Authors are an unusual breed and to quote Richard Castle’s opening speech “There are two kinds of folks who sit around thinking about how to kill people: psychopaths and mystery writers. I'm the kind that pays better.“ Which to be honest pretty much sums up Imogen Robertson.
Now with her third book released we felt that it was high time we dove into the mind that blends historical fiction with crime and looked to what unfurled when we did. Here in this interview we chatted about music, writing and the training of “Boyo”…
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?
Imogen Robertson: No, not an affliction. I love doing this for a living. That said, it is hard work and I often finish a writing day exhausted. The desire to communicate and create is, I think, a hard-wired necessity in human beings. It comes out in different ways for different people. For me, that way is writing, but then I can’t draw.
FT: When did you realise that you wanted to be a writer?
IR: I remember hammering out poems on my brother’s typewriter from the age of 10 onwards, but I didn’t really think being a writer was a possibility until I hit my thirties. Before then it seemed as distant and unlikely as being an astronaut or a ballet dancer.
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?
IR: I think if you can write a good short story, it shows all the skills you need to write anything else, but when you come to a novel you are wrestling (or that can be how it feels), with a great beast. It is a big undertaking and you have to bring to it a level of commitment that you don’t need for a short story.
It is said you have to be more precise with a short story, but that makes it sound like you wouldn’t be as rigorous with your prose in a novel. Every piece of writing should be approached with that level of care and craft.
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?
IR: A series of historical mysteries written for people who want good writing and a good story. Actually I wouldn’t say any of that. I’m English. I’d point at the books vaguely and say ‘these are ok, I think.’ Then blush.
FT: How would you "sell" your book in 20 words or less?
IR: Ahh, I can use my publisher’s line for this. ‘CSI meets Daphne du Maurier.’
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?
IR: Sarah Waters. An amazing writer, I never want to finish her books. Also Nikki Gerrard, Amanda Vickery, Amanda Craig and Terry Pratchett.
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 ideas develop as you write?
IR: Yes and no. I spend weeks working out my plots, but they always change so I’m constantly replotting as I write. Often you’ll have characters behave in a way that makes sense when the novel is in outline, but as you start to write them, they come alive and you have to rethink their actions and motivations. I don’t often do character profiles, the character emerges in action.
FT: What do you do to relax and what have you read recently?
IR: I run a couple of times a week. That always clears out my brain. I also play the cello, means I can’t think of anything else as I’m playing. And there’s heavy drinking because… hey I’m seeing a pattern here.
I just read Alex von Tunzelmann’s Read Heat about the cold war in the Caribbean. Alex is a friend of mine, but I forgot that as soon as I started reading and got completely caught up in it. It also lead me to order The Whole Island. It’s a volume covering six decades of Cuban poetry. I’m dipping into that with great delight at the moment, and I’m sure will carry on doing so for months.
FT: What is your guiltiest pleasure that few know about?
IR: My boyfriend is a fantastic chef and does all of the cooking at home. When he’s not about I eat fish-finger sandwiches and cold baked beans out of the tin. And enjoy it.
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?)
IR: I don’t have any pets, but when I decided wanted Jocasta to have a dog in Anatomy of Murder I asked my boyfriend if I could name the dog after him. He said no, so I called the dog Boyo, then I started calling Ned Boyo. Oops. When Ned was reading Anatomy for the first time, I noticed he was frowning and asked him why. He said ‘sometimes the way Jocasta talks to Boyo is how you talk to me.’ Read into that what you will!
FT: Which character within your latest book was the most fun to write and why?
IR: My favourite new character in Island of Bones is Casper Grace. He is the cunning-man of the area, a sort of local wise man and healer. The book is set in Keswick in the Lake District in 1783. He has a freedom about him, and I admire how in tune he is with the landscape.
FT: How similar to your principal protagonist are you?
IR: I have two contrasting personalities at the centre of my books. Harriet Westerman who is independent, out-going, impulsive, and Gabriel Crowther who is much more reclusive and inward. He’s rather proud, rather suspicious of other people. I would like to be more Harriet, I suspect I’m more Crowther some days.
FT: What hobbies do you have and how do they influence your work?
