Fleshmarket was published. I don't know if he'll remember this but he had to wait a whole hour while a photographer trapped me in a glass cabinet in a surgical museum, along with an effigy of Dr Robert Knox, some pickled body parts, a priceless violin, some human skin, and a life-size 200-year-old skeleton. David has the reputation of being a very lovely man, but his loveliness was tested by this. After all, it was only me, not one of the big names he usually interviews.
In Cold Ink: On the Writers' Tracks by David Robinson. It's a beautiful book, the luxurious paper and expensive production making it heavier than it looks, and its contents achieve the author's aim: to create "something similar to a book festival". It contains authors, lives, stories, memories, insights. David is better placed than any to answer on behalf of all of us that perennial question: where do you get your ideas? He's travelled to Botswana with his great friend, Alexander McCall Smith, who was also responsible for the publication of this book; he's visited the house where Truman Capote asked for help with In Cold Blood [whence the title], and rung the same doorbell; he's touched the monopoly board that Anne Frank used with her friend while they tried to take their minds off the real game being played outside; he's interviewed Ian McEwan, William Boyd, Richard Ford, JG Ballard, Ali Smith, Edwin Morgan, AL Kennedy, Studs Terkel, and many others, and he brings them all into your sitting-room with warmth and intelligence. To be honest, he's a story-teller himself.
Anyway, since David interviewed me some years ago, he's sometimes asked me to write reviews or articles, giving me deadlines and fierce word-counts and even paying me. So it was with a rather fitting pleasure yesterday that I gave him a horrible deadline and a very fierce word count. And didn't pay him.
The interview is below and I hope you'll be interested. I hope, too, that you'll agree that this is a book any booklover would enjoy. If you do, and if you order it from The Edinburgh Bookshop [details below] before next Weds 5pm, there will be four happy results:
- you will be supporting an independent bookshop
- you will make a lucky reader (perhaps yourself) very happy
- David will sign it for you [or for your intended recipient]
- Alexander McCall Smith will also sign it for you or your intended recipient
So, finally, introducing David Robinson:
NM: You say that you wanted In Cold Ink to be “the ultimate book festival book”. Tell us what you mean by that.
DR: Well, it’s a perk of my job that I get to see a lot of book festivals. And the other perk is interviewing a lot of writers who star at them. So I like to think of In Cold Ink as a sort of book festival in its own right: big ticket names like Ian McEwan, William Boyd, Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff, Ian Rankin, Kate Atkinson, along with wonderful writers like Yiyun Li or Zoe Wicomb that you mightn’t have heard of, maybe in the smaller tents. But mine is of course a book festival that can also bring the dead back to life, so you get interviews with people like Robin Jenkins, JG Ballard and the great American journalist (and one of my great heroes) Studs Terkel too.NM: Now, I know what you're like as an interviewer - even when perched on a stool in a cupboard behind a room full of body parts, as you were when you interviewed me, but how would you describe yourself as an interviewer?
DR: I’m a sort of anti-Lynne Barber. Not that I don’t enjoy reading her, but I’ve always thought that the whole point of an interview is the subject, not the journalist. Ali Smith talks about how she can only start writing when her ego has got out of the way, and I think something similar applies in interviews too.NM: Can you elaborate?
DR: I suppose that I’m happiest in a sort of fly-on-the-wall role. The way I see it, if I’m at Ian McEwan’s house for lunch, I’m standing in for everyone who wants to find out what he’s doing now, who’s interested in his work and what direction it’s taking and why. And that’s thousands and thousands of people.NM: What’s the hardest interview you’ve done? [At this point, I am hoping for juicy gossip...]
DR: Well, writers are the easiest people to interview – they’ve been locked away sometimes for years on end working on this project so when someone comes along and asks them about it, they’ll tell you anything you want. It’s the people who interview pop stars I feel sorry for: at least I always get a lot more than monosyllabic grunts. Even when you get someone like Robin Jenkins who didn’t want to answer any questions about why he became a conscientious objector, I could still switch back into fly on the wall mode and describe sitting with him in oddly companionable silence in his farmhouse on the Cowal Peninsula and come away with what is, I think, a good interview.NM: What were the ones you enjoyed doing the most? [I've given up on the juicy gossip angle. I'd be a rubbish journalist.]
DR: The main thing about me is that I’m essentially just a reporter. I love stories, and I love being places where stories happened. So when I’m in Amsterdam with Ann Frank’s best friend and she takes me on a tour of the city and talks me through what it was like in the 1940s, I’m entranced. Or when I’m in Kansas talking to the people Truman Capote and Harper Lee interviewed exactly 50 years ago this month for In Cold Blood. I adored that. There are moments when you can imagine yourself into other people’s books just by being in the places they wrote about, and those are the moments I treasure more than any, and I think write about best.NM: In the book, you talk about touching the monopoly board that Anne Frank and her friend used. What did that feel like? I mean, I feel chilled just hearing about it.
DM: That describes perfectly how I felt. All the pieces were in a tiny polythene bag - not metal ones but wooden and with a slot for the cardboard picture of a battleship or a racing-car.
NM: [After a pause to process that image.] So if your book is a book festival, which authors aren’t in it that you really wish were? Whose trains were delayed or schedules too busy?
DR: JK Rowling should be there. I’d love to meet her and still never have. But the main one is Harper Lee. I sent her a copy of In Cold Ink and got a lovely letter back. I really just wanted to talk to her about visiting Kansas with Truman Capote doing the research for In Cold Ink. She’s already had To Kill A Mockingbird accepted for publication when they went to Kansas together. I love the fact that his book became the decade’s non-fiction bestseller and her book became the decade’s best-selling novel, that they’re childhood friends and working on a real-life murder mystery together. To me, that’s a story which has absolutely everything!We had some more conversation, too, about how different things strike different people as most important. For David, for example, going to Kansas on the trail of Capote was the most memorable part. I'm still reading the book [though it's a book you can read in any order, as David suggests, and I have already read the last chapter - Capote again...] so I can't tell you which bit has got under my skin most, but I think Anne Frank's monopoly game will be tough to beat. Or there are the terrible true stories of young orphans in Mma Ramotswe's Botswana, where many of the children have seen unbearable things, survived unspeakable horror. But writers have funny stories, too, as all people do if they look for them. David has found those stories, and created his own international book festival, as he hoped. The happy difference between the book and a visit to the real Edinburgh International Book Festival is that we don't even have to get wet.
Anyway, work avoidance strategy or something far more pointful, today's interview has meant a lot to me. David, thanks so much for joining us. If only all authors were as easy to interview as you...
So, would anyone like to buy this lovely book, signed by TWO wonderful authors and very nice people? Here are the details:
- UK addresses only - sorry... [There's always Amazon or the Book Depository, but your book won't be signed.]
- email or phone The Edinburgh Bookshop - contact details in that link - and give them your order. Tell them you're phoning after reading this blog article - this is a special offer, for a limited time only. You can pay by phone with a credit card. Remember to say who you'd like the book signed to.
- cost is £12 including 1st class postage. However, if you are in Edinburgh, I'm sure you could collect your book from Friday 18th onwards, and then I assume you'd just pay the cover price, £9.99. Ask!
- deadline for orders is Weds 16th Dec, 5pm UK time
- That's it! Your book will be posted on Saturday 19th, 1st class, which the post office says is in time for Christmas
[In Cold Ink is published by Alexander McCall Smith's imprint, Maclean Dubois, in conjunction with Birlinn Ltd. The picture of David is by www.writerpictures.com]