Friday, 28 October 2011


VG: Hi Charles - I so enjoyed 'Any Human Face'. It is lovely to be able to natter to you here to celebrate in a small way the publication of the paperback! So. Can you tell me about that title, first of all... where does it come from?

CL: I’d already written the first few chapters when I came across this phrase in Marilynne Robinson’s 'Gilead'
Any human face is a claim on you, because you can’t help but understand the singularity of it, the courage and loneliness of it.

I knew at once that I’d found the novel’s epigraph and title. Any is an ambiguous word in a way – it’s almost an antagonym in that it conveys a sense of what unites us and what distinguishes us – it’s singular, questioning and yet universal. At that point, the (very much) working title was 'Mug Shots', in reference to the exhibition of police photographs at the centre of the novel, but I knew that wasn’t what I wanted; if nothing else, the tone was entirely wrong.

VG: Yes - although it would have worked - it really jars! Too simplistic, perhaps, when the novel is anything but. It is quite complex. You do have to keep your wits about you, I find -all the different threads interweaving.

CL: By the time I read 'Gilead' (which I loved, by the way) I already had the three main narrative threads – based on Andrew, middle-aged bookseller, Alex, aspiring rent-boy, and the Girl – I was looking for something that would bring them together in a non-narrative way, and what Robinson was saying fitted perfectly. I was particularly attracted to the way she placed courage and loneliness side by side, as though they were two aspects of the same thing, because that was where the book was heading. I felt that I’d found corroboration.

VG: …Aha. isn't it a magical thing when a writer we may never meet in person seems to hold out a hand and shake the one that holds our writer's pen? As we've been discussing behind the scenes, this recurrent thread of loneliness that crops up again and again - that certainly seemed a very important theme. Was that deliberate - or was it something that emerged as you wrote? Looking back, was it always running beneath the surface layers?

CL: Yes, loneliness is certainly an issue in the book, and it’s something I absolutely hadn’t planned. I’d thought the heart of the book would be impotence in the face of mysterious, indifferent power structures (which is what I always seem to come back to!) But the more I wrote – and learnt - about Andrew the more his isolation seemed to be central to his understanding of the world. I’m lucky enough not to have experienced much loneliness these past few decades, and my memories of the kind of crushing, annihilating – and thank God, transient – loneliness I suffered as a teenager and in my twenties – a loneliness I remember now with a kind of shocked wonder – didn’t really help me with Andrew (although they did with Alex).

What interested me about Andrew’s life was the way being alone can simply happen, and bring with it a sort of resignation that damps everything down; the state of his flat is a case in point, as is the (I hope) rather poignant episode of internet sex, interrupted by the arrival of the stray cat. What I didn’t want to do, though, was give the impression that being gay necessarily leads to loneliness, any more than selling books for a living does, or living in Rome. It was important to me that Andrew, despite his passivity, be given a way out of his loneliness, so the way the novel ends didn’t just meet a narrative need by tying up loose ends; it made emotional sense as well. In a sense it brought loneliness and courage together just as the epigraph does.

Alex (by this time Sandro) also knows what it’s like to be alone, loveless, and in a foreign city, and there’s a sense of loss about the book that isn’t just to do with the fact that the first chapter ends with a murder. As the novel develops, there’s a death – and resurrection – of the spirit, if that isn’t too grand a term. I hope the feeling the book leaves in the reader isn’t of hopelessness, because that isn’t at all what I want and it wouldn’t do justice to Robinson’s epigraph. I like to think that courage can be rewarded, although it isn’t always, and that Alex/Sandro is as resourceful as I would like to be in his situation.

VG: I certainly didn't feel 'hopeless' at the end. The ending came as a shock - and I won't give it away (!) - but the overriding feeling is 'its the journey that matters, not always the end of the journey..' if that isn't too airy fairy. Much of the book is colourful, tantalising...and you take that with you at the end. Life is like that, I guess.

