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Special Father's Day Interview with Paul Lamb - 2023
Interview #23 (literary fiction, family saga, Bildungsroman, family life fiction)
Paul Lamb lives near Kansas City but escapes to his Ozark cabin whenever he gets the chance. Paul is a father of four. His short stories have appeared in dozens of literary magazines and won a couple of awards. Paul is a father of four adult children and grandfather to many. His novel, One-Match Fire, was published by Blue Cedar Press in October of 2022, and he's at work on two sequels. He rarely strays far from his laptop.
Randal Eldon Greene: One-Match Fire is a story primarily about fathers and sons—a story about what they build. And they build and maintain a cabin, but also relationships with their wives and one another. Why was it important for you to write a novel exploring familial masculinity?
Paul Lamb: The emotional bonds among men are, I think, just as deep and influential as those among women. Unfortunately, as a culture, we, individually and collectively, tend to dismiss and even deny men’s emotions, but they continue to exist and exert their influence, nonetheless. The three main characters in One-Match Fire all struggle with their private demons, and they are somewhat subject to the cultural influence that does not encourage them to express their troubles or even their unspoken love for each other. But their family cabin is a place apart. It is where they have found they can shed their masks (and, literally, their clothes to skinny-dip in the lake together) and feel safe in each other’s company. The setting allows them to engage in all kinds of manly things, like cutting down trees, catching fish, and starting one-match fires, but at the end of their days there, they can sit around those fires and engage in the more difficult, and necessary, work of opening their souls to each other. It is a place of healing for them, and each character understands this in his own way, so they strive to maintain their refuge because they know the importance it has for their emotional health.
I was the second of eight children. Both of my parents worked, and during many of my childhood years, my father was pursuing a graduate degree at night school. As a consequence, I never had a strong personal relationship with my father. With the perspective of hindsight, I can see that writing One-Match Fire was creating my idealization of what a good father/son relationship could be. I think I wrote the kind of family life I wished I could have had.
Randal Eldon Greene: The three generations of men in this novel are Joe, his son David, and David’s son Curt. I want to start with Joe because he says something I completely relate to: “Nearly forty years old, and suddenly with a kid!”
I was thirty-seven when my daughter was born and, like Joe, I had some doubts about being able to do this . . . if I wanted to really do this. Having children cuts off certain possibilities and, ideally for the child, makes certain demands on our time and resources in order to nurture our children. We quite quickly learn that Joe ends up being a great father despite his age and his initial doubts. What do you think One-Match Fire has to say to the young (or not so young) man reading your book who harbors doubts about becoming a father someday?
Paul Lamb: Fatherhood was thrust upon both Joe and David. In Joe’s case, it was late in his life, and in David’s case, it was when he was a teenager. Literature is filled with the stories of men in these situations not doing the right thing and the consequences of that. I wanted to tell the stories and explore the consequences of men stepping up when faced with this unexpected challenge and doing the right thing. Not only stepping up but embracing the right thing.
Joe has his demons. The reader learns late in the novel that his father had abandoned him and his older brother when they were children. Because of that, Joe has conflicted feelings and a reluctance about becoming a father. What he learns is that his doubt is chiefly due to not having an example of good fatherhood to work from. He doesn’t think he can do it – and thus thinks he doesn’t want to do it—because he’s not seen it done right. Yet a close father/son bond is something he yearns for precisely because he never had it. And this motivates him to try to break the cycle.
David has the good role model in his father, but he is one of life’s C students. He’s doing his best and he’s doing okay, and he can expect to continue that way, but he knows he lacks the insight and intellect of others. David constantly doubts himself, and his father has made it his primary parenting goal to instill confidence in his son. This is why the cabin becomes critically important to both of them. Joe teaches David how to catch a fish and cut down a tree and build a one-match fire, and David finds that he can do these practical, manly things even better than his father. Yet when he becomes a father at 18, all of his hard-earned self-confidence is stripped away. He believes he has ruined his life. Not only his, but the life of his girlfriend and of their child. His doubt and guilt follow him through his life despite subtle and overt evidence that he is a good father, a good husband, and a good man.
