Friday, 6 April 2012

Author Visit: Vanessa Gebbie

So, today, there's something of a blog swap going on. The lovely Vanessa Gebbie is here to talk about her fantastic book 'The Coward's Tale,' and I am over on Vanessa's blog talking about 'Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops.' If you are in the UK/Ireland then there's the chance to win a copy of 'Weird Things...' by replying to that blog post.

So, grab a cup of tea and enjoy both interviews!


Everyone [it doesn't matter where you live] who replies to this post by 15th April will have their name put into a hat. The name pulled out of that hat will win a copy of Vanessa's wonderful book 'The Coward's Tale.'

Hi Vanessa. Welcome back!

So, the last time you were here you were telling us about ‘Storm Warning.’ You’ve been a very busy bee since then. Tell us what you’ve been up to. 

I was a strange time back then. As ‘Storm Warning’ was published in November 2010 by Salt Modern Fiction,  and as a houseful of friends was drinking my cellar (er, my boxes of booze from Tescos) dry at the launch party, I was  also celebrating the sale of my novel ‘The Coward’s Tale’ to Bloomsbury. So my collection of conflict stories was kind of eclipsed. 

But the next few months was an exciting time, working with my editor on tweaks (thank goodness, that was all that was needed),  learning about the copy-editing process and the proof-reading process, discussing the design of the hardback cover (fantastic to see this coming together), learning about marketing and publicity plans. ‘The Coward’s Tale’ came out in hardback in the UK in November 2011. It came out in the USA in a different but stunning paperback jacket in February this year, and now I’m partying in the ether for the UK paperback. It’s good fun. Don’t think much of the beer, though. 
But it’s just one of the thousands of things I’m up to. Writing the next novel, teaching creative writing a lot, writing poetry and being a poetry student, planning a far-away residency for 2013, acting as travel agent for a group of writers visiting the WW1 battlefields with a military historian later in the year, and revamping my short story text book ‘Short Circuit’. The end of the year finishes with a four-week writing retreat in a Scottish castle - I have a Hawthornden Fellowship. I shall need it. 

Give a run down of ‘The Coward’s Tale’ for those who haven’t read it yet.

The critic A N Wilson, when he chose it as his novel of the year in The Financial Times, said it was “ an extraordinarily lyrical, moving, funny evocation of a Welsh mining town and its inhabitants as seen through the eyes of “the coward”, who witnessed the collapse of the Kindly Light pit. A poet’s novel, really.” 

But how to describe it? Hmm. OK - 

A boy called Laddy Merridew nearly misses his bus stop, and stumbles into a close-knit, slightly strange but troubled Welsh mining community.  He’s come to stay with his gran, who cleans the library, while his Mum and Dad sort out a broken marriage - but he doesn’t really understand what’s going on. He’s lonely, bullied at his new school, and needs friends. 

Laddy strikes up an extraordinary friendship with old Ianto Jenkins, ‘The Coward’. Ianto is the town 
beggar and storyteller, and he knows all about the town’s past. Laddy soon recognises that certain people in the town have funny tics, or their names are odd, or they live in a strange way. He listens as Ianto is persuaded by the townsfolk, thanks to a toffee or two, to explain these oddities through his stories, which are funny, sad, impossible, heart-rending, always extraordinary.

All the stories seem to go back to one day a few generations back, when the local coal mine, the inappropriately named Kindly Light Pit, collapsed. 

But whereas Ianto will happily relate the strange tales of the townsfolk, he obviously knows more than he’s telling. 

He has never told anyone what happened to him that day, when he was only a lad himself.  Will he finally tell his own story? 

Ta da!

Was it the characters or the plot which formed in your head first?

Characters, character, always the characters. I only discovered what the novel was about in the final year of writing. It took  six years in all. 

Which characters in the book are your favourites, and why?

Aagh! That’s like choosing between your children. I love them in different ways, all of them. 

What was the most exciting part of the novel writing/publishing process. And what was the most frustrating?

Writing is hard. I don’t think it is ‘exciting’, really. Maybe those few moments where it flows like water, and seems effortless, but that doesn’t happen much any more. Those are the moments that make it extraordinary - it will always excite me when something ‘takes off’ and I am just typing as fast as I can to keep up with a storyline I didn’t consciously invent. Still love it though, and wouldn’t be doing anything else.

The most exciting part is when a reader who you will never meet is so moved by your work that they write to you to thank you for writing it. And when those messages come from Wales - that is even better. 

Frustrations are legion with the writing process. How long have you got?!

What’s the one thing you wish publishers understood more about writing? 

That most writers are solitary animals, not suited to turning themselves into performing seals. Performing seals can’t paint their dreams in words. And they smell. 

And what’s the main thing you think writers should be aware of about the publishing process?

That your book is just one of thousands. And it is a product. It has to sell. If it doesn’t, you can expect to be out on your ear. 

You’ve just been to Athens [jealous!]. Tell us aof bout that.

I was there to speak at the launch of an anthology. 

In October 2011, EUNIC (EU National Institutes of Culture) in Greece invited a female writer from each of several EU countries to write a short story exploring the issue of gender equality. I was the UK writer for the project - the others were Rea Galanaki (Greece), Marta Pessarodona (Spain), Dacia Maraini (Italy), Rina Katselli (Cyprus) and Annette Mapson (Norway). 

The project was in collaboration with the General Secretariat for Gender Equality, Greek Ministry of Interior. An anthology of our stories was published in Greece, and launched in Athens on March 8th, International Women’s Day. Entitled ‘Six Women, Six Voices’, the initial idea had been to publish all the stories in Greek alongside each piece in its original language - but the economic situation meant that the whole project was under threat at one point, and in the end, funding was found to ensure its survival in Greek.

