Thursday, February 24, 2011

Tom Vowler Talks

Well, my writing shed is nearly ready so I ask you to suspend disbelief and picture me and my guest today, Tom Vowler, sitting in there, sipping tea (or G&T... or beer) and chatting. Can you picture it? Here's what Tom looks like, if it helps (even though there is sea behind him, please disregard the ocean).

Tom is the author of the excellent and Scott-prize-winning collection The Method and Other Stories, published by Salt in 2010, and the forthcoming novel, All that Binds Us, which is a dark psychological thriller set on Dartmoor. On the subject of locations, I thought I'd first ask Tom the questions I've asked all those who've taken part in my Writing & Place series. And then we have a chat about his short story collections.Enjoy!

Tania: Where are you?

Tom: A stannary town on the edge of Dartmoor, in south-west England.

Tania: How long have you been there?

Tom: Just over a year, having been a decade in Plymouth.

Tania: What do you write?

Tom: Literary fiction, I suppose, though my agent has just described my novel as a psychological thriller. Short stories too.

Tania: How do you think where you are affects what you write about and how you write?

Tom: I actually moved here in order to finish my novel, which is set in the uplands of the moor. Visiting once a week didn't allow me to immerse myself fully in the landscape, which, for me, is one of the main 'characters' of the book. Research became a delight, learning about Dartmoor's history, its people, the flora and fauna. Watching the changing seasons, writing scenes where they occur, has given me a profound affection for the region, one I hope has permeated my fiction. Scenes in the moor's pubs were meticulously researched. :)

Tania: Yes, Tom, I have no doubt about that! Ok, onto The Method and Other Stories. Having just re-read the title story, it made me think of a question for you. I recently commented on a friend's blog post about the old chestnut, "writing what you know" and I said Well, while I believe in making things up, it's hard to write what you don't know, and perhaps writing and knowing are actually unconnected. What's your take, given that you the main character in your story goes to the most extreme lengths to get to know the main character in his novel...and you have actually moved house in order to better research yours?

"My own approach to research had never been this committed; if I wanted to write about something, I’d read about it. I’d Google the hell out of it and then use my imagination to make notes and diagrams, charts with lines linking characters, the complex worlds they occupied, their beliefs, histories, idiosyncrasies, what I thought they ate, how they voted. I’d construct their lives, give them voices, breathe life into them. I thought that was enough. But then, at a meeting with my publisher, the issue of authenticity arose." (From The Method)"

Tom:  I had some fun with that story, although it’s worrying how many people think it’s autobiographical in some way. It’s largely tongue-in-cheek, but does throw up questions on research and its thoroughness. The inspiration came from reading about the extent an actor had gone to for a part in search of authenticity, something we as writers also strive for.

Writing what you know is well and good, but would soon make for stolid fiction; you’ll quickly run out of subject matter, emotional experiences, anecdotes. And so we must venture into unfamiliar worlds, whether literally or vicariously, in order to assimilate the themes and people we’re writing about. Annie Proulx is a good example, someone who totally immerses herself in a community during composition, giving her a sense of dialect, of customs, the minutiae of a culture.

And, yes, moving house to be near the setting of my novel was a big commitment, but meant I could actually write scenes where they took place, or an hour after visiting them. The alternative was to go there only fortnightly and read about the place in between, which is always going to give you a second-hand account. I now have a profound love for the wilderness I’ve spent two years writing (among) and about.

But research isn’t always so edifying. The same book involved studying the darker aspects of human behaviour and I was glad not to do this first-hand.

Tania: I just noticed, rereading the excellent Seeing Anyone, the scientific imagery, "the earth's curvature", "like a distant star", "the Doppler effect", "a shape hidden within an optical illusion" . Does this reflect what you were reading at the time? Tell us more!

Tom: Good question – the scientist in you coming out! There was nothing overtly contrived in this, but I do have a wholly amateur curiosity in astronomy and physics (until their enormity and scope overwhelm me), and it’s likely some influence occurred there. On a conscious level, I suppose we search for the language, the imagery, to best describe a feeling or behaviour, and this works best for me if the simile or metaphor is somehow juxtaposed with its partner. And so with this rather elegiac story (and indeed with Staring at the Sun), I used aspects of the physical, scientific world to flank the most abstract, metaphysical of matters: love.

