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Barbara Lambert on The Whirling Girl

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The Whirling Girl by Barbara Lambert

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What do you think readers will find most notable about The Whirling Girl?

I hope readers will find it a pleasure to spend time in such a seductive part of Italy – to walk the Tuscan hills with Clare Livingston, to sit by her side as she paints flowers, to follow the process (and her unbidden thoughts) … and then to mingle both with local Italians and the archaeological tribe of foreigners who descend each year to explore the country’s underground realms … and to learn about the Etruscans too. But I hope the exploration of the various characters’ own interior “underground realms” will be what readers find most compelling.

Who do you feel is the most memorable character in The Whirling Girl

The young artist, Clare Livingston, is the central character. But while the story is told through her eyes, I think it’s her sharp observation of others that keeps this interior world open and airy. As a botanical artist, she’s trained to peer closely at the earth’s smallest quietest species, and render them truthfully. She looks keenly at social interaction too, and catches hints (if sometimes misconstrued) of what might really be going on. On the other hand, in her own dealings Clare is anything but truthful. She goes through the novel scattering lies the way the goddess Flora scatters flowers in a famous fresco from Pompeii. This made her fun to write about – if frequently alarming to herself!

Which of the relationships between characters most interests you, and why?

The relationship between Clare and the uncle who willed her the property is the leitmotif running through the novel, with the many questions this provokes. Clare’s relationship with the British archaeologist, Luke, and with the young Italian, Gianni, are also central both to plot and to Clare’s interior voyage. However in a curious way it’s her relationship with the other woman artist, Nikki, which most intrigued me as I was writing the novel. “Nikki the trickster.” Often even I didn’t know what she was going to do next.

Have you acquired any good anecdotes surrounding The Whirling Girl

I’m abashed to think how, on setting out to research a subject I knew nothing about, so much had to do with ruthless questioning. It’s true that I did a lot of research first, reading books, subscribing to archaeological journals. But the encouraging thing I discovered is that the busiest and most eminent people, those most absorbed in their own fields, are often those most willing to be helpful. Still, it was a lovely surprise not long ago to find that the person who’d been most helpful to me, had actually given my questions a credit, in the introduction to a catalogue of treasures brought over for an Etruscan exhibition in the States. I know this is far less due to my own pesky inquiries, really, than a recognition of the modern mantra of archaeology itself: that the discipline has much more to do with “finding out about things” than with “finding things,” now that the old Indiana Jones mode is passé. It was a rewarding moment in the long process of writing and researching this novel, though.

Did researching and writing The Whirling Girl teach you anything or influence your thinking in any way?

Oh absolutely! I gained such respect for the remarkable people who spend their lives peeling back the surface of the earth, slowly, patiently, centimeter by centimeter, year by year, to give us an understanding of where we come from, who we truly are.

What is one of your favorite lines or passages in The Whirling Girl, and why?

The wealthy young Italian, Gianni DiGiustini, is both a somewhat eccentric idealist and a serious conservationist. There is a scene where he brings traffic to a halt in a main square in Cortona, as he tries to convince Clare of the existence of the unicorn. In another, in the early morning in his sanctuary for endangered plants and animals, he recites a devastating poem to Clare, made up of the names of all the butterflies that have become extinct in Europe. I love both these scenes for what they say about his character.

Can you suggest one question readers might find interesting to discuss, concerning your writing in general, or this novel.

Perhaps: What questions does the novel raise about the nature of love, and the value of lies? Also: Clare tells a lot of lies. But the big lie that follows her to Italy stems from her desire to reveal a “greater truth”. Or does it? By extension, is “non-fiction” work ever justified in fibbing, if that can expose a broader truth?

I think there could also be a lot to argue about concerning Clare’s relationship with her uncle. I wish I could sit in on some of those discussions.

Barbara Lambert author imageAbout Barbara Lambert

Why do you write?

Thoughts can be so shy. The very act of picking up a pen helps me lure them to the page, lures further thoughts to follow. This process feels integral to the reason that I write.

It’s four in the morning. I have risen to take advantage of the quiet house. The moon is setting over Okanagan lake. And there is no greater sense of wholeness, of me-ness, than the moment when I write those words, and then sit quiet as a hunter waiting for other words to follow.

Or it could be a crowded café. Who is the woman who sits down with a decaf latté, then gets up again for a spoon? She is a scattering of half-completed errands, simmering plans. Until she takes out her notebook and her pen. Then, whether she is scribbling a scene in a story that just came to her while shopping – or describing the man at the next table – she has, for that little space of time, a sense of having captured a bit of her true self, which arrives no other way.

Why do you believe writing matters?

Take the man at the next table, with the shaggy middle-European features – what is going on inside that head as he takes out his laptop, scratches his unshaven chin?

She catches hints (she thinks), and decides, in that magpie way of writers, that certain of his gestures would fit a middle-European character in a story of her own. But as to the true teeming world his thoughts inhabit, she will never know. Unless he has the great good grace to be a writer.

This is the gift that writing brings us, this is why it “matters”. That the chill and isolating fact of being a single person on this planet (single no matter how surrounded we are by lovers, family, friends) can be eased by the gift of entry into so many other richly populated worlds.

What quality do you most value in yourself or others?

In me the stubborn, often misled and frequently annoying-to-others insistence on trying to see things from an opposing of view. In others I value kindness, generosity, and a sense of humour. (Also a love of food.)

Where do you feel most comfortable, and why?

The literal application of “comfortable” springs to mind, so I’ll confess to the guilty pleasures of the afternoon snooze. Okay, so I rise very early. Still, the post-lunch moment of stretching out on the lawn couch or climbing into the hammock or, sometimes, crawling right into bed (always with a book) never ceases to feel sybaritic in the extreme. The best snooze ever? Place: Costa Rica. Occasion: struggling back to our son’s place through a sudden torrential summer rain and snuggling under a duvet while storm rocked the house. Then waking to a world washed into vibrant Technicolor and the flash of a green parrot winging through.

Is there any new or established writer whom you feel deserves more attention, and what is it that strikes you about his or her work?

In her novels and her essays, Sunshine Coast writer Theresa Kishkan has given us the gift of a vivid recreation of lost places, lost times, and lost ways of thinking, too. I know that her work will “live on” because of this, but I’d like to see it receive more attention in the here and now.

And then – ah and then! — I can’t help singling out (not that her work needs more attention) the magnificent Alice Munro, for her extraordinary ability to eviscerate a complex human situation with the delicate scoop of a grapefruit spoon.

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