don’t be tempted to submit too early. Learn to value criticism and regard rejection as a prompt to make the work even better. Think long-term – there are no shortcuts. Take risks with your writing. Read. Read. Read.
If you could recommend just one book, what would it be?
Just one! Impossible. William Trevor’s Cheating at Canasta is a masterful, I’m tempted to say flawless, collection. But if I had to choose just one, it would be Gerard Donovan’s Julius Winsome – a short novel that I suspect one day will be compared to Camus’ L’Etranger.
What’s next for you?
Apart from reviewing your splendid collection? There’s a novel (based on one of the stories in The Method…) that’s getting a final polish, and a second germinating.
Anything you’d like to add?
Is there beer? I’m sure you said there would be beer when I got here. [Nik scuttles off to see if he can find a can while thanking Tom for coming on and wishing him all the best with the collection…!]
Tom Vowler lives in the south west of England where he writes and edits fiction. A blog about writing his current novel can be found here. The Method and Other Stories can be bought direct from Salt or pre-ordered from Amazon or the Book Depository before its official publication on November 1st. Tom is the assistant editor of the literary journal Short FICTION.