Recently at a local writing evening, one of the participants said it was her birthday and she wanted to spend it in a memorable way. That struck a chord with me and since I received the gift of The Coward’s Tale by and from Vanessa Gebbie, what better way to have a memorable day than by chatting with Vanessa about some of the things that came to mind before, during and after reading her critically acclaimed novel.
SP: So, Vanessa, come on into my souk. Have a seat, the big comfy one with the footrest, a cup of tea, and some chocolate cake. And then tell me … how did you do it? And how much was unconscious?
VG: Hey that cake is something. I will not answer any questions until I’ve had two more slices.Ta. Ta. OK. How much was conscious, and how much unconscious in the writing of The Coward’s Tale? To begin with, the only thing that was really ‘conscious’ was the pattern of the stories, or tales.
SP: Did you write the work as stories, i.e. not in chronological order, and then find the transitions?
VG: Yes - I mean nothing was in any order - let alone chronological. I approached the writing of early drafts as a series of stories, each having three sections. First, the set-up, if you like, during which the issue the character is struggling with becomes apparent. Then the back-story, the story within a story, related by Ianto, in which the seeds for this issue are sown. Then the final section, in which the issue is resolved or partially resolved. That pattern guided me, early on.
SP: I really enjoyed the book, the details, the language and the voice(s), and being transported to a place with which I’m not at all familiar. That place is fictitious as your note at the back says, but what came first in your process, the incident of the mine collapse or the town?
VG: Glad to hear that, Sylvia - thank you. In the writing, the town grew, became more complex, and it was not until the early editing stages that I saw that some of the back-stories alluded to a mine collapse. That was not put there consciously, but having seen it, it was then a conscious decision to increase the visibility of the collapse, to circle the work round it. Ianto’s own story came almost at the end of the process, and it came out of his friendship with Laddy - Laddy had been in there as a bystander here and there - or a boy had, to be more precise. In the final rewrites, they took over. I suppose what I am saying is that stuff gets put in unconsciously - but part of the writer’s job is to recognise what is good, what fits, and then use those things to their best advantage at the editing/rewriting stage. But to answer the question - the town came first. It grew as I wrote, and turned into a community with a mine or two on the outskirts. Like so many places in south Wales.
SP: You’ve written a number of acclaimed stories that appear in your two story collections, Words from a Glass Bubble and Storm Warning. How did you make the leap from stories to novel? And was that leap in fact a concession to the short-story genre?
VG: I don’t see it as a leap at all. I just wrote a whole heap of stories, then worked to make them into a tapestry. The tales gradually merged into one piece of work - from which you could not simply remove a story and watch the rest close over as if it had never been there. So, as I see it, The Coward’s Tale is just a more complex story than a single narrative. Is it a concession to the genre? Don’t know. It is what it is - it grew, unpruned, like a clematis will, scrambling all over my hard drive.
SP: People like to put things into boxes and label them. How do you as the writer see The Coward’s Tale – a novel? Interlocking stories?
VG: I am uncomfortable with the labels ‘short story’ and ‘novel’, really - they are all stories aren’t they, just some are longer than others. Perhaps scope and depth have something to do with it? If you read Alice Munro’s stories, aren’t they tiny novels, really? And some ‘novels’ - jeez, you could distill them to a ‘short story’ without losing a thing and make them a lot better in the process. The biggest challenge for me, as a short story writer, was loosening the prose without rendering it ‘loose’ in the worst sense. That’s where the rhythms and the repetition came from - I allowed the short story writer in me to relax - just dived in and had fun with the voice. Mostly.
SP: And I had fun with the generation table and the map before I started reading and felt it they were both useful additions. Did they come before the stories or after? Or did they grow out of the process?
VG: The ‘Generations’ table at the end was Maggie Gee’s idea, and bless her. She mentored me whilst polishing the final draft to get it ready for submission. The table serves to point up the patterns in families, to show schematically what has already been shown in the stories. Love it, and it is very much part of the work, now.
SP: And the map?
VG: The map didn’t appear until well into the publication process. It doesn’t feature in the hardback, or in the US version of the book. But it is a wonderful thing to have anywhere - early feedback from readers indicated that even when some had loved the book, they had to work to get into it - the map has taken on the role of early guide. Smashing to have it included in the UK paperback.