I often hear people assert that if they had a child, they would have to put their own life on hold or that they would have to give up being who they are. In a way, I think this is an admirable perspective because it acknowledges the primacy of the child’s needs. But in another way, I think this is mistaken. I didn’t find that my life went on hold or that I surrendered myself when my wife and I had four children in four years (a set of twins in there). Rather, and I think this is a healthier way to look at it, my life expanded. I didn’t become less; I became more. Who I became was greater than who I had been. I was still that person, and I was now more than that. In fact, in my early twenties, I was still discovering who I was, and probably some of the naive self-appraisals of my teen years needed this kind of wake-up call.
Make no mistake; fatherhood is hard work, often done in the dark (literally sometimes). And if it is full of second guessing, that’s probably going to have a better outcome than parenting with absolute certainty that you know what you’re doing or that you already have all the answers. This is what I portrayed with Joe and David.
Randal Eldon Greene: I’ve known fathers who work on cars with their children and fathers who join in on community theater with their kids. In your book, you’ve chosen the maintenance of a cabin. How important do you think it is for dads to have a thing—an active kind of thing—with their kids?
Paul Lamb: Each father is unique. One may see taking an active, immersive role in his child’s life to be important while another may take every hour of overtime he can get because providing for the basic physical needs of his child is what he feels he must do. Similarly, each child is unique. A son or daughter may seek to have a parent involved in their interests, or the child may be protective and even secretive about those interests and not want interference or worse, judgment. I certainly was protective about my writing ambitions. I think I was raised in an age and a particular religious tradition where humility was stressed as a virtue. Boasting the ambition of wanting to be a writer, of writing fiction and exercising personal vision, would likely have garnered me ridicule at first and probably spiritual counseling next. The only way I could have made it worse would have been if I said I wanted to be a poet!
Yet a shared interest can be an important and nurturing bond between a father and a child, especially in a typical household where the mother spends more time with the children than the father does. In my novel, the cabin and all of the things the three men do together there are that shared interest. And because of that, because it is set apart from their day-to-day and even set apart from society, they are free to drop their masks and armor and be true with each other. That they skinny-dip and all sleep in the same bed is not accidental to the story.
Randal Eldon Greene: The cabin is the central image of One-Match Fire. Are you a cabin owner and, if so, does it hold the same kind of meaning to you which you’ve given to the cabin in the book?
Paul Lamb: I do have a one-room cabin and small lake in the Missouri Ozarks, and that may or may not be a photo of my cabin on the cover of One-Match Fire. The cabin and forest in the novel are more grand than what I have in the real world, but what I have has served as an effective template for the fiction. However, my cabin does not hold the same meaning for me that it does for the characters in the novel. Sadly, none of my children are drawn to it as I am. The cabin came along after my children were grown and busy with their lives. They are also scattered across the country, so it is harder for them to be a part of it except at an annual visit, weather permitting. I wrote the single story that eventually grew into the novel because I wanted to give my children a possible idea of how to deal with the cabin when my tenure was up. Otherwise, I don’t think they’d know what to do with it but sell it quickly and walk away. Yet as I said, I am fine with being protective of my interest. My cabin is my gift to myself. In that way I can enjoy and experience it in my own manner. And it has nurtured me in turn, causing me to write One-Match Fire. I’m happy to share it, but I don’t feel a need to share it.
Paul Lamb: Your fathers are incredibly comfortable around their sons. There’s a scene in the cabin when Curt is a young boy. It’s nighttime and young Curt is asleep. You wrote: “David wrapped his arm about his boy and pulled the quilt over them both.” The line is sweet and artfully simple. Reading it now, abstracted from the novel, I find the line wonderful and the image it paints wonderful. But while reading the book, I was unable to extract myself from my own sense of having been once a son. It made me viscerally uncomfortable because my father would not have embraced me like this. To me—and perhaps this is only because it’s so foreign to my own experience—I found that the physicality you describe between fathers and sons to be intentional moments imbued with meaning, rather than just lines of expected, and therefore unremarkable, intimacy.
Paul Lamb: My father never embraced me in such a way either.
In the passage you’ve cited, David has just asked a question of the universe, and he feels that he’s received a subtle answer. When he embraces his son in that scene and covers them both with the quilt, it is, to him, not only a natural, loving thing to do at the end of the day, but the final act of a possibly mystical moment. In that way, the moment is filled with meaning beyond the mere physical act, and it echoes throughout the novel.
