Monday 27 February 2012


The Coward's Tale comes out in the USA today, and I am several thousand miles away, twiddling my thumbs. This is a bit like knowing your offspring is appearing in their first school play, and not going. How many times do you have a book out in the US?

So let's have a competition to cheer me up. PRIZE? A signed copy of the US edition of The Coward's Tale, with a difference. I will include an out-take. A scene that didn't end up in the book, stuck in the back. And this out take will not appear anywhere else. Promise.

So - what you have to do is this - cheer up a writer with no party to go to, by suggesting how she can celebrate the publication of a book on the other side of the world. The best suggestion, I will do - with pictures to prove it- so don't make the suggestions grubby please.


Suggestions must be suitable for a not-young personage.
Suggestions must cost no more than £5
Suggestions must not entail removal of clothing.
Suggestions must not entail losing consciousness for any reason.

If none of the ideas cheer me up, no one wins.


Friday 24 February 2012


The US edition of The Coward's tale is on the chocks, and comes out officially early next week, although I think they are shipping already! With thanks to my US editor Kathy Belden and the Bloomsbury team in New York.

And two US literary blog reviews came in recently. First, a site called Seeing the World Through Books. Quite a fantastic website, a goldmine of in-depth reviews of books set in countries other than the US. The owner, Mary Whipple begins her amazing review thus:
"It has been two years since I have added a new book to my list of All-Time Favorites, but that has just changed with the release of this novel which deserves a special place on my Favorites list. Set in the mining country of southern Wales, Vanessa Gebbie’s incandescent new novel captures the cadences and speech patterns that lovers of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood have celebrated for years, and as I read the book (as slowly as possible), I felt as if Richard Burton, the Welsh narrator of Under Milk Wood, were whispering in my ear."

Please follow the link above for the whole review. I am particularly moved to see she has sourced pictures of the Gleision colliery disaster last September to underline the fact that mining tragedies are not a thing of the past.
And secondly, a site called Tzer Island, where the review begins:
"When we take the time to look beneath the surface, people are not always what they seem to be. Sometimes those who seem cowardly are not cowards at all. Sometimes atonement is mistaken for guilt. In her unapologetically humane novel, Vanessa Gebbie reminds us of the patience and effort that is required to understand another person, and of the rewards awaiting those who make the effort."

and it ends:
"Gebbie writes musically rhythmic prose, forming sentences as sharp and shimmery as broken glass. Both instyle and content, The Coward’s Tale is an outstanding novel".

The complete review is via the link above. Another terrific website.

BARNES & NOBLE LINK - for easy purchase in the USA.

Wednesday 22 February 2012


Highlight of this week has been the first in a series of six workshops held at Tate Modern, led by poet Pascale Petit. I attended one term of these wonderful workshops a couple of years ago, and loved the whole experience. It is a privilege to work with Pascale, and with the other participants - but what makes these even more special is the place.
We meet when Tate Modern has closed, creeping in through a side door, and go to the chosen exhibition. There, twenty or so writers gather to take inspiration from being in privileged proximity to works of art, installations, by some of the world’s greatest artists.
Monday evening saw us in the Yayoi Kusama exhibition - not someone I was familiar with at all. Surrounded initially by colourful canvasses, which this octogenarian paints on a table, flat - it was an extraordinary enough experience, coming to terms with the images - black cartoon-like profiles, strange eyes, spiky fruit-like shapes, face upon face upon face, naif images - someone called it ‘aboriginal art’ whatever that means - all black on primary colours.
Then the installations, where we spent five silent minutes, soaking up the scene. First a half-lit domestic interior, complete with sofa and table set for supper, bookshelves, sideboard - everything covered in small neon dots, and lit by ultra-violet - like being in a still from a strange, empty home disco with a multi-coloured disco ball doing its thing!
Then the best (for this writer) an infinity mirror of a room, a myriad of tiny suspended lights that changed colour, a reflecting floor, and you were held somehow between there and here, up and down, and after a while, Kusama’s objective of obliteration of self came a little closer.
We wrote poems in response, and shared them - sharing lines, picking up lines written bythe artist as inspiration, if we wanted. And homework was to create a mirror poem. Or ‘specular’ poem. Never heard of this, and it is such fun to try out - a two stanza poem, in which the second mirrors the first, exactly. No words change - but punctuation can.

