Monthly Archives: February 2016

Interview with Vanessa Gebbie


Commission No May0035846: Author Vanessa Gebbie, of Ringmer, East Sussex.

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

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. 

You may (or may not) like these links, I read the story in two parts, with the odd break for a chat  – for Steve Wasserman’s ‘Read Me Something You Love’. Part one and part two.

  • 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…

Interview with novelist, poet and short story writer, Gerard Woodward



Gerard Woodward is a novelist, poet and short story writer. He studied fine art at Falmouth School of Art, and Social Anthropology at the London School of Economics, later carrying out postgraduate research in the same subject at Manchester University. His trilogy of novels concerning the Jones Family (August, I’ll Go To Bed at Noon and A Curious Earth) have won widespread critical acclaim, including shortlistings for the Man-Booker Prize and Whitbread First Novel Award. His five poetry collections (Householder, After The Deafening, Island to Island, We Were Pedestrians and The Seacunny) have earned him a Somerset Maugham Award and two T.S.Eliot Prize shortlistings. His most recent publications are the novel, Vanishing, which is set partly in the village of Heathrow (before the airport was built) and partly in Egypt and Libya during World War Two, and Legoland a collection of short stories. He is a regular contributor to the Guardian, Independent and TLS and is currently working on a new novel.

(Gerard Woodward is appearing at the Bath Literature Festival which begins next weekend, 27th February 2016. His workshop on March 3rd on writing Short Stories is sold out, but you can hear him reading his poetry alongside poet Greta Stoddart on 29th February, 8.00 pm – 9.00 pm at the Guildhall Bath. Book at Festival box office.)

Interview by Jude, February, 2016

  • I’m re-reading your short story collection, Caravan Thieves, which I like very much. The stories manage to be both unsettling and funny. Several make me laugh out loud. I think this combination is also a great feature of your novels. Can you say more about your new collection Legoland?  Is it infused with a similar dark humour? 

    Legoland cover

    Available on-line and in bookshops now and also from the Bath Festival bookshop next week

Yes, I think so. I like to unsettle, certainly, and this is part of the attraction of humour. I especially like the type of humour where you suddenly wonder if you should be laughing at all. Humour and comedy operate in much more subtle ways than we usually imagine, partly because we tend to divide works into ‘humorous’ and ‘serious’, when the best writing is very often a combination of both. I’m currently rereading the classic horror novel The Haunting of Hill House – it is a very frightening novel, but it is also (intentionally) very funny as well.

  • I  interviewed A L Kennedy for the  Bath short story website in 2014 and because humour is also a feature of her stories, I asked her about writing humour  She said ” it’s hard – you have to be quite confident before you deploy it and then it’s about timing and observational skills being really tested.” Would you agree with that? 

Yes, timing is very important. It is also very instinctive – you follow a particular line of thought because it appeals to you in a certain way, and for me that is often because it makes me laugh, and the thought of being able to share that emotion with a reader becomes very exciting. The comedy is often about surprise, and in order for the surprise to be effective, the context in which it happens has to feel very real. It is like the set up of a joke – the punchline is only funny if the story that leads up to it is well told.

  •  In a recent interview with Bath Life Magazine, you said you’ve been working on Legoland since Caravan Thieves was published eight years ago and you’ve also had a couple of novels and a poetry collection published within this time. Do you move in between genres as the mood takes you. Or do you have periods where you concentrate on one form?

I tend to work on one particular form at a time, but keep in touch with the other forms during that time, and don’t abandon them completely. The writing of novels is by far the most time consuming, so stories and poems tend to get written mostly in the quieter spells between novels.

  • At a workshop on suspense you gave for Writing Events Bath several years ago you said if you get stuck, you choose random words from books to further the writing. Your example at the time,  was finding the word ‘blackberry’, and as this was a novel set pre-technology rather than a mobile phone incident you had a pot of blackberry jam tip into a character’s hand bag. Can you say more about your short story  writing methods? 

The random word trick is just a way of using the world that is immediately to hand as a way of breaking through an impasse. When the writing is going well you tend to be doing that all the time, using things that happened yesterday to fill in the blank spaces in the writing, the person at the bus stop provides the face for a minor character, something that happened at the dentist’s provides the detail for a scene in the novel. Sometimes your head is empty (or feels like it is) so you reach for a prompt by looking for a random word, or a picture or anything. Most often you pick up a novel or other book by someone you love reading, and that very quickly gets the ideas and the words flowing.

  • Which short story writers do you admire and return to? Do you have any contemporary favourites?

I enjoy reading most of the names that are familiar in the canon of great modern short story writers from Chekov onwards – Flannery O’Connor, John Cheever, Raymond Carver, Elizabeth Taylor, Elizabeth Bowen, James Salter. Our own Tessa Hadley is one of my favourite contemporaries

  • Finally, what short story writing  tip would you give writers who want to enter Bath Short Story Award this year?

Make use of the limitations the form imposes on you. You can’t get everything into a short story, so don’t try to.

Latest news from winning and listed BSSA writers

A round-up of the latest news from some of our prize winning, short listed and longlisted authors. Let us know if you have any more news to post. Many congratulations to all, and we look forward to reading your work.

Hot of the Press: 2014 local prize winner, Anne Corlett’s debut novel, The Space Between the Stars has  just been acquired by Pan  Macmillan. The Bookseller wrote “Senior commissioning editor Bella Pagan bought world rights from Lisa Eveleigh at the Richford Becklow Literary Agency…Pagan said ‘I was utterly captivated by Jamie’s plight and her incredible journey – which is one of self-discovery as well as a hazardous push for home. Anne has an incredible talent and I can’t wait for others to discover it too.’  The novel will be published in 2017. You can read about Anne’s journey to publication on her blog

Second prize winner,  BSSA 2014 Kit de Waal’s  acclaimed debut  My Name is Leon is published in June by Viking. Kit was named as one of the Guardian newspaper’s new faces of fiction for 2016.Read’s Kit’s interview with us on this site.

Annemarie Neary is published in our 2014 anthology and her debut novel Siren will be published by Hutchinson (Penguin Random House UK), next month, March 24th with a second novel to follow in 2017. Siren was recently feature in the Independents iPaper as one of their Top 10 Book Club Reads for 2016.

Roisin 0’Donnell, commended in our 2014 BSSA has her debut short story collection coming out this year with New Island Press.

Annalisa Crawford recently won third prize in the prestigious Costa Short Story Award for her story, Watching the Storms Roll In which was longlisted, under a different title, in our 2015 Award.

Local prize winner in 2015 BSSA Award, KM Elkes was recently highly commended  in the  Bare Fiction magazine short story competition judged by Paul McVeigh

Read the stories from Anne, Kit, Roisin and KM Elkes in our 2014 and 2015 anthologies available to buy on this site to UK residents only because of the cost of posting overseas.  If you live overseas, you can buy in digital or printed form via Amazon.