Vanessa has won multiple awards for both prose and poetry, including a Bridport Prize and the Troubadour. Her flash publications include Ed’s Wife and Other Creatures (Liquorice Fish Books) and the weird/irreal collection Nothing to Worry About (Flash: The International Short Short Story Press at Chester University) as well as many individual publications online and in print. She is author of three short story collections (with Salt and Cultured Llama), a novel (Bloomsbury), and two poetry publications (Pighog and Cultured Llama). She is also commissioning and contributing editor of Short Circuit, Guide to the Art of the Short Story (Salt). She teaches widely www.vanessagebbie.com.
- Can you tell us about your new chapbook, Nothing To Worry About published this summer, by Flash: The International Short Story Press?
Nothing To Worry About is my tenth book in an many years, and is a little collection of flash fictions, all of which challenge our perceptions of what is ‘normal’. Really hard to define, normality, isn’t it? Some pieces are funny, some poignant – and most will make the reader think, and readjust their perceptions just a little.
- My impression of the book is that you have a wonderful way of making the ordinary surreal and the surreal ordinary, You also ran a workshop called The Weird and Wonderful World of Flash at the Flash Fiction Festival 2018 in Bristol. Is this the sort of very short fiction you generally prefer to write?
I do think the flash form is admirably suited to short, sharp, surreal or irreal pieces. It is hard both for the writer and indeed for the reader to sustain momentum in longer irreal work – but with flash, you can let go and play. The brevity allows for moments of madness in which the writer often ends up saying something serious that wasn’t pre-planned.
- Writers have given excellent feedback the workshops you ran at both the Flash Fiction Festivals, this year and last year, and you also ran an impromptu ‘word cricket’ session in a break to get people writing. You do a lot of teaching around the world. What do you like about it? And does it keep your own writing alive?
Thank you – and thank you to the Flash Fiction Festival writers – they were a gloriously creative lot to work with. But then it is extraordinary what people can create if they are allowed to play with no constraints. I love writing, and I love passing on the skills which enable me to do this thing I love – and playing is part of what the kid in me does best. For me, teaching is an integral part of the writing life. I’ll be popping up at the Festival with Word Cricket sessions next year too, if I’m allowed to! It can produce very good work. A little editing, and I know of quite a few writers who have gone on to have their word cricket pieces accepted for publication, or even have them placed in a competition. It’s the element of surprise that does it, I think.
- The strangest place you’ve taught fiction?
Oooh. Now let me think. Yes alright. It’s got to be a toss up between a Ladies loo, and a very, very noisy pub. The loo was at a festival. An impromptu hello/conversation/question ended in a two or three minute explanation/writing ‘lesson’.
The noisy pub was as a result of a sweet invitation from a U3A group who meet there every week. They asked me to talk about my writing and do an exercise or two, and omitted to mention they meet round a table in the public bar. Next to us was the darts board. The noise was deafening. I stood up to natter, and a dart flew past my ear. I had to yell to be heard, and even then, I’m not sure most heard a thing. Most of them wore hearing aids, and carried on talking between themselves. Nemmind, I thought, the show must go on. When I sat down and asked for any questions, one lady said “Oh, have you finished? I didn’t know you’d started. I always switch my hearing aid off in here.”… It was a hoot!
- I noticed on your blog that you have listed 75 books that you read during 2017, which is quite an achievement I think. Were there any in particular books that provoked you to write new stories?
Well on one level, all writing inspires. Thoughts, sounds, images, they all sink in and either get enjoyed or not – some make me cross, and I’ll sure as anything respond to that somehow – and some will make me want to respond positively, creatively, take up a thought and run with it, see where it takes me, up and away, far from the original. But I do find there is a specific magic to a well told short story, such as those by Ali Smith in ‘First Person and Other Stories’ (Penguin), for example. Or, stories that pick up an idea and look at it through a prism – like Tania Hershman does so successfully with science in Some of Us Glow More Than Others (Unthank Books). Other short story collections I loved: David Constantine's In Another Country(Comma) and Cate Kennedy’s
Dark Roots(Grove Press, Black Cat) are brilliantly inspirational, as is Carys Davies’s Redemption of Galen Pike (Salt). There are many others too – and poetry, novels, non-fiction, a very eclectic year! The whole list is here.
- Current writing projects on the go? Flash or otherwise?
Always. I am off to my writing retreat in Ireland in November for ten whole days exploring a new character who somewhat scares me – but isn’t that a good thing? I won’t say too much, if that’s OK. Poetry, flash, stories – always something on the boil. I am so lucky working across the forms.
- What type of flash fiction stories would you love to see within the entries?
I can’t answer that! If I said ‘A flash about walking on the Moon in a red jelly overcoat,’ guess what? I’d be drowned in red jelly.
So – no leads. Just great pieces. I’d love to read the most amazing flashes – ones the writers think, wow, where did THAT come from?! Flashes that surprise me, ones that make me think, moments reinterpreted, seen through a lens, ones that teach me something – a new word, a new idea, an off the wall ‘who knew?’ moment! ie: Whatever floats your boat. If it excites you, I’ll catch it. Have a go at it.
- A piece of writing advice for writers perfecting a 300 word micro for the contest?
Yes. Read it back, out loud. Over and over. Get someone else to read it back to you. Take out all the words that feel sticky. Take out all the clevernesses. Let the story sing out in its own voice, not yours. Lots of good luck!
- We are so pleased you can come and teach at the Flash Fiction Festival again next year, 28th-30th June, 2019 in Bristol. Are you teaching flash fiction anywhere else next year?
Thank you for asking me again – I love this festival. It is so friendly, without being too easy – and has reassured many a new writer, I suspect, that the writing world is not a scary place. Well done to you everyone on the team.
A few events coming up: I am reading from my new flash collection, ‘Nothing to Worry About’ at Chester Storyhouse Festival in late November, at a free event – and being quizzed about my work too, by the editors of Flash the International Short Short Story Press.
I’m running a good few workshops next year, organised already – the first of which is a weekend workshop series at a castle in Cornwall for women writers, ‘It’s Never Too Late to Write!’ And certainly, I will be opening participants’ eyes to the wonders of flash fiction. Why women? Typically, women of a certain age, and younger have often given up so much of their lives for others and put their own wishes to the side. This is a chance to kick start a writing life, for those who have always wanted to but never quite…
And secondly, the amazing Cynan Jones and I are just putting the finishing touches to a very busy weekend clinic for writers. We taught together at Lumb Bank for the Arvon Foundation last year, and worked so well together. We’re aiming to recreate something of that buzz for a small group of writers at a smashing venue in the South West in May. Flash? Certainly! A writer we taught last year, who had not heard of flash fiction and was planning to write memoir, is now deeply into flash, both fiction and CNF and has had several publishing successes.
I’m also teaching for a week at Anam Cara Writers and Artists Retreat, in West Cork, in September 2019 – come and join me!) – and yet another residential fiction week at the glorious Gladstone’s Library near Chester in November. Flash? of course! I can’t imagine me not including it – for so many reasons.
I’m more than happy to pass on details for any or all of my workshops – just contact me on Twitter: @vanessagebbie will do it.