Saturday, January 7, 2023

Q&A with Charles Lambert



Charles Lambert is the author of the new novel Birthright. His other books include the novel The Bone Flower. He lives in Italy.


Q: You’ve said that the inspiration for Birthright came from an Italian television program that focuses on people trying to find their absent loved ones. Can you say more about that, and about how you created your characters Fiona and Maddy?


A: The program is called Chi L’ha Visto (Who has Seen Him/Her?) and it obviously provides a valuable public service but it’s always made me feel uncomfortable because the unstated, and unexamined, premise is that the needs of the people left behind are more important than those of the person who has chosen to leave.


Seeing inside the family homes, watching the dynamics of the people as they swing from tearful pleading to barely veiled threats, it’s often hard not to identify with the escapee, at least for me. The basic idea for the novel came from that, from the right to disappear.


So the novel began as an idea, but the two girls, Fiona and Maddy, soon took over, as characters do. Where do characters come from? Experiences – mine and of friends – fed into their lives, as is always the case, and so did my memories of the 1970s in England and the early 1980s in Rome, where I worked, as Fiona does, for the university.


But characters reveal themselves in the writing, and it’s the novelist’s job – and privilege - to be open to that.


Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the book says, “Lambert makes the mysteries complement the deeper questions of how self-identity depends on relationships with others. This is a thoughtful look at the impact obsessive quests for connection can have on the psyche.” What do you think of that description?


A: I think it highlights the way in which both girls feel incomplete, although how they react to that is quite different.


Fiona conceives her identity as dependent on the family she’s been denied, as she understands it, on her relationship with her newly discovered sister and the woman she sees as her real mother. Maddy, on the other hand, feels incomplete because her sense of herself is being hampered by the very things Fiona most desires. Maddy wants out as badly as Fiona wants in.  


I’ve always been fascinated by family dynamics – the first and most unfathomable of all connections - and I’m not the first novelist to see an unhappy family as an endless source of inspiration!


Q: How was the novel's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: The novel had a series of working titles before I settled on Birthright. The word originally means a right, possession or privilege a person acquires at birth, and what drives the novel is the sense both girls have that they have been deprived of something that should be theirs, whether it’s love or security or life itself, and their sense that the other girl is complicit in that. They both feel they deserve more, and see their sister as an obstacle.


Birthright is also, of course, a reference to inheritance. Which of the two girls is entitled to what and to what lengths will she go to obtain it? The novel tries to answer that question.

Q: The novel is set in Rome--how important is setting to you in your writing?


A: I like to know where things are happening, to have a visual sense of that, and I frequently use settings that are familiar to me.


In this case the apartments of both Fiona and Maddy are places I’ve actually lived in, the house outside Frascati is based on the very lovely house of a friend and ex-colleague of mine, and the bar that plays a significant role in the novel – Bar Marani – is one of my favourite Roman venues. If you’re ever in the San Lorenzo quarter you should pay it a visit!


More seriously, I’ve spent 40 years of my life in or near Rome and the city, and the life it has allowed me to lead, are central to who I am and to what I write. Which leads me to your final question…


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on the final instalment of a series of connected novels set in Rome and spanning the last 30 or 40 years, two of which have already been published, with two more written and in the pipeline. Together, they paint a picture of the city’s high and low life, with a recurring cast of characters that range from journalists to taxidermists, from prostitutes to government advisors.


The overarching subject of the series is power, and Rome -- the home of one of the world’s great empires and the Catholic church -- is the perfect setting for that.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: If you’ve ever wanted to run away, or change your life, or just be someone else, then Birthright is the novel for you!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Charles Lambert.

No comments:

Post a Comment