Writers wot I know

Well actually, writers wot I don’t know. I’ve never met Charles Lambert, but over the past couple of years I feel as if I’ve got to understand him a little, and share in his publishing journey, and it’s been a real pleasure to do both. His journey has taken a whirlwind, or Cyclone turn recently with the publication of his collection of short stories.

Charles is what I would call a serious writer, for two reasons. His material deals with serious issues (migration, sexuality, corruption in high places) and pays the reader the compliment of tackling the subject matter with sophistication – the kind of sophistication that doesn’t provide easy good/bad, black/white answers. Of course this sometimes means the reader has to do more work than they would if they chose a shallower or more polemical narrative, which is the second serious reason - but for those who believe the world is a complex place, and that understanding it is both a challenge and its own reward, Charles’s work is a real and lasting pleasure.

It’s no surprise to me that when I tried to find a ‘marker’ for the short stories in The Scent of Cinnamon, it was Henry James who came to mind. Charles’s novel, Little Monsters, also had the commitment to sensitivity and shading, and the slow remorseless building of dramatic inevitability that I find in The Turn of the Screw or The Portrait of a Lady. What these short stories all contain is a moment at which the story tips to un inescapable conclusion – and that moment is always the last possible moment at which we could begin that journey: the reader is never sure, until that point, what the destination will be, and after that point is absolutely certain that it couldn’t be anywhere else. So when I was invited to interrogate Charles about the way he writes, his subject matter, and what’s important to him in communicating with readers, I knew exactly what I wanted to ask:

Places are very important to your short stories – there are many events that could not happen except in one particular place and with one specific set of circumstances as is the case in Damage, which makes me wonder which comes first for you when you start to write: characters or locations?

is just one example - there are others in the collection, including Toad and Entertaining Friends - of a story that doesn’t come so much from characters or locations as such, but from the whole bundle, from a lived situation. I’m fascinated by the way chunks of my own experience already seem to be stories, just waiting to be written down and crafted. Having said this, though, I was asked by Elizabeth Baines about autobiographical input last week, and it strikes me now that stories like these, despite being based on events I’ve been part of and contributed to, are autobiographical only in the most circumstantial sense. They’re less interested in me than they are in everything else, everything that isn’t me; they’re almost pretending I’m not there, except in an Isherwood-like ‘I am a camera’ sense.

To look at the question in another way, I’d say neither. Most of the stories start with a ‘what if?’ The Number Worm, for example, began with the idea of the worm, I think because I’d actually been bitten by something, and couldn’t work out what. It occurred to me that this might make a good basis for a story. After that I had to decide whose body would fall prey to the mysterious parasite, what that body would do with its life, where it would live and work, and so on. The main character was originally based on someone I knew and had just, in a sense, fallen out with, so there’s an element of petty revenge there, while his job as assistant editor for an oncology magazine is one that I did myself, many years ago and just as badly as my protagonist! Moving the Needle towards the Thread, on the other hand, was triggered by the idea of the photograph and the irony of its making, but I won’t say any more because I don’t want to spoil the story...

A lot of these tales could be described as psychological ghost stories, like those of Henry James who described his work as the “strange and sinister embroidered on the very type of the normal and easy” as in The Number Worm – is it important to you that the reader starts in a position of complete reality and moves slowly to a more disturbing version of the world? If so, what inspires this particular kind of eerie story?

Yes, it’s essential to any good ghost story, I think, that you start off feeling, if not cosy, at least in familiar surroundings. Fantasy and SF both need to get a sense of the other place established as quickly and convincingly as possible, but ghost stories and horror generally seem to me to work in the opposite way. The closer the story stays to what’s possible the better, I feel, and a quality of the most effectively creepy stories is that the props are reduced to an absolute minimum. My favourite ghost story writer – indeed, one of my favourite short story writers – isn’t Henry James, though I’m honoured by the comparison, but MR James and anyone who enjoys his work will know that a crumpled sheet or a bag with – oh horror! - arms are infinitely more terrifying, albeit less gut-wrenchingly gory, than the entire series of Saw.

What inspires these stories is an interesting question, with more than one answer. It can be very practical and, as a writer for specific markets yourself, Kay, you’ll know what I mean. The Number Worm and The Scent of Cinnamon were both written, in a sense, to order: the former for an excellent anthology called The Elastic Book of Numbers and the latter for the Daphne Du Maurier Short Story Competition some years back. I knew that the Elastic Press specialised in stories with an SF/fantasy edge, and that the Du Maurier competition wanted something in the spirit of Du Maurier, so in both cases I started with an agenda, almost a blueprint, and hoped the story would take me somewhere I hadn’t expected to go. I’ve spoken about The Number Worm above; with The Scent of Cinnamon all I knew was that I wanted the story to have a sense of heat and light, after which I waited for my ‘what if?’ to arrive. In other stories with an otherworldly element, such as Girlie, I started with the final image and had to find a way to reach it, and that’s also true of Nipples, which isn’t a ghost story – it’s just about as carnal as I go! – but does have a fairly disturbing climax.

And finally, do you write your stories sequentially or do you have several narratives on which you work simultaneously?

This is a really stimulating question, Kay – as are the others, of course! - because it’s made me think about the fact that, although I generally do work on one story at a time, this isn’t always the case. In this collection, for example, Damage and Air were written during the same period, and so were Entertaining Friends and Nipples. I don’t want to analyse the stories too much, but the former two certainly share, among other things, a concern with what the ‘good life’ might involve and where it might be found, while the second pair are both set in the same city and, indeed, bedroom, and wonder, in their various ways, about the nature of love. It wasn’t a case of writing a paragraph of one and then of the other - although I do remember occasions when both files were open - but of turning to one when I got stuck with the other, using one as an escape from the other or as a way of solving some problem in it, rather as we do when we use lateral thinking. The method was actually very productive and I don’t know why I don’t do it more often. Thanks to this question, Kay, I think I will!

And Charles is off on his cylone tour - next stop Scott Pack's blog 'Me and My Big Mouth' on 25 November. Be there or be ... wind-blown?

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