Navigating the Narrative with James Roberson
A big shout out to all our members (and those of you thinking about becoming members) for joining the Scottish Writers’
Centre in a recent ‘In Process’ Masterclass with James Robertson. Robertson’s gentle intoxicating Stirlingshire lilt tells it like it is as he invites us into the conversation:
I cannot see me talking straight through this, so let’s have a conversation about writing and let’s make this a conversation between you and me as writers.
A true master of his craft Robertson is a poet, short story writer, essayist and acclaimed novelist. He has written six novels and is currently working on his seventh though he shares with us three other finished novels that have never been published and tells us they never will be.
Our mainsail is set and all hands are on deck as Robertson coxswains us into conversation about his creative process and his obsession with narrative. We’re all on board and like any Captain, Robertson steers and manoeuvres his way through what he considers are the important components of narrative and how everything is connected: voice, point of view, plot, and the mechanics of fiction. Robertson declares, ‘No writer is doing it right; writing is so much an individual approach.’ Sharing his thoughts and habits about the writing process Robertson states with absolute certainty:
As a writer you’re never satisfied because you could have taken your story anywhere. Often this is only temporary because you go on another journey with different characters. I don’t know where I will start, where I will go, and where it will end. There are problems I come up against and I have to overcome them. I use a lot of time thinking of an idea I have in my head. I think visually about how I can connect those scenes and get readers to arrive at a destination that makes sense. I try to make a wilder sense.
To give examples of how the narrative is about what the writer does, Robertson cites Joseph Knight (2003). He tells Knight’s story using different characters as narrators.
I didn’t have the confidence to tell it (Knight’s story) and sound convincing. So I told his story through everyone except him.
A fictitious historical novel set in the 18th Century and based on a true story which Robertson considers ‘a gift from a friend’ who handed him a very small paragraph on the real Joseph Knight at the launch of his first book, The Fanatic (2000). Knight was a slave who won his freedom in an important court case in Edinburgh in 1778. He was brought to Scotland from a plantation in Jamaica, by his master. Robertson says that a crucial part of his research for Joseph Knight was visiting Jamaica to get a feel for the colours, smells, tastes, and the place that Knight came from.
Discussing The Testament of Gideon Mack (2006) Robertson had written half the book with no idea the Devil was going to be a character. He was writing in the third person when he realised that a third person narrator was not sustainable to carry off. Gideon Mack was an unreliable narrator so Robertson went back and re-drafted the narrator to fit the story.
With his fourth novel, And the Land Lay Still (2010), Robertson noticed something was not right about his character Michael. He was one hundred and fifty pages into Michael and was really toiling with him as a character. When he went back to work it out, he observed that he hadn’t addressed Michael’s sexuality. It turned out Michael was homosexual, something Robertson says he hadn’t started out with:
He just came about. So essentially I had to go back to the narrative and redraft to make sure that everything fit together.
In The Professor of Truth (2013), a parallel story about the Lockerbie bombing, Robertson discusses his fascination with Abdelbaset al-Magrahi, the media, power, and control. He discusses how we are told stories that are controlled by people and how narrative is a powerful controlling device for the writer. He names the Hillsborough Disaster as an example of control over how we hear stories in the news:
I was fascinated because I don’t think al-Magrahi was responsible so the narrative required the narrator to be al-Magrahi. Narrative really interests me, it’s about power and control and how we hear and believe stories. Narrative is what the writer does, takes the reader on a journey to the end.
Robertson reiterates the importance of narrative and recommends reading the great Victorian writers, Anthony Trollope and Charles Dickens. He admires their ability to show the power and strength of narrative. He then moves on to mechanics, plot, and voice, asking us to forgive Trollope and Dickens for their intricate plots. He then moves into tense, past and present, how things have to come from a different viewpoint and how the mechanics of developed voices help shape the narrative:
If I ask myself, what’s the voice of the narrator? I don’t know when I take off. I like to see it through the eyes of one person. I like the perspective of one character with the author sitting off to the side, just over the shoulder. Narrative is more important to me than plot. It can takes you to a better place with your readers.
He reads an example of the narrative voice from his 365 Stories (2014) in three separate drafts. In first reading, we explore last year’s first draft written in third person, past tense. He then reads his next draft from eight months after re-drafting the narrative in the first person. Robertson found that he had a more fleshed out character by using the first person. Now written in its final form, first person, present tense, listening to Robertson read provides a feel for the mechanics of narrative. He continues:
All of these things have to pull together to make the story work. Like a jigsaw puzzle with no picture on the box. I go back and think, no, it doesn’t work or now I know where it goes. I question whether I am telling the story from the right perspective. I will rewrite in the third person and sometimes it works. I think a story is best told in past tense, it’s my preference both as a writer and a reader. It moves things along. An important question to ask when writing is, am I writing this in the right voice in the right tense?
Robertson hopes we are all reading and reminds us that reading is a way to see how writers resolve things with their characters. He comments on reading:
There is so much good fiction so there is no excuse. A writer who doesn’t read will never be seen as a good writer.
