Welcome to the Fiction Reboot’s Author Interview of the week! I am very pleased to host Robin Blake, author of A Dark Anatomy. This most recent work—the first book in a series—was released in 2011. Featuring a crime-solving duo (Cragg and Fidelis) takes place in 18th century Preston, England… and of course, as an 18th century scholar, this historical time period is dear to my heart. I present below a brief description of the novel, followed by Blake’s thoughts on the Writing life! (For more period mystery writers, see my pages on Tessa Harris and Alex Grecian.)
Stay tuned tomorrow for the Friday Feature! There is still time to send your favorites and recommendations!
Robin Blake is the author of several books—not all of them fiction. Antony Van Dyck: A Life is a historical biography, as is George Stubbs and the Wide Creation. Blake has also written other fiction—such as Fat Man’s Shadow. He has taught literature, including poetry, and worked with Penguin’s mould-breaking Voices anthologies, a mixture of unexpected poems and evocative photography.
Blake did a postgraduate diploma in Social and Cultural Studies at Chelsea College, London University and later taught in Varna, Bulgaria and Istanbul, Turkey (the setting of Fat Man’s Shadow). Blake has written scripts for radio as well, and worked at Capital Radio until 1986. He has been a full-time writer ever since—though between 2008 and 2011, he was Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Brunel University. His position, in his own words: “part-time consultant to students about essay writing, and had me dealing with many brow-furrowing problems from the structure of a complex argument to the extermination of aberrant apostrophes.”
You can read more about Robin Blake on his website!
Follow on Twitter: @RobinBlakeUK
The first Cragg and Fidelis mystery begins with Coroner Titus Cragg being called to the corpse of a lady, the wife of the local squire, when it is found in woods near Preston. Her throat has been cut. It is his job to call an inquest that will reach a right verdict, and the investigation that follows has a number of twists and turns as Cragg tries to discover the evidence the jury will need to consider . His friend Dr Luke Fidelis provides medical and scientific knowledge and his wife Elizabeth gives him staunch moral support, in face of determined opposition to his methods from the town’s corporation.
Find Dark Anatomy on Amazon!
1. I have always identified with the Asimov quote: “I write for the same reason I breathe—because if I didn’t, I’d die.” You became a full time writer in the mid-80s, but could you say a bit about your early experiences?
To go back to the extremest beginning, I have vivid memories of my first school class at the age of 4, and of how my hand was trained to form letters, and then words. I could already read at this stage but it is not learning to read that I remember, it’s that transformative process of learning how to make something that others can read. A little later in childhood I wanted not just to write, but increasingly to define myself as a writer, and that was because I was reading so much. I was a glutton for it, gulping down text as if I might die without it. I had two types of book. Reading for information was connected with being obsessive about facts, which children – especially boys – often are. I found that if there was something that I enjoyed thinking about – breeds of dog, ships of the Royal Navy, concentric castles – I could prolong that pleasure through reading more and more (and MORE) about it. The second type of reading was, of course, stories. Stories were exercise-bicycles for my imagination. Reading them enabled me to travel, in time as well as space, without my leaving the broken-springed old sofa on which I lay, and to be anyone or anything the book wanted me to be. I think it is the most important discovery of my life. A lot of other factors were in play in making me a writer, I suppose, but that is the root of the matter.
2. Not unlike many an author, I come from an academic background where writing fiction is a somewhat closeted affair. Can you talk about when you decided to “write for real”—that decision to write for publication and give this work the time and energy it so deserves?
I had been working in radio, very happily making documentary programmes, which I found satisfying because you can do pretty good work virtually solo, with easy-to-learn technology, while being surrounded by agreeable, intelligent people. But this job looked like coming to an end and, as I had an idea for a book (it was on psychosomatics and eventually came out under the title ‘Mind Over Medicine’), I jacked in the job, persuaded a literary agent, Gill Coleridge, to take me on, and got the book written inside a year. I was by now a father twice over and the risk was that I would fail and have to go back to my original job of teaching. This was mitigated by the fact that I was lucky enough to have a wife who worked in a great job, but nevertheless I was aware that by becoming a full-time writer I was plunging, gambling, with my own self-esteem at stake.
