BZ: Welcome, Vanessa! Loved your novel, The Coward’s Tale. Thanks your willingness to talk.
VG: Hi, Bonnie. It’s delightful to be here and thank you for such a warm welcome!
BZ: Tell us a little about you.
VG: I am a Welsh writer, living in England. I’m a novelist, a short story writer, an editor, an occasional poet, and a writing tutor – I have two sons, one husband, one cat, and one gorgeous granddaughter.
I was adopted at birth by a Welsh couple, and spent a lot of my childhood staying with my grandmother, in south Wales, in a place called Merthyr Tydfil – a large town which had an industrial past, set in the area known for its coal-mining valleys. I went to school in north Wales as a teenager, in Dolgellau, at the foot of the mountain Cadair Idris – a stunningly beautiful part of the world.
BZ: The novel is set partly in the early 20th century. How would you say this town is different from other towns in Wales at that time?
VG: The novel’s town is loosely modeled on Twynyrodyn, part of Merthyr Tydfil, the town where my parents grew up. The valleys in this part of the south were filled with communities whose livelihood came from coal mining and allied occupations – apart from the fortunate few, they were poor communities, and still are although the mining industry has largely been killed off. It is hard to do a direct comparison with other towns in Wales at the time as I don’t know other Welsh towns well enough – but this is a very specific area in the country, one with a past that has always fascinated me and a present that continues to be tough. I was also brought up with stories told by my parents of life there when they were young, and indeed stories told to them by their parents. I remember hearing of my mother’s father (or his, I can’t remember) , who left school and went down a coal mine at the age of eleven, working in the dark all day, holding the doors open for the ponies. That must have made a huge impression.
BZ: What gave you the idea to write The Coward’s Tale?
VG: Well, it didn’t begin as a defined project. The whole thing took about six years – but I was never concentrating totally on that book at any one time – I also wrote all the stories in my two collections, compiled my textbook and did a lot of other things during that time. The novel began as a flash, which grew later into a short story, which in turn grew into more, and then developed with the addition of a “backbone” structure into what is now The Coward’s Tale.
BZ: What character came to you first?
VG: The character of Tommo Price, the Bank Clerk. He was in a short story, and I needed at one point to write a little back story, when suddenly this character I didn’t know wandered into the study and started telling the back story as another story in a different voice. Luckily, although textbooks will tell you not to have too much back story, and certainly not related in direct speech – I went with it and didn’t stop what was happening. That character was the beggar, Ianto Passchendaele Jenkins, who became the main character and the “coward” of The Coward’s Tale.
BZ: Is any of the novel factual? The town? The central event in the story? Or?
VG: Yes, as stated above, the novel’s town is based on the small part of Merthyr where my family lived, and which I knew well as a child. But at the back of the book is a short paragraph explaining that a child’s memory shifts, and I know things are not the same now. I have moved whole streets and mountains, to make the setting work for the novel.
There are many many small incidents that are based on fact, mainly from my father’s own boyhood. The central event in the story, the collapse of a mine called Kindly Light, is not real, although the details are carefully researched. I used well-documented events from a mining community called Senghennydd – a very much bigger disaster happened here in 1913. There were many many tragic accidents in those days, and indeed there still are, sadly.
BZ: Talk about the difference between publishing in the United States and England.
VG: Golly – I’m not sure I’m qualified or experienced enough to do that! But it was fascinating to see that the US office of my publisher, Bloomsbury, wanted a different cover to the UK versions – and came up with the most beautiful one – which I guess you have. I really love it and find a growing emotional attachment to the image they chose, which seems strange, but makes sense when you get to the end of the book!
BZ: What are you working on now?
VG: A lot of things. I am working on a sequel and prequel in one, to The Coward’s Tale. That is complicated, and difficult, but I like a challenge! I’ve also just finished revising my textbook for a second edition, with the inclusion of eight new chapters from some fabulous writers. I’m also working with a great illustrator, the poet Lynn Roberts – between us we are publishing an illustrated flash collection called Ed’s Wife and Other Creatures, with Speechbubble Books later in the year.
I am fascinated by the ups and downs of self-publishing – and having now got four books out with both a mainstream and a good independent publisher, I decided to have a go at the self-publishing route. Speechbubble is a tiny press owned by colleagues – effectively we are doing it and funding it ourselves. But enough has gone wrong with the industry to send brilliant “do and don’t” messages out – so this is no rushed job. Ed’s Wife has been a long time in the making; we are both obsessively nit-picky and will edit it well. Lynn is an artist who has already designed two books herself. And it will be a limited edition hardback, initially. Watch this space.
I’m also writing poetry, learning more about it, and doing lots of teaching. I’m off to Vienna in October to lead a four-day novel workshop there – can’t wait!
Then (and boy will I need it!), I have a Hawthornden fellowship for four weeks at the end of the year. A whole month in a Scottish castle, just to focus on your work. I hope to get on with the next book.
BZ: If you were going to start an all-girl group, what would it be called? What instrument would you play?
VG: Brilliant question! I had one when I was at school – a few of us were in a group called “The Upsidedown Apricot Tart” (!). Make of that what you will . . . actually, it was a favourite school lunch dessert! We all sang. I can’t sing . . . In reality, I’d love to have played the saxophone. Or the drums.
And if I had a group now (what a great idea . . .) it would be called The Grannies. After the success of the Russian grannies at the Eurovision Contest this year, we couldn’t fail…I’d be on drums . . . Bang, crash, wallop, bang!