Interview with Jeffrey Robinson

Published 2015-09-02.
You're a prolific writer - what's the current count?
I think I'm up to 28 books. That's individual titles, and doesn't count all the various editions, like hardback, paperback, foreign, eBook... it's something like that. Honestly, I don't know off the top of my head because, believe it or not, I don't count. It's not like marriages, where if you had 28, you'd know and so would everybody else. For the record, I've only had one of those. I count myself lucky. One marriage and 28 books is a lot cheaper than the other way around.
You don't read like any other writer - I mean, I can't detect influences.
I hope that's a good thing. I work very hard at sounding like me. One of the most flattering things any critic ever said about my work is that I write like I talk. That's exactly what I'm aiming for and, after all these years... which adds up to be a lot... it doesn't get any easier. I still have to work hard to make that happen.
But that's not the only thing. I think it's fair to say that the source of all writing is experience AND observation AND imagination. The word AND being the operative one. It's not enough to get swallowed by a whale to write about it, you have to see how people react to your being swallowed by a whale, and imagine what the whale is thinking. Of course, you'd also have to be a great story teller to get anyone to want to read a whole book about a whale.
As for the writers who influenced me, the thing about my generation is Hemingway and television. It was that audible style of his and the verbal power of television. That's why, when anyone asks how I write, my answer is, "Out loud."
What were your earliest efforts like?
A lot of my very early work was published. I was one of those 15 year old kids in high school -- growing up in New York -- writing for the home town weekly. They paid me 20-cents a column inch, so stories that only deserved 500 words, which would have been, say 10-inches, got padded out to 800 words because that way I made, maybe, an extra $1.20. A terrible way to learn how to write concisely.
In the beginning I covered mainly high school sports -- football, basketball, wrestling -- and lots of girls' field hockey. Although something tells me that for the latter I had ulterior motives.
I also did "serious campaigning" journalism, like taking the city fathers to task for not letting us surf on the beach. (You see, some of the girls who played field hockey... well, that was a long time ago.)
As for any of that stuff being publishable, it was only-just then and certainly isn't now.
What about your writing peers, are reading them essential to your cultural well-being?
There are all sorts of reasons why a writer has to read. But like many writers, I'm an absolutely awful reader. Kind of like the airplane pilot turned passenger who hears every groan of the engines and thinks other pilots' landings are much too heavy. I have no patience and suffer fools badly, so I have no qualms about tossing a book aside after only a few pages. I don't read to pamper writers, I read to learn something. I need a writer to challenge me, to make me say, how did he do that? One guy who does that for is Calvin Trillin. He wraps stories around each other, has the wonderful ability to write about horrible people and awful situations, and really make you care. Any writer who can do that is well worth the candle.
How would you classify your books, civilized or visceral entertainments?
Actually, I wouldn't. Although I always liked the fact that Graham Greene used to distinguish his fiction and occasionally labeled certain books "an entertainment." That's great, but then all writing should be an entertainment. The business of being a writer is the business of being a story teller. That's entertainment.
If that's the case, if story telling is entertainment, then it strikes me there are "necessary" ingredients. Look at the movies. There's required violence and there's required sex. Does that apply to your work?
The only thing that's required is that I sit down and do the work, and try to tell the story as best I can. It's true that violence is very much a part of the age we live in, although I suspect it has always been part of everyone's age. I mean, how about the Crusades? The Salem Witch Burnings? The Gunfight at the OK Corral? It's just that, thanks especially to television, we get to see it nightly on 72" screens with surround sound. But when it comes to writing about violence, that's another matter. I think you need to ask yourself, what is the effect I'm trying to achieve? If you want everyone to throw up, then sure, be throw-upable graphic. If you merely want the reader to wince, then you have to temper it. The trick is to show the violence in such a way that it creates the emotion you want but doesn't distract the reader from losing the story. In fact, they do that in some films very well... you know, all that slow motion stuff. I like that and try to write violence in slow motion. Sometimes it works. Other times, it just takes longer to type.
Same thing with sex. If you get carried away with words like "pulsing," and "throbbing" and use the color "dark ruby" more than 121 times, well, then I think maybe you're getting too caught up in writing about something you really want to be doing, instead.
One of the people who had a major influence on my writing was a wonderful television producer named Jack Reilly. I worked in radio and television, writing of course, while I was at college and showed him something one day that I thought was probably the best prose since, "Snap, Crackle and Pop." Jack thought otherwise. He told me that one of his college professors, an old priest, used to blue pencil his neatest turns of phrase, referring to them as "lovelies." You know, those great sentences where you use words like throbbing and pulsing and dark ruby, and four syllable adjectives derived from the Greek word for libidinous. The priest would scream, "Forget your lovelies." Which is what Jack Reilly taught me. In other words, make it simple. Don't distract the reader. Hot under the collar is fine. Distracted is not.
Oh, and if you write about sex, do it like the lights are out. That way, then you don't know if anything is dark ruby or not. It leaves more to the imagination, which is a sexy place to spend time.
Besides Jack Reilly, what other great advice have you been given?
