December 16, 2008

Charles Lambert: The Scent of Cinnamon

Posted in Lambert Charles at 8:00 am by John Self

We’re always being told how hard it is to sell books of short stories, so a hardback collection from a small publisher and a debut novelist must be some sort of gold standard of a tough sell – a challenge for the next series of The Apprentice. Salt Publishing, however, have two valuable tools at their disposal. The first is their system of virtual book tours, Cyclone, whereby authors make guest appearances at blogs to get online airtime for their books. The second is Charles Lambert, author of the excellent novel Little Monsters which I enjoyed earlier this year. His collection of stories, I felt, must be worth a look.

The Scent of Cinnamon opens with the title story, which is easily the most attention-grabbing in the book, right from the opening paragraph:

Dear Mrs Payne

I have been given your name by the Reverend Ware, vicar of the English community here. I am a blunt man, and I shall come straight to the point. Ware tells me that you have recently lost your husband and are without means. He has suggested to me that you may be interested in marriage with a man who can provide you with the security and affection you require. He has indicated to me that I may be such a man.

It also cries out for a high-concept single-sentence description, though it’s impossible to do so without spoiling it. Others have suggested that ‘The Scent of Cinnamon’ is the best in the book. I’m not so sure of that – it is terrific, though I think there are others which may be even better – but it does set the tone for a book full of dissatisfied relationships, varied settings, and occasional sinisterness.

It was this last quality that pleased me most about Lambert’s stories. The likes of ‘Girlie’ and ‘Beacon’ or the coda-like closer ‘The Growing’ have an otherworldly creepiness to them where the truth is revealed to the reader gradually and then suddenly. It would be no insult to consider these deeper and richer counterparts to the underrated adult stories of Roald Dahl (though, ironically, the most powerful tend to be narrated by children). Yet, as with ‘Moving the Needle Towards the Thread’ – an unsettling account of the worst holiday with a Donald since Don’t Look Now – what makes them excel is Lambert’s understanding of the darkness that exists within the human heart, the horror that comes from within rather than from above or below.

For this reason I was disappointed by the more garish ‘The Number Worm’, which seemed too arbitrary, while a story like ‘Air’ showed that even in a straight(ish) story of a relationship, Lambert knows what he’s doing. My overall concern, however, is a perverse one: like Alvy Singer’s women who thought the food was terrible and the portions too small, I liked nearly all of the stories in The Scent of Cinnamon but thought it too long. 300 pages is a lot of stories, like one of those CDs that has 16 tracks and lasts an hour and a quarter. This may be why I felt the book to be ‘front-loaded': I may not have given the later stories the same attention as the early ones. But for anyone without a mad completion impulse, who can read a story here or there with calmness aforethought, The Scent of Cinnamon is a very interesting, and even exciting, collection.

*

I am delighted to be part of Charles Lambert’s virtual tour for The Scent of Cinnamon. My Q&A session with him is as follows.

Several of the stories in The Scent of Cinnamon have either ‘twist’ endings or withhold information from the reader so that by the end, early events are seen in a new light. Is this a conscious policy, and does it reflect your own taste in stories?

The first short story I ever wrote – I must have been about thirteen – described the arrival of a group of rather seedy, provincial types in a draughty room above a shop. They’re there to conduct a séance of some kind with the aim of summoning a spirit. They go through the usual rigmarole, not really expecting anything to happen, when, to their horror, they hear footsteps on the stairs outside the room. Except that they aren’t footsteps. What they hear is the sound of cloven hooves on wood…

I mention this to show that, while other people were reading Hemingway and would soon be moving onto Carver and all those dirty realists, I was devouring the Pan anthologies of horror stories, Saki and Somerset Maugham. It was a feature, I think, of horror stories in those more innocent days that they saved their nastiness for the end – now they’re more likely to have gore from page one on – and Saki’s stories, which I still love, exist purely to provide a context for the final twist. These clearly had a lasting influence on me.