SP: It seemed so real, for a fictitious town, as you note in the book.
VG: It is based on a real enough place - maybe that’s why? But we have to make our settings real, don’t we? Whether they are ‘real’ or not, the reader needs to believe they are, for the duration. But that map - it was very interesting trying to make the map, trying to make concrete the town I had been walking round in my head for a few years. Based on Twynyrodyn, in Merthyr Tydfil, it’s where my parents grew up, and where my grandmothers lived. Where I stayed every holidays and never wanted to go home afterwards! But I’d ‘been’ there again as a writer, inhabiting the memories of a child/early teenager. I went back in reality once, while I was writing the book, and wandered round. I was particularly keen to se the Public Library (where my mother worked and qualified) and was completely bamboozled to find the actual building was not red, as I had ‘remembered’, but grey. It seemed more honest to the process to keep it as red - if I changed everything in the face of actuality, I was afraid the fictitious town would suffer somehow. I did put in an explanatory note at the end.
SP: I noted a couple of things in the early pages that caught my attention. One was the allusion to the twelve apostles. Was this a Welsh spin on the Decameron? Just twelve ordinary men. And I did count twelve as per the tales.
VG: Let’s start this answer by saying I don’t see the men as anything to do with the twelve apostles - other than the fact that they share names, and a few images. They are all just ordinary men - but then I believe the apostles were, as well, and got caught up in one of the best marketing hypes that has ever existed. I don’t often state things I believe - but that is one thing I do state, in the book. ‘Just ordinary men’...as the town is ordinary. Nothing special...
The further I got into writing the tales, the harder they became. Firstly, the images got more obscure, and secondly I was more conscious of what I was up to - I think that’s why. I remember at one point sitting down and making a sort of table of all the motifs to see where I’d got to, where there were gaps: Jude Thaddeus, Icarus Evans, impossible task, wood; James the Greater, Half Harris The Field of Stars (St Iago di Compostela), fish, water; Matthew, Matty Harris, pride, money; Doubting Thomas, Tommo, the existence of the afterlife; Judas. Judah Jones. Silver (leaves) and betrayal - killing the thing he loves. Glass; Peter, Peter Edwards, picking up a mantle... (although there is no Jesus figure here.) coal/rock; etc. The only story that was ‘invented’ more consciously is The Gas Meter Emptier’s Tale. It’s got a different feel to it, somehow - don’t know if you agree?
SP: Yes, it did have a different feel, but the word “thief” is definitely a loaded one, and there’s also the ‘sins of our fathers’ idea, as well as a certain humour.
VG: Yes, it made me laugh, and once I knew one of his motifs had to be metal of some sort - it became easier. Then bingo: James the Less. James Little. Silver. And no one had yet had growing things as a motif - so I gave those to him... and suddenly, there he was, an allotment, a shed, and he was pottering off after midnight - I just followed. So, the conscious bit here was allocating growing things to this character. He picked up on those and the story charged off. Then there was Nathan or Bartholomew - I gave him both names, and he is the only character who comes from outside the town, even though his roots are firmly there. It took me a long time to come up with his story. Mythology has it that St Bartholomew was flayed, it was important to use that somehow - and I was stumped - how to weave in something to do with skin without it being a bit forced? This was a violent image that had no place here, in a book I wanted to be beautiful. Or did it?
SP: The skin motif comes across well – there’s the drum, Nathan’s grandmother and the sensual sex scene at the end of the section. So there is that mix of violence and innocence, and sensuality.
VG: I played with different new openings to Nathan's story. His motif was sound - but it had to be skin as well...and it’s not really until the back-story that this takes off (sorry, no puns intended!) - with the betrayal of Evie, his grandmother - a simple girl, who is taken advantage of sexually by the men. Understated violence, hopefully - although she is compliant, she is not quite right, is she? So, my skin motif had found a place - touch, sex - even though, again, much of that back-story was actually written in about 2005, as a stand-alone short story. I am a great recycler of my own stuff! It belongs here absolutely though, found its place. Then there’s Laddy Merridew’s drum that needs a new skin - and the drum was already there earlier on in the draft. I suppose what I’m saying is, we sow the seeds of the things we need - just have to be aware, and open to seeing them.
SP: And how did you know that you had all the ordinary men you needed?
