Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Something Rich and Strange: virtual book tour of The Scent of Cinnamon by Charles Lambert

Welcome to the very beginning of Something Rich and Strange, the virtual tour of Charles Lambert’s collection of short stories, The Scent of Cinnamon, just out from Salt. I’m always complaining on my other blog about the current obsession with the personalities of authors, but I would never deny that sometimes meeting an author can be more than interesting. I’ve met Charles in the flesh and the impression I received was of a kind of daredevil glamour tempered with an intellectual humility which is evident in the interview I conduct with him below. Such a combination is exciting in the person of a writer, because it promises rich imaginative possibilities, and this collection more than fulfils that promise. The title of the tour, Something Rich and Strange, is also that of one of the most moving stories in the book, a delicately wrought tale of homosexual attraction during World War Two, but I’d say that ‘rich and strange’ is a good description for the book as a whole. It’s richly varied in subject matter and setting and style - spinning us from the nineteenth-century colonial outback to contemporary Rome to a magical wood, from childhood family traumas to the relationships of present-day urbanites - yet the stories are unified in revealing the unnerving yet wonderful strangeness of human experience and relations.

Charles will be pleased to answer any further questions or comments you may wish to leave either today – we’ll both be on hand from around 9 am GMT – or on subsequent days.
You can find out more about both the collection and the tour from Salt’s ‘Cyclone’ Book Tour site and about Charles's work as a whole from his own website.


Charles Lambert was born in England but has lived in Italy since 1976. He works as a university language teacher and editor for international agencies. His debut novel, Little Monsters, was published by Picador in March 2008. The title story of The Scent of Cinnamon was selected as one of the O. Henry Prize Stories 2007.

The Interview:

EB: Your collection includes an impressive range of modes: some stories, such as 'Girlie', about a boy who conjures a girl out of leaves, are intensely psychological, while some strike me as wonderfully and objectively realist in their depiction of social relations; I'd say that others, particularly those dealing with gay relationships, encompass aspects of both modes. 'The Growing' is a kind of haunting folk tale, the very original ‘The Number Worm’ is surreal in a Kafkaesque way and the 'The Scent of Cinnamon' is again its own kind of story (I won't discuss it further in case I give away the stunning ending!). 'Little Potato, Little Pea', a satire about university politics, is distinguished I'd say by the way it slips seamlessly - and shockingly - from one mode to another. I think all of this shows wonderful facility on your part as a writer, but I wonder what you have to say about it yourself and how it fits in with your aims as a short story writer or indeed your views of the short story as a form?

Well, Elizabeth, that’s a disarmingly generous way of saying what a mixed stylistic bag the collection is! I’ve always regarded writing a short story as having to do with solving a specific problem rather than as part of an ongoing dialogue with the form, which may mean that I’m not really native to the world of the short story at all, but something of an expatriate, with my patria being the novel.

Each story is really a separate project for me, with its own procedure and goal. The goal might have to do with explaining to myself a moment or event in my own life, and I’ll be talking about that in a moment. It might be driven by a more didactic urgency: 'Little Potato, Little Pea', for example, was written out of a sense of exasperation with the fact that the sheer horror of the Italian university system was incommunicable in any other way than through the use of satire. 'The Growing', on the other hand, was part of a much longer unpublished, and probably unpublishable, work and was conceived to help me to understand how one of the characters might cope with disfigurement. 'The Scent of Cinnamon' was written specifically to win a competition (it didn’t!), while both 'The Number Worm' and 'Something Rich and Strange' were intended for themed anthologies. Occasionally I’ve written to settle a score, of which I’m not necessarily proud, or to amuse my friends, of which I am.

At a formal level, I’m aware of a growing set of resources available to me, and I’m grateful for that, but I’m not really as concerned as perhaps I should be with pushing out the boundaries of the form or even ploughing a single furrow within it. The best thing about short story writing for me is that I can play around in a state of childlike glee and irresponsibility, and I hope to continue to do this for as long as I can.

EB: I'm very interested in your use of viewpoint. The satirical 'Little Potato, Little Pea', although written in the third person, begins so strongly with protagonist Janice's viewpoint that as a reader one is tempted to identify with her. One soon comes across the hints otherwise, but there's a kind of tension set up I think in the reader's attitude to Janice - which makes the ending all that much more shocking. There's a similar dynamic operating I think in the 'The Crack' with its thieving narrator, perhaps even more so because this story is written in the first person. What would you say is your authorial attitude to the 'bad' characters you give centre stage in this way?

As I said in my podcast for Salt, I’m interested in – even fascinated by - ‘bad’ characters, for a variety of reasons. The first is probably the standard Miltonian one that evil is simply more intriguing than good, not only because it’s more complex and thus requires more effort to understand, but also, and more worryingly, because we often try to deny our understanding of it, as something that incriminates and exposes us, as both readers and writers. This is certainly true of The Crack. When I wrote it, I wasn’t as aware as perhaps I should have been that the narrator is a very nasty piece of work indeed, partly because there is, alas!, a fairly strong autobiographical element in the story. Anyone who’d like a psychological breakdown is advised to look at the comments East of the Web readers have made about the story, some of which are uncomfortably close to the truth. So I’m certainly aware of using fiction to see for myself how bad my own behaviour has sometimes been!

