An Interview with Vanessa Gebbie, author of The Coward’s Tale

Vanessa Gebbie lives in East Sussex and is the author of The Coward’s Tale which was published in 2011 by Bloomsbury .  Here, she talks to WBNW about the book, her relationship to the Northern countryside and whether there really is a magic formula for short stories…

WBNWYour book, The Coward’s Tale (which has recently passed it’s 1st birthday!) is set in Wales. For our Southern readers could you tell us a bit about your relationship with the country?

VG – I am Welsh – my family comes from Merthyr Tydfil in the south Wales coal valleys (where The Coward’s Tale is set). My parents left Merthyr in their twenties, in order to find jobs – and never lived there again, although they always yearned for ‘home’. Merthyr was always referred to as ‘home’ in our house – very confusing for a child. However it became the place I didn’t want to leave, every time we went back to stay with my grandmother, it was a fight to get me away.

In my early teens I won a scholarship to a boarding school in Dolgellau, in north Wales – and spent five years there – a beautiful part of the world, and a wonderful, character-building school it was too. Sadly, it closed soon after I left… I don’t think the two events are linked in any way.

WBNW With The Coward’s Tale you manage to create a very touching and yet funny story. What is your preferred genre, either to write or to read?

VG  – Thank you for those lovely words. I loved writing it.

As for my preferred genre for reading – so long as a book is well-written, I really don’t mind which box the publishers put it in. If the writer can convince me that the world of the book is real for the duration of the novel or story, I’m happy. If the work sends me to consider something other than the story playing out – ie: so long as it has an interesting subtext – I’m more happy.

It isn’t easy to do – a writer needs to know their craft well in order to allow me to ‘fall into a dream’ as I read.

I guess I try to create the book I haven’t yet read but would like to, when I’m writing. I love mixtures – where different genres meet and bounce off each other. So The Coward’s Tale is a mix of history, realism, magical realism, it’s funny at times, sad at others, it is poetic – all sorts.

WBNWWhen writing, do have an intended reader in mind? Do you think it’s necessary to have one at all?

VG – I think its important to keep ‘the reader’ in mind when you get to the revision/editing stages of writing anything. After all, they give your work some moments of their life, don’t they? I think it’s only right and incumbent on me to try to make it work as well as I can as fiction. To give them a good experience, such as I would like when reading. So I guess I write for a reader like me – quite a demanding reader!

WBNW As a published writer of both short story and long fiction, which do you think is more challenging?

VG – Writing anything well is challenging, no matter how long or short the piece. Learning your craft so well that it informs everything you do and does not intrude, takes time. Writing well today is challenging, full stop. I guess there are different challenges with short fiction and longer – but both have something to do with staying-power…

WBNW – I have heard it say that there is a “magic formula” to writing short fiction stories… is this true?!

VG – No! There are no magic formulas, not in the world I live in. I have seen templates for both short stories and novels – ‘by page 3, your characters ought to do this…’ or ‘by chapter five, they must do this…’. They are laughable.

There is good solid craft to learn, perhaps by reading a lot, reading more, looking to see why this piece was successful. And conversely, why this piece wasn’t. The only magic formula I know of is the one that says, ‘Take your time. Learn well. Do things as well as you can. Do them better.’

WBNW – As well as writing, you also teach. Can you tell us more about that?

VG – I’ve found the thing I love doing, and can do with some degree of success. I love it enough to want to pass on some of the craft and process skills I was taught by some generous wonderful people, and passing it on feels natural. But also, hopefully, I am still learning. It doesn’t stop! So – as a student, I went to Ty Newydd earlier in the year to attend a poetry course run by Pascale Petit and Daljit Nagra, and learned masses. Every book I read teaches me something – I’m learning from Julian Barnes at the moment.

As a teacher, I have just come back from Vienna where I was running a series of novel workshops at The Vienna Writers’ Studio. This year, I’ve also run a week-long course in Ireland, on the short story. I’ve given a day’s seminar on writing for competitions, for Spread the Word in London, and I have co-tutored with the lovely Jane Rusbridge, for the Bloomsbury Institute with Psychologies Magazine. Flash fiction in Brighton with Tania Hershman, creativity in Whitstable with Peggy Riley – I’ve done all sorts of things this year, and loved it all.

2013 is shaping up already – a February weekend for writers who want to resurrect their languishing novel manuscript, jointly with Peggy Riley – and another, a day at Tilton House in January for new novelists, also with Peggy.  *(See below for details!)

WBNWReading your bio from your website, you say that after reading Austerlitz by W G Sebald you became a writer. What was it about that story that made your mind up? Or did you always have it in you?

VG – Yes, I can put my finger on exactly what gave me the inspiration and the spur to get on and do. The book was saying something important. It was saying it in a way that broke so many rules, was original, engaging, wonderful. I thought – I’d like to do this. Not to ‘do’ the same thing, but to have the same effect on a reader, sometime.

Yes, I perhaps had it in me – I used to write years ago, but never treated it seriously. Maybe the time had come to revisit and be serious about what I was doing?

WBNW – How important do you think social media has become for writers?

VG – I think it is a two-edged sword. It can be useful, hugely, but also it can become a great displacement activity. It’s so easy to kid yourself that this is part of writing, when actually, all you are doing is nattering.

On the positive side, Twitter and Facebook have been enormously useful to this writer – I have found new readers, made real friends as opposed to pixels, found jobs that I would otherwise not have known about.

It is lovely when your name pops up on Twitter because someone is reading your book in their reading group, for example – it gives me a chance to say thank you, and to offer to answer questions. In general, social media has given writers the chance to interact with the reader much more easily than before.

Publishers seem to like their readers to use social media – so I guess it is good to be able to say you are au fait with things before you get your book accepted – having to learn on the hoof might be a bit tough.

But as with everything – there is a downside. I have already mentioned the time-wasting element!

WBNW – What’s next for Vanessa Gebbie, the writer?

VG – I’m just off to Scotland for a month, on a Hawthornden International Fellowship – time to myself – a whole four weeks. I am working on another novel, a sequel to The Coward’s Tale – and having fun with that. I am writing poetry, and sending it out. And planning teaching events for 2013.

Many thanks for taking the time for this interview Vanessa. We wish you lots of success with your future writings.

Please visit Vanessa’s own site by clicking here.

You can purchase The Coward’s Tale and her Vanessa’s other work from Waterstones & Amazon directly by following the links.

* “Get that novel out of your head and onto the page” – 23 January: a day workshop at the wonderful Tilton House near Lewes, with co-tutor novelist and playwright Peggy Riley.

The Lazarus Game Plan – 23/24 February: a weekend for a maximum of six writers with a novel manuscript they don’t know what to do with it next.

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