The characters allow themselves to be open to the influence of the cabin and the forest. They let themselves yield to what their hearts tell them when they are there. One perhaps thinks there may be a supernatural force gently at work in their lives, one is open to that as a possibility, and one would flatly deny such a thing yet be unable to escape an influence he can’t explain. They can come together as family at the cabin, whatever else may be tearing them apart in their lives. Thus, quiet talk around a campfire can heal unspoken wounds, or skinny-dipping together can seal bonds of trust and acceptance, or working together to bring down a tree can create emotional connections that last a lifetime. In that sense, all the intimate, caring acts between these men are more meaningful than what is merely expected.
Still, sometimes a hug is just a hug.
Randal Eldon Greene: While One-Match Fire is a novel unarguably about fathers and sons, you take the time to give us chapters from the perspective of the main characters’ romantic partners. At first, I wasn’t sure what to make of this until I realized that you’re showing us how these wives, girlfriends, etc., are bound up in a man’s life, his concerns, and can view him in a way he cannot view himself.
This shift of perspective works so well novelistically, allowing the reader an alternative perspective. It might come across to some readers that these significant others—the wives especially—see better than the men. But if I’m not mistaken, aren’t you really trying to show us that we all need other people to truly come to terms with our own identities?
Paul Lamb: We are the products of more influences than we can know. And we are the victims of more self-delusions than we can know. I suspect each of us has at least as many blind spots as insights. Yet as close as we can be with another, there are still aspects of us that our partners will never know. This is specifically why I added in the prologue brief reference to a character we know only by the initials “KD.” David will never know who KD was in his father’s life, just as we will never know all aspects of our partners, no matter how much we may want to.
This is a novel about fathers and sons, so the wives and girlfriends are secondary characters by default. But they do strive to understand their men, and they are, in the context of the novel, reflecting what they see. Both Peg and Kathy understand important qualities about their husbands, and later Curt’s partner, Kelly, does the same for him. Yet what is obvious to an observer can be opaque to the observed. These secondary characters give the reader insights to the main characters. And as the novel progresses, they give these insights to the characters as well. Each man learns more about himself because others learn more about him. That the secondary characters encourage their men to go to the cabin, where they often achieve self-discovery because they can be open to it there, shows that they not only understand their men but that they want their men to understand themselves.
Randal Eldon Greene: Joe and his son David are more alike than they are different, but in Curt, you twist things around, giving us a young man who is wildly different than his father. So different in fact, that Curt ends up largely defining himself based on these differences.
In many ways, I relate to Curt’s feelings. I’m so entirely different than my father that I am certain I don’t truly understand him, and I’m equally certain that he doesn’t understand me. Although Curt lets this gulf between them widen with hate rather than indifference. And this made for a very difficult read for me personally, relating to Curt’s intelligence and ambition while at the same time being repulsed by the harsh judgments he levies at his father.
I was troubled while reading your book because of the questions this conflict raised in me. I have to ask, do you think that readers who don’t have an open (or even silent) kind of love for their fathers are going to find themselves closing the pages of the novel with a kind of inner resolution, a sense of knowing where they stand?
Paul Lamb: I think it’s an overstatement to say that Curt has chosen to “hate” his father. Rather, Curt is trying hard to insulate himself from his father’s influence, and he does this by finding fault and disappointment in him (rather than in himself). Curt believes he is protecting himself by holding his father at a distance emotionally. What he only half consciously knows is that his father is not only important in his life but that he is the most important person in his life. Curt wants his father’s love and praise, he wants to be seen as worthy for the very different man that he is, but he doubts that possibility because has misjudged his father and projected his own doubts on him. Curt feels certain his “manly” father would reject his son for his fundamental nature. Thus, he hides himself, and he eases the guilt of this by convincing himself that his father is a flawed man, incapable of expanding his heart and mind to embrace a son who may not be as manly as he, the father, is. It is a grotesque misjudgment on Curt’s part, and it harms what could be a warm and nurturing relationship, but Curt clings to it because his fear of being right overshadows all the evidence that he is wrong.
Yet when Curt takes the most terrifying emotional risk of his life, he chooses to do it before a campfire at the cabin, the place where he had known nothing but love from his father. He chooses the firm ground of their little cabin to take his uncertain step. It is there, in the last pages of the novel and before the campfire at the cabin, that he wants to learn where he stands.
Of course, it’s hard to estimate how a reader will react to the evolving dynamic between Curt and his father. Perhaps the ending will give a reader permission to discover his or her own standing as the child of a parent. Or it may validate something they already understand, whether that is good or bad. At the very least, I think it gives the reader an example of two people who earned the chance to bridge the gap between them and made the effort to do so.