Oh I loved Athens. I had such a great few days thanks to The British Council- Athens is an extraordinary, deeply resonant place. Knocked spots off many the other European cities I’ve visited.

Although of course - happy to be proved wrong... 

You’re writing poetry at the moment. How did you get into that? Who are your favourite poets?

I love words. I love sounds, meanings and double-meanings, quirks and oiks.  It’s just another thing to do with words, so I’m happy.  I love reading poems, they say such a lot in so few words, it’s mind-blowing. 

The great ones open up in your head like flowers.  

I’ve written some poems, had a few published, a few entered cheekily into comps with no idea whether they were any cop, some have done OK. Some not. At the moment I am working with poet Pascale Petit at Tate Modern, six evening workshops after hours, in an exhibition - it is an extraordinary thing to be doing. 

Want a poem? Here you are... don’t ask me what it’s on about...

The Harpies

 I met the greyest of women from Golders Green. 
“I tell you, she said, “I am looking for peace. Please listen to me.” 
Her hair and clothes crackled. Her teeth chattered
with a sound like ice shattering. This was one
of many who spoke on the strangest of days,
who said my face was a well for their grief,
my eyes were mirrors against which they might flail and die.
Such weeping. They leached the world of its hues,
these women, whose sadness bent their spines in two.
As always, when faced with horrors, I did not want to know.
As always, when faced with horrors, I did not want to know
these women whose sadness bent their spines in two.
Such weeping. They leached the world of its hues.
My eyes were mirrors against which they might flail and die.
Who said my face was a well for their grief?
Of many who spoke on the strangest of days
with a sound like ice shattering, this was one:
her hair and clothes crackled, her teeth chattered,
“I tell you,” she said, “I am looking for peace. Please, listen to me...
I met the greyest of women from Golders Green...”

Lovely! What are you working on at the moment, and what are your plans for the future?

1. Next novel. 
2. Poetry.
3. Short Circuit 2nd edition with new chapters by Scott Pack, Stuart Evers, Zoe King, Tom Vowler and a few other wonderful writers and editors. 
4. Teaching. Love that. ( Just heard that a student who worked with me for a week last   May has a story in this year’s Fish Prizewinner’s anthology - her first publication. That's what makes teaching so great. )

  1. Planning 2013 residency.
  2. Working with an illustrator on a collection of themed flash fictions - we’ll probably publish that this year. I’d like to know what that is like. 

Then, it will be 5 books in 5 years. And more importantly, I will have had experience of working with a great independent publisher (Salt) a great mainstream publisher (Bloomsbury), experience of publishing stories and poems online, and in print journals, and self-publishing a carefully collated and edited collection. Can’t  hurt, in today’s world, can it!?

I want to complete the second novel - faster than the first. I’m sure my agent will be pleased to hear that!

Thanks, Vanessa!


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 echoes reverberate down the generations of the town. Through Ianto's stories Laddy 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, 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 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. It is a story of kinship and kindness, guilt and atonement, and the ways in which we carve the present out of an unforgiving past.


  1. Winning a book always sounds awesome! Especially something new! =D

    Very interesting blog and I love that you blog-swapped for a day!

  2. Another great interview. Love the sound of your launched me book/sold me book party. (No need to enter me into the draw, Jen.)

  3. Sounds like a wonderful tale! All the best to you.

  4. Hello, found my way here via Dickon Edwards´online journal. Like your blog a lot and The Coward´s Tale seems like a very interesting book.

  5. I can't wait to read this, and to look up her poetry as well. Thank you for a lovely interview!

  6. Thank you Jen - it's been great fun swapping interviews. I wish Weird Things all the luck in the world. xx

  7. I have this on my (virtual) TBR stack! There have been so many good reports about it.

  8. Sounds like a wonderful story. I love interesting characters and look forward to meeting yours. The poem sounds like a memory I have of a woman who seemed determined to drag a negative comment out of me by putting words in my mouth, but would burst into tears if I made the slightest agreement with her. It was work to backtrack and escape not because I didn't want to talk to her but because if I stayed she looked like her heart would have broken from my imagined insults to her. Aside from a hug I couldn't think of anything else to do and I think she would have broken down with that too. Very sad

  9. Just wondering about one comment, that the writing 'flowing like water' doesn't come much any more. Is that true and what did you mean by it? Has big-time publication made you more cautious and controlled?

  10. Hi Chillcat - Yup, sadly, once I started to get stuff published, the knowledge that this was not just 'me and the empty page' any more weighed heavy. I used to write really freely, words would pour out, story after story. Just for the fun of it. And it wasn't 'big' publications at all - that made me more anxious as a writer - even the littler ones would have the same effect.
    Now, I am furiously aware of the need for a book to be successful, or it, and you, will get dropped fast. Having worked so hard to 'get' wherever this is, that is a ghastly albatross to carry all the time.
    It is now hard to return to that original 'free' state - but there are ways of making it more possible. I go to a wonderful writers' and artists' retreat called Anam Cara, in Ireland, where I now do most of my serious writing.
    There, I find it is easier to forget all the other 'stuff' and just write. It's peaceful, no other roles to play.
    I should have been writing in the 50s and 60s. When you just wrote and handed it in, and got on with the next!

  11. I came here via some blog surfing and wish to say, enjoyed the interview. In awe at what she has accomplished and her clearly outlined future plans.

  12. I hadn't heard about this intriguing book yet, so thanks for the preview, interview, and giveaway! I love the mirrored poem, too.

  13. What a great interview - and the book sounds fascinating! Added straight to my wishlist :)