There is an example, by the poet who is credited with giving the name to the form, and making it her own, Julia Copus, here:

Wednesday 15 February 2012


Been considering poetry, and what I like and why. So - I enjoy poems that don’t let you go - ones that keep asking their questions, making you puzzle at them, even when they are couched in perfectly lucid language. I can’t be doing with poetry where the poet is standing in front waving a red flag, shouting about their erudition. I prefer clean, lucid language - and in the end, the success of those poems relies on originality of vision. Anyone can swallow a thesaurus and play at word-jigsaws. NOT anyone can ‘see’ in an interesting engaging way.
Take Tim Love’s ‘Moving Parts’, published in 2010 by Happenstance. Tim’s writing intrigues, and delivers over and over again, as each time the poems give up new twists, because he sees things in a way that fascinates me (and him, one assumes!). I sometimes take this collection with me on train journeys - it always gives up something I hadn’t noticed before.

I’m not happy reviewing poetry - and the reasons for that may be found here on Happenstance blog - Instead, I asked Tim if he’d talk about one of the pieces I like most - a poem called ‘Escape’.

Here is the poem, reprinted with permission: (with my choice of image)


As you backstroke in the hotel's outdoor pool,
your blue eyes look like holes.
I notice by the perimeter
a legless man on a skateboard slurping a lolly.
It's a last-minute break from snow's routine to Cairo,
where more lost air-luggage ends up than anywhere else.

We cool off reading in the bar's ticking wickerwork,
the Gaggia's chshsh like rush-hour airbrakes.
Persian architects fled here from Mogol raids,
bringing their blue temple domes painted with stars.
Nile crocodiles are colourblind, they can't see blue,
but I can see the legless man's still staring through the gate.

I shake the sugar sachet before tearing it.
Sometimes feeling precedes a reason, a phantom-limbed sadness,
just stratospheric dust refracting, evening suddenly falling.
They've proved that lab rats dream of their mazes.
I dream of a brass doorknob whose dimple
my thumb always finds.

It's 3am. The night sky listens in awe
to the symphony of what it must do.
The moon's a black and white flashback
perfecting the city's form. I magnify the moment,
hold an uncorked bottle to my mouth
two-handed like a clarinet and play the blues.

VG: Tim, this is my favourite poem in 'Moving Parts' and is one I keep going back to
again and again, and not just because it is in the middle!

TL: ‘Escape’ has received the most attention - it's pivotal according to one reviewer. It has the most-quoted lines too. It was written years before I visited Egypt though (in 2001) and appeared in Seam. Don't know how many of the questions I'll be able to answer though.

Here is an old and rather literal movie of the poem.

VG: No problems, and thats great to see - surprising, really - and yes, very literal. It is nice to hear it read by the writer - and a surprise - the first stanza is completely different - some of the same images but in a different order. Memo to self - ask about that later. But Hmm - would you prefer starting with another poem? I'm glad others have picked this one, in a way - it validates something in the way I'm seeing/appreciating poetry - although quite what, I'm not sure. 
Without pre-empting the questions that might arise, themes of otherness might surface.  the world experienced as through a window, distanced. Or the way you return to philosophical conundrums like 'is the light off when the door is shut' - or 'strawberries wouldn't taste like strawberries if they are blue' (from another piece here) - and indeed the colour blue itself, which recurs through the collection, in a few places.  

TL: These seem valid to me, tendencies I'm often aware of. Working in an Engineering dept while writing poetry, and being a monoglot in a bilingual house add to the distancing effect (and, perhaps, having a happy childhood so I felt free to wander from the security of the familiar).
Writing programs increases the sense of language not being transparent. Eyes are only windows, if that.
I read recently a quote saying that philosophy shows what's possible and science shows what's true. I don't understand most recent philosophy, but I like the thought-experiments that arise.
Blue used to be my favourite colour, but I think I'm shifting to ochre.

VG: That could well be a line from another Tim Love poem. And I’d love to know why the opening stanza is different now - I prefer the original - or at least, the one in the collection. Not sure why. But what made you change it?

and second question, my favourite lines in the whole thing are 

“............The night sky listens in awe
to the symphony of what it must do.”

I’d like to ask you, did those lines come easy, or slow?

TL: Oops. I thought I had sent you the booklet copy. Guess it must have been modified during the editing process. Helena Nelson might well have proposed the published version, and I agreed to it.
As for the lines, I think they came quick but ended up in my notebook for a while before becoming part of a poem. I've scanned bits from 5 different pages of some old notebooks. See the attached files. Well, you asked for it.

VG: Really interesting, Tim - I asume though, that you dont want these snippets all included - or do you - it would be fascinating to see how the images meld. 

TL: Up to you. As a game (Oulipo writers do that sort of thing) one can try replacing the lines from my notebook where they appear in the poem with the next line in the notebook.

