WORD CITY LITERARY JOURNAL – LITERARY SPOTLIGHT SEPTEMBER 2021
When I was a schoolchild I wrote short stories and always had an embryonic novel on the go but when I started writing seriously it was poetry which drew me into its web of words. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to go back to prose writing, but the more I write poetry the more tackling such a large body of work becomes a daunting thought. It was so interesting to talk to Richard Lambert about his ability to navigate through different genres so skilfully.
Richard, you have published two books of poetry, a Young Adult novel, won short story competitions and are, I believe, in the final stages of completing a novel. It is rare to meet someone who writes not only prose and poetry but also works in a different genre (YA). What was your starting point when you began writing seriously, prose or poetry?
My starting point for writing came from reading when I was a child. I loved reading, and devoured novels, and rather foolishly I tried to write one when I was about twelve. It was more difficult than I imagined and of course I never finished it. In my late teens I started writing poems and have been writing them ever since. I didn’t try to write fiction again until I was about thirty, but I think the desire to write a novel was always there from when I was a kid.
Do you think it’s easier for poets to move to prose, or vice versa? What advice would you give those hoping to cross over? What do you find most difficult, and most pleasurable, about writing in such a wide range of forms?
I’m not sure – for me, there are aspects of craft in both poetry and prose that take time to learn. My advice to people who want to cross over to a different form is simply give it a try. There are plenty of people who work in both poetry and prose. Why not? The most difficult thing for me about working in both forms is the time it takes to learn the craft that I need to write the piece I want to write – and the time it takes to immerse myself in that form. It’s time-consuming. The most pleasurable thing for me is that writing prose allows me to stay in an imagined world for longer; if I was just writing poetry, because I write lyric poetry, I don’t spend that long actually writing and being in that imagined space, and that creative act is something I enjoy immensely. So I like being able to move between both.
I’m wondering why you were drawn to YA fiction and whether it’s tricky to get into the mind of a teenage reader?
I enjoy reading genre fiction of many kinds – YA, children’s, crime, literary fiction. I’m drawn to various qualities in my enjoyment of reading a novel, one of which is strong narrative, and I find children’s and YA novels often have this – an onward propulsion that compels me. I think reading a lot of YA novels and enjoying the strong stories led me to try writing one. Also, children’s and YA novels are allowed to be fun and silly and fantastical in a way that literary fiction and crime fiction maybe aren’t. So, it often feels more playful and thrilling to read – and also to write. As to the perspective of younger characters, I try to remember, probably unsuccessfully, what it felt like to be younger – the ordinary daily feelings of terror and boredom and wonder that seemed especially powerful in childhood and adolescence. I think readers of YA fiction are as broad a group as readers of general fiction – so I have to write what I want to write rather than try to appeal to what I imagine they’ll want; although I’m writing within the constraints of a genre, of course, so there are also established patterns of story that I’m working with. Writing in a genre feels a bit like trying to be as free as possible within a set of expectations or constraints.
That’s really interesting, I like the idea of freedom within constraints a great deal. How do you decide whether your idea is destined for prose or poetry? Have you ever tackled the same project in both prose and poetry?
The two feel quite different. The kind of poems I write tend to be short, reflective lyrics, rather than considered approaches to a particular subject. With fiction, so far I tend to work from a central idea and to take time preparing, with plotting, research, creating the world and the characters, before starting the project. So they’re quite different. I don’t think I’ve ever tried the same subject in both poetry and prose, though of course there are themes personal to me that seem to crop up in both.
How about creative non-fiction? Would this be a future project or is it something which interests you less? What’s coming up next for you?
I haven’t written creative non-fiction, and while I like reading it, it’s not something that I’m drawn towards in terms of my writing. My current project I’ve actually just completed, is a children’s novel, a follow up to my debut novel for young adult readers – the new novel is called Shadow Town and it’s about a boy who falls into an imaginary world and who is trying to find his way home. It was written to a tight deadline, and is coming out this October. So I’m pretty spent after completing that in double-quick time, and have enjoyed reading since then, especially poetry – Jane Clarke, Michael Longley, John Burnside, Walt Whitman, Adam Zagajewski – and even scribbling a few things down that might turn out to be poems or might stay in my notebook.
Thank you so much Richard for these insights into parallel worlds! I’m tempted to give prose fiction a go…
Richard Lambert was born in London and lives in Norfolk where he works for the NHS and writes fiction and poetry. One of his stories was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Short Story Award and another won the Fish Short Story Prize, and his poems have been in the Times Literary Supplement, The Spectator, and The Forward Prize Anthology. His second poetry collection, The Nameless Places, was published in 2017 and many of the poems in it are a response to the landscape around the River Waveney, on the Suffolk-Norfolk border. The collection was shortlisted for the East Anglian Book Awards. His debut, The Wolf Road, was a Book of the Year 2020 in the Times, Sunday Times, Guardian and FT.
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