CL: I also found myself wanting the Birdman, a character who played a much more substantial part than I’d originally intended (although he also plays a central role in a still unpublished novel of mine, entitled The Apprentice, and set in a considerably darker Rome than the one in Any Human Face), to represent the sort of gregarious and accommodating affection I’ve found in parts of the gay world. He’s a mother hen, clucking over his chicks and meeting their needs, albeit in a fairly seedy way, and it’s only right that his affection be reciprocated.

VG: I loved the character of the Birdman - an immensely engaging figure, seedy or not. Hugely generous in so many ways, and something of an innocent - I liked the way he sits where several characters intersect. And yet, he is also isolated - maybe that is pointed up y the birds - I don't know. It's just what I felt. There are so many types of isolation in this story...culminating of course in the darkest - that of the Girl.

CL: The isolation of the Girl is of a different kind. It has nothing to do with loneliness and everything to do with the deliberate privation of freedom, and it’s mirrored in Andrew’s predicament in the second half of the novel. I don’t want to say too much about this for obvious reasons, but the tensions set up between a solitude that’s self-willed or, at least, self-created and one that’s imposed from without are the driving force behind the novel, and the point at which the personal and political, for want of a better word, meet.

VG: Reading 'Any Human Face' was a powerful experience. It transported me not only to the underbelly of a city I know only very slightly - but also across time, opening windows onto the lives of characters who I still think about, even though I read the book some months back. There are so many questions posed, and half-answered - especially questions surrounding the central images, portraits, photographs whose origin is suspect. I found myself pondering - who 'owns' ones face? One seen, once photographed - does our likeness belong elsewhere as well as to us? And it has echoes of ancient concerns about the soul somehow being damaged if an image of a face is taken...

.I'll stop nattering to myself! Charles, thank you so much for chatting, and for writing AHF. I do hope we are lucky enough to see the next novel in line before too long...

Buy the paperback 'Any Human Face' - now available on Amazon!
Follow Charles Lambert on his blog, HERE.

Saturday, 22 October 2011


A while back, Salt Publishing kindly send me a pre-publication copy of ‘Vault’ to read for comment and review. I started it and enjoyed it – but life kept getting in the way more than once or twice - as those who have followed the goings on in my life (version 2011) will know. ‘Vault’ has been sitting patiently on my desk, waiting for me to read it again this time with no interruptions – and with many apologies to both David Rose and to Salt, finally, yippee!

‘Vault’, published earlier this year by Salt under its Modern Fiction wing, edited by Nicholas Royle, is an anti-novel. What IS an anti-novel? Was this a clever device intended to catch the eye, or was it really something working against what we expect when we read a novel? I think that yes, on one level it really is an anti-novel. It works like this. The main character of this novel, (for it is one, and a clever one) steps out of the realm of fiction, clothes himself in fact, and thus clothed, peers back into the unfolding narrative as the facts of his life are shaken and embroidered by the novelist. What novelist? Not this one – not David Rose – but another character, a novelist we never meet, a novelist who is repeatedly taken to task by the ‘real’ main character for playing fast and loose with a life that needs no embroidering.
Sounds complex – no, not really. It is logical, there is a pleasing pattern to the pieces which reel out like something dancing round inside a zoetrope. Or, to use yet another analogy, it is a Moebius strip of a novel. Whatever image I use, it is a novel I much enjoyed, as much for its originality as for its prose, its balance, and of course, the story that underpins the whole.
David Rose has carved out a reputation as a gifted writer of short fiction, and it struck me more than once that those skills were strongly at play in “Vault”. The work is short and to the point, but it is also complex, and the reader does need to work to make their way through the maze. I like that! I must admit, though, had I not been helped by the description of the book on the back cover, I might have got a tad lost, and had to retrace my steps.
So, basically –
The main character is a cyclist who becomes a wartime sniper, then returns after the war to dispense aid and occasionally retribution. He then becomes a somewhat unwilling post-war nuclear spy, seems to me. Perfect material for a novel indeed, and sure enough, the novel is there, or sections thereof. Only he does not approve of the way his experiences have been embroidered, and cheapened, as his life has been turned from actual to fiction. So we have a pattern of ‘memoir’ then fiction – which switches to fiction then comment via memoir. The voices are distinct. The ‘novel’ sections are a little more 'writerly', as the unseen novelist stretches to make the events seem more exciting, more colourful. The voice of the memoir sections (for want of a better word) is flatter, factual. It is extremely easy to forget that one is, in fact reading a novel with a novel within it...hence the Moebius strip analogy – which probably does not hold water – but what’s wrong with a good jumble of ill-at-ease mixed metaphors when describing ‘Vault’, which does not lend itself to simple description?!
I am very glad I read this book. It is a very clever, very interesting, original short novel, which rewards a close read in spades. I can recommend!