The next short story writer to blow me away was Kafka, but I’d more or less stopped writing prose fiction by that time (I was fifteen and a full-blown poet!). Obviously, this doesn’t mean that a piece like ‘In the Penal Colony’, with its wickedly gradual horror, didn’t stay with me and make a difference to how I write stories, and much else besides. And then, as I’ve said before, there was M.R. James…

I think that this kind of background – along with the fact that I’ve never studied creative writing in a formal sense – made me fairly immune to the influence of stories I started to read much later on, stories I now find, as a reader, far more rewarding – I’m thinking of people like Alice Munro (obviously) and Tobias Wolff and Lorrie Moore. Margaret Atwood, though, showed me a kind of writing that seemed to bring together the neatness of the stories I used to admire and the rawer more authentic sense of life being lived that the other writers have, and I’d recognise her as someone who’s affected the way I approach writing a story.

I think that some of the stories in the book occupy a kind of middle ground between these two approaches. ‘Moving the Needle Towards the Thread’, for example, certainly has a twist and, in many ways, looks like the decayed heir to a Maugham-like heritage, but it also has an ending that is, I think, ambiguous in a very un-Maugham-like fashion. Soap is another story that plays with, and then against, the reader’s original impressions, but I hope it’s a long way from the glibness that twist-in-the-tail implies.

Some of the strongest stories in the collection are written from the viewpoint of a child – as (in a way) was your novel Little Monsters. At their best, these are combined with unsettling and threatening elements, as in ‘Girlie’, ‘Beacons’ or ‘The Growing’. Why does this approach appeal to you?

What’s interesting about this question, John, is that I wasn’t aware that these three stories – and, as you say, Little Monsters – shared an approach at all. Talk about the unexamined life! It wasn’t until you mentioned it, that I thought, well, yes, of course. How fascinating! I was aware that ‘Beacons’ and ‘All Gone’ were both written from the viewpoint of the same rather anxious, thoughtful, Stephen-Spenderish little boy because, well, he’s basically me, or I’m him, with all the provisos and sleights of hand that story-telling involves. But I hadn’t thought about the other two having anything in common with each other or with anything else I’d written.

Looking at them now, as a group, it’s clear that one of the things I’m doing when I choose to use children as the channel through which the narrative is seen is what Henry James did with Maisie; I’m exploiting their clear-sightedness and innocence. Children see everything, but don’t necessarily understand any of it. Whether they’re protagonists or witnesses, they tend to be one step behind – or to one side of – the attentive adult reader, which sets up an interesting narrative gap through which the unsettling elements can squeeze. In ‘Girlie’, for example, the real story is about the dead twin and how the survivor compensates, but the little boy doesn’t know this and probably never will. In ‘The Growing’, I’d expect a reader to start wondering about the nature of the mask long before the girl makes her doomed attempt to see what lies beneath. And so on.

I’d also say that having no children myself means that I’ve never fully grown up. I’m at the age where many of my friends are wondering why hostile, sulky delinquents from outer space have occupied their teenage children’s bodies. And what do I do? Easy, I side with the kids. I remind their mothers and fathers of compromising photographs from their own pasts. Basically, I can’t grasp the crisis from the parent’s viewpoint, however hard I try. So children are not only, as I’ve just said, unreliable narrators; they may also, paradoxically, be the ones I relate to – and trust – most.

Later stories in the book foreground gay relationships. Did you deliberately withhold these from the first half, to avoid being labelled a ‘gay writer’ – and to what extent do you define your work like that anyway?

