Monday, April 16, 2012

Vanessa Gebbie: On Dreams and Goals and Work and Talent

Vanessa Gebbie has been doing an extensive blog book to celebrate the paperback debut of her wonderful book, The Coward's Tale, in the United States. I was honoured to be asked to host her at this blog. I'm the last in the queue and as we say in Botswana- moja morago ke kgosi!!! (the last to eat is the chief)- ;))

Before we get on to a few questions for the lovely author, I'd like to take a moment to speak about my thoughts on the book.

The Coward's Tale is set in a Welsh mining town that is trying to make peace with a coal mining tragedy, the Kindle Light Tragedy, that killed many townspeople and continues to show its effects in the survivors' lives. The story, told through linked narratives about the eclectic characters that make up this tiny town, is given to the reader by the self appointed storyteller of the place, the beggar Ianto Passchendaele Jenkins. He's prompted to tell the tales when Laddy Merridew, a young boy, comes to live in the town to stay with his grandmother while his parents sort out difficulties at home.

Each chapter brings us a new character to unravel in all of his or her complexity with strings leading back or all caught up in the mine disaster. And as people do, their stories intersect and clash with other people's stories and through this slow, lyrical unravelling, the story of the disaster that defines the town unfolds.

As a writer, what I found so scrumptious about this novel was its method of telling the story as almost an aside, by understating the main stories so that they become like a whisper heard louder than the most ear breaking roar; such a subtle incidental way of writing a novel. There is a talent in doing that that few writers have. There is also a poetic rhythm to the telling, maybe this is a Welsh thing, maybe its the voice of Ianto, this I don't know, but it was hypnotising.

I loved the book, and not just because I adore the author. It is a book that readers will love, but it is for me, a book that writers will appreciate even more for its meticulous craft whose hard work that inspired it is completely invisible.


Vanessa Gebbie is the author of two collections of stories (Words from a Glass Bubble and Storm Warning both published by Salt) and and contributing editor of a creative writing text book (Short Circuit -A Guide to the Art of the Short Story also published by Salt). She has won numerous awards – including prizes at Bridport, Fish and the Willesden Herald (the latter judged by Zadie Smith) – for her short fiction.

The Coward’s Tale, published by Bloomsbury in November 2011 and in paperback March 2012, is a powerfully imagined, poetic and haunting novel, spiked with humour. An extract from The Coward’s Tale won the Daily Telegraph ‘Novel in a Year’ Competition. Vanessa Gebbie is Welsh and lives in Sussex.

I met Vanessa first when we both were part of the One World project and I've been so happy to see her meteoric rising star. I'm so pleased to have her stop by Thoughts from Botswana and talk a bit about goals, dreams, talent and hard work.

So Vanessa, do you remember your dreams from when you first started writing? What were they?

Vanessa: Hmm. It depends what sort of dreams you mean. If you mean dreams about what might happen, I suppose I was focussed usually on the next step. I wanted to know about writing short stories. I wanted to know about writing them well enough that they’d get published - but the publication itself wasn’t a dream - it was just the knowledge that it was some indicator that I’d be writing well.

Publication alone still isn't the dream, although people reading one’s work is lovely beyond words. It’s hard work! It's not the end of something, but the beginning of a lot of hard work, and it takes you away from what you do best--- dreaming, on paper.

So was your writing path more of a
happy meandering?

Vanessa:It was a happy meandering at first, but then it became goal-orientated. Remember, I was a bit older than a lot of people, when they start this thing, and I couldn’t wander about aimlessly for too long if I was serious. Which I was, and am. Then I started planning, and had targets of places to be published, competitions to be placed in. That lasted for a few years, and then things seemed to take a path of their own - with the Salt publications, writing the novel, then Bloomsbury. I’ve been very lucky - but it’s also been hard work, and still is. Who knows what’s next? the next novel, certainly... let’s hope it doesn't take as long as the last!

But there is a down side to being goal-orientated. The writing becomes more loaded with expectation - both yours and that of others. It’s less free and easy - and more hard work to get back to a writing-state that I enjoy.

How much do you think talent plays in the success of a writer?

Vanessa:I reckon talent plays a big role - but it might not be just talent to write, necessarily. It might be talent to network, to publicise, to sell, to persuade...tenacity too -

How big a role does fortitude play?

A big one. There are so many knock-backs in this game - rejections aplenty. We need to have what it takes to get up and dust ourselves off after a big disappointment, and the courage and self-belief to carry on.

Do you think a non-writer can be taught to be a writer?

Vanessa: Sure. Whether they’d be a good writer, or a successful one (if those are the same things) is another question, though. I believe craft is teachable - making a competent piece of writing is not beyond the abilities of most people, whether it is fiction or non-fiction. What you can’t teach is originality. That indefinable something that makes someone see the ordinary in an extraordinary way. But even then, you can open people up, give them permission to explore in ways they may not have done before.

Children use their imaginations all the time - then we forget to use them, and the imagination-muscle atrophies. I think we can get back to the same imaginative state we used to enjoy as children - with practice and a few tricks and games.

I've learned to use my subconscious to solve writing dead-ends, do you ever use your dreams to get through a piece of writing?

Vanessa: Not sleeping dreams, no. But if I reach a sticking point in my writing, especially when I’m away in Ireland, I will first go for a long walk, then curl up and almost go to sleep, when I get back. I need to keep a notebook and pen alongside - because it’s often when I’m in that state that the answers come, or new thoughts that I mustn’t let escape.

I try to be in a bit of a half-asleep state when I’m writing too. I type as fast as I can, often covering the screen of the laptop with something - a tee shirt, or a towel - so I can't see what I’ve written. I like that.
Vanessa, thanks for stopping by, it was a pleasure to talk to you. And best of luck with your fabulous new book. If you have any questions or comments for Vanessa feel free to leave them in the comments , I'm sure she'll be hanging about to answer them.

People wishing to buy The Coward's Tale can find it HERE at Amazon or HERE at Book Depository. Link


Vanessa Gebbie said...

Hey, Lauri - that s most lovely review of the book - thanks you SO much!! Lovely to be visiting.

Kiru Taye said...

Hi Vanessa,

It's great to meet you. Your book looks good.

I agree that writing can be taught and that talent is important and not just writing talent.

Best wishes with your book and thanks, Lauri for sharing this.


Vanessa Gebbie said...

Thanks Kiru - this is all such a good journey!

Lauri said...

Kiru- thanks for stopping by! I agree with both of you as well, to be a successful published writers it's often a bit surprising how many hats you must be able to wear and wear well.

shaunag said...

Lovely interview. I really enjoyed how the connection between dreams, dreaming and writing was explored. I type fast too and use those 'half-sleep' moments but haven't tried covering the screen....good tip, Vanessa! Thanks to you both. Shauna

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Thanks Shauna - glad to have passed on a tip - warning , you feel an absolute Charlie - but that feeling goes, and it works!

Rachel Fenton said...

Oh brill - I'm going to cover the screen, too - usually I get dry eyes just staring and staring at the thing.

I think the sleepy state is great for poetry, for me, but less so for fiction. Mornings are my fiction time. But ideas, yes, are definitely freer in that dreamy state.

Thoroughly enjoying all your interviews, Vanessa - and thank you, Lauri.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Thanks Rachel - good luck with the tee-shirt trick!

Anonymous said...

I am really delighted to read this interview and to hear of your success with your book, Vanessa. You give great advice. I am sure that many people will enjoy your book. All the best!