A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
(Plus a free draw: We have one copy of That Dark Remembered Day to give away. Full details are at the end of the interview.)
Tom Vowler is an associate lecturer at Plymouth University, where he’s studying for a PhD. He’s also editor of the literary journal Short FICTION and occasional all-rounder for the Authors Cricket XI.
Tom is no stranger to Vulpes – we’ve reviewed both of his previous books, The Method and Other Stories and What Lies Within and on Monday, we reviewed his latest novel, That Dark Remembered Day. (What can we say? He’s very persuasive and he writes a great book.) We first interviewed him four years ago and thought it would be interesting to catch up with him again … for a chat about writing, the universe and everything:
VL: Without giving away too much of the plot, the event at the centre of That Dark Remembered Day could touch on a still raw nerve in some communities – both in the UK and elsewhere. Did you at any point have qualms about using it as the pivot of the story?
TV: It’s the writer’s job to touch nerves – raw or otherwise – so that wasn’t a concern, no. I suppose certain real events necessitate a passage of reflection before they can be written about/find themselves embedded in fiction. The themes in this book are perhaps more relevant than ever today, but again this wasn’t a conscious choice: I’m only interested in the story and its characters, whether there’s power enough to sustain a novel.
VL: Is it a sort ‘light bulb’ moment? Do you see something, or read something and it triggers a sudden thought – ‘That’s a good premise for a novel’ – or is it more of a slow dawning? Your brain just absorbs the world around you and an idea hatches?
TV: I have to connect with something on many levels to feel it worthy of spending two years in its presence. So a strong emotional tie, but perhaps a sense of fear also, a subject that scares me a little, that I suspect will get under my skin, one I’ll obsess about. But often it’s more fluid, ideas and themes sparking into others, the final thing several shifts from the intended one.
VL: Both That Dark Remembered Day and your previous novel What Lies Within are quite dark stories in which psychologically damaged people feature prominently – and yet you seem quite a jolly, cricket-and-beer-loving sort of man. I find myself wondering if it’s the flip side of the ‘tortured comic genius’ coin?
TV: Ha. I hope I can create a character that doesn’t depend entirely on my own psychological quiddity. But, of course, we have to draw on emotion and experience when our imaginative well runs dry. It’s a little like method acting, evoking one’s own brush with love and death, joy and tragedy, investing these into someone to bring them to life, to bring them off the page. Cricket is full of tortured souls, hence the beer.
VL: Really? I must know the wrong cricketers … But I take your point, although I remain startled by how many outwardly cheery people write about dark subjects. I’m interested in the actual writing process … how you place yourself in someone’s mind, especially when that mind is clouded and broken. Do you play the scenes out mentally, in your mind’s eye? Or does it come straight out of your brain onto the page?
TV: Much of the process is unknown, at least to authors themselves, scrutiny of it a little like chasing your tail, the observation, to borrow from Heisenberg (not the Breaking Bad one), somehow corrupting it. There’s a fear, at least for me, in dismantling the mechanics of thing. What if it can’t be put back together? The best fiction has a ghostly quality to it, so perhaps a little haunting is necessary. Best just to go with it. Beyond this, I suppose I combine a lot of research with what I feel resonates, with what I understand the authentic emotional response to be. I think Andrew Motion spoke of one’s primordial swamp rising up into the work regardless of our intentions.
VL: Do your characters ever take on lives and wills of their own and take you and your stories in directions you haven’t planned?
TV: Of course. As long as you’ve done your job of painting them richly enough, why shouldn’t they misbehave? Two years is a long time, the author themselves often a ‘different’ person at the end of the journey to the one who set out, and so inevitably one’s characters mutiny at times, breaking free from the shackles you bound them in at the start. My returning soldier, Richard, for example, discovered an obsession with birds of prey very late in the day. I had no idea.
VL: That’s interesting, its late arrival on the scene I mean, because it made perfect sense that a man who could no longer relate to people would find an outlet in the natural world, and in particular peregrine falcons. In general your written style in That Dark Remembered Day is quite pared down, possibly more so than it was in What Lies Within – but I did notice that in the passages concerning that obsession with peregrines – when he’s immersed in the natural world – it becomes more lyrical. Deliberate or unconscious?
TV: It’s hard to reflect on one’s own style, but I certainly wanted a heightened atmosphere in TDRD, a mood befitting the subject matter. The amplified lyricism is likely an influence of The Peregrine, J. A. Baker’s paean to the eponymous bird, which reads more like a poem than a piece of nature writing. And as Richard descends deeper into the madness of post-traumatic stress, the mechanics of his mind turn in on themselves, manifesting as lyrical self-reflection.
VL: Many authors I know started writing as children. Do you remember what the very first piece of creative writing you ever did was?
TV: This is where I slink into the corner at parties, other writers parading the titles of their magnum opus penned in primary school. I came late to books, and very late to writing. I was a journalist in my mid-twenties when I gave fiction ‘a go’, predictably writing a clumsy novel about a journalist in his mid-twenties. It was awful, but I think you need a novel or two to find your voice. Get them out of your system.
VL: So – did you have any favourite books as a child?
TV: See above. I have a vague memory of enjoying James and the Giant Peach, but otherwise books were a cultural fiefdom kept at great distance from me. I’ve been catching up ever since.
VL: It’s become something of a tradition on Vulpes to ask our guests to name their five favourite books – or the five books that have had the most influence on them over the years – with reasons.
TV: Waiting for the Barbarians – J M Coetzee: That perfect sort of book writers get depressed when reading, as everything you produce will be vastly inferior.
The Secret History – Donna Tartt: Epic, elegant and cerebral tale of morality among a group of classics students. Gets deep into the marrow, this one.
Goat Mountain – David Vann: Haunting, unsettling mastery from a brilliant stylist. A muscular, important book.
The Beautiful Indifference – Sarah Hall: Prize-winning short stories from one of the best writers around today.
We Need to Talk About Kevin – Lionel Shriver: A ballsy book, original and brave, the antithesis to formulaic guff.
If you would like a chance to win a free copy of That Dark Remembered Day, we have one to give away. To enter the free draw, simply comment below with the answer to this easy question: What, according to Tom, is cricket full of?
Answers by Thursday the 4th of December please. The winner’s name will be drawn at random on Friday the 5th.
Monday: Hilary discovers a literary crossroads in a tiny, lost Norfolk village.
Wednesday: Kate babbles about Ladybird books nostalgia at the Museum of English Rural life.
Friday: Kirsty returns to the Judaean Desert with The Very Short Introduction to the Dead Sea Scrolls.