Thank you so much, Tom. You finish your tea (or G&T... or beer) while I tell the folks, whose appetites have surely been whetted, that they can purchase your book directly from Salt, or from Amazon or the excellent Book Depository and read the recent review by Melissa Lee-Houghton on The Short Review.  That's all for today, dusk is falling over the shed. Pictures soon, I promise!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Quick shout out

I had a wonderful time last week at the launch of my great friend Sue Guiney's poetry collection, Her Life Collected. There were several highlights to the event at the Lumen United Reform Church and Community Centre - the first being hearing Sue read a number of poems from the book, some very funny indeed, since she had decided to stay away from the "divorce, death and doom" poems for the night! The second thing that made it a very special event was finally meeting up with our blog friend Lauri Kubuitsile, her of the Thoughts from Botswana blog. Sue, Lauri and I had conducted a three-way blog chat about writing over the past few months, and meeting Lauri was just like carrying that chat over from the blogsphere into real life! And continue it the next day wandering around London (well really from one cafe to another one a few steps down the road...)

The third interesting aspect of Sue's launch was that it was also an open mic night, which the Lumen centre holds regularly, and I decided to take the plunge and read one of my poems for the first time. I'm quite used to reading my stories, although that was extremely scary the first few times. But poetry? With line breaks? Ok, it's a 6-line poem  - which will be published in Alba shortly, otherwise I would never have had the guts to presume to read amongst the poets. But I was really worried I'd screw up the line breaks somehow, I'd read it all wrong, even though I wrote it. Mad, eh?

Well, it went fine. Six lines, it was all over pretty quickly! And I was glad to have done it. Lauri also read, as did Sarah Salway, so short story writers were well-represented. I still wouldn't call myself a poet, but one day, maybe...

Talking about Sarah, who I had a lovely time with in London, chatting about the upcoming Arvon short story course we will be teaching in May....She and I - together with fabulous writers Elizabeth Baines, Susannah Rickards and Catherine Smith - are reading at Jay Merill's Salt Publishing short fiction event at the Wise Words festival in Spitalfields, London, on March 16th. See Sarah's blog for the info.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

2011 Sunday Times EFG longlist is out!

The longlist for the £20,000 Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award - the richest prize for a single story (although only open to published writers) - has just been announced. An interesting list, it seems on first glance to be that there are more Big Names on it this year, maybe the Big Names realised that this is a serious amount of money and it would be foolish not to go in for it! Delighted to see Short Review authors Rob Shearman and Clare Wigfall there, along with Kevin Barry and Yiyun Li. Here's the full longlist:
  • Fabian Acker 'Nirvana'
  • Kevin Barry 'Fjord of Killary'
  • Meira Chand 'The Pilgrimage'
  • Will Cohu 'East West-West Coast'
  • Anthony Doerr 'The Deep'
  • Michel Faber 'In the Woods with a Dead Dog'
  • Roshi Fernando 'The Fluorescent Jacket'
  • Tibor Fischer 'Possibly Forty Ships'
  • Xiaolu Guo 'Life by Accident'
  • Sarah Hall 'Vuotjarvi'
  • Tobias Hill 'Not that it Matters'
  • Susan Hill 'Crystal'
  • Yiyun Li 'The Science of Flight'
  • Hilary Mantel 'Comma'
  • David Miller 'Fuck Being Happy'
  • Robert Shearman 'History Becomes You'
  • Erin Soros 'BC Almanac'
  • Louise Stern 'Black and White Dog'
  • Gerard Woodward 'The Family Whistle'
  • Claire Wigfall 'Professor Arvind'

You can read more about the longlisted authors here. I am particularly intrigued by Fabien Acker, who won "the BT award as science writer of the year", and Yiyun Li's story, because it has science in the title! Good luck to them all, the shortlist will be announced in a few weeks.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Live Q&A tonight on Thresholds

