How not to talk on the radio

No one gives you media training if you’re a writer, so I thought I’d share the mistakes I made on Women’s Hour, BBC radio Manchester, ALL FM and EL FM.

1. Don’t expect the actual interview to be anything like the discussion you had with the producer. It won’t be. Producers want to find out as much as they can about your work; they will ask nice open questions so you will feel at ease. In an interview, the point is getting an angle so the questions won’t be as nearly as nice, especially on radio 4.

2. If the interviewer starts widening her eyes at you, it means ‘SHUT UP’ so she can ask you another question. Don’t under any circumstances pause and then ask ‘excuse me?’ which I did on Women’s Hour.

3. Do copy politicians on the Today programme: go in with a sound bite, and get it in, no matter what they ask. Michelle Green, who was on Women’s Hour with me, did that with a quotation, and it was probably the best part of the interview.

4. Make sure you mention the name of your publisher or where the book is available. I completely forgot to do this on BBC radio Manchester. 

5. If you are shortlisted for a prize, remember to mention it too, which I forgot to do on EL FM.

6. In general, they will always always ask if the book is about you. If it isn’t, they won’t understand how it is possible to write anything not about yourself. You will have to think of a reason for not writing a book all about yourself and defend this terrible action. If your book is all about yourself, you are going to have to make a full confession about your life. Remember, interviewers aren’t interested in the book; they want the human story.

7. Make sure you know exactly where your book came from. If in doubt, invent an amusing anecdote about when you had your first inspiration. This always goes down well. My long explanations of the origins of The War Tour were dull and probably brought on the ‘eye widening’ moment.

8. If you have a cold or cough, like I had on WH, don’t worry; the adrenelin of being on the radio will make your cough magically disappear. Do sip a hot toddie in the studio. No one will know.

9. If you can bear it, listen to yourself afterwards. I have never done this. If I did I’d probably never get out of bed again. But it might have improved my interviews.

10. If you can organise it, do local or community stations first; the interview will be more relaxed and friendlier. My interviewers on ALL FM and ELFM were warm and supportive and lovely.In fact, community radio, I salute you!

11. Don’t worry too much if your tights have a massive hole in them, like mine had for EL FM. It’s the radio.

12. Make sure you ask reliable friends who are good at lying to listen in and tell you how amazing it was. Don’t not tell anyone and then go home feeling sorry for yourself (yes I did this).

The Edge Hill Prize and Other Stories

Well I’m very excited to be shortlisted for the 2012 Edge Hill Prize for the short story. The awards do is tomorrow at the Free Word Centre in London (if you follow Free Word on twitter they DM you a word!). I’m all ready to go. Booked my train. I have, till it rains, extremely smooth hair. I’m looking forward to meeting AJ Ashworth, Sarah Hall, Rowena Macdonald and Tessa Hadley and drinking lots of wine with them. There’s more about the shortlist here.

‘A startling good collection of stories by a confident writer. Reading it is like taking a masterclass in how to do it well.’ Mslexia (buy issue 54 here)

It isn’t online but here are some reviews that are:

‘Lambert’s collection presents a carefully balanced picture of the world’s combat zones… The writing is disarmingly plain and to-the-point… a kind of narrative ambush… I’d recommend that you read these.’The Guardian

‘Reading ‘The War Tour’ is like wandering through a labyrinth of the unexpected, full of marvellous things… Lambert gazes into the abyss and does not flinch.’ – 3:AM Magazine.

‘Poignantly portraying the everyday loves, losses, strengths and sacrifices of those living with war, The War Tour depicts trauma, horror and confusion alongside defiance, duty and survival, all in quiet, compelling language that resonates long beyond the final page.’ – For Books’ Sake.

what makes this book special is the warmth and care that is shown to the real people in the stories and her determination not to judge or take sides.  War is not something that happens a long way away or a long time ago, it happens to the people you meet every day in Manchester and Salford or any other City. Lancashire Writing Hub

‘it is the level of research, the desire to bring to light hidden, forgotten or sidelined stories of war, and the willingness to showcase her writerly concerns that form the basis of Lambert’s personal hallmark. The effect can be polemic.’ Real Time Short Stories

The War Tour begins and ends with a flourish… surprising and very well written.’Keeper of the Snails blog


Despite a furious bidding war between The Daily Mail, The Sun and The Mirror, as well as several journalists camping outside her home, short story writer Zoe Lambert has given an exclusive interview to Tom Vowler at Short FICTION journal. One of the few remaining Sun journalists said: ‘I’m gutted not to get the interview. I thought all short story writers were dead, like Chekhov, but it turns out some are alive. In the good old days I would have got the latest on her writing process by attaching a microphone to her cat, but now my hands are tied.’

