Thursday 21 April 2011

Vanessa Gebbie: an interview


In the late noughties whether I was reading the latest Riptide magazine, the Salt blog, or competition results, Vanessa Gebbie's name kept appearing. In 2007 alone she was 1st in the Daily Telegraph's Novel prize, 1st in Exeter University's Paddon Award, 2nd in the Bridport, 2nd in the Fish Short Story Prize and 2nd in FlashQuake's "Less is More" competition. Since then she's written/edited a few books. As if that wasn't enough, she's had poetry successes too (2 poems short-listed in the Bridport 2010 competition). She's keen to share what she's learnt (and still learning) via blogs and workshops - she's a busy (and I suspect excellent) teacher and judge.

Her pieces are of course good reads, but I also think they're particularly useful for aspiring writers to learn from. Though it's unlikely that our stories would be mistaken for each other's, many of her stories are what I'd like to write - she seems to try to make each word count (count double if possible), and though she has many interesting life experiences she could write about, she prefers to invent. Her short story collections are more varied than most, though a few images and themes are repeated -

Words from a glass bubble (Salt 2008) is a collection of stories that not only vary widely in word-length but authorial orientation changes too - sometimes the narrator's invisible, sometimes she's puppeteer, ring-master or quizzing, challenging storyteller. Some symbols recur - there are old virgins, wall eyes, "joined up houses", dead children, fostered/adopted children, birds ... and the sand gets everywhere. There are several churches too (while in Cambridge she popped into St Botolph's Church which dates from 1350). The church-cleaners in the stories are perhaps examples of the more general "body" cleaners that pervade the stories. Many characters are outcasts longing for old wounds to be healed, or are merely seeking a firmer identity. It's striking how early the characters introduce themselves (or another character) to the reader - many first pages have "I'm X" or "X is". At a recent Cambridge WordFest session Vanessa said that she'd had an "odd beginning" (adopted at birth, only recently meeting her genetic relatives) and sympathized with people trying to find their place.

Storm Warning (Salt 2010) is more thematic, featuring victims of military/religious conflict who have a weakened sense of the present, becoming vulnerable to sudden losses of working memory and invasion by the past. Dominant imagery involves beaches, feet/shoes, and smells, with several inter-generational relationships.

The following interview picks up on a few of these issues mentioned above, touching also on the use of autobiographical information, the compromises of a writers' life, and how to make the most of things.

Interview (April 2011, by e-mail)

If you had your time again, how might you have developed your writing faster?

I'm not sure it's a good thing to develop writing 'faster'. Could I have done that without compromising what I'm doing now? I don't think so... I'm not sure speed is a good thing, is it? Maybe for some people, but for me, I'm happy to be jogging along at whatever pace this thing goes at. I reckon we all come to writing when we are ready, and can't force things to happen before then, at least, not without damaging something. I really started this journey in October 2002, spent a year learning craft, started writing seriously a year later. Had my first publication in early 2004, my first comp success that summer. Lots more followed, I was very lucky, but it was hard hard work! I would not make comp wins or publications just 'notches on the desk' - easy to do and useless for learning. I tried to progress, to target harder and harder comps for example. It seemed to work. I got noticed by an agent and also by Salt Publishing in 2007. The first collection came out in 2008, the text book in 2009, the third book (second collection) in 2010, the novel was pitched by my agent to publishers in October 2010, found a home with Bloomsbury a month later and will be out in Nov 2011 in the UK and in Jan 2012 in the US. Could I have done it faster? I don't think so, to be honest. Not without burning out and producing poor work in the process.

Do you find that teaching helps your writing?

Yes and no. Yes in that being with other writers is a positive experience, and there is great synergy in a group of keen learners. I get swept up in it because I am a learner too. Always. The day I stop learning, I will stop.

There's no real 'us and them' for me. I just like passing on this thing I love to newer writers. I take a non-academic, very hands on approach, absolutely non-didactic. There is certainly no need to produce work for a tick and a mark out of ten from anyone other then the writers themselves. My aim is only to help open people up to their own potential, and show them some tools to sharpen things.

But - no - as well, it does not help my writing, in that it is using a different set of skills, and therefore I would never ever want to take a job as a writing teacher full time. It would stop me writing.

If money wasn't an issue would you still do teaching?

Yes. Absolutely. If you have a skill at something, no matter how slight - don't you have a duty to teach the next generation? Besides, I had some stunningly good tuition myself, and I don't see how morally I can't pass that on. If it worked for me, it will work for others... I'll keep teaching until people stop asking me, I guess.

Would you still judge?

Difficult one - I think I would still agree to be final judge - not necessarily read every single entry.

You've written stories and Flash. Now you're writing novels and poems too. Does a piece that begins as one thing ever turn into another? What's the most common transformation?

