Vanessa Gebbie: short story writer, author of a collection, prize-winner, judge, poet – there are so many things I could call you (all of them nice); which describes you best?
Dear Nik, I like the word ‘writer’. It’s simple. A bit like me. I still find it amazing that I have a book out there with my name on it, and another in the pipeline. I enjoy this journey, mostly, whatever happens round the next corner. I am enjoying the teaching as much as anything at the moment, and have some exciting gigs coming up – Ipswich, Ireland, Somerset, Kent, Southampton, Dorset, and I’ve just accepted an invitation to do a workshop in Hertfordshire in the New Year. I’m seeing a bit of these islands as I go.
‘Those who can’t do, teach,’ they say. Yep, I’ve met some crap writing ‘teachers’. And some stunningly good ones. And very special ones who can both teach AND write. Viz the forthcoming text book, ‘Short Circuit’! I would like to be OK at both.
Tell us about you.
Eek. Whaddyooo mean, tellyoo about moi? I am a perfickly Nordinary Human Bean. The sort that masquerades as a chubby old bat with a big grin. This farticular Human Bean lives in a village in Sussex, with a load of blokes. Nah. Nothing like that (snigger) – merely an espoused one, a son one and a cat who is also a bloke or was until he was deknackered.
What does the word ‘story’ mean to you?
Once upon a time there was a deep dark cave. And in this deep dark cave lived a lot of deep dark people. And these deep dark people were utterly fed up of living in the dark so they sent forth one of their number (I believe it was Number 46,) to discover light.
Number 46 left the cave at the dead of night (memo to self, why do we say ‘dead’ of night?) and travelled east, carrying nothing but a large bag made of reindeer skin. In the east he had many many adventures. Then he travelled to the west, still carrying the large bag made of reindeer skin. In the west he had even more adventures. Then, still carrying the large bag made of reindeer skin, he travelled to the north. But it was cold. So he travelled south to warm up and on his way he passed this deep dark cave, which looked very familiar. So Number 46 entered the deep dark cave.
‘Who are you?’ chorused the deep dark inhabitants.
He thought for a while. “Ah. Number 46?”
“Great. We have waited for a very long, very deep dark time, actually,” said the inhabitants. “Where’ve you been, and what have you been doing, and did you find the light we sent you out for?”
“No idea,” said Number 46. But I had some walloping great adventures, and I got hot, and cold. It was quite something.”
“Cor,” went up the chorus, “Walloping great adventures? What were they? Hot, what’s that? Cold? What’s that?”
Then Number 46 put down his large bag made of reindeerskin, and invited them to sit round in the deep dark, and he began to tell them of his adventures. He talked for many days, and he told them about the east, and the west. About the north where it was cold, and the south, where it was hot. And when he’d finished, there was silence for a moment. Then a small voice (the latest arrival, Number 103.5, probably) chirped, ‘More, please…’
So Number 46 carried on telling his adventures. And when he ran out of what really happened, he made them up. And know something?
He’s still talking.
(PS. And what was in the large reindeerskin bag? I have no idea. It wasn’t mine, it was his..)
And the word ‘writer’?
Someone who can’t think of a studious and clever answer to “What does the word story mean to you?” so makes up a story to answer it.
What’s wrong with most writing these days?
It’s not FUN. As in original, different, engaging you, challenging you. It’s samey. You’ve met it before. And however good it is technically, if you’ve met it before, it’s not FUN even if it is sad. There is no joy in the stuff. Is there?
It takes nutters who create boys who dream about Romans in their sleep, or nutters who create ladies who set up cafés at the South Pole to come to terms with loss, or nutters who are brave enough (because that’s what it IS!) to write something different, without knowing if it is ‘OK’, or ‘will sell’ or if ‘THEY will like it’ because it is what they love themselves. The world of writing needs more brave nutters, please.
(A question from Jo Cooper) Where’s the most unusual place you’ve found inspiration for a story?
