Monday, 5 December 2011

Vanessa Gebbie on rejection, selection and the unbounded joy of not being an axolotl

In 2007 the writer Vanessa Gebbie won first prize in the Daily Telegraph Write A Novel In A Year competition for her novel in progress.. Now in late 2011 that book is no longer a work in progress. The Coward's Tale (Bloomsbury) has just been published and has already won praise from, well, everywhere. AN Wilson has - just today - named it his novel of the year in the Financial Times.

Vanessa is the daughter of a student nurse and a travelling salesman and was given up for adoption at birth. She spent much of her childhood in Wales and can still sing hymns and swear in Welsh. Her short fiction has won many awards including Fish and Bridport prizes and has been published in the UK, USA, New Zealand, Canada and India, translated into Vietnamese and Italian and broadcast by the BBC. Her teaching and facilitating has led to the publishing of anthologies of work by both the homeless and refugees in her home city of Brighton and Hove, Sussex, UK.

And last week I (almost literally) bumped into her in Bedford Square - very close to where the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood began, where the first anasthestic was given and next door to where the first university level college for women started. And - a day or so later - asked her my usual questions to which she responded with the wit, thoughtfulness and narrative brio that characterises her fiction. The Coward's Tale is subtle, many layered and gripping piece of story-telling...

Give me your autobiography in exactly 50 words (not 49, not 51...)

Welsh. Conceived on a dirty weekend in Swansea. Born. Given away. Happy child, wouldn’t go out to play much, stayed in own head. (More interesting people in there...). Grew. Educated, kind of. Married, had kids, worked. Happy adult. Became writer. Still dislike going out – imagining is much more fun.

What are you doing right now?

Munching my way through a bowl of Rude Health granola with hundreds of blueberries.

And later?

Signing some of my books for Christmas presents over coffee with a friend. Lunch with another friend (I have some! I have some!)... then polishing a story for Radio 3’s The Verb this afternoon.

The Coward's Tale has just come out. How do you feel about the book now it's in the shops? What are your hopes for it?

I feel it is my pension. Therefore you must buy it, and tell all your friends about it. Otherwise I will starve and never write the sequel. Or the prequel. And people may be a bit sad. I would hate to leave sadness as my legacy. So you know what to do.

I have high hopes, today (Monday) because yesterday, in the Financial Times, the rather wonderful and perspicacious A N Wilson, writer and critic, chose The Coward’s Tale as his novel of the year.  I am therefore planning what to wear at the ceremony when I am awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Tomorrow, I will be more realistic, and just go about in my sandwich board, exhorting people to storm the bookshops, ransack the booksellers while the beautiful hardback remains on the shelves. It will become a collectors’ item, honest. (Well, people will collect anything, won’t they?!) 

Where did the story come from?

My head.  I said it was interesting in there... It grew over c. 6 years, changed, morphed, was never planned to be anything in particular. The story found itself. I ‘made up’ a small community, using memories of my grandmother’s town – peopled it with an ever-expanding number of characters, until I couldn’t hold them all in the front of my head at the same time, and had to trust that the ones I wasn’t looking at were OK. I was surprised and delighted, or saddened beyond belief with what they got up to when I wasn’t looking. The stories they told.  I just galloped behind with a keyboard.

 How important to you is Wales and being Welsh? 

Well, very. Love the place. The pretty bits slightly less than the not-pretty, but you know - handsome is, as handsome does, as my grandmother used to say.  The most deeply interesting people are not those who have it easy, are they?
I was brought up by a Welsh couple who had to leave Wales during the Depression, to find good jobs. Wherever we were, it was a bit of Wales. Like an embassy. Went to a Welsh boarding school at the foot of Cader Idris – nearly got thrown out at 14, for an early attempt at playwriting/acting/directing...but instead, my Confirmation was delayed as I ‘had the Devil working alongside me...’ Where else but Wales...?!

But seriously – as an adopted adult – having been rejected/selected years back, I feel able to select and reject for myself now.  So. Bring on the Celts. I am Welsh, set a lot of my work there, do 90% of my writing in Ireland, and holiday happily on the very edge of Cornwall  or in Scotland– just got a Hawthornden Fellowship which gives me a whole month to write in a beautiful Scottish castle, too. Oh, and I live in a rather lovely corner of England.  

Where do you see yourself in five years time? ten?

No idea. I am a traveller who has walked uphill for a long time, finally reaching a hut on the top of the mountain. It is draughty here. There is a spring for water, and a supply of animal skins for the wooden planks that serve as a bed. It’s a bit like Scott’s Antarctic hut – there are tins of food, and dried things to chew. But they are all brown, so whether they are meat, fish or fruit is unknowable.
I opened the shutters this morning after I’d rested for a while – and there, looming over us, there is another mountain, the sides even steeper, snow and ice at the top. There is a telescope on the bed – I peered through it – and there, at the top of that mountain, half-covered with snow, is another hut.
Who - in life or writing - do you most admire?

I used to work with people trying hard to kick long-term addiction to drugs and/or alcohol. Believe me – anyone who fights and wins over addiction is amazing. Hats off.

 Recommend something.

Rude Health Granola!

 Tell me something I don't know.

If you are feeling sad, make your mouth smile. Now make your eyes join in – you know – those muscles round your eyes that crinkle up when you laugh.  Hold it. You now will feel less sad.


Another thing to do if you are feeling sad is to consider the axolotl.  This will bring you joy unbounded, because you are not one. (photo needed...

The Cowards Tale is published by Bloomsbury

1 comment:

  1. Great interview, thanks both! I'd just like to mention that if you were an axolotl, someone could chop off one of your limbs and it would regrow. Pretty nifty, eh?