Vanessa Gebbie and The Coward’s Tale


The Coward’s Tale is published today in paperback format. Vanessa Gebbie is embarking on a blog tour to discuss all kinds of things about it. I knew others would focus on various craft aspects, publication, place, story and so on, and ask many intelligent, thoughtful questions. But would they ask about sandwiches? Aha! I will fearlessly go where others have not… 






Hi Vanessa, thanks for dropping by. I thoroughly enjoyed  The Coward’s Tale, the vibe is different to most novels I read. It’s poetic, thoughtful, melodic, it felt like I was reading a “classic” novel. There’s a sense you’ve built something to last. Was it always your intention it would feel like an older novel or did it grow to be that way? 
That’s the best bit of feedback a writer could get. Coming from a Waterstones bookseller, even better. YAY! That’s almost enough to make me get out of bed. (No nothing exciting, sorry. Flu…) I didn’t expressly guide it to feel like a classic –  or older novel (if they are the same…) but I guess I wrote the sort of thing I could stand to inhabit for five/six years. Maybe that added up to classic/older? 

The language, of course, puts me in mind of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood. You mention a character borrowing his book from the library, and I presume The Cat pub is a nod to Captain Cat? Any other references?
Good. I am glad. The language in ‘Under Milk Wood’ is wonderful. So is the language in a book by another iconic Welsh poet, David Jones – ‘In Parenthesis’. Of the two books, the latter is vastly, but vastly superior. It is a poem, a play for voices, a novella…it certainly influenced Thomas, and they both influenced me, but in different ways.  
I believe DT even took a part when ‘In Parenthesis’ was recorded for the radio – but then someone can tell me I’ve got my facts wrong, and I won’t be upset. Timescales certainly mean Thomas knew ‘In Parenthesis’ well.  Jones fought in WWI, and it tells the story of one battallion up to and including The Somme. It is raw, dark, beautiful, true, ironic, can be funny in places untiul the main events loom –  But when Thomas went to write his own poetic play for voices, he wanted (again, I believe…) to react against the horrors of war, in his case, WWII. Under Milk Wood was deliberately light, pretty, quirky, but some might say it is a bit unkind…  and it portrays a vision of Wales that never existed. He did well out of it, though – so much so that give anyone a bit of Wales, and a bit of lyricism, it has to be thanks to UMW.
I wanted to write this novel, set loosely in Merthyr Tydfil, a town in the s Wales valleys, because I loved going there as a child, and my parents’ love for the place never diminished. I wanted to go further than portraying a Wales that never existed. 
The Wales I was brought up with is the Wales  that did exist, in which one great grandfather went to work down a coal mine aged eleven. His job was to hold the ventilation doors open or shut, often knee-deep in water.  Family history says that when his candle went out (as it did, soon enough every day, in the draft) he was in the pitch black, except when a collier stopped for a word. 
Its a Wales where the town that gave my parents life  became the subject of a House of Commons Debate – because of its appalling health record (cholera, typhoid, malnutrition,) they at one point considered raising it to the ground and shifting the population to the coast. The town that had at one point been slap bang at the centre of the coal and iron industry. 
The Wales I was brought up with is the Wales where the Depression hit like a great fist in an empty stomach, where my adoptive mother and father  were unable to stay if they wanted good jobs.  And where we went back to, as often as we could, to be with the grandparents, uncles, aunts cousins – because it was ‘going home’. 
Contemporary writing centred on towns like Merthyr so often portrays the issues stemming from some of the highest levels of unemployment in the UK.  Drugs, crime, grit. I didn’t want to, and couldn’t, add to that canon. 
Anyway, I’m drifting. Did you pick up an emotional thread there? Ha!
From DT I learned to create a community out of actions and voices. From David Jones I learned how to be true to something – to create not just a troubled community, but the darkest of days in its past, not flinch from looking it in the eye, while trying to make the darkest of days still darkly beautiful.
And from my mother, a librarian, and my father, who was decorated in WWII, I learned the rhythms of speech of the valleys. That never left them – my dear Dad was still recogniseably a boy from the valleys at 95. All I had to do was recall the language of my grandmothers, her neighbours, and the direct speech was there. The banter.
“Lily? Where’s my hat?”
“Last time it saw it, was on your head, Ethel…”
“I must have put it somewhere..”
“What – your head? Duw, there’s athletic. Arthur! Can you find Ethel’s head?”
On occasion, it got overdone, mind you – and a lot of work went into smoothing it out! 

