• The Dark Room

Vanessa Gebbie on A Cowards Tale & Writing

Writing.ie | Magazine | Special Guests | Women’s Fiction

By Marése O'Suillivan

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Award-winning short story writer Vanessa Gebbie – perhaps best known for her 2008 collection Words from a Glass Bubble and 2010’s Storm Warning: Echoes of Conflict – has just published the paperback of her 2011 début novel, The Coward’s Tale (Bloomsbury UK and USA), set in her homeland of Wales. The tale of a mining disaster in the depths of a pit is a remarkable and tragic portrayal, inspired by real-life events.

Gebbie always had a passion for storytelling, even from a young age. “I [once created] a newspaper, written in blue crayon. It only had one issue, mostly about a long car journey. At junior and senior school, I wrote a lot. The poems carried on at university. Then I stopped writing completely, for a long time.”

It wasn’t until later life, when she’d picked up a “fabulous, rule-breaking” copy of Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald, that she turned back to the literary world. “The love of making things up flooded back. I think it sort of crept up on me as a career. To begin with, I just wrote bit and pieces, and sent them off, as you do. Hoping. Gradually, I got a few publications. Then I was asked to run writing sessions at a drugs rehab centre, followed by workshops with the homeless and asylum-seekers for a while too. I co-edited a small literary journal for a few years. Eventually, I was doing little else. Everything added up to ‘something to do with writing’. It still does.”

Gebbie hopes her Welsh background seeps into her short stories. She believes that her family ties in the south of the country and her schooling in the north, the rhythms of the language, the accents and the people are “all inspirational” to her. What fascinates her so much about short stories, she says, is “the way they plunge you into a complete world very quickly and how they leave you feeling when you come to the end: enriched, somehow.” She remarks that each story has a subtle effect on one’s being. “You are shown something about life that changes the way you are, maybe in a tiny way, but a [small] shift every time adds up. As a writer, I love the challenge – they are difficult to get right; I love the sense that a short story is bigger than it seems.”

She had entered the Daily Telegraph’Novel in A Year Competition in 2007, “purely because a friend told her about it, just before the competition closed.” It lead to the publication of her first book, The Coward’s Tale, four years later, but also ended up changing the way she saw her work. “I’d had this idea, a short piece, but one which [I knew] – if it was right – could be the start of something.” She tidied up the piece, wrote a synopsis and sent it in, though she hadn’t planned out much of what the project would be at that point. “Maybe that rush was good,” she smiles. “I didn’t kill it by too much fiddling, too much thinking.”

She feels that her success in the competition “gave me permission to carry on, in a way” and it began a “pivotal few months” in her life. Not only did her tale come second that same year in The Bridport Prize’s Short Story Competition, her achievements “validated the voice, the odd characters, the strange style.” She declares that there is nothing like “knowing your work is sitting in a pile of a few hundred others to push you to make it as good as it can possibly be. It has to stand out, for the right reasons!” She issues a word of warning about choosing the right contests. “It is very, very important,” she asserts, “to differentiate between competitions that are worth entering – in which success will mean something – and those that are not. A place or a shortlisting somewhere meaningful on your CV will be noticed by literary agents, and will set you apart from the crowd.”

Gebbie’s story certainly put her in a league of her own. What sparked it off was “a retelling of the story of Doubting Thomas” through her initial protagonist, a bank clerk called Tommo Price. “As I was writing [about him], another character” – the beggar, Ianto Jenkins – “wandered onto the stage and started telling [his] backstory. I just let [Jenkins] talk and was really intrigued by what he had to say. It was just as if I wasn’t making anything up myself. Five or six years later, he had become a main character. He wrote the book, really; I just typed.”

She describes the process of creating her first novel as mostly “fun,” but “sometimes it wasn’t.” Once she was satisfied with Tommo Price’s story, she knew there would be a whole group of characters in the book. “[I wanted all of them to be] based somehow on the images and myths we have attached to The Twelve Apostles. That was my guide, and it worked really well, even though it was very hard work. After I finished the first complete draft was when the really difficult stage began: my story needed restructuring and polishing into a novel. I worked closely with the novelist Maggie Gee for months, courtesy of The Arts Council. That was a brilliant time.”

Since 2005, she has created most of her fiction at Anam Cara, a retreat for writers and artists in West Cork. “The hostess and editor Sue Booth-Forbes takes everything off your shoulders, enabling you to focus completely on your project,” she grins. “When I’m there, I work in the mornings, curled up on my bed wrapped in a blanket, writing on my laptop. I sometimes have a break after lunch, and take a walk down to the strand or round the lanes with my dog Jack.” She never writes to music, as she finds it “really distracting.” If she gets stuck, she covers the laptop screen with a T-shirt and writes blind, as quickly as she can. “That breaks a block really well,” she says. “To edit, though, I print off the work double-spaced, rewrite it by hand, then type it up later.”

She will be facilitating a short story workshop for Anam Cara from the 9th – 15th June. She’s looking forward to “the buzz of working with other writers, helping them create new characters, new stories, new voices.” She mentions how most people start off by enjoying writing, but then their work very quickly becomes “heavy with expectation” and they are hard on themselves. She prefers to see the participants “relax” and really take pleasure from their imagination again. “I love seeing how writers blossom at Anam Cara – just as I did, when I first visited, for a creativity workshop led by American poet Karen Blomain, in 2005. I never looked back. It is a place that has become very important for my writing. I value Sue Booth-Forbes’ friendship very highly. Also, her editorial advice is always spot on!”

Her next plan is to finish her second novel, to writing short stories and flash fiction. She is currently learning more about poetry, and plans to take a group of writers to The Somme with a military historian later in the year. Her advice for prospective novelists is: “Don’t worry about ‘being an author’. Or even ‘being a writer’. Just write. Write as much as you can, as well as you can. Read everything. Seek feedback, but not from family or friends. Find a tutor you really respect, whose work you admire. And above all, let the authors of the stories you love teach you through their writing. Listen; be open to learning. It comes from the strangest places.”

About the author

(c) Marese O’Sullivan April 2012

Vanessa Gebbie recently judged the Anam Cara Writer’s and Artist’s Retreat/ writing.ie short story competition – read the short listed stories here.


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