Something I like very much about the single viewpoint that short stories – and I – tend to adopt is that as a reader you’re drawn into what that person knows, coaxed into its incompleteness, and forced to work out from that into a larger and more complex awareness. This is always true of a single narrative voice, obviously, but it’s fun to use it as a way of building tension and frustrating expectation. 'Soap' [A story set in a middle-class German household in WW2 - EB] is probably the best example of this, and in this story too what we mean by bad - by absolute bad - is challenged as the narrative develops.

EB: There's been a lot of talk about the tendency to read fiction as autobiography (and I'm one of those who have been strongly arguing against the tendency to do so). Nevertheless, one sometimes comes across a story which one simply can't help feeling is basically autobiographical - it just has that ring of felt experience - and I must say a couple of the stories here which predominantly take a child’s view, the very vivid 'Beacons' and 'All Gone’, struck me in this way (and inevitably led me to read others of the stories in the same way). Am I wrong? Or would you rather not answer this question, and if not, why not?

CL: You’re absolutely right to argue against the all too common belief that autobiographical writing has greater validity than something that’s just been ‘made up’ by the writer. At the same time, events in my life obviously have provided important stimuli to the writing and you’re both right – and wrong – to pick out these two stories as being autobiographical. The central event of 'Beacons' actually did take place – and my mother will vouch for it! - but I was no longer the small boy trapped in the hills and obsessed by Ryan O’Neal. By the time the fat hit the fire, so to speak, I was already hundreds of miles away at university, as emotionally detached from what was going on at home as I could manage. When I came to write the story, I tried to get hold of it from the mother’s point of view, but couldn’t find the right voice, couldn’t hear it; she knew too much – in a narrative sense, I knew that I knew something different. What the story needed was to be told by a witness who really didn’t have a clue, and so I lopped eight years off my life and moved home. The second story, 'All Gone', is also an account of actual events, and this time I was there; but the narrative voice is furtively omniscient in a way the ten-year-old narrator could never have been.

Of the sixteen stories in the collection, eight do have an autobiographical element, but not one of them tells it the way it was, and what impact they may have has, I hope, far more to do with the shaping of the material than with the material itself. By the same token, there isn’t a single story that doesn’t draw on some aspect or other of my experience, however remote or fantastic it may seem. What I hope is that the ring of felt experience can be heard in those stories too.

The next stop on the Something Rich and Strange Tour will be Writing Neuroses on 18th November, followed by:

3 25 November 2008 Me and My Big Mouth
4 2 December 2008 Jockohomo
5 9 December 2008 Vanessa Gebbie’s News
6 16 December 2008 Asylum
7 6 January 2008 dovegreyreader scribbles
8 13 January 2009 Harkaway’s Occasionalities
9 20 January 2009 Topsyturvydom
10 27 January 2009 Una Vita Vagabonda


Tania Hershman said...

Charles and Elizabeth, what a wonderful and intriguing start to the Virtual Book Tour. If I didn't have your book already, this would send me out to buy it. This made me giggle: "Occasionally I’ve written to settle a score, of which I’m not necessarily proud, or to amuse my friends, of which I am." I hope we, as writers, never get bogged down in a need to push boundaries for the sake of it, or to pidgeonhole ourselves in any way. The freedom to "play around in a state of childlike glee and irresponsibility" sounds wonderful, and I hope I am able to do that too. Good luck for the rest of your tour, I look forward to more!

Elizabeth Baines said...

Thank you, Tania. You're absolutely right about the need for short story writers to be free to explore any of the immense possibilities of the short story. As I say, one of the things I think is great about this book is the way Charles does this: it's like a cornucopia, full of wonderful surprises. I do think that the recent tendency to published themed collections or collections which mimic novels, while perhaps being understandable form a marketing point of view, has worked towards limiting perceptions of the short story, but collections like this are redressing the balance and demonstrating the kaleidoscopic possibilities of the short story. Salt is no small player in this, and Charles's book is exemplar.

Charles Lambert said...

Well, I'm still reeling with joy - and mild embarrassment - from Elizabeth's description of me, and looking forward to seeing what my other hosts will have to say! It certainly is a wonderful start to the tour, though, Tania, and thank you for coming to visit. And you're right, Elizabeth, to give credit to Salt for its central role in the promotion of the short story in all its forms. What would we do without them?

Unknown said...

I enjoyed the richness of both Qs and As, so am putting this 'un on my Christmas wishlist... I will end up owing Salt a small fortune!

Elizabeth Baines said...

Yay, Barbara!