Ray Robinson interview: ‘I’ve never understood this fetishisation of books as objects’
Writer Ray Robinson on writing, reading and working on the film adaptation of his novel Electricity.
When did you decide that you wanted to be a writer?
I’ve always wanted to be a writer, though I’ve no idea why, or where the idea came from, as there weren’t any books in my house when I was growing up; no fireside-father reading Jack London; no bedtime-mother reading fairy tales. But I come from family of inveterate bull-shitters, so I guess you can say I was immersed in a strong oral tradition of storytelling from an early age. I wrote my first book when I was sixteen but I didn’t actually read a novel until I was eighteen. I’m a bit like Victoria Beckham in that respect.
How long did it take you to write Electricity?
‘Electricity’ began life as a short story, and it was the novelist Julia Darling who encouraged me to extend it into a novel. She said she’d never read anything like it before and wanted more. Certain aspects of the novel are established in the story: the physical setting; Lily’s childhood memories of Don and her mother; her job in the arcade; the general ennui of her life before her mother carks it and incites her journey to find Mikey. In all, the novel took me just under a year to complete, writing in a mad, headlong rush, up to seventy hours a week at times.
Who was the inspiration for your main character Lily, and what made you decide to make the lead character female?
My first experiences of epilepsy were as a child. I witnessed my cousin’s seizures more or less every day – she lived with us – both her terrifying hallucinations and her full-blown tonic-clonics. This had a profound impact on me. It was terrifying, but perhaps perversely, intriguing. But writing the book, I couldn’t rely on memory alone. Initially, I interviewed a load of clinicians with expertise in epilepsy: doctors, neurologists, neuropsychologists. But this took me no closer to understanding what it was like to have epilepsy. I mean, I understood very little about the experiential aspects of the disorder. I needed to get inside epilepsy, into the consciousness of epilepsy.
I interviewed a lot of women with epilepsy who, I’m pleased and privileged to say, agreed to talk to me about their lives. Lily is a distillation of their experiences. I discovered there’s a significant difference between the way men and women experience epilepsy – because of the differences in our hormonal make-up. This forced me to consider how women experience their bodies, and how, as a male author, I could write about the epileptic female body in a way that was both authentic and empowering for women to read, and not just a form of voyeurism. To achieve this, the story couldn’t be mediated through a third person narrator – Lily had to tell her own story.
The film adaptation, starring Agyness Deyn, is out this month. How involved were you in making it?
I’ve been involved from the start, mainly as a consultant. I worked closely with the director over the years, and with Agy when she came on board. I also spent time talking with the screenwriter and I wrote Lily’s voice-over/narration for the film. But the film is the director’s vision. He’s taken the novel and done something different with it.
Are you pleased with how it has turned out?
Agy is an amazing actress. I really can’t imagine anyone else playing Lily, which says it all. Something very special happens during her performance, in that she not only manages to elicit Lily’s fragility – despite the fact that Lily is as tough as old boots – but she also manages to consolidate the contradiction of the role – the contradiction between Lily’s character and the film itself: a film about a woman with a disability who refuses to be defined by that disability.
Now that the film is out there, I have to relinquish control, which is difficult, as Lily is my creation. Because of that, I often think I don't want to get so heavily involved in any further adaptations of my work, though saying that, I do now have a passion for screenwriting: I’ve recently co-written a documentary (‘Dream Town’), which has started to win awards, and I’ve just completed writing a short film (‘Edith’), which we’re hoping to shoot in the next couple of months.
Do you think that your upbringing has affected you as a person and influenced your writing?
I suppose (in a sweeping generalisation) that the psychosocial aspect of any writer’s childhood will find its way into their work, especially debut novels. Much of what I write has its genesis in my early experiences of family life, and not only are most of my fictional characters based on real people, but also similar tropes, images, and settings recur. Recently, this has made me question why my writing takes on such energy when revisiting these old themes. By exaggerating and embellishing my childhood memories, and the truths and emotions they expose, I guess I’m exploring my own territory, but I’m not even sure if that’s fiction any more. So yes, as much as I hate to admit it, my upbringing is still having an impact on my creative work.
Which book has made you laugh?
The last book that actually made me LOL was: Throwing the House out of the Window by Ben Richards.
Which book has made you cry?
A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines.
Which book would you never have on your bookshelf?
I actively try not to keep books (unless they’re a gift). I give them away or leave them in cafes or coffee shops. I don’t even own a bookcase. I get the majority of my books from the library. Books are written to be read, not to sit collecting dust on shelves because people think their spines look nice. I’ve never understood this fetishisation of books as objects. It makes me sad. Give your books away. Spread the love.
Which book are you reading at the moment?
Southern Cross the Dog by Bill Cheng. Love it.
Which book would you give to a friend as a present?
Anything by Kent Haruf. Benediction, probably. Or Plainsong.
Which other writers do you admire?
Sally Wainwright, Annie Proulx, Pat Barker, Mary Gaitskill, Jim Crace, Lauren Morelli, Donna Tartt, Russell Banks, Eimear McBride, Daniel Woodrell, Janet Frame, Amy Bloom, Hari Kunzru, Raymond Carver, Anne Tyler, Niall Griffiths, Anne Biderman, Richard Ford, Osamu Dazai, Jim Dodge, Don Delillo, Jayne Ann Phillips, Kevin Huizenga, Daniel Clowes, Cormac McCarthy… the usual suspects.
Which classic have you always meant to read and never got round to it?
Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past.
What are your top five books of all time, in order or otherwise?
Oh god. That’s way too difficult. But here are my top five books that I’ve read most recently:
Mira Corpora by Jeff Jackson. This novel spits in the face of other coming-of-age novels.
Into the Trees by Robert Williams. Beautiful book by a young writer who deserves much more attention.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Muscular, epic beast, I just couldn’t get enough of.
Tales from Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan. What a beautiful mind.
Karate Chop by Dorthe Nors. A publisher in the UK needs to translate her work. She’s effing amazing.
What is the worst book you have ever read?
Writers shouldn’t slag off other writers. It’s a tough enough job as it is.
What is your favourite time of day to write?
Throughout the night.
And favourite place?
The Orkney Islands.
Longhand or word processor?
Never longhand. Jesus. My handwriting is illegible. I can type as fast as I can think and Cut and Paste is a dream tool.
Who, in your opinion, is the greatest writer of all time?
Which book have you found yourself unable to finish?
I’m loathe to admit it, but Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual.
Other than writing, what other jobs or professions have you undertaken?
Farm hand, teacher, civil servant, guitarist in a rock band, care worker, landscape gardener, mentor.
What was the first piece you ever had in print?
The short story ‘Cut’. It was the first short story I wrote. It won the Phillip Good Memorial Prize and was turned into a stage play. It’s now available on Kindle.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m currently working on a Young Adult novel, which I’m really enjoying putting together, and I’m also storyboarding ideas for a sequel to Electricity – Lily at 40, after surgery to remove her epilepsy. I’m now interested in Lily’s life without epilepsy and how this will change her identity, her perception of the world, and of herself. And perhaps how disempowering a life without disability might be. Bidding farewell to epilepsy, her constant companion.
Author photograph © Leanne Bolger