Yes, occasionally. For example, a very short flash piece about a priest assuaging his own guilt about a strange parishioner - ended up as a poem. It was a better poem than it was a flash. And you could argue that I turned about thirty stories into a novel - only that took a year's hard work, and was a very deliberate act. They didn't 'turn into' the novel without a lot of persuasion ... if not beatings!

Which writer or writing issue have you changed your mind about lately?

Interesting question. I re-read "Birdsong" [by Sebastian Faulks] recently - and certainly found it less mesmerising than I did at first. I think it could have had a better editor - put it like that.

Writing issues - hmm. The longer I am at this game, the more I realize that whereas 'there are no rules' seems to be a popular mantra for so many writers and tutors, I do not buy that. Yes, there are rules. Even 'there cannot be rules' is one, isn't it? I think it's best to know what they are. And then the best rule of all - break them. But you need to know what they are first, and know WHY you are breaking them.

Example - I was always taught never to open a piece of work with direct speech, simply because it leaves the reader hanging for a second, ungrounded. Why do that to your reader? There will usually be a better way of opening. I challenged myself, for a bit of fun, to write a novel that had only one starting line possible - a line of dialogue. Tick. Done. There is no better opening line for my book -
"My name is Ianto Jenkins. I am a coward."

The Acknowledgements page of Ros Barber's "Material" ends with "Finally, apologies are due to all those individuals who find themselves incorporated as 'material' when they would have chosen otherwise". Do you sympathise with this?

No, I'm afraid I don't, much as I respect Ros's work. If I haven't managed to incorporate'individuals as inspiration' in a way that makes the result totally new, unrecognisable, I have failed. I would rather assume I haven't failed, not that I have and therefore offer apologies just in case! By the way, I don't use real people as inspiration, as a rule. (Rules...) I make them up instead. Except for the ones I don't.

Which famous writers didn't write Flash but should have, because they'd have been so good at it?

I can't answer that. Probably today, we would just switch the line-breaks of a Shakespeare soliloquy and call it a flash.

Do you find retreats useful nowadays?

Absolutely. I have to get away from home to write anything new, or to be able to concentrate in depth anyway. There is too much going on at home at the moment - dealing with the rapid decline of a much-loved father, for example - having to empty and sell the house he lived in alone for twenty years, a son on a GAP year chucking himself off cliffs in New Zealand, the birth of my first grandchild, a husband who is at home now, wanting to use my study for his activities (the house computer...) I really don't have a space at home that I can call my own. I had a shed built in the garden - it gets used to store garden furniture... Therefore I am happy to go away and pay for peace and space elsewhere.

What's your ideal writer's holiday?

The best holiday for this writer is one that feeds the creative brain, follows an obsession, something ... example - I have just spent five days with a military historian following one Pal's Battalion through the battlefields of The Somme and the Ypres Salient. Perfect.

What are the best and worst aspects of writers groups? Are there situations where you wouldn't recommend someone to attend them?

Best aspects: Writing is a lonely occupation. A good writers group is a real boon, life-enhancing, work-enhancing. A chance to share information, markets, craft, networks - all so necessary today. Good feedback on one's work is rare - but if it can be found, then that's terrific.

Worse aspects: Some writers' groups tend to be run by the person with the loudest voice. Not necessarily the one who says the best things with that loud voice. Sometimes feedback can be anodyne, always positive, of the 'Oooo I like that Mavis' school. That's a bit meaningless, if you seriously want to get on. If you are just in for a social meet-up, that's different. I think writers are a vulnerable lot. I know, I am one myself. We seek approbation, want to get on and do Ok, maybe see our work out there - validation of sorts. I do think it is important not to confuse positive feedback from a writing group with the other sort, which tends to mean a bit more, if the market is well researched.

Where would I not recommend attending ... I know from bitter experience one of the big downsides of writers groups. Vulnerability - not just yourself, but your work. You just don't know if your work and your ideas shared with others will be respected - or if they will surface in a slightly different format with someone else's name on them - as happened to me and others couple of years back. I would say, having experienced the worst of it - don't share work with anyone unless you know them really well, and that means NOT writers you only know on the Internet.

The Internet is a marvellous medium but you do need to ensure you are not being too trusting. Working online, no matter how well you 'think' you know someone - you really don't. Take it from me. Do try to meet the people you commune with online, especially anyone with whom you feel you'd like to work closely. You may find the person is absolutely nothing like their pleasant online persona - nuff said.

Thanks Vanessa

From story to novel

In 2009 I based a workshop exercise around one of her stories -

Here's the start of an award winning modern story. Do a WhoWhatWhereWhyWhen reading of it. What might the themes be?