VG: I had almost finished the first draft, and thought I had one more Tale to write. That of John. Motifs, the bird, the word..(I said this was simplistic - it was my process, nowt more.) But he was already there, wasn’t he? I didn't know Ianto was a Welsh form of John. As is Ieuan (Laddy.) There was great happiness in discovering I’d written them already - birds, words (stories) and all. Bless the creative process!
SP: The creative process! Can I just come back to something else that struck me right in the first chapter: the juxtaposition of smells - Stinker/moth balls and the scents of the different woods. Was the use of this olfactory contrast conscious?
VG: Apart from the senses of sound and touch, perhaps in Nathan Bartholomew’s tale, I’m not conscious of deliberately employing the senses at all.
SP: Hmmm…the sensual sex scene at the end of his tale was redolent with scents… Did you use any personal associations for any of the smells?
VG: … if I was writing a kitchen scene, all I had to do was close my eyes and the smell of rising bread dough would fill my head - the wavering sharpness of yeast. I was then ‘in’ my maternal grandmother’s kitchen. I was a bit frightened of her - she became Black-Skirted Nan - the only character in the book based loosely (veeery loosely) on a real person. The smell of coal fires, the glow of damp tarmac under streetlights, and I was walking the streets. Magic!
SP: So it’s the unconscious at work letting smells sneak in?
VG: Oh you’ve got me remembering Proust’s ‘A la Recherche du Temps Perdu’ and its famous madeleine scene, where involuntary memory is triggered by the taste of madeleines dipped in tea. This raises the issue of conscious remembering and involuntary remembering - we used to discuss this after lectures! Proust’s thesis seemed to be that the results of involuntary memory rising up are far more ‘true’ than the results of a conscious effort. And that’s about as far as that goes, I’m afraid - I studied Proust for about five minutes in the 1970s - but there is a serious piece of advice here, for writers, if we want to listen. I think you can help your memory to trigger involuntary responses via the senses - but I hadn’t thought about it until now, so thank you for the topic. I do it all the time when I am writing - reinhabiting/remembering a smell will invariably open up a hugely rich seam of other vibrant associations - which will render a setting very ‘alive’ and complex. I like that.
SP: But smells can subvert meanings, like in the part where the baker can’t bear the smell of baking bread after he holds the burnt body of his cuckolded friend. Thus, for him, rendering a positive smell negative after his own terrible experience through the senses of sight and touch.
VG: It’s really fascinating for me to see that you single out the smells as the catalyst in the Baker’s Tale. I hadn’t seen that at all, the shift from positive to negative in terms of smell - for the writer, it was the sense of touch that was important there - his inability to use his hands for something good after they had touched something dreadful - that’s what drove the story once I realised what was happening. I’d explored this before in a story called ‘The Return of the Baker, Edwin Tregear’ - in which a young baker who went to the First World War can’t bake when he is demobbed. Not that I’m obsessed with bakers, or anything... but the making of bread seems to me to be the epitome of ‘good’, ‘vital’, ‘fundamental’ stuff. The opposite of death and destruction, in both story and tale. The scents were unconsciously there. I didn’t put them in deliberately, as in ‘a writer must use the senses, let’s insert a few smells…(!)’ It’s the way I write, or, more correctly, the way I am. I am intensely aware of smells, sounds, tastes, colour, texture - the book is very visual too - so they just find their way in to my writing naturally - it would be odd for a piece of work I’d written to have no sensory aspect, I guess.
SP: Here’s to the creative process! And thanks so much for swinging by and sharing all these insights on The Coward’s Tale and its making. A memorable day, it has promised to be. Allbest to you, Vanessa, and for the creativity of your writing!
Further stops on the blog tour are on Vanessa’s blog where the party continues.
Vanessa Gebbie is the author of the short story collections, Words from a Glass Bubble and Storm Warning (SALT). She also edited Short Circuit: A Guide to the Art of the Short Story (SALT). Her first novel, The Coward’s Tale (Bloomsbury), available in hardback since November last on this side of the pond, hit North American bookstores in February, and has just been published in paperback in the UK.
(How they met? Sylvia Petter and Vanessa Gebbie just missed overlapping in Alex Keegan´s Boot Camp.)
(Crossposted from my blog.)
Causes Sylvia Petter Supports
International PEN (Sydney)
Indigenous Literacy Project (Australia)