You have published two collections of short stories. How do you go about beginning a collection? Does it start as an idea for the collection as a whole or do you bring stories together more organically?
I’m afraid I have to dash the belief (if anyone has it!) that my collections of short stories were planned. My writing life is a jumble – I am a chaotic person anyway, how I get anywhere on time is a mystery! But to answer the question for each book, because the process was very different: ‘Words from a Glass Bubble’ (Salt Modern Fiction, 2008) came about because I had a pile of decent stories and needed to do something with them other than having them scattered across the universe in anthologies or journals. I’d been lucky – had some competition successes at good places like Bridport, Fish, put those together and sent them to Salt, they liked them, asked for a few more, and bingo. Although the stories are all very different, readers tell me they can recognize my stamp, somehow, my writer’s voice. I don’t know how that works – I can’t see or hear any similarities at all! Thematically the stories hang together, although subject-wise the spread is wide.
The second collection ‘Storm Warning’ (Salt Modern Fiction 2010) had a different genesis. Salt wanted a second collection – and I wanted to do a book for my elderly father, who fought and was decorated in WWII. His war experiences affected him for the rest of his life – not in a dramatic way, but I was aware that he found war absolutely incomprehensible. Why did an ordinary, gentle person have to do that? What was it about? I’d been intrigued enough to explore the echoes that conflict leaves in those caught up in any way, in my fiction. Again, there were enough stories scattered about to make a coherent collection. Dad was very elderly, and suffering from dementia – but was aware of, and proud of ‘his’ book. He’s gone now, but that is a lovely thing to look back on.
I’ve also got a collection of very very short pieces, written deliberately to go together. ‘Ed’s Wife and Other Creatures’ might well be my first foray into self-publishing – if I can find an illustrator who can draw suitably mad beetles and other creepy-crawlies...we’ll see!
What made you want to write short stories?
Initially, it was the fact that they are ‘doable’ in a relatively short space of time. Or I thought they were. Then I found out, of course that the opposite is often true. So now, I’m not so sure. It was also the challenge of writing something difficult. They are not easy – but that’s part of the skill, to make them seem effortless, when you’ve really sweated buckets and sometimes been reduced to tears over the difficulties. But when they suddenly come right – there’s nothing quite like it!
Where do you find your inspiration?
When tragedy and comedy work together. That’s life...Where there is loneliness, sadness, mis-communication. When unexpected people reveal unexpected strengths in unexpected ways.
You grew up in Wales. Has the lyricism of the Welsh language, and the importance of its authors influenced you in your writing?
I didn’t grow up solely in Wales, but I stayed with my adoptive paternal grandmother in Merthyr Tydfil as often as I could, and used to make a helluva fuss when I had to leave. I felt absolutely relaxed and happy with her. There were no expectations, no stresses, just a feeling of being loved unconditionally, and belonging absolutely. Maybe that feeling’s the best place to return to, when we’re writing? I can still hear her, ‘Time for bed now. You clean your teeth like a good girl, and after Coronation Street I’ll bring you up some cigarettes...” (Sweets, honest! In little packets just like my auntie's Embassy tipped.) I spent my teen years at boarding school in north Wales - fabulous place. Mad as hell. Dreadful teaching and wonderful teaching side by side. I was almost expelled for "having the devil on my shoulder". It closed soon after I left - I don't think the two events were linked though.
I am not going to pretend to be well-read – but I’ve always loved Dylan Thomas’s ‘Under Milk Wood’, the humour of it, the way he creates a character in a few lines of speech, and a whole living community in the interplay of a few characters. Did he influence me? Yes, yes and yes again – he was a great teacher! But I’d already met some of his characters in the Merthyr streets – they, or characters like them, were my relatives, and Nan’s neighbours. I love the work of David Jones too, in ‘In Parenthesis’, which must have been read by Dylan Thomas – the dialogue is so wonderful, the language – although the subject-matter couldn’t be more different. We learn from everyone we read, don’t we? To do, or not to do. What works for us, what doesn’t. What inspires.
Cadences of speech? If a story is set in Wales, then yes, the voices of my family permeate the writing. Or rather they overwhelm it – so I have to ask them to stand back now and again!
How do you relax when not reading/writing short stories? Thinking about the next one...or worrying that I can’t unearth the next...
Recommend a short story/short story collection to us.
I’m reading Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Happy Prince’ again – I love fairy-stories, although they are sometimes more real than realism very often, don’t you find? And I’ve got ‘Little Herr Friedmann and Other Stories’ by Thomas Mann by the bed. I would also like to recommend that readers keep an eye out for A J Ashworth’s ‘Somewhere Else or Even Here’, out later this year from Salt Modern Fiction. Hands up – I’ve just read and endorsed this lovely collection, which was one of the winners of the 2011 Scott Prize.
You've just written your first novel. Was the process of writing it very different from the short stories?
Not really – I approached it as a series of twelve stories about twelve central characters, then split each story into three, undid much of each story arc, and wove them into a novel-length piece of work, a novel structure. Sounds simple, but it took me 6 years... Single shorts are much easier (!). The Coward’s Tale is out from Bloomsbury UK and USA this winter.
And finally, what are you working on now?
I always multi-task. The brain is working on the next novel. My fingers are writing poetry. And I’m off on an Arvon play-writing course in ten days' time. I write a lot of flash fiction too...
The next non-writing project is a weekend retreat for women writers coming up in September, at the glorious Tilton House, in deepest East Sussex. I’m running this on behalf of New Writing South, and need to plan the six writing workshops which will form the creative core of the retreat. And also, must plan which pubs we are going to walk to, which stories we are going to tell round the fire pit, in the dark... I can’t wait for this – they say you should run events you want to go on yourself – telling me. I need someone to run one for me, please!
Vanessa Gebbie is the author of two collections of stories and contributing editor of a creative writing text book. She has won numerous awards - including prizes at Bridport, Fish and the Willesden Herald - for her short fiction. Many of her prize-winning stories have been gathered together in her debut collection, Words from a Glass Bubble (Salt Publishing, March 2008). An extract from The Coward's Tale won the Daily Telegraph 'Novel in a Year' Competition. Vanessa is Welsh and lives in Sussex. To find out more about Vanessa Gebbie visit her website, and follow her on twitter.
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