As her exceptional novel The Coward's Tale (Bloomsbury) goes into paperback, I interview Welsh writer Vanessa Gebbie. Vanessa is on a mammoth virtual tour for the book and I'm delighted to have her here at WWR.
Hi Vanessa and welcome. I feel I should open a bag of toffees before you speak to get you flowing, like Ianto in the book.
Funny, isn’t it - he doesn’t eat much except sweets and the odd sandwich, but he seems perfectly healthy - can still get up the hillside, even though he complains about his bones! Lovely to be here.
Speaking of Ianto, the names in the book, and the setting, are so evocative that I ‘heard’ the novel in a Welsh accent as I read. Each character has a wondrous name – Laddy Merridew, the Baker Bowen, Icarus Evans, Prinny Ellis etc. Talk to me about naming your characters. How do names come to you? What do names mean to you as a writer?
Lots of people do - and I hear it in an accent too - something like my grandmother’s voice - south Wales, definitely. That voice was certainly in my head as I wrote, most of the time. So when I read, it becomes very musical, and rhythmical - I like that.
Names - aren’t they so important? I find a character just won’t ‘take off’ until he or she is named correctly - almost as if they are letting me know what their right name is - not me making it up. Only I guess it takes another writer to understand that one.
Laddy Merridew - he was called Laddy right from the start. And I’d already used that surname in another piece of work, and liked it very much. It holds lots of possibilities. I think that’s what names do, for this writer at least - they hold possibilities, if they are the right ones. Re-reading Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies’ - Jack, the darker of the boys ‘in charge’ is also called Merridew. It’s the sort of name that gets you bullied.
People give each other nicknames and those stick, don’t they... and so much of ‘The Coward’s Tale’ is based on incidents that happened sometime in the past - related to me by my late father. His friends at school all had amazing nicknames - there was a boy called Full Pelt and that name followed him until he was old - I love it! That name was so strong, Dad could not remember the boy’s, or indeed the man’s, actual name.
I had to be careful. “Jones the Milk” and all that is such a cliche - but with my lot - firstly, they are all based, however loosely, on the Twelve Apostles - so many share first or second names with their namesakes. And then the nicknames needed to be original, whist mirroring something important about the character. Icarus Evans, for example - his real name is Thaddeus Evans -and he teaches woodwork. The kids gave him the name Icarus because he is obsessed with making feathers - only these must be carved out of wood. But it’s more important to me that he is called Thaddeus, after his grandfather. St Jude Thaddeus of the Twelve Apostles became the patron saint of impossible causes, and Icarus’s obsession is certainly an impossible one. That all fitted perfectly in ‘The Coward’s Tale’.
This is a book very much of the earth – the men in it are steeped in the land and nature: mines, wood, birds, the river. Do you live in a rural area or where does your knowledge and love of natural things spring from? I know you wrote much of the book in Ireland, at the Anam Cara retreat in Cork. Did the landscape there influence the book at all?
I’ve alwayslived in places that aren’t too far from the countryside - and I do love it. We live on an extraordinary lump of rock in space, don’t we?! But I also enjoy the dark end of cities, our industrial past. Where does knowledge come from? Observation, I guess. And a very real love of being here.
When I was writing ‘The Coward’s Tale’, all the settings are based on ‘real’ places, or at least memories of real places, so I was there, as I wrote. Peter’s pebbles by the stream were under my fingers as I was typing. I could feel them. Still can.
And yes - the vast majority of the book was written at the unparalleled Anam Cara - I’ve been traveling over to stay at this marvelous writers’ and artists’ retreat since 2005. It is in West Cork, on the Beara, and wherever you look the world is beautiful - the sea, the mountains, the rocks, and yes, there are mines too - old copper mines at Allihies. Love it there. If I was working on a “mine section” of The Coward’s Tale, I sometimes drove up to the Mountain Mine with a picnic and sat there writing for hours.
