Jul/Aug 2008  •   Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with Vanessa Gebbie

Interview by Tania Hershman

They collect the body's imprints, the buried memories deep in the tissue and bone. The torn, broken and mended. The invasion of disease, the counterpoint of serum. All those life prints left in us like so many fading impressions on sheets of paper beneath a letter.

Vanessa Gebbie is the daughter of a student nurse and a traveling salesman and was given up for adoption at birth. She spent much of her childhood in Wales and can still sing hymns and swear in Welsh. Her short fiction has won many awards including Fish and Bridport prizes and has been published in the UK, USA, New Zealand, Canada, and India, translated into Vietnamese and Italian and broadcast by the BBC. Her teaching and facilitating has led to the publishing of anthologies of work by both the homeless and refugees in her home city of Brighton and Hove, Sussex, UK. Her novel in progress won a first prize in the 2007 Daily Telegraph Novel Competition. Her debut short story collection, Words from A Glass Bubble, was published by Salt in March 2008, and has been long listed for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award.


TH     Your first collection has just been published and it has been nominated for the Frank O'Connor Award. Congratulations! Tell me, the title of your collection, "Words from a Glass Bubble," is this symbolic of your writing, and, if you agree, what is the "Glass Bubble" that your words come from?

VG     Thanks. It is great to be on the Frank O'Connor list. I have Salt Publishing to thank for that... wonderful people!

I think writing comes from a place that is quite fragile; at least, it does for this writer. It is so easy to be discouraged, easy to lose heart, easy to listen to the voices that say you can't do this properly. But the place writing comes from must be beautiful. It's at the heart of me as a person, and for all its fragility, it is a wonderful thing to be able (occasionally) to tap into that place.

TH     A glass bubble is also transparent, everyone can see into it. And it also reminds me of a crystal ball, seeing something other people can't see. Does any of that resonate with you?

VG     I think it works both ways. When I write, I am laying bare what makes me tick, the things that really matter to me. How I filter the world. So it's me that becomes totally transparent in the real sense.

But I don't see it as a crystal ball. That's an important distinction if we're continuing these analogies. I'm not crystal gazing, more giving the readers glimpses, magical things, and fleeting, like the snow globes we used to have as kids with their magical scenes, moving, and settling. Although some of the stories have deep sadnesses in them, there is also a lot of humour, and, I'm told, beauty, uplift—perhaps that is the snow?


TH     It sounds like you have spent a lot of time thinking about what writing means to you, you have quite a clear idea about that, now. But how was it when you began? Tell me a bit about the journey to this point.

VG     I was writing as a freelance journalist for some years. I used to specialize in education issues, and had a regular slot on a glossy magazine. Around 2003 I decided I wanted to write fiction. I spent eighteen months on and off working in an online writing group, Boot Camp, led by Eclectica contributor Alex Keegan. That was akin to an apprenticeship. But I learned not only craft. In a way, that was the easy bit. I also learned about thematic weight, and about accessing what I now call the "glass bubble," for want of a better term!

TH     What happened in 2003, when you moved to fiction? Had this been a deep-buried love? Or was it a sudden awakening?

VG     I used to write masses as a teenager and in my early 20s. Then it stopped. I used to read masses. Always work that was fragile...Mervyn Peake, Tolkien, Kafka, I loved the "sidewaysness" of those writers. The way they saw life through a prism. And although I didn't commit words to paper for years and years after my early twenties, I may have always been writing in my head.

The moment that made me realize I could write, and wanted to, came in a thunderstorm! I dashed into a bookshop to shelter and bought a book, purely for the sense of loneliness of the cover image plus the list of writers on the back who loved it. That was Austerlitz by W G Sebald. I read it in one sitting. I was moved by it, by the subject, the character, but also moved by the bravery of it. The originality of structure, style, the rule-breaking. This was something I wanted to do.

TH     This brings up a number of interesting points for me about your own stories. You talk about the sidewaysness (a great word!) and the originality of structure. What I noticed reading through all your stories together is that they are not "about" what they seem to be "about". "Harry's Catch" isn't about fishing. "Irrigation" isn't about colonic irrigation. "Words from a Glass Bubble" isn't about a man making bird noises. Is this something you are conscious of when you are writing? Or are these more "mundane" type human activities a way in to the deeper, more intense, harrowing stories underneath?