Wonderful answer. I must confess to not knowing David Jones – I’ll have to check him out.

I love the names and the nicknames. 

Good!
How did you think of them? 
Helped by the characters themeselves, as ever – a character doesnt ‘feel right’ to me, and I can’t write them out, until they have given me their right name.  Anyone else like that out there?
If you lived in the village with your characters what would your nickname be?
Batty Vannie, I expect. 
You have to spend a week with just one of your characters. Which one and why?
Oooh, what fun. Hmm. Peter Edwards. I want him to teach me to listen to the stories in stones.

The novel is full of stunning, evocative writing.
“When the wind is in the east, coming just steady over the coal tips, the tunnel near the Brychan sings like an empty pop bottle. The sound bells about the soot and bricks as if it’s caught in the throat of a Dowlais tenor, coaldust and all, then it spills out and flows down the alley to the town. It settles in the alleys between the houses, seeps through the gaps in the windows; a hooooooing that has children crying there’s ghosts in the chimney.”
(Page 239 of the hardback.)
Thank you. 
Was it hard to maintain the voice?
In a way, that’s for others to say. Those lines are from the very first section I wrote, now called The Clerk’s Tale – and I didn’t think about what I was doing – the voice was just that of one story.  But of course, after that story did OK at a few places, and as I was encouraged to write it as a novel, I  did become aware of what I was doing, and that is fatal. With the next piece, I went right over the top, and the voice became more like a concrete mixer full of reversals – and I had to do a hatchet job, and get back to more normal-sounding rhythms. I kept in the odd nod to my family phrases. ‘Nowjust’ was one of my grandmother’s words..
“Cleaned your teeth lovely girl? Off to bed then, I’ll bring up some sweet cigarettes nowjust – when Coronation Street is finished…”
I used to smoke ten before going to sleep. 

Did you read aloud? Did you reject non-poetic sentences? 
Yes. Always. I spent the second week of a two-week stint at Anam Cara  reading every sentence of the first completed draft out loud, editing for rhythm and sound.  I wanted the whole thing to have the feel of a poem, or something. 
I noticed that food features quite often so I have devised a foodie section for the interview.
Yum!
Sandwiches are mentioned throughout so here’s a sandwich section:

What’s your favourite sandwich? 
Mashed banana and brown sugar, with a cuppa.  
White/granary or brown bread?
White.
Butter/spread or none?
Butter. 
Mayonnaise or salad cream?
What, with banana, are you nuts?

What are your feelings on sandwich paste and sandwich spread?
Paste, NO NO. Sandwich Spread  YES – but as it was. They’ve changed the taste. This is another nod to family memory – I used to live on sandwich spread sarnies at my Nannas, and spent ages picking out the little ball things –  I think they were mustard seeds. I fed them to the budgie.

Beetroot – yay or nay? 
Yay! And with cold lamb too. Wonderful combination.
Ianto Passchenaele Jenkins takes payment of toffee (and other confectionary) for his stories. What would your sweet payment of choice be?
The same as his. Toffee, or Spanish. (Liquorice).

Page 251 (of the hardback) has a beautifully telling description of Tommo Price’s tea. It says so much about his wife, Sarah. I think you have a very deft way of revealing character.
“… Sarah Price, who makes white fish for tea with white buttered bread and serves it silent. Lardy-faced, she is, and secrets slide from her like dropped bullseyes on a frozen puddle.”
What teas would you write for David Cameron and Barack Obama? 
If the cameras were invited in to No 10 to watch tea time with Obama,  they’d have:
Brown boiled eggs and granary soldiers. And at some point, Cameron might say ‘oops, its an egg, you know, not brown because of anything, um, snort, (Eton snigger…) would you prefer white?’ But he’d give it a good bang on the head with a spoon anyway.
They’d have a plate of jolly good British cakes, Eccles, Dundee (well, British for the moment) Chelsea buns (he’d dip those in his egg). He’d also have Welsh cakes but Samantha would say what’s those darling, and he’d hum and ha and slip them to the dog. He’d have a packet of Yorkshire teabags in camera-shot on the side, Cornish butter (hand- churned by the Duchess of Cornwall). 
And when the cameras  and the Obamas had gone, they’d clean their teeth and start again with caviar on blinis and call up Osborne to call by and bring the bubbly old chap, let’s sell the roads to the Chinese by six, and don’t tell Cleggers.

