Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Author Visit: Vanessa Gebbie

This is the first of four interviews to celebrate Salt Publishing Month. Pull up a seat! [I also recommend buying a Salt book for Nicola Morgan's Alternative World Book Night.]

Vanessa Gebbie is Welsh. She is author of Words from a Glass Bubble (Salt), a collection of her award winning fiction from prizes including Bridport and the Daily Telegraph. She is contributing editor of Short Circuit: Guide to the Art of the Short Story (Salt), and contributor to The Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction (Rose Metal Press, USA). She teaches widely; in 2010 she was Writer in Residence at Stockholm University. Her latest collection of short stories is Storm Warning from Salt.


Hi Vanessa, thank you for taking the time to stop by! Help yourself to some tea.

Why thanks. Can I take a macaroon as well? Cheers.

How would you sum up your collection ‘Storm Warning’ for those who haven’t got their mitts on it yet?

It is a collection of short stories and flash fiction exploring the after-effects of conflict. No romance, sex, or flowers, I’m afraid. The earliest story is set in the 1550s, and the latest, yesterday…I’m interested in how conflict changes those caught up – whether they are major players or innocent bystanders. I am interested in the ordinary troops, the kids who witness events, the family – rather than those who go down in history.

I was brought up by a man who fought and was decorated in WWII – and he never forgot his experiences, nor was he able to exorcise them by speaking about it. My mother wouldn’t let him. So for the rest of his life the war stood between him and every day… it was that which inspired me, I think, although I didn’t write these as a collection consciously, I must admit. They were mostly written between 2004 and 2007, when a lot of other writing was happening. Some were sent out and published, and they all sat on my hard drive until Salt Publishing wanted a second collection…

What’s your writing ‘routine’? [if such a thing does exist!]

I don’t have one. I am the least disciplined writer on the planet. I can fiddle with work at home, but when I need to do a concentrated blast of in-depth work I always go away. I go to a writers’ retreat in the west of Ireland, called Anam Cara (see link below)– have been going there a few times a year since 2005. There, I find I can work solidly and steadily, all day, and well into the night, with no interruptions. I am nothing but a writer there – I am not a wife, mother, daughter, friend – although the owner has become a very good one of the last category.

You have won a very impressive amount of writing competitions over the years – which has meant the most to you?

That’s a hard question to answer, because in their way, all the competition successes have been a valued affirmation that I was doing something right. For example, I appreciate the sincerity, the search for standards and the hard work that goes on behind the scenes in places like Bridport and Fish; I have got to know the organisers, and value their professionalism and friendship enormously. Winning at the Daily Telegraph novel competition in 2007 was very important to me – it gave the characters, the style and the then synopsis of the novel, (now called ‘The Coward’s Tale’) much-needed validation. A win at Per Contra with a short section of the same thing meant that this piece of work worked across the pond as well – and lo and behold, the finished novel is coming out over in the USA next year..

But I will single out the Willesden Herald Short Story Competition as the one that means the most to me, looking back. I was joint winner of the very first one back in 2006, when the prize was just a mug- albeit a very treasured one. The final judge was Zadie Smith – and her words about my work were absolutely wonderful – things seemed to change after that. I bow to the founder and organiser, Stephen Moran. He is an inspiration. Not enough people like him around these days.

What’s your tale of from writing/to pitch/to first publication?

Don’t understand the question. If you mean ‘how did my first publication come about’, it was a short story called ‘Stinker and the Taff Vale Railroaders’ written in Alex Keegan’s Boot Camp (hardworking online writing forum) back in late 2003/early 2004. Fellow members of that forum were editors of an ezine called Buzzwords, and they asked me to submit the story. It was published in 2004. It’s still archived – antique value! http://www.buzzwordsmagazine.co.uk/vgstinker.htm

However, that makes it all sound rather easy – running alongside it is a list of loads of submissions and a heap of rejections!

I see your novel ‘The Coward’s Tale’ is to be published later this year – can you tell us a bit about that?

Yup - Bloomsbury will publish my first novel, ‘The Coward’s Tale’ this November in hardback, sometime in early-mid 2012, paperback, and then trade paperback in USA. It’s taken a long time to get written – and has had a chequered birthing – high spots include bits of it winning prizes at Bridport, The Daily Telegraph and Per Contra in the USA. Low spots (see the comment on muses below…) include bits of it being plundered by a writing buddy and the subsequent legal action I had to pay for [blimey!]. I could well have given up after that, but I didn’t. I knuckled down after a long period of feeling sorry for myself and changed the pieces that were nicked, rewrote a whole heap of it. That was 2009, a lesson and a half. It completely changed the way I worked.

