Tom Vowler’s debut short story collection, The Method, won the international Scott Prize in 2010 and the Edge Hill Readers’ Award in 2011. Now an associate lecturer at Plymouth University, his debut novel What Lies Within was published in April 2013. Tom is also Assistant Editor for the literary journal Short FICTION. In 2008 he graduated with an MA in Creative Writing and is now studying for a PhD, looking at landscape and trauma in fiction. More at www.tomvowler.co.uk
Here is the wonderful book trailer for What Lies Within:
I decided to chat to Tom about something I've been thinking about for a while: where do we writers get permission from in our writing? I blogged about this here. Tom gave us some insight into his writing and his novel in particular:
Tania: So, I'd like to carry on the discussion I was having on my blog about permissions - who or what has given or gives you permission in your writing, and especially to do what you've done in the novel, which has such an interesting structure? Other writers, teachers, other people's books/stories/poems, other art forms?
As for permission, this was a question I had already resolved before the first draft. Most of my fiction emerges from a single event, often a piece of news that both appals and fascinates me. This becomes the book’s fulcrum, the driving force for its story and characters. And so without offering spoilers, once I’d found my subject matter (or it me), I had little choice. Hardly permission, but then I realised the fact I’d found great abhorrence with Anna’s terrible situation and its subsequent contrails, left me feeling I would tell her story with sympathy and respect. Likewise during the research for the novel, hearing the terrible things some women had to endure instilled in me a fierce desire to get it right, to respect not just my characters and readers, but these wonderfully brave women also.
As for permission to write in its wider context, my hand was forced a little by a long illness that saw me unable to do little else. I worked as a journalist, and although my love affair with books was late to blossom, I soon realised the dark art of storytelling was for me. Permission at that time was more closely aligned with inspiration, and I was desperate to mimic the impact certain fiction was having on me in my own work. So whereas richly lyrical prose, compelling characters and concept-driven stories were important to me, I quickly became interested in the tone and texture of the novel, one of the main reasons I set the book on the uplands of Dartmoor. In this sense the brooding, menacing landscape became a character itself, alive and capricious, the reader investing every much in the tors and valleys of the place as the people of the book. As you mention, the novel’s structure carries its own risk as well, but it too was driven by my research and the need to tell Anna’s story fully and with compassion. But then it’s one of the first things I tell my students – to take risks. Learn from what’s gone before, understand why it works, but do it differently. To borrow some words for a change: risk nothing, risk everything.
As for other writers who give me permission to take such risks, I think this occurs, for me anyway, on a subconscious level, or at least a level that sits just below the surface during composition. I love much of what Julian Barnes and Sebastian Faulks have done in this regard - especially the deployment of unreliable narrators in their recent work - but with such impressive oeuvres behind them, I imagine it feels less like risk-taking to them. Two books that have had an astonishing impact on me recently for their linguistic and emotive brilliance are Sarah Hall's short story collection The Beautiful Indifference and J.A. Baker's memoir The Peregrine, the latter hugely influential on the novel I'm currently writing. Permission here, I find, is bestowed on an emotional level by the feelings aroused in me when reading them. This is not restricted to books, though; my own sense of aesthetics comes as much from film (for example the work of Mexican director Iñárritu) as it does from the literary forms.
Thank you so much, Tom, I find all that you've talked about to be really fascinating additions to this ongoing discussion about permission and risk. And the "risks" you took most definitely paid off here! I highly recommend you all get your hands on both What Lies Within and The Method, both of which you can find more about on Tom's website. But wait! Tom has very kindly offered a free copy of What Lies Within to one of you, my lovely blog readers. So, if you'd like to win a copy, leave a comment and tell me and Tom what's given you permission - in any way at all - recently, and that way we can extend this discussion and Tom will pick someone out of the proverbial hat. Thank you for stopping by, Tom!