Yes, I did hold them back, and I think it’s partly, as you say, because I didn’t want to be labelled, although what was uppermost in my mind was, first, to open the collection with the story I thought most likely to appeal to the largest number of readers and, second, not to scare off people who’d only read Little Monsters by plunging them into scenes of explicit gay sex before they’d had a chance to find their feet. As I said a couple of weeks ago, though, when I visited Jim at Jockohomo, I am uncomfortable about the label ‘gay writer’ in a general sense, and certainly when it’s applied to myself. Apart from issues of marginalisation, which can affect writers as different and as respected as, say, Alan Hollinghurst and Edmund White, I think this discomfort has to do with a more intangible personal sense of not really wanting to belong. As a gay man in a long-term relationship, I’m keenly aware of the need to fight for equality and I’m more than happy to stand up and be counted, and so on, and my blog is sometimes, I think, almost unhealthily obsessed with the homophobic ramblings of Ratzinger et al. But at the same time I’ve never had an authentic sense of extended gay community that wasn’t induced by drugs, alcohol and hi-energy dance music, nor sought it, and the unhappiest holiday of my life was spent on Mykonos, feeling that I wasn’t really up to scratch. This is part of my general resistance to groups; I cringe if I’m presumed to belong to a putative ex-pat community, and I don’t have much sympathy with the idea of writers’ communities either. This doesn’t mean I don’t have gay friends (as they say), but, as a writer at least, I think I see my sexuality as a resource to be drawn on rather than as something that defines what I do.

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27 Comments »

  1. I have to say I find the “short story collection” to be a funny medium. Here we have one 10-page story that has been hyped up a lot, that I would quite like to read — but to read it I’d have to invest in an entire book! Or at least spend a prolonged period in a bookshop reading it. Can you imagine the music industry working like that? “Sorry, we won’t let you hear the songs in advance — you’ll have to take a gamble on the full-price album.”

    The short story business desperately needs the equivalent of radio or mySpace or iTunes — put the stories online, charge 75p a read if you have to, just get them out there.

  2. Actually, Jonathan, that’s not quite true. If you google me, or go to my blog, or indeed take a look at the Acknowledgements page in the book, you’ll see that a fair number of the stories are available on-line and, what’s more, they’re totally free. Others have appeared in print magazines, and so on. Buying any book is a risk. How many novels have you regretted buying after the ten pages or so, and either given up on them or plodded on to try and recoup your investment?

    As I’m here, John, can I say how much I appreciated your comments. I’m never sure what the etiquette for this is, but I’m delighted you agreed to take part in this tour, and even more delighted that you found so much to like in the book. Thanks.

  3. Thanks Charles, this is good news.

    “Buying any book is a risk” — this is true, especially of new novels. I don’t buy very many for exactly this reason. One or two a year out of the hundreds that are published. Short stories, since they don’t have to be distributed in the form of book-length collections, can spread via the Internet in a way novels can’t. But it’s not really happened yet in a big way.

  4. John Self said,

    Gentlemen, your avatars are remarkably similar. Are you sure you don’t know one another?

    Jonathan, I think you make a fair point generally about stories. Various companies have tried marketing individual stories at about a pound each (Picador Shots spring to mind, or the fold-out Travelman series), but they’ve never really caught the imagination of the wider public. Maybe others do share my completion impulse, and prefer a longer book, or if they have just a short time to read, will pick up a magazine instead.

    The difference with music, I suppose, is that you do get to experience a song in full – on the radio, for instance – before you buy it. And that doesn’t work for stories, because in most cases, once you’ve read it, you won’t want to read it again soon – or at least not as often as you’ll listen to a new song from iTunes.

  5. You’re right to say that it hasn’t happened in a big way, Jonathan, but I think the problem is one of a more general response to short stories, so that the many fine sites that do exist for stories, some of which carry as much prestige as print magazines, tend to be tarred with the brush that’s also applied to blogs – that they’re in some way ‘unfiltered’, i.e. full of rubbish. We both know that some of the best writing about writing appears on blogs, and some of the best short story writing also appears on-line. It’s up to all of us to make sure that people get to it. Very short fiction is particularly adapted to on-line publication and many fine magazines, like Smokelong Quarterly (http://www.smokelong.com/), are making this available. End of ad. (And I should say that I’ve never been published by Smokelong Quarterly!)

  6. Paul said,

    Hey John, good read. Will be great if you feature more of these kinds of interviews in the future.

  7. msbaroque said,

    Following your tour with interest and pleasure Charles!

    Can I just add that, unlike the case of the bad novel, if you buy a short story collection and don’t like a story or two, there are others there which you probably will like. Like Charles I also read short stories voraciously when I was young: O Henry, Saki, Katherine Mansfield, Maugham, Chekhov… of course children are used to short stories, and some of us keep the habit.