3. Could you perhaps also talk about your role at Brunel and intersections between academics, life and history?
I finished my fellowship at Brunel University last summer, after three years. It’s a programme run by the Royal Literary Fund in which professional writers provide a consultancy for students on writing – not creative writing but the kind of thing they have to write for their degrees, such as essays and dissertations. The problem is that people do much less writing as children than they used to, and they think less hard about writing, possibly because they have so many technological ways of avoiding having to think, such as spell checks and grammar correctors on their laptops. They also do much less reading, by which I mean close and attentive reading of a kind they might learn from. So the job at Brunel was to try to help students think about writing as an activity in itself, and one that can be improved by care and thought and practice, in much the same way as you can learn to play better music or tennis.
4. As a medical humanist, I am of course deeply interested and inspired by the connections you have made between history, science, medicine and mystery. Can you speak to that intersection?
In the series of books I’m writing now, which are historical mystery stories set in, I hope, a believable version of 18th century provincial England, I have two main characters. One, Titus Cragg, is the town coroner, a great reader and a man driven by intellectual curiosity as much as by his inborn sense of justice. His friend is Luke Fidelis, a young doctor full of rationalist ideas, who thinks at the level of logic rather than imagination. Science is in its infancy, and forensic science was being made up as they went along. The connection with today, and with the kind of fiction in which forensic science as we know it plays an important part, is of course that the physical facts of a case can be identical over time, but the way in which Georgian people and modern people look at and deal with those facts are very different.
5. You have had a varied career–can you say something about the power of experience in writing?
Experience is the raw material, but it gets processed by memory before use. Experience is selected, compressed and worked over before being put into memory-storage – and then gets reworked whenever memory retrieves it from storage. I wrote on Twitter recently, in a thread dealing with memory and writing, that memory is at the heart of all writing. Every word we write must first be drawn from the memory store. We write because we remember or in order to remember or because we hope to be remembered.
6. Every writer has a different writing strategy—or so I tell my novel-writing students. How do you approach the writing process? Revision? Writers’ block?
I write in bursts, in between which I love doing background reading, aka research, aka messing about in the library or on the internet. I am aware that this can easily become displacement activity, so I try from time to time to go into seclusion – somewhere that has no internet or distracting media or other people. Because it requires intense concentration over a long time, writing an entire book can be very difficult: Orwell called it like suffering a long bout of a very painful illness. There is only one strategy that works and it is, in Churchill’s immortal words, to “keep buggering on”.
7. As the mentor for a university writing club, I often preach to my students about the value of networking and workshopping. Could you say a bit about your own responsive readers and mentors? Your approach to criticism?
Criticism? Who likes it? Of course it would be foolish in a writer to pay no attention to the opinions of others, but I think it is far more important to listen to yourself, read yourself and harshly criticise yourself, and you should do this in the light not of the opinions of others but of the practice of others. A good mentor will tell you this: if you spend all your time seeking advice you will find much of it is contradictory, which gets you nowhere. Instead concentrate on thinking about and analysing your own writing, and reading other writers, if only to reject their way of going about it. Writing is not a group activity, but a lonely one. It draws its energy from within the writer. That energy should be chiefly directed towards never being satisfied, but always being prepared to rewrite.
8. Do you have advice for new writers on “breaking in” to the publishing world? Or upon the need/value of agents?
The chief expertise of an agent is in getting you published – and paid! If writing is your job, as it is mine, you need this kind of help (for example with contracts) to avoid getting stitched up. Having said that, at the moment the publishing scene is changing in ways that it are hard to predict, even by agents. A good agent is one who understands your aims, believes in your work and is prepared to work with you.
9. Who do you consider your inspiration? (Literary or otherwise?)
Inspiration is inconstant. Rely on it, and it will probably break your heart.
10. Finally, are there any forums, books, blogs or other sites and services you would recommend to new writers?
Since writers trade in words, reference sources about words, including dictionaries and usage guides, are invaluable. A writer is nothing if not an expert in words. To mention Orwell again – he’s one of my heroes – he stressed the special power of words, and the need for writers to understand and harness that power. His essays on that are well worth reading.