I have a particular yen for reading books about one place when I’m in another, very different one. I read The God of Small Things in Rekjavik, and The Bear Comes Home in Kerala (I refused to read Roy’s book while I was in her home state and it was a wise choice, revisiting Kerala through her words was magical, interpreting it via her narrative would have warped my view of an already puzzling and beautiful environment and culture), Middlemarch beguiled me in Melbourne and I kept Dirt Music to read in Swindon (and can you blame me?).
All this is a meandering way of saying that the books I’ve read in Rome were Hannibal (yeah, the Thomas Harris one, not some scholarly tome on the Alp-crossing elephant-owner, so sue me for my vulgarity!) set in Florence and Vargas’s The Storyteller, set in South America. So where did I read Little Monsters, the subject of today’s review/interview? In the Scottish Highlands. And where is it set? Rome (and Buxton in the Peak District). It wasn’t planned that way: in fact, due to a ‘technical error’ my first copy was taken away from me and replaced, but that’s how it worked out and the synchronicity of it all pleases me greatly.
As did the novel. I like doing some of the work myself. I applaud an author who trusts me to give my attention and rewards me by allowing me to fill in some shadowy corners for myself. I enjoy novels with complicated and less than perfect characters, and I am fond of stories where the environment shapes the action, as it does in Little Monsters, both in the early story (where air and flight predominate) and the later one (where the coast both creates and constrains the narrative).
This isn’t a light book, either in scope or technique, there are moments of profound bleakness which will resonate with anybody who has had a troubled adolescence, but there are also flashes of honest feeling which never fall into the trap of the simple label (love, affection, trust, dependency) but which contain delicately nuanced emotions that show how long-established relationships create such blended feelings, and how it is never wise to judge others by surface impressions.
There is great assurance in the way the narrative moves through strong and painful situations. I think assurance is one of the gifts a good novelist gives the reader: like a concert violinist taking to the stage with confidence, assurance allows the audience to relax, knowing that the leader in this journey is sure about where we are heading. Where we end up is a different matter, and I suspect Little Monsters may will surprise readers, although there is not a single twist in the plot, it has a psychological suspense to it, reminiscent (to this reader) of Henry James. Dear reader, I recommend it to you. Now, over to Charles Lambert, that I might interrogate him until secrets are revealed …
Charles, I know that Carol, the protagonist of your novel came to you slowly, with the opening line of the novel arriving first and the details of her life etc emerging much later, but how did it feel to discover you were writing a female character, and not only that, one whose story begins in adolescence?
It took me utterly by surprise. I don’t altogether buy the idea that the only authentic writing is dictated from some place other than the rational organising mind, although there’s clearly a massive element that isn’t explicable in terms of intention, that just ‘comes’, who knows from where, and I value, and welcome, it immensely. I wouldn’t write if this weren’t the case. Generally, though, I do have some idea of what I’m doing, of who my characters are and of the role they’ll be playing. This doesn’t mean they don’t surprise me; they often do. Nicholas, for instance, carved out for himself a far larger part in Little Monsters than I’d envisaged for him. But Carol was a revelation. I was sliding down a grassy bank and suddenly my skirt was riding up!
I’ve often written short stories from the point of view of a female protagonist, but this has always been a conscious decision, and I’d never have made a rational decision to write a whole novel from a woman’s viewpoint; I think I’d have been too scared of getting the voice wrong. So I don’t know where Carol came from. I was never particularly sissified as a child, or adolescent, by which I mean I couldn’t be bothered with dolls any more than I could with guns or cars. I was a building block and blackboard sort of baby. And I’ve never entertained the idea that I might be happier as a woman, because I’m perfectly happy to be a man. I think I may be answering a question further down, without really meaning to, or even a much larger and more personal question that’s quite irrelevant, but the whole business of identity seems to me to be so fluid that I’ll stop here….
The themes of this novel are broad and political in the most general sense – one of the difficult questions it raises is about complicity. The various characters in the story are sometimes the victims of and sometimes the perpetrators of cruelty, whether that’s institutional cruelty in refugee camps or the subtler cruelties of family life. To what extent do you want the reader to ‘side’ with one or another of the characters? And to what extent is there a polemical purpose in getting people to consider how they may be complicit themselves in the treatment of outsiders?
Ideally, I don’t want readers to side with, or identify with, characters at all, though I know this is inevitable – and, in one sense, a measure of the novel’s success. Certainly, though, I’d like to imagine a few people sticking up for Kakuna, who may be no angel, but still gets a rough deal. I’ve found it interesting to see how much people want to engage in this novel – and others – as though fiction were a reality show, with nominations and so on. Which is also, of course, a setting for enormous cruelty. What I’d like most is for people to feel unsettled and, as you say, complicit. I’m uncomfortable myself about the way in which Kakuna is seen by the novel as the other, despite – or because of – Carol’s conviction of her innocence. I feel that I’m also involved in what makes Kakuna unknowable. As of course I am.
It’s been a long journey to novel publication for you – can you give us some details of this particular experience.?
