This interview should have been posted here back in May (possibly 2015!), but thanks to a lethal brew of inertia and pre-occupation with a new job and duff car salesmen – excuses, excuses, they’re all just feeble excuses – indie author Leo Robertson has been forced to wait for his place in the pantheon of The Opening Sentence interviewees.
However, this is a big ‘un. Well worth the wait. So sit down with whatever it is you sit down with to drink and hear Leo’s take on self-publishing, world literature and selling out.
1 – Brahms waited fourteen years to write his first symphony. How did you prepare yourself to write Out Black Spot?
I don’t think I prepared at all!
If then the question is how did it come about, I think I wanted to write a science fiction story involving engineering concepts, so I could play to my strengths. I hadn’t even read any books on how to write (which I subsequently found helpful), so I just wrote whenever a scene came to me, wherever I thought it would appear in the story, then I joined the dots. This kept me occupied while I was studying for my masters, and I didn’t often have that much time to work on it, so it took me the full academic year, more or less.
Because of the method I used then, nothing I write from now on will ever seem like it, which makes me increasingly glad that it exists and reads the way it does. Our stories are inextricably linked to who we were when we wrote them.
2 – The novel deals with conflict in a post-oil world. Why did you choose South America as a location and not the Middle East?
I wanted to use an emotional narrative to get people to consider certain historical events that I felt had been overlooked, namely the Deepwater Horizon incident and The Paraguayan War. I needed a loose framework that would link the two. I think. It was all subconscious.
3 – The central characters in Out Black Spot are brothers Juan and Matias, Ana and the Marshal. How did you use them to explore the themes in the story?
There are some complex themes in the story, some of which some characters are linked to more closely: the Marshal and war, the twins and brotherhood, Ana and survival, maybe? I think what links all the characters is the notion of a family. How we reform a family after tragedy, how adversity makes us feel/ re-evaluate each other, what we’re willing to sacrifice for each other or how much we’re able to hurt each other, intentionally or otherwise. How we help out our blood relatives and what help we extend to strangers by comparison, or is there a difference, and under what circumstances does it change or even invert? Then since there’s a historical element, there’s the personal history of a family and what that counts for… I know all this is there. I’ve found that following your intuition results in the best material, even if you end up at a loss to explain it yourself.
TOS – Intuition is something I’ve come to trust when I’m writing. I’m not a seat-of-the-pants writer, but I’ve learned to let the story tell itself to some extent. Do you think there’s the possibility that some ideas are fully formed before we discover them and start writing them down?
Absolutely! I think any level of development from 0-100% is possible, and we writers have so little control over that.
On intuition: of the art forms, literature does personal emotional engagement best. I think. To find an audience as a writer, you have to be yourself entirely, and that entails making as much use of the subconscious as possible. Almost everything I’ve written this year I don’t totally understand, but I know it’s all saying, ‘Do you ever feel like… this?’ and whatever “this” is, my subconscious is pretty clear hasn’t been expressed in a way that has satisfied it before!
But I know there are advantages to not being a seat-of-the-pants writer, as evidenced by your Toten Universe 🙂
4 – There seems to be an obligation on authors to make life easy for the readers. Do you agree with this, or should readers be made to work a little?
I don’t think I’ve ever read a book in which a writer didn’t give me all the clues I needed to solve their story, though I’ve read many I haven’t connected with enough to go on and solve. Sometimes that’s down to poor writing, sometimes it’s what I see as a deliberate attempt to make the reader (me) feel stupid. Sometimes I don’t understand a book or a film but it sits in the back of my mind— often, upon revisiting, it’ll click, and I’ll be glad I went back. Sometimes no. But our intuitive dissatisfaction with art is a reflection of our innate taste. It isn’t trivial. It’s supposed to guide us towards works of art we will appreciate. We can’t read/ watch/ listen to/ play everything after all.