Thank you Jo Cooper.
1) When a train stopped in an old tunnel and there was just enough light to see the grime on the walls, and places where you could still see the old bricks.
2) Hearing a piano being tuned, from an upper floor window in Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego.
3) Visiting a tin mine in Cornwall, and reading about an old piece of machinery.
Jo also wonders: How do you keep writing and personal life separate? She says ‘I write about what’s going on in my life and struggle to develop ideas as I just want to write about me!’
Very good question. I know many writers who write about themselves, and manage to turn it into sparkling fiction. I don’t think I am interesting enough for that. So I weave a coat of stories to hide behind. My friends and family know the me without the stories. Other writers see the words. But there is nothing to say you can’t write about you if that’s what you want to do! And as for ideas – unless you want to stick 100% to actual events, and are writing a memoir, try spinning the character that is ‘you’ up and out until that character lives and breathes something different to your everyday life. Try it! Make them face something that ‘you’ never have, and see what they do.
What’s the best way for someone to become a good writer? Any tips or advice?
What do you mean by ‘good’? Do you mean RICH? In which case, find the blockbusters, read those, and write similar stuff. Then find a niche in those styles, and try to create something similar but different. The publishers will love you, and I will wait for the invitation to your new mansion.
Do you mean HIGH QUALITY? Then you need to work like stink. Read high quality work. Every day. Find a group of like-minded people, and work together. Critique each others work honestly. NEVER say ‘Ooh I like this, its good.’ Tell them WHY. Find the things that don’t work, and tell them. Over and over and over. In time, you will begin to avoid putting the mistakes in your own work. And your work will become ‘good’. And mostly, you will not be rich, but will need to sell your body on the streets to eat. (50p goes a long way.)
Find a good teacher. Someone whose own work makes you WANT to write. And learn with them.
Do you have any bad writing habits?
Yes. I am lazy, I am a butterfly. I say ‘yes’ too much. I am inconsistent. I don’t read enough. I lose confidence very easily.
What’s the Vanessa Gebbie Writing Process?
Wake up with good idea in head. Clean teeth, check emails, make tea, toast, read paper. Try to remember what good idea was. Fail.
Open piece of work from yesterday and turn to the sentence I stopped at. Look at said sentence. Go back to the beginning of the piece, (as I did yesterday, and the day before)… and read it over for sounds. Dislike the lovely new sentence I invented yesterday and change it. Aware that I will change it again tomorrow.
Find a place where a character walks into a room. Place cursor on right place. Switch off the screen. Type like hell. Go and make coffee.
Switch screen back on, drinking coffee. Read back what I wrote with screen off. Thank the character for doing things I would never have consciously created. Thank lucky stars that I am not a plot-driven writer.
Check word count. Write a few more pieces in the same manner as the first – screen off. (It cuts out the feedback loop.) Discover that some of the things that the characters do makes perfect sense. Edit, deleting bits I do not like.
Check word count and find I have less words than yesterday.
Invent a few lies for when people ask ‘And how’s the novel going?’
Do short stories matter? Why? Or why not?
Yes. Silly question. All fiction matters. Sometimes more than non-fiction. It is good for the soul, the psyche, the spirit, the heart.
The internet + literature = Thriller, killer…
Anyone who writes short stories, or has spent any amount of time on internet writing forums, is used to (and probably sick to the back teeth of) hearing ‘short stories don’t sell’ – do you think this is true? Do you think that perhaps they don’t sell because of that mantra? Self perpetuation?
Of course they sell. The internet is chocca. Many places pay. They don’t sell for MUCH, but that wasn’t the question. If you are picky, if you don’t let your work go for nothing, you can get the odd sou. Enough to buy a stamp for the next submission. If you want more dosh, aim at the good comps. Work at it. Learn what wins and what doesn’t. And cross your fingers that the readers like your work.
