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.
Tom: Just over a year, having been a decade in Plymouth.
Tania: What do you write?
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!