Charles Lambert - third time of asking

I’ve talked to Charles Lambert, on and off, for about five years now. I’ve read his work, published and unpublished and followed his progress. I enjoyed his first novel, loved his short story collection and felt that terrible pang that all writers feel when asked to read another book by a person they like: suppose I didn’t find it as satisfying as the debut novel? How would I say that?

So far I’ve never been pushed to that point, partly because I think I’ve done some clever footwork to avoid subsequent publications that didn’t seem likely to have lived up to their predecessors and Charles has allowed me to maintain my winning streak.

In Any Human Face he juxtaposes different histories, and different chronologies, to reveal the dark underside of contemporary Roman society. At one point in the book, wallpaper is peeled from a wall to reveal a surprising pattern underneath – so it is with Any Human Face: illusions are peeled slightly away from the surface to give us a glimpse of what is below but the whole pattern is never quite revealed, so we must conjecture about exactly what links the glimpses we are given.

If I make that sound complicated or hard work, it isn’t. This is an emininently page-turnable narrative. His protagonist is an unlikely character to win us over: Andrew Caruso is a homosexual attracted to difficult and antagonistic lovers, a book shop owner who makes no money, a transient in his own home and life, and a magnet for people who abuse him emotionally. Despite that, his shambolic existence has an integrity that makes him deeply appealing. Alongside Andrew we get to meet Alex, whose journey from self-pimping street boy to journalist is beautifully portrayed. There is a link between Alex and Andrew – the death of Alex’s lover is followed by the death of Andrew’s - but it takes decades for the two of them to realize that a box of photographs caused one death and may have contributed to the other …

I don’t want to say too much about the actual plot, although it’s definitely thrilling, but it’s a book in which all the ends are not neatly tied up – most are, but some aren’t just as happens in real life, and paradoxically, that’s one of the things that makes this so satisfying to me, because in reality we never really find out all of the who, what, when where and how that shapes our own lives, let along the lives of others.

It is a book that grounds itself in two things: the daily reality of life as one kind of outsider or another; and the unreality of society: the way we all agree to pretend that certain conventions are rules of nature until we are unfortunate enough to come across somebody or some organization that breaks those conventions and turns what we thought of as reality inside out, revealing the gory workings of our apparently hygienic societies. I thoroughly recommend it whether you like a good thriller, love books about outsiders, or enjoy being challenged in your assumptions. On any of those levels, this novel more than satisfies. As an aside, Charles has a new blog which tackles issues literary head on. It reminds me just how little mainstream attention is paid to literary fiction in the UK and how bloody annoying that can be when you see how other nations engage with their best literature.

Because it’s the third time I’ve asked Charles to answer questions, it began to feel a little interrogatory, but I persisted, with a certain righteous sense of entitlement to drag the man’s inner life into the light for the sake of a review. When I go back after his next book, I think I shall have to string him up by his thumbs and extract confessions, just to maintain the pace!

Here’s what I put to him:

This is your third book length publication in little more than two years. How does it feel to have written for so long and then have this relative rush of publications so close together?

Anticlimactic. What it’s made me realize more than anything – and I know exactly how galling this will sound to all those people who are seeking publication, as I did – is that the deepest pleasure continues to come from the actual writing process and that much of what follows from that is compromised, anxiety-ridden and, in a way, irrelevant, although, of course, it has its satisfactions as well. Which makes me sound very ungrateful… Believe me, I’m not.

What, if anything, has changed in your writing habits and practices between Little Monsters and Any Human Face?

On a strictly practical level, less than I’d hoped. I’d fondly imagined myself becoming a ‘writer’, my life divided neatly into three or four hours of creativity each morning and the rest of the day dedicated to reading, eating, drinking, conversing, etc. with a little travelling thrown in for inspiration. I’d imagined people coming round to photograph the desk at which I work and selling the pictures to one of the Sundays, and having to squeeze in interviews and the occasional book tour. That, and adapting everything I’d written for Hollywood…

Needless to say, this didn’t happen. I’ve carried on doing what I’ve always done – winkling the business of making money into a slightly smaller space than it’s comfortable in so that I can write whatever I’m writing at that moment, with the ratio between work and writing shifting according to the point I’ve reached in the book. The first third of Any Human Face was written in a fairly leisurely way, while the second two-thirds were produced, often between six and eight in the morning, at a regular rate of 1000 words a day, give or take a sentence.

That’s the practical, external side of it. In terms of what’s actually going on as I write, I’m not quite sure what to say. I think that before you’ve ever been published you have a sense that you can do absolutely anything you want because nobody actually gives a damn. I certainly never felt that what I was writing was being determined by anything other than what I wanted to write, by the direction the work itself imposed. In a deep sense, none of this has changed: I still can’t write anything extended to order, I’m still primarily alert to the work itself. But - and it’s a big but - the substantial process of being edited between the placing of Little Monsters and its final publication did make me think very hard about the ways in which narratives live and work beyond the original authorial – and textual – intention. There’s a Faustian side to it, and there were definitely moments when I felt that I might be selling the integrity of my book just to see it on the shelves. I certainly don’t think that now, and I’m immensely grateful to my editor, Sam Humphreys, for the trouble she took to make the book as good as it could be. But I think that the process did feed into the writing of Any Human Face, at a fairly unconscious level, and that there was an awareness not only of the book as it urged itself on me, but also of the kind of narrative that might work, in the sense of being ‘readerly’. The editing process certainly went a lot more smoothly than it had done with Little Monsters, and I don’t think this is just because it was a better book to start with; I think it has to do with some sort of taking-on-board of the editorial process as I write.

