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LIKE A BOSS

Author-actor Ian Lamberton’s “tangents” are destined to meet in time

Long John's Wig: Courtesy Paradise Theatre, Gig Harbor WA
Long John’s Wig: Courtesy Paradise Theatre, Gig Harbor WA

I met Ian Lamberton at a job interview. I wasn’t merely desperate—that’s a normal state for a fiction writer. Things were dire, because I was 40 years old, my first child was due, and it was way past time to get real. Ian conducted the interview in his genial, conversational way. But he didn’t fail to slip in a few sabre thrusts. Like, “How do you think you can market our product if you couldn’t sell your novels?”

This was a low blow on his part, because, I found out later, he too was a novelist (and a fine one!) with more than one unpublished manuscript in his drawers. And that’s why, today, he is one of Mickey Z’s most highly prized Supernova-Hot Celebrities. But I digress…

Balance, shmalance

I got the job, which I sometimes think saved my life—until I remember how it almost killed me. I was completely out of shape for that kind of work. Ian ran the department like boot camp. He wanted all of the copy to read effortlessly; and he made us continually revise, smooth, and polish to that end—no matter how long it took.

It was a nine-hour day, from eight-to-five, and I had an hour commute added onto each end. I’d walk in the front door, totally spent. So was Ellie. She was exhausted from caring for our child all day and would ask me to take her the moment I stepped across the threshold. Of course, Giuliana would pick that moment to become the unhappiest baby in the world.

Ian's monolithAt some point, Ian asked me how it was going and I tried to give him some BS about work-life balance. This provoked a counter-thrust: “I have two young kids,” he said (like a boss), “and I moved from Seattle to Tacoma so I’d have more time…”

Then he dropped the hammer, revealing that he got up at four o’clock every morning to write his novel.

That Christmas he invited Ellie and me to join his family for dinner. At some point, he said he wanted to show me something in his study. It was his manuscript: Placed squarely in the middle of his desk it stood 2600 pages, meticulously stacked, so not a single page stuck out. Really, it looked more like a marble sculpture than a pile of paper, and it had the presence (if not the color) of the mysterious monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

One big river of writing

This may sound like a bad case of first-novelitus. That’s the conventional wisdom, which contends that first-time novelists always write about themselves and don’t know when to stop. This is not true in Ian’s case, for two reasons. First, he had already written his first novel. “When I was 29,” he recalls, “I wrote the first draft of a novel called Job Opportunities. It was about a guy who didn’t want to work, which was all about me, because I didn’t want to work.” So, although it was about himself, he did know when to stop; it was when he ran out of money and had to go back to work.

And second, as I’ll explain shortly, the monolith, aka The Relic, isn’t so much a novel as a quarry, filled with stories, which can become several novels—when time permits. In Ian’s own words, “In 1981, I just had this idea, why don’t I write about the Middle Ages? That’s a time where I can write about life on a very basic level and I won’t have to write about myself. I had done some reading about the Albigensian Crusade and was very interested in that period so I decided to write about that.”

Ian identified a 10-year period that interested him, 1209-1218, and travelled to France where he visited dozens of sites across the southwest, Languedoc, and Provence, where some of the most notorious events took place: Minerve, for instance, where 100 prisoners threw themselves into a fire, rather than recant. “There were so many interesting stories, I just couldn’t help myself,” says Ian. “I wanted to write about all of them. There’s a centrifugal quality to my writing and I like to go off on tangents.”Ian in awe of monolith

Of course tangents are exactly what you don’t want if you’re trying to write genre fiction, such as a historical novel. Ian made a conscious decision not to prune his tangents. Why? Well, this was the period when he was in charge of advertising at a large investment company—with responsibilities that included managing unruly copywriters like me. “I didn’t want to feel pressured into making my work marketable,” he recalls. “I mean my day job was marketing, all day, every day, year after year, and I just got to a point where I said, ‘Fuck it, I’m not going to sit around and try and figure out how to chop what I’m writing into a format.’”