IR: The cello is the main hobby. I really love the baroque and early classical repertoire and Anatomy in particular is full of music and musicians.
FT: Where do you get your ideas from?
IR: Asking questions. You begin to have an idea of a character or a scene and then you start thinking, who is this person? What has happened? What do they want? Why do they want it?
FT: Do you ever encounter writers block and if so how do you overcome it?
Hmm. Every book has problems you can’t write through, moments where just writing is no help and you have to stop and really think again. I never feel that I have no ideas, but I often feel I haven’t found the right one yet. You just have to breathe deep and do the thinking. I believe that feeling of drying up is always a symptom of a bigger problem in the book, so you have to find where that problem is and solve it. After that you normally get another surge of words and enthusiasm.
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?
IR: I like the daylight hours. I need to feel fresh when I write. That said, once you are into a book you enter a phase of ‘never really not working’. I’ll be jotting down thoughts or mulling over plot problems fairly continuously.
My boyfriend is very understanding about being ignored when I’m working at the words. I think the reason so many authors work late at night is that they know no then one is going to remind them about a dentist’s appointment or ask what they want for dinner. I’m very lucky that Ned knows to leave me alone, so I get to work in the day.
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?
IR: I often work with music on. It can help block out the rest of the world and keep my mind focussed on what I am doing. Only some things work though! Lots of baroque concertos and sonatas - great. If I listen to Beethoven, opera, or any music with lyrics I get too caught up and forget to write. Writing Island of Bones I listened a lot to Boccherini’s Quartet in C major, made famous by the Master and Commander film. Right mix of drama, surprise, joy. It is still a shot in the arm.
FT: What misconceptions, if any, did you have about the writing and publishing field when you were first getting started?
IR: I knew absolutely nothing, so a lot has come as a complete surprise. One thing is how well I’ve been looked after by my publishers, and how hard they work to make me feel valued. I was used to the rough and tumble of TV work, so it’s a bit strange to be handled so… sensitively! The other main thing is how little I know about all the work that goes into turning the book from a manuscript to a finished product, and then selling it. But then, there’s a limit to how much I should get involved with that. They’re the professionals, and my job is to write.
FT: If music be the food of love, what do you think writing is and please explain your answer?
IR: Writing is the chef of the imagination! Hmm, you know, I think I actually mean that. It’s all about taking what your subconscious and research offers you and moulding that into a complete story. Just the way a chef takes the raw ingredients and creates a meal.
FT: What can you tell us about the next novel?
IR: I’ve just sent the fourth manuscript to my editor at Headline. Harriet and Crowther find themselves in the Court of an Duke in the Holy Roman Empire. They discover the secrets and conspiracies that lie behind a mysterious killing for which their friend has been arrested.
FT: What are the last five internet sites that you've visited?
IR: Amazon, googlebooks, boinboing.net, facebook and slate.
FT: Did you ever take any writing classes or specific instructions to learn the craft? If so please let us know which ones.
IR: I have been going to a poetry workshop for many years now. It’s an amazing group, and a couple of hours a week really concentrating on poems, word by word, is of immense help to me. I also read a lot of books about writing and story. Particularly Stephen King, Lawrence Block and Robert McKee. Those years in TV were a good training too. You have to think about pace and structure all the time in TV.
FT: How did you get past the initial barriers of criticism and rejection?
IR: Well, poetry workshops mean you have to learn to listen without being too defensive, and TV producers will tell you what they think before worrying about your feelings too much. I did have some great encouragement early on though. My first submission anywhere was published in Mslexia, I was commended in the National Poetry Competition, then the big boost came when I was one of the winners in a Telegraph competition. Rejection is always horrible and always will be, I feel like curling up and crying anytime anyone criticises my writing. Bad reviews suck. But you’ve just got to remind yourself that there are people who like what you do, breath deep and keep going. And we all need criticism. If everyone tells you you are wonderful all the time, you aren’t going to get any better.
FT: In your opinion, what are the best and worst aspects of writing for a living?
IR: Best? The freedom to do what you love and pay the mortgage. No commute. Fellowship with people you admire. Not having a boss. And the worst, well that’ll be the nagging self-doubt and the isolation. But it’s still the most fun way I’ve ever found of earning a living.