I bring you Indie Author Interview No. 3 featuring writer and world traveler, Mike Robbins.
Is that a snow-woman with tits, Mike?
Mike is an author of 6 works ranging in topics from reducing carbon emissions in the world’s poorest regions to his travels in Africa, as well as a collection of short stories recounting life in England during the 80’s.
Check out my full review of Dog! on Goodreads here.
Get yourself a copy of Dog! while you’re at it too!
LM: When did you first experience the need to write and to share your stories with others?
MR: Probably when I was nine or ten. I loved being asked to write a story for English composition. I was disengaged at school – I was bored to tears – but woke up when asked to write.
LM: What are your creative influences (non-writers, life experiences included)?
MR: There’s a difference between writers you like, and those that have influenced you. For me, the latter are those that change either what you write, or the way you write it. Graham Greene did both for me. He wrote in a straightforward, elegant style that I’d love to emulate. But he also had substance. Books like The Quiet American had their roots in a confused, changing post-colonial era that he understood, because he’d been out there and reported on it. He’d been in Indochina during the last stages of the French occupation. Like another great English author, Somerset Maugham, he’d also been a spy. I also love J.B. Priestley. He is still seen as a popular ham writer, and his output is inconsistent. But his 1946 novel Bright Day is one of the best things ever written in English; a poignant, thoughtful, compassionate meditation on growing up, of the vividness of youth and its dreams and illusions, and of what remains in middle age.
Other writers who have influenced me have included Ernest Hemingway. His influence on me has been the same as Greene’s – he’s got this straightforward, unshowy style and he’s not divorced from the world. I thought For Whom the Bell Tolls was a dud, I’m afraid. But I loved A Moveable Feast, Islands in the Stream, The Sun Also Rises and most of all, A Farewell to Arms.
Several writers have influenced me through a single book. The most important has been Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. It crystallized a lot of ideas for me about the conflict between rationalism and emotion in human affairs, and especially in politics. To read Mann is to understand the roots of European fascism, which is as important now as it ever was. It’s an irony that I read it in the 1990s when I lived in Aleppo in Syria, where rationalism is now being battered to death. Mann understood a lot. Other books: As a young volunteer in Africa, I stumbled on William Golding’s To the Ends of the Earth trilogy. It shows the narrator’s development from youth to man, from the inside; you sit behind his eyes and watch. The sea setting is magnificent, as it is in Jack London’s The Mutiny of the Elsinore – a tremendous character study, as well as a book of the sea. But I do sense that there’s a whiff of fascism about London.
So did George Orwell, which brings me to the two writers who have influenced me most. Orwell is one, for the utter clarity of his thinking and prose and, again, because he belongs to the world; he took part in it for the whole of his life. He’s also an acute social observer. You can see that especially in his novel Coming Up for Air – not much read outside England, but it’s one of his best works. But the writer I admire most is Heinrich Böll. In 1945 he staggered out from under what was left of his country and wrote two novellas, The Train Was On Time and, a little later, The Bread of Those Early Years. These are two of the most humane and lucid books ever written.
What I write comes from the live I’ve led as well. I was a journalist as a young man, but started working in international development at 30. I have spent the last 30-odd years traveling. My first book, Even the Dead are Coming, was a memoir of Sudan, where I spent two years in the late 1980s. Later I lived briefly in Ecuador, which was trying to avoid the then troubles of its neighbors, Peru and Colombia. This led to The Lost Baggage of Silvia Guzmán, a story of a refugee seeking asylum in a country that was partly responsible for the horrors she was fleeing. The bloody Chilean coup of 1973 also informed the book. It is still the book I care most about.
Three Seasons reflects the England I’d left in the 1980s and the way I’d felt about it; the first of the three novellas in that volume is especially from life – the fishermen struggling to survive against a backdrop of falling fish stocks and politics. I’d been covering the fishing industry as a journalist, and the story felt very real to me. The Nine Horizons is the story of my own quarter-century on the road. Finally in the 1990s I spent several years in Syria working with agricultural scientists, and learned about the link between food production and climate change. Years later, Crops and Carbon was the result.
There is a lot more than has influenced me, of course. Music, politics; the English landscape in which I was brought up,with its constant changes of light and mood. But maybe that will do.
LM: When do you write? Day/Night?
MR: My best time is when I get back from work. I like to try and write for an hour before dinner. But I’m often tired – it’ll be eight PM before I get home, and my work (I’m an editor) demands concentration. I wish I could get a more regular writing habit. Apparently Kingsley Amis used to force himself to write 500 words every morning. Then at lunchtime he drank. As he drank at Olympic level, this routine was essential. I don’t sleep well and often wake at five, so maybe I should get to work then.
LM: What was your inspiration for Dog?
MR: Ah – this goes back a long way! In the summer of 1976, when I was 19, British TV showed a program called The Bloxham Tapes, in which a Welsh hypnotist, Arnall Bloxham, was shown regressing three subjects into past lives under hypnosis. Bloxham himself says virtually nothing in the program; he’s this white-haired avuncular presence – yet his subjects scream and writhe and relive their past lives, and when they wake up, they remember them. One had been a sailor in Nelson’s navy; another had lived in the prehistoric Balkans, and a third had died in a pogrom in medieval York. The program was a sensation. In later years it was questioned. But I never forgot it, and the plot for Dog! must have been in my mind for a long time.
