WriteWords talks to Vanessa Gebbie, multi award winning short story writer|
Tell us all about your writing background- what you’ve written, what you’re
I write short fiction, literary and not so
literary. Short stories, flash fiction, micro fiction. Have done for about four
years. Earlier this year I started writing stories to be heard, as well as read.
I’ve just written a monologue. I suppose I will try all sorts, so long as it’s
not something that will take me a year to finish!
I’ve won half a dozen competitions, been
placed or short-listed in thirty or so. Lots of publications, print and
(Firsts as follows: BBC Southern
Counties/Guildford Book Festival (2006), Charleston Small Wonder festival Short
Story Slam (2006), Willesden Competition (Judge, Zadie Smith, 2006), Cadenza
Magazine(2005), JBWB (2005), Cotswold Writers Competition (2005). Runner Up
twice in Good Housekeeping Magazine Short Story Competition (2004, 2005),
Runner-Up Fish One Page Story (2006), Short-listed Fish Short Story Prize (2005,
2006), Longlisted, Bridport Prize (2006). Commended, Writers inc. Writers of the
Year (2006). I think those are the main ones.
Currently, I’m ‘written out’. I took part in
a ‘writeathon’ for Children-in-Need, and haven’t recovered yet. Ten stories in
as many hours. So, rather than ignore what I ‘do’, I am editing, reworking older
pieces that didn’t quite make the grade.
Other work besides
writing; ie. Editing, dramaturgy, tutoring, and how it works for/against your
I am Assistant Editor of the small press
literary magazine, Cadenza. (Joined the board this Autumn. With Editor Zoe King,
I have been sifting and sorting competition entries on and off for the last
couple of months. That is a real eye-opener. Unlike most competitions, every
single entry gets two reads minimum, from two different editors/judges. That is
a great thing to do. You are constantly running on ‘critique’… and as I learn by
critiquing, not by having my own work critiqued, it’s a very full experience for
I teach Creative Writing in several
scenarios at the moment. To residents of three drugs rehabs - although I have
been doing this for two and a half years, and feel it may be time to move on -
to the homeless, and to refugees and asylum-seekers in Brighton. These last two
groups are interesting: I am funded by community publisher QueenSpark Books to
take these sessions, with the objective of producing enough autobiographical
writing by the teams to fill two anthologies next year. It’s a fascinating thing
to do, and I am privileged. I have also just finished a course of sessions at
the Sure Start programme in Islington.
Does it work for or against my writing? I
think it works FOR my own writing, in that this is who I am. I share this gift,
if that’s what it is, and couldn’t see myself being solitary and exclusive with
what I do. I love seeing the way a person who says, “Write? I can’t do that. I
was told at school that I was hopeless…” gradually begins to trust themselves,
and lets go… and their innate creativity astounds them. Like swimming, I
suppose. We can all do this thing, I believe that firmly. It just takes a little
push, a little coaxing, sometimes!
I also founded and edit an ezine
specifically for writing by those whose lives have been touched by addiction, at
How, when and why did
you first start writing?
I have written as a freelance
journalist for some ten years now, doing features on education for a glossy
magazine based in Brighton, Sussex. (Brighton and Hove Life). Four years ago I
started dabbling with fiction, and enrolled on a course at University. I lasted
half of this course as it appeared to be encouraging novice writers who hadn’t
mastered the basics to dive into the deep end and write a novel.
I wanted to write short stories. So… I just
sort of did.
Who are your favourite
writers/influences and why?
Jeepers, how long have you got? OK. Carver,
Updike, Jim Crace, E. Annie Proulx, A S Byatt, Italo Calvino, Andrew Miller,
William Trevor, Dylan Thomas, Frank McCourt, Alice Munro, W G Sebald. Among a
Why? Because they have strong ‘voices’.
Because they transport me as a reader and inspire me as a writer. Because they
‘do their own thing’, break the rules sometimes and sod the rest of the world. I
like that. It’s very liberating.
But the person who has been the strongest
influence on what I do and how I approach writing is the controversial tutor and
writer Alex Keegan. I haven’t studied with him for nearly two years, but the
discipline I learned from him is with me every day.
How did you get your first agent/
Agents? I don’t think agents are interested
in short story writers, are they? I’ve had a few say ‘Come to me when you’ve
written a novel’… and I’m afraid they may have a long wait. I have TRIED to
write a novel. Seriously. I think my website probably says I still am trying.
It’s in the bottom drawer of my desk. I LOVE what I do. With short fiction you
can create a whole world in ten minutes.
My first publication was early 2004 in a
literary ezine called BuzzWords. The editors saw a story of mine on a critiquing
site I belonged to, and made the right noises. I’ll never forget what that first
one feels like. Magic!
What’s the worst thing
The fact that it creeps up on you when you
aren’t prepared. If a story wants to be written, it wants to be written NOW. Not
in five minutes, or tomorrow. NOW. It gets in the way of family life, that’s for
sure. And I think I have probably lost quite a few friends since I started
For the first time in my life I am doing
something I really love doing.
Tell us what kind of response
you get from audiences/readers and if/how this affects/influences your
I’ve done a reading or two, and got decent
feedback. That’s nice. I’ve had a couple of little stories on BBC radio, one in
a competitive situation where the listeners voted for something I’d written. At
the Charleston Small Wonder festival, the audience voted by making a noise. That
is lovely, wonderful, generous, and it is very hard not to be influenced by
In the end, a writer writes to be read,
listened to, performed, whatever. I don’t believe writers who say “Oh, I only
write because I want to hide it away so no one ever sees it!” but I make a
concerted effort to write fresh, not to order or ‘for a
What was your breakthrough moment?
Looking back, it was when an English Teacher
used to sit me in front of the class over and over and get me to read my latest
masterpieces. I was 14. Now, of course, I realise she was only getting out of
doing English lessons. At the time, I was of course, going to be the next Enid
Blyton. (and earn the dosh to go with it… sadly… that’s another
What inspires you to write?
Usually, something I see. A picture. Photo.
Colours mixing. A look passing between two people. Something visual, often
Do you have a writing
routine? A place that’s special?
No. I am far too chaotic. I write in my
study, but my son uses my computer for Runescape, whenever he can (a game). I
give up, gracelessly.
Do you address particular themes or
issues in your writing?
Oh alright, we’ll be serious for a bit.
Loneliness, displacement, non-communication,
isolation, love that misses by a mile or two…that’s the ‘serious’ work.
Comments by other Members