Let’s talk covers, an issue that I know exercises us both, and not always in a healthy fashion! How was cover art chosen for each of your three books? It seems to me that Little Monsters and The Scent of Cinnamon share an artistic sensibility that is quite different to the one that shaped Any Human Face and I wonder how that develops between writer and publisher?

Hah! One pre-publication dream that was soon squashed was that I’d be playing a major role in the choice of cover. Living in Italy, I’d grown to love the way the more serious Italian publishers use non-photographic images on books (I wrote a piece about this for the Guardian and I thought I’d be able to have something similar for my own book. I wasn’t against the use of photographs as such, but I wanted the cover to have a non-representational, more open relationship with the text (I hate the use of film tie-ins on covers for this reason). I made dozens of suggestions, directly to Sam at Picador and through my agent, Isobel Dixon, and they both, with their assistants, just about succeeded in fending me off. To give you an idea of what they were up against, one of my proposals was an installation by the Italian artist, Fabio Mauri, consisting of a wall of battered suitcases – brilliant concept, but maybe not the most eye-grabbing image! In the end, I was gently removed from the process and the final cover was chosen by Sam. I’ve grown to like it very much, and I was more than happy when Salt – who are wonderful at choosing cover illustrations, I think - decided to exploit it by choosing a similar image for Scent of Cinnamon.

When it came to deciding on a cover for Any Human Face, I made a few noises about preferring something graphic to a photograph, which were duly ignored, and then I stepped back and waited to see what they came up with. The actual cover was the first one to be suggested and I was so delighted to see that my name was the largest thing on it that I said yes immediately. There’s clearly a question of market placement in the choice of both covers though, and the disparity you’ve mentioned between them has a lot to do with the perception that the first book was aimed at a predominantly female readership – numerous people have commented on the ubiquity of headless women in bookshops a couple of years ago! – while the second has been marketed as a thriller. I liked, and still like, the cover of Any Human Face but it may not have done its job as well as we’d hoped, and we (I say, we…) are currently looking for a catchier cover for the paperback. I must say that I care far less than I used to do about what gets slapped on the front of the book. The ideal is to have a cover that not only reflects the contents of the book but is also an object of beauty in itself. Failing that, I’d rather have something that – crudely - shifts units than something that gives me an aesthetic thrill but doesn’t attract the punters. How Faustian is that?

What would you do differently writing-wise, looking back over the past three years (and bearing in mind that I have every intention of asking again in a further three years)?

Hmm. I think I’d need to be the sort of person who feels regret to be able to answer this question. I’m not, so I can’t. But I do look forward to being asked again!

Daniela is mistakenly described as a ‘friend’ of Andrew’s in the back cover of Any Human Face because she’s the kind of person who is incapable of friendship. Is she based on a particular person or type that is particularly prevalent in Rome? Or in artistic circles generally?

Well, the gallery circuit in Rome is an absolute scandal – petulant, corrupt, largely indifferent to talent and run by a clique of critics and galleristi who base what’s shown on the willingness of artists to stump up considerable amounts of money for wall-space and a slab of pompous, impenetrable ‘critical’ text for the catalogue. Without which, nada. In that sense, Daniela is typical. (And, yes, she’s definitely an acquaintance rather than a friend…) But I also drew on some of the people – usually, but not always, women - that I’ve worked with (as in ‘been subordinate to’) in Italian universities, shallow, talentless people who owe their extremely comfortable and privileged positions to others and to the generally anti-meritocratic way in which the system is organized. There’s an Italian expression – avere una coda di paglia (to have a tail of straw) – used to talk about people who suffer from insecurity and respond to potential attack preemptively, and it’s a characteristic of far too many Italian academics, particularly those employed in humanities faculties, to savage anyone they see as threatening to their wobbly and fiercely-protected self-esteem, above all those beneath them in the hierarchy (who obviously pose no threat at all...). This makes them unpleasant in many of the ways that Daniela is.

My new novel, incidentally, takes a rather hard look at the Italian university system…

The living of a gay life, not just sex and pornography but how relationships are constructed and how they founder, is central to Any Human Face. It reminded me a little (and I mean this in the best way) of Mary Renault’s The Charioteer, in that it’s about immersion in a culture, not mere depiction of a preference. What conscious intentions did you have when you decided to write a narrative where homosexual life and culture were essential and integral to plot development?

Any comparison with Mary Renault is to be treasured, so thank you, Kay. As you say, what makes Renault so extraordinary is that she sees people as part of a world, and I hope that’s what I’ve done – in a more circumscribed way - in Any Human Face. As far as life and culture go, though, I’m not sure I had any conscious intentions other than to make the characters work in the way that seemed most natural to them. A lot of gay fiction, even gay literary fiction, still seems reluctant to allow for failure and loneliness, as though it were letting the side, or ‘community’, down in some way (though Ed White, once again, is breaking new ground here…). And even the highest-brow writing often tends towards the priapic, for want of a better word, as though no gay man worth his salt ever has unsatisfactory sex or, even, whisper the words, no sex at all. I liked the idea of writing about people whose emotional lives were complex, often unsatisfactory, improvised affairs, because that’s basically what most people’s emotional lives are, regardless of orientation. It’s also true that the idea of writing about a middle-aged man wanking to some online porn, and not getting an awful lot of satisfaction from it attracted me: partly because it must be a hugely shared experience these days, and partly because it balanced the edgy but, in some ways, almost idyllic portrayal of the part the Birdman played in the production of that sort of material.

On a darker note, the death of Bruno in the first chapter is closely based on the death of a friends of mine some years ago, an American writer called Lou Inturrisi, whose murder, like those of many other gay men in Rome over the past two or three decades, remains unsolved.

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