by Rumjhum Biswas
Vanessa Gebbie is a familiar name, regardless of whether you are in the USA, UK or India. Nevertheless, my column necessitates an introduction. So here goes a quick overview: Vanessa Gebbie is an award winning writer, having won the Willesden Prize and other prizes in Bridport, Fish, among others. She is the author of two short story collections, Storm Warning and Tales from a Glass Bubble, and is the editor of Short Circuit: A Guide to the Art of the Short Story. Her first novel A Coward’s Tale is forthcoming from Bloomsbury. Vanessa is Welsh and lives in Sussex, England.
Vanessa’s website gives a much more vivid picture of her as a person and writer at www.vanessagebbie.com/. Her blog, Vanessa Gebbie’s News, has old news, but is relevent and enjoyable, and there are two interviews of Vanessa, which are must reads, one at Nik Perring’s Blog and the other at Prime Mincer Literary Journal by Sequoia Nagamatsu where Vanessa in her inimitable way, imparts lessons, entertains and shares. Here too, as you read along, the experience is similar to taking a walk with her and when you finally sit down on a garden bench, you have a parable to mull over.
Rumjhum Biswas: You are a multi-award winning short story writer, adjudicator, editor, teacher, poet, and mum and wife and friend and all those other everyday things. How do you keep the writer (in you) quiet when you are the other things in your life?
Vanessa Gebbie: What a list…. Must admit I handle the different pulls on my time with great difficulty. I find it really hard to keep the writer quiet when I’m being a mom, wife, sister or friend. Also, and maybe more importantly for the purposes of this interview – I find it even harder to keep the mom, wife, sister and friend part of me quiet when I am being a writer. I have to get away from home to do any sustained serious work.
For the last six years now, I’ve been going over to Ireland, to a wonderful place, Anam Cara Writers’ and Artists’ Retreat, where I stay for a week or two at a time. There, I am nothing but a writer.
It’s important, I think, to give ourselves the time and the space to be “just a writer.” So often, all our other roles crash in and muddy the time we try so hard to set aside. I feel that is especially hard for women – and am running a fab retreat just for women writers in a couple of months time. Giving them a chance to focus, to breathe, not have to be anyone’s mother, or wife, etc etc just for two days.
Can I do a shameless plug? ‘The Coward’s Tale’ comes out in the UK in November and in the US in the New Year, from Bloomsbury. They’ve just put the first two chapters on the website – very exciting. Have a read, for free – The Coward’s Tale.
RB: What is a day in Vanessa Gebbie’s writing life like?
VG: Unless I am away in Ireland, it is fairly unstructured, but everything I do feds into a writing life somehow. I usually have several stories in various stages of completion. I try to do some flash writing most days. I write a poem now and again, if the right feeling overtakes. I spend a long time planning for workshops. I read, a lot, but never enough. I waste time on the internet. But at the back of my mind, I am also planning the next novel – which will get written in the same way as the Coward’s Tale – in short intense bursts. I love short fiction for its intensity and versatility, the way it echoes in the reader’s head – I hope I can create a longer form that encompasses those attributes.
RB: What is your favourite length in a short story? You also write a lot of flash fiction; what according to you are the advantages and also disadvantages of this form?
VG: I am not ducking the question when I say I don’t have one. Every piece of fiction has its own right length, I think. A story feels ‘right’ at the length it was meant to be.
You can feel it when the writer tries to push the envelope, tries to add enough words to make a good flash into a short story, for example. Or to extend a flash a few hundred words to cross a minimum word count. Or indeed, you can feel it when a writer slices too rigorously, without an ear for sound, for rhythm in sentences.
As for flash – it is so hard to define, everyone has his own thoughts on the matter, and I guess that’s part of its charm. It’s a slippery beast! And like all slippery beasts, gives the impression it is easy to catch hold of – when actually, it is anything but. The advantages of flash are those of any fiction – markets are out there, for the finding. But one advantage flash has (although it doesn’t sound much) is that it is great as a filler, especially for print journals. Flash is a superb discipline, for the writer, and for the reader. It is not something to gulp in one bite – but something to linger over, to reflect on. Often a good flash will continue to reveal its layers on second or third read. Like the best poems. Flash as a process, freeing up, writing to a prompt, for example, as I do, maybe in a timed session, can produce extraordinary results.
But I think there are disadvantages too. As ever. Two sides to everything. The explosion of markets for flash, some of which are less rigorous than others, have made writers think short short fiction is easy. There is an awful lot of rubbish out there, as is the case with all types of writing, sadly – especially on the internet – which reinforces this view, maybe gives it a bad name in some quarters. But as you know, writing a good piece of flash fiction is anything but easy, and has often taken a very long time.
