Sunday, January 31, 2010

Short Circuit: a discussion with Vanessa Gebbie (3)

Okay, the final lap of the extended blog spot from Vanessa Gebbie, talking about her book of advice for aspiring writers, Short Circuit. Previously we’ve discussed the nature of the short story itself, and issues relating to character and theme. Today, we’re going to look at writing craft in general.

TC: Graham Mort says that, as a teacher of creative writing, he is wary of a sense of orthodoxy creeping into his workshops. How do you strike a balance between teaching craft but encouraging creativity – taking risks, doing something different?

VG: By saying and doing just that, really. I don’t run to a formula. I remember working with a person a while back who kept her workshop outlines in a neat folder, and just ran the same one over and over again. I thought how awful that was, for her, how boring it must be. I don’t plan a workshop until I know the people I’ve got. I always put in a plan ‘b’ and a plan ‘c’. I always put in a bag of prompts – things – postcards, stuff from home, a model car, a hat. Anything. But mostly, the outline of the workshop will be so I don’t chunter on too long about any one thing. People PAY for this, and I have a job to do, to get through the outline I set. But within the sessions, I have no idea often how it will go – I will respond to something from the people - use their thoughts, ideas – I think you have to be ready to ditch your own plans and run with the group energy. So there is then a lot of energy around. Energy breeds more of the same. If I as a teacher take risks in the format, I am to some extent ‘living’ what I’m suggesting they do – being creative. Not stuck in a formula. Seems to work. But maybe the best people to ask are some one the people who’ve been in a workshop with me. They may say its awful!

TC: Clare Wigfall says something very interesting: “In my work a lot is left out, deliberately... I do not expect every reader to interpret my story in the same way.” This goes back to taking risks and avoiding orthodoxy: is there a danger that some writers are being coached into a kind of literary straitjacket, where everything has to resolve, and every character has to behave identifiably and every action has to assume meanings on different levels so that the reader can be led to a logical conclusion? Life isn’t like that, and maybe literature shouldn’t be either?

VG: I don’t know, Tom, what is being coached at establishment level. But we used to play a game in BC [Boot Camp], spot the MFA writer – I don’t know if they still do that? Without fail, in a journal, you used to be able to pick a style, a density of prose, a studied competence... and a ‘dead’ story which ticked all the boxes and probably got a good mark from another MFA success from a few years back who got his from an MFA success a few years before that... ad infinitum... It can’t last, can it?

TC: There was a good article by Zadie Smith on this subject in The Guardian recently, in which she picked up on a new book suggesting that literature is losing out to non-fiction for this very reason – it is becoming too stylised and polished for its own good. I think there is something in this. I wrote about it here.

VG: A great post.

TC: A number of your contributors talk of the importance of reading a lot, and this seems to me to be one of the biggest areas of weakness among aspiring writers. They just don’t read widely. Until recently I was guilty of this myself but, having read a great deal in the past eighteen months or so, I can see massive failings in my writing that I simply wasn’t aware of before. Also, reading great literature always makes me want to get back to writing myself – not to mimic the greats, but simply to get something down. From your work with writing groups, do you agree this is an issue? Is there a reluctance to read, and to read different things, not just within your comfort zone?

VG:I think this could be a huge post all on its own. Two years back I had a lunch with a top agent, the then Lit Ed of a broadsheet and a successful novelist. (The lunch was prize in a comp – five winners). One of the winners proudly announced that he didn’t read anything because he didn’t want to dull his own genius. The lit agent visibly shuddered.

I don’t see how you can swim in a river without getting wet. We’re PART of something, here, doing this. It all informs, and feeds, and inspires, doesn’t it? Like you, I don’t do enough, and would like the last ten years back, please... and to be fair, the writing groups I’ve been in (not many – Fiction Workhouse was the main one after BC), all had a reading element to them. A section where we discussed great stories, or bad stories, or great novels, poetry. Anything. One of the things my writing friends will still always ask when we meet is ‘what are you reading?’...

TC: How is Short Circuit selling? I hope it’s doing well because I think it is a fine compendium of excellent advice.

