Jan/Feb 2010  •   Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with Tom Saunders

Interview by Lydia Theys

A man and woman I have never seen before are standing below in the courtyard. The man is tall and dark. The woman is a head shorter and she has long, brown hair. The man points around him as if discussing the merits of the mill. The woman nods. The man puts his arm around the woman and they turn and look up at the windows. I step back a little.

I like the way they look at each other, the way they stand so close. There is a strange feeling in the back of my throat. I carry on looking down until they leave.

Tom Saunders grew up in London and now lives in rural Oxfordshire. He began writing in his mid-thirties and later went on to complete an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. Tom's short stories have appeared in many magazines, both print and electronic, and in the anthology, Voices from the Web. An award winner in the Ian St James international short story competition, Tom has two published short story collections, Brother, What Strange Place Is This? and Roof Whirl Away. Inappropriate Happiness, written in 1993 and published in 2009, is his first novel.


LT     Tell us about yourself and how you became a writer. This wasn't a path you embarked upon as a youngster. Do you think that affected your writing?

TS     It took me many years to begin writing. I wish I'd started sooner. I was just an ordinary kid brought up on a council estate, an 11-plus reject sent to a Secondary Modern school rather than a Grammar. No-one was expecting anything of us and we were educated accordingly. Writing wasn't something you'd remotely consider as a career. It was so out of the question it didn't even occur to me, to be honest, although I've always been a big reader. After I left school I went into engineering. I wrote a letter now and then, nothing more. I didn't write my first story until I was thirty-eight years old. My wife, bless her, had talked me into taking a degree in English as a mature student and there was a large notice board in our student common-room and someone decided to start a wall magazine. They asked for stories and I had an idea so I sat down and wrote it out. This went down well so I wrote several more. Later, when I was offered a post-graduate grant to do an MA, I managed to get on the prestigious Creative Writing course at UEA and that set me down the road I've been on ever since.

I think my background has given me a very practical view of writing. For me, it's a trade, one you have to perfect through practice. The artistic side takes care of itself if you're meant to be a writer. I haven't a great deal of patience with those who attempt to use writing as therapy or as some sort of confessional. Fine for them, but not me. Writing can be therapeutic, but it won't sort out your troubles for you. I think the imagination has become undervalued in modern fiction. There are great writers who use their own lives to wonderful effect, but they're a rarity. Making stuff up is what I do.

LT     Making things up. That's the heart of it all, isn't it? Are you always creating stories or bits of stories in your head? What was the impetus or the inspiration for this story and this setting?

TS     I'm not thinking of stories all the time. There's a kind of mode I go into when I'm looking for something to write. It's very akin to daydreaming, and I usually need to go for a long walk on my own to get the ideas flowing. Where the ideas come from I'm not sure. Sometimes bits of information I've read or seen or been told recently will hit off each other at an interesting tangent and a story will suddenly occur. It's a difficult process to describe and one I try not to analyze too deeply.

Inappropriate Happiness was written so long ago now it's hard for me to remember how I came up with the idea for the book. The relationship between parent and child is a very productive one, I think. If you wanted to be grand you could see it as an analogue of one of the dynamics of history, the younger generation in debt to what's gone before yet feeling oppressed by it, trapped by it, never quite able to escape its influence and legacy. The setting I took from an old water mill in Bibury, Gloucestershire. It's now a museum and there's a nice resonance to the place, the old and the new side-by-side. Visiting it fruited something in my imagination. The image of the cogs and wheels that transmit the power of the wheel stayed in my mind long after.

LT     I can see how those cogs and wheels were very attractive as a setting—an echo of the way things move along through the generations. I had an image of that mill as a great raw space, mysterious, full of possibilities, with Edward free to live there as he likes. But he chooses a space on the third floor that seems like a tower. As he views Belle and Kitto for the first time, he is distanced from them, he can't hear them. That was a powerful image, much like the television with the sound turned off that he later seems to favor at times.

