|Writer Tom Vowler|
I am delighted to welcome back writer and blogger Tom Vowler today, to celebrate the paperback publication of his début novel What Lies Within. Tom has very kindly agreed to give away one copy of the novel to readers of this blog. Just leave a comment to be in the draw.
Tom’s 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 first novel What Lies Within is a psychological thriller set on the uplands of Dartmoor. It has already received wide critical acclaim. Tom is Assistant Editor for the literary journal Short FICTION and in 2008 he attained an MA in Creative Writing and is now studying for a PhD, looking at landscape and trauma in contemporary fiction. More at his website here.
Hi Tom and welcome once more to WWR. Always a pleasure.
Thrilled to be back your way, Nuala.
Your début novel What Lies Within is a literary thriller. Can you give readers a flavour of what to expect from it?
The story began in my head with a shocking news event, but it was the contrails of this that fascinated me. I wondered how far someone would go to hide their past, particularly to those they love, but also how things would evolve once that past returned. That’s the thriller bit, if you like. But language, character and setting are more important to me than plot, so it was important to weave the action, the narrative, into a textural milieu I felt comfortable with. I also like to challenge the reader morally, ask them some difficult questions.
The novel’s title is ambiguous and intriguing – did you deliberately reach for a layered title? How important is titling in your process (in stories and novels)?
Good question. I am drawn to abstract, evocative titles (see Peter Hobbs’ and EvieWyld’s latest – great books, great titles), more so than a single summative word, though of course we can name plenty of these that work well. What Lies Within might have been The Kiln at one point, but then the lovely Alex Preston mock-mooted Kiln Me Softly and I couldn’t take the former seriously again. But often these things are governed by factors outside your control. It’s always easier to think of titles that don’t work. Finding the right one is deeply pleasurable.
One reviewer said of the novel’s landscape: ‘The moor is more than just a backdrop to this story. The sense of unease and menace is compounded by the wild and lonely landscape.’ Is Dartmoor a place you know well? Is the setting a crucial part of the novel’s make-up?
I live on its fringes, and although I had a fondness for the place, it wasn’t until I spent a year immersed on its slopes, researching everything from the people who live and work there to its flora, geology and fauna, its pubs, that it got into my marrow. Certainly the moor adorns the book, working as allegory and metaphor for its narrative and characters. But I wanted the place to become a character itself, so the reader invested in its past, present and future as much as they did the people in the novel. To me the two – character and place – are inextricably bound. Landscape in fiction brings characters into relief, reflecting their internal states, often saying what they cannot. A symbiosis must occur between the two, where character and setting lay claim to one another in mutual dependency.
Were there times, during the two years or so it took you to write the novel, when you thought ‘What the hell am I doing?’, or did you have a clear path ahead of you as you wrote?
I like to plan, yes, having a vague sense of structure to fall back on, but it’s important to be flexible, to give your characters enough rein to wander, without being able to flee entirely. I’m not sure the path ahead is ever clear. If it is, you’re probably in trouble.
A lot of writers who write both short stories and novels say they are truly passionate about the short story rather than the novel. Do you have a preference for one over the other?
The two forms come with their own set of challenges, their own particular thrills. As someone who came late to fiction, I worked my way through the novels you’re supposed to read, enjoying many, one or two staying with me, forging an early influence. But I think reading and writing short stories really tightened my craft, awoke part of my aesthetic faculty that lay dormant. The story seemed to take more risks, be conducive to avant-gardism. It won’t be tied down or encumbered by structure, as the novel sometimes is. This said, I’ve read some wonderful novels in the last year, my love affair with them rekindled for now. And it annoys me when people, often writers, say how nothing can be wasted in the short story, that every word must count, as if you can just waffle on inconsequentially for pages at a time in a novel.
You seem to have had a good experience with your agent. Were you a long time looking for representation? Was it a smooth or bumpy ride?
As soon as I wrote something strong enough, I found an agent. There’s no real mystery. Yes, of course they are seeking something with at least a semblance of commercial value, but more than anything an agent wants an original voice. I wrote the obligatory dreadful first novel, submitting it everywhere, confidently waiting for it to be picked up, which of course it wasn’t. I look back, when I can bear to, at that book and for the most part it’s terrible. Most emerging writers send their work in too soon. Let it simmer. Move onto the next one, build up a body of work. But, yes, Charlie Brotherstone (A.M. Heath) deserves special mention for the impact he’s had on What Lies Within as well as my second novel. He’s a good drinking buddy too.
He sounds like the kind of agent most writers dream of having. Well done!
I know you are a big fan of Irish fiction. Who are the UK or international writers who keep you reading into the small hours?
I’ve mentioned two above, rising stars, the kind of writers to cause a small thrill in me when I see they’ve a book imminent. David Vann is one to watch also, Legend of a Suicide is a wonderfully brave and modern novel. And I’ll always come back to Banville, like a wavering addict needing a hit. Who else can write like that?
You play cricket. Can we expect a cricket novel – maybe the next Netherland – any time soon from Tom Vowler?
Not sure my agent or editor would be thrilled with that idea. Or at the Dartmoor pub-themed memoir lurking at the back of my mind, We Need To Walk About Devon.
Ha ha, love it.
What is next on the agenda for you, and/or what are you working on now?
The final edits for my second novel, due out next spring, plus the PhD are keeping me busy. Reading and editing stories for Short Fiction too. Like a stalker or sleuth, the third novel is loitering in the shadows, about to announce itself to me just as I plan a holiday.
Thanks for dropping by, Tom. Wishing you lots of luck with the book. Readers can buy What Lies Within here.