Jonathan Taylor asks the questions as Zoe Lambert talk about how she wrote her story ‘Chaconne in G Minor’ for The End: Fifteen Endings to Fifteen Paintings.
JT: Like all the other stories in “The End,” your story, “Chaconne in G Minor,” opens with one of Nicolas Ruston’s paintings. In fact, the painting pre-dates your story: all of the writers in the anthology were allotted one painting each before writing their stories. How do you see the relationship between the painting and your own story? How did the story “grow out of it,” as it were? What were your aims in writing it?
ZL: My painting suggested film noir to me, and I wanted to write a kind of pulp fiction response. The kind of story that snaps shut at the end, or has a reveal or twist in the tail. I was intrigued by the figure standing next to the blinds and imagined a woman looking up at him, standing there. Sadly, my story did not work out like that at all! It became a story about a relationship, but as with other stories in the anthology, my ideas started to be more about other ways endings relate to short stories and to artistic form in general, and the greatest end of all: death. So, though I intended to write plotted story, I ended up writing a more lyrical short story about a young woman who has lost her way after her mother’s death. She is stuck, playing this piece of music over and over.
JT: As “musical fiction,” your story clearly uses J. S. Bach’s Chaconne in G Minor as its central image. Why did you choose this piece in particular? One of the things I love about musical fiction is the way in which it explores music in lots of complex ways (not just in terms of subject matter, for example). What are the relationships between the musical piece and the narrative structure, theme and, indeed, the emotional life of the characters?
ZL: I’ve long been interested in how music works emotionally and how emotion in music is intrinsically linked to form. This form works across most Western artistic forms in terms of the simple structure of beginning, middle and end. As I describe in the story there is always a movement from harmony to disharmony and back again, and if you look into music theory, this emotion is mathematical. But does this explain everything about emotion? And how does this offer consolation in the face of grief? Do you ever achieve harmony again after death of a loved one? So I started to write about how music might not offer consolation in the face of life ending. I wanted to mirror how the narrator is unmoored in this state of disharmony, of grief, in the structure, with the story beginning and ending with the same sentence. It swallows its own tail, so to speak, and could grammatically be read over and over. Therefore conveying a non-ending disharmony. I didn’t as much choose that piece of music though. Its drama and melodrama appealed to me and I imagined the mother wanting this piece because it’s a performance piece for violinists and the mother is so invested in her daughter’s career that when she’s gone, the daughter has nothing left of her own but this piece of music, which she is left to perform over and over to her increasingly irritated boyfriend.
JT: I suppose your story is a form of ekphrasis – but a complicated way in which you balance three different art-forms in one. Was this a difficult balance to achieve? How did you go about it?
ZL: I kept the image of the painting in mind when writing the story. If I haven’t ended up with a short story that emulated the genre of film in the painting, then I’d at least keep the image as a central image in the story. The beginning and end of the story describe the boyfriend standing in front of the blinds and he remains a shadowy figure in the story as he is in the painting since the central relationship is between the mother and daughter. I didn’t try to balance the three forms in the story. I think because the central themes are about form, these ideas on structure, form and emotion linked all the art forms together. When read the story at Lancaster University, I included the piece of music by playing an excerpt in the story.
JT: Do you find in anthologies like this one that the stories (consciously, actively, unconsciously, accidentally) speak to one another, overlap, even argue in some ways? What attracted you to writing for this particular anthology?
ZL: They do. I swapped stories with Tania Hershman before submitting, and we had both engaged with questions around endings and the short story form, but in very different ways. I didn’t see other stories before publication, but we have very much spoken to each other. I think it’s because we are all practicing short story writers and very interested in the form itself that our responses explored form and endings.
JT: In the story, you’re dealing with major issues, including grief, mourning, depression, relationships, criticism (even, to use a current term, a form of “mansplaining”). Are there things, do you think, that short stories can’t handle, in terms of emotional experience? What are the limits (and indeed possibilities) of the form in this respect?
ZL: There are no limits. I think short stories can handle most emotions. Perhaps, if you wanted to explore developmental change over a long period of time, you might be better writing something longer. But even then, lots of great short stories convey whole lives. Not in the linear way a novel might, but by ‘dropping in’ to moments in a character’s life.
The End: Fifteen Endings to Fifteen Paintings: Short Fiction Inspired by the Artwork of Nicolas Ruston, edited by Ashley Stokes is published by Unthank Books and is available to order here.