Ask five writers what it is that makes a great short story, and you’ll probably receive five different answers. Some will focus on form, others on characters, or plot. Some will be all about the language. If there’s one point that they’ll all agree on, it’s that a short story should be concise. There is no room for waffle, no room for flab. The short story needs to be lean and to the point, every aspect of it working to achieve its desired effect.
When it comes to economy, Tom Vowler is one of the best around. His stories are always finely balanced and efficient, giving us no more than we need, but without being so stripped back that they lose their sense and resonance. There are still moments of beauty, and he knows when to let a sentence breathe – but the narratives are always tightly coiled, ready to spring their tale upon the reader.
It’s no surprise, then, that Vowler has received many accolades during his writing career. His debut story collection, The Method, won the Scott Prize and the Edge Hill Readers’ Prize, and he’s recently made the shortlist for the Commonwealth Writers Prize. I’m thrilled to say that he’s graced the pages of The Lonely Crowd too, no less than three times. What’s more surprising is that people haven’t picked up on his novels to such an extent. What Lies Within and That Dark Remembered Day are fascinating, poignant studies of damage and loss, and both deserve a far wider audience than they’ve had to date.
For his fourth book, however, Tom Vowler has returned to the short form, with the collection Dazzling the Gods (long-term readers will remember the title story from Issue One of The Lonely Crowd). Published via Unbound – the crowdfunding publisher that has been making waves in the industry since 2010 – those who backed the project have already been treated to a startling display of storytelling, in what must surely be one of the collections of the year. Those who missed the boat will unfortunately have to wait until January 2018 to get their hands on a copy (one of the vagaries of Unbound’s publishing model) – but the wait will be worth it.
I caught up with Tom shortly after Dazzling the Gods was released to Unbound backers, to find out why he returned to the short form after two novels, and how he achieves that distinctively economical yet emotionally charged prose.
Dan: How did it come about that you returned to the short form for your fourth book, having published two novels? Was this something you’d planned?
Tom: A happy accident, I guess. I was under pressure to outline my third novel to my publisher, the project driven by that egregious thing, The Market, rather than any organic gestation. The result was a little like Alan Partridge soliciting a second series: I didn’t believe in any of the synopses, and am relieved they were rightly euthanised. And so I sought solace in the form I’d begun with though had neglected for a number of years. A story – Antony Caleshu’s ‘The Beating’ in The Dublin Review – stirred something in me, reminded me of the audacity and scope of the form, and so I tried to riff off this piece, have a tonal and thematic dialogue with it, the result my own story ‘Debt’. It was like an emphatic hit of some elucidating drug following years of abstinence, and I spent the next three years writing only stories. Writing is hard enough without slaving over some generic shite you have no passion for. This said, I’m halfway into a novel again.
Dan: It’s noticeable that many of the stories in Dazzling the Gods were originally published in literary journals. Do you think journals/magazines have an important role to play in the future of the form, in that respect? Or will short fiction always be handicapped by book publishers’ attitudes to it?
Tom: Yes to both, I suspect. Journals will retain their precarious, cult status, discovering vital new voices, produced from nothing but fresh air and love, coming and going, quietly and passionately offering literary nuggets to a small minority of discerning readers while being roundly ignored by the mainstream. It’s often said that if as many people bought journals as entered short story competitions the form would flourish. I’m not sure we can lay all the blame at big publishers’ doors: plenty of small presses who put out collections will tell you they simply don’t sell. Ask a typical reader about short stories and they often say they love them. Then look at what ratio they form in their bookshelves.
Dan: What do you make of short story competitions, then? You’ve had many notable successes in them. Are they part of the vital lifeblood of the form? Or more of a distraction, a sideshow?
Tom: I guess I’m ambivalent towards them. They offer oxygen to both the form and to those who do well in them. And there is prize money now to rival the longer form. And I suspect wins or being placed looks good on a CV to a potential literary agent (who with one or two exceptions will then demand a novel). I do worry when prizes appear little more than revenue raisers; the maths is simple and suggests considerable profits, which is fine if this goes towards producing a journal, for example. They are incredibly hard to win, and of course there is a certain ‘type’ (though not necessarily a formula) of story that prospers in most competitions. I’ve even cynically set out myself to write that kind of story, which indeed went on to shortlist in the Commonwealth Prize, making it at once thrilling and depressing. I think they can be a good barometer of your ability as a writer when you’re starting out, that is if you enter a lot and never get mentioned, perhaps the form isn’t for you. A strong story will often find itself on long- and short-lists, but judges are mercurial creatures (especially those whose biographies list an oeuvre of everything but the short story). I always advise emerging writers to strike a balance between submitting to both competitions and journals, and to treat successes in the former as the imposters they are.