VG: Great - so here they are:

and actually, on Litrefs, Tim referred to his notebooks before - here - I love seeing what goes on behind the scenes. It is a fear of mine that with our reliance on computers we will lose these glimpses into the working mind of a writer as we may lose access to the notes. (And to edits. Although that’s a digression - maybe a poet works more on paper than prose writers?)
So - if you consider this poem now - (the published version - although I might well, if you are happy, include the different first stanza too...) can you see why readers are intrigued by it? And are you still intridued by these images and thoughts yourself?

TL: I like some of the individual images, and sometimes 2 or more of the images work together (nice bits don't often make nice wholes of course; "Hey Jude, let it be yesterday" wouldn't be much of a song). I don't recall how the images came to be associated - I often lay down a bassline of imagery before I start filling in the gaps with narrative. I'm not always in control of the collage/narrative mix. Looking at the mess of the notebooks it's a surprise that anything coherent comes out of them. Needles in haystacks.

VG: Do you think  when we use something that we noted because we found it intriguing, it 'puts it to bed' and stops the wondering?

TL: Yes. Not so much the wondering as the restlessness. Sometimes when I read an old story of mine I begin to believe that it's autobiographical - the words fit, even if they don't fit the historical truth. So it's finished. With poetry the feeling of not wanting to change a text usually comes from a more aesthetic source. The analogy I've used in the past is cricket. If the fielders are well positioned, the ball won't escape to the boundary. The fielders are words - they can be quite sparse, but they can contain the batsman if they understand him. Move a word and the poem leaks.

VG: I like the cricket analogy - but how does it work if there are two versions of the first stanza? which one leaks, from your point of view??

TL: The version in the magazine was:

Away from the routine of snow into Islam's rebellion,
the Koran's ripe bananas replacing Tell's apple,
and it's not that more lost air luggage ends up in Cairo
than anywhere else, or the staring, legless man
on a skateboard slurping a lolly, but as you backstroke
in the hotel pool your blue eyes look like holes.

The version in draft 4 of the booklet was

A last-minute break from snow's routine to Cairo,
where more lost air-luggage ends up
than anywhere else. In the street a legless man
on a skateboard slurps a lolly
as you backstroke in the hotel pool,
your blue eyes looking like holes.

I think the final booklet version was

As you backstroke in the hotel's outdoor pool,
your blue eyes look like holes.
I notice by the perimeter
a legless man on a skateboard slurping a lolly.
It's a last-minute break from snow's routine to Cairo,
where more lost air-luggage ends up than anywhere else.

I can't recall the discussion about the changes, only that it was initiated by the editor, and she did a re-write that I suspect I mostly took onboard.

Line 2 of the original now seems misjudged-viz:
the Koran's ripe bananas replacing Tell's apple,
- it's true enough in itself but what has William Tell got to do with anything? The final version's "I notice by the perimeter" seems a flat line to me, and the transitions don't really work - from striking image, to gazing around, to scene-setting and Trivial Pursuits. The opposite way - zooming in - seems better, "like holes" being the stanza's punchline. But at least the final version quickly introduces the characters, which readers often prefer. The other versions don't have an 'I' at all, which is more characteristic of me, I think.

VG:Thanks, Tim - it is intriguing to see the editorial process alongside the writers own creative one. Another question: Who is the poem addressed to?

TL: When I used to workshop poems by e-mail with a small group of poets I found I was writing poems for (i.e. to impress) that readership. Nowadays I don't often workshop poems online, but I try some poems out at a monthly, local workshop I attend. That audience is less of an influence. Some people say that a poem always has an implied addressee. The "You" in this poem isn't my wife (my poetry irritates her), and besides, "You" disappears. "You" is more likely a future, more poetically alert, version of myself.

VG: Anything else you'd like to add? what are you working on now, for example?

TL: A second poetry pamphlet is doing the rounds. I'm about to finalize the contents of a prose pamphlet with "Nine Arches Press".

VG: Great - I shall look forward to that. Thanks for visiting, Tim, and for putting up with my rambly unfocussed questions - it just goes to show how slippery this thing called poetry is. And we never got round to philosophy or themes of loss - such is conversation. It takes its own shape.

‘Moving Parts’ costs just £4.00 and can be ordered from Happenstance.

If you’d like to read a rather good essay on ‘Moving Parts’ please visit writer Jim Murdoch’s blog, The Truth About Lies. Jim does a close analysis of the poems linking them back to extracts from Tim’s literary essays.

for other reviews of Moving Parts, Tim collates them for us neatly, on ‘Litrefs’.

