Charles Lambert Interview : Memory, ‘Truth’ and Lucky Jockstraps

Interview with: Charles Lambert
by Megan Taylor

Having loved his award-winning collection ‘The Scent of Cinnamon and Other Stories’ (Salt, 2008), I was delighted to meet Charles Lambert earlier this year. Charles was just as warm and interesting as you might expect from his writing and after being thoroughly blown away by his most recent release, ‘With a Zero at its Heart’ (The Friday Project, 2014) , I got back in touch with him to find out more.

‘With a Zero at its Heart’ is an unforgettable book, which tells the story of a man’s life through a series of beautiful fragments. The language is as breathtaking as its structure is groundbreaking – every one of its twenty-four themed chapters is divided into ten paragraphs, each of these consisting of 120 words. This seemingly patchwork approach comes together triumphantly (seamlessly!) illuminating what it is to grow and love and lose – to be alive.

It’s a mesmerising and compelling read, full of human treasures, which made me smile and cringe, laugh and cry. Subjects including ‘The Body’, ‘Theft’, ‘Money’ and ‘Waiting’ reveal that there is nothing mundane, even in life’s smallest moments, and in the chapter entitled ‘Work’ I don’t think I have ever read such a resonant description of the magic of writing.

...The one true work is the one that works something out, uncertain what it is, working in darkness, working the inside out. Outside the circle of light is the darkness and silence of a mine and there is no telling what the mine will hold. What’s mine is yours. There is no sense to work but in the doing.

In the wake of this perfect depiction, it feels almost sacrilegious to ask Charles to explain his writing further. Nevertheless, here I go...

With its unusual format, ‘With a Zero at its Heart’ is as powerful in its telling as what is told. Would you like to say anything about how you decided on its structure? Did you ever have any anxieties that it might not work?

The structure grew out of the writing. The first text to be produced just happened to be 120 words (honestly), and it struck me as being a nice size: it was long enough for an idea to be developed, or an episode to be described, but short enough not to become prolix. Having decided that, and having decided that the exercise was worth repeating, ten texts per theme was an obvious number. And then 24 (120 x 240), and so on. Every review of the book has begun by talking about its structure, partly because of the perfectly natural emphasis on that aspect of the book in its promotion, and then gone on to say, more or less explicitly, that despite that, it’s actually a bloody good read. Which is, of course, what I hoped people would say.

I’m attracted by the idea of constraints as an aid to writing – among my earliest work as a precocious fourteen-year-old is a sequence of Petrarchan sonnets on historical figures! – but I don’t see them as anything other than that. If I’d thought it wasn’t working with Zero, I’d probably have dropped the whole thing, but the idea of its working or not never really entered my head. I would have had to know what it should be doing in order to estimate its success, and I really had no idea what kind of book it was, or would become.

It wasn’t until I’d finished (or thought I had) and mentioned it to my agent (the wonderful Isobel Dixon) that it struck me – on her instigation – as being a book worth sharing with others. Later, when I started talking to Isobel about Georges Perec and Oulipian constraints, she suggested I go easy on that side of things, or talking about them anyway, and I think she was right. They’re not at all intrinsic to the book’s effect, I don’t think, although they may attract slightly OCD readers and put off people who value spontaneity, whatever that is. (Inspiration is something else entirely.)

It is true though that, as a writer, I’m mildly obsessed by the formal patterns any text establishes for itself at the outset. If the first chapter of a novel happens to be around 3000 words, then that will probably be the length, more or less, of all the other chapters. But this is rather like footballers wearing a lucky jockstrap. No one else needs to see it!

How did you choose which moments to include? Was there much you felt you had to leave out?

I wrote the first half of the book at a time when my life, in a practical sense, was on hold, so it was a question of sitting and letting the mind drift, backwards and then forwards again, in a relatively unfettered way. It was a time for reflection, I wasn’t writing for anyone other than myself (although see below), so I didn’t worry too much about what should or should not go in. There were occasions when I wondered if I’d find ten episodes worth writing about, but they were rare, and soon overcome. I don’t remember feeling that anything was being left out, although that has happened since. I think that I internalised the structure early on and my imagination worked within that structure without too much difficulty.

How much of the book is fiction? How much fact? Considering the book’s meditations on the blurring of memories, feelings and imagination – does it matter?

There are some big issues here, Megan, and I’ll be addressing them in a book I’m about to write, based (if that’s the word I want – I’m not sure that it is) on my mother’s life, what I remember of it, what I know of it through her own accounts, the gaps that will get filled in as I do this, the gaps I choose to leave. Someone (David Mitchell?) remarked recently that as soon as a memory is
formulated and transformed into narrative it becomes a fiction, and it’s hard to argue with that. On a more frivolous note (or perhaps not) Maynard Keynes said that the trick of writing a biography was to take a real person and then make everything up, and that’s also – perhaps pre-eminently – true of autobiography. This is one of the reasons the main character of With a Zero at its Heart is referred to as ‘he’, rather than ‘I’; it isn’t a distancing grammatical manoeuvre so much as a recognition that the person I’m describing is also a person I’m inventing, and discovering as I write. I did use material from my own life, although I sneaked across borders occasionally to poach an episode from other people’s lives if I felt it made sense, but the life that’s presented in the book isn’t mine, but ‘his’. And, as you say, does it matter?

