Charles Lambert’s debut novel Little Monsters was published earlier this month, and when I wrote about it on this blog it struck me with its assurance and aplomb, and seemed to me quite the best debut I’d read since Peter Ho Davies’ The Welsh Girl (with which it has some other passing similarities). I decided I would like to ask him a few questions about the book and his writing generally, and I am pleased that he agreed to do so. Charles Lambert was born in England and lives in Italy, and has a blog of his own here.
I’ve already unkindly referred to your age in my review of Little Monsters. Is writing something you’ve come to relatively late, or have you stacks of unpublished novels on your hard drive? And do you think it’s harder for a middle-aged novelist to get a break with publishers than younger ones?
I didn’t see it as unkind at all, which just goes to show how wonderfully mature I am.
I wrote my first sonnet at thirteen (about John Calvin!) and my first completed novel as a student, well before hard drives were invented. I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember, although I saw myself primarily as a poet until the early 1980s, when I realised that my audience had dwindled to single figures. Since then, I’ve written dozens of short stories and six and a half novels, the fifth being Little Monsters; I’ve also had three agents, my current one being the wonderful Isobel Dixon, and a depressing (or – with hindsight – encouraging) number of very near misses.
As far as breaks with publishers go, I can only say that I was rejected, frequently, in my thirties and accepted, finally, in my fifties; I’m not sure what kind of general rule, if any, might be extrapolated from this. I’m certainly aware that age, like race and beauty and celebrity, can play its role in the purchase of a manuscript, but – perhaps naively – feel that a good book will find its editor on its own strengths. I probably wouldn’t feel this, of course, if Picador hadn’t made an offer. I would probably be bitter and have needles and a wax effigy of Wayne Rooney beside my bed.
Where did the first impulse for Little Monsters come from, and how much work was involved in getting it to its finished structure and shape?
The original impulse was the opening sentence, which came to me in bed one night and was scribbled down on my notepad (beside the Wayne Rooney effigy I don’t have. Honestly). The real work began the following day. I normally have some notion of a theme, or central idea, when I start to write, however often this might be thrown out as the work progresses; but this wasn’t the case with Little Monsters. It wasn’t until I’d written the first few chapters, though, and had some notion of who my narrating voice, Carol, really was (I hadn’t even realised to begin with that she was a woman) that the novel took off.
When I’d finished I had around 130,000 words, three distinct time threads and a decidedly top-heavy structure, back-stories, the lot. This was whittled down in an increasingly ruthless, and ultimately pleasurable, way and an awful lot of credit for the final draft goes to my editor at Picador, Sam Humphreys, whose suggestions were always pertinent, always tactful, and almost always right.
[Charles Lambert has written more about why he wrote Little Monsters on the Picador blog here.]
Aunt Margot in the novel is a great literary monster in her own way. Was it more enjoyable to write her than some of the more agreeable characters?
I certainly enjoyed it, and more than once had to stop myself from making her even more appalling than she is, though I also wanted a sense to break through every now and again that she wasn’t all bad – or that her behaviour was, at least partly, justified. But I have to say, rather cheesily, that I enjoyed writing all the characters, without exception; I hope that no one, in other words, is simply there for the exigencies of plot.
It’s actually far easier to portray monsters than saints, and getting Jozef, who is saintly in many ways, to ring true was also both a challenge and a joy. Even Nicholas, who wasn’t originally intended to be a major player at all, gave me great pleasure as his sorry tale unfolded.
Without going into details, Carol’s relationship with Uncle Jozef is one of the remarkable features of Little Monsters, but we’re left to fill in the gaps ourselves. Is it difficult as a novelist to get the balance right of how much to tell the reader, and how much to leave out?
