Friday 11 December 2009


I have a very special offer for you today, to solve your Christmas problems, or at least those problems which involve what book to buy for someone who would love the idea of getting inside the heads of some of the world's most important writers. Especially if you would like that book signed, personally, by not one but TWO authors. [Fear not: none of them is me.]

First, a story of my own. The first big interview I ever did as an author was by the Scotsman Literary Editor, David Robinson, when 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.

Which brings me to the point of today. I have in front of me a book. It's called 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
Now that, I hope you agree, is an unmissable opportunity. Both men have kindly agreed to nip over to Vanessa's bookshop to do this and I am thrilled with the success of my string-pulling and devious machinations, when I should have been working, but you know me: never one to pass up a work avoidance strategy...

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
Meanwhile, if you have any questions for David, do ask them in the comments section. And then off you go to ask me some questions because I'm in the US answering questions on this interview here. The wonders of modern travel...

[In Cold Ink is published by Alexander McCall Smith's imprint, Maclean Dubois, in conjunction with Birlinn Ltd. The picture of David is by]


    Anonymous said...

    Excellent choice and I wholeheartedly agree about this book! We're a family of booklovers and we've all read it and enjoyed different bits most. Wish my copy was signed, though!

    Sarah Fox

    Lauri said...

    Eish -I'd love to take advantage of this offer but sadly no UK address. The book sounds fascinating. I wonder if the book itself will make its way to Botswana? I will keep a lookout.

    I must take exception with one thing-

    "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."

    One thing I love most about Alexander McCall Smith are his happy African stories. Such a lovely breath of fresh air.

    What are those unspeakable horrors? And are they really many? Why are they only in Botswana? Here the government provides food and money to ALL orphans. We have social workers who are on the look out for problems. Our government provides free ARV treatment for HIV/AIDS patients so that our orphan situation is improving.
    Yes- there are orphans in Botswana, like all other countries -BUT we do not send our orphans off to orphanages ( as per Western countries) our families are large and extended and the majority find themselves taken in by uncles and aunts. I'm not saying things are perfect but things are not harrowing either.

    I get SOOOOO tired of hearing the sad sad African story. It has become such an oft told tale that few stop to look around and see that perhaps it may not still be true.

    Sorry to go off topic and be so contrary after a perfectly lovely interview but I could not leave that comment unchallenged. Not sure why but it seems your blog brings out the crabbit old bat in me. :)

    Jane Smith said...

    Oh, Nicola, what a treat! I'm off to wave my credit card at the Edinburgh Bookshop. Thanks for pointing me in their direction.

    Nicola Morgan said...

    Lauri - I'm sorry you are upset but the fact that Botswana is the story mentioned is obviously because it's Botswana where the Mma R stories are set. So, to ask why it's "only" Botswana is a bit odd. The story David tells is from his trip to Botswana, where they visit an orphanage, actually referred to as an "orphan farm" which inspired the orphanage described in Tears of the Giraffe. If you read it you will hear the fictional stories told, and if you read In Cold Ink you will I think not fail to have your heart wrenched by the terribly sad stories of the real children there, who inspired the fiction. I have never and would never imply that this is a purely "sad African story". Such a suggestion is entirely beside the point. The point is that this was the story that was told and I was moved by it. If you're suggesting it's untrue, then that's another thing. I'd be equally moved if you told me stories of suffering in any country. If you think I am guilty of some kind of national or racial stereotyping, please think again. After all, my example followed immediately from the example of Anne Frank. In my opinion you have leapt to quite the wrong conclusion.

    Rebecca Knight said...

    This was a wonderful interview. Thank you, David & Nicola for sharing this with us! :)

    Lauri said...

    I'm not suggesting it is untrue. Nor am I saying the view comes from you.

    I AM saying that these stories should be put in the wider context to see the true picture. Of course I don't know what is written in the book as I have not read it, but if it is only these stories of orphans I wonder what image will be portrayed of my country? I don't think the impact compares with the monopoly board belonging to Anne Frank.It is another layer added to those laid down before by views hindered by blinders of the same type.