It’s useful to look at what it isn’t – flash is not a scene from something longer, it’s not a character sketch, not an anecdote with no echoes. You can’t afford to use the same constructs you use when writing a novel. Or even a short story. Every word, every punctuation mark, every space really does need to be considered, and has to earn its place. Sometimes it’s a story, sometimes it hints at a story – and that’s where it is most successful, for me, anyway – when the reader is complicit, and makes what is missing into part of the whole. Sure, a flash can be worked up into something longer… but unless the whole modus operandi changes too, I think the writer risks losing something quite precious in the effort.
RB: In your busy life, how do you pace your writing? Do you switch from one to another when the mood strikes or do you follow a system, jotting down ideas to work on after you’re done with whatever form you are working on at that time?
VG: I am chaotic. Creativity, for me, anyway, is an ungovernable thing. It comes when it wishes. I work at what comes, trying to remember ideas, trying to snatch moments to write things down. I will always have many things on the go at once. I’m a Gemini. Maybe that helps, who knows?
RB: Where do you most feel comfortable when you are writing? Do you have a favourite spot? Or a favourite thing or pet you like having around you when you work?
VG: I think I’ve answered this above – the writing retreat I go to, Anam Cara, is owned by an experienced editor from the US, Sue Booth-Forbes, who has run this great place for twelve years or more. There are only five guests at any one time, with their own rooms, desks, broadband access, and all rooms are extremely comfortable. Guests, especially those from theUS, seem to stay for up to six weeks at a stretch, having obtained a grant to do so. The house is full of books, from poetry to writing theory, from short stories to myth and legend, from novels to local history. There are some four shelves full to groaning with published books written whilst there, in part, donated by grateful alumni. It is absolutely magic.
The day is structured to make the most of the time, quiet is paramount, as is respect for the other guests and their work.
Pets? Sue has a dog, Jack, who is the best editor in the world. If guests share work in the evenings, he will do a hasty exit if he doesn’t like something! She also has ducks, chickens. And 30 acres of Irish heaven, including a river, a cascade, an island…shall I stop now?
RB: What do you do when a great idea strikes you and you are away from your writing place?
VG: Panic? I usually have something to write with, and on. But I have been known to set an idea to music – make a few words fit a line of a song – to remember it later. I have also been known to ask the person sitting in the passenger seat of the car to take dictation, if I’m driving.
RB: Who were/are your favourite authors of flash fiction and/or short stories?
VG: Oh my goodness, where do I start? There are so many. If you read great websites, you will find excellent contemporary writers, excellent work – my favourite is Smokelong Quarterly. Explore the archive, take the trouble to read the writers’ biographies, which often list other places they’ve been published. Explore those places too. Then there’s Italo Calvino. Margaret Attwood.
RB: What according to you makes up a great piece of flash fiction?
VG: If it is so well crafted I forget I’m reading – see answer to question 10.
RB: In your opinion what is the worst thing a flash fiction writer can do and kill the story?
VG: Feed it too many words!
RB: When you are given a bunch of stories to judge for a contest or select for an anthology, what compelling thing do you look for? What would make you sit up and say, this is the one? How often does such a moment occur in your editing/judging life?
VG: I look for voice, for authenticity, for intrigue, for confidence. If a writer can deliver that lot, I am secure in the knowledge that this is a writer I can trust to deliver me a great reading experience, and I forget I’m reading, completely. Doesn’t happen often, sadly! So many writers seem to think a flash piece is just something less than so many words. It isn’t. The words, the spaces between words, all have to weave together to create a tight tapestry. No holes.
RB: What advice would you give to newbie writers of flash fiction?
VG: Read as much as you can. Read slowly. Watch for the sub-texts. Read BAD flashes, too. Look how thin they are. See how writers try to make bits of short story pretend to be flashes.
RB: Does flash fiction seriously have a future or is it just a fad? Is it for folks who really don’t want to read?
VG: Flash certainly is not a fad. It has been around for centuries under different names. Maybe the name “flash”doesn’t help it – it sounds “weightless” when actually, it is often very weighty, thematically. Tell Italo Calvino his work was a fad, or Aesop in his fables – or Charles Baudelaire, (whose prose poems seem to me more akin to flash fictions) or today’s Margaret Attwood, indeed, any great writers who have harnessed the power of concision.
Is it for folks who don’t want to read? Hmm. Maybe people try flash and skip through in a few moments, skimming for “what happens.” Maybe they shut the book, shake their heads and wonder what the fuss is about. I’ve seen really unfair reviews on marvelous flash work read both in print and online, on Amazon, for example, from readers who obviously don’t have a clue how to read it. It is not what happens on the page, so often, its what happens in your head when you read. Slow down. Give it a chance to work its magic.
