The purpose of all wars
Zoe Lambert interviewed by Kerry Ryan.
Zoe Lambert is the founder of the cult Manchester spoken word night, Verberate, and her fiction has appeared in Lamport Court, Bracket, The Independent on Sunday and Ellipsis 2. Her first short story collection The War Tour published this year by Comma Press was longlisted for the International Frank O’Connor Award and shortlisted for the Edge Hill Prize. This brilliant collection of unsettling and eerily evocative shorts ranges across time and place, examining the impact of war from Kandahar to Sarajevo, the forests of Lithuania to the boot camps of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
3:AM: Tell me about the genesis of The War Tour. Did you always envision a collection of thematically linked short stories?
Zoe Lambert: The War Tour grew out of two stories about women who were refugees. I’d published the stories as part of a short story cycle in Ellipsis 2, which was set on a bus. A whole book on a bus would be too much, but I knew I wanted to write something that was connected but not a novel. I was initially inspired by Ali Smith’s Hotel World, and tried to connect the stories around a fire at an airport. But that felt too contrived and my story ideas refused to stay in the one place.
I spent a lot of time worrying and trying to plan my book before I’d written much. But a friend told me to just keep writing instead of trying to plan everything in advance; the links and form would emerge through the writing process. This worked. I ended up with a linked collection which had no obvious overarching structure though some of the stories are connected through being set in Salford and Manchester on the same say.
3:AM: Can you describe the research process for The War Tour?
ZL: I began by assuming I was ignorant. I do not deny the impetus for this book was an anti-war project and anger about how people who are fleeing war and other forms of persecution are treated in this country (and elsewhere). But I didn’t want my book to turn into some kind of rant – what’s the point of that? So I tried to step back and explore things through research and writing. I saw the process as the opposite of writing as ‘self-expression’. Research and writing (and the two aren’t distinct activities) were about moving outwards rather than looking inwards; they were about gathering knowledge and trying to understand different perspectives.
For each story, I tried to find out as much as possible. I’d start with general information and online searches, newspaper articles, then academic journals and books etc. It was through this rather omnivorous approach that I’d discover the kernel of each story. I was trying to do was write against my own assumptions, and assumptions we have of who are the victims and who are the perpetrators in recent conflicts. For example, the title story became more complex when I found out about the vigilante revenge killings during the siege in Sarajevo. What had been a story that had an easy distinction between victims and perpetrators became more complex.
Recently, I found this wonderful quotation on Claire Massey’s blog, Gathering Scraps. August Strindberg describes his characters as: “Conglomerations of past and present stages of civilization, bits from books and newspapers, scraps of humanity, rags and tatters of fine clothing, patched together as is the human soul.” It really spoke to me about the kind of gathering I had done for the book. I didn’t do many interviews or ‘use’ real people’s stories (apart from the historical figures) because I didn’t feel comfortable doing that. Instead, my approach was very bookish. Texts, letters, documents and quotations – some real, some made up – are a big part of the stories. The impossibility of research and writing about this subject ended up being dramatised in the stories themselves; characters are repeatedly trying to write and failing.
3:AM: Who did you read? Who was influential?
ZL: W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants and Austerlitz were very influential. Nadine Gordimer’s short stories for their multiplicity of voices, as well as their ethical concerns. The wide-ranging stories in Ghostwritten were liberating. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. Aleksander Hemon’s A Question of Bruno and his postmodern and playful engagement with history. Margaret Atwood and the way memory and trauma encroach on the narrative present in Cats Eye. Alice Munro, especially Runaway and Too Much Happiness. She liberated me with the expansiveness of her stories, as did Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri. From those two writers, I discovered I could write bigger, longer stories; not just neat 2000 word boxes.
In terms of non-fiction there was We Wish To Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With our Families by Philip Gourvevitch – a haunting account of the Rwandan genocide. This book sent me in the direction of the British explorer John Hanning Speke and his The Discovery of the Source of the Nile and his articles in Blackwood’s Magazine, and the roots of the conflict in British and European colonialism. This research lead me to an article called, ‘Patterns of Frontier Genocide 1803-1920’ by Benjamin Madley and I looked into women writing about their lives as colonists. For example, My Home in Tasmania During a Residence of Nine Years by Mrs Charles Meredith.
Another journalist was Asne Seirstad and With Their Backs to the World: Portraits of Serbia. Her writing helped me to go further with moral complexity. Abdul Salam Zarrf’s My Life in the Taliban and Afghanistan Cave Complexes: 1979-2004 helped develop ‘Her Blue Shadow’. Gayatri Spivak’s essay ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ sits behind some of the stories. There are some great biographies of Rosa Luxemburg and Lise Meitner, but it was their own letters and writing that influenced the stories. A Woman of Berlin, was very important to me. One of those books everyone should read.
3:AM: What about the actual physical research? In some of your stories, you write about characters who are ‘war tour voyeurs’, what was your own experience of being a ‘war tour voyeur’?
ZL: Yes, the book partly originated from my own travels and realising I was a war tour voyeur while inter-railing around Europe and beyond. On the one hand, when people visit places there is an authentic desire to understand and find out about history and there is also a problem if past horror is erased and people choose to forget, as has happened in our cultural memories of colonialism. But these acts of looking are part of a holiday and visiting other places, of fun and entertainment, so it was this tension between the two that spurred me to write the book. After a while there was a sense that it’s impossible to escape from war zones and the remnants of war, so in ‘With Their Backs to the Fort’ the couple find war memorials even on an idyllic quiet island.
3:AM: You mention that “what had been a story that had an easy distinction between victims and perpetrators became more complex”. How did writing about such traumatic experiences across borders, across ages and ethnicities affect you personally?
ZL: What I meant by that statement is that we find it easy to sympathise with the innocent and the victims, both as writers and readers. We talk about a character being ‘sympathetic’ or not. I began the book with characters who were victims precisely because asylum seekers are cast as liars in the media. But as the book developed, and after editorial feedback from my amazing editor, Ra Page, I realised that things had to become more complex. But to write about people who have done terrible things (and I think I could have gone much further with this than I did) is hard because you have to reach into your own capacity for these things; trying to imagine viewpoints that are repugnant to you is difficult. I realised I wanted each character to be utterly human and for the reader to momentarily see things from their perspective. I didn’t want the stories to ridicule the characters and say, ‘look at this evil human being.’ What’s the point of that? Rather, the aim was to show the humanity in perpetrators.
While I didn’t want to erase difference or cultural identity, I focused on emotions and feelings we all could feel: the Taliban fighter grieving for his wife, the young soldier irritated by his family. To do this I put a small part of myself into each story. For example, to imagine what it might feel like to wonder whether someone loves you or if they are using you to breed a pure Aryan race, I went back to my own Romeo and Juliet teenage infatuation. To imagine how someone might live with themselves after being involved in genocide, I got him working in a care home, similar to one I worked in.
3:AM: Which stories did you find most harrowing to write?
ZL: ‘When The Truck Came’. If you look into what happens to child soldiers in many parts of the world it’s just so unbelievable, so horrific. Imagining this kind of horror was hard and what happens is often a lot worse than the events in my story. But I didn’t want to include horror and violence just for the sake of shocking the reader; that would be a different book and I’d be a different writer. Violence for the sake of it just ends up with another type of voyeurism for the reader (and writer).
Writing the initial drafts was hard but it’s always necessary to have some kind of distance or objectivity from the emotion of the material (whether it is your own experiences or not) in order to focus on the words on the page and edit it. There is something necessarily cold in the act of writing or any artistic representation of trauma. It’s cold in the way a surgeon is cold. Necessary but no less humane.
Saying that, I don’t like to go on about my own feelings too much here. The point of writing the book was moving outwards and understanding the world, rather than exploring myself. I don’t think my own feelings writing the book are very important or that interesting.
3:AM: In ‘Notes’ at the end of the collection, you write about Spivak and her warning that “attempts to speak for disempowered groups risks perpetuating the imperialism and colonialism that prevented the oppressed groups from speaking for themselves and being heard’. Then another postcolonial critic, Benita Parry is mentioned who argues that this ‘speaking for’ can be ethical. Can you expand on this? Were you apprehensive about ‘speaking for’ disempowered voices?
ZL: ‘Notes’ self-reflexively questions the whole project of The War Tour and is very much in dialogue with Spivak. The narrator of ‘Notes’ sides with Parry in that occluding the voices of disempowered groups can also end up perpetuating this disempowerment by the fact that these voices are always ‘other’. But she claims this with reservation, as she goes on to question whether this can ever be an ethical act when there is a history of colonial writing that exoticised and spoke incessantly for others with such devastating consequences. She offers up John Hanning Speke as an example of how a tourist’s version of history can be so wrong. But in the writing of Charlotte Manning, who was also part of the colonists’ project of cataloguing and documenting, while they were busy committing genocide, she finds a testimony to a voice lost to history: she doesn’t speak for the women, but witnesses her loss of voice. And while The War Tour is a witness to many lost voices, there are voices and experiences that are beyond their reach of the book: Aida’s sister, who she can’t speak about; Bashir’s wife, whose voice is written through her death. Perhaps I see it more as witnessing rather than ‘speaking for’.