The Virgin Mary spoke to Eva Duffy from a glass bubble in a niche half way up the stairs. Eva, the post woman, heard the Virgin's words in her stomach more than in her ears, and she called her the VM. The VM didn't seem to mind. She was plastic, six inches high, hand painted, and appeared to be growing out of a mass of very green foliage and very pink flowers, more suited to a fish tank. She held a naked Infant Jesus who stretched his arms out to Eva and mouthed, every so often ... "Carry?"

And here's the final paragraph. It has many echoes of the first - checklist the first paragraph's items to see what happened to them.

Then, there was a sound. The cry of a buzzard as it might have been made by a small boy, a thin little cry that rose triumphant into the post woman's house, echoed round the stairs and floated out of the open windows to disappear among the whispers of wind in the night sky.

Both begin and end with a sound. The glass bubble has become an open window; the artificial foliage and flowers have become wind and night sky; the silent pleading a triumphant cry, etc. The transition isn't explicitly from sadness to happiness, more from constriction to release - from the body, the house, the bubble, the niche on the stairs; from limbo. The main character doesn't even get a name-check at the end - it's more an exorcism than a voyage of self-discovery. It's interesting to see that "post woman" figures in both - the message-deliverer who doesn't get the message, maybe. Or perhaps there's a hint of post-menopausal, the release of no longer being of child-bearing age.

Beautifully orchestrated writing? Or (to an experienced reader) an example of structural fatalism, of claustrophobic unity? I'd guess that even fans of this ouroboric style would agree that you can have too much of a good thing. At the Cambridge WordFest she said that the chapters of her novel kept turning into stories, their heads eating their tails. It's possible of course for a novel to be a loosely connected set of short stories (a recent, acclaimed example is Jennifer Egan's "A Visit From the Goon Squad") but Vanessa decided to disconnect the chapter endings from their beginnings, with Maggie Gee as mentor. On Patricia Ann McNair's blog she charts her passage, writing "I wonder if a successful writer of short fiction may find it hard to write a novel, because they need to unlearn so much. However, when they finally do, I wonder if they might write a better novel than they would if they were not short story writers first". Let's hope so. It would be a shame if too much of Vanessa's versatility was lost in the process, but you can't keep everyone happy. Ian McEwan started as a short story writer. Even though his novels have brought him international fame, it's not uncommon to hear of people still prefering his stories.

At least her recent novel-writing activity has given the rest of us more of a chance in short story competitions, though I'm sure our window of opportunity will be short-lived - she's too natural and gifted a short-story writer to turn her back on the genre for long.

Vanessa's response

It is a marvellous thing, to have a piece of work analysed like this - and I was very grateful to Tim for firstly taking the time to do it, and secondly, posting the results. It might be interesting (or not) to learn how the writer feels when this exercise is done on their work.

I felt three things. I was really pleased. I was seriously grateful. But more than all that, I was absolutely astonished. It was the first time I had consciously taken note of those echoes in the opener and the ending of Glass Bubble, the story. It was the first time that the symbols and images in the story, images which had risen up unbidden and unplanned in the process of writing, not put there consciously at all - had been scrutinised and interpreted.

The exercise reminded me so much of those wonderful sessions in the Sixth Form, or at university - literary analysis as it was done in the dark ages, I expect ... seeking out the images in Shakespeare's Hamlet and drawing conclusions as to his 'meanings'.

'Meaning' presupposes intent. I assumed back then that Shakespeare (or indeed the group of writers who bear that name) deliberately inserted symbols and images into his work, like the coordinator of a treasure hunt, deliberately leaving clues to be uncovered and the uncovering enjoyed by the finders. Now, I am wiser than that, because I am a writer. Sure, some writers may carefully go back and insert clever symbols into their work, after the first draft is complete. I have actually seen advice from CW tutors telling students to do this. I'm telling you if you DO that, the joins will show.

So please don't. When you are writing 'in the zone', and writing from a place you care about deeply, saying something you care about deeply, every word will flow in the same direction. Every metaphor will create itself.

And lovely blokes like Tim will discover the things you didn't know were there, and make you feel awfully clever. When actually - all you are is a writer.


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  1. Really fine conversation here. Thanks. Vanessa always has interesting things to say about the work.

  2. Thank you! That was a lovely interview. I definitely agree with you Vanessa that writing "'in the zone', ... Every metaphor will create itself."

    I've been despairing over two stories I'm working on that remain lifeless and dull no matter what I do. I couldn't put my finger on the problem, but you've hit the proverbial nail on the head. Thanks for reminding me that all great works of art have a beating heart. Thanks again.

  3. A terrific interview. I have been a big fan of Vanessa's for a long time now and I have seen her in action. She is really something special, as is her work. I can't wait to read her novel, though I suspect she will continue to write manybthings in different genres just because she can. I look forward to those as well!