Interview with Tom Vowler, editor of Short Fiction

SF7 coverShortStops is delighted to welcome short story writer Catherine McNamara to the blog. Catherine’s short story Montgomery Akuofo, Father of Twins appears in the latest issue of the annual short story journal Short Fiction and below she interviews its new co-editor Tom Vowler, a short story writer and novelist himself. We’re thrilled that Tom has agreed to send a copy of Short Fiction Issue 7 to one lucky  ShortStops reader anywhere in the world, just leave a comment on the blog before January 20th and Catherine will pick a name out of a hat! You can read an excerpt from one of the stories  – the winner of last year’s Short Fiction short story prize – at the end of the interview.

Catherine: Congratulations on another beautiful edition of Short Fiction. You’re up to Issue 7 and have developed an original formula of bespoke artwork and a unique selection of established and emerging writers. Tell us about the origins of the magazine and how you think you’ve achieved such prominence and longevity when so many print magazines have trouble surviving.

Tom: Short Fiction was established by Anthony Caleshu, of Plymouth University’s English and Creative Writing Department. He wanted to produce a journal that showcased great short fiction (as well as short stories we feature self-contained novel extracts) next to beautiful and bespoke artwork. I came on board after finishing my MA in Creative Writing at Plymouth (where I’m now in the middle of my PhD). With Issue 3, in 2007, I became Assistant Editor, and starting with the next issue I’m Co-Editor with Anthony. Arts Council England supported us for a few years (and hopefully will again) but we’re really able to keep doing what we do thanks to the support of the English and Creative Writing Department at Plymouth. The journal’s visual aesthetics are absolutely important to us, this marriage of text and image was something that felt absent in the UK, and as more and more excellent web-zines appear, we want to produce a magazine that readers want to hold and see and feel, as much as they savour the words. I think our success comes from a blend of featuring emerging talent among literary heavyweights, and taking care to produce a book which really pays attention to layout and design.

C: Your short story competition runs once a year and is one of the major prizes indicated in the short story blogosphere. There seem to be more and more competitions with an entry fee than ever before, do you think this has any influence upon the stories that are being written in general? Do you notice a difference between stories submitted for the competition, and stories that are regular submissions? And if so, what?

T: It’s a delicate balance to achieve. You want to reward great stories, and of course you have to attract them in the first place – as you say, writers have a lot of competitions to choose from. It’s fantastic to think that new authors can launch a career on the back of winning such prizes, which of course have to be funded by an entry fee.

I don’t distinguish between competition and general entries: you look for the same qualities, to be dazzled, affected, shocked or captivated. You look to forget you’re reading. I don’t think the nature of stories differs greatly in the different categories. There are times I read a general submission and think the author should have entered it into the competition. All competition entries are considered for publication and as well as the winning story we’ve regularly featured the runner-up.

C:Tell us about this year’s prize-winning story.

T: Rachel’s story holds that wonderful blend of a confident and compelling voice with a powerfully affecting story, and as with the best works, its whole is greater than the sum of its parts. There’s an authority there from the opening lines, an assurance we’re in safe and expert hands. Several of our shortlist were serious contenders, but the winning story dazzled us with its linguistic brilliance.

C: With the next issue of Short Fiction you will be sharing the chief editorial position with colleague/poet Anthony Caleshu, are you looking forward to the task? Does reading so many submissions over your reading period have any effect upon your own writing?

T:It will be an exciting (and somewhat daunting) challenge to continue the journal’s excellence, the heft of those former issues perhaps weighing a little heavily. Moving on from being the assistant editor, I’ll actually read fewer stories on their initial submission, focusing more on the production side, discussing shortlists, choosing the final content.

C: As an editor who wants to keep your review alive and kicking, do you allow your own personal taste to impinge upon your preferences, or do you select to please an audience? Clever stories with bells or quieter ones without? Open or closed endings?

T:Good question. You want, of course, to ‘please an audience’, but you need a reference point, which has to begin with your own aesthetic tastes, so, yes, future journals are bound to reflect this subjectivity somewhat, those final few stories that make it through a beacon for my own tastes. But then the truly great stories tend to attract a consensus of approval. I’d never be prescriptive on style or structure, form or genre. I like pieces that take risks, but ultimately it comes down to voice for me.

C: The artwork selected for this issue of Short Fiction is brilliant. You have the very current Bob and Roberta Smith, as well as a series of headless dogs on leads and a unique graphics inspired by each story. How do you commission your artwork and how important is the artwork to the SF concept?

T: The art, unlike the stories, is all commissioned. Bob and Roberta Smith’s work is the epitome of text-based art. The art is in the construction of the ‘sign painting’, but it’s also in the message. We like the fact that the art is political and provoking as well as being visually stunning.  The illustrations that front each story are all done in house. Once we’re selected our content, we send stories to our illustration colleagues at Plymouth University. Staff and some of the best illustration students at Plymouth always manage to surprise us with their interpretations. You can view the new issue’s illustrations on our website, which really complement and enrich the stories.

C: Could you give us your submission period and your short story competition details?

T: We accept general submissions between September 1st and December 31st each year, and our competition is open from January 1st to March 31st. Our first prize is £500 and for £10 you can submit up to 2 stories, which entitles you to a free copy of our next issue (worth £10).

C: Best of luck with Issue 8! Here is the opening to prize winner Rachel Fenton’s wonderful story, While Women Rage in Winter:

I don’t want to occupy a place of importance. Knowing other people like to harbour their children’s swim gear safe from spray under the reef-like shelter of this plastic table, I leave one chair between me and it. In essence the seat’s already taken; there’s a small piece of putty or modelling clay, grey-white as a mushroom, moulded to the shape of the inside of a child’s hand, the curved drills of the fingers identifiable by their prints. I sit. The empty pairing now to my left hints at my isolation; I place the four books I’ve borrowed from the library here with my satchel farthest away. A small part of me thinks this shows confidence, an outward symbol of occupancy, and I can move them if I have to.   

Thanks so much, Catherine! To be in with a chance of winning a copy of Short Fiction Issue 7, leave us a comment below by January 20th. If you don’t win, do consider ordering your copy at This year’s issue features Jenn Ashworth, Frances Gapper, Bob and Roberta Smith, Michelle Green, Liam Harkin, Richard House, Catherine McNamara, Annemarie Neary, Scott Pack, Lee Upton, Jill Widner and Rachel Fenton.