Monthly Archives: April 2012

Books to watch in May

Promoters make it easy for film fans by preparing trailers months in advance. For book fans it’s a little more difficult, sometimes the first time we hear of a book is when it arrives on the shelves to be sold. I’ve picked four books from different genres to give you a glimpse of what this month has in store.  

The Newlyweds, Nell Freudenberger

To be published by Knopf Publishers 

Anima and George’s tale is a love story with a modern twist. After Anima meets George online she leaves her home in Bangladesh for a new life in Rochester, New York. But marriage is only the beginning. If the pair are to build a future together they must negotiate family demands and cultural differences from both sides.

Too Cold for Snow, John Gower

To be published by Parthian

An accomplished author and journalist, Gower is the winner of the John Morgan travel writing prize. This short story collection will transport readers to the frosty regions of northern Russia, promising tales of assassins, avalanches and prison ships. If you can’t wait to get your hands on the book you can purchase a sampler edition ahead of its release in two months time.

Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death, James Runcie

To be published by Bloomsbury 

This will be the first in a series of exciting new detective stories, to be titled The Grantchester Mysteries. Sidney Chambers, the vicar of Grantchester, is a thirty-two-year-old bachelor, whose unassuming appearance provides the perfect cover for a spot of detective work. In the course of the book he inquires into a suspicious suicide, a jewellery theft and an art forgery.

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, Simon Mawr 

Published by Little, Brown

I read The Glass Room when it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize so I’m already a fan of Simon Mawr. Here he tells the story of Marian Sutro, who becomes a Special Operations Executive in wartime France. Her aim is to seek out an old flame, Clement Pelletier, a nuclear scientist who is busy building a lethal weapon. According to Daily Mail critic Amber Pearson the book is “utterly gripping from start to finish.”

What are you reading at the moment and what do you plan to read next? Let me know what you think of these books and what’s on your bookshelf at the moment. 


Vanessa Gebbie on The Coward’s Tale

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?

Vanessa Gebbie

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?

Picture of the Taff Merthyr Colliery by Chris Sampson

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.

If you’ve enjoyed this post I’d love to hear from you. Please click ‘like’ or leave a comment. 

An interview with Nigel Jarrett

Nigel Jarrett is the author of Funderland, a collection of short stories which explore the complexity of human relationships. Funderland was widely reviewed in the national press at the time of its publication, in October 2011, and has been longlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize 2012.

Lesley McDowell, writing for the Independent on Sunday, said you’re “not afraid of unusual perspectives”

Can you explain what she means by this? What should readers expect when they buy a copy of your book?

She was probably referring to one or two stories in which the traditionally formal element of construction is varied- in one case it’s epistolary (though the ‘letter’ concerned is not one that you could ever imagine anyone writing) and the other is annalistic-episodic; it’s broken up into events at different times and places,  in India and in London. I hope readers will enjoy being introduced to unusual settings and unfamiliar lives. I wouldn’t want to tell them anything they already knew.

Funderland is the name of your title story, the tale of a big-dipper crash.

 Do you enjoy writing dark and scary stories, why?

Nigel won the Rhys Davies for contemporary short fiction in 1995 and has been a competition finalist twice, most recently this year in February

I’m a dark and scary person (I jest). The story you refer to is not about a fairground fatality as such, but the accident is the background to the events depicted. The survivor becomes emeshed in a relationship that may already have begun, in one case at least, before the accident happened. Sometimes it takes trauma to bring these things into the open.

For many of us, our feelings and desires are literally unspoken. But if you’ve seen two friends or relatives fall to their deaths from a Big Dipper and been badly injured yourself, it’s likely that your inhibitions were among the things that fell away. Not that such cause and effect applies here with any immediacy; but clearly there’s something going on:  the movements of the couple (a man and his sister-in-law) are still ritualised around what amounts to a taboo – that of incest, though the relationship is not a blood one. Incest also crops up in another of the stories. This is not the stuff of nightmare. I think taboos should be dealt with candidly.

Google says there are three theme parks in Belfast, Limerick and Dublin named Funderland.

Do you base your stories on real-life locations and situations or do they come from your imagination?

Funderland is published by Parthian Books

I found out about the Irish Funderlands only when I Googled my book after it went on sale. All my locations are real-life ones to a certain extent, but in this case I though I’d made up a word. I’m a keen neologist and have a pair of binoculars to prove it. Funderland is the title of the fairground accident story for (a) obvious reasons and because (b) it reverberates throughout the collection, in which the ‘fun’ element is paradoxical (a lot of these happenings are not funny). The ‘wonderland’ part reflects the extraordinary world of human relationships.

