‘Be daring, mine your biggest fears’: Tom Vowler on writing

In February, Tom Vowler won the V.S. Pritchett Short Story Prize for his short story ‘Voyagers’.

We spoke with the writer and creative writing lecturer about the short story format, his approach to writing and his advice for aspiring writers.

When accepting the award, you were a passionate advocate for the short story format. Why are you drawn to short stories and what do you think it allows you to do that other formats can’t?

There will always be certain truths about life that only the short story can bring into relief. It took me a long time to understand this, that all the formal requisites (narrative compression, ambiguity, singularity, obliquity, irresolution) provide the container for transcendence, its whole, when done well, greater than the sum of these parts.

Stories, rather than merely entertaining, should provoke or delight or challenge. Chinua Achebe said when we read a story “we not only see, we suffer alongside the hero”. I like to emerge from a story with a felt rather than a known sense of what has occurred. There are words, but also there must be an echo to the words. Mostly, I want to feel flayed, my mind or heart colonised for twenty minutes or so. I like to come away with more questions than answers.

Yet what we regard as the modern short story is hardly out of short trousers; it is barely older than cinema. It’s the precocious child, refusing to conform, to be decorous or well behaved.

As a writer and lecturer, creative writing is obviously a huge part of your life. Has that always been the case from a young age?

No, I was a late starter, to both reading and writing. There’s still an unhealthy searchlight within the industry for young ‘talent’, the next bright new thing. But, really, what can you possibly have of any worth to say about the world in your twenties? My first books weren’t much good. It’s a long apprenticeship.

What inspired the story behind ‘Voyagers’?

I can’t say any single thing. The alchemical process remains so beautifully mystifying to me, and one I prefer not to overly scrutinise, for fear of systematising it. Best to trust the process and let the primordial swamp of our aesthetic rise up into the work. We write to a story, through it.

Themes recur, certainly, but I tend to be unaware of them at the time. Later, someone might say children populate my fiction (strange to me, as I don’t have any), or gothic houses, or infidelity, or unrequited love, or violence. But I’ve no real idea why this might be the case – nor have any interest. I’ll leave that to the psychodynamic therapists. My only duty is to the story. I guess I’m interested in love in all its guises, how it forms, how it dissolves, and ‘Voyagers’ is no different.

How did you approach the writing process? Was it all planned meticulously before starting to write or something more spontaneous?

Stories, at least for me, require so many drafts. Dozens and dozens, endless manipulation and interrogation. Plans can be useful, but they soon collapse upon contact with reality. You have to give yourself permission to write badly; first (and tenth) drafts can’t be anything else. Lately, I’ve wanted to place stories in brief temporal windows, for example a car crash, or with ‘Voyagers’, a magic mushroom trip.

But then, as George Saunders says, you need to ask the story what it needs, what it wants, so spontaneity and intention perform a kind of dance. Saunders also cautions against over-managing our work. All stories must possess a subtext. They are always about something beyond that which they present. Mostly, during writing, I glance around my bookshelves and think how good it would be to one day produce a story like Annie Proulx’s or Alice Munro’s, and then set about failing magnificently.

Do you have any advice for aspiring fiction writers?

Find another income source, one that isn’t emotionally excavating. Most writers have day jobs, but you need something left in the well to draw on. Read everything, old and new, especially out of your own niche. Lessons from one form carry into others. Work is never finished; it can always be improved. So don’t submit too early. This is perhaps the biggest mistake I see.

Put your stories in a cupboard and leave them for months, years if you can. Move on to the next one. You return to them an improved writer. As someone once said, write a little each day, without hope and without fear. Stories, to borrow from Richard Ford, are “daring little instruments and almost always represent commensurate daring in their makers”. Be daring. Mine your biggest fears. Life doesn’t have neat endings; neither should your stories. And ditch social media.

Do you have any other writing projects in the pipeline?

Oh, how they dwell in pipelines for years, catatonic and fallow. ‘I’m writing a novel,’ said Dudley Moore in a sketch. ‘Neither am I,’ replied Peter Cook. A memoir was gaining traction last year, but I’ve sensed lately that I’m a loyal and devoted servant to fiction. To come full circle, it seems to offer more truth than non-fiction. But the first rule of work-in-progress is you don’t talk about work-in-progress. Tell it to the page first.

You can read Tom’s award-winning story ‘Voyagers’ here.

You can learn more about Tom and his works here.