A brilliant masterclass last night, in the historic surroundings of Stirling’s Central Library, from novelist James Robertson. The SWC’s first away-match as a winner thanks to James, Anita Govan, and our lovely audience.
A modest and engaging speaker, James took an unusual and refreshing approach by passing around printed extracts of earlier draft versions of his celebrated novels: The Fanatic, Joseph Knight, and The Testament of Gideon Mack. With these, he demonstrated how much he had to get wrong before he finally began to get things right. The trick, apparently, is to keep going and not be discouraged by the enormous amount of hard graft and basic trial and error involved in getting a novel off the ground.
The first and most elusive task is to find ‘the correct narrative voice’. Each story may demand a different viewpoint (first-person, second-person, third-person, past tense, present tense, etc.). Hovering effectively, just outside a character’s head with the ability to see inside, represents the highest but hardest goal. In effect, James’ books have often been re-written between five and seven times before we get to see them in print.
A lively question-and-answer session followed, which revealed many enjoyable anecdotes (such as James explaining the transgressions of Gideon Mack to twenty ministers on a residential weekend, and how some of the best narrative ideas can be gleaned from overhearing conversations on public transport). A great admirer of Dickens, Trollope, and the Brontes, James’ substantial and far-reaching tome The Land Lay Still has been hailed by many as a catalogue of their own lives from post-war childhood to the present day.
With a profound knowledge of history, James has lately risen to the status of contemporary social historian and writer of enthralling novels and poetry. In a country which has hitherto shown ignorance and misunderstanding of its own history, he is ploughing a rich seam (which feels like a process of awakening into national self-awareness).