The Writer’s Journey – With Vanessa Gebbie
I’m delighted to have Vanessa Gebbie here at my blog today. Vanessa and I have been internet buddies for years now; we met each other in an online writing forum and I remember always being impressed with her writing. Vanessa has always been generous with her writing advice, with sharing her experiences and cheering people on. She’s a genuingly inspiring individual.
Her previous books sit on my shelves – a signed hardback copy of Words from a Glass Bubble, Storm Warning and Short Circuit: A Guide to the Art of the Short Story. The Coward’s Tale is Vanessa’s first full lenght novel after specialising in short stories, and it is a truely beautiful and magical read. I picked Vanessa’s brains about the journey that led her to publication.
SP: How did you come up with the idea for The Coward’s Tale?
VG: Well, the honest answer is that I didn’t. I wrote a short story based on a modern retelling of the Doubting Thomas story, using images attached to the man over time (but without the religious elements!) – and then thought – OK, where there’s one Apostle, there tend to be eleven more – so maybe there’s a bigger project here.
SP: Where did you find your inspiration?
VG: That’s always a hard one to answer – but the place where the novel is set is based on Twynyrodyn, part of Merthyr Tydfil in the south Wales valleys – that’s where my family is from. I loved that place, as a child, used to go and stay with my grandmother as much as I could. Maybe that place worked its way through the system and gave me inspiration. I never wanted to go ‘home’ – always thought of those streets as my home, I felt hapier there than anywhere else. So I suppose that feeling allowed me to spend a lot of time (in memory) back there, for the five or six years it took to write The Coward.
But also, I have always been acutely aware that we carry the weight of past events with us, perhaps things that happened before we were born, even – and that seemed a good starting point for an exploration of this theme for a whole community.
SP: What is your method for developing ideas?
VG: Just writing, and seeing what happens.
SP: How did you plan the novel, or did it evolve organically as you wrote?
VG: I don’t plan much, if at all. I don’t sit down and work out a plot, and then write it. I know that works for a lot of writers, but it doesn’t for this one. I see writing as ‘telling myself a story’ – and if I knew the story before I sat down to write, how boring would that be! It evolved completely organically – each section getting written over time, put away, kept on a memory stick somewhere. I didn’t bring the whole thing together until one deliberate stint at my writing retreat – when I printed out all the sections for the first time, then had a look at what I had. A lovely moment. But of course, that was when the hard work of editing and polishing started – that took me almost a year. I guess if you are a plotty writer, you dont have that hard work at the end? Don’t know.
SP: How did you tap into the myriad of voices that are in The Coward’s Tale?
VG: By letting the people speak for themselves, not trying too hard to ‘make them up’.
SP: Did you encounter writers block at any time?
VG: Yes. There were a few unfortunate events along the way which knocked me back a bit, and I lost confidence in the novel, and in my abilities as a writer. And also, nuts as it seems, I was also like that when something lovely happened – like winning a prize with a section of the novel – that would have the effect of freezing me too. Expectations got higher – could I deliver?
SP: How did you overcome this?
VG: To begin with I concentrated on other work – teaching and editing. I was lucky – Salt had commissioned me to produce a text book on writing short fiction in 2009, and I had that as a project to concentrate on – something which was using completely different skills – a great thing to be doing.
But as for zapping that feeling of being blocked – someone gave me a great tip a while back – typing blind. It works if you use a computer to work on – which I do. Either turn the screen off, on a pc – or, on a laptop, stick a teeshirt over the screen, or turn the font to white. And type like the blazes. You are cutting out the feedback loop – can’t see what you are writing at all. It feels absolutely stupid to begin with, but for me, it really works – some of the best bits of The Coward were written looking at a tee-shirt.
SP: What was your overall process for writing The Coward’s Tale?
VG: I wrote it over 5/6 years, whilst also writing all the short stories in Words from a Glass Bubble and Storm Warning and editing Short Circuit. I have never been the sort of writer to only have one pot on the boil. I’d write a bit, then put it away and do something else. I used to wake up in the night and try to remember how many characters there were in the novel – I still can’t quite work it out…(!)
SP: Did you go through several revisions?
VG: Loads! I had an Arts Council Grant for the Arts to polish the novel with the help of the wonderful novelist Maggie Gee – in six months, I must have tackled the complete manuscript four or five times, but before that each section had been polished separately… it was hard work.
SP: How did you manage this?
VG: In that final year, I initially sent the whole manuscript to Maggie Gee, and she read it closely and made pages of notes. We would meet in London at The British Library and discuss the points she made, then I would go away and work on whatever we’d agreed. I was incredibly focussed, and disciplined – most unusual for me. I was very aware I was working thanks to public money, and determined to do it properly. We’d meet again – and the points would get finer and finer, more and more subtle. But Maggie was very clever – she kept some really major things out of discussion until right at the end – or nearly – some radical shifts took place almost at the end of the process. I think now, looking back, if she’d suggested making those changes at the beginning, I would have hated it, and refused! But they were so right.
I had built up such trust in what she had to say – but also trust in the novel – so by the end of the mentoring period, I was able to consider a suggestion and decide for or (occasionally) against it, and feel happy with that. It was huge learning curve – I loved working with her.
SP: What was the process of getting the novel accepted for publication?
VG: I had an agent, since 2008, after winning a prize at Bridport. He knew roughly what I was writing, and was waiting for the manuscript. In face he’d waited for far too long – and had been very patient.. But after working with Maggie, the novel was in good shape. I sent it to my agent, via email. He came back to me quickly to say he loved it, and didn’t want any more changes. He was going to send it out to publishers as it was, and they’d either go for it, or not. I felt dead pleased with myself.
Then, I didn’t feel quite so clever – before sending it out, he asked me to resend the file, without track changes showing. Wally that I am, I’d sent him the tracked version – and it looked ghastly!
He sent it to a list of superb publishers. I had my fingers crossed strongly for one in particular, but wasn’t lucky with them. I am very glad he didn’t send me the replies as they came in, until he had some positive news. A lot turned The Coward’s Tale down, and I still don’t know what they said – I asked not to see the feedback. I don’t do rejection well – never have.
In the end, that two great publishers wanted it – so I had a choice, and we had meetings with them both, one after the other. I asked to meet not only the editor who would be working with me, but also the sales and marketing teams. One publisher had plates of warm Welsh cakes, and the other had bags of toffees – isn’t that great? (Both of these mean a lot in the novel!)
In the end, it was an easy decision – Bloomsbury loved the book as it was, and wanted minimal edits. The other publisher thought it would be best if it was made more commercial, and thought I needed to work on it a lot more.
I’d already been at this for too long – it was time to stop – and I felt more at home with Bloomsbury in the knowledge that I was nearly there. My editor, Helen Garnons-Williams, her assistant Erica Jarnes, the paperback editor Tram-Anh Doan and the whole team seemed to love the novel as much as the author did. We were off -
SP: What was it like to hand over the novel to the publishers?
VG: Interesting! I was really involved in the publishing process, from the design of the hardback cover (the work of Holly MacDonald), to working on the various stages of editing, to making the map which has ended up in the paperback edition, and of course doing my bit for marketing and publicity. (Like this! All so important.) But at some point you have to let go and get on with other things – and I will do that soon.
SP: What was it like to hold the finished book in your hands?
VG: Really lovely! I have three dirfferent versions. The hardback, the UK paperback, and the US trade paperback. All are rather gorgeous.
It has been a long journey, and hard work. But worth every minute.
Thanks for sharing your journey with us, Vanessa!