Interview with Vanessa Gebbie by Adnan Mahmutovic
AM: Vanessa, it’s great to talk about your work again. The Coward’s Tale is your first novel, after two short-story collections. Tell us about it.
VG: Thanks Adnan – it’s good to be talking to you, and great to be back in Stockholm, even if it is only on paper! The Coward’s Tale took six years to write. It was the project that I returned to again and again, whilst also writing my two collections of short fiction, and also a textbook. So it is my fourth book to be published but was probably the first one I started, if we’re talking chronologically.
AM: Tells us about your choice of characters.
VG: Each main character was based on popular images linked to the men we know as The Twelve Apostles. That was part of my creative process – to let those images provide the spark for each character. I also needed conundrums in each case – those issues that ensnare them all at the start of their part of the narrative. Sometimes those issues are linked to the images. Sometimes not.
AM: Your characters are very real to me, and yet I cannot help but be carried away by their allegorical qualities. To what extent have you worked with allegory? Did your characters go from being more allegorical to being less allegorical as you worked on?
VG: I have always enjoyed reading work that has many layers of meaning, not just a surface yarn, so naturally I may have been drawn to creating the same sort of characters – ones whose actions illustrate some meaning other than the surface layer. Perhaps the most obvious examples are the halfwit, Jamie ‘Half’ Harris, and the Deputy Bank Manager, Matty Harris. Without giving away the story for those who have not read it – there could be parallels with the old Aesop’s fable “The Hare and the Tortoise.” I love those old fables – they are so perfect. So right. Timeless.
AM: I love the idea of a beggar as a storyteller. To me there is something nostalgic about it, this artist, who is also hungry but honest about what he is, or at least trying to come to terms with everything through these tales. Why a beggar? And why does he tell this to a boy?
VG: The character of the beggar, Ianto Jenkins, just appeared and took over a back story as I was writing very early on, and he started telling it as direct speech, as a story within a story. I did not deliberately, that is, consciously, create him or that structure. I was trying to write it in third person and limit the length – after all, we are all taught to be sparing with back story, aren’t we? However, I believe in not “controlling” creative writing, or it kills something special – at least at first draft stage –so I let him have his head. And he became so, so important! If this had happened when I was a raw new writer, I’d have deleted him, or at least tried to control his contribution – and look what I’d have lost. When you say “Why a beggar,” the honest answer is “Because he took over,” but I understand that you want more than that. I think he works better than anything I could have consciously made up, first because he is an outsider, and second, because I had no idea who he was, or why he was a beggar, as I was writing the first drafts. From his privileged position on the edges, he is able to look in on the town and make his own judgments about people and their struggles. The reader understands that he was at one point ostracised but does not know why – and that is how it happened for the writer too. I just kept writing to find out what happened – so the narratives gradually reveal the why to the reader, as they did for me. The boy, Laddy Merridew, is also an outsider. He’s been sent to stay with his grandmother while his parents are sorting out their marriage. He is lonely, lost but stubborn, nobody’s fool, a spiky little lad. Perhaps for the first time, Ianto senses a kindred spirit. And also, Laddy reminds him physically of his own brother – he even gives him the same nickname, “The Maggot” – and I wonder if, when he is revealing himself sometimes, whether he is really addressing his brother after all these years, not Laddy. There’s a question.
AM: I know you talked about this novel as a collection, since each chapter is really a small stand-alone story. “Tale” is the word you use. Each chapter is someone’s “tale” that relates to a common past of the characters, or the past of the previous generation.
VG: When it was an early work in progress, I thought of it as a collection of disparate pieces, all singing the same song, if you like – but that wasn’t good enough. I didn’t want to produce a series of interlinked stories that the marketeers could label “a novel” for sales purposes. So I worked for a year to undo the collection aspect of it and create a backbone – deepening the relationship between Laddy and Ianto, for example. Allowing Ianto’s own story to emerge and take on a significance that wasn’t there when the “Tales” first emerged. So you can’t actually take any of the sections out now – if you did, you’d have to edit heavily to remove those parts of the greater story that make no sense without the greater framework. Calling the sections “Tales” not only added to a timeless quality (echoes of Chaucer, perhaps) but they also saved me having to have chapters with numbers – I hate those – they hold me up – too much of a road map.
