To tie-in with National Short Story week, I interviewed top prize-winning author Vanessa Gebbie.
It’s a collection of short stories and flash fiction, and it’s themed. The subtitle is ‘Echoes of Conflict’, and it’s probably appropriate that I’m writing this for you on Remembrance Sunday – many of the pieces are to do with what war does to those caught up in it…not those who go down in history, but the ‘little people’ – the ordinary soldier, the parent, the wife, the child. I’d been writing a lot of ‘stuff’ around this theme over the last few years, without really acknowledging it consciously.
The stories seem to have a much darker theme than the ones in ‘Words From a Glass Bubble’. Was that a conscious decision?
Well, Glass Bubble stories are often about overcoming the echoes of events in the past and this has similarities. As I said up there, no, it wasn’t a conscious thing to ‘write a collection’ about echoes of conflict. But I lived for a long time with a parent who was caught up in World War II and it echoed in his life for decades. It’s never gone away. My father is now 95, and I’d heard so much over the years, and seen what it did to him as a person. How he never really got over the experiences. He wasn’t a career soldier, just an ordinary bloke – and I wonder if that makes a difference? I don’t think so. I reckon everyone who is caught up in conflict, whatever it is, is changed in one way or another.
My father was a sapper, and he was awarded the Military Cross. He’s no brave ‘Boy’s Own’ type, just a very ordinary gentle man, a surveyor, who was thrown into war as he was just beginning a career in the civil service. He came out in 1946, and had to slot back into being a husband, and surveyor, a civil servant…and it wasn’t easy. I used the feelings, and gave them to many different characters, in many different conflicts.
So – there are stories about World War II, World War I, stories set in Vietnam, The Falklands, Iraq. Japan, China, Russia. There are stories about inter-tribal conflict in African countries. And one piece set a long time ago at a time when it was a different inter-group conflict in the broadest sense, causing the issues – religious persecution. Most of the stories are set after the events in question, as I’m looking at the echoes rather than the thunderclap events, although there are plenty of those in there too.
It is the title of one of the shortest pieces in the book. I was exploring the issues of home leave from a war zone – it’s a surreal piece, in which a soldier on leave from Helmand Province has a strange phone call in the night… I was wondering as I wrote – how do you ‘sign off’ from a situation in which you might be killed at any moment? How do you relax, knowing you have to go back?
What is it about war and its aftermath that makes it good subject-matter for stories?
I guess there are lots of answers to that question – primarily, maybe it goes to the root of why we read fiction at all – being able to experience events happing to other people from the comfort of one’s armchair is something ‘safe’ and sometimes ‘exciting’ depending on the genre? I’ll leave that as a question.
For this writer/reader, the best short stories are those which deal with universal subjects, those we can all understand at some level. In these stories, I’m less interested in the pivotal events, the horrors witnessed by the characters – and more concerned with the effects of those on the person afterwards. We now hang labels on people who have been through dreadful things, and who can’t function quite as they did before. We say they are suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, or whatever other labels are around. But what about the hundreds of thousands who just had to get on with things before that was invented?
Do you enjoy reading other peoples’ stories / novels about war? Can you recommend some that you’ve enjoyed or found inspirational?
The most obvious one is ‘Birdsong’ by Sebastian Faulks. I loved that book, and had already read and enjoyed when my son had to study it for his A levels. Bloody hell – how to kill a great book for a generation.
‘The Ghost Road’ by Pat Barker is another I have loved. I could talk about some mesmerisingly wonderful passages by Haruki Murakami too, in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle…told in the same easy laconic style as the rest, that style that totally lulls the reader, until you realize you have been shunted into a parallel universe where torture is happening.
But there is a difference between stories ‘about’ war, (I think of those comic strips in ‘Eagle’ yonks ago – where the Germans always shouted ‘Donner und Blitzen! Das ist ein Englander! Schnell!!’ before grenades went off in zap! Bang! Pow! flashes of stars…) and stories which are less about the war itself and more about the bits of the war that end up inside the characters afterwards, like shrapnel.
More than fiction, I have devoured non-fiction books ‘about’ war. Lyn Macdonald’s wonderful wonderful series about WWI based on interviews with those from all ranks, and from both sides. If you’ve never heard of these, try her book about Passchendaele first.
There are also the places… they more than anything, hold the echoes. I have visited the battlefields of Flanders, and the cemeteries and museums quite a few times over the years. I’ve been in a wood in a tiny war cemetery, in the rain, at the close of day, just listening to the silence apart from the drip of rain off the trees. I have been to the D Day beaches several times, once in the company of a retired Colonel from the Green Howards, the only regiment to win the VC on D Day… two citations, won on the same day, by the same bloke, Company Sargeant Major Reg Hollis. Now there’s a story….he ended up running a pub – died early…see what I mean? Echoes. Echoes.
Go to Flodden Field at dusk. Or Culloden. Unforgettable.
Some of the stories in ‘Storm Warning’ are told from a child’s point of view. What does that bring to the stories?
One thing I must have wanted to look at was what happens to the next generation, if they witness horrors at first hand as children, when they are still forming, impressionable. So some stories are told by those children. Or by adults looking back… and re-entering the child in themselves.
I think to tell something from a child’s point of view allows the writer even more space, not to say what is happening, but to leave that to the reader to sort out. The child may not even know what is actually taking pace, but to communicate the bewilderment and distress is powerful. And of course, it can go one of two ways afterwards –if the effects go inside, they damage the person for a long time. And/or they manifest themselves outside – becoming an impetus for them to do the same things, later. The seeds of more horrors. A circle, unbreakable.
Am I right in thinking you’re working on a novel at the moment? What can you tell us about it?
It is finished! ‘The Coward’s Tale’ was finished thanks to an Arts Council Grant for the Arts funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, and I worked for a few months with the marvelous novelist Maggie Gee, who helped me to smooth the structure of the work.
It went to my agent a couple of weeks back and as I write it is being read by some wonderful publishers… I have to admit `I am shaking in my boots – there was so much love and time invested in this – I hope it finds a home.
‘The Coward’s Tale’ is the story of twelve men in a small community in Wales, all suffering from the echoes of a mining disaster that happened generations ago. Can you see any parallels with ‘Storm Warning’ here?!
Many thanks for talking to Winning Words, Vanessa. Best of luck with ‘Storm Warning’ and also with the new novel.
Vanessa Gebbie is a prizewinning short story writer, a creative writing teacher, novelist, poet and editor. She teaches widely, working with writing groups, universities, school students and at literary festivals. In 2010, she was writer-in-residence at Stockholm University, Sweden.
She is author of two collections of short fiction, Words from a Glass Bubble and Storm Warning (both published by Salt Modern Fiction). Her work has also been anthologized and published in many literary magazines, in print and online.
In 2009, she was commissioned to compile, edit and contribute to a textbook on writing short fiction. The result: Short Circuit, A Guide to the Art of the Short Story, a collection of essays and writing exercises by prize-winning short fiction writers, is now in use at many creative writing courses in the UK and abroad. It is endorsed by the organizers of The Bridport Prize, the Asham Award for new women writers, The Fish International short story competition and the Frank O’Connor Award among others.
Her novel The Coward’s Tale has been completed thanks to a UK Arts Council Grant for the Arts.
Find her blog here.