Vanessa Gebbie is a writer of stories of all lengths, in prose, poetry and something between the two. Author of two short story collections, one novel, a poetry pamphlet and an illustrated flash collection, and contributing editor of Short Circuit, Guide to the art of the short story (Salt), her next book is Memorandum: poems for the fallen – forthcoming February 2016 from Cultured Llama. Other books in the pipeline for 2016/17 include an irreal flash chapbook and a third short fiction compilation. Her work has been supported by the Arts Council, a Hawthornden Fellowship, and residencies at Gladstone’s Library and Anam Cara Writers and Artists’ Retreat, Ireland. She teaches widely. www.vanessagebbie.com
Interview by Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn
Thank you for agreeing to answer some questions for The Short Story, Vanessa. I’m looking forward to hearing more about your work.
It is a pleasure, Lindsay – thank you for asking me.
You write both poetry and fiction. In what ways do you think the different genres complement each other, and what influences your choice when you’re deciding which medium to use? Do you enjoy writing one more than the other, and do you find one more challenging than the other?
Ooh, a multiple-thingummy question. OK. To take each part separately:
i. In my work poetry and prose do a kind of dance, in that sometimes they are so far apart they turn their backs and refuse to have anything to do with each other, and conversely sometimes they move so close that they are almost indistinguishable. I wonder whether this is recognised by other writers who write across the spectrum? It’s funny, but when you stop, and examine what you do, prompted by questions such as these – occasionally your own work takes you by surprise. Or rather it seems like it is by someone else, and the answers are elusive. By ‘dance’ I mean that sometimes, the words that come could easily be either prose or poetry. It depends so much on their shape on the page, the addition or subtraction of a few tiny words which push shifts of emphasis. I have (shock horror…) written something as a poem, and found that it also works (minus line breaks and with said additions) as prose. A flash… and yes, hands up, I have published the same pieces as both. That’s probably the end of my career as a poet – but I wonder if working initially as a prose writer teaches you not to be precious about your words – a very important thing to learn. If the words serve you best in one shape, then fine. If in another – well, thank you, words.
ii. I am not sure I often ‘decide’ what medium to use when approaching something new. I just write. That’s what I do best. The medium comes with the process, with the writing. On the other hand, when I am sitting down to write something for a specific project already begun, when I am already in the mindset of that project, the words will fall out as prose for a prose project, and poetry for poetry. Having published books of both prose and poetry in the last few months, I can see that’s how it worked, looking back.
iii. There is a huge pleasure in getting something as close to ‘right’ as I can get it, whatever it is. That pleasure is the same whether the words are this shape or that.
iv. Writing well is a challenge, full stop. I wish it got easier – it doesn’t!
One of the reviews for your short story collection ‘Words from a Glass Bubble’ (Salt) describes the content as centred round loss. Do you think you have themes which you return to in your stories, and if so, what are they?
Absolutely – “Loss” is one place I go to write. Another is “Displacement” and another is “Miscommunication”, then there’s “Being judged by people before people know you” – another is “Wacky” another is “Thinking Laterally” and of course I do enjoy “Inhabiting WW1 people and events” and a hundred other destinations – so many places, so little time!
Another reviewer describes the style and narrative of each story as sitting perfectly within the format. How deliberate is your choice of format, and how conscious of it are you when you are writing?
I am not conscious of formats at all. That is something I will attend to at the editing stage, when the story is told, to make sure it I am telling it in the most effective way. Sometimes, they came out in the right way – and needed minimal interference. Sometimes, complete rehashes.
The blurb for another collection ‘Storm Warning’ (Salt) tells us that the stories were inspired by your father’s experiences in WW11 and their aftermath. To what extent did this personal link influence the stories, both their content and the ideas and emotions you wanted to convey?
