Zoe Lambert quite literally spends her entire life reading and writing short stories. This is partly due to lecturing on the Creative Writing MA at The University of Bolton and the self induced torture of a PhD on British Womens’ Short Stories at ManchesterMetropolitanUniversity. She has recently had a collection of short stories published in Ellipsis 2 alongside Jane Rogers and Polly Clark. This inspiring collection deals with stasis, absence, relationships and loss. Zoe’s stories take place on a bus journey and offer glimpses of the lives of anonymous strangers. Some of these stories have particular resonance for Zoe, such as those highlighting the experiences of refugees, as this is a particular cause she has actively championed for the past three years. In this sense the book makes the perfect accompaniment to Kevin Fegan’s Let your Left Hand Sing, which follows similar themes (such as Zante’s Story) but along a street rather than a bus route. James Walker managed to persuade the founder of the cult Manchester spoken word night, Verberate, to put her books down for a few seconds and talk about her work.
Tell us something about your background:
I’m from Manchester. Grew up in Salford. I’ve lived here for most of my life. I spent six months in Paris when I was an undergraduate and I taught TEFL for a year in Florence. I did my MA at UEA and have taught or lectured since.
Is this why you set your stories in Manchester or did you envisage Manchester as the kind of place you would expect such characters to live in?
Partly because I know Manchester and more specifically because the suburb the bus is driving through is leafy, well off and comfortable. Most of the characters feel excluded or like outsiders in it.
Did you receive much encouragement at home with your writing?
My family are big readers and we spend all our Saturdays at the local library. Because my mum loved books I was encouraged to write.
What are your feelings about the creative process in schools? We seem to be obsessed with rearing superstar footballers at a primary level in schools, where do you think our principles lie regarding literature?
At school I can remember writing a pastiche Agatha Christie murder mystery about a poisoned piece of cake and another story about a vengeful deputy head in an English exam (who marked it and wrote You Minx on the marking sheet). But recently writing creatively seems to be an added extra. A friend of mine is a teacher and asked me to give a class on writing crime stories(not written one since I was in year 7 – though trying to write one at the moment) with a group of year 7 to help them practice punctuation (without them knowing). This was great because they had fun writing, rather than it being a chore. But it only happened because the teacher requested it. Working with the students, it felt as if creativity had been stamped out of them. If we’re rearing superstar footballers in primary schools, then that’s where we should be rearing writers – when their minds are at the most open.
Given your PhD and teaching commitments, when do you find time to write?
I spent a lot of the first two years of my PhD writing my own work. Last year I wrote my thesis from scratch in a year and by the end I was depressed and desperate to get back to my writing. In September I suspended my PhD, but then took on too much teaching (why why?? When will I learn to say no) so I am currently struggling to carve out writing time while I have 80 students to look after.
Surely the PhD helps with your writing as well?
As a lot of my teaching is creative writing it feeds into my work and I learn from the students (more than they learn from me probably). Most writers have to balance their writing with other commitments. Since my PhD is about short fiction I have read hundreds of stories this year…(it’s one advantage)
Academia or fiction?
This is what I’ve been asking myself all week. Last week I was on a bus (yes, like the stories) and bumped into a guy who works in a café that I often write in. He told me that he is an actor and works in the café so he has head space to focus on his acting. Afterwards I wondered what was I doing? I’d spent the last year putting all my energy into my PhD and my heart lies in my writing. Academia is taking me away from my writing and very soon I’m supposed to return to my PhD and I’ll become a frustrated grumpy academic (or I already have done). I should just work in a café and focus on my writing…I’m asking myself What am I doing? How have I ended up embroiled in Academia?
What was the main turning point in your career?
I think there have been gradual accretions. But Ellipsis 2 has been the main turning point. Now I’ve given lots of readings that has helped. Recently, this has included a reading at the South Bank Centre and Litfest in Lancaster.
What do you find are the main obstacles/difficulties to writing?
Self doubt. Insecurities. Worry. Whatever makes you think about yourself and not your work.
If you invited four writers to dinner, who would you choose and why?
Margaret Atwood. I saw her at the Edinburgh Book Festival. Funny, wry, debunks any silly suppositions about being a writer. One of my favourite writers.
WG Sebald. An amazing and wonderful writer and person. I’d like to ask him all the questions I never asked when he taught me at UEA.
Virginia Woolf Where do I start?
Doris Lessing. Listen to her acceptance words of the Nobel and you’d have her at your dinner party too.
If I wanted an argument I’d invite Will Self and Martin Amis.
What’s the benefit to being published with other writers?
It’s wonderful to be published with much more established and experienced writers. I have learnt a lot from them. Being published as a ‘three’ is great because it takes the ‘you’ out of the book, becoming a more communal project.
You say that you are interested in the borders between short stories and longer works, what exactly do you mean by this and why does this interest you?
I guess I’m not interested in writing a standard novel (though you could say there is no such thing). By this I mean a straight linear narrative. But I am also interested in the kinds of connections that my short story sequence in Ellipsis 2 enabled. I’d like to pursue the different kinds of links between themes, stories, character, imagery. Not just links based on causality and plot. This is linked to the kinds of characters and experiences I have written about.
The bus stories reminded me of Jimmy McGovern’s The Streets and Jon McGregor’s If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things as both give us momentary glimpses into people’s lives. How do you feel about these comparisons and was there anyone or anything in particular which inspired you to write them?
Etgar Keret’s The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God was a definite, if ironic, influence on The Stop. I would have thought that Jon McGregor’s work is much more lyrical than mine. Raymond Carver’s Cathedral and how the story approaches disability was also an inspiration. Ali Smith’s and AL Kennedy’s early stories influenced me in their use of voice. When I start thinking about influences, the list never ends. Katherine Mansfield, Salinger’s short stories, Joyce’s Dubliners...
What I like most about your collection is that it covers such a diverse range of subjects and individual experiences. Will this always be a feature of your writing or was it simply a structure which fit the theme of the collection?
Ellipsis focuses around two areas, both of which I return to again and again. One is disability and caring, which comes from my experiences of caring and work in special needs schools. And the experiences of refugees, which comes from campaign work I’ve been doing for the past three years. At the moment I’m writing or trying to write a book length story sequence or maybe novel-in-stories about refugees.
When did you start Verberate and how does it differ from other literature events?
I started Verberate a couple of years ago. I tried to mix diverse kinds of literature, poetry and spoken word. Having performance, comedy alongside fiction readings. I tried to bring the different groups or kinds of literature and spoken word together. I tried to break down the barriers between them. So the audience was very diverse as well. I loved organising and hosting it.
What’s your favourite book of all time and why?
I have two choices: Becket’s Trilogy – it messes with your head
and Katherine Mansfield’s story Prelude. Gorgeous, lyrical story.
Publisher: Comma Press
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