VG     For me, good fiction is not "about" the top layer. It's about what's going on underneath, always. That's what draws me in as a reader. I can read the Gormenghast trilogy and enjoy the world created, the fantasy so perilously close to tipping into reality, but I am filled with echoes at the same time. Life is this, for Mervyn Peake, this is how he was, inside. All he's doing is letting us glimpse him, see life through the prism through which he saw. Does that make any sense at all?

TH     I haven't read any Mervyn Peake but I think I see what you are getting at. It's about glimpses, not about full-on. That's what life is like, everything all mixed in together. Nothing clearly stated, it has to be unearthed, like a diamond.

VG     Yes, I suppose so, but if we're talking about thematic current, it's setting up that resonance despite yourself. That's what he did, consummately, I think. And you asked if it was a conscious thing, making the layers in my stories. Not at all. But you pick up the Bird Man (Finn Piper) from the title story, he is representative of something I believe deeply, he is a perfect carrier of whatever it is that drives my writing: I believe that the disenfranchised in society often have a real power to change both their own lives and the lives of others. You'll meet lots of Finn Pipers in my stories, in one shape or form

TH     This brings us very neatly on to your work with ex-drug addicts and how this has informed your stories. How did you first get into this area?

VG     I knew how good writing made me feel, that sense of validation. I offered to do a few writing sessions at a rehab to see if it might raise their self-esteem. The residents were all fighting serious drug and alcohol addiction. They had lost family, jobs, and any sense of self worth. They lovedthe sessions and I became part of the place for nearly three years. I think it worked because unlike the other staff, I was not there to judge them. They could write about anything, without fear of ridicule, judgment, and they (and I) were often in tears. We were just kind to each other. Maybe that's what worked? Overt kindness? We also had great fun.

TH     I love what you say about kindness, I wouldn't have thought of it like that—they were kind to you, too. I would have imagined it to be very harrowing, but it sounds almost like a magical atmosphere was created.

VG     Looking back, these people hadn't been treated as human beings for so long. Prison, the streets, even the staff—whose motives were nothing but wonderful—worked within a system that treated the residents harshly, with reason I'm sure. I'm not saying that was bad, they were the professionals, what I am saying is that the residents needed to regain their sense of self worth, of humanity, and I think writing helped. It's about allowing that "glass bubble" to influence you and what you do. About stripping away the layers to recover their core humanity and rejoice in it. It's not easy. I'm making it sound light and fluffy and it wasn't at all. It was serious stuff, we touched something important in those sessions through writing.

TH     In your stories, you don't shy away from talking about the most basic human conditions—there's quite a lot of shitting, vomiting, fucking, death. Do you think this is something that, for you, came out of this work that you learned not to be inhibited in your own writing?

VG     It was always there. I've never been prissy in any way. But I also didn't like to read writing where those things were just there for shock value. If my characters need to shit, they shit. I want to meet real people when I read, raw people. And if they want to fuck, then who am I to stop them? But only if it is genuinely necessary.

Far, far more important is the knowledge that thischaracter is real when you read. With real feelings, tears, a heart that aches because he's yearning for something he will never have. We all know what that feels like, don't we? That's the joy of writing. Showing a reader other people who feel the same as they do. Being inhibited would not help that process at all.

TH     Well, your characters certainly feel incredibly real. When you were writing the stories included in Words from a Glass Bubble, did you write them one at a time, and would you walk around "with" each character for days, weeks?

VG     The stories in Glass Bubble were written over three years and are a selection of some 200 to 250 stories and flash pieces completed in that time. I used to be seriously prolific, I am less so now. And sure, with some stories the characters lived in my head for a long time before their stories were told fully. Other work came out almost instantaneously. Flash techniques learned early on underpinned a lot of my writing processes. Sometimes complete stories would appear, splat, with little preparation. It didn't happen enough! Sadly, I seem to be moving away from that freedom at the moment.

TH     Your story "Simon's Skin" is incredibly powerful and although it seems on the surface to be surreal, a kind of magical realism, the way you write it, we never doubt for a second that this is actually occurring. Is this story in some way a metaphor for what writing is to you? Or do you see yourself as a step removed from your characters, not actually in their skin,more of an omniscient narrator, watching?

