The 'i' in fiction: guest post by Tom Vowler

Strictly Writing is delighted to welcome guest blogger, literary short fiction writer and novelist, Tom Vowler, to our pages. Thanks for joining us, Tom. Apologies but the link to add Tom's photo isn't working, which gives you all an excuse to visit his own blog (link below.)

How much of themselves do writers, intentionally or otherwise, put into their fiction? The perceived wisdom is that first novels/stories are often too autobiographical, but is it ever realistic to entirely separate the writer from their work? Yes, we invent characters, imbue them with a fictional world, with diverse traits, loves and fears – most of which resemble little our own. Their politics may be anathema to us; they may commit acts that terrify or appal us. The setting may be futuristic, or long ago, or just disparate to any we’ve known; a character’s gender different to ours. And yet, lingering deep in the prose, will be vestiges of our own lives, our own experiences and the interpretations we’ve made of them.

We don’t write in a vacuum. Humans are a complex, inconsistent bunch, and with any luck so are our characters. Universal truths, at least our versions of them, will shape the people in our fiction, whether they’re wizards or serial killers, and it’s these we draw on during composition.

And yet, looking at my own stories, I’ve never had a child abducted, attended a swingers’ party or used heroin for research – so how can I write with any authority on such matters? For me, the great emotions and themes in fiction (and in life) are metaphors for each other, and so the vicissitudes and phenomena in my own life allow me insight into these vicarious worlds. Exploration, therefore, of a character’s inner world forces me to examine my own.

The writing process, then, is often about a search for truth or understanding and a story can be cathartic for its creator, an exorcism of their own demons (and cheaper than counselling). Indeed, during research, I’ll sometimes discover something unpalatable about myself, giving me, I hope, even greater empathy with the voices I’m trying to inhabit.

Some of the research I did for my latest novel took me to dark and disturbing places. It, arguably, changed me; it certainly gave me knowledge I’d rather not have. A symbiosis occurs: I shape the prose, it shapes me. We are inextricably bound. And whilst stopping short of experiencing the anguish I put my main character through, it was crucial to attempt to understand the impact such trauma had on her. And so, as much as possible, the writer must occupy their characters’ psychological realms.

This said, it should still be the writer’s aim to leave as few of their grubby paw marks in the text as possible. Whilst it can be comforting to recognise someone’s style or voice, authorial intrusion usually ruins the illusion of fiction, so if you’re in there at all, make sure you’re well hidden. You may have created the story, but it’s not you I’m interested in. Indeed, if I’m reading for competitions, I like to come to stories with no knowledge of the writer, especially their gender. There’s nothing more rewarding than assuming the writer’s sex, only to be wrong.

And so we might think of our books, the worlds and people within them, as detached from our own lives, but the writer’s primordial swamp will always seep up into the words despite our best intentions.

Amazon link:

My blog link:


Tom’s debut short story collection, The Method and Other Stories, won the Scott Prize in 2010. His forthcoming novel, All That Blinds Us, is a dark psychological thriller set largely on Dartmoor.


Susie Nott-Bower said...

Great post, Tom - thanks! I love the image of the writerly primordial swamp leaving its grubby marks on the page...

Caroline Green said...

Thanks Tom. I agree wholeheartedly than writing can be about exorcising demons and is way cheaper than therapy!

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TOM VOWLER said...

Thanks, Susie. There's no escaping the swamp.

Hi Caroline. I reckon even an MA is better value than a year on the couch.

Susannah Rickards said...

Wonderful post, Tom. I'm very taken with your idea that emotions can be metaphors for each other. That's a new concept to me and extremely useful as a guide for unknown emotional territory in our writing. I'm going to have a Big Think about it.

Not sure I agree about wanting the author entirely hidden. I know what you mean to some degree but the distinct narrative voice is something most writers strive for. And readers too. Sometimes I feel only Graham Greene will do. And that's because of a craving for his particular, unadorned yet meticulous descriptive style.

TOM VOWLER said...

Thanks Susannah. I think voice and style come unconsciously for the writer, to the point where it's unmistakable, edifying, but I wonder sometimes if striving for it is a little like chasing the wind. I find it can go wrong when contrived. It's certainly an elusive, fickle creature.

Anonymous said...

Very though-provoking article, Tom.

Here's a thought: that there's an ideal and very slight gap between the writer and the characters - too big a gap and the story loses resonance, too small a gap and it becomes therapy.

The trick is keeping that gap just right. Greene was rather good at that.

TOM VOWLER said...

Yes, I rather like that.