As for real-life situations, none of my stories is autobiographical. My father often took me, my brother and sister and my mother from South Wales to Cornwall on holiday and, before the Severn Bridge was built, the journey often took twelve hours. But he’s not the disturbing stepfather in Watching The Birdie, which depicts a car journey to a sort of domestic hell.

You’ve been a reporter and music critic for many years.

How did you make the transition from journalist to poet?

There was no change of clothes. The designations are mutually exclusive. In any case, I was writing poetry and fiction while I was reporting and sub-editing, though writing for a living makes the assumption of one activity, while pursuing the other, much easier.  Until this year, I’d never based a poem or a work of fiction on my life as a journalist. I have now. It’s a novel about a former Fleet Street crime bureau chief washed up on a provincial weekly newspaper. I know all about this stuff. Sensational events ensue, needless to say. I have high hopes of publication.

Journalists are trained to keep copy sharp and accurate but poetry seems a different way of working with words.

Has your experience as a journalist affect the way you write or is it just a case of adapting your style for different platforms?

All writing should be sharp and accurate. Journalism obviously makes you keen to obey the same rules whatever you’re committing to print. The main difficulty is in wanting to escape the strictures of an economical style, to be more effusive and elaborate. It’s like going on holiday and drinking too much. The great example is Evelyn Waugh, who had economy of literary means from the start. No-one knows where it originated – certainly not in the English of his day, in which ‘far-reaching propositions’ was always rendered as ‘propositions of a far-reaching character’. It’s called circumlocution and I’ve spent years banishing it from reporters’ copy. It’s Sod’s Law, of course, that some will identify it in these answers.

What’s it like to have the tables turned? Is it odd to see your work being critiqued instead of being a critic?

Nigel is music critic for The South Wales Argus

I don’t mind criticism, as long as it’s well-meant.  ‘Tables turned’ suggests some kind of hostility. We’re all in this together though I  feel that destructive criticism is often written for effect or notoriety and effusive praise for ease and to avoid trouble. Except in my case, where unbounded enthusiasm for my work is carefully-considered and well-meant. He said.

Short story collections are often tied together by a common theme or idea and critics have noted the stories in Funderland often deal with family relationships.

Would you agree with this and why? How long did the collection take to complete and is it organised in particular way?

Interesting. Four stories in the script submitted originally had to be dropped because my wonderful editor, Eluned Gramich, didn’t think much could be cut. So we were left with a quart of words and a pint-sized book. She noted the family theme, which I hadn’t. That’s the genius of editing. She was right, of course. We then knew which stories to drop.

Someone has also pointed out to me since publication that there’s a lot of sitting on settees , a lot of people staring out of windows and two ‘abstemious’ families. These are clearly deep psychological observations. I don’t know what they mean or whether they’re significant, and I hadn’t even noticed them. But I love it when readers pick up on things I’ve been unaware of. It proves there’s something else going on when stories are written

The collection is not ‘organised’ as such. Most of the stories had already appeared in literary magazines of solemn obscurity; in my more raffish moments I describe such publications as ‘underground’. But obviously I had to choose what to include out of the forty or so I’ve had published. I’m still writing – every day of every week – and not just stories.

If you’ve enjoyed this post I’d love to hear from you. Please click ‘like’ or leave a comment. 

Blogs on the block

Hooray for the holidays! I’ve finished at Cardiff for Easter and I’m enjoying the start of my last university break. At the end of June after my exams I’m hoping to join the world of work.

Future plans aside, today I had the chance to catch up with my blog and have a   quick peek at what other bloggers are writing. Here are two fantastic blogs which I thought I’d share with you. 

Wear the Old Coat This trendy looking blog is hot off the WordPress after its author Jo left to relaunch and upgrade. It specialises in young adult fiction and includes regular book reviews and guest posts. Jo’s writing is full of personality and enthusiasm for her subject. If you’ve never read this type of fiction before check out her A-Z which has a handy list of books to start with.

Recommended post,  From Cymru with CariadA funny and light-hearted look at what Wales has to offer including film locations, food and rugby stars.

Crawl Space Sarah Hilary’s blog is a must-read for crime fiction fans and writers. Visit it for interviews, book reviews and information on upcoming events in the Bristol area. If you’re a writer you can also join the fun by entering the Flashbang crime writing contest.

Recommended postAuthor Sophie Hannah chooses her favourite thrillers, gives an opinion on crime fiction festivals and shares what it’s like to be on television.