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Charles Lambert

Website: CharlesLambert.Homestead.com

Charles Lambert was born in England in 1953, studied at Cambridge, and works as a translator and teacher in Italy. He has published one recent novel, from Picador, Little Monsters. 2007. Scent of Cinnamon is his first short story collection. 

Short story collections

The Scent of Cinnamon (Salt Publishing, Oct 2008) 

Title Story, Winner,2007 O. Henry Prize

Reviewed by Moira Crone

Interview with Charles Lambert

The Short Review: How long did it take you to write all the stories in your collection?

Charles Lambert: I wrote the oldest story here (Beacons) over fifteen years ago and the most recent (Something Rich and Strange) last year. The rest fall in the middle. In the meantime, I’ve also written five and a half novels, a bunch of stories that belong in another collection, odd autobiographical pieces and a few essays, so I’ve kept myself fairly busy. As far as individual stories are concerned, some of them went through a dozen drafts, and anyone who’s been generous enough to review my work on Zoetrope may recognize earlier versions of some of these stories and see the extent to which they’ve been revised. I tend to finish something, then pick it up a year or so later and take it to bits entirely; others I just fiddle with until I’m ready to give up. I’m not sure which of these strategies, for want of a better word, is more productive. Still others – a minority – just come out they way they should be and are barely touched again.

TSR: Did you have a collection in mind when you were writing them?

CL: Not at all. Each story was written as a discrete thing, with its own stimulus and bunch of problems to solve, and it wasn’t until I had a dozen or more that I saw how certain themes recurred, resonances were set up, and so on. Some story collections hold together in a very organic sense, and I imagine that’s part of the way in which they’re conceived; alternatively, the stories just come together as friends and rub along between the same covers in an amicable and productive way. The Scent of Cinnamon is, I hope, an example of the latter, with the stories working together and informing one another, even though that was never their intention. The stories I’m writing at the moment, on the other hand, do have elements in common from the outset and this influences the way I see them, and write them. So it’s a quite different experience and I’m enjoying it. I also have a sort of collection of pieces – forgive my vagueness – about a severely dysfunctional family, which hasn’t quite decided what form it will take…

TSR: How did you choose which stories to include and in what order?

CL: Basically, I wanted to include all the stories I had that I thought worth publishing, or republishing, and that weren’t already part of the next collection. This might make it sound like a bit of a rag-bag. I hope it doesn’t look like one, though, because the stories do form, I think, a cohesive group and I spent a lot of time and thought on the order in which they appear. I spoke about this when I visited Scott Pack at the Me and My Big Mouth blog, so I won’t go into too much detail here, but every story links forward and back in terms of style, subject, period, or combinations of these. At the same time, one of the pleasures of reading this type of collection is not always knowing what to expect, so I wanted the sequence to be meaningful but not entirely seamless. For example, I think there’s a bit of a jolt between the end of The Crack (“…that rue was a herb of virtue, what Ophelia called Herbe-Grace.”) and the first sentence of Nipples (“I love men’s nipples…”), and I’m happy with that. I’m also very fond of the placing of the first and last stories, both of which should – as Maggie Gee remarked - make the hairs on your arm stand up!

TSR: What does the word "story" mean to you?

CL:  In the amplest sense, a problem that needs to be solved through narrative. The word also has the childhood sense of "lie", even though children can’t always tell the difference. Writing a story shouldn’t be that far away from telling a lie that works.

TSR: Do you have a "reader" in mind when you write stories?

CL:  Not really. Other than myself. First and foremost, I want it be the story I want it to be, and I have a strong sense of what that is as I write, however often I may change my mind during the actual writing process. After that, of course, I want everyone to love it.

TSR: Is there anything you'd like to ask someone who has read your collection, anything at all?

CL: Well, people tend to tell you which story they like best but they rarely say which one they hate, if there is one. I’d be curious to know the answer to that, however upsetting it might be.

TSR: How does it feel knowing that people are buying your books?

CL: Hmm, odd. I still haven’t quite got used to the idea that I have readers I’ve never met. As a student poet I not only knew my readers on an individual level, I’d probably slept with most of them! This is obviously no longer the case and I hope that it will soon become numerically impossible to even imagine. More seriously, I’m touched and flattered, mildly anxious that they might put the book down disappointed, and also, given the parlous state of book distribution and the savagely restricted outlets for short fiction, deeply curious to know how they even heard about the book in the first place.

TSR: What are you working on now?

CL: Apart from the story collections mentioned above, I’m one-third into a novel, set in Rome, and dealing with loneliness and identity. My hero is a second-hand bookseller. And that’s all I’m going to say about it!

TSR: What are the three most recent short story collections you've read?

CL: Tiny Deaths, by Robert Shearman, Everything I Have is Blue, edited by Wendell Ricketts, Astral Bodies, by Jay Merill. And I recommend all three!