AM: I agree with that. Numbers are just too cold, and your titles already set the stage. They function partly as opening lines.
Your story is anchored in history. I remember from a conversation a year or two ago that you were concerned with the historical aspects of the tale, the fact vs. fiction, the verisimilitude of places, characters, etc. What decisions did you end up making? Do you feel you had to sacrifice fiction for fact or fact for the sake of fiction?
VG: Although it is fiction, The Coward’s Tale certainly is anchored in reality on many levels, if not in actual history, if we’re being accurate.
As far as the setting goes, it is grounded in my memories of the town where I spent a lot of time as a child, Merthyr Tydfil, in south Wales – the terraces, streets, houses, parks and hills. But a child’s memory is faulty. Memories shift and change. Example – I was absolutely sure that the library (where my mother first worked) was a red stone building. I’d seen it many times. Been taken inside. Visited it not that long ago. But it isn’t red at all. I’d invented that. I was also told a lot of things by my late father, incidents from his own childhood, as he’d recalled them. It seemed more respectful of the creative process to leave our memories intact, so I left things exactly as I’d created them – and put in a note to explain how I’d worked, at the end of the book. I didn’t want to upset anyone living in Merthyr now. The town is not identified in the novel. It is just The Town. But it would be obvious to anyone who knows it – I refer to many real places. Including some that are miles away, and I’ve shifted them closer because they needed to be. Some streets don’t exist at all – I’ve moved whole mountains! Some incidents happened – others didn’t. It doesn’t really matter which is which. Then there is the colliery, Kindly Light Pit, and the accident at the heart of the history of the fictitious town. Kindly Light does not exist – but is based on the many collieries, big and small, that once peppered this part of Wales. I was very concerned that the mining detail had to be correct. I wrote the sections to do with the coal mining incidents from my imagination and what little knowledge I had from general life. Then I researched, after that first draft was done, and changed what needed to be changed. I didn’t want to weigh the story down with extraneous research – I’ve read enough bad novels which don’t work because the author did masses of research then decided it all had to be crammed in somewhere – when actually it isn’t anything to do with the story. In case it is of interest, I read the records of many mining accidents, especially Universal Colliery at Senghennydd, which happened in 1913, causing over 430 deaths.
AM: You have one narrator, in a sense, but many tales. Tell us about the intentions behind this choice. What did you want to accomplish and what do you think the result was? Was there anything that took you by surprise, something that didn’t work, or worked some other way you have not anticipated?
VG: It was not a choice, not consciously. I wanted to write a book that was not just a collection of short stories, and that was my only intention. As far as the content is concerned, I wrote what I would have liked to read if I was the reader. Looking back, having one narrator of the back stories and making him a different narrator to the whole frame narrative, works fine. He delivers one man’s view of events, one man’s understanding of the people, and who is to say is he is 100% right? I liked that thought. The maybe, the what if...
As for surprise, so much of the detail took me by surprise as I wrote. Nothing was really “planned” as I’ve explained above, and I do believe that if a writer isn’t delighted and surprised by the story as it is born, why should the reader be? If I know what’s going to happen before I write, how boring is that? Why bother writing? I know many writers do need to plot and plan, but I have never understood that need.
Things that didn’t work? Oh yes – there were a lot of half-hearted attempts to start sections which then petered out because I was being too controlling. They lost the magic – I organised the lifeblood out of them, so I stopped once I recognised what I was doing, deleted, and went back to where it felt right.
AM: This is, of course, a novel, but you try to create the sense of orality, of this older form of communicating that is really as open as it is limited. Oral story-tellers didn’t care how large their audiences were. One person was just as good as a pub full of people, or a circle of people around fire. They could also see the reactions of their audiences. Is this something you’re thinking of when you write? I’m asking because most your stories, to me, have the flow of nice oral tale.
