Today I’m welcoming the lovely Charles Lambert to Typewritered to talk about his novel ‘The Children’s Home’, published by Gallic Books. Here is the blurb:
A beguiling and disarming novel about a mysterious group of children who appear to a disfigured recluse and his country doctor.
Morgan Fletcher, the disfigured heir to a fortune of mysterious origins, lives on a sprawling estate, cut off from a threatening world. One day, his housekeeper, Engel, discovers a baby left on the doorstep. Soon more children arrive, among them stern, watchful David. With the help of Engel and town physician Doctor Crane, Morgan takes the children in, allowing them to explore the mansion … and to begin to uncover the strange and disturbing secrets it holds.
Cloaked in eerie atmosphere, this distorted fairy tale and the unsettling questions it raises will stay with the reader long after the final page.
Thanks so much, Charles!
Where did the idea for ‘The Children’s Home’ come from?
The first idea wasn’t so much an idea as an image of a man alone in a high room. I wanted to know why he was there and why he was alone. I was reading a novel by Clarice Lispector at the time and she says something in it about monsters, and that what makes someone a monster might be what makes them human, and that also fed into my sense of who Morgan was. I knew that I didn’t want him to be lonely and I wanted to understand how that could be avoided.
I wrote the novel over a very long period – about ten years – in a series of bursts, and the inspiration for it came from a host of different places, so many it’s hard for me to remember. But an installation by Christian Boltanski of folded children’s clothes came at exactly the right moment and pointed me in a direction I hadn’t seen or expected up to that point. Dreams also played their, often gory, part.
Would you say this novel fits into a specific genre? Eg: magical realism? Surrealist fiction? Literary?
Yes. Yes. And yes. And I think we can throw in Gothic and Fairy tale for good measure. Which is another way of saying that it doesn’t actually fit that neatly into any genre. I don’t think in genre terms when I write, in the sense of feeling an obligation to respect a fixed set of rules, although I’ve drawn on various genres quite a lot. But I’m quite capable of writing what looks like a murder investigation and not providing a culprit, which is something that has delighted and infuriated my readers in more or less equal proportions.
The writing in ‘The Children’s Home’ has a unique, stream of consciousness style. As I haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading your earlier work, can you tell me if this this always the case, or is it unique to this particular novel?
Each book requires its own style, I think. My first, Little Monsters, was written in the first person, and alternated between a child’s view of the world and that of an adult. In other books, I’ve used a choral approach, with viewpoints shifting from one character to the next, with each partial viewpoint contributing to the story as a whole. My work is often set in Italy, where I live, and my characters frequently have to negotiate in a world that doesn’t belong to them culturally or linguistically, and this definitely has an effect on the way they think and express themselves. The Children’s Home is set in a place where anything might happen, and often does, and I wanted to naturalise that by having a rather formal, almost Edwardian tone to the language. But, as I said, each book sets its own agenda…
I would describe ‘The Children’s Home’ as elusive, compelling and slightly gothic. The story begins with gifted children turning up out of nowhere into the home of a man who hides away from the world. They begin to change him, but as the story continues it grows darker. I’ve never read anything quite like it. Did the different themes in the novel come naturally as the story formed or did you intend on incorporating them from the beginning?
As I said above the book grew in fits and starts, but the main themes, of isolation and self-loathing and self-acceptance, were there from the beginning, as was the idea of monstrousness, and the various forms this could take. Sometimes people can be monstrous and yet believe they’re doing good, and vice versa. The challenge for me was to find a story that would make these themes live and, as is the way with stories, bring out a complexity I hadn’t expected, and that’s what happened, I think. But I’m anticipating your next question…
Many have disagreed on the interpretation of this novel and the lasting impact it has on the reader. There is love and acceptance mixed with secrets and evil. Without revealing too much of the plot, can you tell me what was your intention with this novel? Did you look to convey a particular message when writing or did you deliberately lean towards keeping it ambiguous, open to different interpretations?
I can’t say anything about lasting impact, although I’d obviously like that to be the case. It’s certainly a book that divides readers and those who are uncomfortable with ambiguity have had problems with it. My intention with the book, as with all books, is to make a world that convinces out of words. The challenge with this particular book was to make a world that both is and isn’t the world we live in, something I’ve done several times in my short fiction, but never in a novel. It has to ring true, even if it’s unrecognisable or only recognisable in part. China Miéville is a writer who does this with great assurance, I think. I don’t have messages as such, and I don’t think it’s the job of fiction to proselytise or persuade, but no human act resists interpretation, and that’s especially true of something as constructed as a work of fiction. But I love the idea of the work being open to more than one interpretation. One of the most satisfying things about publishing a book is to have people discover things in it you weren’t aware of when you wrote it – things that are actually, wonderfully, serendipitously, there.
A recent review on Fiction Unbound(http://www.fictionunbound.com/blog/2016/5/12/mooncultsandorphans), for example, uses the cult of Artemis as a way into the book, and finds some creepily precise correspondences. Did I know this as I wrote? I don’t know if I did or not, and I’m not sure how much I want or need to know. I loved the classical world as a child, so maybe I had it stored away and waiting. However it happened, the links are there!
Do you have a writing routine? What does this look like?
I write when I can. I work as an editor for a UN agency and also teach English at one of Rome’s three universities, so time is always short. I can’t afford to have a routine because something else might interrupt me, and then I’m buggered. I write on the train, at work when I get a chance, in the early hours of the morning if I wake up and find myself thinking about the work in progress, as I often do. Sometimes I push everything else to one side because I have to get something written, and then I have to live with the consequences. At other times, I aim for the canonical 1000 words a day…
Do you plan your stories carefully with character profiles, timelines, post-it notes etc. or do you prefer to allow the story to come to you as you write?
Which writers (if any) have influenced your writing?
Too many to name. I’ve always read voraciously – a little less these days for lack of time. I loved the English modernists – Lawrence, Huxley, Woolf, Waugh – as a teenager. At university, I read Pynchon and poetry, and Isherwood, lots of Isherwood. I had a long affair with Trollope, Thackeray, George Eliot and the Russians when I first came to live in Italy in my 20s and I still re-read Trollope every couple of years or so as a kind of re-rooting process. Perec taught me the fun of constraints, and how less is more. Gay writers – from Genet to White (Edmund and Patrick), Tournier, more Isherwood, Rechy, Frank O’Hara – have been massively important to me. I love Penelope Fitzgerald and Sybille Bedford and Anthony Powell. Right now, I’m nuts for Knausgaard. I like genre writing a lot as well: King, MR James, Duane Swierczynski (fantastic pulp fiction writer), Simenon, Vargas, and I’ve recently discovered Pascal Garnier – highly recommended. I’m a Game of Thrones nerd. How and how much all this has influenced me is anybody’s guess!
What advice would you give to aspiring authors of fiction?
The same advice we all give, I think. Write, read, write, read, write, read, write. Edit. Listen to advice, but don’t necessarily take it. Oh yes, and that thing about killing your darlings…I like that.