Wednesday, 5 January 2011


Three for the price of one to kick us off in the New Year. Myself and fellow Scott Prize winners Susannah Rickards and Patrick Holland got together for a discussion on, among other things, the short story and what it means to us. Having read both Susannah’s and Patrick’s collections, I have to say they are stunning achievements and I’m honoured to have my own book forever associated with theirs. It’s an involved conversation so I’ll post it in three parts.

Patrick Holland
When, like me, you are aware of the prejudices facing story collections – I say ‘aware’ rather than ‘understand’ because I don’t understand them – why do you write short stories?

Tom Vowler
This is a simple one for me. As ‘artists’ I think we’re drawn to the medium that excites us most, that rouses us in the morning, or the middle of the night, desperate to emulate what’s gone before us. I came to short fiction relatively late, just a few years ago. But already some of the great stories I’ve read have left their mark, emblazoned across my literary consciousness, more than some of my favourite novels, which is a statement I’d have found remarkable and fanciful in the past. I think like many people, I believed stories were something that novelists did on occasion, by way of experiment or vanity. That they were a bit of fun. And then I read Chekhov, Carver, Updike, Oates, Trevor, Munro et al and realised what was possible. So falling in love with the short story was the start. Prejudices soon became irrelevant as I set out on this wonderful journey of reading the best short fiction out there and trying to match it.

Tom, I agree – at the end of the day, what keeps you going is the love of the thing. At times friends have asked me, why don’t you write something ‘popular’ “just to set you up”. And I suppose it would be easy enough: pick a war to give super-significance to the drama, get some tv soap plot twists, drop tags at the end of chapters like “but he was not all he seemed” or “if only she knew that that decision would change her life forever”… but the problem would be waking up each morning and getting the job done. How to find the energy? For me, writing is an attempt to understand the world I live in and our relationship with the cosmos. Lately, I try to understand the built environment of supermodernity and the losses it imposes. ‘The Source of the Sound’ is an attempt to come to terms with the loss of a loved one; ‘Integrity’ tries to come to terms with loss of landscape, and ‘The Passenger’ attempts to crystalise the tragedy of losing time.

Interesting to hear your influences, especially since your writing reminds me of almost no other writer I know besides, perhaps, John Cheever. My influences are quite different: Barry Lopez, Hemingway, Juliana Horatio Ewing, Yasunari Kawabata, Graham Greene and, more than any other, Kipling. While we wait for Susannah’s response, and while on the topic of inspiration, I have a question… ‘The Method’ is one of the funniest things I’ve ever read in my life, what inspired it – a real life exchange with a publisher, perhaps? Also, I’ve written comedy before – the Australian critics were very mixed about how successfully – but the stories in The Source of the Sound are, I think, all of a stylistic and thematic type… was it difficult to go from the high comedy of ‘The Method’ to a story like ‘The Last Supper’, which is so dark as to be troubling, and perhaps my favourite of your stories, ‘Seeing Anyone?’ with its exquisite sadness?

I suppose ‘The Method’ is darkly comic, though I didn’t set out to write a funny story. I’d been listening to an interview with the boxer Barry McGuigan, how he trained Daniel Day Lewis for three years for a role. McGuigan said that at the end of this period, with the exception of the top few middle-weights in the country, Day Lewis could compete with, and likely beat, anyone. I found this staggering, the lengths an actor would go to when researching a part. And it seemed natural to extend this obsessive approach to a ridiculous degree. I’ve read ‘The Method’ to a few audiences, and someone usually asks whether it’s autobiographical, whether I’ve researched the research, as it were, which makes me chuckle, given its depraved and salacious nature. Actually, for one scene I did ask a friend to punch me hard, so I could describe it. We were drunk and, annoyingly, he did.

But, yes, I suppose thematically the collection is often disparate. I didn’t find this difficult: the stories tended to find their own tone, perhaps born from the mood I was in during composition.

Interesting point you make about coming to terms with things, of seeking understanding through the prose. Is the act of writing somehow cathartic for you? That is, might you use a story to make sense of a personal rather than an abstract matter?

The stories in The Source of the Sound are quite beautiful. I found myself slowing down as I read, savouring the cadence as much as the semantics of the words, much as I would a poem. The recurring motifs of light and sound anchored me in these wonderful, but often bleak, worlds you’ve created. Indeed, the stories are often grounded in a profound sense of place; I wondered if setting was often where you began.

