Interviewed by John Haggerty
Read Vanessa Gebbie’s fiction piece, Another Landmass
John: One of the things I love about this story is the use of color—for example, the grayness of the town reflecting the circumscribed lives of the characters, and the vivid contrast of the red scarf, which seems to offer the promise of something more. Did you set out with these effects in mind, or did they grow organically from the events of the story?
Vanessa: Thank you. I see the story as a grey misty wash with points of colour fighting through then sinking back. No, the use of specific colours wasn’t deliberate at all—they appeared in the first careless draft. There are very few, and on reflection they seemed to be right and in the right places for the effect I wanted to achieve.
I wonder whether we all have cultural understandings of colour, and their psychological effects on us? Maybe I am trusting the reader to tune in to my own colour understandings?
Colour-checking the story just now out of interest:
Most is monochrome: grey, ice, the colours of the landscape.
Black: the head of Lenin.
White, black shoes: Greta’s uniform—stark, somehow, crass. The white bear: danger?
Brown and grey: neither is qualified. The town of Barentsburg is peopled with “brown, grey, grey-brown lives. Grey skies. Grey men.” I am not letting the reader know which grey, but I need them to see it for themselves. Imagine it. Feel it.
Blue: the deoxygenated flesh of those who suffered from Spanish flu. Again, I don’t qualify the blue. I let the reader make it up for themselves. The miner’s blue lips—both times, unhealthy images?
Gold: the flash of the dancers’ teeth. Mentioned twice. Right next to it is the word ‘desperate’ first, then ‘tears’. Uneasy bedfellows—both times, I liked that.
Red: appears twice—first when the swimmers’ skin is ‘shocked red as flayed game’ by the icy water. There, I needed to qualify exactly which red, because I’m going for effect, repulsion, preferably—and I added the flayed skin image in a later edit. Looking at the swimmers’ skin through William Edwards’ eyes—he is repelled, for whatever reason.
And then the opposite: the red of his cashmere scarf. And texture—softness of cashmere as opposed to the hardness, starkness, chill, everywhere else. Does it symbolise anything here? I guess it must, it is a positive, and red symbolises love—but that’s too stark. It’s not deliberate, as I said. But would it work as well with a yellow scarf? Probably not. So it becomes my gift to the reader – how does the reader hold that colour, that texture? What does it do for the character? For the story? Does it change the vibration? That’s up to you, entirely, here.
Green: the miner’s eyes. Green as the sea. Is that a cliche? Well, this one was deliberate. It isn’t me who is seeing them as ‘green as the sea’, it is William Edwards. Isn’t he falling—losing control, at that point? I don’t think he’d be worried about cliche—he’s suddenly feeling something that’s been hidden and the sound-echo seemed to work to evoke a high note, like a violin, as I read it. So I left it.
Sorry, a long answer.
On the same note, writers seem to come in two varieties: the planners, who make sure they know every detail of a story in advance, and the wanderers, who just go out into the wilderness to see what happens. Which are you? And do you ever wish you were the other kind of writer?
I’m a wanderer. Here, I had a setting I loved, and waited for a long time to meet a character who seemed to fit it, the loneliness of it, the chill on several levels, the distance needed to be crossed to reach…the beauty of it, the cruelty too.
Yes, I often think I’d like to be able to plot, and I’d like to love plotting. But I don’t. If I try, things go wooden. The trouble is, wanderers end up needing to tackle a pile of spaghetti, needing hard editing, rewriting. I can see phrases I’d take out now…places I didn’t edit back hard enough. Sorry…
You write with a lot of style, which is increasingly rare these days. It seems that the current literary fashion leans toward a sort of esthetic minimalism, where the goal is to write as plainly as possible. Where do you think that style ranks in the list of literary devices? Is it effective or irrelevant when it comes the overall impact of a story?
That seems to beg an academic response, and I’m not an academic writer—so can I just say that ‘style’ seems to be voice, here? If I ‘let go’ with a character, my writing does that. Here, the specific voice—somewhat arch, cool, somewhat formal, comes out of knowing both setting and character. So yes, style/voice—all bound up in the impact I’m hoping to have on my reader. I need the reader to inhabit not just the place, but William Edwards, to experience this moment with him.
The protagonist in this story, a history professor, seems to be particularly weighed down by the past. In an era where we seem to be repeating history as farce, what is your relationship to the past? And what do we owe it?
It is true that we don’t seem to learn from our collective mistakes—and on a national level rush repeatedly into situations which we ought to know aren’t going to work out well. Maybe on an individual level, the rush into such situations is underpinned by nature and nurture, the complex interweaving of innate motivations and learned behaviours that make us bash our heads against the wall again, again again!? (oops, pass me a napkin, I can’t see for blood in the eyes…)
What do we owe history? On an academic level, we owe it perspective, understanding, learning, growth, don’t we? When vested interests get in the way, and politicians especially, the world turns backwards.
To William Edwards…
William’s relationship with history fascinated me, the more I worked with him. It has been his life, but is relegated to narrative. It is words. “History is perforce writ in bones.” It may be dead, but it underpins so much living truth—on a simplistic level, his emotional reaction to Tormod Albrigtsen’s gravestone—is a mourning of his own history, his own lost potential.
Is he weighed down by the past? Or has he been acting a role, weighed down by his own inability to embrace who he is? What a waste. Maybe, a man of his generation had no choice. Society wouldn’t let him be who he was. I hate that. What right do we have to dictate how our fellows have to be?
Off the soap box now.
Thank you so much for such interesting questions. And well done, any reader who has made it this far.
P.S.: The head of Lenin in Barentsburg is actually rust-red. I’ve seen it. My memory changed it to black as I wrote, and I left it.