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I am beyond thrilled to be participating in Vanessa Gebbie’s blog tour to promote the paperback publication of The Coward’s Tale, undoubtedly the best book I have read this year. You can read what I thought of the book here and visit Vanessa’s own website here.
NT: Hi Vanessa, and thank you for letting me participate in your blog tour. I loved ‘The Coward’s Tale’ and know that it won the Telegraph Write A Novel In A Year Competition. Could you tell us how that happened?
VG:It was lovely – great validation. ‘The Coward’s Tale’ was called ‘Boy in the Tunnel’ back then. The Daily Telegraph ran a series of workshops with novelist Louise Doughty, which ended with a call for writers to send in the first 1000 words of a novel. There would be five winners, and there were indeed: two women, three blokes. The prize was lunch for all of us with Louise Doughty and the other judges – a literary agent, the then literary editor, a commissioning editor from a literary agency.
Being one of the winners was very important for me. The voice of the novel is unusual – and I wasn’t sure of it – so finding out that it worked was great. One of the other winners, Imogen Robertson, is now on her third novel.
NT: Can you share your publishing journey with us?
VG: Sure – it’s been fun, mostly!
I started writing fiction properly in 2003, and sent my work off to journals and competitions, encouraged by an online writing group. In 2004 I had my first success in both, and then built up a CV in short fiction publications and comp successes over the next few years. In 2007, the same year as the Telegraph win, I was successful at The Bridport Prize with the same piece of work, only a lot longer. That was read by a literary agent, I told him it was on its way to becoming a novel, and he signed me. Yes! I said I’d have the manuscript ready later that year…and let him down…but he was kind and didn’t abandon me. It was finally ready two years later.
I was still writing short stories, and in 2008, had my first collection ‘Words from a Glass Bubble’ published by Salt Modern Fiction. In 2009 I edited and contributed to ‘Short Circuit, Guide to the Art of the Short Story’, also for Salt, and in November 2010 they published my second collection, ‘Storm Warning’. That happened as we were finalising the sale of ‘The Coward’s Tale’ to Bloomsbury – which came out a year later, November 2011.
Reading all that it sounds a charmed journey, doesn’t it? Loads of writers stop there, and don’t tell you about the hard work, the sleepless nights, the endless rejections, the false gurus, the promises to publish you – broken, the disappointments even when a book is ‘out there’. There have been loads of downs as well as ups.
NT: Reading The Coward’s Tale, I was struck by it’s ‘Welshness’ and loved the way you handled dialect. Do you think the story would have worked in a different setting?
VG: No, I don’t think so – because I would not have been so emotionally involved with the setting. The Coward’s Tale is based on a few streets in Merthyr Tydfil, in south Wales, where I used to stay as a child with my grandmother. That town is where both my parents grew up – and every place in the fictitious town is (or was) real – apart from a few vital ones like the Kindly Light Pit, and The Cat Public House. I made those up, although there is a pub on the hill near my grandmother’s street (I renamed both it and the street) and the mine and its collapse is based on research.
My late father supplied many of the incidents in the book, from stories of his childhood. Stealing coal with his father in the Depression, piling it into a pram, and wheeling it back through the town at night…that’s real. And they got away with it!
NT: I still hear myself saying, ‘listen with your ears,’ before I tell an anecdote to my family. Did you know Ianto’s ‘catchphrase’ would stick?
No – I didn’t obviously – But isn’t that great! Love it.
NT: Vanessa, I liked that you didn’t tell us an exactly when the story was set and in my head I had a post-war era. Is this accurate?
VG: Yes – there are clues in there. There are no mobile phones and computers, but there are televisions in very ordinary houses – and Ianto at one point says there are no king’s heads on coins now, ‘only a queen.’
The Kindly Light accident, which happens in the novel’s past, is close to the turn of the 20th century.
NT: At the beginning of the book there is a map of the town. Did you draw this out before you began writing? I ask because it’s something I would do to keep myself ‘right’.
VG: Nope. As I wrote I just wandered round the streets, parks, shops and other places I remembered from my childhood visits to a grandmother I adored. Of course, time passing has moved them about a bit…
Bloomsbury came up with the idea of a map, and initially it was just online. I added music, on my website – maybe that would be nice to show your readers – turn on the speakers before opening the link!
I think it is great to have it at the beginning of the paperback… isn’t it special? Shame we can’t have a musical real live book isn’t it!
NT: That’s a marvelous map, indeed! And a great web site. Would you tell us how the characters were developed and did you have a favourite? I loved Ianto.
VG: Good – I love him too. But I think it would take almost as long as it did to write the novel, to answer that question properly! Each of the men is based very very loosely on images we have linked over time and myth to the twelve apostles – they share their names, too.
NT: That is really interesting. I now want to re-read the book knowing about the apostolic link. May I ask what, if anything, surprised you about writing this book?
VG: Finishing it!
NT: Ha ha! Tell me, do you have any tips for aspiring writers?
VG: Don’t give up. Read loads, ‘good’ stuff and ‘bad’. Never think you’ve got there, you haven’t. If you have ‘got there’, it means you aren’t improving…And enjoy the journey.
NT: What is your writing space like?
VG: It is gorgeous. I go across to Ireland and stay at Anam Cara Writers and Artist’s Retreat – http://www.anamcararetreat.com/ check it out. It looks like a normal bungalow from the front, but behind it has 30 acres of grounds, wild and rambling, including a river, waterfalls, an island…and fabulous views across Coulagh Bay. It is the most inspirational place on the planet. I go to do my own writing there, and I’ve started running workshops for short story writers there too.
To be in with a chance of winning a paperback copy of this brilliant book, please leave a comment on this blog post with your twitter id (if you have one) by midnight on Saturday 7th April. UK readers only, I’m afraid. I’ll pick one winner at random on Sunday the 8th April.
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