RB: Is it fair to ask you to give us another rendition of what the word “story” means to you? (http://nikperring.blogspot.com/2009/07/vanessa-gebbie-interview.html) Even if we say pretty please?
VG: How about I give you a scribble written a while back, unpublished except on my old blog, all about writing stories, and the magic that is our own creativity?
A Flying Fish Tale
It is a little-known fact, but fact it is, that far away in a country we now call Japan- and so many years ago we have no number small enough to record the year – all the fishermen were poets and tellers of stories. They worked in all weathers on boats made of paper, layer upon layer, glued together with the spittle of birds. And these boats were as light and as fast as the flying fish they sought.
Every day, with the exception of the annual celebrations commemorating the appearance of the first hair on the chin of the young Emperor, the villages and towns were supplied with copious amounts of flying fish. Eating flying fish was thought to impart great power. It was believed that flying fish were the souls of drowned warriors killed in ancient battles with invaders who breached the horizon in boats made from still-growing canes of green bamboo. To eat the fish not only imparted great strength and the sharpest wits, but if enough was consumed the eater was accorded the privilege of being able to commune with his ancestors.
But I digress.
The makers of poems and stories could not make their words on land. To stand on an earth that was unmoving, surrounded by mountains that merely stared back even when decked with snow or plum blossom, was a poor substitute for the sea. (Indeed, the old word for ‘a poor substitute’ is almost exactly the same as that for ‘earth’.) No- they needed the wind in their faces and on their chests, the skin nearest their minds and their hearts.
Their words came as they fished. The lightest words they made into sailcloth. The strongest words they wove into nets. And the heaviest words, the ones that came the hardest, from somewhere deep within their souls, they fashioned these into anchors and anchor-chains.
Every boat fished its own apportioned section of the sea and never trespassed into the neighbouring fishing ground. You see, the seabed is never flat but mirrors the earth, and the anchor-chains of each boat were made with an exact and secret number of links allowing the fishermen to drop anchor exactly in their right place. Their paper boats would be held secure with just enough play to rise and fall on the waves, whilst the fishermen spread their nets in a fine mist, catching the fish as they flew by.
In this way, for countless centuries – a greater number than has yet been invented – the poets and storyteller fishermen nourished the country we now callJapan. Their lightest words billowed and carried them through the most treacherous winds. Their strongest words caught flying fish in numbers not recordable. And their heaviest words, the ones that were hardest to make, tethered them to their chosen fishing grounds, holding their paper boats steady and safe until it was time to head for home.
All was well. Until late one day, as darkness fell, in the week before the celebration of the first hair on the young emperor’s chin, under the cover of darkness, a boat made of the still-growing canes of green bamboo steered by a single oar, approached the sleeping fleet.
The lone sailor was a small man who wanted to become a fisherman. He wanted to catch his own flying fish and eat more than he could afford to buy at the market, rendering himself able to speak to his ancestors. But did not want to spend the years it took to make enough of his own words to weave sailcloth, make nets and forge heavy anchors and chains.
The bamboo boat floated between the sleeping fishing boats, and the small man looked round very carefully until he found the things he wanted. He climbed quietly onto one boat, and took the sails. He took the nets from another, and the anchor and chain from a third, then, on the tide, he floated out of the harbour and out to sea. Once in the open water, he secured the sails to a spar, and the wind filled them. The bamboo boat was carried many miles out into the ocean, past the fishing grounds, and on, towards the horizon. And when he was out of sight of the land and its few lights, he prepared to catch flying fish.
He trimmed the sails and set up the nets, raising them into the air on thin willow whips. And he waited. He did not have to wait long. Soon, flying fish flew into the nets in their dozens, and the small man rejoiced, and began singing to the fish.
But the weight of the fish caused the boat to drift… it began to circle lazily, and the next shoal of fish flew straight past. To catch more, the boat needed to be secured, to stay in one place.
The small man stopped singing and tied the end of the anchor chain to the boat with thick ropes. And he heaved the anchor over. The anchor fell down through the water, the chain curling down, deeper and darker, while the man watched and waited for the boat to stop drifting.
But the sea was deeper than the length of the chain. The anchor stopped dead in its fall, and the bamboo boat began to tip, pulled down slowly but surely by its great weight. And with no one to watch save a few flying fish, the bamboo boat was drawn beneath the water, down and down, until the anchor tethered it finally, deep in a crevasse. Where both it and he remain to this day.
It is said in those parts, that when the wind drops, and when the sea is calm, if you listen carefully, you can hear the last song of the would-be fisherman, a sad high song to the flying fish he caught just once, trying to persuade them to let him speak.
Rumjhum Biswas is a writer based in Chennai, India.