It seems to me that a lot of people’s frustration with literature is to do with the uncomfortable places that stories take them. “We Need to Talk About Kevin” had frustrated reading groups asking Lionel Shriver, over and over, to just tell them ‘In the story, who was in the wrong: Kevin, or his mum?’ Even although she wrote the book, Shriver is not qualified to give that answer herself, right? The reason it’s so compelling is that it’s a puzzle without an answer. She was implicitly asking, ‘Well, what do you think of this?’ Stories are supposed to be a test of our own opinions and beliefs, not a replacement for them. “Thinking for oneself” is just one of the ways a reader is tested. I don’t know that most people do think for themselves, or even like to do it. My appreciation of stories is not a function of how much an author is telling me what I want to hear or how much I agree with them— though I’m not really sure what it is a function of! I think we’re supposed to perpetually refine our own personal philosophy, using art to test and develop it.
Now if I pick up a difficult book, whether or not I finish it will depend heavily on how much I enjoy it, though I used to read thousand-page tomes just to say I had, which was a dull and futile task that I can’t recommend. Challenging a reader unnecessarily, or for the sake of it, is to be heavily discouraged— I do believe there are still authors who do this. If your book’s challenges lead to rewards, go nuts, but there are many other ways to prove you’re clever, if that’s all that concerns you, and I don’t want to be involved in any of them.
I try to write as economically as possible, which can lead to my stories being pretty dense. But sometimes, when I’ve seen opportunities to add further density and complexity to my stories, I’ve refrained from rewriting them too much because it would reduce how much could be picked up by the reader on a first read. I know every clue a reader needs is in “Out Black Spot”, and I hope they enjoy the story enough to find them.
5 – You’ve recently had successes with two short stories. Do you have a preference for one form of fiction over another (eg short story or novel), or does the subject matter determine what you write?
It depends how big the idea is, I guess, and that feeling of “it’s done.” Do you get that too?
With “Bonespin Slipspace” [novella published by Psychedelic Horror Press, expected July 26th], I really enjoyed the direction it took towards the end and I wanted to keep the story going as long as I could, but where it was going and when it was going to end was already dictated by what I’d already written, and I felt it drawing to a natural conclusion.
Both stories that are getting published [“Bonespin Slipspace” and also “The Audition Altar”, published in volume 1 of the Twisted50 anthology, expected Q3/4 2016] are the only horror stories I’ve ever written— so perhaps the success is telling me I’m not the kind of writer I thought I was. Horror and bizarro have two of the most welcoming and enthusiastic communities, and maybe I’ve headed towards them because they offer so much fun.
TOS – I’ve been writing short stories to complement the TotenUniverse novels. I’ve never really written short stories, but I find the need to make a point quickly and leave the reader satisfied quite a challenge. The ability to say ‘it’s done’ is quite different to ending a novel and saying ‘it’s finished!’
Entirely different sensations, right? And both with their own unique challenges…
6 – I always ask authors what their writing process is, going from initial idea to multiple drafts to publication. What’s your process?
It’s much more defined than it was in the “Out Black Spot” days!
I try to type between 1k-2k a day, during the day, taking breaks across the weekend. When the story is finished— whenever it’s found its length (I’m currently writing a novel that I started by accident, which isn’t the first time I’ve done that!)— I start the next one, and get the first draft of that ready. Then if enough time has passed (a month, say), I’ll re-read and edit the first story. Then I type the story out again in its entirety: this has become essential because it means not a single sentence/word/scene is necessarily sacred— none of it needs to make the cut if it doesn’t make sense to write it a second time. When you create a new draft out of blank pages, you don’t feel obliged to hold onto anything. So, sometimes I write out passages longhand during the first draft then type them up, but given that I re-type everything (and the shorter the story, the more retypes possible AND necessary, I’ve found), I don’t feel the need to do this all the time. Then I send the story to my writing group and get some feedback and re-write again as necessary, and then it’s done!
That’s if research isn’t required. If I need to do some research, I do all of it first, and quite intensely: for each resulting page of fiction, there can be between 10-100 pages of information or hours of footage that I’ve looked at first. This took me so long for the story I’m writing at the moment that I was taken out of my writing routine and seriously went a bit nuts.
Accessory parts of the process: I have to read some good fiction for at least half an hour in the morning, get good quality sleep (ideally dreaming) and get some exercise. This is a decent routine for life in general, but maybe since writing is such a sensitive activity, it’s more apparent how much these ways of looking after ourselves affect us. When it comes to drinking, don’t follow my example!
