Thursday, January 16, 2014

Interview: Charles Lambert (author of THE VIEW FROM THE TOWER)

Credit: Patrizia CasamirraCharles Lambert was born in England and educated at Cambridge, but has lived in Italy for more than twenty years.

His short fiction has been shortlisted for the Willesden Short Story Prize and his story 'The Scent of Cinnamon' won him an O. Henry Prize.

His most recent novel ANY HUMAN FACE was described by the Bookseller as 'immensely impressive ... holds you completely enthralled throughout' and in The Telegraph Jake Kerrdige described it as 'a slow-burning, beautifully written crime story that brings to like Rome that tourists don't see - luckily for them.'

THE VIEW FROM THE TOWER and THE FOLDING WORLD continue this suspenseful exploration of Rome's dark side. (bio from Exhibit A website:

Charles was kind enough to stop by the blog to answer some questions about THE VIEW FROM THE TOWER (Dec 2013, Exhibit A) and what to expect from him later this year.

*Read my review of THE VIEW FROM THE TOWER*

(Josh) All the characters (Martin, Helen, Giacomo, Federico etc.) are complex and multi-dimensional - a rarity in fiction for so many to be so deep and interesting. How did you develop these characters and what makes them so fascinating to read?

(Charles) First of all, thank you! I certainly wanted my characters to hold the reader’s attention, ideally as much as they held mine as I wrote the novel. Although the basic mechanism of the book is that of a crime thriller, with a murder and the subsequent search for a murderer, what really drives the action is the net of relationships the characters form with one another, and if relationships are to be successful, in life and in fiction, there has to be a level of complexity – and mystery - that keeps those involved on their toes. As a writer I found myself letting the characters lead me where they needed to go, as one draft followed another. I worked harder on this novel than on anything else I’ve written, and this is entirely due to the demands made on me by the people in it, and by their interactions. If that hadn’t been the case, of course, I wouldn’t have written (and re-written) the novel at all. 

As far as inspiration for specific characters goes, Martin, as I first conceived him, was loosely based on a journalist I had the privilege to work with once in Rome, but developed very much into his own man as the writing progressed, while Federico and Giacomo began as contrasting types  (rationality vs passion, Apollo vs Dionysus, bureaucrat vs buccaneer) and were startled into a more three-dimensional life through their relationships with Helen and each other. What’s interested me is the number of people who’ve found Helen unlikeable, but enthralling. It’s a gratifying indication that she lives for the reader, even if they might not want to have her as a friend. I’m very fond of her myself and, no, she isn’t based on anyone I know!

The View From The Tower
The murder mystery element plays second fiddle to the relationships Federico has with the respective cast, was this always the intention or did it evolve throughout the course of writing the book?

See above! More generally I’ve never been able to plot a book much beyond the immediate future of the end of the current chapter, and I’d get bored – and give up - if I knew how the novel was going to end in any more than the vaguest way. In the case of The View from the Tower, I started without the faintest idea who might have killed Federico. What I needed to explore was how a person might feel if her long-term partner died while she was having sex with another man, and, even though I felt the various parts of the novel fall into place when I did realize who was responsible, I still had a lot of surprises ahead of me - I was still primarily driven by the web of emotions that bound together the group of people I was writing about. The balance between plot and character is one of the greatest challenges in the genre, such as it is, of literary thriller – too much character stuff and readers get bored, too much action and characters become ciphers. My way of trying to achieve that balance is to let the protagonists reveal themselves, their motives, through what they say and do, and hope that what they say (and don’t say) and do (and fail to do) are exciting enough to grip the reader.

I enjoyed the pacing of The View from the Tower and was particularly interested to read the flashback sequences involving a younger Helen and Giacomo. How important are these sequences for the present day setting of the book (circa 2004)?

One of the things that gives the characters depth is the sense that they have a past, but the sequences in Turin also thicken the ethical broth. The central issue of the novel is the classic dilemma of means justifying ends, and how far this can be taken, and I was interested to look at how that dilemma plays out in two very different periods: a period of idealism and consequent violence, and a more recent period (the present day) in which terrorism is seen as the ‘other’ rather than as a realistic alternative to oppression, as so many people thought at that time. I remember chatting once to a telephone repairman who said that Renato Curcio (the jailed Red Brigades leader) would have squares named after him one day. That hasn’t happened, but it didn’t seem so unlikely in 1980.

I found the writing of the novel salutary in a personal sense too, as someone who lived through the ambiguities of the late 1970s in Italy in a state of (un)holy innocence, and now lives, as we all do, with the consequences, for good and bad, of those years. It made me realise – and face up to - my own ambiguities, something that Italy hasn’t entirely done. It’s still extraordinary to me to see how many people who flirted – and often slept - with terrorism three or four decades ago now occupy positions of institutional or cultural power here. Moving between the two periods sets up a perspective that throws this weird shift, I hope, into relief.

Politics play their part in proceedings; did you undertake much research when writing the book?

Not really. Helen’s experiences in Turin in 1978 more or less mirror my own, as far as the politics goes (my love life wasn’t quite as lively!). Even the figure of the knee-capped trades unionist is based on fact; he really did get sent to the Fiat plant in South Africa, though what happened to him after that I have no idea. One of the things that struck me (as it did Helen) is just how politicized Italians seemed to be then. After 20 years of Berlusconi and a general TV-driven dumbing down of political consciousness, that’s no longer as general a truth as it was, and one of the ironies of contemporary Italy is that it may be the only country in the world that depends on Rupert Murdoch (Sky) for relatively impartial TV news reporting. But people are still aware of the nitty-gritty of political horse-dealing in a way that’s unusual in English-speaking countries. So all the political background in the novel is the kind of stuff people simply pick up just by living here, from the air around them; and so is the level of cynicism that some characters in the novel sometimes display. There’s an Italian word – dietrologia (literally, behindology) that describes the tendency to look for the real reason behind anything, the skeleton in the cupboard, if you like, and people here generally have a probably healthy conviction that the truth about most things – from kickbacks to assassinations - will never come out.

Having said that, it’s also true that living and working in Rome means that I’ve had the chance to meet, and have as friends, people who are involved in politics at national level, or to know people who know them. I’m one or at most two degrees of separation, in Kevin Bacon terms, from at least three Italian presidents!

If you could describe The View from the Tower in one sentence what would it be?

The next book on your to-buy list? Alternatively (though I don’t like it nearly as much), ‘A gripping and moving novel about friendship, love, complicity and betrayal, and the damage done when ideals and human lives come into conflict.’

What’s next for Charles Lambert?

I have two books coming out later this year. The View from the Tower is the first in a trilogy of novels set in Rome (entirely or in part) and dealing with corruption and malpractices in one field or another of public and private life. The second novel in the trilogy - Any Human Face - came out three years ago (blame the vagaries of publishing!). The third, entitled The Folding World and due in November from Exhibit A, sees the return of Martin, Alina, and the two main characters from the second novel, and looks at sex-trafficking. It's dark! In the meantime, in late May this year, The Friday Project (HarperCollins) will be publishing a work of autobiographical fiction called With a Zero at its Heart, composed of 241 120-word texts and talking about pretty much everything: money, love, death, sex, clothes, music, and so on. I'm excited to be able to say that Vaughan Oliver, the brilliant graphic designer behind so many CD covers in the past thirty years, has designed the cover and the layout of the book. It should be a thing to treasure!

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