This month has been an exciting one, and today I am honoured to talk with Vanessa Gebbie about her début novel The Coward’s Tale. This inspirational novel was launched in paperback yesterday, as well as being available in hardback and e-book.
Alexa Radcliffe-Hart: Hi Vanessa, thank you for joining us and agreeing to answer my questions as well as those sent in.
Vanessa Gebbie: Hi Lexi, and thanks you so much for asking me. It is great to be here.
ARH: Firstly, I’d love to tell you how much I enjoyed The Coward’s Tale. I found myself lost in the interwoven stories and unwilling for the connections to end!
VG: That’s really lovely feedback… thank you!
ARH: There are so many questions I could ask, but I wouldn’t want to spoil the beautiful unfolding of the novel for those who haven’t read it yet. Within The Coward’s Tale, the storytelling meta-narrative gains importance throughout the novel; did you originally set out to provide this additional layer to the novel, or was it a natural development?
VG: No, I didn’t ‘set out’ to do anything. The novel began as a simple series of stories exploring the reasons why so many in the town were strange in some way, even though in other ways they are perfectly usual members of a small community – the window cleaner, the bank clerk, deputy bank manager, the teacher, the librarian, the undertaker, out of work miner, and so on.
As I wrote more and more, enjoying them hugely, some (the gas-meter emptier’s tale, for example, had me laughing out loud on occasion, much to the consternation of my family) each backstory seemed to go back to the same incident – the collapse of Kindly Light Pit. It wasn’t until I began to concentrate on the overarching narrative, that of Laddy and Ianto, that Ianto’s own story had to come out. I think I had been avoiding meeting that one head on – it was hard to acknowledge – I love Ianto, as I love all the characters.
His story is the real catalyst – he has been the repository of the town’s history and has been sharing stories with whoever will listen. And it really isn’t until his own story is added to the mix that the whole series takes on a completely different resonance. He is ‘released’ in some measure, freed, after sharing his story. Just as the author was freed and was able to finish the novel. (!)
ARH: The gas-meter emptier’s story had me laughing out loud too, which proved an important balance for some of the more heart-rending tales.
Laddy is spellbound by the stories that are woven by Ianto, yet questions their truth because of the “stories” told to him by his parents. This transformation in innocence is a role reversal of the adult characters that search for the innocence they’ve lost. Do you believe that there is always innocence within storytelling?
VG: I wonder if there has to be a certain innocence – in that as soon as a writer exhibits a judgement one way or the other, the story is weighed down with a ‘message’? But I think I mean innocence as in ‘emotional honesty’ – otherwise a story does not work as well as it might.
But maybe more importantly, doesn’t the writer need an eye that sees things afresh, and the ability to use those impressions well so that the prose is fresh, not predictable?
Being able to see things in a new way – that is a childlike quality, akin to innocence – I don’t mean that the writing is childlike, but the ability to stand outside the normal responses, and rethink, re-experience, as if for the first time?
ARH: I think that is where the strength of Laddy’s characterisation is, the way in which he provides the viewpoint with emotional honesty, which allows other characters to “re-experience” as well as the reader.
The use of the lilting Welsh accent within the narration as well as the character dialogue immerses the reader throughout the multiple characters, as well as providing fluidity between overall story and the individual stories. Was it straightforward to write with accent/dialect and did you find any difficulties in the process?
VG: To begin with, when the process first started, I was unaware. The first section I wrote (now The Clerk’s Tale) was fine, it was set in the south Wales I remembered from childhood, and the rhythms and sounds came back easily. It won a nice prize at Bridport. But as soon as I became conscious of it, and tired to reproduce the lilts, I went too far.
Luckily, I had an important bit of feedback on a subsequent section from the novelist Catherine Merriman, who said the voice was ‘like Yoda’ in places. I had no idea who or what Yoda was. When I discovered, I was horrified! But that was diamond feedback, and it led to me making every effort to return to my original voice.
ARH: There is such a fine line with many accents aren’t there? But the Yoda advice is perfect!
The Clerk’s Tale is not the only experience you have in writing award winning short stories, and The Coward’s Tale felt like an exploration between the short story and novel forms, especially with interwoven tales of so many characters which ultimately tells the tale of the coward. Was the novel evolved from one short story or many? At what stage did you know it was a novel you were writing?
VG: Honest answer? I was plagued with doubt the whole way, really. Not an easy ride, this one. I didn’t want to write a single narrative, and my agent (Euan Thorneycroft at A M Heath) encouraged me to write it as a novel, not a series of stories. It started with The Clerk’s Tale, referred to above – I was signed by Euan on the strength of that story.
