The tradition on Lizzy’s Literary Life is to offer refreshments of choice to the author being interviewed. We now know that Fiona Robyn’s palate is as discerning as her pen. This lemon polenta cake is irresistible. To warm up for the interview, Fiona and I discussed the comparisons between her novel and this particular cake …. not light and fluffy, but full of nutrition with a bittersweet tang ….an acquired taste, like the main character, Violet …. once acquired, can’t stop at one slicechapter…. got to keep eatingreading till the end. You can find my less flippant review here. On with the interview ….
LS: That was a pretty extensive blog tour. 28 blogs in 31 days. How many countries did you visit?
FR: Yes – it got a bit out of control! I mostly travelled around the UK but also visited the US and Israel – that’s it as far as I know.
LS: You are a published poet. This is your first novel and it is very readable. Congratulations on avoiding the pitfall of many poet/novelists i.e intense language and overwrought imagery that can ruin a novel. Did you find it easy to use a different language model or is this something that required editing through subsequent drafts?
FR: Thank you – I’m glad you think so. I intuitively used a different type of language, and drafting also helps weed out any sentences that might trip the reader up or that are too clotted. I wanted to allow readers to be swept up in the narrative, but also to slip in a few poetic fragments. I love what Gretel Ehrlich said once about sometimes sneaking poems into her prose.
LS: What are the challenges of writing in the formats used in The Letters: 3rd person present, 3rd person past, epistolary novel?
FR: I did wonder if people might get impatient during the 3rd person past sections. I was reading Mary Gordon’s novels at the time, and really enjoyed some of the sections where nothing happened but we heard more and more about the characters. I find it a real struggle to write in the past tense – I think writing poetry for so many years has fixed me in the present tense – and I often give up and change it in subsequent drafts.
The most difficult thing about the actual letters was getting the language right. I immersed myself in that period by watching films made in the late fifties/early sixties, reading novels written at that time, and paying attention to the slang, the sentence structure, the words we no longer use. Most of them seemed to be superlatives. I also researched what it was like to be in a mother and baby home – some women had terrible experiences, but some were looked after very well. Once I knew enough, Elizabeth could start writing her letters.
LS: I’ve never met anyone like Violet – as least not in a novel. Flawed, prickly, sharp-tongued, exasperated by her kids, a real fire-from-the-hip-then-deal-with-the-consequences-later personality. What was it like living with her all the time you were writing the book?
FR: I’ve always been extremely fond of her, as I knew what was really going on underneath – but I know she won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. I’ve always admired women who don’t do the whole ‘people-pleasing’ thing – although preferably with more self awareness than Violet! I do think she would be an exasperating friend/lover/mother… I also like to read about ‘ordinary people’ in novels, with all their flaws and struggles.
LS: You’ll know from my review that I’m not a fan of the cover.
FR: I think publishers are often in a difficult position – they need to sell as many books as possible to make a living (especially smaller publishers like Snowbooks), and the buyers can have a lot of influence – the mass female market are (apparently) more likely to pick up a book with a cover like mine. I’d like as many people as possible to read my book so I support Snowbooks decision, but it will be a shame if it puts more literary readers (and men) off.
LS: Are there any secrets about “The Letters” that you haven’t yet divulged?
FR: I had a good friend vet the sex scenes for me – you’ll understand why that was necessary when you read it!
LS: Name the 3 books you’re going to take to your desert island retreat to enjoy as you recover from the exertions of your tour.
FR: If I really was recovering I’d take some easy reading – Kindy Friedman, Janwillem van der Wetering, John Irving. If it was ‘three books to keep me going forever’ I’d go for Raymond Carver’s Collected Poems, Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek and Suzuki Shunryu’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.