My dear friend in heaven, Lino Ventura, who was the French Humphrey Bogart, once said to me that there are three elements which make for a great film. The first is a great story. The second is a great story. And the third is a great story. Same thing goes for a book. Fiction or non-fiction, makes no difference. Story telling must be story driven. At the same time, you've got to come up with interesting characters, and interesting diversions. You know, things that are quirky and funny, because life is like that. What I try to do is have all those things going on at the same time, sort of like a three ring circus.
The other element I strive for, based on Lino's advice, is to make non-fiction read like fiction, so the reader keeps turning the pages, and to make fiction read like non-fiction, so that everyone absolutely believes everything that happens. There's nothing worse than a writer who tells you his character turned left into the bar when everyone knows the bar used to be to the right and is now a GAP Kids.
How do you tackle that computer screen each morning?
I wish I could make it romantic and say, I write from ten until noon, then eat radishes and kumquats, write again from 1:15 until 3 then go off to play cribbage. But it doesn't work like that. Writing is all about rewriting... again, and again, and again, and again... and the only way I can do it is by sitting down and staying there all day, and sometimes into the night. I don't know any other way.
At least, that's the physical part of writing. The mental part is, as I've said, "out loud." That means I sit there and say what I'm writing as I type it so that I can hear it because, besides being an excellent way to avoid "lovelies," it also cuts down on run-on sentences, which throw readers into a tizzy because they lose track and that's not what I want them to do, which is why I say it out loud, knowing that when I have to breath before the sentence stops, it's too long, like this one. Phew!
Who do you write for?
Who? I suppose the answer is me. In that respect, I write books that I want to read. But the idea is to find people who, like me, will also want to read them. I suppose that's all about writing to a taste level, and to a sense of humor level, and to a dramatic level. If you do it consistently, you attract an audience and, hopefully, you keep them. A lot of writers I know don't believe this but, as I said before, writing books is about entertainment, about show business. Very few people writing today will be read 100 years from now. A handful, if that. What we're therefore doing is competing for readers' time and money with movies, DVDs, football, antiquing, bowling or whisky tasting.
I believe that if you're going to ask someone to spend 15 hours of their life listening to you tell a story, and to shell out whatever it costs for that, then you'd better deliver a good time. It's not about improving the lives of everyone on the planet. It's not about ending war or curing cancer. It's not about anything that will, for the most part, be remembered for very long. It's entertainment, and maybe a little bit of learning. It's about taking someone along on an adventure. It's about someone saying, 15 hours later, hey I really enjoyed going along on this ride. Any author who can get that reaction has written a pretty successful book.
Where does inspiration come from?
Let me put it this way - a writer is only as good as his/her obsessions.
Is writing for a living the life of an artist or the life of a businessman?
Interesting question. The greatest businessman the world has ever seen, ever, by far and without exception, was Pablo Picasso. So much for art and business being mutually exclusive. Writing for a living means spending time at the business of writing. But I don't think of myself as either an artist or a businessman. Why would I'd care about such labels? I'm a guy who has learned to survive by telling stories. In one sense, not much different than the caveman who drew the picture of some beast on the wall of the cave to warn his friends away. That said, I have no problem working at the marketing of my books. After all, consumers of anything -- writers, tennis shoes, toothpaste -- can always choose not to buy. There are loads of authors marketed like breakfast cereals whom I don't bother with because I find them less nourishing than Corn Pops. However, there is something important here for young writers to understand. Writing is a business. No different in that respect than what Kellogg's does. And anyone who wants to earn a living at writing needs to understand the business of writing. I can also tell you that each new book gets harder to do than the one before. Writing a new book -- making it completely new, with a new story and a new voice, and not just rehashing the same book the way some folk do -- is like what Bill Lear (of Learjet fame) said about sex. It now takes me all day to do what I used to do all day. Then again, it beats being 15 and writing about high school sports, except, of course, girls' hockey!
Now in late 2015, with the new eBook publications of Pietrov And Other Games, and The Ginger Jar, two novels you wrote 30 years ago, what was it like to re-meet the younger Jeffrey Robinson?
I very rarely, if ever, read my own work. Obviously, I know it very well and on those rare occasions when I have gone back to look at something, I've found myself critically asking, what did I do it that way? And, how could I make such a silly mistake. It's nerve wracking. After all, if you evolve as a storyteller, then the younger you is telling the story a different way. Going back to Pietrov and Ginger Jar, to prepare them for their first ever eBook appearances... 30 years after I first published those novels... turned out to be more fun than I thought it would be. My first impression was, hey, the younger me could tell good stories. My second thought was, as long as the younger me doesn't mind, I'm going to tinker just a bit... fix a few minor things that make the story just that much better. Pietrov is a spy adventure set in Berlin in the early 1980s. Ginger Jar is also a sort of thrilled, this time a story set in London in the late 1980s. Both were topical at the time. What surprised me is how they have matured into "period pieces." And what delights me is that they are still now exactly what I'd intended them to be 30 years ago... fun. JR the Older liked a lot about JR the Younger. If only I still had his stamina.
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