  8. An interesting entry, I shall google and see if I can find any of those free stories to dip into Charles Lambert’s work.

    msbaroque has a fair point with short story collections, if one or two don’t work it doesn’t mar the collection necessarily, whereas a couple of duff chapters in a novel can contaminate the whole thing (though won’t always do so).

    I do find it’s very hard to write about short story collections, the writing is often so subtle it’s hard to capture it in a review, that aside 300 pages really is a lot of stories. I’d have been tempted to split that into two different collections, but perhaps measuring by width is not the best way forward…

  9. KevinfromCanada said,

    Many thanks for the excellent review and interview — Salt and its author should be happy to know it has sold me both Little Monsters and this book. Since it appears that neither have been published in Canada, it had to be a Book Depository order and, what with holiday shipping, they will obviously be a 2009 read. So you won’t be reading my opinion soon, but I’ll be posting it here eventually.

    We’ve discussed elsewhere the prominence of the short story in North America, as opposed to the U.K. I’d say Charles Lambert confirms it, at least for Canada, with his comments. Ask who the best known living Canadian authors are and I’m pretty sure you are going to hear Munro and Atwood — while both are novelists, the short stories (certainly for Munro) are where the reputation was gained. Two of the last four winners of Canada’s Giller Prize have been short story collections. My explanation for that difference has been twofold: the willingness and tradition of general North American magazines to publish short stories (answering Jonathan’s concern about getting to know the writer) and the greater popularity of creative writing courses which creates both an opportunity for publication of short fiction (teachers don’t like to wait for a student to finish a novel) and an appreciation and audience for the medium. I see from the TLS that the UK is now undergoing an explosion of creative writing courses (and reviewed four collections) so that starts that part of the process. And Charles’ comments about the availability of his stories online indicates that the net is well along the way to creating the “sampling” that magazines have provided here. While I still prefer novels to stories, I do appreciate the story. I tend, however, not to want to like just one story but rather to look at the whole collection to see what an author is after. And one of the reasons that I look forward to reading these two books is that reading and understanding an author’s short stories often gives me a much greater appreciation of what has produced his/her novels (Richard Yates certainly comes to mind here).

    Kudos to Salt for the virtual author’s tour. I wouldn’t have bought these books off traditional promotion (probably would never have heard of them).

  10. Kirsty said,

    This is the first I’ve heard of the Cyclone concept, and I think it’s really effective. There are so few outlets for author interviews – especially debut, short story authors – in the traditional media that I honestly doubt I would have heard about this book otherwise. How pessimistic of me!

    But I do like the sound of these stories, even though short story collections are a format I don’t usually buy a whole lot of. Also, I kinda want to read the story about the seance and the cloven hooves!

  11. Tom C said,

    A slightly neglected genre, but ripe for revival. I’m just finishing Gerard Woodward’s s-s collection Caravan Thieves and shall review it shortly.

    You have provided a fine overview of Scent of Cinnamon and I shall look out for it

  12. workingwords100 said,

    John – Great interview questions! I am glad that Mr. Lambert was surprised by them.

    Another book that I need to look for.

    I like reading about events from children’s view points. Very rare in adult works.

    I also enjoy reading short stories, because I need a break from novels sometimes.

    But, when I review the works, it’s very hard to talk about all of them.

  13. John Self said,

    Thanks for the interest, everyone. I read the title story from The Scent of Cinnamon to Mrs Self in bed the other night, and she loved it. Of course, such is the nature of the story, that she insisted I re-read it to her the following night so that she could pick up on the points she had (by the author’s intention) missed first time around.

  14. Paul said,

    Crikey John, you old romantic. I’ll have to try that myself, the old reading a short-story to the missus in bed trick, next time I’m in hot water over something. Good thinking mate.

