The boy Laddy Merridew, sent to live with his grandmother, stumbles off the bus into a small Welsh mining community, where he begins an unlikely friendship with Ianto Passchendaele Jenkins, the town beggar-storyteller. Ianto is watchman over the legacy of the collapse many years ago of Kindly Light Pit, a disaster whose echoes reverberate down the generations of the town.
As I said on my Amazon review, "... I finished The Coward's Tale this afternoon and I think it astonishing... It is a poem, it is stories, it is a novel, it's a song, it is about death, life, family, tragedy, history. It is about the power of story and the telling of stories and what that does for the individual, for the community, for those who have experience great loss and are trying to rebuild and move forward. For me it had echoes of the Holocaust. And the way it all came together was immensely powerful..."
So, enough of all the superlatives, let's hear from Vanessa! This book is very much rooted in place, and so I asked her the questions I ask all those who are part of my Writing & Place series here on the blog:
Tania: Where are you?
Vanessa: I am sitting up in bed in my bedroom at home, in a small group of similar houses in a village called Ringmer, in East Sussex. I have somehow managed to live in the south east of England all my married life - it is not where I would choose to live, if there were no constraints - but my husband’s work was here - a family dental practice. The bedroom has just been painted, and everything smells of new paint. The walls and cupboards are cream - it’s a bit like sitting inside a gigantic meringue. I am here becaue I’ve managed to get a fluey thing. Pathetic, huh?
T: How long have you been there?
Sitting in bed, all day.
In this house, thirteen years.
In the south east of England thirty-six years, if not a bit more. That is, we’ve been wed thirty six years - before that I lived in London for a while, working for the Ministry of Defence, in the mid seventies. Then I commuted to town from Brighton. It was a good thing the railway line started and stopped at the stations I used - I slept most of the time. I remember one bloke went to sleep on the last train after a Christmas party, and woke up in a siding. He had no idea where he was and stayed on the train until someone came the next day.
T: What do you write?
V: My writing has always been other than the realities of how and where I live. It is just an extension of how I was as a child - dreaming, imagining, escaping. Why escape to the house next door with people who mirror the neighbours? How boring is that? No disrespect to my neighbours, who are great - its just what goes on in my head is far more interesting to me than what goes on outside the window. I am not drawn to write about people whose lives are comfortable, thank you very much - as mine has been. There are no stories there.
My father and mother were both born just after the First World War - my father recalled seeing the soldiers parading up the High Street when the war ended. He was four. He remembered playing as a boy on an old tank that had been used as a war fundraiser, in Thomastown Park. And he remembered nicking coal from across the valley with his father, and piling it into his toddler brother’s pram to wheel home in the dark.
I was brought up on stories like that. My mother walking three miles to school, three miles back - jumping the ash bins as she went. My grandfather giving my grandmother a bracelet the day after their wedding day, a bracelet he’d saved up for for months, hiding it under a slice of toast on a tray he carried up to their bedroom. I’ve got that bracelet - I’m keeping it for my grand-daughter. I have always felt much closer to the place that bore those stories, than the relatively comfy places I live. Is that a bad thing? Tough. I went to a talk by George Steiner at The Royal Society of Literature a few years ago. “I don’t want to read any more novels about divorce in Hampshire”, he said. Neither do I - not that I have read many, must admit. I don’t want to write them, either. I defend the right of any writer to write what they want! And the right of any reader to read what they want, too
T: How do you think where you are and where you've been affects what you write about and how you write?
V: Hmm. Now, I like places that are not hugely populated, which are remote. Quiet corners of Wales, the West Country, Ireland, Scotland. Some of the best places I have been to - Antarctica, South Georgia, Spitzbergen, Iceland - are empty in large parts. I would go back to those places tomorrow - and you’d find it hard to persuade me to visit teeming cities for any length of time. I like to hear myself think.
I am an unfriendly beast, really. And as I am happier ‘on the edge of things’, looking back in, so I am drawn to write about characters who are also on the edge of things. I want to know why - but I understand them, at base. Maybe when you are given away as a baby, you are consigned to the edges no matter how happy your adoption is. I don’t mind in the least - its far more interesting there, looking in from the outside.
Well, I'd like to state that I am an "unfriendly beast" too, that's probably what all us writers need to be otherwise we'd be socializing too much to write! Thank you, Vanessa, for this insight both into the book and your life, and for the fabulous images.
I urge you all to get hold of a copy of The Coward's Tale (link goes to the Book Depository, with free worldwide delivery), which is published by Bloomsbury, and find out more about Vanessa's writings and activities on her blog. Amazingly she is defying the laws of physics today (or perhaps becoming a quantum particle) by being in three places at once - catch her over at Claire King's blog and Sara Crowley's blog - and tomorrow she is further afield! Thanks for coming, V.