Interviewed by Brian Ritterspak
From the Sunday Times to Val McDermid, the praise for such sardonic and skilful Jeffrey Robinson thrillers as The Monk's Disciples and The Margin of the Bulls has been unstinting. With his new book in the shops, it seemed time to catch up with him.
You're a prolific writer - what's the current count?
A True and Perfect Knight is my fifth novel and my 17th book. Little, Brown are publishing it. It's about a slightly kooky guy who thinks he has life knocked, until the day when life comes and bites him on the nose. It's about a coward who comes to understand that sometimes in life you have to stop being a coward. And it's about two guys stuck over night in an elevator -- lift to you -- and how 16 hours in a very confined space, under extremely stressful conditions, can change a person's life forever. It's also about M&Ms and why they're better than Smarties!
You don't read like any other writer - I mean, I can't detect influences.
I think it's fair to say that the source of all writing is experience AND observation AND imagination. The word AND being the operative one. It's not enough to get swallowed by a whale to write about it, you have to see how people react to your being swallowed by a whale, and imagine what the whale is thinking. Of course, you'd also have to be a great story teller to get anyone to want to read a whole book about a whale.
As for the writers who influenced me, the thing about my generation is Hemingway and television. It was that audible style of his and the verbal power of television. That's why, when anyone asks how I write, my first answer is, "Out loud."
What were your tyro efforts like?
A lot of my very early work was published. I was one of those 15 year old kids in high school -- growing up in New York -- writing for the home town weekly. They paid me 20-cents a column inch so stories that only deserved 500 words, which would have been, say 10-inches, got padded out to 800 because that way I made an extra $1.20. A terrible way to learn how to write concisely.
In the beginning I covered mainly high school sports -- football, basketball, wrestling -- and lots of girls' field hockey. Although something tells me that for the latter I had ulterior motives.
I also did "serious campaigning" kinds of journalism, like taking the city fathers to task for not letting us surf on the beach. (You see, some of the girls who played field hockey... well, that was a long time ago.)
As for being publishable, it was only-just then and certainly isn't now.
Do I sense from your earlier remark that your writing peers are not essential to your cultural well-being?
There are all sorts of reasons why a writer has to read. But like many writers, I'm an absolutely awful reader. Kind of like the airplane pilot turned passenger who hears every groan of the engines and thinks other pilots landings are too heavy. I have no patience and suffer fools badly. I have no qualms about tossing a book aside after only a few pages. I don't read to pamper writers, I read to learn something. I need a writer to challenge me, to make me say, how did he do that? My star of the moment is Calvin Trillin, who wraps stories around each other, has the wonderful ability to write about horrible people and awful situations, and really make you care. Any writer who can do that is well worth the candle.
Are your books civilised or visceral entertainments?
Violence is very much a part of the age we live in, although I suspect it has always been part of everyone's age. I mean, how about the Crusades? The Salem Witch Burnings? The Gunfight at the OK Corral? It's just that, thanks to television, we get to see it nightly on a 21" screen. (Or giant 46" screen with stereo sound if you live in a pub!) But when it comes to writing about it, you really need to ask yourself, what is the effect I'm trying to achieve. If you want everyone to throw up, then sure, be throw-upable graphic. If you merely want the reader to wince, then you have to temper it. The trick is to show the violence in such a way that it creates the emotion you want but doesn't distract the reader from losing the story.
They do it in films very well... you know, all that slow motion stuff. I like that and try to write violence in slow motion. Sometimes it works. Other times, it just takes longer to type.
Same thing with sex. If you get carried away with words like "pulsing," and "throbbing" and use the colour "dark ruby" more than 121 times, well, then I think maybe you're getting too caught up in writing about something you really want to be doing, instead.
One of the people who had an influence on my writing was a wonderful television producer named Jack Reilly. I worked in radio and television, writing of course, while I was at university and showed him something one day that I thought was probably the best prose since, "Snap, Crackle and Pop." Jack thought otherwise. He told me that one of his university teachers, an old priest at Notre Dame, used to blue pencil neat turns of phrase. He referred to them as "lovelies." You know, those great sentences where you use words like throbbing and pulsing and dark ruby, and four syllable adjectives derived from the Greek word for libidinous. The priest would scream, "Forget your lovelies." Which is what Jack Reilly taught me to do. In other words, make it simple. Don't distract the reader. Hot under the collar is fine. Distracted is not.
Oh, and if you write about sex, do it like the lights are out. That way, then you don't know if anything is dark ruby or not. It leaves more to the imagination, which is a sexy place to spend time.
How do you tackle that computer screen each morning?
I wish I could make it romantic and say, I write from ten until noon, then eat radishes and kumquats, write again from 1:15 until 3 then go off to play cribbage. But it doesn't work like that. Writing is all about rewriting... again, and again, and again, and again... and the only way I can do it is by putting my bum on the chair in front of the word processor and staying there all day, and sometimes into the night. I write a book a year, and have done so for the past 17 years, and until IBM makes a computer that does it for me, I don't know any other way.