I was very nervous writing the stories. Initially, I tried to write everything from a perspective similar to my own, with the other stories narrated to her, as happens in a couple of the stories. But to repeat this through the entire book was awkward and clumsy, and ended up distancing the reader from the characters (and occluding their perspectives as said above). There is something very controlling about an approach in which the narrative viewpoint remains absolutely singular. I wanted the reader to sympathise with these different perspectives and in order to do that some form of ‘speaking for’ was necessary. I also wanted to counterpoint different viewpoints and perspectives from different sides of conflicts, and have a ‘multi-voiced’ approach. Also, as I’ve said elsewhere, the short story doesn’t claim to know everything about a life. It is a partial form. In many ways the reader is the ‘you’ of the first story (‘These Are Only Words…’) overhearing these stories on a bus and as reviewers have noted, not sure what to do with the stories.
3:AM: Has the reaction to The War Tour been as you imagined? Have readers’ responses surprised you?
ZL: Bringing out any book is terrifying and you never really know how people will react. I’m not sure I imagined how people might respond beforehand (do writers do that? Other than secretly hoping everyone will think it’s a work of genius?) What has surprised me is how many people have asked me why I wrote The War Tour. Behind this is the implied question, why has a woman written a book about war. I have to keep defending actually having written the book.
Another unexpected reaction was the almost universal misunderstanding of the title, which goes like this:
Person in a pub: So what’s your book called?
Me: The War Tour
Person: The what? The Wall Tour? The War Torn?
Me: Not wall. The Wa-ar… oh never mind.
But overall the response has been fantastic from readers. No one has yet said, ‘I hate your book you evil appropriator of voices’. But there’s always time.
3:AM: How do you feel about the health of the short story in the UK at the moment?
ZL: People always think the short story has some kind of terminal illness but it staggers on regardless and refuses to die. I think it’s pretty robust. 2012 has been called the Year of the Short Story. I’m not sure what this means though. There have been numerous excellent collections published this year (see the Edge Hill Prize long list for examples). Prizes such as the BBC Prize, the Times and the new Costa Prize are great, as are The Bristol Prize, The Bridport, The Asham Award and the Manchester Prize. There’s a strong indie, online and chat book world out there, as well as live literature scenes such as Bad Language in Manchester and the Society Club in London. There are some strong journals in the UK, including Short FICTION, Stand, and of course, 3:AM Magazine, amongst many others. Independents such as Comma, Salt and Route are publishing some great collections and anthologies, such as Best of British Short Stories (Salt). There’s International Short Story Day and also National Short Story week. There are interesting things involving new technology. For example, Comma is launching a whole roster of single-story e-books in September, as well as a new iPhone App in collaboration with Literature Across Frontiers.
But it’s still difficult if you are a debut or unknown short story writer who brings out a collection. You’re just not in the same game as novelists. There is only one prize in the UK for a collection of short stories – The Edge Hill Prize. Mainstream publishers and agents aren’t interested in you unless you write ‘something longer’ or can turn it into a novel. And don’t expect to make any money. You have to approach things very differently, with different expectations. But part of me likes that outsider, or outside of the mainstream status, especially for a book like The War Tour.
3:AM: What makes a successful short story?
ZL: It creeps up behind you and smacks you in the head. It defies being summed up. It confounds, it confuses, it’s heady, it escapes its own bounds. It troubles you, but it has a kind of purity. The best short stories don’t look like short stories.
3:AM: How does teaching at the University of Bolton inform your own writing?
ZL: I’m no longer teaching at the University of Bolton, I now run freelance workshops, including the online course, The Art of the Short Story. It’s the other way round: my writing informs my teaching, and the books and writers I love inform my teaching. Though I think because I constantly give feedback on other people’s writing, it makes me a very careful reader of my own work. Perhaps too careful.
3:AM: What are you working on now?
ZL: My next book but it’s early days yet. It’s going to explore the relationship between someone who is ill or has a disability and their carer, as well as the dehumanising and Kafkesque process of welfare. It’s a personal book, but hopefully a lot funnier than The War Tour. It will also have spies in it.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Kerry Ryan is a writer and 3:AM co-editor.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, August 16th, 2012.