Interview: Vanessa Gebbie

Joining me today is writing colleague Vanessa Gebbie whose novel The Cowards Tale is published by Bloomsbury this week. I emailed Vanessa 5 questions in the exciting run-up to the official launch of her first novel.

1  Vanessa, how are you enjoying life as a published author? (I know you’ve had short fiction collections out before, but it must feel different to see a Bloomsbury published novel in your name hit the shops this week.)

I’ve been asking myself how different this feels at base – (4th book, first with Bloomsbury, the others with a small indie called Salt) – and I guess the buzz is different.

I dont think there is anything like one’s very first publication in print – and for that I go back to 2004 and a late lamented magazine called QWF, which  was under the ownership/editorship of Jo Derrick, aided and abetted by Sally Zigmond. It was a very short piece, but it’s an important and never-to-be-forgotten milestone. (Thanks Jo, and Sally).

Then there’s nothing like one’s first real book. Thanks to Salt Publishing, ‘Words from a Glass Bubble’ (2008) was a rather beautifully produced collection of short stories. I really pushed the boat out and had a launch party at London’s Foundling Museum -it cost a bomb, but it was a really important thing to do, and who was to know – it might have been my only book, so hey, party. I need to say there was absolutely no money from the book initially – Salt do not pay advances, but neither did I pay them anything.  – and it would be a while before royalties came in, and non-writing friends didn’t understand why I was so happy!

2009 and 2010 saw books with Salt each year (Storm Warning, and Short Circuit) – and now this move to Bloomsbury. Marvellous, really,  I’m hugely happy and enjoying the ride.

Of course there are vast differences worthing with the Bloomsbury team. With Salt, bar their website and books being fed through to Amazon, everything else had to be done by the writers. You edit your own work. There’s no sales team, no marketing, no publicity. We had to buy our own books for every reading event, keeping fingers firmly crossed that they would arrive in time), and that you wouldn’t be carting them home at the end. I learned a lot, acting as Sales Manager, Publicity Director and Marketing Person rolled into one.

Bloomsbury is a different ball game. For a start there was a very nice advance. For a second, I did not have to edit my own book, but have the wonderful Helen Garnons-Williams and Erica Jarnes working on that. (The same team who work with Jon McGregor and Stephen Kelman). I had Audrey copy-editing, and yet someone else doing the final proofing. No more howlers missed by yours truly! I have Alice doing the marketing, and Anya on publicity. That is so important – so far, reviews/interviews either out already or scheduled with The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, Readers Digest, Psychologies, Marie Claire…

Couldn’t ask for more really. And a lovely lunch yesterday to celebrate, with Helen, Erica and my agent Euan Thorneycroft.

So long, answer. Yes, it feels absolutely marvellous to have a book with Bloomsbury in the shops.  The paperback, in different covers,  is out in March, ready for Summer reading in the UK – and simultaneous publication in the US, with a third cover. They are working very hard. Its a tough world out there, and I know that. But I also know they are doing everything they can to help The Cowards Tale on its way. After that – it has to stand on its own, and its over to the readers…

2 As the author of The Coward’s Tale, where do you stand on poppy wearing? (I saw an interesting article by Robert Fisk on this recently in the Independent , and I guess it is a bit of a perennial subject for debate, every November around the time of Remembrance Day.)

Thanks for those links. I stand where I always have, on the  verge by the village war memorial, waiting in the drizzle for the procession to march up the main road, a couple of policemen or women holding the traffic up for a minute or two. I’m wearing a poppy, and whether it is the cheap tacky version, the older Haig poppy with bendy black wire (which I think I can remember, but hey, …) or this year’s fashion item complete with Swarovski crystals, it doesn’t matter.

Only this year will be different. For the second time, my father won’t be in the procession, his MC clinking against his campaign medals. He died earlier this year, aged 95, and last November he had slipped into a dementia twilight and didn’t even recall that it was the most important day of his year.

