Thursday, May 17, 2018

A Little Wicked, A Little Shy: An Interview with Lisa Lamb


by Silver Webb

Lisa Lamb is the author of “After the Apple,” a short story appearing in Volume 1, 2018, of SB Lit Jo. To purchase, visit Amazon here.

I recently sat down to tea in Lisa’s backyard with lemon cake and a nice pot of Earl Grey and Ceylon. My one preconceived theory about Lisa is that she was born of British royalty, that somewhere in the countryside of England lurks a familial estate with portraits in the hall going back to the twelfth century. Sadly, my psychic powers have failed me. “No!” she says with emphatic amusement, “I’m not a royalist. I really feel like they should pay their own way.” As she pours our tea, it is revealed that she is a staunch MIF (Milk in First), unless, she ponders, someone were foolish enough to make tea with a teabag in a mug...then there is no choice but TIF (Tea in First.) But that is about where the propriety ends.

Because Lisa, who is a mother of two humans and one irresistible puppy, is not at all what you might expect. Although she was born in England, her parents started off life in South Africa, where they were radical political activists during a time when being anti-Apartheid would land you in jail. She brings out a photo for me to see. “You might recognize some of the people,” she hints. I look at it and I see two people who look an awful lot like a very young Nelson and Winnie Mandela dressed in a suit and wedding dress, but I just sort of nod because I don’t want to look like a dingbat if they’re not. It turns out, it *is* a photo of Nelson and Winnie Mandela on their wedding day. And sitting next to them is Lisa’s family. Her father spent three months in prison for his political affiliations, and shortly after being released, Lisa's parents moved to England.

I admit, my lip may have briefly hung down in surprise when I heard this. But then I think, Lisa’s writing is far wilder than her ethereal appearance would suggest, and there is an intelligent sparkle in her eye that I now realize is more like a radical spark. Although children rarely follow in their parents’ footsteps, and Lisa’s passion turned out to be music rather than politics: “I went to art college at Chelsea School of Art, but didn’t quite make it to the end because I wanted to be a rock star. But when I graduated from high school, there were no colleges for rock stars. So I went to art school, and joined a band, and that was it, I didn’t really go back.”

The band was called Peach Union, which might sound a little like a Sapphic collision of stone-fruit. But it was Lisa as the lead singer, along with two guys in the band, who had a top-forty hit, but broke up because “we bickered like Spinal Tap.” She gleefully announces that they had a #1 Hit in Israel, and for one shining moment in 2000, as she was performing before a crowd of 40,000 in Hong Kong, she outsold Whitney Houston, who was playing a different, slightly smaller gig nearby.

“I thought I was going to be the next Madonna, but it didn’t quite turn out that way,” she muses, a kid’s trampoline behind her in the yard. I resist telling her that the blue eyeliner she wears, with elegantly long lashes, makes my 80's heart hope against hope that boys in violet lipstick and girls just wanting to have fun will make a comeback. I ask what it’s like to perform in front of 40,000 people. “It’s exciting and exhilarating, but the faces kind of blend together. It’s much harder in a smaller club where you can see everyone.”

And this brings me to another surprise about Lisa. She is shy, and in particular, camera shy. An odd quality in a singer. But it makes perfect sense considering that her short story “After the Apple” is a clever send-up of how women treat their own face. When I ask her what motivated this story, she tells me, “It started from a prompt to write a piece about a face, and so I thought about my face and women’s relationships to their faces and appearance in general and how that is a contentious relationship. When you’re little, you’re just who you are. It’s adolescence that is so cruel, when you realize your face has a huge bearing on how other people react to you. Whether you’re beautiful or look like the back of a bus, everyone feels the same anxiety and it’s very hard to accept your imperfections when you look in the mirror. So the more I thought about that, the more I thought about how alienated I have sometimes felt from my face and what has eased that relationship. I thought it was important to point out that many people feel like this. But how it [the story] came out, with the face having its own personality, that just sort of happened. Once I thought about how I’d treated my face, I began to feel rather sorry for it.” She is humorous and aware of her own foibles, but still looks a little like a wiggly kid trying to escape homework when I take her portrait. In fact, I only took 4 or 5 pictures, and for all of them her hair falls gently over one eye, a curtain that she peeks through.

I may be biased, but I think a certain amount of reflection, inwardness, is needed to be a writer, or at least a good one. Or a good reader. And she is a prolific reader of favorites like Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell, Kate Atkinson, Larry McMurty, and Joyce Carol Oates. “I read so widely and so much. I read like a fan, because I just want to love what I’m reading without thinking about the technicalities. When I listen to music, I turn into a critic and I don’t want that to happen with literature. I just want to read it and love it.” As an editor, I can assure everyone that this is the far pleasanter route.

When Lisa’s children were small, friends suggested she write a blog about parenting, which did fairly well. Or as she says, “With small children challenging your dignity at every moment, writing is an outlet.” It wasn’t long until her friends urged her to write a book. She resisted at first, but then, as she says, “One day I thought ‘yes, I do have something to write about’…stories told to me by an old friend, and they’d been sitting in my head waiting to be told. So I started writing short stories.” Those short stories are now formed in the manuscript of The Velvet Glove, a novel about the seamy side of London life, complete with exotic dancers, criminals, and the occasional cup of tea (because, London). One of the more interesting elements of the novel is the graphic novel that is spliced throughout it. So sometimes, you’re getting the story-line in words and sometimes in drawings. Of the drawings for the graphic novel, she says, “It’s very different from writing prose or lyrics. I couldn’t tell the story until I had images in front of me, images I saw in my head, so the stories unfolded as a direct result of the graphic novel.”

I ask Lisa how often she writes, and it turns out that most weekdays, she retreats to the library with a thermos of tea and writes until she has 2,000 words or 2 hours go by, whichever comes first. You may wonder why such extreme measures. “The dog has interfered with my writing,” she muses humorously. “I wouldn’t recommend a dog to writers. The cat didn’t interfere with my writing at all though.”

What else can I tell you about Lisa? She was born in the Chinese year of the Monkey, in the month of Pisces. Which means she is likely cunning, stable, a problem-solver, and level-headed. And with the influence of Pisces, she is also graceful and beautiful, with deeper emotions than you might guess. Or as Suzanne White says of Pisces Monkey, “The result is a handsome person whose reputation for charm precedes him or her everywhere.” I am fairly certain Lisa will cackle when I tell her this.

I’m sent home with extra lemon cake, feeling that Lisa, more than most people, has a touch of destiny about her, to borrow a movie line. I don’t think it will be too long before we see The Velvet Glove on shelves and movie theaters. In the meantime, you can find her story “After the Apple” in Volume 1 of SB Lit Jo, on Amazon here.



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