At least, that's the physical part of writing. The mental part is, as I've said, out loud. That means I sit there and say what I'm writing as I type it so that I can hear it because, besides being an excellent way to avoid "lovelies," it also cuts down on run-on sentences, which throw readers into a tizzy because they lose track and that's not what I want them to do so which is why I say it out loud, knowing that when I have to breath before the sentence stops, it's too long, like this one. Phew!
What do you feel is your particular writing arena?
My dear friend in heaven, Lino Ventura, who was the French Humphrey Bogart, once said to me that there are three elements which make for a great film. The first is a great story. The second is a great story. And the third is a great story. Same thing goes for a book. They've got to be story driven. At the same time, they've got to be about an interesting character, and lots of other things too -- diversions, if you will, that are quirky and funny, because life is like that. And what I try to do is have all those things going on at the same time, sort of like a three ring circus.
The other element I strive for is to make fiction read like non-fiction, so that everyone absolutely believes everything that happens. There's nothing worse than a writer who tells you his character turned left and into the bar when everyone knows that bar used to be to the right and is now a GAP Kids.
What nourishes your cultural life?
Whatever nourishes the mind. Films, music, painting, sculpture, dance... absolutely. Even opera, although that may be going to the extreme, especially if it's sung in German.
Who first inspired you among people you knew personally?
I mentioned Jack and Lino. But there is one teacher in particular to whom I will always be grateful. Jackie Steck taught journalism at Temple University and the thing that made her so special in my life is that she was the very first person with any real authority who made me believe I could write. For many things, but especially that encouragement, I owe her my undying affection.
Let's talk about the structure of your books.
For me, the story and the protagonist must happen together. This novel and the previous two (The Margin of the Bulls and The Monk's Disciples) have both been done in the first person which means right from the get-go I need the voice to be right. Plot and character must feed off each other seamlessly.
In very general terms, I try to put normal people in abnormal circumstances. The idea being that someone you wouldn't mind spending 15 hours with -- say, the time it takes to read the fellow's story -- is someone you're also rooting for. You want him to win, which he may or may not do every time. But you like the character and you care about how he gets through the story. If the two don't meld, what you wind up with is the Jerry Springer Show.
Geographically - where are you comfortable?
New York, London, Paris and Eufala, Alabama. Eufala, Alabama? Remember the girl's hockey team? Well there was a motel in Eufala... oh, never mind.
Any pitched battles with publishers?
I'm very fortunate. My fiction and non-fiction publishers are both fantastic. They understand me and I adore them. I have warm personal friendships with both of them. I also make sure they eat all their vegetables and take their vitamins because I need to keep them to stay healthy.
Has it always been like this? Nope. I did one book for a publisher who shall remain nameless with whom I did not get along at all, professionally or personally. And every time I think about them, I realise how the two I've got now are wonderful. But please don't mention this to anyone because I wouldn't want my publishers to start thinking that maybe I should be paying them!
Who do you write for?
It's not a matter of either. It's about writing to a taste level, and to a sense of humour level, and to a dramatic level. If you do it consistently, you attract an audience and, hopefully, keep them. A lot of writers I know don't believe this but writing books is all about show business. Very few people writing today will be read 100 years from now. A handful, if that. What we're therefore doing is competing for readers' time and money with movies, CDs, football, antiquing, bowling or whisky tasting.
I believe that if you're going to ask someone to spend 15 hours of their life listening to you tell a story, and to shell out whatever it costs for that -- instead of watching Chelsea not score goals -- then you'd better deliver a good time. It's not about improving the lives of everyone on the planet. It's not about ending war or curing cancer. It's not about anything that will, for the most part, be remembered for very long. It's about entertainment, and maybe a little bit of learning. It's about taking someone along on an adventure. It's about someone saying, 15 hours later, hey I really enjoyed going along on this ride. Any author who can get that reaction has written a pretty successful book.
What does religion mean to you?
Monastic silence is good. But monks don't eat very well. Ever seen a monk in a great Chinese restaurant? Strike one. Heavy brown habits are too hot for summer. They also itch in winter. Strike two. And monks don't have sex. Swing and a miss, strike three! I'll stick to the world.
As for religion in the sense of organised religion: It's as much of both to a writer as it is to non-writers. But if you're referring to religious in another sense -- about well constructed beliefs in certain things -- then I go back to something I said earlier. A writer is only as good as his/her obsessions.
And the marketing of your books?
I have no problem with that because we as consumers -- of anything, writers, tennis shoes, toothpaste -- can always choose not to buy. There are loads of authors marketed like breakfast cereals whom I refuse to read because I've found them even less nourishing than Frosted Flakes. But there is something important here for young writers to understand. Writing is a business. No different in that respect than what Kellogg's does. And anyone who wants to earn a living at writing needs to understand the business of writing.
I can tell you that each new book gets harder to do than the one before. Writing a new book -- making it completely new, with a new story and a new voice, and not just rehashing the same book the way some folk do -- is like what Bill Lear (of Learjet fame) said about sex. It now takes me all day to do what I used to do all day. Then again, it beats being 15 and writing about high school sports, except, of course, girls' hockey!