VG: Thank you for such a lovely endorsement, Tom. It means a lot that a writer of your calibre and with your analytical powers appreciates what I was trying to do!
Re sales, so far, so good as far as I can tell. Indications aren’t bad - the book came out on 15th November, and whizzed straight to third place in Salt Publishing’s Top 20 pre-Christmas sales ( - there’s a list on the home page of their website). I regularly check the Amazon UK stats, and Short Circuit is currently the best seller of all Salt’s books - and a few days ago it was at number two. Mind you, all it takes is for a single copy to be bought on Amazon and the stats waft around quite alarmingly. Anyway, we’d all rather it was bought from Salt than the Behemoth, who don’t need any more profits at Salt’s expense!

I also find writers I don’t know talking about it on their blogs, having heard about it ‘from a friend’ - so the word is spreading – writers telling writers that this is a good book, and word of mouth is by far the best advertisement, n’est-ce pas?

TC: You’ve been reading and re-reading William Golding recently, and you’ve mentioned him a couple of times already. How is your reading of Golding going?

VG: I’m having a great time thanks! I went to a talk at the Bridport Lit fest back in November, by John Carey, Golding’s biographer. Here is the review on The Independent.

It was so good – he lit a real spark of interest in me, to go back and rediscover Lord of the Flies – but he also said that in his opinion, Pincher Martin was Golding’s finest novel, and The Inheritors is a close second – a view held by Golding himself, who despaired somewhat of LOTF being turned into a campus text by the US universities.

I had never, to my shame, heard of either Pincher or The Inheritors. I’ve now read LOTF again, and Pincher Martin twice, and am deeply impressed for all sorts of reasons. Like The Road, it seems to work on so many levels – pitting man against himself, man against nature, the body against the psyche, free will against some spiritual tug. It was a joy re-reading LOTF - There is the most fabulous essay entitled Fable by Golding himself in the edition I have – an ‘educational’ version. I tell you – you’ll have a whole different view on theme if you read that essay.

The Inheritors is fascinating – looking at the rise of Homo Sapiens at the expense of Neanderthals – which is ‘better’, which should have survived if ‘goodness’ as opposed to cleverness was the criterion of success. Golding was very preoccupied with the nature of man, and the nature of faith/belief. Fascinating, challenging stuff thematically. I’m still reading that one.

But what impresses me is his prose, his way with words, his overt desire to write fable, his ability to look his themes in the eye - and how he approaches that without being didactic.

TC: I read a lot of Golding in my youth, but haven’t in a lot of years. I suspect, though, that my style owes more to him than I realise. I’m looking forward to reading those again. Finally, what’s next on the horizon for you? You’ve been extraordinarily busy in the past year or so – is it more of the same?

VG: I would love to finish the novel – so have applied for a Grant for the Arts to work with a great writer to polish the thing. I’m waiting to find out if I’m successful. That will be Feb/March/April.

I’ve just sent off the manuscript for the third book, due out in June. And at the end of April/early May I’m off to teach creative writing with Short Circuit at Stockholm University. A fantastic invitation, co-tutoring an extra-curricular course for 40 undergrads. I’m going over in the next week or so just to touch base with my oppo, and to get contract signed.

In June the said third book comes out. Ed’s Wife and other Creatures – a collection of micro-fictions and some surreal flashes, co-ordinating with two more collections of short short work from Salt Publishing. So there’ll no doubt be lots of readings, a bit of fun, marketing the new book – I love doing that, but it does take you away from writing. However. I shall use that space to take stock.

What’s next? I don’t know yet. I need to stop being blown about by the wind, and begin planning more rigorously. I need to start saying “No!” more often, and remind myself that I am first and foremost a writer, much as the cash from teaching is welcome.

What I do NOT want to do is become a person who used to write, and who now teaches/facilitates instead and does a bit of half-hearted scribbling on the side, and pretends that this is writing.

I have a few ideas about what I’d like to write next – something has been bubbling away for a while now. Something very weird and a bit of a challenge. I also have 40,000 words of an aborted collaboration to cut up and reshape and recreate.

TC: Lots in the pipeline then. I’m sure, with your energy, you’ll pull it off. Best of luck with it all.

VG: Tom, thanks so much for such a fascinating debate, discussion, series of questions – whatever you want to call it. I appreciate this enormously.

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