I’m always interested to hear writers – and in particular crime writers – talk about their work, so when I learned Peter Robinson was going to help us test out the new Studio Theatre at the Library of Birmingham (scheduled to open in less than a fortnight – eek!), I snapped up a ticket. I’ve not yet read any of Robinson’s novels, but his Inspector Banks series (which began in 1987 with Gallows View) has just seen the publication of Children of the Revolution, the 22nd book in the series – plenty of material for me to take a run at.
Robinson was there primarily to talk about the new book – from which he gave a short reading – but in describing it he talked about his own life. Born in Yorkshire, Robinson went to university in Leeds, the first in his family to do so – he talked about how this, and his earlier education at grammar school, lead to him being ‘pulled out of his culture’ – before moving to Canada as a post-graduate. The move was supposed to be temporary, but a lack of teaching posts in Britain during the late 1970s and early 1980s meant that he stayed on. Robinson continues to spend half of his year in Toronto, the other six months in his native Yorkshire.
Staying in Canada gave Robinson something of an outsider’s perspective, and his homesickness for the Yorkshire he had left behind was one of the reasons why he began writing the Banks series. Robinson described the early novels as ‘an exercise in nostalgia… written through rose-tinted glasses.‘ As the series progressed, this became less and less of a consideration, and the themes of the books turned more sombre.
After a short reading from Children of the Revolution, Robinson took questions from the audience, and talked more generally about his life as a writer. As someone who has just started writing, I was heartened to hear that even someone as prolific as Robinson has bad days at the word processor. Getting past this was often a question of knocking off early, and starting again the next day – Robinson commented ‘I have many more ideas whilst I’m writing, than when I’m just thinking about writing‘ – which is as good a reason as I’ve read to keep plugging away.
I’ve always been fascinated by the question of what a novelist knows in advance about the book they’re writing. It was interesting to learn that Robinson does very little preparatory work, and does not work out his plots in advance (despite advising his students to do the exact opposite…) Rather, he finds a starting point, such as a location – he used the example of a dried-up reservoir, an intriguing place to find a body (as at the beginning of In a Dry Season) – and starts writing to see where it will take him. Robinson clearly has a very visual imagination, and it’s this which seems to drive his work; he’s initially interested in writing visually arresting scenes, afterwards linking them together into a more cohesive narrative.
In approaching the story in this way, Robinson referred to Raymond Chandler, a writer equally interested in writing powerful vignettes, and less concerned about plot (the most notorious example of this being the murder of the chauffeur in The Big Sleep, whose body is found early on, and then quickly set aside; ‘Oh, I completely forgot about him,‘ Chandler later admitted to the screenwriter of the 1942 film version). Robinson also quoted Chandler’s frequently used (and misused) maxim: ‘When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand’ (taken from Chandler’s introduction to his collection The Simple Art of Murder). But with guns being less prevalent in the Yorkshire Dales than Los Angeles, Robinson felt his intruder was more likely to be carrying the DNA results.
As always, there are so many books and so little time. But it was fascinating to hear Peter Robinson speak so eloquently about his own work, and I look forward to better acquainting myself with Inspector Banks in the near future.