TOS – I’ve tried to write two novels at the same time, but gave up. I’m glad I did because I think both woud have suffered. But every author finds their own groove. How do you find working with a writers group? On the one hand a fresh pair of eyes is crucial to clarity, but do you find personal preferences of other writers clash with what you want to do?
Now that I have a few readers who know what to expect from me/ what I’m trying to do, they are able to advise both on my behalf and as readers. But then, the more they know what I’m doing, the less they can see my stories freshly…
What I’ll never do, which I see advised, is set up a survey and have just anyone give their comments. What we’re doing is a conversation: you asked me some questions, I gave some answers and asked you some, now I’m responding to your further questions again. Literature is the next best thing where this isn’t possible, because of time, technology or not-alive-anymore constraints, to name a few (shame, taboo also? I like these ones…) Then couldn’t literature be improved if we took opportunities to include more conversational elements to it, Leo? I don’t know. But I like Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.’
Literature: it’s like a conversation, but also it isn’t. Okay, cool.
7 – The self-publishing world seems to ebb and flow between optimism and cynicism. In light of recent scams on Amazon and legitimate authors being punished incorrectly, do you see a future for self-publishing?
“The self-publishing world seems to ebb and flow between optimism and cynicism”- I agree! Hey, what were these scams and punishment?
I guess by “future” we mean writers who can make a living by self-publishing. Even most of my traditionally published idols can’t make a living from it. We look to the few big self-publishing trailblazers to show that it’s possible, not that it’s likely. In a way it’s nice that it’s become so tough to make money from writing, because it’s becoming next to impossible to keep writing unless your main goal is the gift of great stories.
I’ve enjoyed discovering a whole host of great self-published authors whose works I am glad made their way to me. When you self-publish, of course you want to say that it’s legitimate and that traditional publishers are too commercial and we’re missing out on great books, but it’s a delight to learn, through reading both self/traditionally published books, that that’s the case!
Unless of course there’s something so important about New York and stories about white artists struggling to make art. Maybe I should keep reading bestselling books about white New York artists making art on the off chance the hundreds of hours already dedicated to this endeavour wasn’t a complete fucking waste of time.
8 – Out Black Spot is not a simple book to read. Did you worry about how the audience for indie books would react?
My favourite achievement from writing so much is that I don’t feel I have anything to prove. My thought is always ‘I think this is cool and I hope you do too.’ Professional artists in all industries are susceptible to the trap of thinking they have a guaranteed hit, but since no such thing exists, it’s best to use your time writing what you want: when you publish, you’ve already won!
TOS – I think I could have phrased this question better. Indie authors are often subjected to ‘advice’ to write a certain way, which almost leads readers to expect indie authored books to read a certain way. Out Black Spot didn’t follow those rules which I thought would lead to raised eyebrows amongst people with preconceived ideas of what an indie novel would look like.
Interesting! Who’s managed to assume the advisory role, I wonder? And is it just Robertsons who, when given advice, will either do the exact opposite thing or prolong the thing they were told to stop doing until even they themselves hate it? I hope not. I’ve made it this far in life without taking any advice, which is my favourite thing not to take, so I doubt I’ll start anytime soon. I wish this also meant people stopped giving me advice. If you pretend to take people’s advice it makes them like you more, but you can only use this tactic on the kind of people who give you advice, of whose opinion I’m not all that interested, so it’s fairly useless.
I think great books on writing are few and far between but we recently got a new one with Mary Karr’s “Art of Memoir”, which is all about writing authentically as yourself. She gives a list of rules at certain points before adding that you will probably need to break any or all of them to write the way you do. And this is certainly true of my favourite writers.
We’re not learning how to write; we’re learning how we write. I apparently use semicolons, words in italics… ellipses, and adverbs. Also, my stories are frequently sarcastic and bleak. These may all represent major criticisms of my writing, but for the above reasons, what can you do 🙂
9 – You must have a lot of author influences fuelling your writing. Can you name a few and, more importantly, tell us what you learn from them?