But all’s well that ends well, and I am thrilled to be with Bloomsbury. Here is the current cover copy:

‘My name is Laddy Merridew. I’m a cry-baby. I’m sorry.’

‘And my name is Ianto Jenkins. I am a coward. And that’s worse.’

The boy Laddy Merridew, sent to live with his grandmother, stumbles off the bus into a small Welsh mining community, where he begins an unlikely friendship with Ianto Passchendaele Jenkins, the town beggar-storyteller. Ianto is watchman over the legacy of the collapse many years ago of Kindly Light Pit, a disaster whose legacy still echoes down the generations and blights the lives of many in the town. Through Ianto’s stories Laddy Merridew is drawn into both the town’s history and the conundrums of the present.

Why has woodwork teacher Icarus Evans striven most of his life to carve wooden feathers that will float on an updraft? Why is the undertaker Tutt Bevan trying to find a straight path through the town? Why does James Little, the old gas-meter emptier, dig his allotment by moonlight? And why does window cleaner Judah Jones take autumn leaves into a disused chapel?

These and other men of the town, both past and present, and the women who mothered them, married them and mourned them, are bound together by the echoes of the Kindly Light tragedy and by the mysterious figure of Ianto Passchendaele Jenkins, whose stories of loyalty and betrayal, loss and love, form an unforgettable, spellbinding tapestry.

The Coward’s Tale is a powerfully imagined, poetic and haunting novel spiked with humour, about kinship and kindness, guilt and atonement, and the ways in which we carve the present out of an unforgiving past.

Oo, intriguing Thanks for that - I'll keep my eyes peeled for it. Now, on to muses: On your blog, you said :

‘But then I re-read Rose Kelleher’s post about M A Griffiths. ‘Maz and the Male Muse...’ and I started thinking about the muses. Mine is not, never has been and never could be a female. Maybe the muses were depicted as females because they were invented by – er- men?? So what sex is your muse? Are you a woman writer who writes with one of the female muses wafting about in your study? Or are you, like me, fed by someone different? Is your muse something intangible, of the air? Or is it a solid person? The great painters had them. Why not us lot?!

‘People’ muses slightly nark me too because it gives the impression that writers don’t work hard at their craft; that they don’t hone. That it’s whispered into their ear fully-formed. Pfft. Having said that, life is inspiring and other writers do influence us. What/who inspires you [generally, or specifically ]?

Oh no no no no and no !! I don’t know what other people’s definition of a muse is, but for me it is a Janus-type figure who both inspires, sets things sparking - but then who has the job of chucking obstacles in the way. The writer has to work very very hard, it sometimes seems against insurmountable difficulties. Either it is too much and they give up and go on to something easier, or they say: ‘Bugger you, I’m going to DO this…’ and find a way round the obstacles. That’s my perfect muse. And he is very definitely a bloke, real or not, and I love him to bits. When I don’t hate him, of course.

Those writers who habitually give up when things get tough, may find their wonderful muses gradually give up on them too.

I do like your definition :) I also love to find writers who do short stories, poetry and novels – when an idea comes to you, do you immediately know which format it’s going to take?

I approached the novel as a series of short pieces written over 4/5 years on and off, then worked for over a year to weave them together into a novel – so I always knew that particular piece was going to be 1) a short piece, but b) at some point, part of a novel. I tend to know when a poem is being born – I don’t think a poem has ever turned itself into anything else. But I do like work that changes – shorts that turn into flashes, and vice versa.

If you could give just one piece of advice to an aspiring writer, what would it be?

Don’t be too proud to learn craft from other people – but when it comes to making your creations with that learned craft – you know best. No one else.

This month we’re dedicating our book forum to Salt Publishing – do you have anything you’d like to share about Salt? What do you think they bring to the book industry?

This is a lovely thing to do. And yes of course – here goes. I have been lucky to work with Salt Publishing since 2007 – my first book , the collection ‘Words from a Glass Bubble’, came out with them in 2008, and there’s been a text book commission (‘Short Circuit, a Guide to the Art of the Short Story’) in 2009, and then ‘Storm Warning’ late 2010.

For those who don’t know, but who are blown away by the magnificence of their website and the quality of what they do – Salt Publishing is mainly a hard-working couple called Chris and Jen Hamilton-Emery. Chris is the web guru, has been poetry editor since the off, although he has now handed that over to poet Roddy Lumsden, I believe. Chris carries the brunt of the business stuff, and he also designs the books – he has a wonderful eye and without exception, the books are gorgeous objects. Her is also a poet. Jen, in charge of the literary short fiction and the novels, she is Superwoman in disguise –she has worked closely with all us cantankerous writer-types to ensure our books are as good as they can be. She also is a working Mum, with three children – the youngest, Cameron, is still only five (I think!) and she is also very busy in the community, a skilled photographer – the list is endless. They of course have help in the office, and interns – otherwise there would be no one to take orders and expedite them, take phonecalls… (although it is usually one of them who does that…).