You can read the first four sections here on the Salt website. You can buy it from the same place, and all the usual suspects online.

Added: I have been nattering with David Rose since posting this review - and was fascinated by some of the info in one of his messages - so with permission, as this adds hugely to the overview of the book and refers to one of my own best inspirations, W G Sebald :
I haven't reread Vault since I wrote it, nearly 10 years ago, except to proofread, as I hate rereading my own work, so I forget sometimes that it may be more challenging than was intended; several people told me they read it twice, which may be worrying.
The initial idea was based on fact, i.e. someone responding to a novel of their life - you may remember it: the woman who claimed that W.G. Sebald had used her lifestory for his novel Austerlitz, which he admitted to.
That's all I had to work with - the unease at one's life, and more importantly, one's death being appropriated. The plot was constructed as I went along. I have done a fair bit of cycling, so decided to use that for authenticity, although the pre-war history needed research. As did all the rest - sniping, the battles scenes, the post-war CND marches, which I just remember...
I gather a lot more elements got mixed in as I wrote, the density accumulating in the writing act, which I am sure you have experienced, especially in your new novel.

Friday, 21 October 2011


Well it does a sort of loomlet. 2 weeks to go. Launch party, publication date and how I feel about it all, over on The Coward's Journey.
And news of a glowingly positive pre-pub review on Booklist in the USA - which culminates thus:

The author’s Welsh upbringing is evident in everything from the lyrical cadences of her characters’ speech to the names of the small town’s neighborhoods and conjures a genuine sense of place. By using an ensemble cast to give multiple perspectives on the event that dominates the town’s history, Gebbie puts a prodigious narrative skill on full display.

Can't ask for more, really.

(Booklist, my friend Wikipedia tells me, is, " a publication of the American Library Association that provides critical reviews of books and audiovisual materials for all ages. It is geared toward libraries and booksellers and is available in print (ISSN 0006-7386) or online.")

Thursday, 13 October 2011


Two erstwhile writing colleagues from The Fiction Workhouse of old (My online writing home for a few years - a small closed writing group) have contacted me with brilliant news. I am sooo pleased for them, hardworking writers both.

Chelsey Flood, first - writing now as C J Flood. I met her at Exeter at the launch party of the first Riptide Journal, loved her work, and when she said she did not have a writing group, but would like to work with a good one, invited her to join. Now, a few years down the line, and after time spent at UEA as well, she's emailed to tell me that she's landed a fantastic deal for two YA novels with Simon and Schuster and a German publisher. Both the English and the German rights went to separate auctions. 'Silverweed' (or whatever the final title is) is going to be a real hit! Chelsey blogs here, at C J Flood.

You can read an old bio, hear her reading her story 'The Grief Benches' here, on Route Online... Posted this because its nice to hear, and a good story - but also, look at that bio. We were all there once, with a few publications - then wham! Fab, and I am delighted!