Dan: Much of your writing – long or short form – deals with characters who have been damaged in some way, or been let down by life. Addicts, dysfunctional families. What attracts you to these kinds of characters? Are they something that you’re personally attracted to, or something vital to good fiction?
Tom: To elaborate here would, I suspect, risk veering into psychanalysis, save to say that literature, and especially the short story, obviously necessitates conflict, but also a good deal of truth, and so it’s natural to populate fiction with such characters, with what Frank O’Connor termed a ‘submerged population group’: Gogol’s officials, Turgenev’s serfs, Maupassant’s prostitutes, Sherwood Anderson’s provincials, always dreaming of escape. Perhaps I shine a more direct spotlight on such people than some authors, but I suspect that’s because they intrigue me – the flawed, fragile underdogs, the dispossessed and broken – but also because I am one of them. Are we not all damaged to some extent? The fascination lies in how these characters respond to their plight, what sense they make of it, how they fight back. But then you must remember that the form is neither commercial nor the least bit mainstream: most novels rely on a traditional narrative arc that renders them cumbersome, burdened by their own contrivance, shackled by structure and plot, by backstory and exposition; the short story, on the other hand, is far too indecorous to give the tiniest toss about such architectural neatness. And if there’s one thing life isn’t, it’s neat.
Dan: It was striking to me that many of these stories deal with parenthood, or failed parenthood – couples who can’t have children, or haven’t had children, for whatever reason. Was there any sense of this developing as a theme for you? Where do you think it comes from?
Tom: I’m never sure of the worth in a writer exploring their primordial swamp to scrutinise theme. What rises up will generally do so regardless of intent. I’m not a parent, so perhaps I spend a lot of unconscious energy ‘musing’ this; perhaps I’m fascinated or appalled by their absence on some level. I’m certainly intrigued by society’s attitude to someone who chooses (or doesn’t choose) not to have children, or who reaches a certain age and hasn’t further crowded a busy planet, particularly women, as if they were somehow being undutiful or selfish. I think the choice not to have children is something to admire, or better still something to go unnoticed.
Dan: There are a few instances where you place your characters in the context of real-world crises – most notably in ‘The Grandmaster of Gaza’, but also in references to the current political and economic climate. How important do you think it is for fiction writers to engage with the real world in this way?
Tom: Not important at all. Your only duty is to the story (and hence to the reader). But it would be unusual to never brush against the Real World, to never witness characters in war zones or favourite cities. Once you start beating your reader with any sort of political stick, however veiled, your story is dead, though. Obviously characters are political animals themselves, but this must emerge organically, must never be didactic. The Gaza story is the closest I’ve come to breaking my own rule here, a piece written from anger and helplessness, though I hope I’m absent from it.
Dan: Have you encountered any writers who you feel manage to successfully blend the political into their narratives? Or is it always doomed to failure?
Tom: Every narrative is ‘political’, but the author and their own politics should never be conspicuous. Unless they happen to align with a character’s, which often they do. But a reader will smell sermonic allusions a mile away and rightly switch off. Why would anyone care what the author thinks, unless the author is a fatuous bigot, in which case don’t read them. That said, I’m drawn to the idea of ‘protest stories’, like songs, and ‘The Grandmaster of Gaza’ would certainly be one such story.
Dan: One always gets the impression with your stories that every word is carefully chosen, and the themes are intricately woven in with the language. How do you go about balancing the narrative needs of the story with this use of language? Are there risks in veering too far towards one approach or the other?
Tom: I’d hate to think there are writers out there who don’t choose every word carefully. My ambition for the prose is only ever for a sentence to function at its ultimate efficiency. Meaning it is a unit of energy and must serve the story (and thus the reader) as best it can without ever drawing attention to itself. In other words: no literary masturbation. The risks you cite are very real, and every writer must contend with the dangers in both over- and under-writing… and we can probably muster several to mind who do one or the other. I’ve largely disowned the first-person in my fiction, though I tend to employ a very close third, allowing a richer, more compelling narrative voice than something more omniscient. But language is everything, the units by which we manipulate and embrace readers. In some ways it’s redundant to claim it mustn’t draw attention to itself, as the best writing does exactly this, albeit subtly and in perfect harmony with the narrative demands. Perhaps this invites discussion on the form being for those who indulge in it, an exclusive literary club with only writers of stories reading them. I hope it isn’t just this. Language must be a living, vital thing, one that comes off the page, that arrests and kicks and bites, that startles and consoles. I think it’s Richard Ford who talks at length about authority in the language: the reader having to feel in expert hands, albeit unconsciously. As a reader (although perhaps it is naïve to try being one in isolation), I love nothing more than being devastated by a single sentence, of reading it over and over, marvelling at its artistry, bravura or artifice. And jealousy too, wishing I’d have penned them.
