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Her earliest writing memory doesn't involve her own work, at all. She remembers being six years old, lying beneath her mother's chair and kicking at the seat, to try and stop her from writing.
"I remember," says Shaena Lambert now, "she used to just stand at the window and gaze outside and I'd just think: I want to get between her eyes and where she is, that secret world she's gone. I wanted to get inside."
Though the route she took to writing was circuitous -- with time out to start a family and do a bit of antinuclear protesting in the 1980s -- with the publication of The Falling Woman, Lambert's first collection of short stories, it's obvious she's found her way inside. Published by Random House Canada -- the first title of their new Vintage Tales imprint -- The Falling Woman received accolades even before it was published. Writing for The Globe and Mail, Jim Bartley gushed that " perhaps the living spirits of Alice Munro and Annie Proulx have plumed and mingled in the ether and spawned a hybrid miniaturist ... who has the potential, realized here in scintillant flashes, to rival them both."
It's an auspicious beginning for a writer who, at 42, seems finally to have found her wings. The daughter of the award-winning author Barbara Lambert [A Message For Mr. Lazarus], Shaena is currently at work on her first novel. She lives in Vancouver, Canada.
Linda Richards: The reviews for The Falling Woman have been great. Amazing, really. A good sign, since this is your first book.
Shaena Lambert: Yes. That's been really nice. I was both glad that they were good and so relieved because you wait so long to publish a book and you just dread the idea of having scathing reviews. Like imagining yourself being flagellated in public [Laughs]. It's not what you want. [Writing] feels so personal and so intimate and so private. And then to put it out publicly is such a scary thing. It's more scary than I thought it would be. It's a rite of passage that, since so few people do it, society doesn't really prepare you for and there's not really all that much written by other writers about what that feels like: to pass your work into the public. So yeah, I do think it's scary. But also very, very exciting.
In your case, one could say that maybe genetics might have prepared you a little bit.
[Laughs] I've seen my mother go through the process, yeah. But it's just different when it happens to you, as things always are different when they happen to you personally. But it was nice to be able to watch my mum go through that process and have the success that she did.
Is it something that you share with your mother? Writing. Is it something that you talk about?
Yes. We talk about it a lot. I mean, when we get together or go for a walk on the beach we talk -- passionately -- about writing. Sometimes we don't talk about our works in progress. I go through huge periods of time when I don't talk about my works in progress with anybody, really. And so we'll sort of skate around different things, but my mum has been telling me about her exciting [in progress] novel that's set in Tuscany. She'll tell me about the research or the exciting new avenue that's she's started to travel down and I love that. It really binds us together.
Has it always? Even when you were in your childhood?
When I was really little I remember my mother was writing. My mother wrote when I was young -- there were three children in the family and we were all young. And then she stopped during my teenage years and then she started again when I was in my early 20s. But I do remember being about six years old and lying underneath the chair where she was typing and banging my feet up against the chair to stop her from typing. [Laughs] Demanding attention. Until finally she sent me outside to play.
Do you have children of your own now?
Yeah. [Laughs] I mean there's something about a mother who writes. I think children want to interfere with the intimacy of that process because it's such an intimate thing to watch somebody else concocting a story: either at the typewriter or I remember she used to just stand at the window and gaze outside and I'd just think: I want to get between her eyes and where she is, that secret world she's gone. I wanted to get inside. And somehow put myself in between.
And you did.
[Laughs] In a crazy way, I guess I did.
Did you always write?
The first thing I remember myself writing was a poem when I was about seven. It was something about clouds and I was sitting in my room writing it and I remember I got that sort of: "Oh, this is pleasurable" feeling that is such an important part of writing. So I guess the first thing I wrote was poetry. And then I remember writing a short story when I was about 10. It had to do with a man who is sort of typical cog in the wheel caught in the rat race type man and he ends up going insane because he can't stand his typical life. And he wants to be an archeologist. This was the part that really fascinated me: he wanted to be an archeologist. In the end he gets put in an insane asylum where he gets to dig up things with a little spoon. [Laughs] And I remember I got that thrill -- that writerly thrill -- and I realize of course now that it was that sense of closure: that sudden unexpected sense that I'd actually been able to find a closure to my story.