Joyce, Gass, Proust, Musil and Jelinek all gave me the confidence to write “Out Black Spot” in a sensory style. I also like Rushdie’s lush, evocative prose, though I don’t think I’ve yet picked up the right Marquez…
When I think of favourite writers overall, here are the first that occurred to me:
Lionel Shriver: her scenes seem so real it’s like being able to listen in on intimate conversations you don’t think you should be hearing. And her humour is the does-not-give-a-fuck shade of black, especially in the wonderfully titled “So Much For That”, which is an outrageous read. I hope her latest, “The Mandibles”, is in the bookshop when I check this afternoon…
David Foster Wallace: there’s an addictive flow to his prose and an amazing clarity of expression. It’s so refreshing when a lauded literary writer never locks you out of what they’re trying to tell you: I’ve never spotted him going on big pointless purple riffs— pointless riffs maybe, but not purple ones. A big problem with his writing, however, is that it always seems to deal in absolutes: the depressed person who only gets worse, the video that entertains anyone into a state of paralytic bliss, or in “The Pale King” when he said ‘If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish’ (which is clearly bullshit, because heroin makes you immune to boredom, and what has anyone on heroin ever accomplished? This goes back to what I was saying, that boredom and frustration with novels are useful guiding tools to take you in the direction you’re supposed to go. We need boredom as an essential driving force.) Even so, Wallace’s absolutes work as an insightful contrast to how we communicate with each other in reality, but the dangerous thing with his writing would be to assume that anything he describes is the absolute truth. He’s too convincing at that.
Albert Camus: he wrote about the darkest inherent truths of human existence, but never without deeply cathartic ironic humour.
Other great writers that are occurring to me just now: Dostoyevsky (of “The Idiot” and “Notes From Underground”), Chekhov, Alice Munro, Ryu Murakami, Jeffrey Eugenides, Karl Ove Knausgård, Joseph Heller (of “Something Happened”, not “Catch-22”, which I don’t get at all), Will Self, Samuel R. Delany, Adam Johnson.
10 – You say you don’t read reviews of your work because you feel it’s an intrusion on a reader’s relationship with the book. Do you read reviews for other authors instead?
Full disclosure: while I genuinely don’t want to intrude, reading reviews of my own stuff always give me that “checking your bank account/ exam grades” feeling. But I’ll know when my story is enjoyable because a reader will typically contact me to confess something that seems to me to be totally unrelated to what I thought the story was about, and then the story becomes coloured in my mind with the reader’s experience, which is the best feeling.
Most of the other indies I know don’t seem to have a problem reading their own reviews, but I also think they take too much of what they read in their reviews on board, good or bad. There are authors I feel very defensive of, so I do occasionally read their reviews and get back to them to ensure they know what I think they should accept and what to let go. But I even feel uneasy reading reviews with too much praise in them, because if I like an author, I want them to surprise me in their next work with how far they can go. No matter how much anyone loves something you’ve written, “What’s next?” grows back. It has to. So I think my own strategy, while happening to be exactly what I feel like doing, also happens to work best in my own favour and that of the readers. But if someone takes the time to write a review and send me a link to it, I’ll thank them and give it a read. I’m not a dick— or if I am, that’s not why.
11 – If you were offered a six figure advance from a mainstream publisher would you give up the day job for the life of an author?
I’d love to sell out— I don’t hate money— but I honestly wouldn’t know how! I’ve tried: it just ends up weird! It always will. I have to accept that.
Social responsibility is, I would hope, a basic need for most people. Even as much as I love reading and writing, I don’t think I’d be able to justify being a full-time writer, for now. Not that I’m saying fiction is frivolous, but also, few things irk me more than, say, science fiction writers writing essays on how much we need science fiction writers. Like, you WOULD think that! DURRRR! I like that our work— in any field, artists!— has to perpetually prove its own value. I get that it’s exhausting sometimes, but I’ll be no less tired by it after reading a redundant essay.
For the moment, engineering and art fulfil mutually exclusive needs and I don’t want to part from either one. Maybe everyone does have a price, though. I bet mine’s lower than I think it is.
12 – If readers of Out Black Spot are inspired to read more about Paraguay and South America, which authors and novels would you recommend?
