Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Robert Lewis Interview

Robert Lewis is currently writing some of the darkest noir in crime fiction. In his novels The Last Llanelli Train and Swansea Terminal he has brilliantly charted the physical and spiritual decline of his cancer-ridden, alcoholic PI, Robin Llywelyn. And somehow, in the process, managed to transform his loser 'tec's bleak travails into the blackest of black comedy. Here, Lewis steps away from the precipice for a moment to answer a few of my questions.

Rob, why have you chosen to write crime fiction over other types of fiction?

You know, I’m not sure it was even a conscious decision. I really didn’t have to think about it. I started writing and it seemed the most natural thing in the world to have a man sitting alone in an office, a woman walks in, offers him a job, the job is not what it seems. Just about every writer in the world uses form, even the Booker boys and girls: mine was the crime genre. The particular aspect of crime fiction I was pulled towards, the dark noir stuff, that’s probably got a lot more to do with the sort of person I am. Although writing is such a lonely and futile act, for which you would be mad to expect any reward, I am amazed noir isn’t more popular. There is a natural resonance between what my view of a writer is and the noir Weltanschauung.

As its title suggests Swansea Terminal has a strong sense of place - what research did you do in preparation for this novel?

Oh man. I have to refer you again to the stuff I’ve just said about the writer and the hard-boiled worldview. I moved to Swansea and lived in a bedsit halfway up Mount Pleasant, on the top floor of a big old house, and started the first page on the day I arrived. I spent about four months there, alone, walking around and writing and drinking and listening to people. That kind of immersion is how I like to write. It’s not terribly practical, but I think there’s a pay-off for it in terms of the finished product. It amuses me sometimes - lots of things about writers amuse me - when they talk about how much hard work they put in researching their novel, like a novel is some kind of academic project. With the historical stuff it makes sense, of course, but with everything else I think you either really engage and commit to it or you don’t. Apart from that, obsessively reading Raymond Chandler et al for much of my life, and especially my formative adolesence, was doubtless a critical kind on unconscious preparation. And sometimes overtly conscious - I reread each of the six big Chandler books every year.

How much of Rob Lewis's character is in the character of Robin Llywelyn?

More than I’d like. I created him initially because he was the man I was frightened I would become. Haven’t quite got there yet. He’s not a direct lift, though - I have a little bit of fun with him occasionally.

What is your writing routine?

It’s either full-on or non-existent. Sometimes I slide into the romantic drunken author cliché, typing away in the middle of the night with a drink by my side. I certainly don’t do it all of the time, but it does seem to sometimes help. Sometimes.

Which other writers have influenced you?

Raymond Chandler kicks arse. He really does. I appreciate I’m hardly rescuing him from obscurity here, but he is fucking divine. There is a gem on every page, and most of the time it doesn’t look like he’s even trying. He’s far more readable at the level of the sentence than people think he is. The plots contribute, but nowhere near as much. Genre be damned, he bloody rules. Philip Marlowe could never exist, of course, that’s the only fundamental problem. He’d be one fucked up guy - not sociopathic, not violently dysfunctional, like Ellroy’s characters, but one seriously sad lonely person, and far less effectively moral. There’s a terrific sense of place in those books too, and of the time. It’s one thing to write a historical novel and capture the spirit of the time, that after all is the point of the historical novel, but to write a contemporary, commercially successful novel and get it all in there for posterity while you do it, without overstating it too much, that’s a marvel.

Otherwise Joseph Conrad is good at the spectre of redemption, Greene is okay here and there for guilt and shame. There are plenty of other writers who I admire, but none that have so directly affected the Llywelyn novels. And yes, I do like dead white male authors. I’m going to be one.

Where and what next for your detective Robin Llywelyn? Are you finally going to give the guy a break and allow some happiness into his life?

In each Llywelyn novel he has to fall a little further and a little harder. It makes things more difficult but it means things stay faithful. So the third one kicks off in a cancer hospice, and gets worse from there on in. It’s kind of an inversion of the classic country house murder mystery - everyone’s dying, and everybody knows why. If some happiness does creep in - and I don’t want to give too much way - it will come at a cost. Most likely the final book will be the darkest one of all. Laughter from the darkness - it’s the only real laughter there is, right?

* Swansea Terminal and The Last Llanelli Train are both published by Serpent's Tail