The link between me and the lovely man who brought me up is the ink that wrote the stories. He was an ordinary bloke who did nothing more physically dangerous than a spot of Valleys rugby in Merthyr, then was pivoted into WWII where things were a tad different. I don’t think he ever understood how he came to rise to the challenges of the war, how he came to be decorated with a Military Cross for gallantry in the field, or exactly how he coped with the stultifying weight of ordinary life afterwards. Perhaps I wanted to explore how war changed people. How its effects ripple out for years, to the soldiers, to the bystanders… the echoes are never silenced.
You have described ‘The Coward’s Tale’ (Bloomsbury) as a series of short stories knitted into a novel. What challenges did you face as a result of this?
Oh, huge challenges. My creative persona works in smaller story-shapes, it appears, and the manuscript needed to be just that as I was creating it – a series of stories all building to the same conclusion – but to knit it into the novel took the skill and vision of a writer who is far more experienced than I. I was mentored for that by Maggie Gee, thanks to an ACE grant and can bow and thank her for her guidance both structurally and in so many other ways.
Your most recent publication ‘Ed’s Wife and Other Creatures’ (Liquorice Fish Books) is something a bit different. A collection of illustrated micro-fictions, it’s described as ‘Delicate and disturbing by turns, gently surreal yet anchored in the everyday’. Could you tell us some more about the collection, your inspiration and what you wanted to achieve?
I love it! It started in 2006 as a flash scribbled on holiday, seeing a murmuration of starlings fragmenting into the shape of a woman. The woman, Suze, became the central point of a series of some seventy short pieces written over the next few years, when I wanted to play… looking at Suze through the behaviour of birds, insects, animals. Her poor other half, Ed, never quite knows who or what she will be next. It is a beautiful little book, gloriously and fully illustrated by the inimitable Lynn Roberts, who must be as nuts as the writer is.
In ‘Short Circuit’, the highly-successful book about the art of the short story, which you edited, many of the contributors talk about the craft of story writing. How important do you think craft is to a successful short story?
Hmmph. Let’s turn that one round. I think the craft of writing is something we all need to learn – but having said that there are umpteen ways to do that. The most successful way to learn is not to pay thousands for courses, although courses can be great for many things – craft included – providing a writer with like-minded colleagues, opening the mind to many different opinions, debate, visions, discipline.
The best way to learn to write is to read, I am convinced of that. Especially short stories. How often do I start a short story workshop and find that many of the participants do not read short stories? I am befuddled by that. So they want to learn how to write them, but don’t really know what they want to learn about because they don’t engage with the most perfect (arguably) form of fiction? (Shakes head, and goes for a walk…).
Perhaps, once we have learned about craft, by whatever means, the craft becomes second nature. So a story sometimes, very occasionally, comes out well crafted in first draft. Or, (more usually) the revision process is tempered by knowledge of craft, and the story shape is smoothed under the hands of the craftswoman. Here’s a challenge: take any superb short story and analyse it for craft. Take it to pieces. It’s like Meccano (remember that?) Loosen one bolt, and the whole structure bows and shifts. All the craft elements in perfect balance, that’s a great story. See The Ledge, by Lawrence Sargent Hall. Dated? Nah. It carries its years with grace.
In your introduction to the essays in ‘Short Circuit’, you quote the chief shortlister for the Bridport Prize as saying ‘I want to see those stories that make you forget you are reading.’ What do you want to see in a short story to make you think ooh, this is good?
Nice question. Initially, it is all in the opening. Voice. Character. Language. Intrigue – gentle but defined. If those things are working in synch, I want to know who, what, why… and that’s all it takes. I am a reader – I love being told a good story – that’s all.
It’s the same if I am judging a short story competition. All I am looking for is a good story! If the opening is terrific, then chances are the rest will follow. If the opening is sticky, or overworked, or plain boring, then the plane is still lumbering along on the ground when the runway runs out. Story ends in the hedge.
It is something to do with confidence. That feeling of being in safe hands, allied with something fascinating in the unfolding, something to discover, something to make me see the world a little differently.
Thank you so much for answering my questions, Vanessa. It’s been fascinating to hear your thoughts both about your own writing and short stories generally.
Thanks again, Lindsay. Happy writing to all!
The Short Story Interview / Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn / 28th January 2016