THE WRITING LIFE ... Simon ROBSON
STORIES THAT BLOW YOU AWAY
ERIC FORBES talks with British actor-playwright-author SIMON ROBSON about his first collection of stories, The Separate Heart and Other Stories, narratives that explore and dissect the themes of love and friendship in all their complexities and intricacies
SIMON ROBSON was born in 1966 and grew up in Wiltshire, England. He trained as an actor at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) and has worked extensively in the theatre with such companies as Shared Experience, Method and Madness, Bristol Old Vic and the Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre, and in the West End in Fanny Burney’s A Busy Day and Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan. His first play, The Ghost Train Tattoo, premiered at the Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre in 2000 and his second, American Soap, was produced as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company Fringe Festival in 2001. As an actor he has appeared on television in Doctors, Tom & Viv, Bodywork, Trial and Retribution and EastEnders. He is married to the soprano Sophie Daneman and they live in London with their two sons.
Robson is the author of The Separate Heart and Other Stories (Jonathan Cape, 2007), a collection of ten stories, and a forthcoming novel, The Observatory by Daylight (Jonathan Cape, January 2010). The Separate Heart and Other Stories was one of the six titles shortlisted for the 2007 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award—an astonishing achievement for a début collection. These are subtle and complex stories, dealing with the complications and intricacies of love and friendship. (Miranda July won for her first collection, No One Belongs Here More Than You.) The other shortlisted authors were Charlotte Grimshaw, Etgar Keret, Manuel Muñoz and Olaf Olafsson. It was also shortlisted for the 2008 Edge Hill University Short Story Prize (which Claire Keegan won for her second short-story collection, Walk the Blue Fields). The other shortlisted authors were Christopher Fowler, Jane Gardam and Robert Shearman.
The British actor-playwright-author recently spoke to ERIC FORBES in an e-mail interview from his home in London.
Could you tell me a bit about yourself?
I’m forty-three years of age, and The Separate Heart and Other Stories is my first book. I’ve a first novel, The Observatory by Daylight, coming out in January 2010, also with Jonathan Cape, and takes the story of that name from the short-story collection as its first chapter.
When did you first decide you wanted to be a writer? Was it something you had always set your heart on?
I grew up in Wiltshire, in the south of England. Retrospectively I suppose I always wanted to write, but maybe all writers say that. I went on to read English at university but changed to politics and philosophy. I thought if I carried on reading literature I might never read a book again. It was very theory-driven in the 1980s, I think, and never seemed very geared to people who really loved reading. I then went to drama school and studied for three years to be an actor—which I’ve done ever since, almost wholly in the theatre. In 2000 I had my first play, The Ghost Train Tattoo, produced at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, where I had worked a lot as an actor. Then I thought I wanted to be a playwright. I had another done on the Royal Shakespeare Company fringe. It was very exciting—the collaborative part of writing for the theatre is both a nightmare and enormously pleasurable. And the social aspect of the theatre is hugely attractive. Then I started writing stories.
Who are some of your literary influences? What kinds of books did you read when you were growing up?
I’m afraid it’s all the usual suspects as far as formative experience in fiction is concerned. The only stories I’d ever read before were Anton Chekhov and Ernest Hemingway. And retrospectively, as unfashionable as he may be now, probably Hemingway meant the most in my formative teen years. And some D.H. Lawrence stories, too, I think. In my twenties I read the works of Jane Austen, Leo Tolstoy, George Eliot and Henry James. It was fairly staple 19th-century diet. Now if I had to say what meant the most to me it would be Marcel Proust and Gustave Flaubert’s Sentimental Education. And Shakespeare, too. That’s probably it.
What are you reading at the moment?
I don’t read much now. My wife and I have two small children and it’s hard enough to find the time to write, let alone read. I just reread Robert Graves’s Good-bye to All That. I enjoy rereading books.
Was it difficult getting published? Did you experience difficulty in finding a publisher?
I was very lucky. I got taken on by Jonathan Cape straight away. They liked the stories and wanted very few changes. None of the stories were published anywhere else.
Could you tell me a bit about your first collection of stories?
As far as the collection goes, I just kept writing till I had what I thought was a decent-sized book. I only added one at the last minute, which was “Mountains,” because I thought it went with the others and I was very pleased with it. I think I probably wouldn’t write quite as lushly now. I think you’re bound to find your way a bit in a first book, and the luxury of not writing for the theatre and being able to talk about everything meant that I got a little bit carried away on the metaphor front at times. A few less calories I think wouldn’t have gone amiss. But I had a great time doing it. I reckon if you’re not enjoying writing it then the reader isn’t going to enjoy reading it, which is the same on the stage.
What is the difference between writing short stories and full-length novels? Which form do you much prefer?
As far as novels are concerned, I don’t really know what the differences are. I know some people say they are quite different and some say they are the same. I don’t know. I know when I’d finished a story I felt like I’d written a big thing and then realised it only took fifteen minutes to read, which was both disappointing and exciting at the same time.
What is your personal favourite short story or short-story collection?
I’d have to choose James Joyce’s “The Dead” as my favourite story. I don’t know that many stories and I know it’s very famous, but it seems pretty perfect to me. I also think Philip Larkin’s poem, “The Whitsun Weddings,” almost qualifies as a perfect story.
Publishers find short-story collections hard to sell. Why do you think this is so? What can we do to make people read more of such collections?
I know short stories are hard to sell, and with good reason. I wouldn’t buy one unprompted. I think you must have a real appetite for reading to buy into a world and say goodbye to it after half an hour. It’s like moving house too often. You end up feeling like you’ve got no roots. That’s what seems to me so great about Chekhov—you feel at home so fast.