Monday, June 03, 2013

What Lies Beneath What Lies Within

I am delighted to welcome Tom Vowler back to the blog today. Tom is another of my immensely talented writer mates, and he was here a few years ago when his first book, the short story collection The Method, was published (Salt), talking about writing & place. Tom's second book, What Lies Within, a novel, was recently published by Headline, an enormously intriguing and powerful book, a very moving meditation on family, trauma and pain, with a very interesting structure. Here is a little about Tom:

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

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? 

Tom: Hi Tania. Thank you for having me at your aesthetically gorgeous blog. Your question is a wonderfully refreshing one, worthy of pause and consideration. Focusing on my novel, the concept of permission is, as you’ve discussed below, related to a sense of risk, and in my case this resides particularly in the decision to narrate almost all the book from a female perspective. Firstly, there was the question of whether I could pull this off, capture fully the nuance of voice and behaviour across 300 pages. But also, as you’ve reminded me, I thought long and hard about the right (permission if you like) to do so. Of course as writers we frequently inhabit characters who are wildly disparate to ourselves; why should a switch in gender be any different? I suppose because I needed Anna (the main character of What Lies Within) to carry the heft of the entire book, its themes and motifs, the pace and narrative all had to emerge from her, including several aspects of life my own gender preclude me from. Fortunately I have several good female friends who were happy to share the vagaries of their lives, from seismic happenings such as childbirth to the more mundane aspects. And yet it was Anna’s inner world, understanding her reaction to the beautiful and terrifying things that happen to her that proved hardest.

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!


Vanessa Gebbie said...

Great interview! And the novel is a great read - I loved it.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Ts, for letting me in on a fascinating chat.

My recent permission is more basic. I'm never sure I'm any good at this writing thing, so I was delighted at the end of a year-long writing group when the mentor said I should continue working on my pieces because, "you're a good writer." Just four words I needed to hear. ~Miriam

dan powell said...

Great interview. I find the fact that your stories often spark off something you read in the news, Tom. I have a whole bookmark folder full of old news items that I've stored away for future use. as for what's given me permission to write recently: I've been reading Alastair Gray's collected stories and his unique approach to the short form has given me permission to try mixing things up a bit in terms od style and form. Hopefully the next few stories I write will be a bit of a departure for me.

Frances said...

This is a great interview - I particularly like Tom's reference to "the dark art of storytelling" - as opposed to journalism! I've been a journalist of sorts myself, lately a more mundane office assistant, but marriage has given me 'permission', in a way, to give up office work so as to focus more on my writing - because so far I'm experiencing marriage (choosing to?) as a source of freedom and adventure rather than the opposite.

Jacqueline Pye said...

Each time a piece of my work is accepted - and they've been many and varied - it seems to give permission for the next, especially if it's a risky venture onto an unfamiliar path. So that's all right, then!

Julia Bohanna said...

Ah permission. We are indeed our own gatekeepers and for me, it has been so much about confidence, but also holding up another person, so that they can do well. Now it's just left to me to give myself permission, to score some hits in writing competitions, to dream, to enjoy my ideas and think, actually, they might be worth reading.

As for that unreliable narrator - I love them. Graham Greene's The End of the Affair still gives me goosebumps.

Illness too is an interesting one - because in some way it has tethered me physically but also it has - I hope - given me more empathy, as well as forcing me to develop more of my intellect to compensate for the physical weakness. Not a bad thing. It's quite freeing, in some respects.

Yes it is brave to write in the other gender to your own. But if anyone can do it, I think Tom can.

Rachel Fenton said...

Really good interview. Loved the book. Permission is something I've thought about a lot with my own writing. I find a lot of inspiration in the news, too, so Dan's comment is interesting to add to the mix. Got me thinking - thanks Tania, Tom.

Peter said...

Thanks to Tom and Tania for great posts on permission to write. I had never thought of it that way. So, for me there are a number of emerging things that give me permission to write. The first, coming from a working class background, I felt that many stories reflect class either as a fairy tale (Billy Elliot) or a horror story (Trainspotting) and that there were other stories to tell. Second, and this resonates with Tom’s experience, I have lived with ill-health all my life, so the actual physical act of writing is a lot easier than many other trades. Third, I have recently read my poetry in public, and last year had a play performed, and the positive response gives you the feeling you are writing something of interest. And finally, for the past six years I have been a househusband of two ever-expanding sons, which has given me more time to write and think, so I am very grateful to my wife who not only gives me permission but also support and encouragement.

Dan Purdue said...

Tom's book sounds very interesting. I like the double meaning of "lies" in the title.

I'm not sure I've given much thought to the idea of permission in my writing - I've never felt that I'm 'not allowed' to write about anything in particular. The things I've turned away from tend to be subjects or ideas that I don't have a particular interest in, or those that I feel are beyond my skills as a writer. With regard to the latter, I tend to think of that in terms of lacking confidence, rather than permission. You could argue I'm imposing restrictions on the type of stories I attempt and should give myself (or find from elsewhere) permission to have a go.

Whether confidence or permission is the root cause, I (like Jacqueline) find it helps enormously when something I've written is accepted for publication or wins a prize - it nearly always makes me feel ready to tackle more ambitious projects.

Peter Domican said...

I've never considered the concept of permission but to me also, it's more one of confidence. If people I respect say positive things about my writing (or my photography), I feel enthused to continue.
I have to say that for me, my confidence ebbs and flows like the tide.

chillcat said...

Sometimes I feel I ought to have asked permission when I borrow a story or a character departure point from friends or family. But I don't. I just let go, let it take me where it will, and tend to detach myself from the finished product. I once had a friend who didn't quite see it that way however.

As for permission to call myself a writer, I still feel rather flimsy when I say this.