Well hush ma mouth.

I’m struck by some of your vivid descriptions. 
“… go back up to the Reading Room, where one of the strip lights will be flickering and buzzing like a caught wasp.” I was delighted by how exact that description is. Is it something you’d noticed before and tucked away to use in fiction or did it come to you as you were writing? 
Not specifically tucked away. I suppose when you are really inhabiting the world you are creating, you experience things in a very ‘real way’ –  so they come bounding at you with great clarity.  We’ve all heard and seen those strip lights!
Are you a notebook carrier, always scribbling details down for future? Or?
Yes. Although usually, when a thought of great genius arrives, I’ve left the thing at home, and can’t find a pen. So I go into the nearest Smiths, and buy another – by which time I’ve forgotten the idea in the first place. Story of my life. But yes – I’ve usually got a pen/pencil notebook somewhere.
Do you see another novel for the world you’ve created? 
What do you think happens next for Laddy. (I loved the relationship between the boy and the older man, by the way.)
I am  glad of that feedback, S, really.  The next novel will tell me what happens next. And quite possibly, what happened before, as well. Ianto and Laddy are the main characters. Fathom that one out. 

I’m delighted to hear that I’ll be able to read more about Ianto! Excellent news.

Bloomsbury have given me a copy of the paperback to give away. I thought it might be fun to get people to describe the tea they’d imagine a famous person to eat in the comments and you could pick your favourite as the winner?

Brilliant idea – only the person must have some link with Wales. Dead or Alive. Howzat?  
Sara – thank you so much for letting me perch, and for coming up with such yummy questions. 

My pleasure, Vanessa. 

Right then, if you’d like to win a copy of The Coward’s Tale please do describe a tea that a famous Welsh person (dead or alive) might eat and post it in comments and Vanessa will choose the winner in a weeks time.


The Coward’s Tale tour continues at Claire King’s blog and Tania Hershman’s where you’ll be able to enjoy a far superior style of interview!

End of year thing

I feel like there should be an end of the year post but I have such a lousy memory I can’t recall all the things I liked best. I listened to Nicki Minaj a lot  and I have much love for her. “Did it on ’em” was a song that actually made me go “What the fuck is this? What is she saying?” and then “Oh my god, it’s amazing. She’s amazing. This is perfect.” I’m so glad there is a woman more than equal to the top guys in the field, and that she is recognised as such.

I have sadness that there’s still “top guys in the field” instead of top people. It’s true all over – TV, comedy, writing, whatever. There are the successful men and then the select women who are deemed of rare enough quality that they get to hang there too. Even on twitter amongst the people who tweet about lit stuff it seems there’s a boys club (with separate UK and US branches of these in the blog world too) and only a few honorary women. Anyway, a massive cheer for Caitlin Moran who somehow managed to write a clever, funny, brilliant, best selling (number one on the list for weeks and weeks) book about feminism (even if it is mainly a biography) How To Be a Woman.

Favourite novels of the year are The Canal by Lee Rourke and The Coward’s Tale by Vanessa Gebbie. Fave short story collections are Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower and Ayiti by Roxane Gay. Speaking of Roxane Gay, it’s been a pleasure to read her intelligent, articulate thoughts online in a wide variety of places (HTML Giant, The Rumpus, and her own blog to name a few.)

Fave TV show was Sons of Anarchy. Compelling viewing that just kept relentlessly building. We’re a season behind the US here and I am so looking forward to watching Season 4 when it airs. I also loved The Mentalist. I want to be Patrick Jane, and date Cho.

Film of the year? No idea. I saw Thor yesterday though and really enjoyed it. Home and Away boy has done good! And learned how to open his eyes. How buff? More fun than I expected too. I appreciated the Shakespearean swagger and am really looking forward to Whedon’s Avengers.

Scent of the year – Amazing Grace by Philosophy. Absolutely gorgeous. Fresh, clean, non-cloying.