But whereas I knew what I was doing (more or less!) with the stories, the creation of and positioning of the overarching narrative and the interweaving that was necessary to create a different workable structure, was difficult – I needed help with that. Thanks to the Arts Council, to whom I shall be eternally grateful, I was able to have a period of mentoring from the terrific novelist Maggie Gee. I can’t sing her praises highly enough. I think we made a good team – very different writers – but something worked!
ARH: Thank you for your honesty. It’s brilliant to hear more on how creative mentoring can bring new light and understanding to writer’s work.
You provide the wonderful #storygym on Twitter to help writers all over the world be inspired with the writing prompts. Where do you find your own writing inspirations? Are there any particular writers you go back to again and again?
VG: I’m a very visual writer. I respond best to images, and to lines of poetry that are image-based, lyrical prose, lovely sounds too. I go back and back and back to the works of William Golding. But then I also love W G Sebald, and that’s hardly in the same ballpark! Female writers too – I’d pick Arundhati Roy, and a new writer, Suzanne Joinson, about to hit the shelves with a stunning novel called ‘A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar’ (Blooomsbury, July). Her prose is really extraordinary and sets connections firing in this writer’s head.
I wake up every morning and tweet a #StoryGym prompt – it’s about the first thing I do after cleaning my teeth! Some of them are just nuts (not my teeth, the prompts…) – but it is lovely to hear from writers who are using them, and especially when a story has been published, or even won something. of course, that’s nothing to do with me, it is the skill of the writer – but it is a nice feeling to know that it started with a few words on Twitter.
ARH: Sometimes the most unusual of prompts can provide the best writing, huh!
Have you ever been inspired to write from the viewpoint of a character that you disliked? And if so, could you describe the writing process around this?
VG: Oh yes, of course. I can dislike things about someone, usually what they do – and still be intrigued by them, wonder why they are like that, how far they will go. And more importantly, will they do something to redeem themselves. Example: I wrote a story (it’s in the collection, ‘Words from a Glass Bubble’) about a guy called Harry, in a story called Harry’s Catch. He’s done some fairly nasty things in his time – rape, for one. Now he’s old – the story explores his life, to the extent that I got quite fond of him in the end, even though he did something horrific almost at the end of the story…
Process-wise – I tend to focus on what the character does, rather than whether they can be judged as ‘loveable’ or not. People are never completely black and white, I guess. Human beings are complex animals, best to let them be that on paper too.
ARH: I agree, it’s that grey area within people and characters than can bring the most out on the page. The grey area questions continue…
How does an author create a sentence in which words resonate with a reader, to the extent that he or she describes a feeling exactly – not a physical sensation but a private thought and/or emotion, that when read, makes one realise that one is not alone in this world? This may be a subjective experience for each of us and is not replicated for all readers, or is it?
VG: A really interesting question – I’ll try to answer.
All a writer can do is observe life in all its facets, and use those observations in their work to build up an honest and emotionally true world which resonates so much with readers (hopefully…) that it becomes ‘real’ in their heads. That means honest observation of one’s own emotions and feelings too.
So, when a character is experiencing something, thinking something, feeling something, you to some extent ‘relive’ the experience yourself, with the character, as you are writing. If you are that bound up with your characters (as I tend to be) the feelings will be strong – and all you can do is put them into the most honest words you can.
I think originality also comes into it. We might read something described in terms we’ve seen many times, before, and whereas we will ‘understand’ the message, maybe we won’t ‘feel it’. Whereas, if the language used is different, drawing original parallels – no clichés in similes, for example – we look at the familiar through fresh eyes. That’s a powerful thing to learn to do.
The rest is up to the reader. It’s not possible for a writer to touch everyone, for the simple reason that we bring our own life experiences along with us when we do anything, especially when we read – the words written by the writer will either touch us, or not, depending on our own ‘baggage’. But emotional honesty is an important tool, here – and an ability to express the subtlest of emotions.
Hope that helps! And I award a copy of ‘The Coward’s Tale’ to this questioner.
ARH: Thank you for choosing the winning questioner! I would like to congratulate Sally Carlow on winning the paperback copy of The Coward’s Tale!
Continuing with the writing questions, what is the worst assumption any aspiring writer can make about their work?
VG: That it is any good at all. I think the best position to start from is that your work is awful. If you are right – then great – guess what, with a bit of hard work you can learn to write well. If you are wrong, you are probably a genius. And there aren’t many of those…
Wait until someone who knows what they are talking about tells you your work is OK. That does not mean your mates, your parents, your partner, or the person at the writing group with the loudest voice (who had a story published somewhere ten years ago) or the administrator of a vanity publishing organisation. You will know in your heart when feedback means something. And you will know in your heart when it doesn’t.
