Echoes and Echoes ~ Vanessa Gebbie on Endings

As we near the conclusion of this series “Why The Short Story? ~ A Conversation Among Writers,” Vanessa Gebbieduring a complicated time in her personal life—generously and graciously considers the question of endings.

Vanessa: I will start my contribution on short story endings with an apology for holding up the end of this wonderful discussion—although there is a reason, and that is that I have been caught up in recent weeks in the throes of the ending of a life, and its aftermath. That of my lovely father. And I am not sure if we are blessed, as writers, with the propensity to find parallels in all things—but in this case, they are so clear that I hope you will bear with me.

My father’s death came at the end of a full life. At ninety-five, his body and his faculties having declined fairly sharply, to continue would have been distressing for him and all who loved him—and the end was peaceful, and right. Of course, he will be missed hugely—I don’t think you can have a parent, grandparent and great-grandparent like my father without feeling their departure keenly. But at the same time, as the days since he’s gone roll into weeks, and the weeks into more weeks, we are looking back with great pleasure, sharing memories of a remarkable man, glad that his legacy—his gentleness, bravery, his enquiring mind, sharp intelligence, practicality, doggedness in adversity and his dry humour—lives on in us.

Gerard, in responding to his own question about short story endings, talks about “a sense of completeness within the flow of things—the sense that a story is fully resolved and concluded while at the same time existing in a universe where things go on happening.” Isn’t that just perfectly right? I can’t put it better at all. Life goes on. That story is finished, but it echoes and echoes. Echoes well.

I’d like to share a perfect short story ending with you—and it is the ending of US writer Alice Elliott Dark’s “In The Gloaming,” a piece of work selected by John Updike for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories of the Century. The same story became the subject of an HBO movie directed by Christopher Reeve, starring Glenn Close. The story focuses on conversations between a young man who has come home to die and his mother. The young man is gay. His father has never come to terms with this, and remains distant, awkward, as the mother and her son share moments of closeness, at the close of each day. The story, and his life, run out—until, after the funeral, there is the most poignant final scene between his parents.

I was going to share the gist of that short and perfect scene here. But no. On second thoughts—trust me—I can do you no greater favour than encourage you to go and find Alice Elliott Dark’s story, read, and bow. You will have been in the hands of a master, and you won’t forget it.

Vanessa Gebbie is the author of two collections of stories:Words from a Glass Bubble and Storm Warning, and is contributing editor of Short Circuit: A Guide to the Art of the Short StoryHer debut novel, The Coward’s Tale, is forthcoming from Bloomsbury in the UK and the USA. Thank you for taking the time to converse with us, Vanessa. Be well and happy in your memories of your father; our thoughts are with you. -PMc←

The Hits Just Keep On Coming ~ Congratulations, Vanessa!

A bit ago I wrote a short post about my colleagues in conversation Gerard Woodward, Gina Frangello, Dennis McFadden and Vanessa Gebbie and all the well-deserved attention their work (especially their short story work) has received since we started collaborating on “Why The Short Story – A Conversation Among Writers.” Well, the good news keeps on coming. Vanessa Gebbie’s Storm Warning is on the long list for this year’s Edge Hill Prize for short story collections, sponsored by Edge Hill University. Well done, Vanessa. Best of luck.

Vanessa Gebbie on “Why The Short Story?”

Vanessa Gebbie has won numerous awards for her short fiction, including Bridport and Fish prizes. She is the author of two collections of stories:Words from a Glass Bubble and Storm Warning, and contributing editor of  Short Circuit – a Guide to the Art of the Short Story (all Salt Publishing). Her debut novel, The Coward’s Tale,  is forthcoming from Bloomsbury in the UK and the USA. Vanessa also teaches writing. She is Welsh and lives in Sussex, England.

As part of this on-going conversation among writers, Vanessa Gebbie considers the very open-ended question, “Why the short story?” Her response is below.

Vanessa: Thank you for this exciting opportunity!

What a great idea. And how do you marry a wasp?! I shall just have to read and find out.

OK – Why the short story?

But that’s like saying why the dream?

Or why the root in the ground?

Because that’s what they all do – they act (if we let them) as portals. They grow into something far greater than the wordcount – they are the wardrobe in ‘The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe’ or the rabbit hole in ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’.

Who needs mind-altering substances when you have stories?  Do novels do that quite so well? Mostly, no. because the author is doing the filling of the world for you, to a large extent. They are making you live the dream they had themselves. Whereas with a good, well-written story – it plants seeds. They grow inside you. Its world remains alive after the pages are done. There is less closure, even if the story, that story, has finished. Is that a function of length, of our need to live longer than that? Is it a legacy from our ancestors, telling stories round cave fires, stories that span off each other until the night was filled with worlds?

Like you Patty, I read voraciously as a child – I don’t remember what speed I read at, I just know I read a lot. I learned on ‘Janet and John’ books at nursery school (age 3-4 – don’t know what US grades those would convert into…) and they were so boring, my gaaad I learned quick just to move on out. My mother was a librarian, so it was never a problem getting fresh books. I devoured Noddy by Enid Blyton, was weaned on the Milly Molly Mandy stories by Joyce Lankester Brisley and The Wishing Chair and other Blyton horrors, (as they are now regarded) by 5ish.  I was reading – who cares about the quality of the prose – the STORIES mattered! I was entering into another world each time I started a new one. I was a lonely child, desperate for friends, yet ill at ease with other children. Fiction was the perfect friend; add my own imagination and we were happy playing for hours…

I became a famous journalist at age 6. I wrote a newspaper, one issue only, in blue crayon, lead story a scoop about a man riding a bike in shorts with his knees projecting too far into the road. I’d seen him from the back seat of the car on our frequent journeys from the south of England where we lived, back ‘home’ – for my parents – to Wales. Sadly, my newspaper tycoon era was short, but I remember not long afterwards, on another journey, and it was dark, noticing a train running along in the distance, left to right – and saying it was like someone pulling a gold thread through a cloth made of night.

‘You’ve got the eye of a writer’ my mother said, unwrapping a barley-sugar. She was usually right.

I think what that means is (but what do I know, I just put down the words) that I notice things. I translate them. I find significance. Characters appear who ‘own’ them. They become metaphors whether I will or no. Some alchemy happens and they become stories. Sometimes, the stories cluster and become bigger things, big stories as opposed to short stories… we called them novels, didn’t we, a while back, although that is a misnomer. ‘Nouvelles’ should be factual if we are true to their roots, as in ‘here is the news’. So the type of ‘novel’ I like is actually cluster of stories that take flight, a kaleidoscope, ever-shifting. A community thing, a collective world within which is a series of individual worlds. Not that far removed from the warmth of a fire, in a cave, a kid falling asleep to the rise and fall of voices, watching sparks and stars working together overhead.

My ‘text book’ when learning to write, was The Best American Shorts of the Century, edited by John Updike. How do you not want to try to achieve the same effect ( by that I mean reader-involvement, caring, the depth of engagement) as Cynthia Ozyck in ‘The Shawl’. How, when you’ve read what I think is most perfect of short stories,  ‘The Ledge’, by Lawrence Sargent Hall – do you not despair?  But you can’t not try, can you?

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