Today I’m thrilled to welcome Vanessa Gebbie to my blog, to talk about her novel The Coward’s Tale, which launched officially three days ago (7th November 2011). I was lucky enough to have an advance copy to read, and it’s an absolute treasure. The writing is so lyrical I felt as though it was being read out loud to me, the storytelling so thoughtful…
Claire King: Vanessa, first I have to tell you how much I loved The Coward’s Tale. So many novels these days play on our worst fears, make readers anxious and immerse us in the trauma of the characters. Your story was like a breath of fresh air: a careful untangling of cause and effect, written with great generosity and respect. How did you know that this was the story you wanted to tell?
Vanessa Gebbie: I can’t tell you what it’s like hearing those words, Claire. Thank you. When a reader gives up a few hours of their life to read a book when they could have been doing a zillion other things, that’s always great. But the reader who does that and ‘gets’ it – that’s rather special.
The honest answer to ‘how did I know this was the story I wanted to tell’ is this –I didn’t! I was hijacked, and it happened like this. I wrote the first section with no thought as to what it was saying, other than the surface story. I was playing with the character of Tommo Price, the Clerk at the Savings Bank, and the story that unfolds in the narrative ‘now’. I’ve always been hugely interested what makes characters who they are, and most of that has no place in the story – but here, there needed to be a bit of his history. I’d already written much of that backstory, but when I came to ‘cut n paste’ it, I couldn’t make it ‘fit’. Not until a completely new character wandered into the piece, uninvited, and started telling the backstory himself, in a first person narrative. That was the beggar, Ianto Jenkins. I had no idea who he was, or why I was going along with this (this is where non-writers shake their heads and think we are nuts!) but it worked so well, I let him get on with it.
It wasn’t until I’d written perhaps half the novel that I tumbled to the importance of what was happening… Ianto’s narratives were revealing a rather important backstory, not only for each character, but for the community. A single event was common to all of them, however peripheral it seemed. And there was a switch – some time towards the end of writing it all – where his stories took on a much greater significance than the bits I’d been creating deliberately. The novel should really be ‘by Ianto Jenkins with a bit of help from Vanessa G’!
VG: I’m a story writer by trade, Ma’am. I approached the novel as a series of stories with the same cast of characters, each with a backstory that made up another strand. I wasn’t satisfied with a book of linked short stories that could be called a novel for marketing purposes. It needed to be something else – and after a year of editing and rewriting, the backbone of the book is a now a quadruple strand weave (I think) – made up of Laddy’s story now, Ianto’s own story then, the gradual reveal of what happened at Kindly Light then, and the separate character tales. Never been one to tackle simple things, me.
CK: There are so many strange and yet believable idiosyncrasies in The Coward’s Tale – the wooden feathers, the search for a straight line through the town, the fish in the river, the annual bread ritual…did you find all this in your imagination?
VG: Aye. I’ve always preferred being in my own head to being out on the street…it’s much more fun. Refused to go out and play as a kid, always nose in a book, or dreaming. But when you do eventually get out there, people are endlessly interesting, aren’t they? There is no such thing as a ‘normal’ person, a mon avis. Long live not being normal, I say!
CK: I’d seen on your blog that there is a map of the town, which I love. (For the musical version click here – although if like me you’re the child of a mining community, beware the colliery brass band, which made me a bit teary) I’d expected the map to appear in the book, why did you decide not to include it?
VG: I didn’t. I was kind of hoping a place might be found for it. I love novels with maps in the endpapers – can you imagine The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings without? It adds another element that smoothes the reader’s initial experience, I think. But Bloomsbury have created the most beautiful book – initially a stunning hardback with gorgeous foil-blocked jacket by designer Holly MacDonald, and the paperback out next March in the UK is equally great. The US version, also coming out in March has yet another cover – again, absolutely stunning. I love them all. And you have to draw the line somewhere, I understand that – it’s tough times for publishing, innit?
CK: It is, and we have to count our blessings! What has been your favourite or most memorable part of bringing The Coward’s Tale to life (either in the writing, the research, the road to publication etc)?
Favourite: The realization a while back (its taken over 5 years!) that this was a novel, not a short story, and that I was in for the long haul. I had something that would last, a world to which I would return over and over again, whilst also working on the other short stories that became my two collections. It was very grounding.
