In conversation with... Vanessa Gebbie

Hello Vanessa! First of all, I would like to congratulate you on the publication of The Coward’s Tale, out in paperback at the end of March. Can you please tell us what it is about?

A: Thank you very much! The book is the story of a small town in south Wales, where Laddy Merridew, a boy of ten, has been sent to stay with his grandmother while his parents sort out their failing marriage. He befriends an old man called Ianto Jenkins - a beggar who lives in the chapel porch. In exchange for a coffee or some sweets, Ianto will tell stories - funny, sad, poignant and strange - about the people of the town, and why some of them do eccentric things. The stories all go back to a coal-mining accident on a September day several generations ago. But for all the storytelling, Ianto has bever told anyone the story of what happened to him that day. He seems to recognise someone in the young boy - and begins to reveal his own story for the first time.

You now live in Lewes, East Sussex, but you’re originally from Wales. How much of The Coward’s Tale, which is set in a Welsh mining community, was drawn from your own experiences and how much is just the fruit of your imagination and research?

A: I was adopted by a couple from Merthyr Tydfil, a large town in the valleys of south Wales. They’d had to leave Wales to find jobs, but both families were in Merthyr, and at every opportunity we went back and stayed with my paternal grandmother, who I adored. So the setting of the novel is based on the streets I remember, the buildings - library, school, cinema - but with plenty of artistic licence! It wasn’t really a mining community then, most of the mines had already closed, but the evidence was there. There is a lot of imagination in the novel - but I needed to focus on the realities for the details of the mine in the book, and concentrated on a mine called Senghennydd for research, and a tragic accident that happened there in 1913.

Did you have the plot entirely figured out when you started writing The Coward’s Tale or did it develop before your eyes as the characters grew on the page and did something that you were not expecting?

A: Absolutely not - I don't do much plotting, I’m afraid - which has its own advantages and disadvantages - I had a lot of work to do to tidy the completed first draft. The whole novel took six years to write (or thereabouts) but I was never only writing that - I also worked on my other three books at the same time - writing two collections of short stories and editing a text book.
When I write, I think of it as ‘telling myself a story’, so I just write and follow my nose as I go. It was lovely - plenty of things happened that really surprised me, and I love that!

Which of the novel’s characters are you fonder of? Are there any characters that you don’t particularly like but that you think the fictional Welsh village wouldn’t be the same without?

A: I like and admire all my main characters, but the ones I am most intrigued by are Laddy (the boy) and Ianto (the old man) whose story forms the backbone of the book. Do I dislike any - probably black-skirted Nan isn’t my favourite - but as she is partly based on my own maternal grandmother, I’d better be careful! I actually was frightened of my own nan - she wore long black skirts and ankle boots, and was a real matriarch.

The Coward’s Tale was first published as hardcover book in November last year. What feedback have you received from the public?

A: I have been lucky - there have been some very lovely reviews left by readers on Amazon and on Goodreads, and I am hugely grateful for those. I have also had some great messages through my website, from people who have loved it enough to tell me so - quite a few from Wales, which pleases me enormously.

The book came out in the USA earlier this year, and again, I have had some lovely messages out of the blue from readers who have picked it up thanks to the intriguing cover, which is very different to either of the UK ones. The lastest is from a professor of literature and writing at a college in New Jersey - he tells me he is going to put it on the curriculum for his undergraduates next year. That is so lovely to know - I am going to keep in touch, and interact with the students when they have read it - answer questions and so forth.

Talking about the two UK covers, which one do you prefer? Assuming that you didn’t have any input in the selection process, would you have chosen something different?

A: But I did have input - Bloomsbury were brilliant. They asked me right up front what I would like, and I ummed and aahed and came up with a list of things - a statue, preferably Dalou’s Le Grand Paysan’, feathers, and leaves, and maybe the boy and the beggar - and when I saw Holly MacDonald’s interpretation for the hardback jacket, I was really moved. The only changes she needed to do for me were tweaking the character silhouettes. The whole is rather like an Eric Ravillious woodcut - very appropriate for a writer living in Sussex. The hardback cover is designed to appeal to serious reviewers, and it certainly worked.
The paperback is designed to appeal to a different readership, broader and younger. I was sent one cover image and loved it immediately. I now know it was one of several discussed at Bloomsbury, and have seen the alternatives, unusually - and they were so right to pick this one. With that bright reddish-orange sky, It is easy to pick out the book in Smiths and Waterstones!

If you are already working on your next writing project, would you mind giving us a little anticipation of what we are to expect?

A: I am working on lots of things... the one that will hit the shelves first is the second edition of Short Circuit, Guide to the Art of the Short Story which is scheduled to come out with Salt Publishing in 2012. I am adding new chapters to an already strong mix. The new chapters are terrific- from some amazing talented writers who are also gifted teachers.
I am also working on the next novel. Provisionally entitled Kit, it is a sequel and a prequel to The Coward’s Tale... and will take me a long time. Don’t hold your breath!
And never being one to hang around, I am self-publishing a collection of short short short pieces together with an artist colleague, this year. Ed’s Wife and Other Creatures will make it five books in five years.

Due to the popularity of social networking websites, it seems that interacting with readers – be it via a Twitter account, a Facebook page, a blog etc. – is becoming increasingly important. How do you cope with these new demands on authors and do you think that they somehow disrupt your writing schedule?

A: Of course, they do disrupt. That is one reason I go away to write - with a laptop that does not know the codes to get into the broadband at my chosen writing retreat! I go across to Anam Cara Writers’ and Artists’ Retreat in Ireland, and have been doing so since 2005. Later in the year I am trying out a new place in Devon - and in the winter, I will be in Scotland on a Hawthornden Fellowship - a whole month with no internet or phone signal. Gee whizz.
Having said all that, I think it is really important to interact with writers and readers, and Facebook and Twitter facilitate that really well. Maybe you do have to limit the time spent - but I dont find that a problem. I’m not one of these amazing people who tweets about 500 times a day. I run a blog, and update that when I feel like it. It gets about 500 readers a week.
I do tweet a writing prompt every morning, under #StoryGym. You dont have to follow @vanessagebbie to access those.

How did your first book deal come about and what one fundamental piece of advice would you give to aspiring writers?

A: My first book deal was with Salt Publishing back in 2007/8, and the book was a collection of mostly prizewinning stories - Salt is an independent publisher and produces beautiful books. I sent them a few stories, and they jumped - I was delighted.

The best piece of advice I was given is this, “Never stop learning. Never think you’ve ‘got there’ - always try to write better tomorrow than you did today.”

And lastly, is there anything that you would like to share that I haven’t asked?

A: I’m always happy to visit local book groups who have read The Coward’s Tale.

Thank you for your time!

A: Thank you so much for inviting me to your blog.

Intrigued? To win a copy of Vanessa Gebbie's The Coward's Tale, please complete this form. One winner will be picked on the 25th June.


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