Writing is something of a cathartic exercise for me, certainly; and also an attempt to isolate signs of grace in the world, and give them space to breathe. This, as you’ve suggested, doesn’t mean that things always turn out rosy. No man or woman escapes their cross – dig a little and it’s there: so the alcoholism, the prostitution, the addictions and untimely losses the people in my book endure. If nothing else goes wrong in your life, you will suffer the deaths of certain of your loved ones, which produces the keenest pain it is possible to feel. For me, writing, and story-telling, are ways to come to terms with pain and fear, by finding threads of order in apparent chaos.

Place, as you’ve suggested, is vital to the stories – and understanding place is another way to see your way out of chaos and pain, as it brings you close to the deepest creative order. Understanding the built environment makes visible the way humans can destroy the essential order by disrespecting or ignoring it – urban sprawl, with its disregard for community, farming and wilderness, is an example. But somehow – perhaps I’ve been lucky – I’ve always found wilderness, sacred places and beloved human habitats where I can go to reconstitute myself.

I think everyone, over the course of a life, puts together their own map of sacred places, which might not make immediate sense to anyone else who viewed the map: places like a window looking onto a quiet street, or an unremarkable plain… places where significant things have happened, or significant thoughts have come, or places that seem important for mysterious reasons. I have spent hours on the plain described in the story ‘Integrity’ for no reason I really knew, and I know not everyone who saw it would accept my justification that it is beautiful. Such places are often starting points for stories. ‘The City Lost to Heaven’, for instance, is very much a product of my nostalgia for certain locales of Beijing.

Now, how about yourself? It seems it’s urban and suburban landscape, and the people that inhabit those, that inspires you, which is what made me think of Cheever when I read The Method. I’m thinking of a veneer of normality that is soon and profoundly punctured by dark comedy, violence and desperation in stories like ‘The Games They Play’ (you may have penned the best story ever written about swingers there). Am I right in taking this view?

Secondly, leaving a kind of narrative silence in my writing, a space for the reader to cross and come to the work on his or her own terms, is something I’ve been conscious of doing lately, and I sensed it too in that remarkable story ‘The Little Man’ – to what extent do you believe a story should be ‘open’, that is, refuse to put flags up and announce the author’s intentions?

Susannah Rickards
May I jump in by replying to Patrick’s opening question? Like Tom, short fiction is what I read and rate most highly. I love the intensity, or density of language in a poem, and the scope of story that novels possess. The short story connects the two. And I love the form’s ripple effect – that they may only take half an hour to read but stay with you for years – revisiting the mind, replaying themselves in different lights. They change. It’s the greed of a reader who also writes, maybe, to enjoy the space a short story provides for the reader to embellish.

Then, as a writer, I try to do for others as the short fiction authors I most admire have done for me: just open the door a chink onto another world and let the reader do the rest. Providing those open spaces you mention in your most recent post Patrick is something I consciously aim for and something I prize in short fiction. Fitzgerald does it, Carver, Munro, Tobias Wolff and Kyle Minor. Then again, I love the mental tracking of character that authors like Stephen Dixon of David Foster Wallace explore – that rhythmic grasp of how a mind flits and tussles and returns to its obsessions.

There’s an intensity to the quality of the prose I most admire that is most effective in small doses.

Part 2 soon.


Tania Hershman said...

Oh, how wonderful to have all three of you chatting! A bit like the "menage a trois" I had recently with Sue Guiney and Lauri Kubuitsile, two of the most prolific writers I know, who were kind enough to answer all my questions about writing. It's fascinating to hear all your thoughts on short fiction, can't wait for Part 2 - and to read your collection, Tom, which is on my pile, and get hold of Patrick's! Susannah's I have already devoured!

TOM J VOWLER said...

Hi Tania. Yep, enjoyed muchly your menage a trois. This one was great too, but, alas, distance precluded it from taking place in a pub - a shame as P and S seem like folk I'd like to meet.

Rachel Fenton said...

Nothing like a meaty conversation to get me in the mood for more reading - enjoyed this and looking forward to more. Thank you.

TOM J VOWLER said...

You're very welcome, Rachel.