Enjoy the opportunities afforded by the internet. But don’t become its slave.
You’re published by the wonderful Salt. How’s that been?
Fantastic. I love them to bits. The books are beautiful objects, and as the daughter of a librarian, that mattered to me. I would not have wanted a half-baked product. You have to work hard yourself at publicising your book. That is good. I have learned SUCH a lot thanks to having to do all that stuff. And they are prepared to take risks. I like that, hugely.
Salt are a very important part of the publishing world in this country. Without them, a lot would be lost – to writers and to readers.
In the midst of the recent ‘Just One Book’ campaign, I was incensed to read intelligent writers arguing that Salt should be allowed to fold. There was no good reason given. Because there isn’t one.
Katie McCullough asks: Are there any reoccurring themes or characters in your work?
Yes, Katie, lots. The stories in my collection Words from a Glass Bubble are mostly those which have won prizes for me, and it is interesting to note that prizes are not often given to rip-roaringly funny stories. These stories deal with loss, atonement, miscommunication, love, death. They are not without lightness though. I had a lovely re view from Mslexia which praised the humorous element therein.
And if we’re talking about themes, are there any that are always present in your writing?
Not ‘always’, no, I don’t think so. Although having said that I find I am often drawn to explore characters who are on the edges of communities, people who are not the ‘movers and shakers’ but who are far more meaningful in many ways than the characters who reckon they are veeeery important..(we’ve all met those!)
Is there anything that stops you writing?
Talk to us about this word: Rejection.
Seriously. From the point of view of an adopted adult who has experienced the greatest rejection possible on the planet, a few people not wanting to print a short story is, in the words of the prophet, a piece of piss. But I still don’t like it! I DO however, not get arsy. I am an editor too. I can’t publish everything I’m sent, much as I’d like to. Learning to accept rejections gracefully is an important lesson for any newbie writer. They should seek them out actively. Knock those corners off!
Everyone who writes should…
Be able to accept rejection.
Actually WRITE, not talk about it.
What’s next for you?
Short Circuit, a Guide to the Art of the Short Story, (Salt Publishing) (I am editor/contributor) comes out late August. A series of craft and process based essays and exercises from winners of Bridport, Fish, Commonwealth, Willesden, Writers inc. Writer of the Year, Asham Award and many more. Prizewinning writers who also happen for the most part to be excellent teachers of writing.
Finishing the novel, hopefully in the next six months.
Anything you’d like to add?
Yes. I’d like to add lots of money, please.
And a big thank you!!
And a sloppy kiss.
Vanessa Gebbie’s short fiction is widely published, is translated into several languages, has been broadcast on BBC radio and handed out on London Underground. She has won several awards at places like Bridport, Fish (twice), Guildford, Per Contra, Cadenza, Daily Telegraph, Willesden Herald, Small Wonder Festival, Binnacle, Flashquake and others.
Her debut collection is Words from a Glass Bubble, and a second collection of surreal micro fiction, Ed’s Wife and other Creatures, is forthcoming in November 2009. She is also contributing editor for Short Circuit, a Guide to the Art of the Short Story. All the aforesaid either to for by with or from Salt Publishing. www.saltpublishing.com She is also contributor to The Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction (Rose Metal Press, USA).
She is founder/editor of Tom’s Voice Magazine, a specialist mag for writing by those whose lives have been touched by addiction. She co-edited Cadenza Magazine, a small press literary magazine. She founded The Fiction Workhouse, an online closed group for lit writers. A Member of the National Association of Writers in Education, she teaches creative writing to students of all shapes and sizes. Her first novel has much in common with the Alpine black salamander, African and Asiatic elephants, Baird’s beaked whale and the white rhinoceros: it is following a record-breaking gestation period.
For further information: www.vanessagebbie.com
Wow. Thanks Vanessa! And I should point out that the best (and cheapest!!) way to buy the paperback of Words from a Glass Bubble is by CLICKING HERE.