Sunday, 2 September 2012

Interview with Zoe Lambert

I recently interviewed short story writer Zoe Lambert. Zoe's debut collection The War Tour was shortlisted for the 2012 Edge Hill Prize. The War Tour has been described as 'disarmingly plain and to-the-point... a kind of narrative ambush' (The Guardian) and 'A startlingly good collection of stories' (Mslexia). 

I will be looking at The War Tour with first year students in the coming weeks and I hope Zoe's candid and detailed responses to the questions below will add something to the discussion of her quietly devastating stories.

Congratulations on the publication of The War Tour and your shortlisting for the Edge Hill Prize. How long did it take for you to write the stories in this collection?

It was written in stages. The book began with ‘These Are Only Words’ and The Breakfast She Had’, which I published in a short story cycle in 2005. Then I was trying to finish a PhD for years, which some more of the stories ended up being a part of. But I wrote the majority of the book post PhD in 2010. It’s the kind of book I couldn’t write overnight; it needed time to develop and mature.

It’s annoying to be asked if stories are autobiographical (so I’m not going to do it) but when I was reading the collection I felt as if there might be a lot of ‘you’ in the title story. Is this true and do you share some of James's reservations about tourism and war?

Only in a superficial way. I did go to Sarajevo, and went on a tour very much like the one described, but I mercilessly changed details and facts, and used the two characters and their argument to question what I was doing in writing the book (a questioning I continued in ‘Notes’) as well as the assumption that any kind of ‘tourists’ view of things can give you some window onto the world. Yes, I wholeheartedly share James’ reservations, but on the other hand a blanket dismissal of war tourism would also be wrong. For example, I think everyone, and I mean everyone, should go to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.

There’s actually a lot of ‘me’ permeated through some of the stories, or at least certain feelings and emotions, even in the characters that aren’t young and female. Of course, the relation of the self to writing is more complex than the insertion of autobiographical experiences or facts or the creation of characters of the same age and gender as the author. For example, while I was writing the book I was for various reasons feeling pretty trapped and frustrated with my life. I was unhappy and anxious most of the time, and filled with an often overwhelming sense of fear. Looking back, I think those feelings are present in a number of the stories, even though of course, my feelings had nothing to do with the enormity of what the characters were going through. It’s probably obvious The War Tour wasn’t written by a very happy person, and more importantly, one who wasn’t very happy with the world. But admitting this doesn’t really add anything to readers’ understanding of the book. So what if I was a bit miserable? It’s funny that talking about autobiography is the first thing you’re told not to do when studying literature, but we are all obsessed with it. Sometimes I wish people would remember, ‘The Death of the Author’. Please, please kill me off and think about the writing in its own terms.

I love the variety in The War Tour. I imagine that ‘The Spartacist League’ (one of my favourite stories) required a lot of historical research, whereas other stories suggest a familiarity with certain cities and countries. How did you approach the research for the collection?

I’m glad you like that story. The research was a mix of the experienced, of travel, of engagement with issues and with bookish research. I list some of the books in the 3am interview (insert link). Mostly, the point of my research was to try to understand the personal experiences of certain conflicts rather than the macro-politics. How did people end up doing what they do? How has it affected them? How do they live with it? Though I also did a lot of research into the backgrounds of conflicts. I tried to go beyond mainstream media, and to look into alternative media and histories; it’s probably evident I’ve taken a Chomsky-esque approach to issues of foreign policy. I used my university library access to read academic political journals. I was looking for the untold stories, the stories that countered the tabloid media representations of recent and past wars; the details that contradicted my assumptions about the world. Many recent conflicts have their roots in European colonial legacy, so I researched into that and I tried to draw some of the stories back to that (again, see ‘Notes’). I tried to be aware of where I was writing from, and my own position in history. But can you ever write outside of your own political moment? The book could never be the ideal book I wanted it to be; it was destined to be a failed project.

I really liked Rosa as a historical figure because she was one of the few women revolutionaries and Marxist theorists. I wanted to capture how she was constantly observing the events in the world and in Germany and thinking about them in terms of the bigger (Marxist) picture, so I included this kind of language in the narrative voice, which is written in a closely focalised third person. But she wasn’t just a theorist. She was a woman with hopes and dreams, and some of those never happened for her (having children, for example). I read biographies written by her contemporaries and a lot of her letters. I also revisited Berlin for this story and the Lise Meitner story. But overall, much of Berlin has changed since 1919, so I looked at some old maps and photos to recreate it in my mind. For example, this photo (insert link) shows her wowing a crowd and was the basis of her speech at the beginning of the story, and this photo (insert link) became the scene when they are fighting behind bales of paper (a lot of the fighting happened in the publishing district of Berlin).

The crux of the story though is based on what we don’t know about her death. The triangular relationship I set up in the story comes from Mathilde Jacob’s biography, but no one knows who told the authorities about where she was hiding. So what we don’t know became an essential ingredient of the plot. That’s where I messed with history. Without this being revealed there would be no story, just a sequence of events (to quote E M Forster) leading up to her death (as there was in an early draft). Also, because it’s a known fact that she was assassinated, I ended it on her knowing she will die, of her having a premonition of her death in a very self-consciously Spartacus moment (I am Spartacus; I am Rosa Luxemburg). In many ways, with the repetition of language, the ending of the story is very stylised.

