Zoe Lambert

“Short stories, like poetry, foreground the ambiguity of language, every word says more than it means.”

Zoe Lambert is a Manchester based writer. Her debut collection, The War Tour, was published with Comma Press in 2011. She is an associate lecturer at Edge Hill University and the University of Bolton.

Given the relative prejudices and lower commercial impact experienced by collections, why do you write stories?

After I finished my MA at UEA in 2002, I beavered away at a novel for a couple of years, but it was dull, introspective, and a bit like therapy. When I started writing short stories, I found the shape and form came naturally to me. At the time, the issues I was writing about (illness, caring, alienation), which were published in my short story cycle in Ellipsis 2 (Comma Press, 2006), worked as short stories. For these kinds of themes I didn’t want to write a big narrative arc with gradual character development. The characters were stuck in a situation with no easy way out; what mattered to them were the small moments. I was a short story convert. I changed my PhD to short stories and began brainwashing my students into writing them.

So the main reason is artistic. Similarly for The War Tour, which began with two stories in Ellipsis 2, short stories seemed to be the necessary way of approaching the ‘big’ issues of war and conflict. It is the form that doesn’t claim to give you the whole history or ‘grand narrative’. On the other hand, short stories don’t have to just focus on a single moment. You can show and suggest a whole life, or draw together different moments in a life. Alice Munro has shown us how this is possible. I did consider trying to turn this book into a novel, or a kind of novel in stories, but this would have meant forcing the stories into different shapes. A lot of the stories in The War Tour are linked, but a collection allows different viewpoints and perspectives to sit side by side without them being reconciled. Also, Comma Press were passionate about the book and gave me a lot of editorial feedback – more perhaps than mainstream publishers would be prepared to do.

The real reason is probably that I am a bit bloody minded. Something in me wanted to stick with the form, wanted to stay outside of the more commercial realm of novels. Part of me likes the underdog.

But it isn’t all gloomy for short stories. They are a great way for new writers to get their work out. There have been a lot of opportunities in the North West in the last few years. A lot of this has to do with Comma Press, who have been publishing new writing and promoting the form. They say it’s impossible to publish collections when you are a new writer, but we have both proved that wrong.

By eschewing grand narrative arcs, I find the origin of the short story’s power and resonance often difficult to identify, a sense of it somehow transcending itself. This was particularly so with your story ‘Turbofolk’, which, as all the best stories do, lingered at the edge of my thoughts for days. How do you think such effect is engendered? And is this something you’re aware of during composition?

That’s the million dollar short story question. Lots of writers and critics have attempted to answer it. Edgar Allan Poe, in his well known review of Hawthorne, said that good short stories had a single or unique effect; a sense of totality. Perhaps it’s the intensity of this singular effect that lingers in the mind (for more views, see Charles E. May’s The New Short Story Theories).

Without the ‘grand’ narrative arc, each element of a short story has to work overtime. What you get is a compression and density of symbolism, suggestion, and imagery. Short stories, like poetry, foreground the ambiguity of language, every word says more than it means. Because narrative isn’t developed and tied up neatly at the end, a lot of the meaning-making is handed over to the reader. Unlike Watson, you don’t have Holmes to decipher the clues, so you’re still figuring them out long after you have finished the story, and you might not find all the answers. Some of my favourite short stories work through the deployment of an image that you can’t quite explain. The aloe tree in Mansfield’s ‘Bliss’, the lake in Munro’s ‘Passion’.

When I’m writing, I think there is something core I’m trying to convey; something the story is about, which I become aware of during composition. But I don’t always know what the images might ‘mean’, and if I did, I’d probably be going wrong. The stories in The War Tour weren’t written in isolation. They developed out of each other; stories begot other stories while I was consciously exploring the effects of war and engaged with a lot of research. That’s another thing, we always think of short stories in the singular. I’d like this book to be seen as a whole, with different stories speaking to each other.

