The Scent of Cinnamon
Dear Mrs. Payne,
I have been given your name by the Reverend Ware, vicar of the English community here. I am a blunt man, and I shall come straight to the point. Ware tells me that you have recently lost your husband and are without means. He has suggested to me that you may be interested in marriage with a man who can provide you with the security and affection you require. He has indicated to me that I may be such a man. I have every reason to trust Ware’s judgment in these matters, above all because he knew you as an unmarried girl and speaks highly of your breeding, modesty and intelligence. For my part, I offer you a man of thirty-seven years, of which nineteen have been passed outside his own country. I have a farm that would comfortably contain an English county. I am fit, healthy and, if Ware is to be trusted also in this matter, of sufficiently pleasing appearance to make my appeal for your hand appropriate and possessing of some possibility of success.
I enclose a photograph. The dog’s name is Jasper.
I look forward to receiving your reply.
Charles Lambert began writing fiction in the late 1980s. His first story, “Money”, was selected to appear in The Freezer Counter (Third House Publishers, UK, 1989) a ground-breaking anthology of contemporary gay fiction. He was also among the winners of the 1997 Independent on Sunday/Bloomsbury Short Story Competition. The winning story, entitled “Beacons”, came out in the anthology IOS (Bloomsbury, UK, 1997). Other stories have been published in the anthology Fabulous Tricks, (Third House Publishers, 1992), Paris Transcontinental (1997), This is: The Poisoned Chalice (1998), The James Harrington Gay Men’s Fiction Quarterly (2003), Cadenza (2004); and the highly regarded webzines In Posse Review, The Richmond Review and The Barcelona Review. A short story, “The Zero Worm,” recently appeared in The Elastic Book of Numbers (Elastic Press, UK, 2005). His novel A Winter’s Child was short listed for the Lichfield Prize 2004.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
- HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
- CL: It was originally written as an entry for last year’s Daphne Du Maurier Short Story Competition. The story had to be, if I remember correctly, ‘in the spirit of Daphne Du Maurier’ and had to involve a haunting. So I was working within fairly strict boundaries, which is something I enjoy doing when I’m writing short stories. I took the spirit of Du Maurier to be something that was both creepy and sexy and I hope the story captures that. A number of people who’ve read it have also seen the influence of The Piano, but the strongest influence actually came from another film, the wonderfully odd Mississippi Mermaid by Truffaut. The story didn’t win, by the way.
- HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
- CL: Making the death of Joseph so ambiguous as to be practically unnoticeable at the first reading and utterly inevitable at the second (or with hindsight).
- HT: Did you set out to write a ghost story, or did you realize along the way what would happen to the characters?
- CL: Well, I had the ‘ghost story’ agenda imposed on me. But I set out to write a story with one ghost, not two. Joseph’s death came as an interesting surprise.
- HT: Why did you choose to use Jasper as the warning, throughout the story?
- CL: It’s often the role of animals in ghost stories to act as signs that something weird is going on, and Jasper did that perfectly. I also wanted to give weight to the emotional needs that dogs both have and fulfill. The mutual abandonment of Joseph and Jasper is, for me, the most touching aspect of the whole tale. Yes, I have a dog.
- HT: Were you worried about using such a dramatic reveal at the end of the story? How did you ensure that the reader would fit all the pieces together?
- CL: Naturally I was worried, above all because it’s rare for me to plot so tightly. So I drew on the kindness and critical acumen of my friends and family, and this is a good opportunity for me to thank them for their invariably helpful comments. If the pieces fit it’s also due to them.
- HT: The style of this story is very different from what’s being published today. Would you call it a traditional short story, in the vein of Edgar Allan Poe, or something else altogether?
- CL: Rather than Poe, I’d like to think of it as belonging to a decorous but unnerving tradition of non-realist fiction that includes perhaps my favorite ghost story: The Demon Lover by Elizabeth Bowen.
- HT: How long did it take you to complete this story?
- CL: The first draft took very little time, a matter of days. Rewriting took longer.
- HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
- CL: I’m not sure that I’ve personally received any useful advice, other than the usual ‘Better luck next time’. I’m wary of checklists that counsel against the use of the passive and so on; some of my favorite writers often tell rather than show and I’m happy to listen rather than see. The advice I would give, if anyone asked me, is to read and read and read, without snobbishness or presumption, and then write and write and write. Auden once said that he would teach writing through the practice of imitation and that strikes me as useful advice, as long as you know when each lesson has been learnt.
- HT: What are you working on now?
- CL: I’m working on a novel entitled Light Work and set in Italy. It’s a sort of pseudo-thriller and deals with a group of people—friends, lovers, rivals—who’d walked the finest of lines between political activism and terrorism thirty years ago, now coming to terms with the assassination of one of their number.