Vanessa Gebbie’s novel The Coward’s Tale was published in November last year by Bloomsbury. It begins with a young boy, Laddy Merridew, who is sent to live with his grandmother in a small Welsh mining village. Vanessa’s novel, which unpicks life in the village, is a poignant exploration of love and loss.
You have a deep attachment to Wales as a country. Why has it has such an impact on you?
I was adopted at birth, by David and Gwladys Rees, a Welsh couple from Merthyr Tydfil. They had had to leave South Wales during the depression to follow the professions they’d chosen, to find jobs, and never really settled properly in England. Wales, more specifically Merthyr, was always, always home. It is where both families were, both sets of grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. So, from my earliest days going home meant going to Merthyr.
There was then for me as a child, a double-displacement. That of being removed from my birth mother, and then living with a mum and dad for whom home was never the house, or indeed the country we lived in. Add to that their love and mine, for the place they did call home, and perhaps you can see why a child would identify very strongly with that place and that background.
The Coward’s Tale is based loosely on your childhood town of Twynyrodyn in Merthyr.
Did it help to have a picture of a certain place when you started writing?
It certainly helped to visualise the places I knew. Everywhere means something to me or my parents. I know all the places where they grew up, went to school, played, went for walks when they were courting. All were put in the novel to give my late dad pleasure.
My grandmother lived in Highland View, Twynrodyn. That became Maerdy Street in the novel, where one of my favourite characters lives, Half Harris. Mary Street, which is an extension of the same street in reality, became a parallel street. The pub, The Cat, is made up. But on Twyn hill there is of course the Bali Glas. Seeing that pub was always a signal to the child in the back seat of the car that we were almost home so it had to be included.
The character of the beggar or storyteller Ianto Jenkins is the one who has been there all his life, of course. Laddy, the boy, arrives at the start of the novel. He is an outsider, just as I was. So perhaps I also see the town through his eyes, a bit, fresh and new.
Vanessa remembers the bus going up Twyn Hill, "leaning in, as if to look into the bedroom windows".
Did you revisit Wales at any point while you were writing?
I went back to Merthyr once or twice while I was writing this novel. The first time, I took my then very elderly Dad back, and we visted his old haunts, Cyfarthfa Castle and the streets of Twynyrodyn, Penuel Chapel. The second time was in a snowstorm in about 2007. I went up on the train to visit the library, in the very early days of writing. I say in the library reading room and read lots of microfiched newspapers. My Dad was born in 1915 – it was really fascinating, and often moving, to read about the town back then.
I remember reading the court cases, particularly about the soldiers who’d come back from WWI, many of them damaged in some way, unable to work much. One chap, his wife was pregnant with their fourth child, and the snow was deep in the steets, as it was while I was there. He dug just enough coal from the drift mines to keep the house warm for two nights, his wife was on the point of giving birth. He was fined, and sent to prison.
There’s a picture for you.
But once I was really into the novel I didn’t go back. I’d been shocked and intrigued to find the library wasn’t as I’d remembered it, it was a different colour for a start. So I decided to trust to the creative spirit to settle the town of the book as it was meant to be. Not as a real place, but as somewhere that owed an awful lot to memory. And the writer is grateful for that.
Your description of the deaths down the Kindly Light Pit is particularly poignant after the Gleision tragedy last September.
That was dreadful. My heart went out to the families, and the whole community.
I remember being advised a few years ago that today, no-one could write fiction involving a coal mining accident in Wales, as that was all in the past, and was something Wales would rather move away from. Well, I’m sorry, the Glesion Colliery tragedy shows how wrong that is. Mining is not in the past. You can’t just shove it all under the carpet like that. Men are still risking their lives for coal. My family too, both sides, were involved in the coal industry for generations. I am not going to just forget that. Both grandfathers died young because of the industry. I grew up with a strong sense of that heritage.
The Coward’s Tale is about coming to terms with your heritage, and learning to live your life despite it, or as in my case, thanks to it. It would have indeed been cowardly of me not to write what I really wanted to wouldn’t it, to allow myself to be frightened off?