TS     Yes, I think Edward has been driven back by the sheer strength of his father's character into a passivity that's become both a cage and a refuge for him. The size of the gear-room in comparison to the long, echoing floorspaces elsewhere in the mill is a comfort to him. As you say, it's high above the ground like a tower, a place to look down from and defend. It's also somewhere enclosed and safe and warm, the mother principal if you like. All through the book, Edward talks about his emotional needs in terms of the desire for warmth. But the father and the father's world also take up much of the space in the gear-room, the cogs and wheels of the mill machinery a reminder of a narrow, unremitting purpose, of a fixed moral code and fixed opinions, of practicality over emotion. The grease on the cogs still carries the father's fingerprints. Edward can't escape his father. Edward does and doesn't want to be free.

LT     You can feel the ghost of Edward's father throughout the book. His death offers Edward a kind of rebirth, which as you say, isn't entirely wanted. And there seems to be a theme in IH that rebirth or reawakening comes with pain. Edward begins by speaking about the arduous task of moving in. "Suffering gives you solidity, the right to exist," he says. Later, there is a small but interesting moment when he uses aftershave for the first time and feels that the shocking sting leaves him "reborn." And without giving anything away, there is his reaction at the end to the entire Belle-Kitto episode. Do you think, for Edward and maybe for all of us, that pain causes rebirth, or is Edward in a rebirth process accompanied by some painful steps?

TS     Well, for the first time in his life, Edward is having to make decisions and live for himself. This is both exciting and frightening for him. Although Edward's father's strict Victorian work ethic has governed their household, Edward has never quite been able to understand it or own it or live up to it. He isn't good at physical work and he doesn't enjoy it, yet he judges himself as wanting in the light of the standards set by the old man. In many ways he's still a child. He hasn't been able to grow up in his father's tight little universe. Everything has been done for him. He isn't so much being reborn as being born as an adult for the first time. And, yes, there are some painful steps along the way, but there's liberation also. Belle gives him a sense of himself as worthy of respect and love, with her he's able to give as well as receive.

LT     I love the names in this book. Edward is such a solid, serious name. In contrast, Belle and Kitto could almost be toys or characters in a fairy tale. (Although from that moment Edward sees them through those windows, there is something ominous in the air.) Do you feel there was a playful side to this story at all?

TS     The fact that Edward won't allow his name to be shortened speaks to his pomposity. Pomposity is part of his protective shell, I think, one of the ways he keeps people at a distance. Belle undermines it whenever she can, and Edward becomes a little more human as a result. I don't know why I chose the name Belle, perhaps unconsciously I was thinking of Beauty and the Beast, La Belle et la Bête. Edward tends to describe Kitto in animal terms. Rather unromantically, I got the name Kitto from Norman Kitto the company treasurer of the engineering firm where I was an apprentice as a youngster.

I think there's a degree of humour in everything I write. I'm not a fan of po-faced writing. The descriptions of the characters and happenings in the village do, I hope, have a playful slant to them in IH. The old boy Sharpie is treated with humour and affection. Edward's views on the TV programmes he obsessively watches are sometimes funny to a degree, both consciously and inadvertently.

LT     Sharpy was so well done. And the opinionated village people were great! But I'm glad you brought up TV. Edward's running commentary on TV programs was a sort of counterpoint to the villagers' running commentary on him. Does TV give Edward a turn to be the one evaluating others? Or maybe a window on the world that he has largely missed?

TS     I wanted to include TV. It's an important part of modern life and yet it hardly ever appears in fiction, theatre or cinema. Edward's take on it is kind of different. For him, it's the closest he can get to the modern world his father despised and banned from the house. TV allows Edward to remain at a remove from this world, he can still feel safe, still feel in control. He is a lonely man and, unlike Kitto, he doesn't have the social skills necessary for making friends. TV becomes his refuge, a place where he can observe the world around him and, as you say, evaluate others. He also uses it as a kind of I Ching, a way of deciding how he should interpret his life and how he should act. Sensitised by lack of exposure, he takes the largely superficial and transitory and makes a ragbag think tank and philosophy out of it. I thought it would be interesting to look at the action of the novel and modern life in general through the distorting glass of TV and come at a few received ideas from a different angle.

