Finally! A blog post that’s not about Not So Perfect.
Today I’m thrilled to welcome the brilliant Charles Lambert to the blog. I’ve been dipping into his excellent short story collection, The Scent of Cinnamon and loving what I’ve read, but today he’s here to talk about his latest novel, Any Human Face, and why it’s not your average thriller…
Welcome to the blog, Charles. I’m thrilled to have you here. So Any Human Face, who’s it for? What’s it about?
And I’m delighted to be here, Nik. Thank you for inviting me.
Who’s Any Human Face for? Well, and this isn’t entirely facetious, it’s for everyone who can hold a book in their hands or persuade someone else to do it for them, and has £10.99 (or less!) to spend. If they’re English speakers with large circles of literate friends (ideally in the film world), so much the better. If I had to refine this (and I’d rather not – why on earth discourage potential readers?), I’d say it was for people who enjoy a strong narrative but also need a sense of something larger, something thematic, for want of a better word, informing the novel. They need to like a good story, but not just that.
Which leads me to your second question: What’s it about? In narrative terms, it’s about what happens when a middle-aged Italo-Scottish bookseller in Rome decides to organise an exhibition of photographs he’s found among a dead lover’s belongings and finds that the exhibition attracts unwanted, and hostile, attention; this is interleaved with, and linked to, the story of a young girl’s abduction. On the thematic level, it’s about loneliness and the need for love, fear of ageing, our powerlessness in the face of power, our failure to belong, to places and people, to ourselves. It’s about identity and how we’re represented. None of this, of course, could be explored without the story – indeed, its exploration is the force that drives the events and creates, I hope, the tension without which the novel would become something else.
How different is it to your average thriller?
I’d say it was very different. There’s been a fair bit of discussion recently about whether thrillers and crime novels generally are inherently conservative and morally simplistic, essentially, I suppose, because they demand not only closure, but the right sort of closure in terms of good vs bad. I don’t think is necessarily the case, although it was certainly more likely to be true in the past than it is now. For me, there was a sort of sidereal shift in the kind of thing thrillers can do with Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, which opened the form up dramatically by downplaying plot (and plausibility) in favour of something more complex and, in my view, more interesting; the creation of a character-driven world that’s at once both familiar and strange to us, in which unexpected and potentially dangerous things happen. I’d like to think that Any Human Face had something of that quality. I’d also say that the last thing I think I’m doing with the novel is subverting the thriller genre; I’ve far too much respect for the genre to claim that. I’d probably describe the relationship as parasitic rather than subversive, rather like that between one of those small but useful flea-eating birds and the oblivious hippo beneath its claws. I’d also say that any thriller set in Italy that manages to achieve closure, particularly moral closure, must be lying.
Why did you write it? Is it an idea you’ve had for some time?
I started to think about the novel soon after writing a short blog post about something that happened in Rome in February 2008. It hadn’t occurred to me that there might be a longer story in it until David Isaaks, a fine writer whose work (and blog – Tomorrowville) I wholeheartedly recommend, pointed this out to me. It took me a month or so to realise that he was right, and a little longer to think about the best way to get the thing off the ground, after which I set to work. The themes emerged from the events; the events, other than the book’s trigger, emerged in large part from the characters of Andrew and Alex. I was very much feeling my way for the first third of the book, which I’d written by Christmas that year. I talked about it to my agent, who suggested I speak to my editor at Picador. At the time I had no contract to publish a second book and I was thrilled when she made an offer for the novel on the strength of the part I’d finished. I wrote the second half of the novel in just over a month last summer, and I knew exactly what I was doing by that point. The final two pages of the book were completed long before the preceding chapters, but it was essential to me that I found a way of bringing the reader to a point at which those pages would make sense, in terms of story and, even more, of mood and weight.
When we chatted earlier you mentioned some of the themes in the story were: loneliness, isolation and being overwhelmed my powerful structures we don’t understand. Could you talk to us about that?
I’d rather let the novel do this for me, Nik!
And Rome’s gay underworld?
Well, anyone who’s read the stories in The Scent of Cinnamon will be aware that I’ve had a certain amount of personal contact with that side of Rome. Living in the UK in the 1970s taught me a lot about the ideological issue of being gay; living in Rome in the 1980s filled me in on the practical side. I’ve drawn to some extent on my own experiences – and to a greater extent on those of people I knew, either personally or by repute – in my description of Andrew’s sex life, though not, I’m glad to say, of his loneliness at the start of the novel. Even the Birdman is roughly based on someone my partner knew. The Birdman, incidentally, is due to reappear – I have plans for him.
