Friday, 7 January 2011


Part 1 is below if you want to pick up the thread.

Tom Vowler
As for inspiration, yes I am often drawn to disturbed narrators, stories peopled by desperate characters who barely manage to conceal this beneath a ‘veneer of normality’. Loss certain themes heavily in my collection, as does the past with its inexorable grip on the present. Again, though, I’m not wholly aware of themes during composition; I just think our own primordial swamp seeps up into the prose regardless.

Interesting that we all value giving the reader space in our work. I always resist (overt) flags, or force-feeding the story to someone. It’s a fine line, not becoming too arcane so as to frustrate, but respecting the reader enough to allow them room within the story is important for me.

Susannah, you’ve mentioned some of the work that inspires you; are there themes/ideas you’re conscious of weaving into your stories? Or perhaps like me they seep in almost unconsciously…

Susannah Rickards
What I take from the authors I admire is their outlook on life. There is a humane, unstinting examination of how we behave towards others and ourselves, and this frankness is backed up by wit in all the authors I admire. I read them and think: kin. Like they’re of the same tribe. What they succeed at is what I am aiming for too, not because I like their work. I like it because it chimes. That way round.

Consciously I set out not with themes but with events. But they pretty quickly shift to character. I’m not interested in writing about Big Ideas as theories. I prefer to find them in small places. Human activity is endlessly fascinating. It supplies everything I want to examine as a writer.

I admire authors who successfully lead with theme. My work becomes mechanical when I try to, as an exercise. I do aim for a certain revelation. I am fascinated by self deceit, by the gap between who we are and who we think we are; by what people are said to be doing and what they actually do. I got this from your work too Tom. ‘Busy.Come.Wait.’ The daughter’s insistent emotional blindness to the parity between her parents. That chimes exactly, for me.

So – a question for you: how do you make human failing resonant? What lifts it beyond a mere Slice o’ life?

It’s a good question. As a reader I find a story more powerful if it illuminates some small truth I recognise, or understand, but I suppose this need not be specific. Take two stories I find extraordinary in their effect and affect: James Salter’s ‘Last Night’ and Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’. I certainly have no direct experience of the horror, the sudden brutal ‘reveals’ to occur in either, yet I connect with them on a human level. So perhaps failings are metaphors for each other, mirroring existential concerns we all share.

I want to mention language. Susannah, you spoke of the story bridging the gap between the novel and the poem. How the cadence and density of the latter is evoked. For me, I know I’m reading something special when I forget I’m reading. When the words sing. In particular when a sentence forces me back to its beginning, desperate as I am to hear it again. Take the following two, the first yours, the second Patrick’s:

‘It happens just as she predicts, and though she is glad they are rapt in this tumbling and hooting, a chill runs through her that she has such control over them, such knowledge of them, that she could predict to the quarter second when they would peel themselves from the radiator as they did and cavort.’

‘Not many weeks later she would be killed by a man who could not bear her beauty.’

So, to you both: how do you know when a sentence is working as hard as it can? When, as with these examples, the words are singing?

I’m taken by your idea that failings are metaphors for each other. Can the same be said of positive action in a story?

That sentence from Patrick’s story shook me too. It felt, briefly, like a line from another author, another prose style, grotesquely intrusive on the meditative voice that had gone before. Such news should jar. How to achieve this syntactically is a challenge.

Was this conscious on your part, Patrick? (I’m not being disingenuous here – it’s clear you are meticulous. I’m asking if that discord of style was a choice or a result of the simple task of bringing such news into so tender a story?)

Tom, for me, when a sentence is singing I feel it physically – a warmth in the muscles, like the second stage of going for a run, after the stiffness and pain, when that ease kicks in. That probably sounds pretentious, but it’s just factual. It’s a physical response to the words, maybe born of relief. When they join together well, you can relinquish responsibility for them.

I’m interested to know how you both tackle theme, so a question for you both – is it an overt starting point, or something that you recognise once an amount of work is out on paper?

And some for you Patrick, specifically: when I started to read your work I stumbled and had to slow right down, as though I were reading a foreign language in which I was not wholly fluent. I appreciated the way the prose demanded to be read attentively and slowly. I have some frustration with instant snack-effect short fiction, there’s a lot on-line, and your work seems the antithesis of that.

When I examined your syntax and vocabulary nothing was convoluted, everything was lucid, and I’m still wondering exactly how you achieve that gear change in the reader. Tom too said he had to slow down, mentioned the cadence as reason. I wonder if it is an Australian cadence. I must confess ignorance of short fiction by other contemporary Australian writers. We’re used to American and UK timbres perhaps. Who are your influences? And what’s driving the musicality of your prose? What are you after, rhythmically?

Part 3 soon.


Marisa Birns said...

Really enjoying your conversations. Tom, I've read and admired your collection and I think you did reach that balance where you are not too arcane and you leave enough room for the reader to think.

Will certainly read Susannah and Patrick's books!

TOM J VOWLER said...

Hi Marisa. Thanks for your kind words.

Rachel Fenton said...

Excellent advice chopped and diced into this conversation slice. Thanks.