In conversation with... Charles Lambert

Hi Charles! First of all, I would like to congratulate you on the publication of Prodigal! Can you please briefly tell us what it is about?

A: Thank you, Silvia! Very briefly, it’s about what happens when Jeremy, a hapless gay middle-aged writer of soft core pornography for women, is summoned home from his tiny flat in Paris to his father’s deathbed in Whitstable. His elder sister, Rachel, divorced and frustrated, constantly disappointed by what she sees as her brother’s fecklessness and unwilling to come to terms with his sexuality, is waiting for him. The novel accompanies them through the ensuing weeks but also digs back into their past to see what made them what they are and also, perhaps, to offer them the chance to remake themselves and achieve a sort of reconciliation as individuals and as siblings.

Are there any autobiographical elements woven into the fictional lives of your characters?

A: First of all, let me say that I am not Jeremy, Rachel is not my sister and their parents have nothing in common with mine. (And no, I do not protest too much!) The novel does contain scenes based on recollections of real events, but they’re pretty much incidental. For example, two episodes – one set in Greece and the other in Paris - involve upset stomachs (something I only realised at the end of the novel). Both of these are based, alas, on moments of intestinal discomfort experienced by the author, although I treat the Greek episode with a fair bit of poetic licence. Elements of Jeremy’s disastrous but character-forming evening in Canterbury mirror an evening I spent in Stafford at a similar age – I’ll leave the reader to guess which elements. More seriously, on an emotional level, I began the novel shortly after my mother’s death, when the upheaval of that was still fresh in my mind and heart. Obviously this informed my writing of those parts of the novel that deal directly with the loss of parents, and less directly with the effects of grief on the remaining family members. Jeremy’s flat in Paris and the flat in Sète towards the end of the novel are also based on places I’ve spent time in, and I thank their owners for having me, although what takes place in the Sète flat derives not from my own experience but from that of a friend in Rome. To sum up, Prodigal, like most of my fiction, plays fast and loose with memory and invention in what I hope is a seamless way.

As Jeremy mentions in the novel, the word ‘prodigal’ can have more than one meaning. How would you like your readers to understand the title choice? 

A: I think most people automatically associate the word prodigal with the idea of returning home and being greeted with a fatted calf, and that’s certainly an important element in the novel, although the fatted calf is noticeably absent, unless Vikram can be considered an improbable substitute. But the aspect of prodigal that interested me most was the primary definition: that of waste, of profligacy, of not making use of one’s talents or capacity for love, a quality that unites Jeremy and Rachel. It’s an odd sort of wastefulness, an extravagance inverted, and they’re both culpable. One of the things they learn to do in the course of the book, I think, is develop a sense of their own worth and of how they might be able to make use of it in a way that isn’t simply improvident.

If this novel could be turned into a film, who would you cast in the roles of Rachel and Jeremy?

A: This is a difficult question for two reasons. The first is that the two main characters range in age from early adulthood to around sixty, so the onus of credibility would fall on the shoulders of the make-up artists involved in the film, rather than the actors. The second reason is that I tend to imagine my characters from the inside out, and generally don’t have a strong visual image of them. When I do ‘see’ them, I see them through the eyes of the other characters. There are moments when Rachel looks at Jeremy, for example, and, at those moments, I see what she sees (and vice versa) - so my sense of what they look like is always partial. A few names do come to mind, despite that. Ben Whishaw would make an excellent 30-odd-year-old Jeremy, while the Jeremy of the more recent parts would need to be, well, baggier in some way. Rachel is harder to visualise. Kate Winslet? I will say, though, that my own failure to cast the roles doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t absolutely love to see the novel made into a film or, even better, a TV series. Listen up, HBO!

Why did you choose Whitstable and Paris as locations for the majority of the events in the book?

A: Perversely perhaps, I wanted to write about places I’ve never lived in in any permanent way, if only to see how convincingly I could do it. I know Paris well, but as a tourist, and Whitstable hardly at all, though I did have a memorable birthday there some fifteen or so years ago, and I never forget an oyster. I also wanted, again perversely, to not write about Italy, where I’ve lived for forty years, but didn’t feel competent to set a whole novel in an England I know increasingly less well, and from which I feel increasingly estranged. My experience as a foreigner is central to my experience as a writer, and all my work, in one way or another, deals with the pleasures and challenges of both belonging and not belonging to a place.

Without giving too much away, can you tell us about a scene in the book that you love or that was particularly difficult to write?

A: The hard parts, inevitably, were the deathbed scenes, and their aftermath. The section I most enjoyed writing was probably the trip from Athens to Kalambaka, which manages to be (I hope) comic, tragic, emetic and nostalgic (for me, at least). Although I’m not sure the Greek Tourist Board would share my enthusiasm…  

Is there anything that didn’t make it into the final version of the book?

A: Yes! A longish email exchange between Jeremy and another writer in the same genre, in which Jeremy pours out his heart. Jeremy wrote it when he was drunk, and I was, ahem, fully immersed in my character at the time so naturally I loved it. But people who are wiser than I am were less enthusiastic, and I was wise enough to listen to them and remove it. (You know who you are. Thank you, both of you.)

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: It’s a novel called, at the moment, THE BAD TWIN. It’s a return to Rome and the early 1980s, and to family ties in both the good and the bad sense. It starts with a disappearance, features an earthquake, and contains a couple of useful recipes. And that’s all I’m prepared to say!

Thank you for your time!

If you've enjoyed reading this as much as I did, you might like to check out a previous interview I did with the author back in 2012 here, where you will find more about research, translation and writing.

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