Meal of the year was in the Fork and Field where I tasted the best pasta I have ever had. Seriously so good that I couldn’t stop smiling. It was Gratin of Macaroni with spinach, parmesan and fresh truffle and was perfection.

Book-selling hurrahs were realising we’d sold over 100 copies of Janice Galloway’s Collected Stories, and selling out of Kuzhali Manickavel’s Insects Are Just Like You and Me Only Some of Them Have Wings yet again, selling heaps of The Best British Short Stories, and ordering in goodies like Roxane Gay’s Ayiti and Breece D’J Pancake‘s Collected Stories. I get a real thrill introducing people to damn good writing and I’ve never had anyone come back and complain about a recommendation I’ve given so I hope that’s a good sign.

More personally, my family have struggled through hellish times this year but emerged stronger. I pack the sad, angry, bitterness down inside me and carry on. What else to do? One of my boys made up a song – “I’ve got an arch of love for you” – and he sings it, complete with arm gestures, to me. I congratulated my other son on how well he dealt with an awkward situation – “I model myself on you,” he said. There is nothing more precious, more wonderful, than my twins. My resolution for 2012 is the same as the advice I give to my beautiful boys – “Be the best you that you can be.”

Happy new year y’all.

Vanessa Gebbie

I’m so excited that Vanessa Gebbie will be signing copies of her debut novel “The Coward’s tale” tomorrow at Waterstones, Brighton from 11 a.m. Not only that but she will also be writing personalised tiny fictions for anyone who buys it. She’ll add your name, or any name you choose, and a few other unique details. A wonderful idea, and a really different Christmas gift. 

More details here.

One thing vs. another vs. another.

Heavy demands on my time this year mean I don’t get to participate in online groups and discussions in the same way I have in the past. I do still google read many blogs but it’s easier to whizz through and kid myself I’m keeping up than stop and comment. So, I’m a lousy blog pal but I do still read, and I comment when I can.

A few posts recently interested me. One from Vanessa Gebbie’s blog entitledThe Thorny Issue of Writers and their Muses, and the Sex thereof…

I did write a lengthy response on Vanessa’s blog but it got eaten up not once but twice. Darn. 
She’s a skilled writer so I assume she made deliberate word choices here.

And Suzi Feay asked women writers to perhaps “…(take) one for the Sisterhood” over at her blog.


Interesting reading. 



Three things.

1) Vanessa Gebbie  has signed a deal with Bloomsbury for her novel “The Coward’s Tale” to be published in hardback in November 2011 and paperback 2012. This is simply wonderful news. Vanessa is a hugely talented writer: uncompromising, determined, and inspirational. Many congratulations, Vanessa!

2) In other news there’s an interesting discussion at Jane Smith’s How Publishing Really Works blog about the Brit Writer’s Awards and their recent invitation to apply  for a chance to join their publishing programme (where for a fee of £1,795 fifteen writers will be guaranteed to be published with a “…top publisher before Christmas 2011”). Hmmm.

3) I have deemed myself the anti-fest. Truth is that it’s been a shitty year and I’ll be glad to see the back of it even though I can’t see things changing much in the new year. Whilst I’m glad of the break from school/work grind I find it hard to participate in something I view so warily. Christmas seems a pacifier to the workers, a time to kick back and indulge in too much of whatever it is you want to indulge in. And at the same time we prop up our capitalist society by spending way too much money on stuff in a bid to show those we care for that we love them. So, the most festive I’m going to get is by sharing this awesome video with you (cheers to Big Adam for bringing it to my attention.) It’s Slayer, it’s Reign In Blood, it’s Christmas lights, it’s amazing!

"Short Circuit – A Guide to the Art of the Short Story" Blog tour here NOW!

Ok, it’s the 4th of January, the day the majority of us return to work or school after the holidays, and it’s time to get back at “it” (whatever your “it” may be!) Reading around the blogs lots of writers are resolving to be better, work harder, hone craft, shine prose etc. Well read on…

I get asked to review a lot of stuff these days and to be honest I turn most requests down. Whilst I like to imagine myself some queen bitch who will tell it like it is, the truth is that I actually hate to upset anyone if I dislike their work. On the other hand I have no desire to turn my blog into some kind of puff factory where I churn out positive reviews for fellow authors in the hope that one day they will reciprocate should I have something of my own to sell either, so I tend to say no to requests unless I think I’m going to be genuinely enthusiastic about the book.

