Monday, 10 June 2013

Tom Vowler's terrific debut novel, 'What Lies Within'.

Is it a whodunnit, is it a psychological drama, is it a fabulously written insightful novel into family dynamics in the face of deeply hidden secrets? Well, I'm just glad I don't have to find any single box for this novel, because 'What Lies Within' is a bit of all of these, and more. I started to read my pre-publication copy before I went on holiday in early May, and got so into it, if that plane had been a train, I'd have missed my stop. 
      It is no surprise to find that 'What Lies Within' is stuffed full of great writing. Tom Vowler is no raw newbie - his collection of short fiction, 'The Method', won the Salt Publishing Scott Prize in 2010 and the Edge Hill Readers' Award the following year. He can tell a mean story, and this novel is based on one from that collection. 

      The novel is written from a female perspective. Now - that may not be unusual, but the perspective here is so authentic that I never lost contact with the character. The bloke wielding the pen never stood between me and his creation waving a red flag. And that is unusual. Usually, there are points at which the mask slips... but here, despite some fairly tough sexual scenes which might trap a lesser writer into flawed characterisation, my belief never wavered. 
I can wholeheartedly recommend this novel. If you enjoy the twists and turns of a clever and never predictable plot, terrific characters playing out their very real dramas against the most evocative setting - Dartmoor in all its looming glory - then this is for you. 

I asked Tom to write something about working with female characters in such depth - and he contributed the following. It's rather interesting, especially if you are of the school that says you have to write literally what you know! 

Over to Tom.
Tom Vowler

At a recent event an audience member asked me about writing from a female perspective (What Lies Within being narrated largely this way). At the time of planning the book, I’d thought it no different to trying to capture any other voice – a child’s, an old man’s, someone from a different culture or era. But, looking back, I think it presented some interesting and unique challenges. 
The first impression someone gets of a book, before any true sense of plot or setting, is the character's or narrator's voice, so it needs to be both compelling and convincing if it’s to accompany the reader for 300 pages. It must set them at ease, be both resonant and consistent, so that, within a chapter or two, a connection has been made, a trust established.
I'd heard of writers who ‘do the opposite sex well’, as if it was some arcane, innate talent, or perhaps even a module on a creative writing course, and I wondered whether I was one of them. The genesis of my fiction tends to come from an event, or at least a concept that fascinates, appals or terrifies me. This could be something seen on the news, or an experience closer to home, which immediately becomes the fulcrum the story turns on. 
There are certain scenes and themes in the novel that, owing to my gender, I literally could not experience, and so much time was spent in conversation with female friends, as well as conducting interviews with a brave woman in the US, trying to tease out the detail I sought – much like researching anything else I suppose. But it soon became clear it was the smaller things, the intricacies and nuances of my female character, that would give me her voice: her use of language, both internal and external; how she regards herself and others; her mannerisms; how she reacts to all the terrible and wonderful things that happen to her. It was an enormous challenge to put myself in her shoes, to inhabit her world, to try to understand the torment she feels. As was describing the sexual scenes from a female point of view. 
Looking back, although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, it feels like a huge gamble (but then writing a novel usually is), the potential for getting it wrong considerable. Yet by the time I was at the point of no return, she was fully formed, living and breathing in my mind, her voice as real as any other I'd written. She accompanied me (or I her?) on vast walks across the uplands of Dartmoor, exploring the beautiful and brooding landscape, where I realised what an important remedy the moor would be for her. 
It’s early days but initial reviews of the novel have expressed incredulity that it was written by a man, which I suppose shows I've done my job. 

Tom Vowler’s debut short story collection, The Method, won the international Scott Prize in 2010 and the Edge Hill Readers’ Award in 2011. Now an associate lecturer at Plymouth University, his debut novel What Lies Within was published in April 2013. Tom is also Assistant Editor for the literary journal Short FICTION. In 2008 he graduated with an MA in Creative Writing and is now studying for a PhD, looking at landscape and trauma in fiction. More at


  1. Great stuff, very interesting. Other people always obsess over these things (men writing as women etc.). I think writers obsess less and just get on with it.

  2. Indeed! Interesting isn't it. Congrats to Tom, anyway. I really enjoyed this one!

  3. Great to hear your thoughts on this book, Vanessa. I'm looking forward to reading it in my summer break.

    Such an interesting post and great to hear Tom say that he knew who had to tell the story when he was planning it and didn't so much see it as a problem, rather than something that he had to work on. And it was through that work - his research, interviews and getting to know his own character in the course of writing the book - that she came to life or he brought her to life until "by the time I was at the point of no return, she was fully formed, living and breathing in my mind, her voice as real as any other I'd written."

    So maybe while others (non-writers?) may obsess about a man writing a woman well or vice versa, the writer obsesses about the character sounding real and authentic? I know which I'd rather be obsessed about!

  4. Hi Kath -thanks for dropping by - such a useful insightful piece, don't you think? Enjoy the read!

  5. I thought it a cracking good read - actually broke from my own writing to start it as soon as it arrived and couldn't get on with anything till I'd sat and read the whole thing. I thought the landscape a beautiful parallel for all that Anna had gone through, too. A wonderfully crafted novel (and I'm usually so difficult to please)! Can't wait for the next one.

    Thanks for this, Tom and Vanessa.

  6. Great to hear! Im looking forward to the next Vowler masterpiece too.

  7. Great. I'm looking forward to this. I've been a fan of his for a while.