VG     Interesting question. Process-wise, if a character speaks directly through my words, and I'm typing as fast as I can in first person, I feel for a few moments as though I am this character. I have no idea what they are going to say next, or what they are going to do. It's on those occasions that I understand absolutely about being taken over, and I follow my character round like a lamb, recording everything. Sometimes the voice is removed a notch. I'm still "in their heads" but able to reflect a wider scope. Close third person I suppose? I hate analyzing, it makes me too aware when I go back to the keyboard! "Simon's Skin" came out of a visualization exercise, and was written in one sitting. And sure, it was just like slipping on someone else's skin. But I love the surreal, or irreal anyway, so it is easy for me to skew reality and look through these prisms. I don't feel comfortable with the idea of being a ringmaster or watching, that sounds prurient, somehow. But maybe that's what we all do? I think I respect my characters far too much to watch them, they need their privacy! If they show me a glimpse of their lives for me to write down, I'm grateful and love them for it.

TH     Let's talk about the themes in your work: firstly, what in your opinion is the relationship between theme and plot, and the difference between the two?

VG     The first two stories in the collection are both saying something like "life throws trouble your way. A person will be happier if they come to terms with it and move on. If they don't they become stuck," which is something I believe. But both stories are very different. Plots, characters, even styles. They have similarities too: elements of the unexplainable, the surreal, irreal, spiritual (small "s"!), call it what you will. Maybe that's indicative of something else. That not everything is explainable, so don't try. Just accept life as it is.

TH       Are you conscious of theme and/or plot when you begin to write a story? If no, at what point do you become conscious of any themes that might be present? Should a writer be aware of theme while they are writing or is theme something that is for a reader to notice/be aware of?

VG     I recognize recurring things that probably drive why I write at all. So now, they are in the background but out of direct sightline. I don't think "should" is a word I can apply to any writer except myself. We all have our own ways and methods. But for me (and I know for many) too much analysis as I go is a hard thing to drag around , as I seek the lightness and magic of creating something that surprises me as a I write.

I hope I am communicating something I feel deeply. I hope the reader will 'tune in' to my wavelength. But I have no control over that. Every reader brings to their reading their own set of values, experiences, beliefs, prejudices. I hope some readers connect with my subtext. Mostly, I am pleased if they read my work and it makes them stop and think for a moment before moving on.

TH     There are several what might be called motifs that recur in the stories in this collection: the death of babies/children is a very strong motif. What does this symbolize for you and are you aware of this recurrence? Are there other motifs that are very meaningful to you?

VG     The loss of a child is symbolic for me because it destroys so much potential. The future of not only that child has gone, but so has something far greater. A future stream of doing, being, inter-relating, events,that grows exponentially whenever I think about it. I project the what-if's light years into the future and it becomes impossible to contemplate.

One aspect of it has to come from my own experience of being an adopted child, conceived over half a century ago. I am aware had I been conceived a decade later I would probably not be here. Abortion is an industry. I find that thought extraordinary. I am so aware of being alive. So conscious. And sure, conscious of the motif because it is fundamental.

My other motifs are marginalised, isolated characters. Those on the edges. And in the work I am doing now, the relationship between us and the unexplainable. And the place we live, this planet. Us and the elements.

TH     You mention in your author profile that you are adopted and you launched your collection at London's Foundling Museum, so this is obviously a strong aspect of your identity. Do you mind talking about how you believe this shapes the themes that are found in your work?

VG     I have been blessed with a strong sense of utter bewilderment at being abandoned. And that feeds everything I do, I suppose. I'm always looking for ‘home." Most of my stories deal with displacement, marginalization... but with a twinkle. Life's good stuff!

TH       You mentioned Boot Camp which was a great learning experience for you, although I know it is tough. Now you've set up your own online writing forum, The Fiction Workhouse—why?

VG     I set up The Fiction Workhouse because I wanted the online company of other writers, serious writers who are working at a similar level, in the same broad area: the literary short story. I set a requirement for membership; people needed to show a solid record of acceptance, publication in meaningful places, competition successes etc. It's worked. We now have thirty- five strong writers, working well together.

TH     Do you believe it is different from other online groups that are available? How?

VG     I know it differs from other places I've had experience of, in the restriction, mainly. There are plenty of places for writers to gather on the Net. Also it's a collective, in spirit, no one is really in charge although I always end up doing the donkey work.

TH     Since you started writing, in just a few years you have won a number of prizes, including placing second in two major short story competitions last year, Fish and Bridport. What do these awards mean for you and your writing?