I'm doing a live Q&A tonight on the fabulous Thresholds short story forum - do come and ask me something! Here are the details of how to join in:
I hope you will join us, tonight between 7:30 and 9:00 p.m. UK time, for our LIVE online Question and Answer session with the prize-winning writer and editor of THE SHORT REVIEW, Tania Hershman. Tips and Hints for helping the session to run smoothly: 1) Members need to be logged in to submit questions. 2) Questions are to be submitted using the Comments Box, below Tania's announcement. 3) Please submit separate questions, in separate comments boxes. 4) Use your REFRESH button occasionally throughout the session. For those unable to be with us, questions can be submitted in advance, using the Comments facility at the bottom of Tania's announcement. Further details about the event and links to some of Tania's stories can be found in the announcement on the front page of THRESHOLDS. Hope to see you tonight!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Coming to you live from...

... my new writing shed! This is my first time in here, and although I had the most virtuous plans for it to be Internet-free, what do you know? The wifi actually gets all the way down the end of the garden! I might try and do something about that at some point, but while I am connected, i wanted to blog and say


So this is a bit of a Valentine's Day love post. A shed love post.

I've wanted a writing shed for years and years and years... and now, finally, I'm in it. There was a shed here when we bought this house, that was definitely one of the main attractions, but it needed to be insulated, so now it looks a little sauna-like, all pale pine, floor to ceiling. (Check out these amazing sheds in the meantime.)

Right now it just has electricity and a desk in, nothing else, because we're going to decorate, so no pics for the moment. It will have a single bed because I have come to understand the creative importance of being horizontal and thinking with one's eyes shut. (And napping). And our wonderful builder, Simon, is going to build me shelves including one that will allow me to work standing up when I need to. Seems a good idea for the back.

Anyway, that will happen soonish. I am already! And I can hear the birds. And I can't hear much else except my fingers banging the keyboard. Any tips from you writers-in-sheds? Are you all web-less? Should I? Really...? Yes, yes, I know.

Ok, it's a bit chilly now. I couldn't manage to carry the radiator down the garden myself, but really need to, since it's February in England. I will sign off now. From the shed. The writing shed. Wheee!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

It's Story Sunday!

A little thing I started on Twitter a few months ago, StorySunday asks anyone to tweet a link to someone else's short story that's published online. It's basically for me to get new recommendations of stories... and if anyone else happens to enjoy it, then that's great! Anyway, here's my #storysunday widget, you can click on the links even if you're not on Twitter...

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Best British Short Stories 2012 Wants To Hear From You!

I mentioned a while ago that Best British Short Stories is back, resurrected by my publisher, Salt Publishing, and edited by Nicholas Royle. He has just finalised the list of stories for the first edition, the 2011 edition, which will be published in April 2011 (see the list here - I'm delighted that it includes No Angel by Bernie McGill, which I chose as 2nd prize winner in the Sean O'Faolain competition), quite a mammoth task, he is to be applauded! And now he wants to know what British short story writers are up to this year.

Similar to the Best American Short Stories model, Royle will be reading stories that have already been published between Jan and Dec 2011. He told me he wants short stories published "anywhere, could be in American publications or wherever. And not just literary mags – anthologies, newspapers, online etc." But before you get excited and start firing off your beautiful publications to him, he cautions: "People need to be selective, ie not like I was when sending to Giles Gordon & David Hughes for Best Short Stories, way back." If all of us bombard him with everything we have published this year, he will be swamped. So wait, think about it, be choosy. And check out the anthologies Nicholas has already edited (to start with, read The Short Review's review of '68: New Stories from Children of the Revolution).

And then, when you're ready, send them to: or hard copies to Nicholas Royle at Manchester Writing School, Geoffrey Manton Building, MMU, Rosamond St West, Manchester M15 6LL
Good luck!

Addendum: As the lovely and generous Rachel Fenton pointed out in the comments, you could also recommend someone else's story!

