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In our interview, Lamb shared some fascinating anecdotes about her adventures with us:
"I always wanted to write and decided to become a journalist to have some adventures and make some money. I was 21 when I set off to live in the frontier town of Peshawar to report on the war in Afghanistan, and I had absolutely no idea what foreign correspondents needed -- or did for that matter. I could hardly carry my suitcase, which contained lots of novels including a dog-eared copy of Rudyard Kipling's Kim, a supply of wine gums, a bottle of Chanel perfume, Mahler's Fifth, and a pink felt rabbit. I will never forget getting off the Flying Coach in the old city just as the sun was setting, struggling with this oversized case, and being surrounded by rickshaws honking and people trying to sell me things, and realizing I didn't have a clue where I was going to stay."
I've always been fascinated by the first explorers and settlers in Africa who headed off with maps with great blank spaces that said things like, ‘Here be cannibals,' and I have often found myself following Livingstone's footsteps. My book The Africa House is set by the Lake of the Royal Crocodiles, where Livingstone's little dog Chitane was eaten and his porters ran off with his quinine on his ill-fated last journey. I got married in Zanzibar in the church founded by him. It was just us, and the priest's wife and a taxi driver as witnesses. Afterward, my husband, Paulo, had to sign on the marriage certificate to say whether he was monogamous, polygamous, or potentially polygamous. Fortunately he ticked the first, or it might have been an extremely short marriage."
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In the winter of 2004, Christina Lamb took some time to talk with us about her favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer -- and why?
It's hard to single out one book, as what I remember most is not one book but discovering new worlds through books in general -- and how I loved my Saturday mornings in the local library while my parents were shopping and Tuesday afternoons in the mobile library, a great blue van which parked round the corner. The Moonim books as a young child, followed by C. S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, then later George Orwell and Rudyard Kipling all seemed to open doors onto new places and ideas far from anything I had come across in suburban South London.
What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
On any given day, my list would probably be different but would always include something by Ernest Hemingway -- The Snows of Kilimanjaro -- Hemingway claims to have spent hours or days laboring over one sentence and expresses more with a few words than anyone else does in pages.
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez -- I'll never forget reading this book and entering the world of magic realism, like nothing I had ever come across before. I read it for the first time just before going to live in Brazil, and the pages seemed almost like paintings, dripping with the lushness of South America, such memorable images and that smell of almonds. I couldn't wait to go, and though Rio turned out to smell of red-pepper trees, I was not in the least disappointed.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera -- A painfully beautiful book of love and how people are robbed of identity in a totalitarian system, something I have seen for myself in places in which I have reported.
Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair by Pablo Neruda -- I often take poetry with me when I am on tough assignments and cannot carry much, and this thin book written when Neruda was in his 20s and full of the passion of youth is perfect.
The Emigrants by W. G. Sebald -- I only recently discovered Sebald, who sadly died in a car crash last year, and I have devoured his writing, almost stream-of-consciousness style and odd scrapbook items that dot the pages.
The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald -- A favorite since childhood days; I would love to have lived in the '20s and the Jazz Age.
The Soccer War by Polish reporter Ryszard Kapucinski -- Reportage at its best. The title refers to the bizarre 100-hour war between El Salvador and Honduras over a football match that left 6,000 dead, but the book has dispatches from some of the most forgotten corners of the world in Africa and Latin America. Kapuncinski really lives his stories and listens to everyone.
Kim by Rudyard Kipling -- Set in a part of the world that I find endlessly fascinating: the North West Frontier. I never tire of this book, and the Great Game continues.
The End of the Affair by Graham Greene -- Hard to choose between Greene's books, and I always enjoy his books set in Africa, but this short novella is for me the perfect portrait of obsession.
The Shipping News by Annie Proulx -- I think I put my whole life on hold when I got this book. I was living in Boston, and it was midwinter with lots of snow, which made it easier to identify with the Newfoundland bleakness she captures so vividly. I didn't know anything about the book beforehand and found myself reading it first thing in the morning as well as late into the night.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
I love movies, particularly sweeping epics perfect for a rainy Sunday afternoon. My favorites are Il Postino, Casablanca, Out of Africa and Black Orpheus.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
Ever since living in Rio in the early 1990s, I have been a huge fan of Brazilian music and bossa nova. I love Tom Jobim and Caetano Veloso and listening to old carnival marches, because it reminds me of the time I danced in the Carnival parade with the Mangueira Samba school. I had three peacocks on my head, towering gold stilettos, and the costume was so tight I could hardly walk -- let alone samba -- but once I was inside the sambadrome with all the lights and drums, I didn't want to stop!
I also like jazz and Norah Jones. If I listen to anything when I write, it tends to be classical music -- Bruch's Violin Concerto is a favorite at the moment. When I have finished for the day, I like some dramatic Italian opera -- Tosca is perfect.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
Zoë Heller's What Was She Thinking? [Notes on a Scandal] -- a chilling book that I found unputdownable; so much to discuss.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Any book -- I love getting new books, the smell and feel of freshly minted pages. I recently discovered Alexander McCall Smith's wonderful Botswanan lady detective, and I have given lots of my female friends Xinran's The Good Women of China. Xinran was China's first radio agony aunt, and the stories she recounts are fascinating.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I like to write early in the morning, so a coffee is essential. I also have on my desk a beautiful painted box I bought in Sultan Hamidy's wonderful glass shop in Herat. A dreamcatcher from the Amazon hangs over the window to keep out bad spirits.
What are you working on now?
A biography of an Englishwoman in the Amazon.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Keep writing and write every day. Everyone thinks they can write a book, but very few people actually sit down and do it.
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