canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Barbara Lambert

Barbara Lambert was born and raised in the Okanagan Valley, studied at the University of British Columbia, married and raised three children while writing fiction and establishing a business in textile design. Her stories (including the winner of the 1996 Malahat Review Novella Prize) have been published in a variety of literary magazines, and in the Journey Prize Anthology. She is the author of A Message for Mr. Lazarus (Cormorant Books, 2000: winner of the Danuta Gleed Award for Best First Collection of Short Fiction. 2001; Ethel Wilson Book Prize, finalist) and The Allegra Series (Beach Holme Publishing, 1999). She is in the home stretch of a new novel, The Flower Artist.

Interview by Michael Bryson (March 2006)

Photo credit: Shaena Lambert.


What can you tell us about your new novel?

The Flower Artist is set in Italy – in Tuscany. In a nutshell, it is the story of a young woman, a botanical artist, who travels to Italy to dispose of a farm house that she has inherited from an uncle she claims hardly to have known. It is a novel of excavation.

Actually, I think most novels have an element of excavation, that peeling back the layers of situation and character is what most of us are trying to do. Certainly in all my writing before this what has interested me most is trying to dig into what the characters themselves do not want to look at or acknowledge.

What surprised me as this new novel took shape was how literally the business of excavation began to enter into it: and that’s where my personal adventure began, leading me deep into what still feels like a kind of glittering but oddly rarefied sub-world.

Can you expand on that? What was your adventure?

I was fortunate to spend several long periods living in Tuscany between 1990 and 1999. I had become fascinated with the ancient culture of this region and latterly spent a lot of time visiting museums and exploring some of the notable Etruscan cemeteries and tombs. However, it wasn’t until I was back in Vancouver and had done the final editing of both The Allegra Series and the Lazarus collection of stories that I realized that my new book was going to go beyond being a story of the central character’s personal excavation: that the discipline of archaeology, itself, was almost turning into one of the main characters.

This began – as I know happens for a lot of writers – by a character appearing in the book whom I realized I knew very little about. That is, I knew right away what he looked like and what his personality was like and that he was a person extremely bound-up in his work (Etruscan archaeology) – but beyond my own limited, glass-fronted, museum-based half-understanding, I knew almost nothing of what the subject he was so obsessively interested in was all about. And I realized that the novel was going to be a very shaky until I learned a lot more about the things that preoccupied (and consequently had shaped) this character who had suddenly, and surprisingly, become central to the story.

Of course I had no idea that this character was going to lead me on a five-year journey – nor that, for various reasons, it would turn out that I would be unable to return to Italy during the whole time that I was writing the novel.

What was it about Tuscany that interested you?

In Tuscany and Umbria, a sense of the layering of one age and civilization over an other is particularly vivid. For not only is it almost impossible for a shovel or a bulldozer to strike into the earth without some buried Roman or Etruscan ruin coming to light (a discovery that is generally regarded more as a curse than a blessing; for if the news gets out, the all-powerful archaeological bureaucracy steps in, and the whole building project is brought to an immediate, and often permanent, halt!); but the Etruscans themselves – that race so often regarded as mysterious – are everywhere, despite the fact that they succumbed to Rome more than two thousand years ago. Their presence is part if the earth, the air, the people. Their superstitions have been absorbed by modern Italians, their features appear in their descendants. The museums are filled with their amazing artifacts. The cities are rimmed with their tombs.

Could you describe your research process, once you’d identified your subject?

I started by joining the Archaeological Institute of America and subscribing to its fat scholarly journals, and then writing to the scholars whose work most interested me – and bingo! The most wonderful surprise of this whole enterprise has been how enormously helpful so many of these far-flung eminent scholarly people all around the world have been, willing to correspond in detail and talk at length about their disciplines and share papers they have written and discuss their own lives...and even gossip about the oddities of academics and academic life, as well as the peculiar "capsule-civilization" quality of life on a dig, in the field – not to mention the enthralling topic of that seemingly Byzantine and all-powerful bureaucracy, the archaeological soprintendenza in Florence, whose dictates must be obeyed by anyone hoping to carry out an archaeological dig in Italy.