Randal Eldon Greene: David’s wife, Kathy, gives a list of “qualities more important in a father than book smarts. Like steadfastness. Hard work. Unceasing love. And a sweet kind of innocence a man can maintain despite the hard knocks he’s had in his life.” She’s saying this in response to David’s insecurities about having the right skill sets for Curt.
I’m again tempted to side with Curt. I value book smarts and intellectual curiosity. But being a father now, I can understand the value of these wholesome qualities. Yet, you’ve made me reflective once again. I would have never thought about these things, perhaps because I don’t value them in the way Kathy does. I, in truth, value higher the kinds of things Curt most values. So you really had me questioning myself and my own values. But upon rereading I realized something really interesting; David himself—the man of these wholesome qualities—doesn’t value them either. Or at least not enough to let him believe they’re valuable enough to be what Curt needs most.
If Curt doesn’t value them and David finds them inadequate in the face of his son’s rejection, do you believe Kathy is ultimately right? Are these qualities really as valuable in a father as she thinks?
Paul Lamb: David doubts the sufficiency of what few qualities he thinks he has, at least to allow him to be the father of a precocious son. He knows he is different from Curt, especially in the areas of book smarts and intellectual curiosity. And when Curt begins entering adolescence, a time of questioning and trying on persona, David feels he is getting confirmation of his inadequacy.
Yet despite all of his guardedness and imagined superiority, Curt still has a human heart beating in his chest, and this would-be doctor is choosing to ignore his own emotional health. He believes he can compartmentalize it and thus no longer need this kind of wholesome nurturing and validation from his father. He thinks he stands alone. Thus, he doesn’t see the strong foundation his father’s love and example have given him. He prides himself on being able to light a one-match fire more successfully than his father, thinking he has mastered a technique and not understanding that he is deepening through this ritual a bond he shares with David. He is deeply affected emotionally when he and his father cut down a large tree, alarmed and then warmed by the realization that his father thinks he is big enough to do such a dangerous thing. Yet he later tries to dismiss the shared achievement as no more than a colorful moment in his childhood, all the time ignoring the ongoing impact it had on his self-definition.
The qualities and skills that David has and that he tries to pass on to his son, serve Curt in ways he won’t let himself see. Does he choose to become a pediatrician because he experienced, viscerally if not intellectually, deep and abiding care as a child? Does he withstand the rigors of medical school because he had the example of a father who worked hard at a manual-labor job to provide for his family? Is he able to embark on an emotional relationship of his own with a partner who is different from him in many ways because he has witnessed a strong, healthy relationship between his parents? Kathy would think so.
We want our children to do better than we have. We want them to succeed beyond our level and in ways we might not have foreseen. My own children have done this in art, science, medicine, and education. I could not have tutored them in these specialized fields, but I hope I nurtured them in basic human worth and kindness such that they could build on this to achieve the great things they have. This is what I tried to portray with the qualities David had. He knows nothing about pediatrics or the intrigues of hospital work, but he gave his boy a foundation to build his life on. And when, late in the novel, Curt innocently stumbles into the most important conversation of his life with his mother, he learns the profound depth of the foundation his father had given him to build his life on.
Randal Eldon Greene: You said earlier that you “wrote the kind of family life that” you wish you could have had. But who did you write this book for? Is it written for your father, yourself, or your sons?
Paul Lamb: I didn’t set out to write this novel. I had intended nothing more than to write a single short story about a man and his little cabin in the Ozarks and how he was struggling with his need to sell it to pay his father’s medical bills. As I said, my thought at the time was that it might give my own children a template for how they could deal with my own cabin in the Ozarks when my time has passed. In that sense, I wrote it for myself. That single short story became the prologue to One-Match Fire, because after I’d finished it, I wondered if I had other stories to tell about these characters and their cabin. I dabbled with some ideas and soon found that I did have other stories, many of which found their way into print prior to being collected in the novel. I told a friend that I believed I was writing a story cycle with the cabin as the unifying factor, but he told me that I was writing a novel, and the sooner I realized that, the better the whole work would be. I took his advice, and One-Match Fire resulted from it.
