The following interview appeared in FAO In Touch, the in-house newsletter of the Food and Agriculture Organisation where I (and, coincidentally, Carol, the narrator of Little Monsters) work.
FAO editor publishes critically acclaimed novel
‘I was in Turin and saw students being kneecapped, friends arrested’
Story to tell: Charles Lambert combines writing with editing and teaching
Some people have a knack for using their spare time productively. Take Charles Lambert, for example.
A freelance editor in FAO’s Field Operations division, Lambert lives in Fondi, a town about halfway between Naples and Rome. He takes a train three times a week to Rome where he also teaches English at Roma 3 University. A busy enough schedule, one would think, but over the past ten years Lambert has also found time to write seven full-length novels.
Little Monsters is the latest, published earlier this year by Picador. It is a surprisingly insightful portrayal of an abused and neglected child who grows into a psychologically complex woman. The twists of fate that buffet and damage her make for compelling reading. Other characters are equally well drawn, if not always endearing. Painstaking attention to the values, mores and physical details of period and place make the story feel sharply real.
Beryl Bainbridge, one of modern England’s literary lions, was unambiguous in her comment on Little Monsters: “Charles Lambert is a seriously good writer.” His story The Scent of Cinnamon was selected as one of the O. Henry prize stories for 2007.
FAO InTouch met with Lambert and asked him a few questions about his FAO connection.
How did you get started editing FAO project documents?
It was at least ten years ago. I was very lucky in a way. A friend of a friend of mine was given a rush job, but he was going to be away on holiday and gave them my number. I remember it was a TCP project document – I think it was for Somalia – and it had to be done quickly. That started it and I’ve been doing it ever since. TCPs, GCPs, big contracts, small contracts.
What are the main challenges in your work?
Well, often project documents and reports are written by people who are not active speakers (of English). Documents can be very repetitive, with a lot of “padding out”. Or, they may be too technical. The people who are going to read a document don’t need to know the quantity of fertilizer used at every project site, for example. Sometimes a document is undiplomatic, critical of the member government. Over the years I’ve learned how to correct a lot of these problems in a text. I work for Savita Kulkarni in TCOM. Savita is an exceptional editor with very high standards. I’ve learnt a great deal from her.
How have things changed since you started in 1998?
The responsibility of editors is now greater than in the past, because layers of “pre-editing” have been removed due to budget cuts. There was the change in the word processing programme: it used to be WordPerfect 5.1 and it was horrible. I’d work at home and bring it in and have to reformat everything. Now everything is by email. There used to be more interaction with people – it’s almost entirely electronic now. And the level of security at FAO has made a difference. While I understand the need for security, I resent having to wait for someone to collect me at reception.
What things have stayed the same?
Well, there’s the fact that there hasn’t been an increase in editing fees since I started . . .
Writer, university instructor, editor. What qualifies you for these three jobs?
I grew up in the Midlands of the UK basically, and then did English at Cambridge University. I spent a year not doing much, then heard of an opportunity teaching in Milan with a friend. Then Turin, then England again, then Portugal, then 15 months in publishing in the UK, working as an editorial assistant. I tried Modena in Italy and those were two of the best years of my life, teaching English at a language school there. Then I decided I wanted to teach in a university and applied to several. I was hired at La Sapienza here in Rome, moved to Rome in 1982 and I’ve been here ever since.
What’s Fondi like?
There’s a description in Dickens, in Pictures from Italy, and it’s not complimentary. But now it’s packed with bed-and-breakfasts and is a very attractive town.
What should we expect from you next?
At the moment I haven’t got much time to write. It’s all promotion, networking. But I have six other novels in a drawer. The one before Little Monsters is set in Rome. It’s a bit of a novel about what one does with a terrorist past. In the 1970s I was living in Turin, and I saw students being kneecapped, friends being arrested. It’s set during the five days of (U.S. President George) Bush’s visit in 2004. Picador is set to make an offer for that one. I have a very good editor at Picador. We’ll see.