First Writes: Bonnie Nadzam

The debut author's Lamb is an unsettling tale of manipulation and power

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First Writes: Bonnie Nadzam

Give us five words to describe Lamb?
Lamb is about us all. Those are my five words, and I stand by them. On one hand, it’s easy to call David Lamb a paedophile, but I don’t think he is one, and I never did think so. His project with Tommie is a lot subtler than that. He’s a man whose ego - sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously - cooks up stories to tell himself and others so that he can continue to believe he’s a good guy. There is no character in this novel - including the narrator (or its author) - who is any different. I don’t think we have any business judging Lamb, or Linnie, or Tommie, or Tommie’s mother or anyone, until we accept that these ‘bad person’/’good person’ notions of ours are often based in the same defensiveness and delusional thinking that appals us about David Lamb.

Name one author who should be more famous than they are now?
I think authors who are famous are usually so because they are providing narratives that serve some common need of a massive audience; to be consoled, for example, or distracted, or entertained, or to take part in ironically shaking a finger at the culture to which all of its members are subservient. I don’t think the really wonderful gems and stories ever can be that way: they are so particularized, and they arise out of such irreverent spirit and regardless of audience or money, etc. I think in terms of fame, everything is just as it should be.

What was the first book you read?
Snow, a little hardbacked children’s book by PD Eastman and Roy McKie published in 1962. I used a bookmark. It took me a week. There are wonderful pictures in it of a little house that the ‘main character’ built out of snowballs, which I immediately tried to build myself outside, but I of course could never get my snow house to look like the one in the book. And thus for me the dialectic of life/art began.

What was the last book you read?
I just finished Marlon James’ The Book of Night Women. It humbled me, shamed me, shined lights on things in my heart I didn’t know were in there and was not quite prepared to see. I will never be able to think of actual 18th century novels again the same way. Or human beings, for that matter. Myself included.

Which book makes you cry?
I’ve cried reading so many books. Clarissa really made me sob. I spent so much time with her, read her in a folding lawn chair in rural Wyoming, all day every day until I was done. It really felt like she was a confidante who died. I can understand why in the 1700s they tolled real bells for her sake. Mind you, I speak of Clarissa this way from the heart, not at all from my critical mind, which is a great deal more suspicious of her. More recently I cried reading Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (though only on one page) and when I finished Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles.

Which book makes you laugh?
Don Quixote may be the book I’ve laughed out loud the most while reading, and it’s always Sancho Panza who does it for me, and always his confused proverbs. His attempts at wisdom are so hilariously jumbled and ridiculous, and he is so earnest. Another author who makes me laugh out loud is a new US writer, Bryan Hurt. He’s got the tragi-comic thing down. I’m laughing out loud and happily underlining verb phrases when he gets me by the throat. Really good short fiction.

What would you change about the publishing industry?
I wish we could focus on text and narrative, and do away with author photos and author bios and all the personality stuff. Like, each writer gets assigned a random and anonymous number instead of a byline, and it has to remain secret for a hundred years. Or forever. I think sometimes we can all use a reminder not to lose faith in the fundamental assumption underlying our work, as the senior publisher Paul Kozlowski at Other Press has told me: ‘books matter, books will last, quality will win out in the end’.

What plans do you have for book number two?
It’s almost finished, and very different from Lamb in terms of voice, purpose, aesthetic, narratologically speaking. After my conservative, traditional and brave grandmother read Lamb, and chatted with me about it, I promised her a love story. So, though it doesn’t sound like it, that’s what my undertaking was when I started writing A Witch.

Lamb is published by Hutchinson on Thu 1 Nov.

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