How old are your children?
My son is 12 and my daughter is seven.
Budding writers? Yet another generation?
Neither of them want to be writers. My son is actually a very good writer. He doesn't have much of an interest in it. He just does it very casually. He doesn't have all the angst that goes with being a writer so I don't think he'll ever be one. But he's just really comfortable with the process. But he also doesn't like it: he doesn't get that thrill.
Several stories in The Falling Woman were published elsewhere first.
About half, I think.
Others were written with this collection in mind?
The first story that I published was "The Falling Woman." The title story. That was almost seven years ago. And I would work on the stories and then leave them for long, long periods of time and then return to them again. [In writing a short story] you go through the sort of meticulous process of hammering a house together and at some point you realize that its not housed by a spirit and you leave it and you feel bad about it: it's not working. It's not alive. And then somehow, if you're lucky -- sort of of its own volition at a different point -- something happens to [bring] some sort of excitement. You suddenly realize some connection and the story forms. But it forms itself usually quite differently than what you felt originally.
Because you've lived your life more and you bring more stuff to it?
Yeah, I think so. Or a different way of seeing it. Something else happens. Like, in the title story "The Falling Woman," I remember hammering that together: working away on the mother and the daughter and I had the ranch and I had guns and it was getting longer and longer and longer. But what wasn't working was the voice. And [then] I began to write in the first person -- after just despair and agony. And I remember getting out of bed at one point and going and sitting down and then the voice came. When the voice came that was like my sense of the heart of the story [coming] out of that first person. I would say that with almost all of the stories there was some sort of moment like that where the old body was cast aside and out of it there was this new thing that grew.
Is there a story in the collection that you sat down to write and it just poured out of you, more or less intact?
No. I wouldn't say so. I think that there tended to be this two-part process. Now that these stories are done I can sort of see it that way. I remember with the story "Levitation" that also happened. I had a very early draft of a boy and a father. I knew [the boy] was out lying somewhere. But I didn't know why or what happened. At a certain point -- about two years after I'd written that stuff and left it -- again I was lying in bed in the morning and I suddenly thought: he's trying to levitate, that's what that boy is doing. And when I realized that I had the key. It was the key for that story at the time.
Did you always know that story was a period piece?
No. That was strange. I didn't know it was set in 1893 until after I'd written it. And then I realized that it wasn't in the present. And then I went back and tried to get underneath the period.
Because they weren't modern people at all.
No. No they weren't. And that puzzled me for a while. [Laughs]
It is interesting, isn't it? That's what I love about writing. I love the mysteries. When I first started writing stories I felt very much at the mercy of that. It used to frustrate me. I feel I've had a fairly long apprenticeship. I've been back writing seriously again for 12 years and this is my first book. When I first started writing -- or writing again, because I did take a break. But I did my undergrad in creative writing a long time ago. But when I began writing again about 12 years ago, I think I [believed] that I could just put stories together. But it was that essence of the mystery having to inhabit the story, which is so frustrating because you can't make it come. It has to come of its own. But, eventually, it's what you -- I want to say live for, but it's what you work for.
Your process sounds interestingly ethereal.
Yeah. It's a very strange process. And it took me ages to get comfortable with that process and now I am feeling more like I accept it as opposed to working against it. Which I think is one of the main things about spending some time writing and going through this sort of apprenticeship. That's probably the nicest thing about it is that you learn how you write as opposed to how you think you ought to write.
Why did you stop writing?
I stopped when I graduated because I got really active in the peace movement: the antinuclear movement [of the 1980s] and ended up really becoming absorbed in the political cycles of that time. It was really calling to me and I ended up putting writing aside and doing that. It's funny because that period of time when you're about 22 until you're 30 is such a good time to write and I didn't. I didn't sit and write a novel. But I think I needed to do that to make some kind of connection to the larger world.
Are you working on anything now?
I'm working on a novel and the novel and the short stories just sold to Virago [in the U.K.].
It's set in the early days of Vancouver. I got interested in it when I was living in Toronto. I was really drawn back into writing about this place because I was living somewhere else and I was longing for it so much. I'm just really, really in the midst of it right now. So I'm working on a novel and I'm also working -- on and off -- on short stories. What I do is I work on quite a few things at the same time. Like I try to follow the thing that will be the most interesting at that time so I'm not stuck writing page upon page of stuff that's boring to myself and other people when I read it. So I do try to give myself that liberty to kind of follow a path for a little while.
I read this interview once with Dorothy Allison [Bastard Out of Carolina] and she said: Just go where the heat is. And I like that so much that I try to do that myself if I can: try to go where the heat is, so when I'm feeling really drawn to working on my novel, I do. But I don't force it in order to finish that draft. I try to get into the right kind of mood and go in that voice for as long as it carries me and then I maybe fall into something else for a while. I'm a Gemini so that's the process that works for me. [Laughs]
Do you plot heavily?
I do plot, but then I just abandon all those plots. You know, I plot heavily: I make drawings and everything and then I just cast it all aside because it just never works. [Laughs]
Do you ever feel any of your short stories escalating to novel length?
Yes. I mean, I think that's where some of the stuff for my novel has come from. It came out of a story that started to grow.
What do you hope happens next?
I'm really looking forward to getting back deep into my novel. I'm at a place right now where it's hard to actually spend time focusing on it. And because it's a novel I have to spend a lot of time inside it and I have to figure out ways to get into it. Right now I'm sort of hovering on the surface again. And all of the exploration that will go with it: I'm looking forward to that.
Tell me a bit about The Falling Woman.
I've been thinking about this question of fallingness in the book. I was thinking about it as it related to the title story. It seems to me that the character in that story -- Ellen -- is really drawn to understanding what's happened in her life. But she doesn't really. I've been thinking about this. I wonder if there's a way that people understand things without totally recognizing them. And I think that's a lot of what's going on with different characters in this book: that there's a kind of sub-epiphany. I didn't mean that the reader should know more than the person experiencing it, but there's something about the way that people do experience things. A lot of what we go through -- even if you're on a quest to understand something -- you still both know it and don't know it because you live it. And I think that was something I was interested in, that got expressed in the sense of the sort of in-process nature of the title: that people are in the midst of exploring or understanding things that are occurring to them. And that you really do often both know something about yourself and at the same time have it exist simultaneously as a mystery.
When you put the collection together were you writing to that? To "fallingness"?
No. I wasn't writing towards that. I never intended to write something unified. I don't think it's unified even now. I just find it interesting after the fact: that some of the characters experience their life partially through dream. You know, the character in "Falling Woman" says: I don't think about my mother, I dream her." And that's necessary to how people live. And it doesn't mean that they don't experience it fully, but part of how they experience it is through dream.
And dream plays a part in many of these stories, as well.
It does. I'm interested in that. I'm interested in how people end up dreaming what they live and that we have this sort of interesting relationship to an unconscious world that's going on at the same time that they're living their conscious world. People are drawn to understanding what's in shadow or what's forbidden or the Jungian idea that you're drawn to your shadow. I think that people do that, though the result isn't necessarily conscious. The result can just be a different combination of yourself.
That almost begins to sound like therapy.
[Laughs] I think that therapy is one way people do that. I read this interview with Doris Lessing and she said people are on a quest. I think that's true: I think people are on a quest. The people I know are often exploring why they live the way they do or they look back at something that happened to them two years ago and they say: Oh, that's what I was thinking, that's what I was doing. And it's a constant source of interest, to figure out why you thought what you thought when you did and what you're going to think next. It's part of living. How will you evolve? Or how will the person you know evolve? And what's still hidden?
I don't think of writing as therapy, but I think that they're connected, though they take such different forms. Therapy feels so raw, but writing is an art form and so they manifest themselves differently. | April 2002
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.