In Vanessa Gebbie’s new chapbook, Nothing to Worry About, the body really is a wonderland! Gebbie’s brand of surrealism hinges on bizarre manifestations of the physical body—a wife turns to metal; a wife is dropping “pieces” of herself all around the house; a wife’s body becomes a flock of birds with her heart at the center. It’s deceptively light-hearted but hints at deeper metaphors around identity—are we our bodies? Or are they just fleshy appendages with their own agendas? Gebbie manages to get at the heart of this paradox with a wry little smirk on her face.
Nancy Stohlman: In the spirit of flash fiction, describe this book in 6 words.
Vanessa Gebbie: Fun, off the wall, slightly worrying…
NS: I love your weird sensibility. Did you always write weird or was this an evolution?
VG: Not an evolution but just a way of seeing things. I always see life sideways, I’m lucky like that. However, I’d not let myself collect together the stories that came out sideways, believing that maybe a ‘serious’ writer wasn’t meant to be funny. Now, I’m a bit wiser. Funny is often a stage on the road to understanding sadness.
NS: Humor is touchy. Is British humor different than American humor?
VG: Well, I don’t know… I used to watch Friends with my son and wonder what the hell was funny when he and the audience were falling about. Quite often comic situations either side of the pond are at someone’s expense, aren’t they? Example: The clown trips over her shoes, treads on one end of a plank and gets hit on the nose by the other end. I never understood why that was funny, either. But ordinary life… its twists and turns, misunderstandings and non sequiturs … can be unintentionally hilarious. I think it’s when people try too hard to be funny that it isn’t. Or they aren’t. (eyes to heaven intentional!)
NS: What makes weird work and when does it not work?
VG: I don’t know the answer to that. All I know is, if a weird situation makes sense for that character, within that story, then that’s fine. It’s the joy of flash, or one of them, for this writer. Flash can sustain irreality neatly, whereas a longer story might labour the point too much. Is that it?
NS: Who is your favorite weird writer?
VG: Golly, loads of fantastic writers write marvellously strange worlds, don’t they. Adam Marek comes to mind… but also, I’ve just read a marvellous flash by Tania Hershman on Smokelong. Her portrayal of human interactions, with their marvellous fractured patterns and frequent blind alleys, are a kaleidoscope of images and half-sense meanings. The effect is that the reader gets what’s happening without ever having anything spelled out. Which makes me ask what is ‘weird’ anyway? Isn’t it just ‘normal’ seen through a prism?
NS: “The Door” is one of my favorite pieces in this book, and I read that it was written for and performed at Stand Up Tragedy at the Leicester Square Theater in London. Performed by you or others? How do you see the intersection of writing and performance?
VG: “The Door” was a commission, and just for one performer: me. I’d never thought of myself as a performer, and still don’t – the word conjures up performing sea-lions rewarded with fish. But I guess, when I write anything, , I ‘hear’ a piece in my head, and always always listen to it read out loud when I think it’s finished. It never is. Reading out loud to myself is an integral part of the editing process, so maybe reading it out loud for an audience isn’t that far removed? Is that the intersection? If it sounds OK to me, maybe it will sound OK to others.
NS: Speaking of performance, I’ve seen you read your work before, and you are quite hilarious. I especially remember hearing you read “Selected Advice for Strangers.” Does reading your work to an audience come naturally? Where did you get so funny?
VG: It is nice to make people happy. No idea where being funny came from, unless it’s a necessary balance to being serious? Mind you, I used to read stories to my school friends a long while back, and make them either squirm with my horror stories, or giggle… I prefer the laughter.
NS: This is not your first book—you also have several books of fiction including the collections A Short History of Synchronised Breathing, Ed’s Wife and Other Creatures, Words from a Glass Bubble, and the highly praised novel, The Coward’s Tale. How does Nothing to Worry About build on your previous works?
VG: It’s my 9th or 10th depending if you count different editions as two. I’ve just finished the first messy draft of 11 (or 10), another novel. Nothing to Worry About collects together strange, irreal, often funny pieces. It came out at the same time, or nearly, as a collection of longer short stories, all equally weird. Funny but with more than a grain of truth behind the laughs.
NS: Nothing to Worry About is published by Flash: The International Short Story Press. Can you talk about your road to publication?
VG: Sure… my road to publication began back in 2002 when I decided to write. I always had, as a young person at school and college, then stopped. So it was time to kick start creativity again. I wasn’t young.
I concentrated on short form fiction, despite teachers at university telling me that I was better off writing a novel. I didn’t feel I had all that time to waste… and short forms were so much more satisfying, doable, yet challenging.
My first book was a collection of prizewinning short stories. Words from a Glass Bubble (Salt) came out in 2008. It was followed by a text book on the art of the short story , for which I was commissioning and contributing editor. Since then it’s been a book a year. I’m lucky, I write across boundaries- so have three short story collections, two flash collections, two poetry collections, two editions of that text book, and a novel. I’ve just completed a first draft of novel number two, the first work that is not based on shorter fiction forms. It will take a lot of editing, but it’s been fun. A great mix of humour and violence.
NS: In addition to your many books of fiction, you’ve also written several editions of a book on the craft of writing, Short Circuit: A Guide to the Art of the Short Story. The first edition of that book came out 10 years ago, in 2009. How has the form changed since you first started writing and teaching it?
VG: Interesting things have been happening… I think boundaries are breaking down, definitions are loosening. Hybrid works, fascinating works of art comprising prose, poem, dramatised scenes, non fiction, anything… exciting times. The rise of performance opportunities too… short forms are perfect for that.
NS: What is your best advice to someone who is writing/wants to write a book?
VG: You want to write a book? First ask yourself why. Be honest. There is a difference between ‘I want to be a writer’ and ‘I want to write’. We’ve all met the ‘want to be a writer’ types. They dress the part, usually in black, always look ill, and talk endlessly about writing, but what else?? Do they actually do it? Probably not. Avoid! The writers I know don’t look like “writers”.
So you really want to write? Good for you. Then read. Read more. And more. And write. Write more. Learn as much as you can, try everything, let yourself make mistakes. Seek the company of, and feedback from others who understand what you’re trying to do. Offer them your honest feedback too.
NS: Anything else you want to add?
VG: Enjoy the ride. Keep reading.
Never think you’ve learned it all. You never will.
And if you want to buy my book, please support publishers or independent bookshops.
To buy Nothing to Worry About from the publisher: