Interview Series #12: James Robertson

James Robertson

Photo by Marianne Mitchelson

The multi-talented James Robertson is a novelist, poet, short story writer, children’s author, translator and is also a publisher. Despite being a very busy man, he is also one of the kindest people in the books world. He is the author of The Fanatic, Joseph Knight, The Testament of Gideon Mack, And the Land Lay Still, and The Professor of Truth. Joseph Knight won the Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year and the Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year, The Testament of Gideon Mack was longlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize, and And the Land Lay Still won the Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year. He is also the author of four short story collections, five poetry collections and numerous children’s books written in English and Scots. He runs the independent publishing house Kettillonia, and he is co-founder and general editor of the Scots language imprint Itchy Coo, which produces books in Scots for children and young adults. His latest books are the novel To Be Continued and a children’s book available in two versions, in English as The Book of the Howlat, and in Scots as The Buke of the Howlat.

This is the twelfth interview in the series here on the blog, asking writers the questions that come up most often with the beginner writers I work with:

When you first started writing creatively, what advice would have helped you?

 I was writing from a very young age, and I never considered that there might be ‘advice’ for writers – I thought you just wrote and it worked out or it didn’t. I read voraciously and imitated everybody I read, and kept blundering on like that for years, but always learning, always improving, and finally I realised I had a voice of my own. I was reading Westerns, mainly, so I wrote Westerns too. I had a teacher of English who could easily have advised me to ‘write about what you know’, but he didn’t, he never discouraged my imagination in that way, although he was a perfectionist when it came to sentence construction and cutting out unnecessary words. Distilled to three rules, that would have been good advice: ‘Let your imagination go; write good sentences; don’t waste words.’ But I learned those rules anyway, through reading, because I recognised that these were characteristics of the kind of writing I enjoyed and admired. In my teens I sent a couple of manuscripts off to publishers and they sent them back, quite rightly, and that was sound advice even if all they were really saying was, ‘Not good enough’. Somebody might have said, ‘You must be resilient in the face of rejection’ but it wouldn’t have made any difference because it never occurred to me to give up. If I had known of Raymond Carver’s essay, ‘On Writing’, that might have helped push things along a little, but I didn’t discover Carver until I was in my late twenties. That wee essay contains the most important advice of all: make it as good as you can, or don’t bother.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? If so, what helped?

 I have phases when I don’t want to write or have nothing to say. That’s not writer’s block, that’s just natural. So instead I read, or listen, or watch. There are plenty of other stories out there, and plenty of ways of telling them. And sooner or later, I find ideas piling up in my head again, and I start to shuffle through them.

Do you write every day?

 If you mean, do I write ‘creatively’ every day, no. I think every day, and eventually some of the thinking begins to shape into a poem or piece of fiction, and then I write as often as I can until that bit of work is finished. Also, I do a lot of translation and editing work for Itchy Coo, the Scots language imprint I co-founded in 2002 and am still heavily involved in, and this means I can switch between different writing projects depending on my mood and on deadlines. So, on reflection, not many days go by without some productive writing taking place.

Do you have any rituals around your writing practice? Do you prefer to write in a particular place or at a particular time of day?

 I have to get all the mundane stuff out of the way – emails, phone-calls, accounts and so on – before I can settle to write. These can also be excuses, of course, but I think they are more a kind of preparation, a limbering-up. I have a room at home which is my office and that’s where I write: this is a luxury I have enjoyed now for nearly twenty years. I wouldn’t like to have to go back to not having that space. I don’t usually get into writing until mid-morning, or even afternoon, and then it’s just a matter of how long I can keep going. Once I’m into a novel, I have a daily word-count target: 1,000 words.

Have you ever kept a journal?

 For two or three years back in the late 80s and early 90s I kept a journal. I stopped because I felt it was a distraction, in the same way that I feel writing a blog would be a distraction. Life is too short.

Are you a planner? Do you outline a book in advance, or do you just start writing and see what happens?

Of course I have an outline, but it’s usually pretty vague. I wouldn’t want to close down the options, in a poem or a story or a novel, by planning too much. In long fiction, the voyage of discovery is the thing that makes me want to complete the first draft. But I have usually been thinking hard, and making notes, for some months before I start that draft, so there is a map in my head, it just doesn’t have much detail on it. More important than a plan, in my view, is having a sense of the themes that might be in the story, and also some strong visual images or sound-clips from particular scenes. Everything flows from that meeting of the thematic with the physical world.

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