Ray Robinson is one of the most exciting new British writers to emerge for some time. As long-time readers of this blog will know I loved his debut novel Electricity and it made my Top 10 of 2006.
Anyway, Ray has kindly agreed to be interviewed for this blog and the results are below.
SP: Congratulations on being shortlisted for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, are you fucking chuffed or what?
RR: Chuffed? I’m fucking incredulous, more like! I've watched my debut peers get shortlisted and win awards over the past year, and, as happy as I was for them, I'd given up on the idea that Electricity was going to be nominated for any large literary prize at all. And of course that's what every writer prays for, whatever their opinion of such prizes is (usually that they’re a total lottery or you have to be giving one of the judges head). The great thing about the Tait is that it is not just for British writing or a debut novel or an award for women only, but a prize for the best novel in the past year - so of course I'm amazed to have made the shortlist, and honoured to be among such literary superstars. To be honest, I keep expecting my agent to call me and tell me it was all a stupid mistake.
Cormac McCarthy is one of my all time literary heroes, and The Road is, I believe, one of the greatest novels of all time. It's pure genius. So even to be in the same competition as him is unbelievable.
SP: But presumably not as delighted as when I selected Electricity as one of my Top 10 books of 2006 on this blog?
RR: It would be hard to top that. I needn’t tell you about the marketing power of literary blogs. I appreciate all the support you’ve given me and it’s had a noticeable impact. Again, I’ve been lucky in that the right people have been talking about the book in the right places.
SP: Electricity tells the story of a young woman, Lily, who comes to London in search of her missing brother. She suffers from epilepsy and this condition plays an important role in both the story and the physical text of the novel. Why did you choose to feature epilepsy in this way?
RR: I grew up in a small farming community in the Yorkshire Dales. Seven of us lived in a poky, three-bedroom council house. I shared a bed with my grandfather and my cousin, who was prone to nocturnal seizures, shared a bed with my grandmother in the next room. Although very Road to Wigan Pier, this was a completely normal set-up for a lot of families in our area, but living in such cramped conditions had a deep and lasting effect on me, as did experiencing my cousin’s seizures. She would ‘chuck a fit’ every day; not always what we then called her grand mal seizures, but often she would experience feelings of insurmountable dread that left her reeling and racing around the house in a consuming panic. Her partial seizures would usually develop into full-blown, generalised tonic-clonics. These would literally knock her off her feet and leave her convulsing violently on the floor. During her seizures she became something terrifying - there was some enormous struggle going on inside her body and she always lost the fight. So as you can see, her epilepsy played a massive and profound role in my childhood, and the disorder is something I’ve always tried to write about.
SP: What response have you had from readers with epilepsy?
RR: Getting ‘inside’ epilepsy, and writing it from Lily’s POV, was an enormous creative challenge, and one I was determined to get right – being neither a woman nor having epilepsy created enormous ethical challenges as well. Quite a number of people with epilepsy played an important role during the writing of the novel, not only providing inspiring tales and insight but also acting as consultants for the book, to make sure I got the details correct. Since its publication, I’ve been fortunate enough to meet many readers with epilepsy, and to hear them say I got it ‘spot on’ has been the biggest compliment I could ever receive.
SP: Now, I happen to know that you have been travelling all over the world to research your next novel. Where have you been?
RR: The travel has been for my third novel, Unfrozen. So far I’ve been to the Indian Himalayas and the Western Australian desert, and I’m due to go to Iceland and the Orkney Islands soon. I was lucky to win an Arts Council grant to travel, research and write for a year (needless to say I love the Arts Council). The novel is a metaphysical murder mystery that explores links between molecular biology, quantum physics and Buddhist ideology.
SP: And would you care to tell us anything about the next book?
RR: I’ve just had my second novel accepted by Picador – The Man Without (to be published next summer). The protagonist - a young transvestite - is Lily’s cousin, though the novel is in no way a sequel to Electricity; rather the two books form part of a much larger roman fleuve about three generations of three families in the North – possibly six books in all. The next book, Unfrozen, for which I’ve been doing all the travelling, is a bit of a break from this. I’ve also started working on a novel for young adults.
SP: Electricity seems to be one of those wonderful word-of-mouth novels that people love to recommend to one another. In that spirit, what book would you recommend to readers of this blog?
RR: Er, that’s a tough one. I guess the book that’s had the most impact on me recently is The Collected Stories of Truman Capote - Southern Gothic tales that remind me a lot of my childhood in the Dales. His characters are incredibly vivid, and his use of language, especially use of simile and metaphor, are so quirky and exciting it completely takes you by surprise. Other than that, I’m always trying to turn people on to the Australian writer, Tim Winton. If you like Raymond Carver, you’ll love Winton. The guy’s a true craftsman. I think his short-story collection Minimum of Two and his Booker-shortlisted novel Dirt Music are among my favourites.
SP: Finally, good luck with the awards announcement in August. If you win, what are you going to spend the prize money on?
RR: I’m going to enjoy the whole experience knowing I won’t win, but if I draw the lucky numbers, or manage to give the right person head, then I’d probably throw an enormous party. You’re all invited, of course!
If you have yet to read Electricity, may I urge you to do so. It really is one of the best books from any writer in the past few years and he is such a talent to watch that you'll score lots of brownie points if you get in there early.