Robertson is willing to dig deep into this journey about his writing and the questions he has not only been asked, but also those questions that he has asked himself. He is as captivating to listen to, right here right now, as it is to be a reader spellbound and lost in one of his novels.
As the crow flies, we’re adrift; we are in the moment in real time of Scottish writing and have walked the gangplank with Robertson. He is a fascinating and able navigator as we zig-zag into his most recent publication, 365 Stories, a study into his own fascination with the writing process and what makes him write.
Within this publication are 365 stories, one story a day for each day of the year, each 365 words long which according to Robertson is no mean feat. Yet, despite the challenge he keeps his dog watch going. 365 Stories is a political satire on his investigation into, what exactly is a story? While he raised the question, he didn’t get the answer. On several days he was stuck and a couple of stories were just not good enough and replaced.
What a pleasure it is for us, to converse with him about his interest in writing and the endless questions that arise for him as a writer. His slant on 365 Stories:
I see writers groups using this as a way to approach the teaching of creative writing, especially as it applies to fiction. I see how teachers could use this in workshop settings and in schools.
Robertson had taken it upon himself to do this based on his experience of working with students in schools. He’d assigned a three hundred word short story that he felt was a reasonable challenge. Not too long or too short. When students were asked to re-draft and edit their stories he observed reluctance and a lack of interest. Robertson tells us:
This interested me so I decided to try this for myself and so the experiment of writing 365 Stories began. It was a great exercise because it forced me to get rid of all the useless stuff, and by removing what wasn’t good, I could improve on what was left. The exercise was interesting to me to see what I did with it.
What is so admirable about Robertson in his experiment is that by examining and questioning his own process he is leading us into new ways of thinking about writing. He takes his commitment to writing one step beyond the writing process for publication and readership. He’s creating a contemporary tool, a text book for teachers of creative writing. And, like those students who inspired Robertson to ask the question, his 365 Stories will potentially inspire new writing as a tool for teachers, workshop facilitators, and can easily be implemented into schools as part of the Scottish governments recently introduced Curriculum for Excellence.
Let’s Imagine an evergreen shrub of laurel leaf on Robertson’s head mixed with the white flowers from the Oak on the third day of the new moon as he kneels before the Gods (and early influences) of Scottish Literature, Burns, Scott, and Hogg.
But, before we let our imagination run riot, the ebb and flow of Robertson speaks through our members after our evening’s Soirée on deck. It’s all mixed up. Back to front, upside down, and inside out, because we’re all wearing our sea legs with Robertson at the helm. As SWC members so eloquently put it running out the door to catch buses, trains and life jackets:
I’ve read all his books and unlike other writers, you’d never know it was him because he tells a new story in a new way every time and it’s fresh and unlike anything he has ever written before. He tackles different topics every time. It’s a surprise because you think you know his writing and then he startles us with something new. He does it so well. Not very many writers can do that. That’s what makes him so brilliant.
It’s good to know that we have someone like him in Scotland, he’s one of those writers who keep the tradition of the great Scottish writers alive, people like Burns, and Hogg, and well, all those before and since them. He keeps that legacy going. We need that. Aye we do.
These comments give enough of the gist of the evening and how stirring Robertson is for those of us in the company of a great master. And, that’s just to give you a swell of where Robertson’s wave took us. What we embarked upon was a journey with a neap tide with Roberson navigating the waters. What praise. Like a pebble skipping on water, Robertson is relaxed and rolls with the low tide, easy and calm then swelling with foam and ripples of passion like a spume on narrative:
Everything I am talking about is so subjective. I cannot pin down why I write stories in a particular way. It’s a powerful thing to write a complete book. The idea is to get to a satisfactory place with your readers. I don’t plan or chart anything out because all sorts of stuff happens. A plot I didn’t know how to get through or resolve can be what changes that. And not tying up all the loose ends because there’s a life beyond these characters.
Further, through his engagement with students and sharing his practice as a writer teaching creative writing, Robertson illustrates the importance of Scottish writing by creating a teaching tool that is in essence a framework of his experience and practice as a Scottish writer working in Scotland. And, by doing so he passes the baton giving a modern current contemporary voice to a future of new and emerging writers in Scotland. And boy do we need that type of confidence in Scottish Literature today. He shows us humbleness in the way forward and shines light onto this new confidence.
Robertson is like the calm before the storm because it is through his writing that he takes you into the eye of it. And, our members are right; it’s in his writing and the topics he explores that he tells the real stories. You have to read his books. His writing has the unbelievable ability to make you believe in waves called white horses. He never leaves us drifting; he’s the lighthouse bringing us back to safety by resolving his characters conflicts through a well navigated narrative told by a multitude of different narrator’s.
As he navigates us into dock, Robertson leaves us with one last thought on being a writer:
I haven’t fully learned (to be a writer). Each time I write I get a wee bit more confident I will reach the end. It doesn’t get easier, just more familiar.