Memorable: The research – I left it until the book was finished to first draft stage. I didn’t want the temptation to cram the work with research detail just because I had it in a file. I had to make sure each detail really earned its place in the story. I needed to check some technicalities of coal mining, to check what I’d written from imagination and memory was correct. I will never forget reading the reports of so many mining disasters in the Welsh valleys, especially the 1913 Senghennydd disaster. I needed to get it right, hard as it was to revisit some of the tougher passages in the novel to make my characters go through their experiences again.
Memorable: My visit to Big Pit at Blaenavon, where I had to remove mobile phone, watch, don a hard hat with light fitment and an incredibly heavy battery round my middle, before dropping what seemed like miles down the shaft in the cage, and spending abut an hour walking in the tunnels beneath the ground. Unforgettable, really. All that massy rock above you. How little the spaces are where the work got done. The sense that we are absolutely insignificant…
I’d like to pause a minute and remember the recent Gleision colliery disaster here, if I may. Men who work in mines are among the bravest souls.
Memorable: My visit to Bloomsbury to meet the team, and seeing the boardroom table awash with bags of toffees! (As you know, Ianto Jenkins only tells his stories if he is fed toffees…) next time I shall write a novel about gold mining, in the hopes of taking away bags of gold – although actually, sitting on the train home, chomping toffees, knowing this was the team I wanted to look after my book, was rather lovely! (If terrible for teeth and now non-existent waistline.)
CK: OK. The toffees just gave me such a frisson I welled up! Aaaanyhowz…Charles Lambert described your book as “The unlikely but entirely legitimate child of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Dylan Thomas” and I’ve seen you’ve already had a number of reviews on Waterstones. How does it feel, seeing your work through the eyes of the readers? Is it different for your novel than for your short story collections?
VG: I love that description from Charles. DT and GGM are two writers whose work I admire hugely, and I count them among the best writing tutors! I am delighted that The Coward is in some way descended from them. Isn’t that perfect? And it is just great to read reviews from readers. As I said above, I am always aware that readers give us a few hours of their lives when they read our ‘stuff’ – I am hugely grateful both for that and for their comments. There’s nothing better, really.
The Waterstones page is here, the reviews now number 13 – and are simply lovely.
CK: In the town you wrote, I could picture the echoes of ancestors wandering around in borrowed clothes, mingling amongst those they left behind, and the new generations. We all carry the echoes of the past with us, to some extent. What are your strongest childhood memories of Wales, and where do you call ‘home’?
VG: ‘Home’ is a difficult word for me, for personal reasons. I’m never sure where it is, but that’s a legacy from my adoption, I suppose. I know lots of adopted adults – many of them, like me, never quite know where they belong. Spend our days looking for it.
But what a gift for a writer, huh?!
I loved staying with my grandmother in Merthyr Tydfil with a passion – never wanted to leave. Both my lovely parents (adoptive, if we must…) came from Merthyr, so both grandmothers and respective families were there. Some still are. Every setting in The Coward’s Tale is based on somewhere I knew as a child. The kitchens where most of the gossiping got done, where the mantels were hung with gas brackets and carried brass plates and candlesticks and broken cups with spare change for the meter.
I used to play on the tip – the old slag heap at the end of the road, where wild ponies came to graze. We used to try to catch them. Fat chance!
I could ramble on for hours, I’m afraid..
CK: Many of your characters have names that have been bestowed on them by the townsfolk in some way, that have become more than nicknames. How important do you think are the names that others give us?
VG: Oh hugely important. A name holds so much more than the sound, don’t you think? And of course the tradition of linking name to occupation is immensely powerful, if a bit of a cliché. Must be careful with these things…
CK: If you were a character in The Coward’s Tale, what would your given name be, and why?
VG: What a brilliant question. Hmm. I’d be an old bat who wanders the streets with a notebook, her hair in curlers, who sometimes forget she’s still wearing her dressing gown. I’d appear in a line or two in most stories and Laddy would pick up a notebook after I’d left it on the bench in the park…what would my name be? ‘Imagination’ Ellis, I expect.
CK: I love it! Vanessa, thank you so much for your time, and here’s hoping Ianto Jenkins finds his way into the hands (and hearts) of many, many readers.