It's a bit of a high risk strategy isn't it...
Local Author makes contact...
Go to hear Local Author talking at local library...
Local Author publishes great volume of short stories that you read but never quite get around to writing about...
Local Author wins national prize for short story collection...
Local Author lands book deal with top publisher...
First novel in the pipeline and Local Author asks if he can pick your nursing brain for some authentic details for second novel... yes of course, but I only do my best thinking over tea at the Bedford.
Score free pot of tea and offer nursing details as requested, and discuss first novel due out in April 2013, and agree without having read it (something I never do) to write a blog post and accept guest blog post from Local Author, as well as run a prize draw for copies of the book.
It could all have gone so horribly egg-on-the-face wrong, and I'll admit I was holding my breath a bit as I started to read What Lies Within by Tavistock-based author (and village cricketer) Tom Vowler, and was mightily relieved to find that I really enjoyed the book.
Good literary fiction set on Dartmoor is scarce as far as I can recall... You by Joanne Briscoe springs to mind ...um...er.. I am sure some of you may think of others, so when I started to read about Anna, a potter and her Dartmoor ranger husband living near to Dartmoor prison, and the ensuing events when a convict escapes, I was suitably engrossed.
There is a parallel story about a young schoolteacher, brutally assaulted and struggling to convince those around her of the validity of the attack, and slowly the narratives merge into a final denouement that raises almost as many questions as it answers.
I was captivated by several unique selling points for this book.
The way it subtly captures those nuances about the incomers to a rural area.
The cynicism in the older professional and (not) knowing when the time has come to pass on the baton on to the younger professional.
The portrayal of a troubled teenager, the angst and the outburst.
But above all I was struck by the novel's sense of place and the way that Tom Vowler had capitalised on it so thoroughly and accurately.
Princetown, the village that surrounds Dartmoor Prison, fell within my last health visiting patch before I 'retired' from the NHS. It had always been worked as a team so we could all take turns and keep morale up, but with staff levels depleted from eight down to two I was working it alone (and the rest). Indeed, it may have been walking along the wide but bleak main street of Princetown on a dark, cold, wet winter's afternoon that helped convince me that I had been doing this particular job for long enough and maybe it really was time to hand over my baby scales to an upcoming bright young thing. That, or the visit I had just done to a nearby farm, opening and shutting five gates on my way down the long track, only to find I was at the wrong place and so had to repeat the performance all the way back up to the main road. The rain on Dartmoor is of a unique and skin-soaking-hair-frizzing variety and I remember feeling a little gloomy and defeated by events that day.
But for all that the landscape too can be barren and unforgiving it isn't always so demoralising, or so demanding on the soul...and the hair...
Dartmoor, as you will know from previous posts on here, is a place of rare and stunning beauty with endless resources to sooth and to calm in equal measure if you take the time to look at it, and I always made time to do that on my travels.
My thanks to Tom Vowler for expanding on all this as only the author can, and for sharing his thoughts on this aspect of What Lies Within here today, and when you have read on you may want to scroll down for gifts...
When it comes to setting a novel somewhere, I'm unapologetic about the landscape I bestow my narratives with. While many regard the evocation of the natural world in contemporary fiction as old-fashioned, even irrelevant, for me it’s not really possible (or desirable) to resist this aspect from rising up to influence the work. Indeed, it can be a book’s starting point.
In this instance, though, I had my concept, the novel’s fulcrum all else would turn on; several characters were emerging. But still I was undecided about the book’s location. The uplands of Dartmoor have long been in my blood, its epic beauty the perfect place for literary contemplation, the link between walking and creativity mined whenever I can. But setting in fiction should never just be an act of convenience (I live on the edge of the moor) or aesthetic adornment. Nor should it merely seek the creation of mood, texture and tone (though I certainly used it to this effect).
Landscape must serve a purpose in a novel, for example representing someone’s inner state, acting as mirror or metaphor. So the moor's contrasting aspects (austere, bog-ridden terrain one minute, breath-taking, primeval splendour the next) matched well my mercurial protagonist, a woman in her early forties who seeks refuge on its remote slopes. In an attempt to start a new life she marries a ranger and begins a family, the moor’s seasons, its rhythms, playing out as she tries desperately to keep her past from intruding. Inspired (as I was) by the ceramics at Powder Mills, she becomes a potter, using only materials found in the land around her, her art a connection to this newfound sanctuary, which becomes both her home and place of work. Meanwhile her knowledge of the moor’s flora and fauna flourishes, as did my own in the two years spent researching and writing the book, for example the coalescing of climatic zones that allows rare species of butterfly and lichen to prosper in unique habitats. Or the prehistoric monuments that adorn the National Park.
I began to weave the two together, so that Dartmoor became part of my characters, their lives part of it. They were mutually dependent, their histories and futures inexorably bound, the characters products of the moor rather than just its inhabitants. In particular the moor's (perceived) malevolence, its ancient and gnarled oak woodlands with their twisted boughs, became an allegory for one character's turmoil, while the prison (which features heavily) served well as an allegory of tyranny and menace. I also spent time getting to know the people who lived on the moor, those who made their living there amid its culture and customs, much of my composition done by a fire in one of its beguiling pubs (which also features!). In an attempt to capture Dartmoor’s true essence I took hundreds of photographs and made endless notes, the writer’s job being to know their subject and setting at least as well as their characters do.
Landscape, too, can become a character in itself, its complexity and chronology granting it a stake, allowing the reader to invest in it as they might the people or the story itself. (Early feedback of the book has alluded to the character 'Dartmoor’, remarking on its personification, something that was important to me.)
And whereas topography is objective, for me landscape is something much more subjective, and so how a character regards a given place tells us about them without the need for the author to clumsily spell it out. (Someone’s dreary, sombre plains are another’s endlessly beautiful terrain.)
My novel, then, is not just a paean to Dartmoor, though I hope it is that. The moor is part of my characters, they part of it. The landscape is a character itself, alive and capricious. It is the book’s architecture, running through each chapter like a seam of granite, the story’s themes and narrative entwined with the tors, valleys and communities of this wonderful place.
Tom Vowler is an award-winning author and associate lecturer in Creative Writing at Plymouth University, where he is studying for a PhD on landscape and trauma in fiction. His short story collection, The Method, was published in 2010, and his debut novel, What Lies Within, is published on April 25th 2013.