Hurray for Short Circuit!

It’s a guide to writing short stories written by experienced authors and teachers and is packed with essays, advice and exercises. It’s a text book that will keep on giving, and one can dip in and out. Having trouble with your ending? Check out the relevant chapters here. Stuck for inspiration? Try one of the exercises. (And so on…)

This ace book was edited by Vanessa Gebbie who answered some of my rubbish questions! (One question is inaccurate but I left it in because Vanessa’s answer is so good and if I reworded it I’d make her look a bit nuts!)

As editor of Short Circuit – A Guide to the Art of the Short Story, how did you select the contributing authors?
Easy. I’d either met (thanks to the comp circuit) or otherwise been in touch with (blogosphere etc)  so many fantastic writers – I drew up a wish list. I was keen to have only half Salt authors in the main part of the book, for a start. Then I looked at how ‘open’ the people were, whether they were easy to talk to/unstuffy – those I’d met and those I hadn’t. You can tell a lot from blogs etc. I didn’t want any stuffy old academic up one’s self dahling text. Writing is NOT the province of academia, or any ‘set’.  I wanted a predominance of top prizewinners AND the majority had to be great writing teachers. I wasn’t tough on myself or anything…
Do you think it’s possible for anyone to become a good short story writer or does there have to be natural talent?
I think you can learn to be a good writer.  Craft skills can be learned – and writing is a craft, just like making furniture. But we can’t all be Chippendales (and I don’t mean the strippers…).
On top of learning craft, there has to be something – a way of seeing the world, a need to express something, an original mind. You can teach someone to open their eyes a bit more, to see through a writer’s eyes… I believe that.  But beyond that…what is genius? Where does it come from? No idea! (If you find the answer, can we go halves?)
Can people starting their writing journey learn practical tips for writing short stories by reading Short Circuit?
Absolutely. When I was planning the book, I decided all I could do was create the book I would have loved when I started out. So that if someone picks it up they are instantly in the company of a group of fabulous writers, who are all generous with their time, advice and care. Care? What am I blathering about? Yes – CARE. Because if you  (not you – know what I mean…?) just go round telling a new writer that there is only ONE way to do things, YOUR way – you really don’t care or understand at all.
I wanted to send people off on trails of questions, try this, try that, consider this, consider that. And find out what works for them. Not for me. I am irrelevant as far as their writing journey goes, see? But I can put a range of ideas in front of them, let them discover, stretch. Get it wrong! Then gradually, get it right. But avoid some elephant traps along the way.
And people further into their own writing journey?
I also wanted a book that I could turn to when I’m more experienced, but jaded. When I find the strategies I employ let me down and I want to try something else.  Or when I am down, and want to remind myself that others get down too, and find this thing hard. Everyone’s honest, in the book. No one ‘flannels’, I don’t think…
I love the exercises at the end of each chapter. Sometimes a writer becomes stuck for inspiration and these are perfect springboards into creativity. Do you have a personal favourite exercise?
No, not really, apart from the exercise that might work today as opposed to yesterday.  The one that usually works is flash writing… just spilling it out, not censoring yourself.
And the other is, cutting out the feedback loop by switching off the screen. Or sticking an old teeshirt over it. And typing like the devil…(on a laptop, turn the font colour to white… but try not to hit caps lock.)
What is the worst piece of writing advice you have been given?
Can I have three??
1)      “Women writers over fifty might as well recognise that they are not going to get published, so just have a bit of fun.” (Visiting editor of now defunct lit mag (ha ha), Sussex University, 2003).
2)      “Learn to write fiction by writing a novel.”
3)      “The short story is just a stepping stone to the real thing – the novel.” (The short story is NOTHING like a novel. I know this, and challenge anyone to a duel if they say it is.)
And the best?
1) “Read read read write write write submit submit submit. Seek out rejections. Knock your ego sideways.”  
I found myself “Yes, yes-ing…” some of the chapters as I recognised my own writing self, and other times delighting in the clarity of someone expressing something I had previously felt intuitively (Elaine Chiew’s marvellous chapter on endings will feed into my own work I think, and Alison MacLeod’s chapter on risk taking felt very true. I loved Paul Magrs chapter and will reread his list until it all sticks in my head.)
Did you disagree with anything said?
Not really, because it is not didactic. I tend to automatically disagree if anyone is didactic! If anyone had said THIS is how it MUST be done, then I’d disagree on principle. But even when (for example) Tobias Hill took me to task for making an assumption about something, in our interview  – voice/vocabulary use/charactersisation – I thought hey, this is great, because it challenged my preconceptions, made me think. And that’s exactly what I wanted it to do for others.
I can see places where the other writers are saying they work in a different way to me – but you can’t disagree with that, can you?! It just opens my eyes to the range of things we do as writers.
Did you learn anything new?

