One of the great things about running my own blog – as I have sometimes gently pointed out to those who tell me off for not featuring the ‘right’ books – is that this is the one place I’m not answerable to anyone. The right books for me are those I genuinely rate and believe in, and too often they have a hard time making it out there at all. Now and again I have a chance to help do something about that so today, for the third time, I am hosting an author seeking to crowdfund his latest project via Unbound. As with Alice Jolly and Danny Scheinmann previously, I don’t know Tom Vowler personally but I knew of him from the excellent Short Fiction Journal which he edits. (More on Tom below.) I invited him here to talk about his story collection Dazzling the Gods after pledging to support it online.
This inevitably led to me getting a sneak preview of the collection (lucky me – apparently I’m the only person outside Unbound to have seen it!) and whilst I never like to say too much about short fiction for fear of plundering its treasures, this much I can tell you.
Dazzling the Gods is a brilliant example of the form’s potential to unleash power with brevity. The stories here are of consistently impressive quality but display a startling range of tone, theme and setting. Some are playful and funny, many are compassionate and poignant – Vowler conveys relationships especially well – with some beautiful turns of phrase. One made me too sad to cry. One woke me up in the night. Several are likely to stay with me where most novels don’t. I think you get the picture – this book deserves to be published! Over to Tom:
After penning my second novel, I was out of contract, and so began an at times pitiful period of pitching (try saying that after a glass or two), one that almost trumped Alan Partridge’s desperate soliciting of a second series. I drafted around five synopses I thought my publisher would go for – pacey psychological thrillers, promising to turn out one a year. Nothing quite hit the spot for them (and nor me, if I’m honest), and so to stave off the fallowness that loomed, I returned to the literary form I’d started with: the short story. Not because they’re easy or quick to write: they really aren’t.
I write slowly as a rule, and can easily spend a morning on a page. More so when composing stories, as I seek to trouble sentences into existence, whilst ensuring they don’t draw attention to themselves – efficiency and precision the aim rather than pretention through literary masturbation. And like an absent but not forgotten lover, stories reawakened some dormant passion within me as I played with form and structure, all the glorious delights of storytelling remembered. And the more stories I wrote, the more I wanted to write: that third novel was going to have to wait.
Stories, good ones at any rate, are rarely fashioned with ease, their alchemy complex and, in my case, a multi-layered procedure. They require a poet’s precision; they must have a subtext, a second story, veiled within the first. Their language must function, not only on a literal, expository level, but an affective, abstract one too, their impact more than the sum of their parts. Significant space is left for the reader to occupy, lacunae that must still be implied. None of which is simply achieved.
The best stories are deeply immersive, yet hold something back, reluctant as they are to yield all their meaning, at least on early readings. They must evoke more than explain, be felt more than understood. They must get under our skin a little. The modern short story is patterned by internal emotion, mood and atmosphere rather than by external action. Instead of providing easy entertainment, stories provoke, delight, instruct or enchant. They fit large truths into small spaces.
The best short stories can stay with us as long, if not longer, than even our most cherished novels, their ripple enduring thanks, perhaps, to their more visceral impact, the additional demands they make of the reader. They can unsettle and change us. Anne Enright likens the stories of John McGahern to the literary equivalent of a hand grenade rolled across the kitchen floor. The TLS described William Trevor’s epiphanies as capable of slicing the top of your head off.
But of course story collections, we’re told, don’t sell; they are written, primarily, for those who write them. They are tricksy, full of artifice and ambiguity; they shun satisfying narrative arcs, are more art than entertainment. They can be difficult, impenetrable at times, delivering more questions than answers. Publishers, because of the story’s diminutive commercial impact, tend to avoid them. Which is a shame because they can also be things of great beauty and elegance and profundity. They tell us so much about ourselves; they reflect in complex and wondrous ways on what it means to be alive, to be human. They can exult and dazzle. To borrow from Stephen King, they are a kiss in the dark from a stranger, or from Kafka, an axe to break up the frozen sea within us.
To whet your appetite, here’s a little about the book.
A brother returns from exile to stir up the past. A macabre performance in the bowels of a Parisian museum must be seen to be believed. Lovers torn apart by heroin confront their loss in wildly divergent ways. A severely disabled husband struggles with the permission he has bestowed. A credulous lover finally faces the crimes of her partner. A father hopes his son never tires of their pilgrimage. And a widower observes his daughter blossoming amid the carnage of war.
You can support Dazzling the Gods on Unbound and follow its journey into existence here.
Tom Vowler is an award-winning novelist and short story writer living in south west England. His debut story collection, The Method, won the Scott Prize in 2010 and the Edge Hill Readers’ Prize in 2011, while his novel What Lies Within received critical acclaim. He is editor of the literary journal Short Fiction and an associate lecturer in creative writing at Plymouth University, where he’s just completed his PhD. His second novel, That Dark Remembered Day, was published in 2014.
Next week I will be hosting another author who has fulfilled his (speculative) literary ambitions by alternative means – Lochlan Bloom, author of The Wave, crowdfunded via the Dead Ink project.