Tuesday, 21 February 2012

In conversation with... Charles Lambert

Hello Charles! First of all, thank you for agreeing to answer my questions and congratulations on the publication of a new paperback edition of Any Human Face, whose cover I absolutely love! Can you please tell us what it is about?

A: It’s about a down-at-heel second-hand bookseller in Rome called Andrew Caruso, half-Italian, half-Scottish, who finds himself in trouble when he decides to organise an exhibition of photographs found among his dead lover’s belongings. It’s about how the photographs found their way into Andrew’s lover’s hands in the first place. It’s about the kidnap and imprisonment of a teenage girl. It’s about the way these three stories, and the people involved in them, connect. It’s also, although I didn’t fully realise this as I wrote it, about loneliness.

I’m glad you like the cover, by the way!

Did you have the plot entirely figured out when you started writing or did it develop before your eyes as the characters grew on the page?

A: All I had was the central idea of the exhibition, which was loosely based on something that had happened to a bookseller I know in Rome. I wrote a post on my blog about the unexpected repercussions of a show he’d organised in his shop and one of my readers, a novelist called David Isaaks, suggested that I had the germ of a novel. After thinking about it for a few months, I realised that he was right. Everything else came as the book developed.

What kind of research did you need to carry out while you were writing? Did you complete all of it in advance so that you could then dive into the writing process undisturbed or was it more a research-as-you-go sort of process?

A: No, however much I might try to plan ahead and however much I might envy those writers who have their whole novel mapped out before they start, I find myself groping blindly between one moment of illumination and the next. For me, the writing process is precisely that – following the characters as they stumble a yard or two ahead of me into the murk, trailing a little light behind them. ‘Research-as-you-go’ is probably the nicest term I’ve come across for this process! I did though have some help from a good friend, Clarissa Botsford, who provided a wealth of procedural details and helped me avoid too much implausibility.

Any Human Face is a mysterious title. Did it come before or after the novel? Or perhaps it changed while the novel itself took form?

A: I read Marilynne Robinson’s wonderful novel, Gilead, while I was working on the first part of the novel, and the sentence that provided the title, and that I used as an epigraph for the novel, leapt out at me as being exactly what I wanted. (Fortunately, because this isn’t always the case, my agent and editor felt the same!) The way her words captured a sense both of the universal and of the particular chimed with my feelings about the ambivalence of police mug shots, which formed the heart of Andrew’s exhibition; I’m fascinated by how they exist to identify individuals and yet seem to mark those individuals out as criminal types in a sort of Lombrosian sense. Andrew finds his own identity subsumed by events in which who he actually is is of no importance to anyone. The epigraph also introduces the idea of loneliness which, as I said before, gradually emerged as one of the central themes of the novel. I love the title – its only downside is that’s been confused twice (both times by The Bookseller!) with William Boyd’s rather more well-known Any Human Heart...

The Daily Telegraph described your novel as “A beautifully written crime story that brings to life the Rome that tourists don’t see.” Given the fact that you live in Italy and you seem to have a gift to capture the kind of life that goes beyond the clichés, have there been any talks about a possible translation into Italian? Could it perhaps be something you’d like to try your hand at?

A: An interesting question (actually questions!). The answer to the first part is that no Italian publisher has shown any interest in buying the book so far. I’ve heard, though I’ve no idea how true this is, that Italian publishers are chary about books set in Italy and written by foreigners, out of a (misplaced, in my view) sense of protecting national identity and amour propre. There’s certainly a tendency in Italian journalism to give too much weight to the opinion of foreign journalists, particularly English language ones, which suggests an insecurity and anxiety about Italian culture generally among the people responsible for propagating it. On the other hand, it may be that they simply don’t like the book!

The answer to the second question is that I would never translate the book myself. I’m convinced that people should translate into their own languages, rather than out of them, and, although my Italian is more than adequate for everyday purposes, I’d far rather write something new in English than attempt to rewrite anything in Italian. Apart from anything else, I’d be tempted to start tinkering, so I’d end up with something that was neither an original work nor a translation. Besides, I already have my ideal translator in mind – Isabella Zani…

If you are already working on your next writing project, would you mind giving us a little anticipation of what we are to expect?

A: Any Human Face is actually the middle volume of a trilogy of novels set in Rome, dealing with the uses and misuses of power at various levels, and involving many of the same characters. Martin Frame, the retired journalist, for example, appears in all three. I’m hoping the other two volumes will be published before too long. At the moment, I’m working on a novel about grief, sentimentality, Paris, sibling rivalry, and I have no idea what else! (see above for details of my writing process…) I’ve also just completed a collection of short stories, entitled Sheet Music, which looks at the way people hurt each other in the name of love – two of these have already been published in anthologies by the admirable Fiction Desk and another some time ago by the Barcelona Review. And I have a shorter work, provisionally entitled With an O at its Heart and composed of exactly one hundred 120-word stories, which is the nearest I expect to come to writing an autobiography.

Due to the popularity of social networking websites, it seems that interacting with readers – be it via a Twitter account, a Facebook page, a blog etc. – is becoming increasingly important. How do you cope with these new demands on authors and do you think that they somehow disrupt your writing schedule?

A: I cope with them as well as I can, although my blogs have suffered in the past few months. I think, like most people, I find social networking a source of delight and frustration in more or less equal measure. I tend to see Facebook as a community, in my case of both readers and other writers, and Twitter as a sort of writing exercise, perhaps because I’m used to working in larger scales than that offered by 140 characters. If I were stronger willed and could turn my internet connection off, I’d almost certainly have written more, but more isn’t always better...and, of course, fewer people might be aware of what I actually do write. The fact that I live in Italy, of course, also makes social networking essential in a way it might not be if I were in the UK and able to meet my readers face to face. (Something I would very much like to do…)

What is one fundamental piece of advice would you give to aspiring writers?

A: It’s the answer most writers give. Read. Read. Read. Followed by the second most popular answer (which assumes you’ve actually written something). Cut. Cut. Cut. It can be the hardest thing to accept, but the bits you most love are often the bits that need to go. You can always make a special folder for them all, to be enjoyed privately...

And lastly, is there anything that you would like to share that I haven’t asked?

A: I think you’ve covered everything!


Charles Lambert and his publisher, Picador, have generously offered four copies of Any Human Face for a giveaway. As usual, all you need to do is click here and fill in the form. The competition is open world-wide and will close on the 5th March at 1pm. Good luck!

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