For those who enjoy their Brit-authored future energy/climate crisis literature set in South America, “Wondering, The Way Is Made” by Luke F. D. Marsden is their next clear destination!
Parts of Harry Whitewolf’s “Route Number 11: Argentina, Angels & Alcohol” take place in Paraguay, though he and I hardly use the same landscape in the same way…
“The News from Paraguay” by Lily Tuck is also about Mariscal Lopez, and it won a National Book Award.
For South America, I like Bolaño and Borges the best. Alejandro Jodorowsky’s novel was recently translated into English also, which should interest all the monoglot plebs out there.
Heard great things about César Aira and Ernesto Sabato.
I’m currently reading a Clarice Lispector novel. It’s like an aphorism-rich musing for a parallel universe. Would definitely recommend her to fans of Hamsun, Camus or Kafka!
Unfortunately I am not currently familiar with the landscape of Paraguayan literature— it’s on the ever-expanding list.
13 – What part of the writing process do you find the hardest to deal with and how do you deal with it?
There’s this constant noise that goes on in your head while you’re writing that says ‘Too much/ not enough dialogue/ scene-setting/ description’, ’This scene is too long/ short etc.’ I don’t know how that noise, if you take a break from writing, manages to convince you again that it somehow means you’re doing something wrong— but I just remember that it’s the intuition keeping you in check. It has a purpose, like boredom has a purpose, like pain does, etc: it’s pushing you in the right direction. This seems simple for me to say, but I don’t know that other writers see it that way. I reckon that’s why some people say writing is hell or terrible or whatever. I try to remember that with writing, you don’t get the joy of its surprises without the tension of uncertainty. It’s all necessary: it’s just keeping it in balance and not beating yourself up. Too much.
14 – At the end of the writing process how close are you to the characters you’ve created?
Sometimes the next plot point occurs to me when I’m taking a walk and it breaks my heart, and when I’m writing it, I think, ‘Oh, come on, do I have to do this to these people?’ At the end of the process, there’s an almost complete disinterest in the characters, because the song and the dance is over and they can’t surprise me anymore. At that point I feel closer to the people around me, having spent some time trying to imagine what it’s like to be someone else. Then that feeling fades between projects, and thinking about characters is like thinking about weird, wistful memories.
If you mean how much are they like me, it ranges from absolute stand-in to ‘I’ve never met this person.’ It’s interesting to see that, at least with fictional people, there’s always some way to relate to them. Anything I write about makes me want to be kinder to people I’ve previously clashed with.
TOS – I see my characters as close acquaintences. When I wrote Who Among Us… and Susan Bekker from the Toten Herzen novels made a ‘guest appearance’ it felt great to be writing about her. I suppose it’s different if you’re writing a series of novels. It’s like going on holiday with someone: you very quickly discover their annoying habits, but if it works out okay, what a journey. I don’t want the TotenUniverse to end, but I know it has to and it’ll be hard to write the last lines of the last book.
That’s a cool way to look at it!
15 – Have you written the book you want to write or is every story a stepping stone to the ‘ultimate novel’ yet to come?
I’m always trying to get back to my first, unreleased novel, and I do have, in a vault, its completed, rewritten, much longer manuscript. But I read it recently, and it just seemed dead. I wasn’t interested in a single sentence of it. It was trying too hard to be about something (going back to the benefits of “writing with your intuition”), and when you try to address aspects of things head on, i.e., ‘By the end of this novel, I will have dealt with xyz that happened to me,’ you put too much pressure on the story, you try to control its direction too much. Maybe five years later I’m still not ready. And anyway, when it’s done, what then?
TOS – Who knows: maybe in years to come you’ll discover the ideas in the first novel did re-emerge in later novels but in a form you didn’t recognise. The irony of being tricked by our own subconscious!
Massive thanks to Leo for being a great and comprehensive respondent. And huge apologies for taking so long to put this interview together and get it uploaded.
Leo’s novella, Bonespin Slipspace will be published by Psychedelic Horror Press on July 26th. Two sci-fi stories of his, “The Hundred-Year Storm” and “Covered in Bugs”, are available to read online.