Many of the details of the Kindly Light mine collapse are based on the 1913 Senghennydd disaster. It was important that the mine collapse should be right, it had to be ‘true’ if not real. I did not want to do it the disrespect of not making it as horrific as it was. The superstitions as well, the bad luck associated with seeing some birds, and associated with a miner going home after he’d left for work, they are real.
How hard is it as a writer to tackle issues of grief and loss? Was this an inevitable part of your story after choosing to write about a Welsh mining town?
I don’t think you could write about a mining community without the subject of grief and loss coming into it somewhere. It would not have to be Welsh, but of course, coal mining is the ground on which the people of today are walking in the valleys, like it or not.
Having said this, the themes come first. I have always written to those themes, for years. Most of my short stories in both collections explore those issues from various perspectives, because they are some of my preoccupations – displacement, fractured lives, overcoming loss in many ways. Maybe I needed to find a larger canvas that explored the themes in more depth, which this novel does. But exploring them in a town, as opposed to the restricted palette of a short story, allows for a richer end-result perhaps. There is more room for all the colours, the facets, the light and dark of life. The humour and the beauty as well as the ugliness.
The Coward’s Tale contains some things which are typically Welsh, for example the tradition of storytelling and the fact everyone knows each other.
Did you try to work with or against these typicalities at different points in the novel?
I woudn’t say storytelling is a preserve of just the Welsh, by any means. No I think storytelling is rooted in most cultures. And everyone knows each other in small communities the world over, don’t they?
Ianto Jenkins, the beggar-storyteller in The Coward’s Tale is an outsider. He’s been ostracised, for reasons that become clear during the novel’s unfolding, and then reconciled to some extent with the community. Maybe his ability to spin the stories of the town have helped with that reconciliation, but it hasn’t gone far enough. Its the journey of the novel, tracking the final stages of that process.
One thing I know, is that an outsider has a privileged perspective, they aren’t bamboozled by politics and agendas as much as those closer to events. His stories hold truth, uncomfortable as that often is.
I think most people understand the idiosyncracies of small communities, everyone knowing everyone else’s business, the way rumour can flash round impossibly fast on the one hand and, among the positive things, a community’s abilities to pull together when things are tough for the whole of for the individual. And the tradition of the storyteller – it’s in our cultural heritage, for most of us – whether its recognised or not, overtly. So I was working in the knowledge that most people know or understand that.
As a storyteller was Ianto the character you felt closest to?
The paperback edition of The Coward's Tale was published last month in March.
I am a mix of everyone, probably, but closest to Ianto and Laddy, who are, in a way, old and young versions of the same person. I have always felt myself to be an outsider – because of my origins, I suppose. But that is a hugely privileged position to be in, for a writer. As a child, I loved escaping into a make-believe world, daydreaming, others call it. And then escaping into fictitous worlds, the best escape ever. The jump to telling stories to myself, and then my friends was not that big, I used to fill school exercise books with my early utterings, mostly horror stories. Gory things, thank heavens I got that lot out of my system!
Who would you choose to be if you were to take the place of a character?
Peter Edwards. I would love to be able to pick up a piece of coal and hear through my fingers the stories of what it is like to be a forest, or a stone and hear what it is to be a mountain.
This is your first novel, how different is it writing a novel compared to short stories?
The writing process is the same , it is in the editing stages that the bigger piece is more difficult to lick into shape. I had great difficulty keeping track of it all, as I was too superstitious to keep it all together anywhere, it was in bits in files on several computers, and on memory sticks all over the house. I had no real idea how to structure it, that took a year of further work after I finally finished a complete draft. Thanks to the Arts Council and their Grants for the Arts scheme, I worked with a wonderful novelist, Maggie Gee, who guided me thorough the polishing stages.
How different is The Coward’s Tale now from when you first started writing?
The first little bit of writing that ended up in The Coward’s Tale was written in 2003. I stayed playing with the voice, and snippets, back then. So perhaps its not that different. I like to think it is more focussed, though. It is certainly more coherent. I found, once I brought it all together, that a few characters’ names had changed, one even changed sex, several moved houses, without asking me.
Vanessa has her own blog which you can see by clicking here.
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