Having lived a rich and varied life, Robin Blake is a man with a passion for history and a gift to write. Blending the two seemed like a logical step and with Historical Crime titles on the increase I was more than interested in this new release from Pan Macmillan.
Here we chatted to Robin about his writing methods, period musical interludge and the pressures of writing for a living...
Falcata Times: Writing is said to be something that people are afflicted with rather than gifted and that it's something you have to do rather than want. What is your opinion of this statement and how true is it to you?
Robin Blake: Writing is a profession. You have to work at it, learn it and profess it. As in any other job some writers at on extreme are plodders, and a very few at the other are geniuses. Few of those who are acclaimed as geniuses, and even fewer Oscar Wildes, who acclaim themselves as geniuses, are actually geniuses.
FT: When did you realise that you wanted to be a writer?
RB: At around the age of ten.
FT: It is often said that if you can write a short story you can write anything. How true do you think this is and what have you written that either proves or disproves this POV?
RB: I have not heard that said, though it may be true. Short story writing is very difficult. In a long story, for example a novel or novella, numerous incidents are related by the story teller; in a short story the incidents must be pared down to a very few – maybe to just the one – without losing the kernel of the story.
FT: If someone were to enter a bookshop, how would you persuade them to try your novel over someone else's and how would you define it?
RB: Most book shoppers have a pretty good idea what they’re looking for. If they’re interested in a crime puzzle set against an interesting historical background and employing lively characters, then I would politely suggest they try mine. I wouldn’t try to dissuade them from buying another book; I’d encourage them to buy both.
FT: How would you "sell" your book in 20 words or less?
RB: I refer you to my previous answer.
FT: Who is a must have on your bookshelf and whose latest release will find you on the bookshops doorstep waiting for it to open?
RB: There are broadly 2 kinds of books in my bookshelves. Some are working books – 18th century texts, reference books, historical studies, Shakespeare, the Bible – and the rest are the accumulation of volumes I have acquired over the years, for one reason or another. There are no must-haves, but quite a few that I re-read or re-dip into every now and then.
FT: When you sit down and write do you know how the story will end or do you just let the pen take you? ie Do you develop character profiles and outlines for your novels before writing them or do you let your idea's develop as you write?
RB: I develop character profiles and plot-lines in advance and then find it impossible to follow them. Doesn’t everybody? New ideas keep jumping out from behind the bushes as you go along, forcing you to modify or even change direction.
FT: What do you do to relax and what have you read recently?
RB: I relax when I’m walking and listening to music, but I never do both at the same time.
FT: What is your guiltiest pleasure that few know about?
RB: If I told you my guilty secrets they’d no longer be secret.
FT: Lots of writers tend to have pets. What do you have and what are their key traits (and do they appear in your novel in certain character attributes?)
RB: We have a family cat called Mushroom whose traits are those of most cats: calculating, athletic, winsome when he wants something from you.
FT: Which character within your latest book was the most fun to write and why?
RB: I think it’s a bad idea for novelists to favour some characters over others (they get spoiled), though I did rather enjoy making up the religious non-conformist Timothy Shipkin in A Dark Anatomy. He is a woodcutter and a member of a sect (invented by me) of Septenarians, who follow the notion that everything important, in this life and the next, relates to the number seven. His physical appearance is loosely based on that of Samuel Beckett.
FT: How similar to your principle protagonist are you?
RB: Not very. They are fictional.
FT: What hobbies do you have and how do they influence your work?
RB: I associate the word “hobby” with things like building scale models of HMS Victory with match sticks. I think I am too busy building scale models of in my head.
FT: Where do you get your ideas from?
RB: Imagination plus reading.
FT: Do you ever encounter writers block and if so how do you overcome it?
RB: Yes. A long solitary walk sometimes works.
FT: Certain authors are renowned for writing at what many would call uncivilised times. When do you write and how do the others in your household feel about it?
RB: I try to write during the usual working hours, depending on time pressures.
FT: Sometimes pieces of music seem to influence certain scenes within novels, do you have a soundtrack for your tale or is it a case of writing in silence with perhaps the odd musical break in-between scenes?
RB: As it is set in 1740 the soundtrack of A Dark Anatomy would be the kind of music popular at the time. Handel was by far the most successful musician in England. Very good English composers included Thomas Arne and William Boyce.
FT: What misconceptions, if any, did you have about the writing and publishing field when you were first getting started?
RB: That it would be easier than it is.
FT: If music be the food of love, what do you think writing is and please explain your answer?
RB: If you mean the desired product of writing, ie reading, it carries a kind of pleasure quite different from music. It can be the food of love, or the food of anything else, including food. But it is about the interchange of meaning and feeling, words and emotions. Songs and operas may possibly be like that but wordless music is not: it’s stirring but meaningless.
FT: What can you tell us about the next novel?
RB: It will be a sequel to A Dark Anatomy, ie another 18th century mystery featuring coroner Titus Cragg and his friend Dr Luke Fidelis.
FT: What are the last five internet sites that you've visited?
RB: BBC news, my bank, the Falcata Times, the site of the Diderot/d’Alembert Encyclopaedia project and robinblake.co.uk (which I’ve been editing).
FT: Did you ever take any writing classes or specific instructions to learn the craft? If so please let us know which ones.
RB: I once attended Robert McKee’s weekend scriptwriting course. It had quite a strong celebrity following at the time. McKee was great as an entertainer and his dissection of the film Casablanca was expert, so it was not money wasted. On the other hand McKee’s prescriptions were too formulaic and I doubt I learned any imperishable lessons.
FT: How did you get past the initial barriers of criticism and rejection?
RB: Rejection and ill-informed criticism makes me angry and inwardly vengeful, but I like to think I learn from constructive criticism.
FT: In your opinion, what are the best and worst aspects of writing for a living?
RB: The best aspect is your independence. The worst is exactly the same: you are on your own – your success, your failure, are yours and yours alone. You can blame others if you suffer criticism, but in the end it is you yourself.