My own father is long passed, and I doubt he’d ever read a word of my early short stories. This was in part because my earliest work appeared only in print journals, and they weren’t available to him. Nor did he ever express any interest in my stories. But my writing has always been something I’ve been protective about. It is my thing, my hobby, so I don’t self-promote as much as I probably should. I don’t think my father would have understood One-Match Fire. He was an engineer, a quantitative thinker, and fiction, even the ambition to write fiction, grows from qualitative thinking. I suppose he would have respected it, but he would then remind me that I could still go back to college to get an engineering degree, which he regularly did tell me well into my forties.
One of my sons told me that my novel felt like the kind of things he had to read in high school; it’s clearly not to his taste. Another son said it was too personal, though whether he meant that it exposed too much of myself or touched too closely to himself, I don’t know and haven’t pursued. My daughter began reading the novel back when it was just a few short stories I was trying to get published, and she did the initial design of the cover, so she has been immersed in it from the start. Yet all of my children are busy with their own families and their own lives, and if I see a copy of One-Match Fire on the bookshelf in their homes (which I have!), I’m satisfied with that.
Randal Eldon Greene: Will you be writing a book about fathers and daughters?
Paul Lamb: I have the first draft of a sequel to One-Match Fire with the tentative title Nature Always Wins. It follows the Curt character more closely through his life. Of course, he has a son and faces the inevitable struggles and misunderstandings that come with being a parent. And, of course, the family cabin plays a role. My editor told me that she wanted to see the story of David’s wife, Kathy. I am currently working on that, which I’m calling Motherlove. It includes some mother/daughter dynamic, but never having been a woman, I’m having a hard time believing I can do it right. I plug along, trying to create a true person who happens to be a woman, and will count on my female beta readers to right my wrongs. (Writing is rewriting.) I feel that the Kelly character, who appears late in One-Match Fire, also has a novel in him, but I’m not sure that I want to pursue that because I think it would be grim.
Honestly, however, I will be glad when this extended family finally releases its hold on me. There are novels about other characters and subjects I’d like the freedom to pursue. And I’d like to dip back into short stories. That’s where I’d done most of my fiction work for years. In all of that, I don’t currently see any story about fathers and daughters, though I’m not averse to the subject.
Randal Eldon Greene: Now that you’re working on multiple novels, what’s your best advice for fledgling writers who—like you did—have experience in writing short stories but are now considering a stab at novel writing?
Paul Lamb: I may be the least appropriate person to give writing advice. I eschew most conventional wisdom when it comes to this craft. I think creative writers have a pass on the so-called “rules” of grammar; our privilege, and perhaps our obligation, is to evolve the language, so we aren’t constrained too tightly by the norms. I will split an infinitive or splice with a comma if I feel it belongs. I will use verbs other than “said” for dialog tags. I will fill a paragraph with sentence fragments. Importantly, I see such rule breaking regularly in the writing of major authors. (“They can break the rules because they are great,” some might contend. I argue they are great because they break the rules!) I suspect the rules are only sacred for the insecure.
Nonetheless, what advice would I give to a short story writer intending on writing a novel? Settle in. Writing a novel is a long process, and it should be. Writing a novel involves painting a much larger canvas. It will likely involve much more intricate plotting. It will be peopled with many more characters each of whom drives the plot or their own subplot through their unique motivations. The investment the reader brings to the book-sized transaction is greater, so it must be matched by what you write. You’d better be in love with this relationship you’re attempting.
Also, leave yourself open to discovery as you take this long journey. The character who seemed so important at the start may wither, while some minor character may assert herself. The plot progression you had in mind may have to yield to one you find along the way that is superior. New symbols or structures may present themselves. Some character affectation that seemed so clever may prove too precious, or it may become essential. The brilliant idea that sparked your journey may seem flawed or insufficient by 100,000 words, and then what are you going to do?
I found that the material was too rich to be contained in a single short story. Even as I wrote the subsequent stories (which eventually became chapters of the novel) I didn’t recognize what I was doing. Yet I was yielding to the intuitive part of creativity and letting the big picture reveal itself in the smaller scenes. While the short story was about a son troubled by the knowledge that he must sell his father’s beloved cabin, the novel became about sons and fathers on a much larger scale. I’m not sure I could have written One-Match Fire if I had begun with the big picture. But my short story writing experience allowed me to create the parts that I could later assemble into the whole. I put my trust in that.
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About the interviewer:
Randal Eldon Greene is the author of Descriptions of Heaven, a novella about a linguist, a lake monster, and the looming shadow of death.