Me And My Big Mouth welcomes moustachioed writer Charles Lambert to the blog. Charles is the author of the cracking debut novel Little Monsters and also the wonderful short story collection The Scent of Cinnamon. I reviewed the former here and the latter over here. They are both great books and come highly recommended. Do check them out if you have a chance.
Charles is here today as part of his Something Rich & Strange virtual book tour. At each leg of the tour he is answering questions about The Scent of Cinammon. You can keep tabs on his whereabouts here.
But not before you have enjoyed the Q&A below.
SP: Story collections, much in the same way as LPs or CDs, owe a great deal to their running order. How did you go about deciding which stories to put where and now that the book is out there do you think you got it right?
CL: I thought a lot about it, Scott, and changed my mind dozens of times. Originally I wanted to start with Nipples, which would have been a bit like opening a Lou Reed Greatest Hits with a chunk from Metal Machine Music. So I didn’t. The next candidate was The Crack, because it talks about the way bad behaviour - in this case, the gratuitous act of theft - fractures apparently established norms of love and friendship, and that’s a central theme of the collection. In the end, though, putting The Scent of Cinnamon at the front made obvious sense, and not only from a commercial viewpoint - as you say, collections of short stories tend to float blithely, tragically, above the commercial aspects of publishing, though I’d be delighted if this collection were the exception. It’s also a story that, in my experience, draws readers in and holds them, which makes it an ideal opener. Looking at the order of the rest of the book, I think I was working on two principles, contrast and likeness. So the first three stories show range in terms of mood, location and style; they’re followed by three stories that share an attention to childhood, each dealing with it in its own way. Then we have two WW2 stories, coming from very different angles, the second one of which segues, via The Crack, into a bunch with gay themes, followed by stories that talk about social-personal issues of some kind, and so on. The last but one story is out on its own, while the final tale picks up some aspects of the opening and rounds the whole thing off - I like to think of it as the book’s Antarctica Starts Here, for those of you who know John Cale’s Paris 1919, which - incidentally - may be my favourite album. (Irrelevant, but true.) So that’s the reasoning and, yes, I’m still happy with it.
CL: The oldest story in the collection is Beacons, which I wrote maybe 15 years ago. It’s actually one of the first stories I ever wrote, after years of seeing myself - mistakenly - as an unjustly neglected poet. The most recent is Something Rich and Strange, which I wrote just over two years ago for the National Maritime Museum anthology, Sea Stories. As far as I can remember, and I could easily be wrong, the chronological order of the ones in between is something like this: All Gone; Toad; Soap; Moving the Needle Towards the Thread; The Crack; Entertaining Friends and Nipples; Air and Damage; Little Potato, Little Pea; The Growing, The Number Worm; and The Scent of Cinnamon. So the order in the collection sometimes reflects the chronological one, and sometimes doesn’t. I don’t know how evident this is. Sixteen stories in fifteen years looks like an average of one story and bit each year, but that isn’t what really happens. I tend to write stories in flurries, one after the other or even simultaneously, as I said last week to Kay Sexton, interrupted by periods of inaction. Right now, I’m halfway through putting together a group of stories entitled Cheap Music, all of which are named after – and draw on – popular songs, from Joni Mitchell to Nirvana, and, appropriately, are mostly about love. They’re longish stories generally between 7,000 and 12,000 words, which makes them unpalatable even to the normal story outlets, although the wonderful Barcelona Review did publish one of them, under a different title, some years ago. At the same time, I’m thinking I’d like to write some much shorter pieces so that I can pamper my new-found love of reading aloud. So I may be on the edge of a flurry…
SP: If a reader is new to your work which would you recommend they tackle first, Little Monsters or The Scent of Cinnamon, and why?
CL: This is a difficult one. I’d like to say it was a question of choosing between range and depth, but I think the real issue is the one you touched on in your heart-warming post about this collection last week: that is, the tolerance of the average reader to short fiction. Even people who love reading tend to steer clear of short stories - and a lot of the claims made for them, like the argument that they’re ideal for modern lives and limited attention spans (i.e. to be read in the bathroom or the bus stop), don’t help very much, because they suggest they’re not much more than fillers and not really deserving of sustained attention. John Self commented on your blog that short stories actually require a more than proportionate amount of attention, and I think he’s right – it really has nothing to do with range and depth: a short story can have the range of a novel – look at Alice Munro or Annie Proulx - and a novel that doesn’t have the depth of a good short story isn’t really worth the bother of reading. So, for entirely pragmatic reasons, I’d prefer someone to read Little Monsters first. After which I hope they’d be won over sufficiently to have acquired a taste for my writing, which they can then indulge by reading The Scent of Cinnamon!
Thanks Charles, it has been a pleasure. Next stop on the tour will be the wonderfully titled Jockohomo blog.