I tried to vary the shape and form of the stories, while keeping them realist. So this story ended up not seeming like a short story; to me it feels more like a novella.  It was quite hard to keep the stories as neat ‘stories’, or ones that focused on an epiphany or revelatory moment. They had to be bigger, more expansive, cover longer periods of time: all things people don’t think short stories should do. But I wasn’t trying to write perfect short stories, I was trying to write half-decent stories about war.

It seems to me that the collection had to open and close with ‘These Words Are No More Than A Story About A Woman On A Bus’ and ‘We’ll Meet Again.’ Did you always envisage these stories as the opening and closing stories? Do you think order is important in a collection and how did you decide on the order of the stories? 

Order is very important in this book. ‘These Are only words’ sets up the reader as being a listener to the stories, but it wasn’t written for that purpose; it just happened to work and it was reprinted without change from Ellipsis 2. But I wrote ‘We’ll Meet Again’ as the final story. I wanted a sense of quiet closure; something meditative, of life going on. It is also set the night after the other stories set in Manchester, so we see Japhet again on the tram heading off in a moment of possibility.

For the order, I had a sense of a day passing in the connected Manchester stories (From Kandahar, Lebensborn, 33 Bullets, We’ll Meet Again). They were the framework of the book, giving it a slight temporal arc. In between these I wanted some stories to be read before others (for example, I wanted 33 Bullets to come before When the Truck Came). I also wanted them to be varied in terms of place and time. For the remaining stories I basically wrote the titles on pieces of paper and played cards with them to work out the order.

Were there stories you had originally written for The War Tour which ended up not being included in the collection?

I spent ages trying to write a ‘corridors of power’ story about Whitehall and Iraq. I tried to write about that coldness that comes with bureaucracy, but I wasn’t able to in the end. Maybe I’ll write it some day...

CommaYou had editorial feedback from Comma’s Ra Page. What’s it like to work with an editor? Were there times when you disagreed?

When you’re writing a book, it can be hard to see its outlines, especially a collection of stories, in which there are so many disparate parts. But an editor can see the outline because they are outside of it. I think Ra saw what the book could become before I did and his feedback and editing was invaluable (for example, he made some of the suggestions for the ending of Rosa’s story). We certainly disagreed. With feedback, mostly what I’d do is take on board his suggestions and think about them for a while and then come back to him or work on the stories. It can also be tempting, especially if it’s your first book, to think, The Editor Knows Best. But a good editor won’t want you to agree with everything they say. Editing is a process and a dialogue.

Do you have a favourite story in the collection? If you do, why is it your favourite?

I think ‘My Sangar’, only because it manages to do so much in 300 words. It has a purity to it. It makes me wonder if I wasted lots of words in the other stories: could they all be 300 words?

The War TourDid you have any input in the cover design? Is it what you hoped for/envisaged?

The cover is made up of my passport stamps, my dad’s and my friend who is Ugandan. So I collected the passports and the designer used them to make the cover. The background is the inside of a Ugandan passport. I like it because it highlights the idea of borders, border control and immigration that are so important to the book.

What are you working on now?

A new book. Its narrative shape and form keeps changing. It draws upon my own experiences of disability and caring, which I began to write about in my Ellipsis 2 stories. I’m developing those themes and bringing in more about the cuts and changes to welfare happening at the moment, but I want to juxtapose this domestic story with a genre narrative, bit like in Margaret Atwood’s Bodily Harm. At the moment I’m not feeling very confident about it and hating everything I write. But I know what I want it to be, what I want it to do. It will be a lot funnier than The War Tour... I hope....

Where do you like to write?

In bed. In cafes. In libraries. In pubs. Anywhere but at my desk. I don’t know why. I think these other places enable me to escape my own thoughts, but at a desk I can’t.

In an interview with 3am Magazine, you say, ‘a friend told me to just keep writing instead of trying to plan everything in advance; the links and form would emerge through the writing process.’ I can see how this advice would be very freeing as you worked on the stories in The War Tour and I’m interested to know whether you continue to keep writing instead of trying to plan everything in advance in your present work. 

I’m quite an abstract writer; I know what I want to achieve with a story, or the idea behind it, and sometimes the feeling, but HOW I will get there isn’t so planned and I usually have to find this out in the writing process. What didn’t work was trying to impose a form or structure on the stories beforehand, or repeating a structure. At one point I tried to make some of the stories very postmodern and knowing, but I got rid of that. It felt trite.

With my new work, I have a strong idea of what my book is about. But as I said the structure and form of it keeps changing. How I will get there is still a mystery. And that is scary.


  1. I can really relate to the idea that a story cannot have a structure imposed onto it but that once fully emerged the story will find its own form.
    An interesting interview. I want to read the book now!

  2. Do read it Alison, it's really very good and it's one of those books that continues to niggle at you afterwards.