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Jo Cannon's Far-from-insignificant Short Story Collection

It's a fantastic thing when a friend whose writing you greatly admire has a book published! Jo Cannon's first short story collection, Insignificant Gestures (Pewter Rose Press, 2010) is one of those short story collections that provoked in me a physical reaction. I gasped as I finished a story, I had to put the book aside, I felt something in me was roiling and unsettled by Jo's powerful stories. It's hard these days after reviewing so many collections for me to find unique adjectives to describe what stories do to me, but I find Jo does something quite different in her writing, somehow a melding together of experiences as a GP and travels in Africa. The results, which are sometimes quite odd and surreal, are stories with characters you can't shake once you've finished the story, situations which are both deeply affecting and also, in small ways, hopeful.

I'm delighted to be hosting Jo as part of her Virtual Book Tour! We had a chat about writing. Here's what she told me:

Tania: When did you first know/decide you wanted to be a writer?

Jo: I don’t really see myself as a writer, Tania! But in primary school, long before I wanted to be a doctor, my ambition was to be an author. Failing this, I would be a show jumper – the horse, not the rider. The time came when I accepted I would never swish my tail in a show ring. But I didn’t relinquish the hope that one day I would write a book. I wrote numerous novels in those days, in exercise books with the top half of the page devoted to illustrations in felt pen. Mostly twaddle about running away with gypsies or ponies, or both. I didn’t start writing stories again until my mid forties. I needed time to collect better material.
T: Why short stories? What does the short story do for you, as a reader and as a writer? 

J: The short story seems to be the genre that comes naturally to me. I made a couple of attempts at novels, but they were sewn up after 3,000 words. Time is an issue, of course. My writing tends to be intense and sporadic, so Insignificant Gestures took five years to write. Had I embarked on a novel I would have literally lost the plot. But I also think my job has pushed me into short stories. Every surgery feels like a collection.

T: What does the word "story" mean to you?

J: At the simplest level a story is a tale made up to entertain others. Ideally a short story should be intense and complete. It must be authentic, so that the reader understands how it feels to be someone else. The language should add meaning, for example, through metaphor. I admire this in other writers, but still have a long way to go!

T:  How does a story come to you? Stories come to writers in many different ways: an image, a first line, a voice. What's yours?

J: Usually it is an emotion. Either one I have experienced, or that someone, telling their story, has transferred to me. Sometimes the heart of a story is a powerful, often troubling memory – not always my own - which I exorcise, and give meaning, by turning into fiction. Other stories begin with a dreamy "What if?" For example, sitting in a traffic jam and considering what would happen if I never got out.

T:  How long did it take to write all the stories in this collection, and how did you decide what order to put them in?

J: The collection contains about two thirds of my work. Some earlier stories seem clumsy now, and I discarded them. When I considered that they might have a wider readership, some seemed too exposing of real people’s lives, or my own. My publisher rejected a few, chose which story to go first, and also decided on the collection’s title. I tried not to have too many first person narratives together, and followed sad stories with upbeat ones. I separated linked stories, but not too far, hoping the reader might be surprised to recognise the character from a previous incarnation. Eve appears at different ages and her stories are in chronological order, scattered through the collection, ending with her death. The book ends with Jam, which is a metaphor for Eve’s life, and life in general.

T: How does it feel knowing people are reading your book?!

J: I’m over-awed! And thrilled, of course. The book has already sold more than I, or my publisher, expected. I’m aware that a reader has expended a few hours of his or her life, and some hard earned dosh, on my book and I sincerely hope they feel it was worth it.

T: What are you working on now?

J: My ‘other’ job is really busy just now, so writing time is limited. And book promotion activities – like writing blog interviews! – are surprisingly time consuming. I feel the collection should get my best boot out into the world. But when all this settles down, I hope to get back to writing short stories again. I’ve learned so much in the last five years, I’m excited to think where the next five will take me.

Thank you so much, Jo, for those insights. We're exciting about where the next five years take you too! Find out more about the book and Jo's stories on her website, Jo Cannon.

Coming soon... blog interviews with Tom Vowler about his short story collection, The Method, and Andrew Oldham on his poetry collection, Lapwing.