I understand the old soldier’s bitterness from the first article above. I’ve seen it first hand, and it takes many forms. But one coat it never wears is belittliment of the immense importance of individual efforts in conflict. Whether career soldiers or conscripts, eager volunteers or reluctant ones,  and no matter which conflict fought for these little islands of ours, each man gave me a gift.

I never knew them. They never knew me. And in extremis they cursed the men who sent them to the front. There may well be analyses that take the Great War to pieces and show it as folly, as there will be analyses of all conflicts. But it is not the folly of the individuals who do the job and whose lives are on the line. And speeded up communications have put today’s soldiers in the dreadful position of having to fight whilst being aware of the armchair debates back home about the folly of it all. Hats off, chaps. And here’s one of the chaps – Neil Blower, who was discharged with combat stress – we recognise the name ‘shellshock’ better, perhaps. It’s all still real. So I’ll be wearing my poppy for a few days each year until I drop. Solidarity, gratitude, or something.

3. And what about Charlie Gilmour, the student jailed for 16 months for his part in student demonstrations, (he was photographed swinging from the Cenotaph in Whitehall…) As a mother, do you have any comments on the appropriateness of that sentence?

I think it’s inappropriate. His behaviour was shameful and I was appalled – and I do not believe for one second that a highly intelligent bloke studying history at a top university didnt know what the Cenotaph stood for…. but I don’t think the response was right.
Compare the outcome with this, in which a young guy who urinated on a war memorial escaped a jail sentence. I’m interested in the relativities here. Did he escape jail because it was ‘only’ a memorial as opposed to the great central symbol of remembrance? I don’t think that matters, do you? They were both nasty things to do, disrespectful.
I suspect Charlie Gilmour’s sentence has something to do with his position as the son of high profile parents, and therefore the establishment had a very visible symbol themselves, to use as a warning to other potential hell-raisers who shake their status quo. Would it not have been more effective all round to give him a community order, as with the other guy – to make him put something back into the community as an apology? I suggest he might have worked at one of the rehab units for disabled servicemen, those who have lose their limbs – whilst continuing with his history degree with a slightly better understanding of what other young guys get up to.

As an aside. I don’t often write to the press. But stick it on record that I did so in Gilmour’s support, after articles appeared making play of his status as an adoptee. What the hell did that have to do with anything? The press articles themselves managed to link his adoption to his bad behaviour very successfully. That, to use a technical term, is nuts.

Good for you. I completely agree the sentence was too harsh. A shame the appeal did nothing to address this.

4. Going back to the novel now, I know you visited the Somme before the book was published, and you’re planning another trip with  a group of writers.  What do you think is the value to writers of trips like these?

Yup. And if this one works as well as I think it will, I am planning to do this more often. The star turn is military historian Jeremy Banning, who accompanied me earlier this year as I followed the Swansea Pals’ Battalion across the years, through the Somme to Passchendaele and back. One place we’ll be visiting is the Laboiselle project –   this project is so important. Pass on the link, please!
What is the value? Well – For me, it is a chance to stand where the man stood, feel the echoes, understand the terrain. But then I’m a writer, and that sounds effete and self-indulgent. Do we care? As if!

And do you have any further travel plans in the near future to help support publication of The Coward’s Tale?

Nope! It comes out in the USA in March, and I’d love to go over sometime to read, run writing workshops, enjoy meeting readers. But unless you are dead famous, there are no funds around to do that. I’m not, so end of.

I’m used to working hard for my books, and being involved. So whatever I’m asked to do, over this side of the pond, I’ll be there. I’m spending the morning at Waterstones in Brighton on Saturday 19th November, and will be writing a short short short story for everyone who buys ‘The Coward’s Tale‘. Must be mad. Ha!

Cerainly brave if you are doing it on the spot… but I am sure you can handle it. All the best with that Vanessa, and with the novel also.