The War Tour, the debut collection of short stories by Zoe Lambert is rooted in a world of conflict and oppression. It deals with the legacy war has had on a movement of migrants and refugees all over the world. It is a powerful and astonishing piece of work.
We talked to Zoe about the collection, how she put it together, the research involved and whether she'll be reading The Casual Vacancy.
Hello Zoe Lambert how are you today?
Hi Booktrust, I am very well thank you.
Your collection The War Tour seems to be rooted in short non-fiction (or seemingly real events). How much of it is based on real events?
They do but this isn't reportage or journalism; I wasn't just trying to translate an event on to the page, and the final stories often have little to do with the research or event that inspired them. The non-fiction was usually a springboard to something else. I wrote back to or rewrote the original idea, or explored the idea from a different point of view. '33 Bullets' was inspired was inspired by a fire at a detention centre and it features an actual poem by Ahmed Arif, which is itself about an event in history, but with this story, there was a kind of 'forgetting' of the details of any actual fire. Quite often, the way into fiction was through photographs.
The fictionalising process was about imagining what happened to the person in the photographThe opening story was inspired by photographs of the Lithuanian resistance camping in the forests, which I saw when I was touring through Lithuania. The prison mentioned in the story has become The Lithuanian Museum of Genocide, and had an exhibition of photos of the Lithuanian resistance, who was all murdered by the late fifties. The photo of Jonas was based on a photo I saw of a young soldier's open, warm face. What struck me was the loss of this innocence, so in the story we meet him when he hiding in the forest, utterly exhausted. The fictionalising process was about imagining what happened to the person in the photograph, in the knowledge that he would have been killed by the Soviets. The actual story of the man in that photo we will never know; it is lost to history, but fiction can attempt to recover voices from history that are otherwise lost. As the book progressed, this notion became more problematic, and so I ended the book with a story about a voice that can never be recovered. So photos were important for the 'fictionalising process' because they suggest a narrative but leave so many questions unanswered.
The title story is based on a photo of a goat being led out of the tunnel in Sarajevo. I thought who would bring a goat through the tunnel during a siege? And the answer became Aida's father. In the historical stories about 'real people', I fictionalised what history doesn't know. For example, we don't know who gave Rosa Luxemburg's whereabouts to the Freikorps, so this question became the centre of the story. In the story about the physicist Lise Meitner (which was a commission to write about the discovery of nuclear fission), I focused on when she escaped from Nazi Germany in 1938 because her story of exile mirrored the other stories in my book.
Can you talk about the research process for the book?
I didn't have a big plan for the book; it just grew bit by bit, and I didn't talk much about what I was doing; I was very nervous about the project.
The process was piecemeal, very organic, holistic. Not very well planned. I dug around, looking for things, staring into space a lot, then reading and finding out more things. I think the fact I wrote most of it on a tiny netbook meant I could only think about a few words at a time. I'm not sure if this was a good thing or not.
The book began with questions around refugees, with victims of war - children, women, people accidentally caught up in conflict. But after feedback from my editor, I tried to explore points of view that were more complicit and complicated, but in a non-judgemental way, and one that totally inhabited the character's point of view (so there is no distant, commenting, omniscient narrator, saying look at this very bad person). Then I tried to explore viewpoints from the other side of conflicts. For example, I had a story about Aida, a young Bosnian woman, who had a Serbian girlfriend, so I wrote a story from her girlfriend's point of view. I connected these stories through character, imagery, plot and place. You meet both a British soldier and a young Taliban fighter who he has arrested. In these stories I was concerned with how did they get there?
I was angry at the treatment of refugees in this countryWhat was it about the lose theme of war that inspired you to put together this collection?
Initially, I was concerned with writing about people who were fleeing war and persecution, and I was angry at the treatment of refugees in this country. It began with anger at how people are treated in this country. I was also interested in memory; personal, cultural and traumatic memory. I didn't set out to write a book about war but along the way I realised there was a high war count in my stories, and my editor said, 'You're writing a book about war'. But what I wasn't interested in writing was the theatre of war, or about combat. It was the silenced victims of war that, for me, needed to be written about. It was the aftermath of war; the trails of trauma through generations. Then the more I wrote, the more it became about our response to war; how we are obsessed with it and war zones have become tourist destination. I think the book also came out of the mass response to the invasion or Iraq and the subsequent fall back into apathy.
There are parallels all the way throughout between domestic and international conflict. Was that intentional?
It's interesting you have noticed that. There is no separation in my mind between the domestic and international conflict. Wars aren't about two sides fighting in a field anymore, they happen in cities, in people's homes. International just means other people's homes. But the notion of the domestic is important to me. A few years ago I wrote a feature for Mslexia about how the domestic in women's writing is political, so in this book I think I was both consciously and unconsciously writing against this false separation of politics/war and the domestic and therefore women's experience. In A Room of One's Own Virginia Woolf wrote, 'This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room. A scene in a battlefield is more important than a scene in a shop'. So with this book I put the idea of the domestic, of home, of 'the feelings of a woman in a drawing room' at the centre of a book about war.
I think this is at its most clear in 'My Sangar', which was a commission to respond to a photograph of one of the British watchtowers in South Armagh by Donovan Wylie. But I looked into what the watchtowers were used for, and found out how their use affected ordinary people, so the story is about a woman in her home, feeling as if she is being continually watched.
In a lot of ways The War Tour is very concerned with the home as something lost, as somewhere you can't return to, physically or psychically
In a lot of ways The War Tour is very concerned with the home as something lost, as somewhere you can't return to, physically or psychicallyIn a lot of ways The War Tour is very concerned with the home as something lost, as somewhere you can't return to, physically or psychically; home as a recurring nightmare. Most of the characters are cast adrift, unable to return home or are trying to; they are all on their own odyssey.
How did you ensure that your characters remained human in the face of such conflict and atrocity?
If what I was writing was just about history, it wouldn't be fiction. When I included history, I included it as something written, something textual, as discourse: legal documents, letters, biography, diaries, newspapers. So the 'human' in this is that I was interested in people writing about history: characters are writing things down all the time, they are trying to record history, or they are giving their own version of it, such as the General's speech in 'When the Truck Came'.
To avoid giving a history lesson, I relied a lot on the reader's general knowledge and deleted too much exposition and narration. I kept the scenes focused in time and place and each story is about a character, who was very clear in my mind. I focused on the small everyday things; having frosties for breakfast, being hung over on a bus; Rosa Luxemburg weeing in a bucket. These details keep things human... I hope.
As a teacher of creative writing, what is the one mistake you see time and time again?
Here's a few: overly adjectivising; telling the reader what to think. Explaining things to the reader rather than just telling a story, or seeing fiction as a game to outwit readers and show how clever you the writer really are. Trying to write genre fiction, but just writing bad genre fiction.
Will you be reading the J K Rowling book?
I'm not a fan of wizards, but I like J K Rowling. She is hope for us all. In fact Chorlton Job Centre said to me as I was signing on in the summer that I should have faith. J K Rowling signed on and now she is a billionaire. I thought this was very nice that they said this. I actually think her new novel looks very interesting, and will add it to my tottering 'to read' pile beside my bed. As for the hype, publishers have to sell what they can with what they can.
What are you currently working on?
A kind of novel... It's more personal. It's about caring and disability but also about spying and British foreign policy. It keeps changing shape at the moment. It might be entirely made up of forms and documents but it's still early stages.