Dan: What led you to ditch the first-person? Is that a purely personal choice, or do you think there are issues integral to the use of first person narrators?
Tom: I’m minded of William Trevor’s stories, and can’t think of a single one told in the first-person. I guess I crave that slight removal afforded by the third-person, which can then be tailored to your needs by reducing psychic distance, using free indirect narration, a sort of implied first-person. A personal choice, yes, but I do find the first-person restricting at times.
Dan: You’ve mentioned Ford and Trevor, but which other short story writers do you admire? What qualities do you enjoy or admire most in their work?
Tom: I’m rereading most of Annie Proulx’s work and discovering her genius all over again. Munroe obviously. Colin Barrett and Danielle McLaughlin are probably the most exciting new voices this side of the Atlantic. Helen Oyeyemi’s stories always make me wish I’d written them. Graham Mort. Kevin Barry obviously. I think William Trevor’s final collection is published next year, a hugely poignant moment for me, having been so influenced by him. ZZ Packer. TC Boyle. Miranda July. Tobias Wolff. Diaz. George Saunders obviously. To say nothing of Chekhov, where it all begins, sort of. What these writers all do is render their work with those quietly devastating or brilliant moments, usually underplayed, never relying, as alas I have done in the past, on flamboyant tropes or rug-pulling epiphanies. Their stories always earn their majesty, nothing is facile or facetious. No tricks, as Carver warned. Raw truth, never a false beat, stories more real than life itself. Of course they also do everything else that makes short fiction dazzle and astonish too. That striving for perfection in a story. Is that possible? Is there a perfect short story? One of Trevor’s perhaps.
Dan: So what does your writing routine look like? Where do you write, and how do you structure your periods of writing?
Tom: Chaotic these days. Definitely do as I say not as I do. The War on Life is constant, to keep it at bay. On a good day, mornings are for writing only, at a table, cat and coffee, social media off.
Dan: Are you someone who prefers to have a set routine, then (cat, coffee, table)? Or do you find you’re constantly working, whenever and wherever you can? I’ve met writers who find it very hard to work without being at their own desk.
Tom: Not having children probably helps in this regard. Output generally tapers off as the day progresses, composition swapped for more prosaic tasks such as marking, editing, interviews! Obsession tends to drive everything, a dissatisfaction with the work, a perfectionism that in other areas of life might lead to a breakdown but that is somehow crucial to writing (and finishing) fiction. Habit is everything. Plus you’re never not writing – so much of value comes away from the desk, so perhaps notebooks are everything.
Dan: Do you find that you’re generally someone who labours over a first draft, and gets it pretty close to the finished article, then? Or are you someone who goes through multiple drafts and shapes the story during the editorial process?
Tom: My stories go through endless drafts, sometimes taking months to blossom. I think being an editor myself perhaps hinders that uncritical eye you need for first drafts, to be able to just let yourself go. So I always function at the level of the sentence, even in drafts, as if the alchemy will falter if I get this wrong. Of course, voice and character and profluence must be considered, tone and theme, cutting the beginning and the end, but the energy unit of the sentence is what I’m most excited by.
Dan Coxon edited the award-winning anthology Being Dad (Best Anthology, Saboteur Awards 2016) and is a Contributing Editor at The Lonely Crowd. His writing has appeared in Salon, Popshot, Open Pen, Gutter, The Portland Review and Unthology 9, and he was long-listed for the Bath Flash Fiction Award 2017. He is currently launching a bi-annual journal of weird and eerie fiction, The Shadow Booth.
Tom Vowler’s first collection, The Method, won the inaugural Scott Prize in 2010, and the Edge Hill Readers’ Prize in 2011. He followed this with two novels – What Lies Within and That Dark Remembered Day – and his work has been published in journals around the world. Tom is editor of the literary journal Short Fiction, and lectures in Creative Writing at Plymouth University, where he has just completed his PhD. Apart from being an occasional all-rounder for the Authors Cricket XI, he has no hobbies. His second collection of stories, Dazzling the Gods was published in January 2018.