    Orphan farm? I wonder where such a thing is? As I write this I ask my husband- he too has never heard of such a place. Yes, we have SOS villages for children that have no one. This is an international organisation found in many countries. I know of no one who would call this an "orphan farm". There are some questionable private institutions, run often by foreigners, that have been uncovered in our local press in the past. I'm not saying this is the case, but I know for a fact that our AIDS situation has attracted many unsavoury types looking for ways to capitalise on foreign aid.

    "If you think I am guilty of some kind of national or racial stereotyping, please think again." Did I say this? I commented on what you said came from the book.

    Nicola Morgan said...

    Lauri - you say "I AM saying that these stories should be put in the wider context to see the true picture". Ironically, because you are making your judgement about a book you haven't read, based on one example taken from it, not setting it in context. David went to Botswana and the stories that he is talking about in the bit I refer to were told him by the Director of the orphanage in question, an extraordinary man of huge goodness, judging by David's description. (Or is the goodness the only bit we should believe?) Until you've read the book, you're not really going to know whether your criticism is well-founded. All I can say is that the author is a man of enormous integrity, which is perobably matched only by Alexander Mccall Smith's, the originator of the novels which drew from many of these stories, both horrible and otherwise. You yourself pointed out that AMS's books are "happy African stories" - indeed, but the elements which these sad stories inform clearly paint a broader picture. And that was the bit I chose to highlight, because it had moved me. I am quite surprised by your reaction, I'm afraid.

    This is a book of wide-ranging wisdom from a very decent man, who brings us stories of all sorts, with warmth and humanity, and from the voices of many authors.

    Anonymous said...

    Sounds like a fascinating book! Thank you! Can I ask David a question? Is Nicola as crabbit as she pretends to be?

    Unknown said...

    Great stuff!

    BTW, Nicola,
    For what it's worth to someone as popular as your-good-self, I've given you an award on my blog.

    Clare said...

    The book sounds absolutely fascinating - and someone keeps asking what I want for Christmas so problem solved!
    Is there any possibility of posting the photo that accompanied the "Fleshmarket" interview or, even better, the interview as well?

    Vanessa Robertson said...

    Hello Vanessa from The Edinburgh Bookshop here.

    Just to let you know that we can post to overseas locations but the book won't be there for Christmas and postage will obviously cost more. Get in touch though if you don't mind waiting 'til after Christmas and we'll sort something out.

    Sally Zigmond said...

    Thank you, Nicola. I am definitely going to order a copy for myself. Because I'm worth it.

    Regarding the objections by Lauri, the only thing I can add that whilst it's only too easy to fall into 'all Africa is bad' trap--and surely AMS has done more than others to dispel this stereotype?--it is dangerous to say that everything in one country (in this case, Botswana) is absolutely rosy. It prevents one from making things even better and can render one accused of complacency.

    I love my country of England. I wouldn't want to live anywhere else. But I would be the first to admit that there are huge social problems. To admit as such is the only way things can get better. Sweeping it under the carpet does no-one any favours.

    Lauri said...

    Sally -I absolutely agree. Botswana is far from perfect. Anyone who reads my blog regularly would know how much I agree with you there.
    Nicola- I am not questioning your integrity, David's, nor AMS. I too was surprised by your impression that I was attacking you. I was not. I was commenting on what was written in your post.

    Lindsey said...

    It's a fascinating book, the ideal gift which has earned me quite a few brownie points. I'd recommend it highly.

    * said...

    Lovely interview, sounds like a lovely book.

    Nicola Morgan said...

    Jane, Rebecca, Anon, Col, Lindsey, Terresa, Sally, Clare - glad you either already like it or think it sounds good! It is. Nx

    Clare - unfortunately not, and the whole interview is now not available on the Scotsman website! I put the interview on my own website on the Fleshmarket page, though. Recently, I accidentally deleted the whole content of the Fleshmarket page and had to start again, and have lost a load of reviews, but managed to find that interview somewhere else. Can't remember where now but the photo wasn't there.

    Frankie Diane Mallis said...

    Nicola, The First Novels Club has an award for you!

    Unaswi said...

    So where in Botswana is Orphan Farm? I would like to visit it and maybe offer some help, a motswana from botswana!!