There’s one scene in the novel where a character walks on the mountain in bare feet, feeling and noticing everything. That was me, walking barefoot on the slopes above Mountain Mine, Allihies, to feel how it was to walk on a mountain riddled with tunnels.
Since I’ve been going to the area, they’ve opened a brilliant museum, by the way - link here - it is well worth a visit.
This is a novel-in-stories. Each story could stand alone and yet as a narrative they weave together beautifully. Was this a difficult thing to pull off in a technical sense? Did you ever feel it might not work as you had envisioned? (It works very well.)
Thanks - and yes, that’s how it was written. Each ‘Tale’ came first - and gradually, the backstory revealed what had happened in the past - I didn’t know until Ianto told it - which was strange, but really wonderful. When I had a first draft, it then took a long time to smooth them into the novel as it is now. Yes, you could take out a tale, but there would be much in it that wouldn’t make sense - as the main narrative is referred to over and over again - it kind of builds through them, if that makes sense?
But I am a short story writer - and I love the form. It helped hugely with this book!
The men in Ianto’s tales are named for the twelve apostles. Talk to me about the influence of the Bible on this book.
To begin with the characters were ‘unlocked’ for me because of something in the mythology of the men we have now come to think of as the apostles. I was interested to find something that would make them real - something that could anchor them in this narrative. So I read the legends that have grown up over the centuries surrounding these twelve ordinary men. And something in those legends would stick to the character in the novel and help me with the work. Biblical influence is therefore certainly there - but the Bible as a fabulous and important piece of writing - not as a religious tract. I love the language, the stories - I was brought up on them, and whether or not that leads you to a life of churchifying, which it didn’t with me, it can’t help but stay in the mind as something beautiful, met young.
People have told me there is symbolic religious significance in many scenes in the novel - throwing the bread into the stream, for example, but I can’t claim to know consciously what that might be. Obviously the central image of a working mine, the movement of men from light to dark and back again, mirrors in some way a shift from the divine to the earth and back - some sort of cycle - but you could go on finding parallels in this book and the writer didn’t necessarily consciously put them there! The one that was conscious however, is the looming darkness of tragedy in the background, something that happened generations back, but which still casts its shadow - and from which in the course of the novel, the community is healed.
The language is beautiful in the novel; so many gorgeous phrases, so delicately done. As a reader, do you actively seek out books that are told with interesting language? How important is language to you as a writer?
Thanks, coming from you, such a fantastic writer of both prose and poetry, that is a real compliment! Oh yes, language is very important to me. I find it very hard to sustain interest in a piece of writing of any length, unless it is really well written. I love sound. Rhythm. Always read out loud what I’ve written, for sound.
I read recently about a book that sounded marvelous - praised to the skies in broadsheet reviews. I almost bought it - then stopped to check - thank heavens for the chance to read a few pages online, these days. The story itself may be as great as it likes - but the writing is just pedestrian. Saved some money there, sadly.
Contrast with this, the opening to ‘The Fall’ by William Golding, sitting by my elbow here on my desk. (Do I love his work? You bet!)
I have walked by stalls in the marketplace where books, dog-eared and faded from their purple, have burst with a white hosannah. I have seen people crowned with a double crown, holding in either hand the crook and flail, the power and the glory. I have understood how the scar beomes a star, I have felt the flake of fire fall, miraculous and pentecostal. My yesterdays walk with me. They keep step. They are grey faces that peer over my shoulder. I live on Paradise Hill, ten minutes from the station...
Best of luck with it all, Vanessa. You’ve had some great reviews and I hope the novel goes on to be award winning, like your short stories.
Thanks so much for having me - and lots of good fortune for your own wonderful work.
Tomorrow Vanessa's tour takes her to Teresa Stenton's blog. Stop by to read Vanessa's letter to herself as she started out as a writer ten years ago.
Also, you can watch Vanessa read some of The Coward's Tale on YouTube here: