Thursday, 5 April 2012

Vanessa Gebbie writes a letter to herself

Last week saw the paperback publication of Vanessa Gebbie's beautiful novel, The Coward's Tale. Vanessa is partaking in a mammoth blog tour, and I'm so pleased to have here today. I've met Vanessa a couple of times, once at the Bridport 2009 prize-giving, where she made me feel like everything-would-be-okay as I took the stage to read from my story, and again at last year's Willesden Herald prize-giving, where we had a good chat in the pub afterwards about the writing life. I joke that I'm following Vanessa's successes around, a few years behind. So I'm looking forward to Bloomsbury publishing my novel in, oooh, say 2014. Excellent.

On with today: I asked Vanessa to write a letter to herself in the past, more specifically to herself just as she started out her journey as a writer, and the superb result is below. Enjoy!

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Below: The 2002 Vanessa

To Me, in 2002, from Me in 2012.

Dear Me

Today, you sheltered from a thunderstorm in Waterstones and came home wet through - but with three books. I guess you can’t drip by the 3 for 2 table without buying something. You made a pot of tea and sat down to read the third one, bought because you liked the cover... and you didn’t get up until you’d finished the book, it was that great. You will get a cold.

But that book, Austerlitz, by W G Sebald, made you think, didn’t it? It broke so many rules, beautifully. It told a story that held you - wet as you were - right through until it put you down. And you decided then - I love this. I want to do this. Whatever ‘this’ is.

Well, I’m here to tell you that you do ‘do this’. It will take a while to get off the ground - there will be false starts, and you will start workshops, and leave them, until you wonder if you are just a dilettante. You will meet people who proclaim themselves gurus, peddlers of tricks of the trade, you will fall for scams - oh there are so many traps for the aspiring writer. And although I could warn you exactly who to avoid, and when, so that you don’t go through these nasties ... I am not going to do that. It’s all formative, and in the end, it will add up to a great grounding, one that will serve you well.

After a few of these nasties, you will be fine. The turning point will come when you meet someone who points out the vast difference between ‘wanting to write’, and ‘wanting to be a writer’. And then, you settle into a sort of rhythm, and stop chasing butterflies. You will see that ‘being a writer’ actually means zilch - the term encompasses all that is surface. And that there is a world of difference between that and what you want.

Remember those moments when you used to have arguments with Mum, as a child - you wanting to read Enid Blyton, and she wanting you to read something ‘worthwhile’? And despite her, the Enids came home from the library anyway... but she fed them to you as one might sweets - a reward for reading something she had chosen... like The House of Sixty Fathers by Meindert De Jong? And remember how it slowly dawned on you that great as a page-turner was, the absolute magic of being transported into a complete world painted in nothing but words, was better than anything else. And somehow, Sixty Fathers did that? The child you were would remember that book and the people in it for over half a century, whereas the Enids - they would merge into a great fun pile of adventures, but the people... who were they exactly? Where did these things happen? Why?

Ok, so it is now 2002 where you are. If I could tell you the following, you probably won’t believe me, but I’ll have a go.

You will be told in 2003, by a professional whose opinions are based on years of knowledge, that you have four things against you. First: You are over fifty. Second: you are female. Third: you write short stories. Fourth: You write literary work. It is therefore unlikely that you will ever be published.

You were a stubborn kid - and that seems to come back, but maybe it pays off. You will gradually amass publications of short fiction online and in print. Your first collection will appear in 2008. In 2009 you will be asked to compile a text book. In 2010 your second collection will come out. In 2011 your fourth book will appear, a novel called ‘The Coward’s Tale’ which has taken you six years to write. If this is 2002 - dear V - you will start playing with the voice of this piece, and the first little section, next year.

Enjoy, if you can. When you hate it, remember, it will come right in the end. And it will get out there, to join the millions of books all fighting with each other, fighting for publicity, fighting for review space, fighting for a platform at festivals, on bookshops shelves. Let it go. It will either swim or sink. You did your best, OK?

I dunno. What does this all prove anyway. You want to write, and you will. Your work will be ‘out there’ and may even give people pleasure, who knows?

You might even start to get invites to things, commissions, be asked for interviews in newspapers... all great, but...

But that’s not what it’s about, is it? The glitter washes off in the end. It won’t last. Good writing, if it really is good, will. So don’t give up, and never think you’ve ‘got there’ - to ‘get there’ would mean reaching the end.

Keep going. Keep trying to write better.

with love,

Me.


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Thanks muchos, Vanessa. Tomorrow's stop involves a chat over at Jen Campbell's blog. And there's a full list of where Vanessa has been / will be here.

Now then - do you fancy winning a copy of The Coward's Tale? Well, you should, because it's really really good and I have one here and I'll post it out to you and everything.

Just leave a comment below - that's all. I'll draw the names out of a hat, or a sock maybe, in a week.

If you feel inspired to write a little note or a letter to yourself, here or elsewhere, please do. Just link back here, and let me know and I'll link to you.

27 comments:

Rachel Fenton said...

Lovely innovative take on the interview. Going to go and write myself an invite to my own Booker win now and see what happens...

WOMEN RULE WRITER said...

Sweet advice. And yes, writing is so much more important than the elusive 'being a [successful] writer'.
Nicely done, ladies.
Nuala x

John Ravenscroft said...

Whatever it takes, you've got it, Vanessa. A great letter!

Lesley Hale said...

Thank you for this refreshing interview, and thanks for reminding me of 'The House of the Sixty Fathers' - it must be nearly 40 years since I read it. Great writing does stay with you, but age makes you forget the titles.

Laura Wilkinson said...

This is a wonderful idea for an interview, and your letter made me cry, Vanessa.

Tania Hershman said...

How lovely! I've done the writing letter to future self thing, but not backwards. This is very poignant, thanks both.

Dorothee Lang said...

Great letter. Now I am curious for the book. Loved this line about the 4 things. Like obstacles in a tale, and there it is: a Coward's Tale turned into a book.

shaunag said...

Great letter, thought-provoking and insightful, thanks. I identify hugely with a lot of what you say, V. Esp the last bit, to keep on writing.After all that *is* what being a writer is - *writing*.

Essie Gilbey said...

Fantastic, great idea for an interview and very inspiring result :-)

Margaret said...

This is a lovely idea - touching and thought-provoking. Well done Vanessa and Teresa for this take on a blog visit. Margaret

marthawilliams.org said...

Gorgeous post -- thanks for sharing! M (ps I have my copy in my hand, not here for the draw!)

Lauri said...

Lovely idea, damn jealous I didn't have it first. And who was the cow who gave you the list of four stupid things, V??? May their underwear fill with leeches!!! No one- NO ONE- knows who will be a success. Even publishers, even agents (yeah I said it!!) so no one should be saying such crap.

Very nice letter BTW.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Thanks peeps, for all the comments here - it is amazing, really - all this is just honest natter to my younger self - and yet it seems to hold some good advice for others too. Hop its useful. xxx

Dora Dee said...

I am so moved by Vanessa's letter as I'm in my 50's now and my writing journey has just started. My own journey hasn't been easy - between my family ridiculing my early efforts + loathing myself for even trying, I am now standing up for what I've always known: I'm an artist + proud of it. I will continue to unearth the layers of self-doubt so that my words can stand on their own + illuminate what I've kept hidden for so long.

Kim Murdock said...

I'm feeling so inspired! I'm working my way through Short Circuit and this interview is a wonderful reminder that writing takes time and tenacity.

Teresa Stenson said...

Wow - thanks so much everyone - I'm at work all day so I'm not able to reply properly but I will be along tomorrow. Really pleased y'all dig this!

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Dora - my family ridiculed me as well - not at first, but when I started taking it very seriously, and occasionally asking someone to take second place to a writing commitment. Or to my own writing schedule. But I figured they were all old and ugly enough to cope!
They, or rather the status quo, was being threatened. By something that didn't make money, something they didn't understand (my husband does not read fiction...and my sons don't read the sort I write, mostly!)
Now, it is a different story. They are amazingly supportive, and proud. Maybe we have to earn it? Dunno - anyway - that was my experience. xxx

Teresa Stenson said...

Zoe King has had trouble posting a comment, so she emailed this and asked me to post it. I shall - and then I MUST go back to my bar shift or the boss'll have me guts for garters.

Zoe King's letter to herself:

Dear Me,
You should listen when Vanessa Gebbie says, 'You must write more'. When she says, 'Don't waste such a gift'.

Haven't you always said Vanessa Gebbie is the hardest working writer you have ever met? That she is single minded, determined, totally committed to what she's doing?

Yes, ok, she has the kind of imagination you would kill for, but that's not the whole story! Besides which, yours isn't so shabby - the difference is that she allows hers, she grows it, whereas you run away from yours far too often.

For heaven's sake, take her advice, just DO it!

Love, Me.

Merc said...

Terrific letter about what it´s about. Big ta!

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Mrs King, ain't that right - and if Budgerigars are to be believed, your imagination is extremely healthy!

(one day, people, you will read a story called Budgerigars, and never forget it, just like I didn't... (!) )

Dora Dee said...

Thanks Vanessa! You are so right -- it comes a time when a person has to stand up for what they believe and stop wanting to be everything to everyone. I don't want to sound as if I'm blaming them - I'm not - there were many other obstacles put in my way and a lot of them were self-inflicted. English is my second language and I've always felt 'less than' native speakers and writers. Also despite wanting to write from an American perspective, my stories took place where I grew up and this was something I struggled with -- writing something that would be acceptable to the English-speaking market -- basically telling myself who'd want to read or publish what I wrote? Especially in short stories, etc., not realizing there were, and are, many literary magazines one could send to. Now I realize that I probably would have been published sooner because I did write from another perspective (or so I'd like to believe)!!! Also, like you said, writing is a craft which takes practice and more practice. I'm now embracing my "otherness" and doing lots of practice because I've become rusty with time. My 'wasted' years as I'd like to call them weren't wasted at all as they've given me the maturity to see what I've been doing wrong!

Thanks to you and Teresa for this lovely and eye-opening blog!

Teresa Stenson said...

You're v.welcome, Dora - thanks for sharing your story here, so inspiring that you are embracing who you are! Not that easy to do for most.

...just poppin my nose in to say...

THANK YOU Rachel, Nuala, John, Lesley, (not John Lesley, though, eh?) Laura, Tania, Dorothee, Shaunag, Essie, Margaret, Martha, Lauri, Dora, Kim, Zoe and Merc (phew!) for commenting and being part of this post.

I'm so pleased this went down well - I know I've said that already - but I am, and I'm happy Vanessa took the idea on - when I emailed the suggestion I was thinking - is this a really good idea or a really crap one? I couldn't tell. Bit like the writing process for me, actually...

chillcat said...

Great idea for a blog post. Tricky and enlightening. Thanks to both of you.

Teresa Stenson said...

You're welcome, Chillcat. Glad you enjoyed.

*NOTE* - as far as I can see, the only person who's said they don't want to be in the draw to win a copy of The Coward's Tale is Martha.

I'll be randomizing on Thursday - still time to comment if anyone else wants a chance to win this super book.

Dora Dee said...

Thanks Teresa! Sorry it took so long for me to respond but I don't always have access to a computer.

Perry said...

I missed this before, but I want to add my appreciation of both the letter and the novel. In both cases, well worth reading.

Teresa Stenson said...

Thanks, Perry. It's great isn't it. I mean they're both great. Letter and book. Having a happy time revisiting this.