Opportunistic. Uncomfortable. But I’ll do my best. Just don’t get too personal.
Hmm. Aren’t you a little old to be publishing a debut novel?
I thought you were supposed to be on my side. Do we really need to be talking about this? In any case, it isn’t really a debut, just a US debut. I’ve published three novels, short stories and a quirky memoir in that small island over to the right of the United States. You know, the one with the Queen and all those green and rolling hills.
Is that where your novel is set?
Why so cagey?
OK. Most of the novel is set in the kind of enormous country house you’ll be familiar with if you watch Downton Abbey. But there the resemblance ends.
So no Maggie Smith?
I’m afraid not, although there may be a role for her if she’s prepared to do something really evil. But I do have a man with a lonely heart and a damaged face, a local doctor, an enigmatic housekeeper and a host of mysterious children.
I thought you were more of what they call a realist?
There are some things ‘what they call realism’ just can’t do, in my hands anyway. I started this book with an image of a man in a tower room overlooking an estate, a lonely man in a room without mirrors. I had to find out who he was and I had no notion what that would involve until I started writing. At which point, it didn’t take long for me to realize that this would take me somewhere I could only imagine as elsewhere, somewhere dark and resonant and profoundly uncomfortable, with its own sort of resolution. This is something I’ve done in short stories, where a certain kind of uncanny quality can be developed more easily, but I’ve never needed to extend it beyond 20 or so pages before. Morgan demanded more than that, and less. More room to move and less sense of the world as we know it holding him down. He took me with him, both of us feeling our way. We were both surprised, and shocked, by what we found. You know that sense of both absolute estrangement and instant recognition you sometimes find in dreams? The way something totally weird is also normal? That.
So do people think you’re weird because the stuff you write is weird?
Am I supposed to take this question seriously? (I know, I know, I only have myself to blame.) A friend once said she didn’t know how I could live with my imagination, which was gratifying in a slightly backhanded way, like being told you’re a ‘bouncy little thing’ when all you really want to be is cool. (Ouch. Thank you for reminding me of that.) People who know me tell me they do sometimes wonder where the dark matter comes from; I wonder myself. It’s like one of those half-absorbed identical twins that only show up when someone performs a DNA check, or a surgeon finds a set of baby teeth during an appendectomy. Which is, I suppose, pretty weird. But Morgan, my hero in this book, isn’t weird at all, just horribly disfigured through no fault of his own, and one of the ways the book comes to its conclusion is by allowing Morgan to understand this, and to see himself as both more and less than the monster he imagines himself to be at the outset. Sometimes, being a monster and being human are the same thing.
Do you have any mirrors in your house?
Tell me about your favorite mirror.
I’m sorry, I meant writer. Tell me about your favorite writer.
I like how you did that. I’ll admit that I’m pretty fickle when it comes to writers. I’ve loved so many, from Evelyn Waugh to Penelope Fitzgerald (distant echoes of both, I think, can be found in The Children’s Home). My favorite at the moment is Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose writing practice is, on the surface, about as far from my own as that of another writer can be. But the writers whose spirits hover – distinctly and, I hope, benevolently – over this book are writers I’ve lived with for much of my life, from CS Lewis, who also wrote about miracle-working children in worlds that weren’t entirely theirs, to EM Forster, whose stylistic restraint my own novel might seem to emulate. It’s no accident that I called my hero Morgan, although I didn’t immediately realize this. I was also aware of Marcel Schwob’s The Children’s Crusade and Browning’s The Pied Piper of Hamelin, one of the first poems I remember reading by myself. As you know, nothing ever gets thrown away or lost.
Now then, about mirrors…
The great thing about mirrors is that they turn everything back to front and yet convince you that what you’re seeing is the truth. And who’s to say it isn’t? Mirrors, masks, reflections in the still, dark waters of the boathouse…
CHARLES LAMBERT is the author of many novels, short stories, and the memoir, With a Zero at its Heart, which was named one of The Guardian’s Ten Best Books of the Year in 2014. In 2007, he won an O. Henry Award for his short story, “The Scent of Cinnamon.” He has been shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the Lichfield Prize, and the Willesden Short Story Prize. He was born in Lichfield, England, and currently lives near Rome, Italy.