Interview with Robert Lamb
I teach writing and American literature at the University of South Carolina, to which I came after a 20-year career in journalism, last with The Atlanta Constitution. I joined USC as a publications writer/editor, but was invited to teach after my first novel (Striking Out) was published and was nominated for the PEN/Hemingway Award. Been teaching ever since as an adjunct professor. I've been writing fiction since I was 10 years old, beginning when I was inspired by the movie "Gentlemen's Agreement," starring Gregory Peck as a magazine writer doing undercover expose on anti-semitism.
A Majority of One is about a clash between religion and the Constitution. A high school English teacher in a small Southern town gets into trouble when she resists the efforts of local preachers to ban some classic American novels from the classroom. Six of One, Half Dozen of Another contains stories and poems from a lifetime of writing, with an afterword on the origins of the pieces. Over the years, I've much enjoyed reading what authors said about their works and about writing in general. W. Somerset Maugham, among the best of storytellers, had a great deal to say about his works. Stephen King is the only modern writer I know who does it, but the Paris Review's author interviews are well-known for such discussions.
With my first novel, I had the same agent as Pat Conroy, Julian Bach. When Mr. Bach called me one day and said, "I loved your novel; it is a marvelous tale wondrously wrought," I nearly swooned. (In retrospect, though I believe that Striking Out was a very good first novel, I don't think it was that good; still that phone call meant a lot to me.) Among other accolades, I'm proud of being a winner of the South Carolina Fiction Project and of being named to the South Carolina Literary Map. But most of all, I like comments from readers -- the phone call or email from out of the blue that says, in effect, "Your work really moved me." As to a favorite among my books, I don't have one. Besides, one's books are in a way like one's children; even if you have a favorite child, it's unwise to let it be known. Your readers might find this interesting, though: when I reflect on what I've written, I think mostly in terms of scenes I've written, rather than complete stories or novels. I'm a tough critic of my writing, but here and there I've turned out a scene about which I was pleased to think: I can't write any better than that. That's particularly gratifying when I think of the scene here or there that I just never got right in spite of many rewrites.
4. As well as fiction, you also write non-fiction and poetry. Do you find it difficult to switch between these types of writing? And is there a different mindset for you when switching between them?
Perhaps oddly, I don't find writing fiction to require a very different mindset from non-fiction. In each, I'm trying to get it right, trying to make language do what I want it to do, which, among other things, is not only to be understood, but to be so clear that it can't be misunderstood. Poetry is a different animal altogether, too. After "teaching" poetry courses a few times, I concluded that poetry couldn't be taught, that I could only hold classes in it. Writing poetry is for me equally recondite. I rarely see a poem of mine coming, and even after it gets here I rarely know where it came from.
5. Do you have a particular process or a writing routine?
Besides the three novels I've published, I've written two others and am in the homestretch on the sixth. For my first published novel, I wrote every day from 8 a.m. to noon. I haven't been that disciplined on the others, but by nature I'm the kind of person who persists until a job is finished. For aspiring writers who read this, however, I recommend a book titled Structuring Your Novel, by Meredith and Fitzpatrick. It helped me enormously the first time around.
6. Why did you gravitate to writing in a more literary manner as opposed to choosing a niche genre such as mystery or science fiction?
Genres like mystery and science fiction are generally intended as diversionary reading, entertainment. The literary genre concerns itself with what is called the Human Condition: birth, youth, adolescence, courtship, marriage, procreation, old age, death – in other words, the real stuff of life. The two forms sometimes overlap, of course; The Wizard of Oz, though fantasy, obviously was written with a purpose more serious than merely entertainment. Same for Animal Farm. And for Fahrenheit 451 and for 1984. I've had a lifelong interest in human behavior and I've pursued a lifelong quest for meaning and understanding; these interests incline me toward serious fiction, though "serious" should not be construed as omitting humor. I guess basically I want to learn rather than be entertained – but since I enjoy learning I guess you could say I'm entertained by it. Bottom line: different strokes for different folks (but I've actually considered advertising my work as "guaranteed vampire-free.")
7. Are there any authors that profoundly influenced the way you write?
Who knows where influence begins and leaves off? But I'm conscious of trying only to get the best out of myself, which precludes imitating others. We learn from all, however, and I particularly like Hemingway's style, Maugham's storytelling, Hardy's novels.
8. You are also a book reviewer. Do you find being a writer gives you a helpful perspective in reviewing or makes it harder to be objective?
It definitely helps. The old adage "walk a mile in my shoes" comes in very handy in appraising, say, the adroitness of something that another writer has written. Having done both also gives me a heightened awareness, I think, of what another writer was trying to achieve. As an author, I've been positively floored by how bad a reviewer can be, and the badness is almost always rooted in ignorance and/or poor understanding of the craft of writing. I'd be tempted to vote for a law requiring all reviewers to have written at least 100 pages of their own work. A writer whose reviewer reviews the novel the writer actually wrote, instead of what the reviewer thinks he wrote, is a lucky author.
9. Do you have any upcoming projects?
Yes. In the spring I'll being out either of two novels: one that's finished or the one that's nearly finished. Then I will begin rewriting my very first novel, the one that wasn't good enough to find a publisher the first time around.
For more about Robert, you can visit his blog: http://bit.ly/rpQqht
And you can check out Robert's books here:
A Majority of One: A clash between religion and the Constitution in a small Southern town
Six of One, Half Dozen of Another: Award-winning and groundbreaking short stories and poems
Atlanta Blues: A reporter and two cops search for a missing coed; the search leads through the underbelly of urban Atlanta to murder and heartbreak
Striking Out: A coming-of-age novel
Ghosts: A longish short story about a teenage ghost hunt