VG: The orality is surely a function of the voice of the piece. Once I had a voice that felt absolutely right, I just wrote, not trying for, or stretching for any effect other than to tell a good story. The voice is naturally the rhythms of the streets where my family came from, and where I spent such happy times with my grandmother. They are the rhythms of speech, the musicality and cadences of the regional accent heard in my head as I wrote, that’s all. I didn’t think about the reactions of the townsfolk until after the draft was done. It was also incredibly important for Ianto and for Laddy to both experience the town’s reactions to the stories, and to react themselves – that’s the most powerful thing.
AM: You use the conditional forms a lot, all these “may” and “will.” In some cases they signal simultaneity of events, and in others, a future event that has not yet happened but “may” happen, or “will” happen. I get the sense of cautiousness, as if we’re treading sensitive grounds, intruding upon old ghosts and their sensibilities. What’s the intention behind this?
VG: Hmm, as soon as the voice veered into the conditional, or the future, bringing a “perhaps” into the equation, I sat back and thought, “I like that.” It added insubstantiality to the narrative that felt right. It underlined that these were stories and raised a question as to their veracity. This was really pointed up when I edited the drafts. I liked the idea, while I was polishing the manuscript, of playing with the reader, saying things like “rivers round these parts never freeze in September” for example, after leading them through a story in which the Taff does just that. Who is right? Me, or the reader’s imagination? Or history? (The Taff has in fact frozen, but not in September, to my knowledge!) Or maybe it is the story being in control of the writer, you see? Which is how it ought to be.
AM: I wonder about the function of repetition in your novel. This question is more like a short analysis, and I’d like you to comment on my understanding of what’s happening in the novel.
While I know repetition is a technique, of course, I almost want to speak about the “sense” of repetition because one thing you manage to do is repeat things without them standing out at the moment of repetition. To give you an example, and this is perhaps most common and striking in poetry, when the writer repeats a phrase, it stands out and delivers an extra punch. Same happens in your text, except that certain repetitions are both frequent and so much a part of a stronger flow of the prose that they are only semi-perceptible. They help create this rhythm I like, but don’t poke me in the eye, so to speak. Take for instance the chapter “In the Porch of Ebenezer Chapel,” some hundred pages into the novel. We get this story about the narrator and boots, and this short and intense section is like an attempt at telling this thing about the boots and how that defines the narrator, and inside that chapter, things would be repeated – phrases, sentiments, feelings, thoughts, facts, as if the narrator is unable to get there, to get at the source of things, the essence he’s trying to convey. So he needs to get into his mantra. Throughout the novel the same things happen. Full names of characters are repeated often and some characteristic facts about them, for instance Jenkins’s clock without hands, etc.
VG: Well, it’s just the voice of the novel, isn’t it? I’m not sure I can comment apart from observing that many readers find it poetic, or lyrical, and that’s partly due to the rhythms of the prose – must be. When I wrote, I went back and read absolutely everything out loud, over and over and over, to make sure the rhythms were right, and repetition was an important part of that. I edited finally, right at the word level, making sure each word really was where I wanted it to be. Many sentences start with “And” for example – the beat is as I wanted it – every time. Leave out the “and” and you have a very different rhythm emerging, more staccato. I wanted it to flow. Compare the St. James Bible. Read aloud it often has a mesmeric effect on the listener because of the rhythms – no doubt intentionally – like a mantra, your word, but so right.
AM: Several reviewers have brought up Dylan Thomas as your influence, and you even have a character by that name, Welsh and all. What is your relationship to Thomas?
VG: He is a good drinking buddy. And yes, he appears as himself in The Coward’s Tale in Mrs. Bennie Parrish’s shopping basket, and why not? And the public house is called The Cat, it might well have been The Captain Cat, but that would have been too much.