Tim Love was born in Portsmouth in 1957 just round the corner from Dickens' birthplace. After writing a computer game (Tim Loves Cricket) he decided to do a Masters in Software Engineering. Prior to that he apparently worked at Southsea's South Parade Pier and Shippams Meat Paste Factory. Between 1980 and 1983 Tim travelled the globe visiting India, Morocco, France, Denmark, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Austria, Eire, Scotland, Italy, Wales, Holland, Belgium, Switzerland and Spain. He wrote his first web page in 1993 and has been active online ever since. He lives in Cambridge with his Italian wife, Mariella, and bilingual children, teaching others how to program.
His poetry and prose has appeared in many magazines. He won Short Fiction's inaugural competition in 2007.

Monday 13 February 2012


There is an interesting article on The MIllions, re book covers in UK and US editions of the same book.
It struck me that in most, the cover is definitely of the same book - whereas with 'The Coward's Tale' which comes out in paperback here in the UK in a few weeks' time and in the USA slightly before, I think - the books could be absolutely different beasts - but I like both covers - maybe because I was born a Gemini.

This is the UK paperback cover - the photo is of a street in a Welsh town - the hotel on the left has been cleverly turned into The Cat by Bloomsbury art dept (thank you!), and the lad - well, he's just Laddy, or maybe The Maggot, or perhaps both - who is to say?
and this is the US version - handsome, very different, intriguing.
Interesting, isn't it? Such different markets, same product.

Sunday 5 February 2012

Flash! Free competition, article, and more, on Writers and Artists Yearbook website.

To coincide with a recent interview on the terrific and very useful Writers and Artists Yearbook website, HERE they are hosting a competition for you to showcase your literary skill.
They are asking you to write up to 300 words of flash fiction, to the theme of 'the lonely writers' journey' - to be judged by meself. The prizes are as follows:
First place winner will receive a signed copy of 'The Coward’s Tale' in hardback, a copy of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook 2012, and also have their work featured on the website.
Second place winner will receive a signed copy of 'The Coward’s Tale' in hardback and also have their work featured on the website.
Highly Commended- two highly commended entries will also have their work featured on the website.
They say: If you think you are up to the challenge, read Vanessa Gebbie’s flash fiction article for inspiration and submit your entry to by the 22nd February 2012. Winners will be announced on the 7th March – good luck!

As said above, the theme is: The lonely writers’ journey... and the judge says, “interpret as you will - fiction, or creative non-fiction, or a mix of the two- who is going to know anyway?!”

There is also a Gebbie Patent Definition of flash fiction (!) - the slippery beast.

Imagine standing at the open door of a room where all is in darkness, and you can see nothing. Imagine someone flicking on the lights - to the count of one, two - then plunging the room back into darkness. You didn’t have time to take in much, but you know exactly what room this is, now - a bedroom, an operating theatre, a kitchen, a courtroom. Odds are, you also remember a few things about the room - something about the bed, for example - something out of place? Something odd about that operating theatre... what was that on the floor in the corner? The kitchen - who was that peering back at you from the window? The courtroom - was that a small boy crying in the dock? But this is today - we don’t put small boys on trial? Do we?

For the rest of the article, see HERE. in which I give names of some writers whose flash work I rate highly.
For another terrific example of flash fiction try ‘Fly’ by Elaine Chiew, which has just gone live on metazen. For other examples, the archive of the specialist flash zine Smokelong Quarterly is a gold mine.

Friday 3 February 2012

The magic of a real writing retreat...

I left home on Friday 20th January with between 1,500 and 1,800 wds of the next novel, and a year's worth of thinking, and the knowledge that gradually I'd persuaded myself that this thing could be attempted. The prequel plus the sequel of The Coward's Tale, in one.
I came home yesterday, 2nd Feb, having had 12 days at the marvellous Anam Cara, just me in residence. All writing, as ever, done curled up on the bed (although I am assured by Huguette, the masseuse who tackled my shoulders on Tuesday, that I will regret it)... or in front of a turf fire, in the evenings - feet up on the sheepskin-covered footstool.
I took two days off -necessary R&R, because the writing I have chosen to do is very intense - both strands, in different ways. So, ten days on which I wrote during the morning, and the evening. Most days, I went for a walk in the afternoon, either down to the strand, or up to the mountaintop above Mountain MIne at Allihies.
No internet on the laptop. NO facebook and twitter at all. Emails only accessed after the day's work had been done, on the slowest PC in Ireland.

And I came back with 41,375 words. Maybe not all the right ones. maybe not all in the right order. But goodness me, isn't this internet thing a drain of energy if we let it be?