  15. John Self said,

    Yep, learn from the experts, Paul. Fortunately she didn’t spot the irony, which is that the thing I’m usually in hot water with her over is spending too much time reading and blogging. And if I’d gone with the alternative choice, of M.R. James’s ‘Oh Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’, it could all have gone horribly, horribly wrong.

  16. The idea that you chose a story of mine over one of my favourite M.R. James’ tales makes me, well, humble.

    I’m glad Mrs Self appreciated it.

  17. John Self said,

    No contest, Charles. It was at least twelve pages shorter. ;)

  18. jem said,

    Thanks for the review and the Q & A. I’m hearing about this everywhere and I want it now! I’ve made a vow for the new year, to allow myself one book a month as and when I hear about it, no more patient waiting for wishlists and birthdays etc. I think I might start with this one!

    If I don’t pop by before, have a great Christmas!

  19. John Self said,

    One book a month! Crikey, good luck with that, jem. If I kept myself down to a book a day I’d be happy. And a happy Christmas to you too!

  20. I thought I’d pull this post back up for a comment as an excuse to provide a link to Sunday’s NY Times and an interesting article on the state of the American short story as well as a pointer to three recent biographies:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/05/weekinreview/05scott.html

    As some of Charles Lambert’s comments here indicate, it will be interesting to see if the web does lead to a mini-revival of the short story, offering readers the chance to pick and choose (as with iTunes) instead of buying the whole book. Certainly in the bygone days of magazines and short stories, as the article notes, you could do that.

  21. Trevor said,

    Though the days of magazines might be ending, there’s still a great resource out there. And now it’s completely free: you don’t even have to pay to read what is considered the place to publish your short story. The New Yorker almost never requires special access to read the short story published there weekly. Last year we got a few by William Trevor, one by Wells Tower, one by Tobias Wolf, more by Alice Munro, one by Roberto Bolano. This year we have one by Joyce Carol Oates, Julian Barnes, Italo Calvino, David Foster Wallace, and another by Steven Millhauser. And this week: Colm Toibin.

    I’m not sure people are taking advantage of this perfectly free access to some of the best author’s short fiction.

  22. John Self said,

    An interesting idea to be sure, but I know that my reason for not reading many short stories is down to a completist impulse in me: I like to finish a book once I begin it, which of course is anathema to proper enjoyment of a short story. This means that I either begin a book of stories and never finish it (like the wonderful Frank O’Connor’s My Oedipus Complex and other stories, which I began a month or so ago), or take several months over it, as I did last year with Tobias Wolff’s Our Story Begins. Meanwhile the temptation of starting a novel instead, which I can finish much more quickly, is always great.

  23. Your comment provokes an interesting memory for me, John. I remember well as a teenage ager (so that makes it 40 years ago) awaiting the arrival of the New Yorker every week to see what short stories were in that issue (usually two, sometimes three — and that means I read J.D. Salinger’s last published work in the week of publication). The Atlantic Monthly was awaited with the same anticipation. And of course both magazines had a lot more content in them — but the short stories were the highlight.

    So in my background, also as a completist, the short stories were the first taste — that other stuff was the gruel at the end. That has not continued into my adult reading life. I do admit that I still haven’t figured out how to read a volume of short stories — I seem to be incapable of reading one or two and then setting it aside. So like you, I’d rather pick up a novel. And despite the free availability on line, I don’t like the short story format so much that I going looking around for them. That’s the problem: too long for web scanning, too short for settling in for serious reading. Perfect for magazine reading and that’s the format that is disappearing.

  24. Oops, that should be “reader” not “ager”.

    Also, I meant to mention that Trevor probably shares with me that North American exposure to the short story at its best in general magazines — I don’t think that tradition ever existed in the UK.

  25. […] Lambert’s short story collection, The Scent of Cinnamon, were well received by critics and bloggers. Any Human Face is Lambert’s second novel, which is always a dangerous moment for a writer, […]

  26. […] and My Big Mouth2 December 2008: Jockohomo9 December 2008: Vanessa Gebbie’s News16 December 2008: Asylum6 January 2009: dovegreyreader scribbles13 January 2009: Harkaway’s Occasionalities20 January […]


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