Salt has made some substantial changes to its provision in the last year. They now include the imprint Embrace Books under the amazing Jane Holland – romance e books, from the sweet to the veeery steamy I gather – and Proxima Books, for the weirder stuff – including Jon Pinnock’s not-to-be-missed ‘Mrs Darcy versus The Aliens’ in October. (I endorsed that one – hands up!)

Through working with Salt, I have learned a lot – primarily that the writer-publisher relationship is a two-way partnership. The exposure of your book on their great website is not going to sell many copies on its own, authors need to get out there, do readings, workshops and other gigs, to spread the word. Salt are good at passing on requests for writers – I’m off to read at the Cambridge Word Fest in April for example, and have had marvellous invitations to places as diverse as the Frank O’Connor Festival in Cork and Sevenoaks Literary Tea - all thanks to them. The last four years have certainly been a whirlwind of activity as far as sales and marketing are concerned, all done whilst trying to write the novel, more short fiction – it has been a bit busy. But I am glad to have done it all, and will of course continue to spread the word for my Salty books - but there is a downside – it does take you away from what you do best - writing.

Having said all that – writers need to get out there anyway, network, use social media, contribute to blog interviews….(!). The days of desks in garrets and other people doing all the publicity, all the marketing and selling initiatives, are long gone. If they ever existed. Charles Dickens used to travel and read his work all over...

You ask what I think Salt Publishing have brought to the book industry. The answer is, a lot. They set an example as innovators, for a start. The industry is going through a period of great change – and those who don’t respond to change, see it coming and try to get in front, go the way of the dodo, don’t they? I think they are brave – not afraid to try new things, and to fail sometimes. If we only ever did those things we knew were going to succeed, we’d never push the boundaries and make new discoveries. So far, in the face of many obstacles, they have not given up, and are still committed to bringing the best writing, in all its myriad forms, to readers. They try everything, sometimes earning negative comments that they are doing too much – but that’s their decision, no one else’s. It can’t have been easy, running a fine independent publishing house in the last few years – in fact I know it hasn’t. And for all the whinging we writers do (and we do do it rather well) this one has a lot of respect for Salt and I wish them continued successes, smoother rides to come. I think the book industry needs publishers like Salt. A mix of ambition, madness, savvy and passion.

Thank you - and I whole-heartedly agree. Now, more than ever, writers, publishers and bookshop owners have to diversify, think up new ways of getting themselves out there [not to sound like they are dating the public em mass or anything...]. The romantic idea of a writer slaving away over a typewriter is over [as you say, if it ever existed!] - hurrah for hardworking and dedicated writers like yourself who are prepared to go out and fight for their books and sell them to potential readers

Now, final question. On our book forum we have a Book Tree where members pick their favourite book and we all get to read it, posting it round in a circle, so that when the book comes back to the owner it’s filled with comments from everyone else. If you were to pick a book for the Book Tree, what would you pick and why?

If it is not already there, I’d pick ‘The Inheritors’, by William Golding. Not an easy one to get into – for reasons which will become obvious on the first page – but worth the effort. It is written from the point of view, mostly, of a Neanderthal man. And as far as we know, Neanderthal man had no fear of others, because he had no logic… ‘a’ did not automatically lead onto ‘b’, and ‘c’ would not be the product of the two. A tour de force, technically, and it really makes you think, this one.


Thank you, Vanessa!


Vanessa's collection 'Storm Warning' is available from Salt over here

www.vanessagebbie.com Vanessa's website
http://morenewsfromvg.blogspot.com Vanessa's blog
www.thecowardsjourney.blogspot.com this follows her novel through all the stages to publication in November.

She is running a week-long residential workshop in late May, for writers who are keen to explore the short story in one of the most inspirational places… she says: 'it changed my writing life, this place – it could change someone else’s too.' http://www.anamcararetreat.com/index.php/workshops/68-short-fiction-so-much-more-than-it-seems


  1. Great interview, Jen and Vanessa! I especially like your piece of advice, that is very useful. One that is not so easy to follow but very much worth trying to!

  2. Thank you for the chat. Vanessa always has interesting, thoughtful things to say, and I was also glad to learn more about Salt. Sounds like a great publisher.

  3. Wonderful interview. The blurb sounds fantastic!