What a story! I wrote my first – dreadful – novel while I was at university. It had to be done, and the sooner the better. To my knowledge, no one has read it (although my mother may have, sneakily). The second one occupied me during an otherwise dead time between graduation and moving to Italy. It was a long D.H. Lawrence family saga pastiche and was, I think, seen and rejected by two or three publishers before being shelved. The third was written seven or eight years later and was a comic take on gay life in Hackney, something I knew a fair bit about after a two-year spell there in the later seventies. This was turned down by Methuen, with an encouraging letter from someone who’d clearly read it, and by Gay Men’s Press, who suggested I turn it into a play. I didn’t. The fourth was held by Cape for eighteen months and finally returned with apologies and the name of an agent who might be interested. He wasn’t, but one of his assistants was. She sent out the fifth, but no one offered, after which she lost interest (and has since left publishing altogether!). The sixth was sent out by another agent, but not bought – partly because the central plot device was a stolen manuscript, which might have been a new idea two years earlier but, after Morvern Caller et al., had lost much of its charm. This is the novel that was shortlisted for the Lichfield Prize in 2004. On the strength of the prize I approached my current agent – the wonderful Isobel Dixon from Blake Friedmann – whose commitment finally paid off with a sale to my ideal reader, Sam Humphreys at Picador. Adding together the times one or other of my novels has been seen by a publisher would produce a dispiritingly high number, so I won’t do it. But if there’s a lesson to be learnt, it’s persevere.
One thing that pleased me greatly about Little Monsters was the use of two timeframes: Carol as a teenager and Carol as a woman in her forties, and the use of two locations: Britain and Italy, because I love juxtapositions in narrative. You live in Italy now, do you anticipate using it as the location for future novels?
I can’t imagine not doing so, and I think the strongest work of, say, Tim Parks – whose relationship to Italy is much like mine – is in the novels set partly or entirely in Italy. Personally, I’ve spent most of my adult life here and this has inevitably shaped my interests: foreignness, belonging, and so on. I’d be a fool not to make use of it. Little Monsters, as you say, uses a splintered narrative. These are dodgy things to manage, but setting parts of a novel in contrasting settings in terms of both location and time also makes it easier in some ways: you have two quite separate worlds that reflect on and reveal each other. Having said that, the novel I wrote after Little Monsters, provisionally entitled Light Work, is set in a single place – Rome – and a single time – the five days surrounding Bush’s visit in 2004. Of the five main characters, two are English and three Italian, which introduces a whole new series of cultural juxtapositions.
How long did it take you to write the novel and what input have your agent and publisher given you that you can share with us?
It took me about two years to produce the first version of Little Monsters. At which point I thought I’d finished. How wrong I was! It was clear from the first round of submissions that one element of the novel was producing problems; basically no one liked it (I won’t say what it was!). This wounded my self-esteem a little, but led to a serious revision and a much-improved book. Sam Humphreys – my editor at Picador – bought the revised version as it stood, but read the novel with such attention and commitment, and made so many useful suggestions that a great deal of credit for the book that finally hit – if that’s the verb – the stores must go to her. It’s enormously gratifying to be read with the care that a good editor brings to a text. I have nothing but praise for her and I think I’ve been fortunate to be published by someone who takes her own role in the process so seriously. Thanks, Sam!
What’s your next writing project going to be?
I’m writing two novels at the moment. Actually this is a lie. I’m trying to write two novels. Actually, this is also a lie because I’ve realised that one of the texts is a group of interlinked short stories only pretending to be a novel. Its working title is Raven Mother – the translation of a German expression – and the central character makes Aunt Margot in Little Monsters seem positively angelic. The genuine novel is based on something that happened in Rome earlier this year and I don’t want to say anything about it other than that it will probably feature some of the characters from the novel that Picador – I hope – is about to buy, also set in Rome. Which is Light Work, mentioned above.
Normally I ask the ‘Desert Island’ book question at this point, but actually I want to ask something more personal – do you have a view on whether gender, experience, age or sexual orientation are relevant to what we produce as fiction? There’s a school of thought that says ‘write what you know’, to which you obviously do not belong, but do you feel there are imaginative leaps that can’t be made by the individual?
Yes and no. I think a fiction writer needs a sort of ruthless empathy, which allows understanding but not beguilement. In any case, even when a character shares all defining characteristics with the writer, there’s always an imaginative leap involved. To write well about what you know – about yourself – involves somehow escaping it in order to see it afresh, as though it belonged to someone else, someone you might not like and don’t need to defend. If this doesn’t happen, it will simply be special pleading and probably not much good – although if you’re famous enough, no one will care. Clearly, in Little Monsters, I feel qualified to write about a heterosexual woman born in 1948 with an appallingly unsettled childhood (i.e. not me, on four counts). So I’m sure that ‘personal experience’ in the narrowest sense isn’t necessary. At the same time, I share an awful lot with Carol. The experience of shame – I’m thinking about the towel incident – isn’t gender specific, but it’s central to her sense of herself. And it could have happened to anyone. Whitman said that we ‘contain multitudes’, and I think he’s right. We just have to know what to do with them.
Little Monsters by Charles Lambert is published by Picador and available just about everywhere.