“A true plainness resonates differently from the kind of language that draws attention to itself.”
Charles Lambert was born in 1953 in England but, apart from brief spells in Ireland, Portugal and London, has lived and worked in Italy since 1976. He is the author of an autobiographical fiction, With a Zero at its Heart, three novels (Little Monsters, Any Human Face and The View from the Tower), a collection of prize-winning stories, The Scent of Cinnamon and Other Stories, and a novella, The Slave House. His next book, The Children’s Home, is due out from Scribner later this year. You can follow him on Twitter at @charles_lambert
You are an author of both novels and short stories. How do you reconcile the differences between forms when writing?
In my experience, whatever triggers the text – an idea, a phrase, a situation, a visual image – already seems to dictate what sort of length the text needs to be, so the issue doesn’t arise. I always have, in other words, a pretty clear idea when I start something about the kind of scale I need to be working in, even to whether the story will take 3000 or 5000 words to be told. I don’t know how this happens; it puts me in mind of the statue concealed within the block of stone that has to be gradually revealed by taking away what’s extraneous, as though the shape of the final work was established from the outset by the nature of the material used. I knew immediately, for example, that the first sentence of Little Monsters would be precisely that, and that a novel would somehow grow out of it, and that it wasn’t the start to a story.
We hear both that the short story is experiencing a renaissance and that it remains a marginalised form. What are your thoughts on this? Do you feel the short story can be more of a challenge for a reader to fully engage with?
I’m not sure that I have any useful thoughts on the first part of this question. I did read an interesting piece recently by Philip Hensher, who talked about the lack of outlets for short stories in the UK these days, compared to the US and also to a golden age in Britain where widely-read magazines would pay fantastic sums for short fiction. I’m not sure how talk of a renaissance would fit into this analysis, which seems to me to be fairly accurate. There may be a blossoming in terms of number of short stories available through online magazines, and so on, but in publishing terms I’d have thought the form remained pretty much marginalised unless a writer has already made a name for him/herself as a novelist. The attention given to Hilary Mantel’s recent collection (quite apart from the fatwa-ish flap about Thatcher’s assassination!) is the result of her success as a novelist, regardless of the quality of the stories themselves. As a reader, what matters is that the stories I want to read are published and made available, and that there is some way of propagating awareness of the form. And this seems to be the case, at least partly thanks to the efforts of publications like Short Fiction. As a writer, I’d be delighted if some widely-circulated magazine sent me the kind of cheque Somerset Maugham used to find beside his morning grapefruit and coffee; so far, alas, this hasn’t been the case.
As for the second part of the question, I’d say that, yes, stories do require a different kind of attention. You often come across this journalistic idea that short fiction is ideal for modern lives, shrinking attention spans, etc., which I think is absolute madness. What short fiction requires is a suspension of assumptions – the kind of assumptions that drive our reading of mainstream fiction, say, where, as a reader, you feel entitled to relatively stable characters, a sense of time and place, plot structure, narrative resolution, and so on. When you start a good story, you have no idea what will be required of you. None of the rules apply. This is exciting, but also demanding. The time it actually takes to read a good story is a tiny part of the time it takes to ‘get’ it; it stays with you, or should do, for a disproportionate length of time. What makes a traditionally conceived novel so absorbing is the sense it gives you of an entirely realised world – The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer, which I recently enjoyed, is a good example of this – it’s all there, on a plate; you’re invited in, so to speak. A short story has something almost illicit about it, it’s a sort of eavesdropping, it tantalises and intrigues and can leaving you wanting more or feeling utterly shocked that you’ve been given so much, and so completely, by – quantitatively – so little.
A review of your collection The Scent of Cinnamon said ‘the words just melt away and you are left with the story.’ This resonates for me after reading your work, particularly your short stories. There is an atmosphere that clings to me when it’s over as you try to fill in the gaps and let the underlying message sink in, particularly noticeable in your short story ‘Curtains’. How important do you feel these ‘gaps’ are to a short story’s success? As a writer, how do you create these gaps?
I think my answer to the previous question covers a lot of this. Stories – or my stories, anyway – are often constructed around absence. ‘Curtains’ is a good example; the story is explicitly about dealing with loss, but the way we deal with loss in our own lives is often to misunderstand it, displace it, or mistake it for another emotion entirely. The story addresses this through its own sort of displacement. I’m also fond of what happens when information is wilfully withheld, partly because I’ve always been attracted to twist-in-the-tail tales. ‘The Scent of Cinnamon’, in my work, is the best example of this and I hope it’s proof that the strategy can reverberate beyond the moment of revelation. But I don’t think that gaps are essential to a story’s success. I love the work of Keith Banner, for instance, the power of whose work depends on a level of emotional explicitness many writers – and possibly many readers – would shy away from. I think he’s wonderful, and his collection The Smallest People Alive (if I’m allowed one plug!) is among my absolute favourites.