Assuming an autobiographical element to the book, has its publication left you feeling exposed or protected? (I’m thinking about how each of these precious collected pieces have now been preserved, like the fascination explored in ‘Objects’ for an insect trapped in amber.)

A good friend said that I must be mad to expose myself in this way – I think he used the word ‘clinical’ in this context! – but I’ve always been a confessional sort of person. People often talk about having a book in them, and my book has always been an open one; I’ve never seen the point of any other sort. Exposing yourself in this way is also a form of self-protection, like the reclamation of potentially offensive language. It catches attackers off-guard, and then deprives them of their arms. The only problem about preserving these moments in this way is that my fund of anecdotes has been severely reduced; what’s worse is that I can’t always remember what’s gone into the book and what hasn’t!

How much do you think about your readers while you’re writing? What, if anything, would you like people to take from this book?

I don’t think about my readers at all, ever, as I write. This may sound like arrogance, but it’s common sense. The notion of double-guessing potential readers, with all their different needs and tastes, as something that feeds into the actual writing process sounds like taking the fast lane to madness, and then silence. What I do think about is getting the book right, which in many cases also means having in mind (or wherever) a sense of what sort of book I’m writing – earlier novels of mine have acknowledged the existence of genre-determined structures (by respecting or subverting them), and in those cases there is a sort of contract with the eventual reader in terms of meeting (or not) expectations. This didn’t apply with Zero, of course, because it doesn’t fit neatly or otherwise into any genre, and because, to be honest, I never imagined it would have any readers. I’m still overwhelmed that Scott Pack should have felt the risk of publishing it worth taking; I can’t thank him, and The Friday Project, enough for their faith in the book.

Having completed a book, of course, I care very much what readers think. I have a small group of people, including Isobel, who get to see my work as soon as I feel it’s ready to be shown, and I care very much what they have to say about it. I like to think I’m also open to constructive criticism and ready to kill my darlings if necessary. You’d better ask my first readers if that’s actually the case.

What would I like readers to take from this particular book? Whatever they most need, I suppose, and I have no idea what that might be. I’ve been startled and gratified to see how varied people’s reactions are; no two reviewers have picked on the same section as their favourite. I’ve also been intrigued to see how moments and events I considered entirely ‘mine’ should have been shared by so many other people, their memories triggered by the book. And for a text that looks, and to a certain extent is, unnervingly experimental, it’s turned out to be surprisingly user-friendly and, in a literal sense, inspirational. Several people, who don’t write, have told me they plan to use a similar approach to look back at their own lives. I’m happy with that.

With a Zero at its Heart, perhaps more than any other book, proves that the devil can be found in the detail (and what glorious devils! What devastating and wonderful details!) Are you a writer who always carries a notebook? Do you keep diaries?

I do carry a notebook, but I tend not to make notes of what I see, so much as to jot down ideas on the book I’m working on at that moment. I haven’t kept a proper diary since I was a teenager, and, looking back at it, that’s probably a good thing. Interestingly, given what I say above about not writing for readers, my teenage diary was so obviously aimed for posterity that it’s impossible to read without cringing. But imagining that you’re being observed, and eternally interesting, is an essential part of being an adolescent.

An enormous warmth underlies your prose - which books or writers have moved you?

I’m easily moved. Having said that, and without thinking too hard about it, books that have made me cry (which I’ll use as the measure here) in the past few years include FG Farrell’s Empire trilogy (all of them), Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials (buckets), Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series (particularly the first volume) and Austerlitz, by WG Sebald. Mary Renault’s Greek novels can still reduce me to a quivering heap, often on public transport, and Jamie O’Neill’s At Swim Two Boys had a similar effect when I read it some years ago. I’m deeply moved by love against all odds, and pity. John Wilkinson said that the quality he most loved in Zero was its ‘deep kindness’, and that’s probably the comment I’ve been happiest to hear. I’m sure there are other books I’ll remember the minute it’s too late for this list to be changed, but these will have to do for now.

They will certainly do – a great selection. Thank you so much, Charles, for all your generosity.


Along with his shorter fiction, Charles Lambert also writes novels – which, needless to say, will be next on my reading list. ‘Little Monsters’, a Good Housekeeping selection, was published by Picador in 2008. ‘Any Human Face’ (Picador, 2011), described in The Guardian as 'a sophisticated literary thriller' is the first in a trilogy set in modern-day Rome. Its eagerly awaited follow-up, ‘The View from the Tower’, was released in 2013 and the concluding volume, ‘The Folding World’ will be published in November. I also can’t wait to get my hands on Charles Lambert’s next book to be published by The Friday Project: ‘Prodigal’ is due out next year. 

Photo credit top : Jane Lambert

Megan Taylor is the author of three novels, ‘How We Were Lost’, ‘The Dawning’ and ‘The Lives of Ghosts’. Her first short story collection, ‘The Woman Under the Ground and Other Stories’, is due for release later this year. 

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