VG     I have a mixed answer to that. It is wonderful to have the validation, and in all cases the judges are generous, experienced people whose endorsement means a lot. But I have to acknowledge that each time I have won a meaningful prize I freeze. I can't write freely for a time afterwards, and that time is getting longer and longer. Someone explained what it was the other day: "Second Novel Syndrome". A writer is so afraid they can't match the success of a first novel with the second that they freeze. So, I'm not entering any more now, unless this goes away. But it is nice to have the opportunity to let short story writers know that this happens. I'd never heard of it and thought I was going batty.

TH     It makes sense I think, us humans seem to find success far more difficult to deal with than failure. So, on that note, how has it been to have your first book published?

VG     Wonderful!! It's been a great year. After I submitted several stories to Salt Publishing, they offered me a book deal in early 2007 and it has taken a year to put the collection together, agree content, edit, decide on format. It's a terrific feeling to see it in the shops, on Amazon, to have reading invitations coming through and of course, reviews.

TH     So that hasn't caused a "freeze" in writing terms? It's a different kind of success?

VG     I have had to decide to go at the marketing full on, as that is a requirement of working with an independent publisher. They do so much for you but you are expected to work in partnership. I'm lucky. I used to be in marketing, so I can be fairly shameless!

TH     I believe you have a collection of flash fiction set to come out next year, also from Salt. And you're working on a novel. How is that going—apart from the disruption caused by marketing your book!

VG     Very, very slowly. It's so different to the way I usually write. I know what each piece has to deal with roughly and there's not as much surprise as in writing fiction freely, not knowing who I'm going to meet next and so on. I have not learned to plot, and I wonder if that was a mistake.

TH     It must be a great stimulation, learning a new form, a new way of working. I believe you are also writing poetry, too, that is something else new for you.

VG     Yes, I have had a poem published so I have joined the great mass of humanity that can call itself published poets. I wonder if actually I have been writing something that sounds like poetry for a while—just on the page it doesn't look like poetry. It is a form I have to learn about, and I still don't see why some pieces of work are poems and others aren't. There seems to be a very close relationship between some flash work and some poems. The distinction, if there is one, is very blurry!

TH     Two of the questions I ask authors that I interview for The Short Review are these: what is it like knowing that people are buying your book? And if you could ask your readers anything, what would it be?

VG     Knowing people are reading me is great. That's why I write. Seeing my book on display in a shop is fabulous. I would give my reader a huge hug and say, "Thank you. Which story touched you the most? And did you dislike any and why?"

TH     I just heard today that Jhumpa Lahiri's second short story collection has gone straight in at number one on the NY Times bestseller list. Does this have any significance either for literary fiction or for short stories, in your opinion, or is it just because she is a "name"?

VG     I would love to think it is because the short forms are regaining ground. But sadly, I think it is probably because she is known. Hopefully, though, it will open people's eyes to what the short form can do, and have a positive knock-on to the rest. Let's hope. There are some stunning short story collections around. I'm reading Taking Pictures by Booker Prizewinner Ann Enright. And of course Salt Publishing has some fabulous writers in their lineup.

TH     You are going to be a student on an MPhil in Writing beginning in the autumn. You are also a creative writing teacher. Do you believe that writers are made not born? And what, given that you are a published and award-winning author, do you hope to gain from going back into the academic framework?

VG     I going to study for an MPhil out of the University of Glamorgan, in South Wales. Quite apart from its excellent reputation, its distance learning package allows the students to study from home. So I'm delighted!

I learned by apprenticeship, working with someone whose writing excited me. I have kept the company of good writers, shared learning with them informally, and have just read, worked, read, submitted, worked, and improved, with feedback from trusted colleagues. I was "given permission" early on to learn the ground rules of strong fiction, but then to break them with impunity if I needed to. To write exactly what I wanted to, not be subjugated by my desire to be read. Not to be published at any cost, at the expense of my own voice. And that is probably the best advice I could have had.

You can be "taught" those "rules." You can improve prose, structure, easily, if you want to do so, because all that is craft. Like making a simple sideboard, one drawer on top of another in a simple frame. Anyone, with the right tools and guidance can do that.

But it takes something else to make that a work of art like Thomas Chippendale did. That takes a spark of something else. Originality. Vision. You can't teach that, can you?

I've got plenty of spark. But I know there are loads more sophisticated craft issues to tackle, and I am looking for that guidance now. Also, I love the academic side of the course. I am going to look closely at the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Haruki Murakami. That's just feeding me, selfishly.

We don't ever stop learning, do we? I hope not. Yes, I am published, and yes, I've won a few awards for short fiction. But in the great scheme of things, that's small beer. I'd like to make a stronger brew.


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