Another thing, which is tangential to the question but maybe worth mentioning. I think that when you start writing you want to make beautiful sentences and it takes a great deal of determination and wilful self-sacrifice to get over that, to let the words do their job and nothing more. A true plainness resonates differently from the kind of language that draws attention to itself, and is, I think, more lasting. Having said that, I’m not sure that the words do melt away: the essence of the story, which isn’t quite message, or atmosphere, but an amalgam of these and other things, is utterly dependent on the words themselves. In the end, there’s nothing else.
I recently travelled in America and have since found subtle colloquialisms emerging in my work where I don’t plan for or expect them. Having been born in England and then spending the majority of your life in Italy, do you find language taking on a life of its own in your work? ‘Saturation’ was a powerful story that plays with subtleties such as dress and etiquette that implied – without overtly stating – that it took place in Italy and I was wondering if your own setting has any sway on that of your characters’.
A lot of my work is set in some place that isn’t the UK, although not necessarily in Italy. (I’ve a special fondness for islands.) I’d say that I’m deeply interested in what it means to be a foreigner, especially one of long standing as I am, and what that implicates in terms of belonging and not belonging to both one’s home culture and the culture of adoption. Foreignness, in the sense used by Alastair Reid*, is similar in some ways to the state of being a writer. There’s a worrying, but also gratifying, degree of detachment involved in writing that reflects in some way the relationship I feel with both England, where I lived for 23 years, and Italy, where I’ve lived, with occasional interruptions, for 38 years. I don’t belong in either place, and I cherish that sense of not-belonging as a source of creative anxiety and attention to what’s happening around me. I’m not sure if my characters share this with me, or if it’s more a feature of my writing as process. The notion of not-belonging, or belonging in a way that’s constantly open to examination and revision, is also, I think, reinforced by my sexuality. As a gay man, I’m inevitably outside wherever I happen to be, accepted in part, entirely or not at all, in ways that are beyond my volition, looking in through a window that may or may not be open, but that is always there. I’d say that this was true of many of my characters, in one way or another, whether they’re gay themselves or not.
I am curious to know what quality of a short story it is you focus in on when writing. I have heard of approaches through setting, objects, time, and character. In your stories it is difficult to ignore the extreme, almost vulgar characters at times. Do you see character as central to a short story and if so what approach do you take to creating them?
I’m curious to know what you mean by vulgar. I was mildly taken to task by Tim Love some time ago about restricting myself to writing about people who belong to the educated bourgeoisie, so it’s good to hear that I’ve broken free of that! Interestingly, I’m less driven by character in my stories than in my novels, where the whole work is dictated by what the characters do. I sometimes have the sense that I’m trailing along behind them, trying to clear up the mess they’ve made. Stories tend to grow out of an idea, a half-remembered event, something I’ve seen in the news perhaps. ‘Curtains’ began with a half-serious comment made by my partner one morning about how to deal with a naughty dog. I can be surprised by my characters in a short story but rarely by the way they develop, because there simply isn’t room for that, although some people – Alice Munro is a shining example – manage to create a sense of characters growing and changing, or having grown and changed, in a handful of pages. I’m much more drawn to imagining the consequences of, or circumstances surrounding, a given moment, although this isn’t always the case. ‘Saturation’, for example, is about erotic/emotional submission – what that entails, how that might happen, the dynamics of that sort of relationship – rather than it is about the character as such of the two protagonists.
What makes the short story a unique literary form?
I’m tempted to reply, in Dylanesque fashion, its length. And, to be honest, I can’t think of any other adequate definition that would cover the short fiction of Calvino, Joyce, Alice Munro, George Saunders, David Sedaris, Saki, Lorrie Moore, Somerset Maugham, Elizabeth Bowen, David Foster Wallace, Lydia Davis, Kafka, etc. without failing to do justice to at least half of them…
* . . . “The foreigner’s involvement is with where he is. He has no other home. There is no secret landscape claiming him, no roots tugging at him. He is, if you like, properly lost, and so in a position to rediscover the world, from outside in.”
Alastair Reid, Notes on Being a Foreigner.
My thanks to Richard Gwyn for drawing my attention to this.
Interview by Elanor Best