LT     I'm so glad you said that! Because I wanted to ask you this: Edward, who lives in 1993, makes two interesting observations about television. At the hospital, he observes that on TV, stories come neatly packaged with a tidy ending—"the Life and Almost Death Struggle," he calls it. He wonders who would choose reality over that. Later, musing about a world filled with people, many living in close proximity with no connection to one another, he says, "Perhaps it is only in front of the television set that we become one." Little did he know that soon, people would take it a step further and substitute reality television for reality. What do you think Edward would have made of reality TV, which didn't exist in 1993?

TS     TV certainly has changed a lot in the interim. Edward tends to treat TV simply as material to be analysed. He hasn't grown up with it and thus he remains detached, a step removed. His innocence tends to short-circuit any criticisms he might have. He just observes and extrapolates from what he sees, a Martian just landed on Earth and writing a report on the local customs. He'd probably see reality TV as TV finally leaking out from the box in the corner and taking over the world. TV and reality becoming one, symbiotic. The end result, perhaps, a time when everyone can choose to perform on and tune in to their own personal TV channel, featuring only them—the ultimate embrace of our media culture. Then again, he might just enjoy it. See it as a democratisation. Buy himself a video camera.

LT     I think we all worry about TV leaking out from the box. That would be an interesting discussion of its own. But let me change the subject. You divided the book into sections—green, yellow and red, like a traffic light. It made me think of Edward's father's Daimler. Did this division come about as you were writing? Or was that something you perceived as a division after you had finished?

TS     I knew from the start I'd have to split the book into sections to jump the action forward at intervals over the course of a year. I didn't want to end up writing a novel as thick as a doorstop. At first, rather boringly, the three parts were going to be called Spring, Summer and Autumn. Then the idea of the colours occurred to me, art being one of the themes of the novel. The three colours have obvious associations with the seasons, but they also have a wider range of associations: Green—beginnings, innocence, growth; Yellow—sunshine, ripeness, cowardice; Red—endings, decay, blood, anger etc. I never thought about the traffic light connection. Couldn't see it for looking. Almost works, too. Silly me.

LT     Ha ha! So I guess I made that part up about the car. Oh, art, yes. It is so central to this novel. And difficult to discuss without telling important parts of the story. How do you think your use of visual art in IH is related to your considerable talent as a photographer? And incidentally, you took the cover photo, didn't you?

TS     Yes, I took the cover photo— too cheap to get someone else to do it.

I'm interested in art and artists. I've written several stories on the subject. The art world doesn't always sit comfortably within the day-to-world of work, children, mortgages etc. It doesn't actually manufacture anything of practical use and the freewheeling artistic lifestyle often challenges the rules of society and the prevailing moral code. The man in the street respects success in the field without always understanding or approving of the artists themselves. There's a dramatic (in the technical sense) clash of perspectives and social objectives in this that I find productive when it comes to fiction.

LT     Well, I'll say again it—cheap or not!—you are a talented photographer. I can't help thinking your ability to look at the world, select a tiny portion and allow that portion to tell its story is related to your abilities as a teller of stories with words. And speaking of stories, you have two wonderful story collections. Are there any characters in your stories who were alternate forms of people in IH? Do you ever find characters that intrigue you enough to make you want work with variations of that character several times, or does each character start fresh in your mind?

TS     The short story can suggest both the essence and the complexity of an event or emotion or situation in the same way a poem can. Moments are more important than narratives to both mediums. I agree that sometimes a photograph can, in freezing an instant, seem to refine something larger, too. So maybe you're right and seeing what will make a good photo has some sort of parallel in knowing what will make an interesting and affecting story. Whatever happens, I'd rather not become self-conscious about it. I think you have to learn to trust your instincts and go with them. It's not something you can intellectualise. I do think, at least initially, there's an element of trial and error about it. You learn what works by producing a lot of stuff that clearly doesn't.

