Tom Vowler’s debut short story collection, The Method and Other Stories, won the international Scott Prize in 2010.
Vowler’s collection is not only a strong piece of work, but also a promise, an overture to a great writing career. Vowler writes with confidence, easily inhabiting any type of character, and point of view. The eponymous story, “The Method,” which opens the book, takes me by surprise. I usually quite dislike stories about writing, about the importance of story-telling and all that. “The Method” is quite brilliant, serious in its dramatization of a writer who slowly turns into a character from his own story in order to establish perfect verisimilitude. The metamorphosis is sad and funny, and most importantly, it does not feel stilted and artificial, even though it is basically a lesson in creative writing.
Each of Vowler’s stories makes an impact, and it is hard to read more than two-three pieces in one sitting. This is a good thing. I love when I need to stop and think, to digest what I have just read and enjoy the multiple layers of the texts.
What strikes me as important in Vowler’s collection is the very order of stories. There are a number of ways to put together a collection, but to produce some kind of flow and rhythm in a series of unconnected narratives is as difficult as making top 5 or top 10 mixed tapes (remember High Fidelity?). I am particularly fond of the last story, “Little Man.” It is not just an excellent piece, but the effect it has on me is to send me back to the beginning, with a desire to reread, which is the best compliment I can give any fictional work.
Interview with Tom Vowler
AM: Tom, tell us a little about your collection. How did it come about?
TV: Hi Adnan. I needed 25,000 words of fiction for my creative writing dissertation. There was a clumsy first novel, gathering dust at home, that would likely have got me a pass, but my tutor suggested I challenge myself with something different. In the year following the MA, the collection doubled in length and was fortunate enough to win the Scott Prize last year.
AM: At what point in your writing did you work on “The Method”? I have read on you blog that you have recently finished a novel and that your agent asked you to make changes, something about a character that did not work. Are the two connected?
TV: Ha, no, that story came long before the novel. I’d just listened to an interview with the boxer Barry McGuigan, where he talked about training Daniel Day Lewis for a film role. McGuigan said that, with the exception of the top five middleweights in the country, the actor had become as good as anyone else. This staggered me: the lengths Day Lewis went to gain insight into a character. I just took this concept to a comic and macabre level. But, no, the story is (almost) entirely non-autobiographical.
AM: That is very interesting, Tom. That’s one of the films about boxing. When I read the story I thought of DeNiro and of course the old master Brando. To switch to another issue, at one point you use the phrase “sacred mundaneity.” The way I understand it seems to pertain to most of your stories. What does it mean to you?
TV: I think that’s a story where the characters suffer a terrible and very public loss. The event and their subsequent grief became a public narrative, pored over and dissected by the media. And so when life for one character begins to assume a degree of normality, when things others regard as mundane return to his life, he regards this as sacred.
AM: I very much liked this sentence: “a calmness that suggests insanity.” Again, several stories give me this impression. I mean several of the characters can be, at times, described like this. Can you tell me something about this? How important was the question of sanity/insanity in your stories?
TV: It’s often said, It’s the quiet ones you need to watch. When everyone’s losing their head, ranting, exploding with rage, there’s something more sinister about the person who looks calmly but intensely on. There’s real power in that. I knew someone like this once: not necessarily insane, but you knew when events were about to turn nasty, when he was capable of terrible things, his serenity utterly incongruous.
AM: Your stories are really quite intelligently crafted, but at the same time the emotional impact is very strong, either because of the fact that I can sense the craftsman-at-work, or maybe despite that, maybe because there is tension between the emotional and intellectual impacts. Is this something you worked on consciously, deliberately? Can you tell us a little about the process?
TV: The question of composition and its contrivance is a fascinating one, and, as you no doubt know, not something the writer can always easily identify. Stories, for me, tend to start with, not necessarily a theme, but an event or specific emotional encounter. And from this a series of ‘What if’ questions draw the piece along. As for creating emotional resonance, I think all you can do is draw on your own experience, which although may be disparate, can usually act as a metaphor for what your characters are going through. So their pain or hatred, love or fear, whilst contextually different, can be evoked by summoning my own. Again, though, a lot of this happens at an unconscious level, seeping unseen from the writer’s mind into the prose. For example, I was aware that the past, its inexorable grip on the present, themed heavily in the collection, but people have also been quick to point out the recurrence of revenge, something I’d barely considered.
AM: Tom, thank you for talking with me about your book.