Yes!! It’s so easy to get into a rut, isn’t it? A mindset that says ‘this is how Vanessa Gebbie works best and I can’t possibly try anything else…’. I know I can get like that easily – and I know it’s out of fear. Fear that I won’t be able to recreate the success I had last year/week/month again. Fear that it’s finished.
But ruts are only made in mud, when mud is soft. I learned from all the amazing writers, their openness, willingness to share – that it is possible to be successful in many many different ways, that it is important to try new things. That mud can be reshaped. (How’s that for a muddled metaphor?!)
As far as I can tell (from my not at all scientific method of quickly scan reading) the single most recommended writer of short stories is Raymond Carver. What do you think makes him so special?
I just know my reaction to a story like A Small Good Thing is visceral, and that this is what I want to achieve in my reader,  in however small a way. That he really does write stories that make you forget you are reading (Viz Jon Wyatt of Bridport) and does it so seemingly effortlessly. No poncy writerliness. I think a lot of writers appreciate the technical superiority of his work.
You asked each of the 24 contributors to name their favourite short stories. There are fewer female writers on these lists than males, and six writers, including yourself, only mentioned male authors. Why do you think this may be? 
Oy. Petina Gappah is a lady. (Oh gosh, of course I know Ms Gappah is a woman but in my rubbish scanning I didn’t see her name in Vanessa’s list. My bad!)
But I take your point. Hand on heart – I have no idea. I also know that if I was asked the same question on any day of the week, the answer to ‘give me your six fave short stories’ would change. I’d only just read the Yann Martel story for example, was blown away by it, so put it there because I want everyone to read it.  The same with the Gappah – I loved her collection for many many reasons, not the least that quite apart from being bloody good stories, it also taught me something – mostly about my own ignorance. And hey, what vindication of my taste, that she goes and wins Guardian First Book Award months later…!
Maybe it’s a sex thing. Maybe I generally respond better to writing that happens to come from a male brain/heart rather than a female one? Maybe I find writing by blokes who can express themselves beautifully, rawly, with meaning, somewhat ‘sexy’ (The Ledge, Ballistics) Maybe I don’t read enough female writers? Maybe I enjoy work by female writers, but generally, I don’t REMEMBER the work as vividly. Why is that? You tell me.
Or maybe (most likely) I just picked my fave stories, not worrying whether the writer of the stories happened to be the owner of a dick.
Do you have a favourite female short story writer? 
No. I enjoy Annie Proulx, Ali Smith, Anne Enright, A L Kennedy, Alice Munro , and thats just some of the ‘A’s… I greatly enjoy the work of all the female writers in Short Circuit, Salt and Non-Salt  and people keep telling me I ought to read this and this and that… aaagh. I am trying!
If so, why did she not make your favourite short stories list? 
Cos I enjoy hundreds of short story writers, and it doesn’t cross my mind to consider what physical characteristics the writer has. I’m not sure it’s relevant. The words are what matters, innit?! and Sara, thank you for having me and Short Circuit on your blog. I appreciate it hugely, and its been fun. Thanks for such wonderful and searching questions!!
Thank you so much Vanessa!

Short Circuit is available directly from Salt and of course from Waterstones!

This sucks…

Remember the anti-plagiarism day? Remember the whole ghastly “one writer in a workshop stole from another writer” thing? Ugh. It’s uncomfortable. I want to look away. I want to look. I don’t want to be involved, and yet as writers we are all involved really. It’s our duty to speak out. Isn’t it? Anyway, seems like it’s all out in the open at How Publishing really Works. Look. Don’t look. Ghastly innit!