I did one or two dovegreyreader asks...
interviews on here a while ago and may do more now that I have more
time because they do take a fair bit of planning. But it helps if
someone else plans it for you and so my thanks to Salt Publishing who
have paid all Charles Lambert's expenses for him to stop over on his Scent of Cinnamon Something Rich and Strange blog tour and take a seat in the virtual dovegreyreader armchair (yes Adele Geras and Ralph McTell have
sat there before him) enjoy a virtual pot of tea and answer a few
questions, which were inevitably of that nosey dovegreyreader variety
rather than the deep and meaningful literary variety.
I was completely enamoured with Charles's novel Little Monsters and have likewise enjoyed The Scent of Cinnamon immensely. The first story in the collection rates as one of most startlingly clever short stories I have read in a long time and I was lured from one to the next with great ease. So in between sips of tea and Devon scones with lashings of clotted cream Charles did manage to answer my questions and has now sensibly left to go and have his cholesterol tested, but he has also very kindly offered a signed prize-draw copy of The Scent of Cinnamon and Salt will send another copy out so two winners, names in comments.
Elements of grief and loss surface frequently in the stories I've read. Can you elaborate on that?
Well, you’ll probably be surprised to discover that, before you asked me this question, I hadn’t even noticed that the fact of death crops up in the first four stories in The Scent of Cinnamon. I certainly was! So much for self-awareness… What’s more, to my further surprise, of the sixteen stories in the book, over a third are directly involved with death, while another third deal with emotional loss of one kind or another – relations breaking up, families falling apart, malicious theft. I’m not sure what to make of this. I see myself as a fairly cheerful glass-half-full sort of person. I’ve also led a blessedly unscathed life. Apart from losing a dearly loved aunt over ten years ago, my only personal occasion for grief was when my father died in 2006, a month away from his 101st birthday; I must also be one of the very few gay men of my generation not to have lost a close friend to AIDS. So I’m clearly missing something here.
Looking at the stories more closely from
this angle, though, two things strike me. The first is that, although death
plays such a central role, it isn’t always synonymous with loss, or grief. On
at least one occasion, it’s a source of joy, on another of release, on another
of remorse. Ironically, a few days after receiving these questions, I read a
comment by Geoff Dyer, a writer I greatly admire, who says he avoids stories in
which death is used instrumentally. I assume he’s referring to literary fiction
here, because genre fiction without death is like apple pie without the cheese,
as my father used to say. So the second thing is that the stories in which I
use death all tend to have genre elements in them: horror, fantasy, murder mystery.
So, yes, these imagined deaths are instrumental, and one of the things they
might be helping me to do is test the ground, to see what it’s like, within the
security of genre writing. Maybe I’m using the stories in the same way the
little boy in Girlie uses the pillows
in his bed, to make myself a cocoon against the reality of it.
Novel v Short Story? Is there a defining moment in the process when you know you have one or the other in front of you or do you set out with only one format in mind? In other words could you tell us a bit about the writing process and we do always like to know if it's a fountain pen (make, ink colour etc!) raven quills or a laptop involved, special slippers, Balzacian white robe and lots of coffee, must have been for a ten mile walk before can sit down to write, etc etc.
With one exception, I think I always know what I’m doing when I start to write, if only in the sense of knowing that I’m starting a novel or short story – the rest of it is often a complete mystery until the piece is finished and a partial one long after that! I may only have a sentence, but at least I know what it’s the first sentence of! The exception was a short autobiographical piece that just growed and growed until I had a - non-autobiographical - novel on my hands (not Little Monsters – that was destined to be a novel from the first sentence). The actual writing process, though, is pretty much the same. I sit down in front of my computer, two fingers poised above the keyboard, and stare hopelessly at the handful of words on the otherwise blank screen until more words start to come, heroically resisting the temptation to play a quick game of Spider before I carry on. I’m a great one for buying new pens and slick black notebooks with the intention of recording ideas, plotting narrative developments, and so on, but the actual writing goes on at the computer. I tend to get it right – or what I think is right - before moving on, so that by the time I’ve done my thousand words – my daily limit - they’re pretty much the way I want them. I’ve tried to throw it all down and then revise but I just can’t do it; I feel as though I’m building on sand.
As far as routine goes, I would love to be able to devote, say, four hours each morning to writing, followed by a leisurely lunch and an afternoon of fine-honing the morning’s output, but I just don’t have the time. I teach and edit full-time, so the writing gets squeezed in where it will fit. I finished my last novel in early morning bursts of activity, getting up at five to write for a couple of hours before the normal day began. Right now, I’m working on the new one in fits and bursts between editing reports on camel management in Saudi Arabia and writing end-of-term exams. I would love not to have to do this.
The one thing I can’t do is write long-hand. I was given my first typewriter – a big black Olympia - when I was about eleven (by my much-loved aunt – see above), and I’ve been two-finger typing ever since. It broke my heart to give up my powder-blue Olivetti Lettera 22 for my first (Olivetti) computer, but I soon adapted. Seeing the words as though they were printed gives me the distance I need to judge them, or pretend to myself that’s what I’m doing, and I’m a great one for changing the format of a text to give myself a fresh idea of what I’ve produced. My hand-writing is just too me.
Oh yes, I often write in pyjamas, dressing
gown and an old pair of Birkenstocks (as, indeed, I’m doing now), and I’m
perfectly capable of getting up and working for hours without tea, coffee, or
any other stimulant, either because I’m too lazy to make it myself (Giuseppe’s
theory) or because I’m just too creative to care (mine).
As if you haven't guessed we are indeed very nosey here at dovegreyreader scribbles so we would love to know which writers inspire you and who MUST we read?
The writers I love and the writers who inspire me don’t always overlap. As a reader, I tend to discover a writer and read everything, then move on. In the past few years I’ve done this to William Maxwell, Lorrie Moore, Geoff Dyer, Penelope Fitzgerald, James Hamilton-Paterson, Sybille Bedford. I had an Anthony Powell period, and I’m still having an Annie Proulx one, and long may it last, and the same goes for Tobias Wolff. I’d recommend all these writers as must-reads. I also have a list of writers I can’t bear, but I’ll keep that to myself! As far as being influenced goes, I’m not sure how much any of these people has affected the way I write, although they’ve certainly changed the way I see the world, which is what inspiration is all about. In any case, inspiration and influence are different things…
thanks to Charles Lambert for stopping by and don't forget, names in
comments for those prize-draw copies of The Scent of Cinnamon.
In February we will be plumping up the cushions and inviting Elizabeth Baines to sit in the armchair beneath the illuminating, all-seeing spotlight of the dovegreyreader standard lamp and answer more penetrating questions on her book of short stories Balancing on the Edge of the World and her writing life.