Interview by Jude from 2013. Updated here for you to read again. Top tip: Vanessa has recently created three short story writing workshops for Mslexia magazine. Essential reading if you are entering competitions.
Vanessa Gebbie is a novelist, prize-winning short story writer, poet, editor and creative writing tutor. Her novels are The Coward’s Tale (Bloomsbury) – a Financial Times Novel of the Year) Storm Warning and Words from a Glass Bubble. She has a short story collection, Echoes of Conflict (Salt) and edited Short Circuit – guide to the art of the short story ,eds 1 and 2 (Salt), Her poetry collection The Half-life of Fathers is published by Pig Hog press and her collection of very short fiction, Ed’s Wife and Other Creatures is published by Cinnamon Press. Vanessa’s awards include an Arts Council Grant for the Arts, a Hawthornden Fellowship, a Gladstone’s Library residency, a Bridport Prize, two Fish prizes, the Troubadour poetry prize and the Daily Telegraph Novel in a year prize. Find out more about Vanessa on her blog
- You have written two collections of short stories, a novel, a poetry collection and a book of very short fiction. Your themes are often about how people deal with loss. Do you find aspects of these themes emerge more readily in the different forms?
Maybe the focus of the theme becomes more concentrated as the length decreases – but the aspects don’t shift, for this writer – just become brighter with less words.
Having now written a couple of novels, in which I thought loss was going to be the uppermost theme, I found the focus changed during each project. Maybe it’s a function of the length of time taken (at least three years for each, double that for the first)? I looked back on both, almost at the end of the writing process and thought, ‘Oh. So that’s what it’s about…’ Loss yes, but loss was a jumping-off place. The rest slid in in the night.
The same thing happens in short stories, if I’m honest, but in a smaller space of course – I’m drawn to images or characters that illustrate loss somehow, as my short story starters, but once I start writing the pieces flower into something more complex and they certainly surprise me.
With poetry, the whole process is focused and intense – a bit like a magnifying glass can set fire to a spot on a piece of paper. But there will always be the moment when the poem becomes itself, not ‘of me’.
- Your latest collection is a book of micro- fictions, Ed’s Wife and Other Creatures, illustrated by artist and poet Lynn Roberts. Can you tell us more about this book?
Ed’s Wife is made up of tiny flashes, some no more than a line or two, in which Suze, the eponymous wife, behaves like one of seventy weird little creatures. Poor Ed never knows what she is going to do next. Beetle, corn snake, slow loris, silverfish, worm, flea, dust mite… it’s been great fun to do. And Lynn’s illustrations are terrific, funny and brilliant. I’ve been working on this collection for a few years on and off – some pieces have won prizes, others have been published all over the place: USA, Ireland, New Zealand. Time to hit the UK… (!)
- On your website, you give a timeline of your progress as a writer from 2002 to the present day. I found this inspiring as it suggests that if you work hard and consistently at the craft of writing, success and publication can come. Would you agree.
Yes – because I was advised to work like that, and sure enough, it worked for me – I’m a bit of an obsessive as my family will tell you. Although it has to be said, luck comes into it. And stubbornness – bloody-mindedness – a refusal to give up. But it is hard work, all this. I am eternally grateful that the boom in self-publishing hadn’t got going when I was starting out. It’s such an attractive looking option, at the stage when we all think we are geniuses, when all we are doing is tipping out stuff that is hackneyed, and not well written for other reasons. I know it works for a few, but far more sink without trace. Although thinking about it, that’s about the same with being published anyway!!
- The second edition of Short Circuit, the book of essays on short story writing was published in 2012. I have included an extract from the ‘blurb’, as I think the book would be so useful to anybody entering competitions or wanting to improve their stories.” Short Circuit is a unique and indespensable guide to writing the short story —24 specially commissioned essays from well-published short story writers, many of them prize winners in some of the toughest short story competitions in the English language. The writers are also experienced and successful teachers of their craft.” Can you tell us what is different about the second edition?
When Salt commissioned the book (in 2009), I was able to pull together the text book I’d have really loved as a companion when I was starting out as a ‘young’ writer – and make it into a book full of interest and inspiration for jaded ‘older’ writers too.
Firstly – it is NOT written by me. Somewhere along the line in most ‘how-to’ books on writing, I lose contact with the author who does not give me a range of possibilities, but expects me to be just like him/her. I was lucky enough to know a wonderful team of writers, all prizewinners, most of them experienced teachers of writing – and they all contributed a chapter. Add one myself, and Bingo! Everything you could possibly want to know about writing short stories – given to you in engaging essays from some of the most gifted writers about.
Fast forward four years, and nothing stands still. Short stories certainly don’t – new things happen all the time – so neither should a text book. So I added eight sparkling new chapters by fantastic writers such as Tom Vowler whose collection The Method won the Scott Prize, and who teaches writing at Plymouth. There’s Stuart Evers, author of Ten Stories About Smoking – and Professor Patty McNair from Columbia College Chicago whose collection has won all sorts of awards over in the USA. There’s an interview with a publisher – the indomitable Scott Pack from The Friday Project – well known for his honesty! And more. Salt have published it in a wonderful BIG format – I am so proud of my baby…(can you tell?)
- Who are your favourite short story writers currently?
That’s SO hard to answer – it changes every time I think about it, and I always feel guilty for leaving people out whose work is brilliant. However. Adam Marek is usually up there somewhere, as is Kevin Barry. There’s A L Kennedy, Ali Smith, David Constantine – and have you read Posthumous Stories by David Rose? Fantastic.
- Do you have an all time favourite short story or shortstory writer?
Yes – I do love The Ledge by Lawrence Sargent Hall. Written in the 1960’s, it is very moving, tough, beautiful, thought provoking and timeless.
- What tip can you give our 2016 competition entrants to help their stories stand out from the crowd?
This can’t be answered simply, and there are no quick fixes, I’m afraid. If you are a reader for a competition and have a few hundred stories to read, there has to be a potent mix of craft skills working in synch for you to notice a story for the right reasons, not the wrong ones.
All a writer can really do is learn the craft well, then forget it, and just tell a brilliant story. It does not have to be the ‘bells and whistles’ sort – quiet will do – but write your heart out onto the page, write the story you can’t not write – and keep your fingers crossed.
And if, as happened to mine many times, your stories don’t make it – roll with the punches. Writing is not an exact science. Learn to accept the knocks along the way, and never, ever give up.
Having given a sermon – for this reader, a distinctive voice combined with great characterisation makes a piece stand out fast…