The British author Richard Lambert is shortlisted for his story The Hazel Twig and The Olive Tree. He talks to Sophie Haydock about the inspiration for the story’s academic format, how he blurred the lines of history, and the surprise of finding out that a story that had been sitting in a drawer had been shortlisted for a £30,000 award
The form of your short story, The Hazel Twig and The Olive Tree, is rather unusual, written like an academic paper. What prompted you to write it in this way?
My background is in academia. I did a PhD in history and taught afterwards for a couple of years, and I have written academic papers, and read a lot of that kind of writing. Often, it has a particular form and tone – very controlled, and emotionless. So I felt like I knew the form. I wrote the first draft of my story while I was doing the creative writing MA at UEA. I was writing a lot of short stories then, about grief and loss, and trying out various forms. And I did a course on the MA about experimental fiction. I was reading Borges a lot, and writing biographies of made-up people, very short pieces. The idea came out of all that.
What were the challenges of writing a story in this format?
I had the idea at once. The conceit was an academic who is writing an essay about Borges, but tells his own story through it. It meant a lot of research and was draining to write, but I just went with it.
Did you expect it to be so well received?
I had no expectation it would be so well received. I’m totally shocked. I sent it out to one magazine, who didn’t want it. So it just sat in a drawer after that. For years. Then a strange thing happened, someone from UEA got in touch – a student working on the UEA online magazine. She wanted to put more former students’ work in the magazine and had asked a tutor about stories by ex-students, and the tutor had remembered it. So they put it in the magazine.
Then a friend of mine – who is a really good short-story writer and who I totally trust – she read it and said it was good, but needed work and I should send it to the Sunday Times EFG prize. She didn’t say precisely what needed work – all she needed to say, really, was that it needed work. Sometimes you only need a nudge.
I cut out a lot of the academic bits and footnotes and tried to sharpen it up, then sent it off. I didn’t expect anything to come of it – I’m still surprised now. I mean, I know I’m a good writer, but trying to persuade the world of this fact at times seems an act of monumental folly. So to get recognition like this is amazing.
Where did the idea for this story come from? It’s very powerful and you sense that there’s much truth there – how much is based in actual events? How much liberty did you take blurring the lines?
All the details about Borges are true, except the crucial detail of the missing story the narrator is trying to locate – that’s made up. The narrator is a fiction, and the story of the narrator’s life that percolates through the whole piece is a fiction, too. The bits of it that are about grief, obsession, loss – those are feelings I was writing about at the time. The riff on Borges with those feelings was enjoyable.
To what extent are authors allowed to pluck snippets from history to turn into fiction – do writers have any right to the stories and narratives of real people who are no longer alive?
With my story, I really wanted all the details about Borges to be true (I think that’s my academic training) – so there’s nothing made up about him, except the one detail of him having written a lost story. He did write under pseudonyms, so there may be a lost story out there somewhere.
What first drew you to the written word? What inspires you to write day after day after day?
I read a lot when I was a kid. I loved reading. I started writing my first novel when I was 12. I remember sitting down and starting it in a fresh school exercise book. It was a fantasy novel and started with a journey in a forest. I got to chapter two. I have been trying to finish various novels satisfactorily since then.
What are the key ingredients for a great short story, do you think? Is there anything to be avoided?
I really wish I knew what the key ingredients are! But I don’t.
Can you tell us about your career and successes? What advice would you give to other short story writers who may not have been published yet, who are looking to succeed?
I don’t feel I have a career as such. I’m a writer – I write, my writing’s good, I want my writing published. It gets out there in bits and pieces. I’ve been writing fiction for many years and have had two short stories published.
A breakthrough was getting representation a few years ago. That changed how I feel about what I do. And recent amazing comments from publishers about a novel that my agent sent out changed how I feel. I’ve had a collection of poetry published and poems in magazines – more recently poems have been in magazines with a wider readership, like the TLS and Spectator.
It feels like I’m moving in the right direction. I hope my writing is improving. I don’t feel like there’s much useful advice I could give anyone about success – be stubborn and persistent, write what you want.
Which short story by another author has had the most profound effect on you and why?
Gogol’s The Night Before Christmas. I just hadn’t read anything so funny or off on its own. There’s great joy in his writing. Great wit. Total freedom of the imagination. There’s satire, recklessness, confidence, disobedience.
Do authors have an obligation to be political or make an important point, do you think?
No, thank God. They can do what they want. If they want to make political or important points, they should do it – and if they want to write stories about unicorns they should do it, too.
And finally, is there anything you’d like to say about your experience of being shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG short story award?
It’s pretty cool.