Then there is the whole sub-culture of the Tombaroli, or tomb robbers, who regard themselves almost as an honourable calling equal to the archaeologists: engaging in a pursuit passed along from father to son, and who may well be respected people in the village: your pleasant neighbour, possibly, or that nice man who sells you veggies at the Saturday market – so that a kind of three-cornered dance is always going on, involving the tombaroli who feel they have as legitimate a right as anyone to the treasures hidden in their fields and valleys, and who would like to draw a picture of themselves as liberators of these object for private enjoyment (though frequently smuggled out of the country via Switzerland; and not infrequently purposely broken-up in the process to be sold for greater profit; bits of the same vase, for example, turning up in collections of prestigious museums around the world) and the archaeologists whose mantra is that their exploration is "not about finding things, but finding out about things" (finds, however, that sometimes take years or decades to get published); and finally the Carabiniere who tread a heavy legal path through the middle of all this, though not necessarily seeing all that’s going on.

Who knew, for example (not me!) that it is possible to excavate ancient gardens: to rediscover the luxurious gardens planted by the Romans around the villas of Pompeii – or designed by King Herod The Great, for his desert palace at Jericho? or that by re-discovering these Jericho gardens, a whole new interpretation of the great bad king himself has become possible! Who knew that the provenance of one small carnelian bead might make all the difference between two hotly-contested theories about Troy: was it indeed the great hub city on the Bosporus? ...or a tiny Barbarian dump, greatly exaggerated by Homer? And who knew that by "retro-fitting" stone-age spear-points it might be possible to discover a whole lot of things about the man who carved them (was he right-or-left-handed? What was his tribe hunting? Where did he travel, to get the stone core he was working on? What was he thinking as he worked?) – or indeed that there are experts who do this: put the stone cores back together again, patiently, piece-by-piece, from chips found on the floors of ancient caves? (Well, and then think what other aspects of personality might come to light if an expert in such an almost insanely patient discipline should wander into your book!) And then, regarding the Etruscans, who knew that very small details of fashion, and jewelry, and border-design on one ancient, encrusted bronze mirror might have the power to knock the skids right out from under a long-established theory of Etruscan origins? -- or that the meaning of the iconography of that mirror might become a near-life-and-death struggle for the scholars arguing for and against a reinterpretation of that theory?

What else can you tell us about your new novel, beyond the relevance of excavation to its theme?

Of course there are all sorts of other strands to The Flower Artist.

The medieval story of Santa Margherita of Cortona weaves its way though it: a woman so beautiful that she had to scar her lovely face and rub ashes into the wounds and flagellate herself and weep tears of blood beneath the figure on the cross, before that figure miraculously bent towards her, and she was able in a saintly way to atone for her sins.

And there is the story of my botanical artist’s own past which comes to light, layer by layer – along with the pivotal (quasi-symbiotic) relationship she has in the present with the woman who employs her, a writer mildly famous for books of travel and adventure, who has bullied her way along on this Italian trip for reasons of her own.

There is an engaging Italian land-owner, who may or may not be up to any good.

There are the inconvenient complexities of the human heart.

And the story as a whole does still reflect my own love affair with the landscape, the art, the people, the food, the Italian way of life, all those things that so inspired me at the start – so much so that the first draft ran to almost 800 pages. Consequently I had to spend the last year cutting out much that I’d fallen in love with (trying my best to heed Dr. Johnson’s dictum: "when you come upon something that particularly pleases you, strike it out") in order to bring it down to just under 400 pages.

What was the greatest reward for you of writing this new book?

The greatest reward of writing this book has been not just the fascinating and outstandingly generous people I have encountered, and the illuminating stories they have told me, but also being allowed such very personal glimpses of the enthralling, detailed, varied pursuits that the broad field of world-wide archaeology encompasses.

It has been hard to let this novel go. But I have now started thinking more deeply about the next thing I hope to write (which has been on my mind for years). This is a novel inspired by journals, letters, historical documents and old papers that have come into my hands, bringing to light a very personal swath of the history of the Pacific Northwest. It will be set both northern Washington State where some of my family roots are, and the Fraser Valley which my grandmother’s family pioneered -- and the Okanagan Valley where I grew up and now live –- territory that I think has not been much explored in fiction, so far.

Michael Bryson is the editor of TDR. Information about his other life is available at







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