Seriously. I love his Under Milk Wood, as is evident. I learned a lot from listening to it, and the cadences remind me so much of the speech of my grandmothers and their neighbours, but – and there is a very big ‘but’ here – I don’t do “pretty.” I am interested in the light against the dark of things. There had to be more of a reason for me to work on something for a long time, discovering a back story, not so much prettiness and whimsy.
I was probably more influenced in tone by In Parenthesis by David Jones, who took a very serious subject, the progress of WWI for a small group of Welsh soldiers up to one action on The Somme, and related it as a play for voices/extended poem/novella. Dylan Thomas knew it well; he acted in it in 1936 on BBC Radio. And then he came up years later, with the beautiful Under Milk Wood, as a sort of exorcism of the darkness of the second World War, I think. And it IS beautiful, but if pushed, I prefer the deeper, darker beauty of In Parenthesis.
It is very, very sad to see David Jones now mainly relegated to the dark and dusty corners of academia, and not enjoyed by more readers. It is a wonderful, wonderful book, and dare I say it knocks Under Milk Wood into a tin hat.
Here’s a section from In Parenthesis, picked at random. This is after an action. R.E’s are Royal Engineers – sappers, tasked with setting the wire, among other things. Lewis refers to the Lewis gun, and bearers are, of course, stretcher bearers – but look at the raw and real beauty here:
And it’s nearing dark when the trench is digged and they brought forward R.E.s who methodically spaced their picket-irons and did their work to and fro, speak low - cats-cradle-tenuous gear.
You can hear their mauls hammering under the oaks.
And when they’ve done the job they file back carrying their implements, and the covering Lewis team withdraws from out in front and the water party is up at least with half the bottles punctured and travellers’ tales.
Stammer a tale stare-eyed of close shaves, of outside on the open slope: Carrying parties, runners who hasten singly, burdened bearers walk with careful feet to jolt him as little as possible, bearer of burdens to and from stumble oftener, notice the lessening light, and feel their way with more sensitive feet - you mustn’t spill the precious fragments, for perhaps these raw bones live.
They can cover him again with skin - in their candid coats, in their clinical shrine and parade the miraculi.
AM: That is really great. I never thought of it. Another question about the importance of stories. At one point, the character Peter Edwards says, “Stories is bubbles” and there is this exchange: “‘I like stories, me.” “Me too. Nothing like a good story to pass the time ...”’ (310). I am quite curious about this. The “bubbles” bring back to mind your first collection, Voices from a Glass Bubble, but stories as “pass-time” with the ellipsis right after, as if the thought was not finished. What are you doing here? I guess for a serious writer like yourself, you do not want your stories to be mere pass-time, but then maybe some of that pass-time quality of stories must be retained, as well.
VG: It was partly a tongue-in-cheek reference to my own book of stories, maybe, but also a raspberry to those who say that fiction is meaningless. I don’t think it is – I think fiction is hugely important. And it is playing with the reader again, I suppose. They’ve got to the end of the book, and it’s all air, mirrors, fiction – bubbles, toys. Or is it? I know this Macbeth quote is selective, but it poses a similar question:
There’s nothing serious in mortality:
All is but toys...
But don’t ignore the effect of the stories within the novel. The last thing they are is “toys.” What effect have they had on the townsfolk? They’ve liberated the main characters from the clutches of the past. They’ve allowed the community to understand. They’ve exorcised the spirits. There is a healing power in the stories: as someone says, “It is good to have it said.” And Ianto has found redemption, if such is needed. He finds peace, at least.
AM: Thank you, Vanessa. I wish you all the best with novel.
VG: Thank you. Pleasure talking with you.
The Coward’s Tale can be found at Amazon.
Adnan Mahmutovic is a Bosnian Swede, a homely exile who teaches English literature at Stockholm University. He is the author of prize-winning Thinner than a Hair, Illegitimate, [Refuge]e, and a short film, Washing. Visit him at adnanmahmutovic.