Short FICTION have also managed to steal her short story ‘The New Girl’ from under the tabloids’ noses. This previously unpublished story is to be exclusively featured in Issue 6. The same Sun journalist said: ‘We were hoping the publication of Zoe Lambert’s interview and short story as centre spread of the Sun would bring new readers to our beleaguered paper and reveal our literary and feminist side. We wanted to reassure our female readership that we value women for their brains, and not just their cup size. We were’t even going to photograph the author in a low-cut top, but had ideas for a shoot of her in combats and leaning on a tank or truck while looking at her book in a thoughtful but sultry manner. Sadly for her career prospects, she declined.’

Visit the Short FICTION website for this exclusive interview.

Short Stack

I don’t have a kindle. Kind of beginning to feel a bit left out. Especially since Short Stack is available on kindle for 99p for today only!!! I’m very excited about the pulp fiction anthology from Pulp Press and For Books’ Sake, featuring ten twisted tales of zombies, sex, sleaze and vengeance. My story is about a romantic getaway with zombies and caravans. Can’t wait for my paper copy to arrive!

Yes I do feel a bit behind the times. A lot of my students are much more technologically savvy than me. I go to them for advice on blogging. Thought it was a fair point that using a phone to make notes in public places is less obtrusive than a notebook. People think you are texting when really you are writing down what they are saying. Good tactic. My MA students are currently involved in some exciting projects. Craig Pay and David Schofield are launching Cutaway Magazine. They are still accepting submissions and I think it’s going to be an exciting addition to the Manchester literary scene. Lucy Walton is the book editor for Female First and here is her interview with me.

I’ve been lecturing on the MA creative writing for a few years now along side Jon Glover. Jon is a wonderful poet and editor of Stand Magazine. He is launching his new collection of poetry, Class is Elastic on Thursday 16th at the Bolton Octagon at 7.30pm. It is a real pleasure to read with him at the event. He is a dear friend and colleague. Will let you know how it went!

Are they real? Characters and why I wrote The War Tour

I’ve been asked a few times about where I got my stories from. The most notable time was on Women’s Hour. ‘Did you ask asylum seekers if you could use their stories?’

In many ways these are valid questions, but on the other hand, they are curious questions to ask a writer of fiction. I’ve found people always want to know if what you are writing is autobiographical. Which part is real? Is that character based on a real person? This kind of response forgets that fiction is about making stuff up. This response assumes I went out and found people who had experienced conflict or who were asylum seekers and that I greedily wrote down their stories, like the literary equivalent of tapping people’s phones.

Fiction is a sticky, gluey mess of things and facts and research and the imagined, and something someone said once and some more abstract ideas and some feelings and something you can’t quite explain that you want to communicate and some words that come into your head…and a million other things. I just found this quotation on Claire Massey’s lovely blog. It is the playwright August Strindberg describing his characters as:

‘conglomerations of past and present stages of civilization, bits from books and newspapers, scraps of humanity, rags and tatters of fine clothing, patched together as is the human soul’

How beautifully phrased. We work from ‘scraps of humanity’. In The War Tour – though three stories are about the historical figures Lise Meitner, Rosa Luxemburg and John Hanning Speke – there is no real life equivalent of Japhet in ‘When the Truck Came’, or Devrim in ’33 Bullets’. To have included living people’s actual stories of trauma, war and exile would have been unethical and an act of appropriation. (For more on this there is an essay/metanarrative called ‘Notes’ at the back of my collection, which makes a brief exploration of Spivak and Said and Benita Parry on issues of appropriation, which I place in the context of 19th Century British exploration and colonialism).

But if it’s not about me and doesn’t include real life stories then why did I write it?

The book began with the publication of my short story cycle in Comma’s Ellipsis 2 in 2006, which included the two stories ‘These are only words about a woman on a bus’ and ‘The Breakfast She Had’. Both explored the effects of war on women and were the kernals of the rest of the book. Both stories contained the two things that made me write the book. First, the treatment of asylum seekers by this country and the Kafkesque and dehunamising asylum process. I was doing campaign work for asylum seekers in Manchester and I was angry. I felt more people needed to talk about what was happening.

The second kernal was apathy; we (us in the UK) – like the man on the bus in my ‘These are only words’ – don’t want to know; we don’t want to listen. At the same time we are fascinated by certain stories of horror. War zones become holiday destinations. We visit Auschwitz and are horrified by it. But we think this has nothing to do with us. Back in 2003 there was a moment of public outrage at Iraq and a moment when we thought it does concern us, but then public apathy seemed to settle in again (though Stop the War is still going strong).

While I was writing the book, I was continually beset by doubt. What do I know about war? What gives me the right to write these stories? Why the hell am I writing this book? But at the same time I was also compelled to write it. I couldn’t not write it. And I don’t think I’m alone in feeling those things. I think most writers doubt themselves but something in them keeps on going.