Well, the short answer is yes. As I’ve said, the earlier drafts of the novel were far longer and much of what’s been excised had to do with the relationship between Carol and Jozef. I think it was good for me to work all that out and write it all down, because the fact that I knew what had been going on meant that I could avoid anachronisms in terms of both character and plot, but I wasn’t finally convinced that the reader needed it; it slowed the whole narrative down, whatever its local interest. I also came to like the idea that the emotional diffidence of the two main characters – the separate product of their separate pasts – should be reflected by the gaps you mention, as though, like so much else, what had actually united them couldn’t be expressed. One of the books that played strongly into the writing of Little Monsters was The Good Listener, by Neil Belton, which talks, among other things, about the way trauma generates a sort of emotional autism, a gap in the narrative of the life.
And that’s the longer answer.
The book is set in England, in the past, and Italy, in the present – a reflection of your own life. Do you feel part of either literary tradition, both, or neither? Is there a sense of detachment when your novel is published in the UK and you’ve made your home elsewhere?
I absolutely feel part of an English language tradition, though not necessarily a mainstream one. This is partly a question of maintaining balance; I spend so much time in Italian, at work and in my private life, that my serious reading, particularly fiction, is almost entirely of English. I’m slightly ashamed of this, and make an effort to read Italian fiction every now and again, but I always feel – and I’m slightly ashamed of this as well – that I’m wasting valuable time I could spend on, say, Cormac McCarthy or Sybille Bedford. Objectively, and despite the recent success at home and elsewhere of writers like Ammaniti and Vinci, I’m not sure that Italian fiction is particularly florid at the moment; it’s certainly true that the Italian cultural scene, perhaps knee-jerkingly, worships McEwan and Auster and McGrath far more than it does any home-grown talent.
Having said this, I do read a lot of European writers in translation – both English and Italian – and novelists like, say, Marias, Saramago, Perec and Bernhard have had far more influence on me – in terms of showing me what fiction can do – than many English writers. It’s also true that the net, as you well know, blurs national barriers to the point of virtual obliteration, so I don’t feel that far away from anywhere, including the UK, where I continue, in any case, to spend a fair amount of time.
The corollary of all this is that the last thing I feel is detached. I feel desperately, twitchingly involved! But I also look forward very much to selling the Italian rights so that all my Italian friends, and primarily my partner, can read what I do. Take note, Feltrinelli!
The modern day sections of the book address the very topical issue (in Britain at least) of distrust of refugees or immigrants: though that might also be regarded as a universal, all-time issue. Was this something you consciously wanted to write about, or did it arise from the characters and story?
It was there as a central interest by the first chapter, even though the novel addresses the topic more obliquely in the section set in Britain in the 60s, so I’d answer yes to both questions. All three main characters are deprived of their homes and cultural contexts in one way or another and the main concern of the novel, finally, is to see what they do with this, how they react to a displacement that denies them much of what they are. The first version (and title) of the novel cited a line from one of the history plays: “We have the receipt of fern seed/We walk invisible”, and the idea of invisibility as both a secure place and a self-negating place was greatly in my mind as I wrote. I also wanted to contrast the Daily Mail attitude of scrounging foreigners with something more ambiguous, nuanced and, I hope, generous. One of the better aspects of life (and much of the media) in Italy is the widespread conviction that the people who arrive here as refugees are deserving of pity, although this doesn’t necessarily extend to offers of material assistance.
Finally the Desert Island Books question. If you could press copies of a favourite neglected book on every reader of this blog, which would it be and why?
Two books. The first is Loving Monsters by James Hamilton-Paterson, to my mind a writer who knocks many far more visible prize-winning novelists into a series of cocked hats. Quite apart from its title’s subliminal – and entirely unintentional – reference to my own novel, the book is thoughtful, playful, intriguing, beautifully written and even better than his shamefully out of print collection of stories, The View from Mount Dog. If you’ve only read his last two novels, seek these out. Take note, Faber!
The second is The White Bone, by Barbara Gowdy. Gowdy’s notorious for penetrating unlikely skins (necrophiliacs, deformed children, Siamese twins, etc.), but this time she manages to inhabit, and make utterly real, three generations of elephants. It’s a wonderful book, and needs to be read.