Michael Logan next. I judged the Fish One-Page comp back in the dark ages, and awarded this story, I Will Go Ahead and Wait for You, First Prize. Michael doesn't live round these parts - currently, he is based in Kenya - and he couldn't attend the Fish prizegiving in Bantry - so I offered to read the story for him. We ended up corresponding, and he too joined the FW for a while. Michael emailed to let me know he had won Terry Pratchett's 'Anywhere but here, Anywhen but now...' novel competition and yup - another success. Here he is, (on the left) with Terry Pratchett and the other winner, also a Logan, coincidence!)
Michael's novel 'Apocalypse Cow' (fantastic title - a tale of zombie animals...) is to be published in May 2012 by Transworld. He blogs HERE.

Who says I can't pick a good writer when I see one!

Tuesday, 4 October 2011


The 2011 winner, D W Wilson
Runner-up Jon McGregor
finalist Alison MacLeod
finalist K J Orr
finalist M J Hyland
And which event did I not include in the last post, held on Monday 26th in London, and to which I stumbled through a sudden downpour that had people making a dash for trains, doorways, in water that spilled over the pavement it came down that fast?

The BBC National Short Story Award Prize Giving Event. The short story world is very small -everyone seems to know or know of everyone else and I knew three of the shortlist. Alison MacLeod, Katherine Orr, and Jon McGregor. Jon and I share an editor, Alison is author of one of the chapters in Short Circuit, generous lady - and Katherine Orr I'd met at Small Wonder, properly. Stunning stories all.
A boozy bash, but I never knew short story writers and editors could be so NOISY! And BBC Radio 4s Front Row programme was going out live in the midst, so 'herding cats and asking a mob of crows to be quiet please,' seems to be a good analogy. Still, quiet we were. To hear speeches, including an odd confession from Gwynneth Williams, read from a paper tugged from her pocket, about how much she loves fiction and how vital it is...the applause was er- muted. Lions' den stuff, brave woman.

It was fairly nailbiting. Silence fell. We cheered to order as the programme was announced. And this year's prize went to Canadian writer D W Wilson. 'Front Row' continued with a recorded something or other, and we returned to the wine.
Great to see Clare Hey of Shortfire, Diana Reich, organiser of Small Wonder, reviewer David Hebblethwaite, writer Adam Marek - and of course the Bloomsbury team supporting Jon.
Congrats to all indeed.

Sunday, 2 October 2011


This pic courtesy of The Paper Princess, Yasmine Hussain
Wednesday 28th - the first ever reading, nay, the World Premiere of The Coward's tale, courtesy of Damian Barr and the Aubin & Wills Westbourne Grove Literary Salon. Playing to a packed house, with chairs set among the jumpers, suits and hacking jackets, Eleanor Moran and I both read and then had a natter with Damian, took questions form the floor. It all seemed to go down well, I had a smashing time, dinner afterwards with some ardent followers (not of me, of Damian!) and back to my club. Ahem. Thank to the Bedford Four too, for coming down special!

I got to meet and natter to an artist I have admired for a long time - Greyson Perry. We met at Bloomsbury's 25th Birthday bash, which, in true style, covered the centre of Bedford Square in London in a marquee and filled it with over 1000 authors past present and future, publishers, agents, printers, literary reviewers, illustrators, and oodles more.

For Dutch courage, the lovely Claire King met me at The New Cavendish Club (I have associate membership thanks to my membership of SWWJ) and we downed a G and T before heading off eastwards in a taxi. I regressed, unashamedly, into a teenage celeb-spotter. Lovely to see my buddy Andrew, my agent Euan, my editor Helen, the paperback editor Tram-Anh (which means Wise One), and to meet Jane Rusbridge and Precious Williams for the first time, Marika Cobbold for the second time, Selma Dabbagh for the at least third time, Jeremy Osborne of Sweet Talk for the first time, to eat finger food by the best (including haggis in a roll - which for a hot evening, was amazing!) -drink endless champagne. Happy Birthday Bloomsbury, and here's to the next 25. Who knows, with luck and a following wind, I'll be there at the 50th. In my zimmer.
And here is the paperback cover sent to me by Tram-Anh. With a few tweaks, including adding Rhymney Beers to the hotel signs, its smashing!