How to Save a Library and Lise Meitner goes to Maghull

For National Libraries Day I read at Meadows Library in Maghull, Sefton. With the closures and threats of closures, Meadows seems to have taken a novel approach – unless more libraries are doing this? – they are based in a leisure complex. The building is open plan and on the left is a swimming pool and on the right is the library. You can see people swimming while looking at the books. It’s not a quiet library. There’s a TV screen playing a music channel and from somewhere I could hear the pump and beat of an aerobics class. But the library was a community and social space, and not cut off.The librarian said that the library and the leisure centre supported each other. But they had been hit by other cuts. There had been a drop in children coming to the library since free swimming had been stopped.

As a child I loved libraries. So did my mother. We were members of quite a few: Eccles Library, Hope Library, Height Library, occasionally Swinton library. Going to the library was a family day out. My mother was – is a big reader. But we don’t go much anymore because she is dependent on others taking her, and others, like me, aren’t always reliable. So we tend to buy books in bulk from Waterstones.

This reading was a family day out as my folks chauffered me there. I’d checked the library was accessible (I get really angry about places not being accessible). What I liked about this event was that it wasn’t in a secluded room at the back of the building, but in the middle of the library space on the first floor. The doors were closed so we weren’t disturbed by people going to the gym, but we weren’t hidden away either.

I was worried about reading ‘Crystal Night’. I wasn’t sure whether the audience was expecting a story about the discovery of nuclear fission, and I didn’t want to blind them with science, but they seemed to really enjoy it; there was a lively discussion, which continued after the event had finished. I told them that when I wrote the story I had had a moment of feeling I understood the experiments, but now I’d forgotten what the hell it all meant. The science and explanations in the story had been down to James Sumner’s excellent input and Ra Page’s equally excellent editorial help. But what I had also been interested in was Lise Meitner’s experiences fleeing Germany in 1938. Her story resonated with other stories I was writing in The War Tour about refugees and the effects of war. She was, of course, very fortunate to be whisked out of Berlin by Neils Bohr and Dirk Coster, but she was a woman who had overcome the barriers of gender to become one of the few renowned female scientists at the time, and then had her position at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry taken from her. What also fascinated me was how she was at once sidelined by history (alone in Stockholm and pushed outside of the discovery of fission) and also absolutely central to world events.

When I was writing the story I thought of giving a bigger picture of her life and perhaps including what happened afterards – Hiroshima and Nagosaki and Otto Hahn being awarded the Nobel. But I wanted to stay in that moment in history – the beginning of 1939 when WWII was yet to begin and she wasn’t aware of the devastating possibilities of nuclear fission, and though I hope I didn’t reduce the story to a clichéd eureka, for Lise Meitner there was a moment when these were ‘beautiful results'(to quote one of her letters).

Best Short Stories I have read this year

The sun has finally risen on the shortest day of the year. A really bad metaphor has just popped into my head, along the lines of short stories being like short glimpses of light… anyway… It is also National Short Story Day. So to celebrate this here are some of the best short stories I have read or re-read this year.

– ‘How to talk to your mother (notes)’ Lyrical and haunting depiction of a mother and daughter. I am a big fan of Lorrie Moore and re-read this after recommending it to a student.

– ‘Up the mountain coming down slowly’ Dave Eggers’ excellent contribution to McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales. Tourists going up Mount Kilimanjaro – how much will they sacrifice to get to the top?

-‘Everything is Moving, Everything is Joined’ and ‘Morphogenesis’ in Litmus. It’s a brilliant anthology and hard to choose which stories in it I like the best. I could list them all.

‘The House of Usher’ by Edgar Allen Poe. I looked at some classic short stories with my MA group at Uni of Bolton. I love this story. The sumptuous language and how Poe cranks up the horror notch by notch. We also discussed the classics ‘The Dead’ so I took time to re-read Dubliners as a whole. I know it’s a predictable classic, but its also unsurpassable. We compared this to Carver’s ‘Cathedral’. One of his more optimistic stories. Years ago it inspired me to write my Ellipsis 2 story, ‘The Stop’ (though the eventual story has very little in common).

-I recently went to a reading of Comma’s Lemistry, an anthology celebrating the work of Stanislav Lem. I found out the Philip K Dick suspected Lem wasn’t a person at all, but a committee dishing out Soviet propaganda. Loved Annie Clarkson’s ‘Toby’, a futuristic story of adoption.

-When I’m not at Bolton, I’m dashing to Edge Hill University. My third year seminar and I all loved John Burnside’s ‘Slut’s Hair’ in The Best of British Short Stories. Another favourite was Claire Massey’s ‘Feather Girls’. I feel if I describe these stories I’ll ruin them. So I won’t.

-I have just read Tom Vowler’s The Method and Other Stories. Loved the whole collection. Really liked his dark and disturbing stories about children’s propensity for violence: ‘Homecoming and ‘The Little Man’, as well as his satires of writers, ‘The Method’ and ‘One Story’.