Interview with Bert Robbens

What is your favorite genre?
I started reading mysteries when I was about 12, and they've always been my favorite, but I prefer to think of the category as "crime." It's a broader grouping that includes all of mystery and detective, but also extends into stories that focus on the criminal, rather than his pursuers.
Who are your favorite authors?
In crime, I particularly like the masters of the American school, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald. I think Charles Willeford will someday be included in this pantheon. Among current writers, I like Dennis Lehane. But, in general, my favorite authors have produced something extraordinary and timeless - Henry Fielding for Tom Jones, Dashiell Hammett for The Maltese Falcon, and William Burroughs for Naked Lunch.
What makes a successful story?
For me, it is mostly in the quality of the writing. This starts with the raw mechanics of writing, the grammar and punctuation, and extends out to such things as the rhythm and color of the words, the pace of discovery - qualities that can't be captured in a rule. As far as the content of the story is concerned, character is key. If the story revolves around a recognizable human personality of sufficient depth, it almost doesn't matter what they do.
How would you characterize your writing style?
I aspire to the hardboiled style that Hammett so perfectly achieved in The Maltese Falcon. It was taught to me as "Dramatic Writing," which is just a more generic form of the same thing. I wrote myself a style guide, detailing the methods of this style and why they're important, but I break the rules all the time. It's still helpful to keep the ideal in mind. It prevents me from wandering off into the void of endless exposition.
How do you come up with a story?
My stories almost always come from a character. The events evolve as I write and rewrite. I place the main character among an ensemble of supporting characters, in a specific time and place, and hope that something interesting happens. If I've imagined the characters well enough, it often does.
How important is place in your stories?
I'm finding it's more important than I thought. There seemes to be a strong correlation between the success of my stories and the specificity of the environment in which they take place. I think a strong location makes a story easier to visualize, more vivid to the imagination of the reader.
Your writing models all seem to come from long ago. Aren't you afraid of being out of date?
Not at all; in fact, just the opposite. I'm afraid of being trendy. There is nothing as out of date as yesterday's trend. The best writing and the best stories are timeless. That's why we still read and produce Shakespeare's plays. I'm sure there are writers worthy of emulation writing today, but finding them is like finding a needle in a
haystack. That's a much easier task after the winds of time have blown away most of the hay and left the needle in plain sight.
Published 2014-03-24.
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