ARH: Good and constructive feedback is something every writer needs. Along with this, what is the most important book any aspiring writer should keep by their side?
VG: NOT a how-to book – not even mine! You need books that make you want to write as well as that writer did. For me, it’s anything by William Golding. Poetry – John Donne at the moment. And it’s also worth keeping a few books that remind you how terrible some people’s work is – go and download a few free self-published e-books at random.
ARH: Yes, having that scale is definitely helpful! Continuing towards publication, what is the worst mistake any aspiring writer could make when submitting a proposal?
VG: Telling an agent it’s their lucky day, and they are being given a one-off chance to represent the next big thing since J K Rowling. And copying the proposal to every agent in the book.
ARH: Thank you for your honest answers, I’m sure a lot of writers will find this advice invaluable. Looking to the future, how do you plan for your next project? Is it planned or do you go with what inspiration and imagination provides you?
VG: The next project is under way, if you really mean the next novel? The working title is ‘Kit’ – it’s come directly out of The Coward’s Tale, and revolves round the same two main characters, Ianto and Laddy. A prequel/sequel – perhaps. It’s a difficult thing – I know more about this one, and am thus less able to explore as I go. It’s a challenge, and I will complete it. Whether it will be any cop is another matter!
But my overriding feeling is this – I’m not young. I spent six years writing The Coward’s Tale, but it was never the only thing on the boil, and I won’t now make the mistake of focussing on one thing only – what if it’s not right, or isn’t wanted? Besides, I’m a Gemini – I need to be able to flit from one thing to another. So whilst ‘Kit’ is the big project, I’m also doing a lot of other things.
- Working on a short story commission for BBC Radio, to go out during Brighton Festival.
- Revamping ‘Short Circuit, Guide to the Art of the Short Story’ for Salt Publishing’. Story, the art of story, is my first love. It’s a good book, used a lot on creative writing courses, and I want to make sure it stays up to date, doesn’t get tired like so many ‘how-to’ books do. ‘Short Circuit II’ will have additional chapters from stunning people like Scott Pack, Tom Vowler, Nicholas Royle, plus extended chapters by some of the contributors who had shorter pieces in the first edition. I chose well. Since writing their chapters for the first edition, many of the very successful, talented contributors have done even more amazing things in their careers – look! Graham Mort won the Edge Hill Prize. Carys Davies won the Olive Cook Award from The Society of Authors. Zoe King was elected Chair of the Society of Women Writers and Journalists. Alison MacLeod shortlisted for the National Short Story Award, and the BBC Short Story Prize.
- Continuing to learn about, write and publish poetry. Just finished a wonderful series of workshops led by poet Pascale Petit at Tate Modern.
- Acting as travel agent for a group of writers going on a tour of Arras and The Somme later in 2012, in the excellent company of military historian Jeremy Banning. That’s going to be a great trip – mirroring my own trip with him early in 2011, following The Swansea Pals to the Somme, Passchendaele and back to the Somme. Can you imagine what it must have been like for the lads who fought there in 1916, returning a couple of years later and finding they are fighting over the same ground where their friends died?
- Teaching – loads. Looking forward especially to a week-long short story workshop at the wonderful Anam Cara Writers and Artist’s Retreat, West Cork, Ireland – where I have been going to write my own stuff since 2005. I heard about the place via the Fish Publishing website – and took a chance and joined a creativity workshop – and have been going back at least twice a year ever since.
- Self-publishing a books of flash fictions with a friend, who is a terrific artist.
I think that’s probably enough!
ARH: Wow! That is a fantastic line-up of work; I personally can’t wait to see more of Ianto and Laddy’s tales!
Finally, I love your blog and website with its interactive design; particularly the musical map for The Cowards Tale where readers can find out excerpts about each of the characters. You also communicate with your readership through Twitter. How important do you feel interacting with fellow writers and your reading audience is in these ways?
VG: I’m glad you like the website – I love it too – it is the work of Roger Betts, a musician friend, although we’ve never met. It’s very creative – well, we’re meant to be creative beings – I despair when I see the same old same old on writers’ websites – c’mon, guys! Less meaningful mournful stares, huh?
Writing is a lonely occupation – interaction with other writers is great, and keeps me sane. And it is really lovely to be in touch with readers on Twitter, and on Facebook too. It’s very important for me! Keeps me grounded. There is not much point in writing if readers aren’t in the equation, after all.
Thanks Lexi – super questions, I have enjoyed tussling with this lot. Thank you for having me, as we used to say after parties, when I was six!