Between the job pressure and the routine of getting up at FOUR AM, he noticed that his focus had started to change. He was producing “one big river” of writing that included both poetry and a journal of reflections on the novel and whatever else going on in his mind at that time.

Near misses

Remember Y2K? That was when the computers didn’t fail and the world didn’t end. At about this time, Ian had an inkling he might be able to escape his marketing job and that inspired him to do exactly what he said he wouldn’t do—”repurpose” his journal writings and disguise his poems in a more marketable form. He called that book The Soul of a Suit, and it was a “bestiary of business characters turned into snakes and other oddities.” Remarkably, an agent picked it up. (Remarkable—only because it’s almost impossible to get an agent nowadays, and for something with the whiff of poetry? Gimme a break!) Said agent sent it off with glowing recommendations to numerous publishers, but unfortunately no one bit.

Ian then decided to write a memoir of a short period in his life when his parents pulled him out of public school and packed him off to one of those New England prep schools you occasionally hear about. Typically, Ian describes his goal in clinical terms, “I wanted to practice writing better sentences in a structured format, which had a beginning, a middle and an end.” In fact, although Sentences is written with almost minimalist precision, it is an emotional story about a boy who is “terribly homesick,”—to use Ian’s term—or “depressed”—to use mine. You can easily understand Ian’s parents’ tough-love response to his pleas to let him drop out. But the way they communicated their decision—their remoteness and inaccessibility—is nothing short of heartbreaking.

Again, Ian was successful in attracting initial interest in the project. More than 40 agents requested the manuscript. But none of them agreed to take it on. Shortsighted cretins and spineless fatheads. They failed to notice the inchling bristling in the pinewoods, and I’m convinced the world will one day rectify this error.

On the boards

In 2005, Ian finally separated himself from his cosmodemonic marketing job and, after a mental health break, he turned to something he’d done in Africa years before: teaching ESOL at a local college. This freed up some time and much of his energy and tapped his his inner performer. Around that time he also started performing in local theater productions.

Says Ian: “I got to be Grandpa in You Can’t Take it With You, which is a plum role. Then I got to be Officer Lockstock in the musical Urinetown and I discovered how much fun jumping around and dancing and singing on the stage could be. Next I got a chance to be Malvolio in Twelfth Night, which is a great role…” And I would add that you may think you know your friends, but you never really understand them until you’ve seen them wearing yellow cross garters.

He played Dracula, complete with Transylvanian accent; pirate Long John Silver, with an incredible Scots accent (and he only said “aaaaaarrrrrrrr” once); and the lobotomized patient Ruckley in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Here he only had one line, but was nevertheless on stage for most of the play, acting like a serious lunatic.

Edible chunks

What’s next? Ian says that the theater is much more rewarding than writing. “I’ve gotten more strokes, rewards, praise in any one of the plays that I’ve been in than I’ve gotten for all of the writing I’ve ever done.” (ed.: Until now.) But he also believes that writing is the more challenging and important mode of expression for him. “Actors’ lines are already written. You just have to feel your way into somebody else’s thoughts. But the work has been done. As writers, we’re groping for something. We’re doing the work.”

It does indeed sound like Ian will return to writing before too long. “Writing is something you do because you like to do it or you love to do it or you have to do it. And you have to be willing to live your whole life without getting any recognition for it because you like to do it.”

I am very glad to report that he is thinking of going back to the Monolith, the historical novel. With time, he’s augmented the stories with lots of thinking and personal reflection. “Maybe when I retire,” he says, “I’ll have a chance to go through these things and slice them up into edible chunks.”

I say: “Somebody get this guy a contract or a grant or a windfall! I’m hoping for a seven- or eight-book series filled with action, religious fanatics and troubadours, hand-to-hand combat with maces and battle-axes, guys squirming under portcullises (and petticoats), and of course, the extirpation of all heretical beliefs.