Each one of my stories is a separate little world to me. In my mind, all the characters I've ever created are individuals with distinct personalities. They are like the people I've got to know in life. If I've created similar characters over the years I've done so without being aware of it. I suspect this is something the people who read my work will have a better handle on than I do. I try to make my short stories very different one from the other. When I start a short story I want to go to a new place, as much for my own interest as anything else. I'm sure I must have certain preoccupations, types of topics and problems and situations I return to often, but I'm not conscious of them and I hope to remain so.

LT     I've read all your published stories at least twice and you certainly do create worlds that are amazingly different from one another, and from my world. But your stories always give me that "oh yes" moment when I feel an affinity with one of the characters—a recognition of myself in them. They're not to be missed! Speaking of not missing, whose work do you never miss? Who do you love to read and why?

TS     Thanks so much, Lydia. I'm very glad to hear that. Truly.

I never used to miss the latest Kurt Vonnegut. If you want a writer to clear your head, one who addresses human frailty and pretense with insight, humour and compassion he's your man. I think I've read a solid stack of Graham Greene's and Ann Tyler's books (Tyler is an exemplary novelist with a deceptively unshowy style), but other than that, with the novel, I have favourite books rather than favourite authors. I've reread Troubles by J.G. Farrell many times. His Siege of Krishnapur is also excellent. The Magus by John Fowles is another favourite. It's a flawed book, as Fowles himself admitted, but it's one of those novels that draws you into its own strange world and leaves you with a lot to ponder. For fun and serious heart warmth, I'd pick Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday by John Steinbeck. Accidental Tourist by the aforementioned Ann Tyler is excellent, too. It's the usual suspects, I'm afraid, when it comes to my favourite short story writers: Chekhov, Joyce (with Dubliners, which contains "The Dead," possibly the greatest of all short stories), Carver, Cheever. Of those currently writing I'd pick Lorrie Moore and A.L. Kennedy. The Knife Thrower by Steven Millhauser is a wonderful collection.

LT     I've always wanted to meet Vonnegut. His writing is brilliant and I imagine he'd be very entertaining as a dinner partner. I see the virtual bar keep is pointing to the clock, so I think it is time for us to wrap up. Let's not end on the traditional what's next. You're a writer; I assume you're writing something. Let's end on a picture of how you write. Where would we find you? What are you using? Are you calm, Munching on junk food? Listening to music?

TS     You'd find me up in my office, a small room which overlooks our back garden and the fields beyond. It would be during the day—I've never been able to write in the evening. Writing is work and work ends at five o'clock. I'd be using my computer—apart from making notes sitting outside in the sun in the summer, I never write longhand. I'm a very fussy writer and I like to fiddle about with the text, writing and rewriting before moving on even though I know I'll probably change everything again when the story is finished. I'm a lot calmer now than I used to be when I first started writing. I have technique and a degree of confidence. Writing was a constant battle of will over self-doubt at the beginning and I'd get very tense as a result. I'd just push on and on doggedly, seeing no merit in what I was doing but absolutely determined to get to the end of it. I'd be exhausted in the evening and kind of numb, but the next day I'd be back slogging away again. I enjoy writing much more now, but wouldn't exactly call it a pleasure. I like having written, however. And I like editing. No, I don't eat when I'm writing. I don't feel the slightest bit hungry for some reason. Which makes a change from the rest of the time! I tried listening to music when working, but it proved pointless. I only heard the first few minutes before becoming so immersed in the world I was writing about I was deaf to everything else.

LT     Thanks so much for your time, Tom. It's been a real pleasure.


Inappropriate Happiness
Reuben Books
2009, 978-0-9562828-1-1

Roof Whirl Away
Reuben Books 200

Brother, What Strange Place is This?
Reuben Books 2009

Pleasure Vessels, Winners of the Ian St James Awards
Angela Royal Publishing 1997

Voices from the Web 2
UKA Press 2004,

Rebellion: New Voices of Fiction
Rebel Press 2006
13: 9780978673802

Pleasure Vessels, Winners of the Ian St James Awards
Angela Royal Publishing 1997


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