I’m curious. You’ve lived in Italy for some time. How would you say that’s shaped you as a writer? Did you write before emigrating?
I started writing poetry as a teenager, imitating Auden, Plath, MacNeice, Yeats, all kinds of people. At university my tastes – and practice – shifted towards other writers, with Pound and Frank O’Hara becoming my household gods, but I also found time to write a dreadful novel, which no one has ever read. I wrote a second before moving to Italy when I was 23, but didn’t get down to the third until I’d been there for some years, and that one was set in Hackney! Since then I’ve obviously found myself being drawn to themes and situations that have to do with the life I’ve conducted here, either in my own person as someone willingly and wilfully displaced, or as an observer whose knowledge of his adopted country is pretty comprehensive, though never complete. It’s hard to say to what extent you’re shaped by what you do – there’s no control doppelganger to measure yourself against. But I’d be wary of setting a novel in contemporary London… Or maybe not…
What’s your writing process?
When I’m writing a novel I try to do a thousand words a day, usually in the morning, but that’s mostly for practical reasons; I can write pretty much any time of the day or night if I’m fully engaged. Between novels, I loosen up. I don’t sit down and try to write unless there’s something in my head. I tend to get totally absorbed in whatever I’m doing and eat, drink and dream it until it’s done. If I could live on my writing, and didn’t have any other work to do, I think I’d be more productive than I am, although my agent says I’m already quite productive enough! In practical terms, I work on a computer and, even when I print work out, find myself drifting back to the screen almost immediately; I love the freedom it gives to revise a text, and to distance it.
I’m a huge fan of your short stories (The Scent of Cinnamon is a brilliant collection). How does writing them and novels differ?
Novels take longer. I’d also say that, for me, the work is harder, the anxiety more intense and the rewards greater. But the actual business of sitting down and writing them seems to be much the same.
What do you think a story (of any length) needs to have for it to be great?
I think it needs to move you – to laughter, tears, thought obviously, even disgust – both metaphorically and in the more literal sense of finding yourself in an utterly new place when you’ve finished. If you need to think about who and where you are, if you feel unsettled, dislocated, shaken after reading, you’ve probably read something great.
So, back to Any Human Face. How does it compare to your previous work?
I think it’s an absolutely logical continuation of it. I’m fascinated and appalled by the way in which both themes and stylistic mannerisms reappear from one work to the next, regardless of any intentions I might have.
And how similar, or different, is it now to how you envisioned it when you started?
I’ve talked above about the way the novel developed during the writing of it; for the most part, my understanding of it grew as the words accumulated. Editing is another matter. The editing process for Little Monsters, as I’ve said on other occasions, was, to say the least, arduous. Any Human Face couldn’t have been more different. The novel lost a couple of paragraphs, to its advantage, and that was more or less all that happened between sending in the manuscript and receiving the proofs. It was, to be honest, frighteningly smooth.
‘Charles Lambert’ is going to be entered into the OED and you can write its definition. What does it say?
Charles Lambert (n). Any writer whose work you neglect at your cost.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve been given? And any tips of your own you’d like to share with those wanting to be published?
Advice I’ve been given? Take out the first and last paragraphs. As far as tips of my own go, I’d say think about the writing more than the publishing, because that’s finally what will give you more pleasure, and it depends on no one but you. And remember Beckett’s dictum about failing, trying again, failing better…
What’s next for you?
I’m working on the second novel of a trilogy set in Rome a few years before Any Human Face. The novel starts with the murder of a high-level civil servant a few days before George Bush arrives in Rome to meet the Italian prime minister of the time. It’s a novel about the fine line between personal and public responsibilities, and it draws, as Any Human Face does, on the thriller genre. Among the characters who reappear are Martin Frame and his wife, Alina… But you need to read Any Human Face to find out who they are!
I’m also completing a collection of short stories dealing with love, named after popular songs, and I may have just started a new collection about my family, but I’ll have to wait and see…
Charles Lambert was born in the Midlands, but has spent most of his adult life in Italy. His first novel, Little Monsters, was published by Picador in 2008; his first collection of stories, The Scent of Cinnamon, was published by Salt later that year. Both these books are now out in paperback. His new novel, the first of a trilogy set in Rome, is called Any Human Face (Picador) and is now available.
I’d also add that Charles’ is one of the most interesting and intelligent blogs I’ve come across – it’s here.