Guest Writer – Mike Robbins

headshot Mike RobbinsI’m delighted today to welcome author and activist, Mike Robbins to the blog.

1)YOU’VE HAD A WIDE AND VARIED CAREER, CAN YOU TELL ME ABOUT THIS?

It’s complicated! I was a journalist in London in the 1980’s but didn’t feel I was getting anywhere. and I didn’t enjoy the 1980s ambience; everything felt selfish and horrible. So in 1987 I became a volunteer development worker in Sudan. I stayed there for two years and never really lived in England again until 2002. My overseas work has involved combining communications skills writing, editing – with development work, especially in agriculture. I’ve lived and worked in many places since Sudan, including Bhutan, Syria and European countries.

2) DID YOU FIND YOUR WORK AS A JOURNALIST HELPFUL WHEN IT CAME TO WRITING?

My initial answer to this question, was to say ‘No, they’re very different.’ But I think journalism did teach me to think about what exactly I wanted to convey, and then do so, omitting the irrelevant. These skills do matter when you’re writing fiction, though not quite in the same way.

3) YOU HAVE WRITTEN AN IMPRESSIVE NUMBER OF BOOKS, SIX IN TOTAL, COVERING BOTH FICTION AND NONFICTION. CAN YOU TELL ME ABOUT THEM?

Two of the nonfiction books are about my travels since 1987. The third is a heavyweight, academic book, ‘Crops and Carbon’, on the relationship between agriculture and climate change, based on my PHD thesis. It’s traditionally published (by Taylor & Francis).
One of the travel books, ‘Even the Dead are Coming’, is about Sudan. The other, ‘The Nine Horizons’, covers many countries, including Sudan, but also Ecuador, Bhutan, Brazil, and more. Readers have enjoyed this book but it’s a hard sell; readers are usually looking for travel books about a specific country,
Of the three fiction books, two are actually quite political. ‘The Lost Baggage of Silvia Guzman’ was written after a long trip to South America. It’s about political violence , and about how a refugee from it would fare in Britain. It was written in 1991, but with the situation in Syria it feels quite contemporary. In the end, though, it’s really about Silvia – a young woman I came to like a lot as I wrote about her. I think it’s my favourite book.
The other book with political undertones is ‘Three Seasons’. It’s three novellas, each about one British social class at the time of Thatcher. The first one is about skilled working men. The second is about a revolting estate agent and the third is about the Master of an Oxford college. All these people found their roles and rights changing in the 1980s. Again, in the end it’s about the characters, but there’s a theme there about who we are and what was happening to us. It’s divided the readers; they either like it or not.
The third fiction book, ‘Dog!’is something different. It’s a bit weird.

4) ‘DOG! IS YOUR LATEST NOVELLA AND YOU DESCRIBE IT AS ‘A POWERFUL STORY OG LOVE AND LOSS, SIN, REDEMPTION AND DOG MESS.’ WHAT WAS THE INITAL IDEA AND WHEN DID YOU START WRITING IT?

The idea goes back a long way – to a British TV programme in 1976 when I was 18. In it a Welsh hypnotherapist, Arnall Bloxham, regressed three patients back into what was purported to be their past lives. I was fascinated, as was much of the rest of the UK. It occurred to me that if you come back, it might not be as a human. The idea of working this into a book, perhaps involving a dog, had been in my mind for a long time. I finally jotted down some story ideas a couple of years ago, and then in July 2015, stalled on another project, I suddenly started to write. It took less than five weeks.

5)I THOROUGHLY ENJOYED ‘DOG!’ AND FELT THE VOICE OF THE DOG WAS TRULY INSPIRED. DID IT TAKE YOU SOME TIME TO GET IT RIGHT OR DID YOU ‘HEAR’ IT FROM THE START?

It came straight away; I didn’t have to think of it at all.

6) DOG! IS ALSO MULTI-LAYERED AND IT ALMOST GIVES A BLUEPRINT FOR LIVING. wHAT’S THE FEEDBACK BEEN LIKE FROM READERS?

It’s been good, but has been varied. Usually people have been drawn in by the dog’ antics and the comedy at the start of the book, then caught by suprise when they realise what the book is really about. A few have found themselves thinking really hard at the end, and I like that.

7) CAN YOU TELL ME ABOUT YOUR WRITING PROCESS:DO YOU HAVE A FAVOURITE TIME TO WRITE? DO YOU PLAN OUT YOUR BOOKS IN ADVANCE?

I’m mostly likely to write for an hour or so after I come home from work, in short bursts. I’m not good at finding time and I’m very bad at concentrating. I do plan out my books, in advance, but in the case of Dog!, only very roughly. That helped as the whole process was more spontaneous.

8) I’VE ARGUED THAT RISKS ARE MORE LIKELY TO BE TAKEN WITH A SMALL PRESS OR WITH SELF PUBLISHING, AND THAT HAS OPENED THE MARKET UP FOR BOOKS WITH A CONTEMPORARY, SOCIAL AND POLITICAL (BOFH WITH A CAPITAL ‘P’ AND LOWER CASE) THEME. DO YOU AGREE WITH THIS?
I’m pretty sure you’re right. I’m sensing the same increase – and it includes poetry, which is interesting. Probably these books were always around, but publishers wouldn’t take them on because they didn’t seem to appeal to what traditional publishers saw as their mainstream readership, which was ipper=middle-class people like themselves. Also, books with a radical slant are going to appeal more to young people, who can’t afford hardback novels – actually who can? But they can find £1.99 for an ebook which they’ll likely read on a device. So, I suspect this is driven by the tech revolution.
But it might also reflect a growing frustration with mainstream politics. People aren’t listening to the establishment any more. They’re talking to each other instead. It’s a truism that people are getting less interested in politics, especially the young people but perhaps they’re as committed as they ever were, it’s just expressed through a system they think is unrepresentative and irrelevant, Books that say what MPs can’t or won’t are going to become more influential. There’s also a space there for satire which can be a lot more savage than it can in the mainstream media – for example the work of Rupert Dreyfus.

9) I ENJOY READING YOUR BLOG, WHICH IS INFORMATIVE AND FUN, WHERE CAN PEOPLE FIND THIS? wHAT ABOUT SOCIAL NETWORKS?

a) Twitter – https://twitter.com/mikerobbins19

b) Blog – http://wwww.mikerobbinsnyc.blogspot.com/

c) Facebook – https://wwww.facebook.com/mikerobbinsNYC

10) I REALLY URGE PEOPLE TO READ ‘DOG!’ CAN YOU TELL READERS WHERE THEY CAN BUY IT?

Dog! is available as an ebook for just 99c (US) or 99p (UK, or as a paperback from Amazon (US and UK) Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Indigo, iTunes and more.

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