Yes, intertextuality within collections can have a significant resonance. I was struck recently by a comment that short fiction is perfect for our frenetic, fractured age, where stories, like fast food, can be gulped down amid the tumult. But for me the story needs to be savoured, a collection consumed in long, languorous servings, and, for me, this is replicated during composition, especially when compared with longer forms. Can you tell us a little about your own writing process?

Yes, I agree. Short stories aren’t like tweets. Collections of stories and novels offer different pleasures to readers. And for the writer, they offer different challenges. This book was written in ‘long languorous servings’; I have been writing it on and off since 2005 (the off bits because I was making a similarly long-winded attempt to finish a PhD). But that was necessary for this book because it was based on research. For me, research is a fundamental part of my writing process. For the kind of issues and themes in this book, I needed to find out and expand my knowledge, rather than write from presumptions and one or two notions. I am still left with the worry that I didn’t do enough research; that I didn’t dig deep enough.

Some of the stories were inspired by travel (Lithuania, Germany, Serbia, Croatia) and a couple by my campaign work with asylum seekers. This was developed with research from books, libraries, reports, photographs and newspapers; my research was very ‘text’ based and this is mirrored by the amount of letters and documents (both real and invented) in the collection. I’d find a fact or piece of information, a kind of nugget, which would become a central feature or image in a story. For example, the gorilla in ‘When the Truck Came’ and the final scene of the marines in ‘From Kandahar’. Through this ongoing research and writing, the collection grew bit by bit; each story seemed to ‘spawn’ a couple more stories (in my mind the process was not dissimilar to when Gizmo gets wet in Gremlins).

Apart from the historical figures in the book, I didn’t use any ‘true stories’ (as I told the interviewer on Women’s Hour). The question, ‘Did you ask asylum seekers whether you could use their stories?’ is an important one about ethics, appropriation and writing, but it also says something about people’s assumptions about writing fiction: that we don’t actually write fiction, but merely translate the world onto the page with little imagination. The stories about a child soldier and the Kurdish academic were imagined from an accumulation of knowledge and facts. On the other hand, the book is also very personal; there is a lot of me in it, just not where you might expect.

I often have to leave the house to write; too much silence and isolation sends me crazy. Though many of the stories are set far from the pubs and cafes of Manchester, I find the hum of people’s conversations and the view of the street outside stimulating, and the quiet of libraries enables me to think.

Initially my early stories focused on the victims of conflict until my editor encouraged me to write about people who are to different degrees complicit in violence. This idea of complicity became a central theme of the book.

The blurring of fiction and reality in your collection is a particularly powerful device, as is the focus on complicity alongside victims’ accounts. I’m interested in how (during research and composition) you separate your own emotions from your characters’, particularly with such affecting and often traumatic subject matter. Do you have to guard against authorial intrusion?

It’s impossible to completely avoid authorial intrusion; we all write from a certain cultural context and position. But the beauty of writing a collection of stories is conjuring up different voices and perspectives, and in doing so I tried to write outside of myself, as all writers do. I didn’t want this book to be a rant or a vehicle for me to declare, ‘war is wrong!’ I like what Chekhov says in one of his letters:

‘You accuse me of objectivity, calling it indifference to good and evil, lack of ideals and ideas, and so on. You would have me, when I describe horse-thieves, say: “Stealing horses is evil.” But that has been known for ages without me saying so. Let the jury judge them; it’s my job simply to show what sort of people they are.’ (in The New Short Story Theories)

Chekhov goes on to explain that it is a matter of technique; in a short story you don’t have the space to explain the evils of horse stealing or indeed, war. On the other hand, the writing process wasn’t always about separating my emotions from my characters’ feelings. It was the opposite. On an emotional level to attempt to explore the experiences of both victims and perpetrators I had to draw upon my own feelings of hurt, fear, anger, and regret (maybe not going as far as your character does in ‘The Method’ though!) We can never really walk in someone else’s shoes, but we write and read in a hope of doing so, or at least, to walk beside someone else, and see things from their perspective for a short while.