LM: What was the process of writing Dog like? How did you feel in the beginning vs. after you finished?
MR: In the summer of 2015 I was working on a much larger project that was stalled, and one evening I just started writing Dog! instead. From then on I worked on it for an hour or so every evening. It went like a dream and in a month the first draft was finished. I have never written anything as quickly and easily as that.
LM: Reincarnation and karma are a couple of the philosophical/spiritual themes that are brought up in your novella, what message about these themes are you hoping that the reader takes away from Dog?
MR: I think that’s for them. The reader can strip off as many, or as few, layers as they like. Dog! is intended at least in part to be fun, and if someone just reads it for a laugh, that’s fine with me. But they might also start wondering: Does life have meaning? If it does, do the major faiths – in particular Christianity and Buddhism – have something to say about this? Is there a soul, and does it have biophysical existence? And why do dogs lick their balls?
LM: Are you working on any new projects? What kind of works/themes can we expect to see more of in the future?
MR: Too many projects! The one that has been stalled is a novel set in England in the awful winter of 1947. It’s a book I am excited about but after five years it is only two-thirds written. The research is very difficult; I have had to find out when German prisoners in England were allowed to leave their camps and work, what the bread ration was and what was on the radio on Christmas Day 1946 (I did find out). It’ll be quite long, about 110,000 words.
After that is a novel set in New York, where I live for now. Its dynamism and diversity are extraordinary – I heard today that 800 languages are spoken here, more than anywhere else on earth. There can be nowhere else where so many people sink their cultural differences and function as one society. It is an amazing achievement. But it is also a hard place where people sink or swim. I can’t capture it all, and I shan’t try. I’ll look at it through the prism of two or three lives at most, and it won’t be a long book.
There are one or two novellas also in the pipeline but the next book after New York will probably be a collection of “think pieces” from my blog. I will likely have the material I need by late 2016. Lastly there’s a photo book of New York; I have most of the pics but the production will be complicated, so it’s on the back burner for now.
So – too much going on! In general my books will get shorter. I’ll doing more with the novella format, as I did with Dog!. To some extent this is a lesson I learned from Böll. If you haven’t said it after 30,000 words, maybe you aren’t going to say it very well.
LM: Why is indie publishing important to you? Why did you choose self-publishing vs. submitting your work to a big publisher?
MR: Publishing is closed to new writers. No-one will take a chance on something they’re not sure will sell. Anyway, I don’t like to depend on someone else; the one book I did do through an established publisher was priced far too high, and was hardly marketed.
But the world is changing, anyway. The digital “long tail” means that in future, instead of a hundred writers selling a thousand books each, a thousand writers will sell a hundred each. Many more of us will have an audience, even if it’s a much smaller one. This has already allowed some really innovative and unusual writers to publish. It’s invidious to quote names in a way, but I like Rupert Dreyfus and am also hearing good things about Rebecca Gransden, both of whom you’ve interviewed. Other indies or small-press writers whose work I’ve really enjoyed are Harry Whitewolf, Daniel Clausen, Michele McGrath, Chance Maree, Samuel Astbury, Luke F.D. Marsden, Dana Mazur, Ruth Hunt and Peter Jason Payne. The last of these put out a book called Gay & Genderqueer Speculative Fiction, which I can’t see a major publisher daring to do. But it’s original and thought-provoking. Of course there are bad indie books around. But if Hollywood can put out total stinkers, I think we can as well.
This is also about politics. Not long ago I reviewed (and liked) Stet: An Editor’s Life by Diana Athill, who was for many years senior editor at André Deutsch. In the book, she confesses that she was part of a “caste” with an iron grip on the publishing world. This caste was “the mostly London-dwelling, university-educated, upper-middle-class English people [who] loved books and genuinely tried to understand the differences between good and bad writing; but I suspect… our ‘good’ was good only according to the notions of the caste.” In fact, Athill herself was an able editor who published Jean Rhys and V.S. Naipaul, among others. Still, a small group became the arbiters of taste, and however sincere they were, I don’t think that was a good thing. In the end this is about power structures in society, and I do not believe in power structures.
In the end, indie publishing is healthier, not just culturally but politically.
LM: What helps get you into a creative mindset for working on your writing?
MR: Oatmeal stout is helpful, and cheapo Australian red wine. Music of course; I listen to a very wide range as I work, from Elgar to Southern Gothic, and I’ve lately been into Gipsy and klezmer. But I can’t predict when I will write; at the weekend I may spend eight hours online e-pottering, then suddenly write very well for the last hour.
LM: Which famous person, living or dead would you like to meet and why?
MR: Winston Churchill. He could be extremely witty, although I don’t think my liver would survive a long encounter – he could put away a bottle of brandy in a day. I suspect Queen Elizabeth I would also have been fun, when not having you beheaded. Both politically suspect, of course. But then, as Oscar Wilde once said, one goes to Heaven for the climate, and Hell for the company.
LM: Any final thoughts?
MR: For more info about Mike Robbins:
Dog! is available as an ebook for just 99c (US) or 99p (UK), or as a paperback, from Amazon (US, UK, and all other country
sites), Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Indigo, iTunes and more.
Many thanks to Mike Robbins to participating in the Indie Revolution Indie Author Interview Series and as always, thank you dear revolutionaries!
Ciao for now,