Ray Robinson, an award-winning short-story writer, novelist and screenwriter, first won attention in 2006 with his debut novel, Electricity, which was shortlisted for both the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Authors’ Club First Novel Award. The film adaptation of Electricity, starring Agyness Deyn, will be released on 12th December 2014. His other novels are The Man Without and Forgetting Zoë. Ray’s new novel, Jawbone Lake, is out now in paperback.
Here Ray talks to Windmill about his writing, teaching abroad and his dream job.
What were you doing before you became a writer?
I’ve always been a writer, but before I had anything published, I used to teach English abroad, mainly in Poland and Sweden, which I loved, despite the cold and dark. I then worked at the Ministry of Agriculture – before it became DEFRA – working on the mapping systems. During this time I was also a guitarist in a band – nothing serious, just playing 60s and 70s covers around the North East. The bass player had just got out of prison and we had an interesting following: hairy-arsed bikers who liked to invade the stage towards the end of the gig and take over the microphone. It was hilarious. I then worked in a development centre for people with disabilities, mainly outreach work, which I really miss. I’ve written about this period of my life in my second novel, The Man Without.
Who are your literary idols?
Oh, far too many to mention, but some of my favourites are Kent Haruf, Russell Banks, Tim Winton, Anne Tyler, Emily Perkins, Don DeLillo, Daniel Woodrell, Janice Galloway, Alan Warner, Cormac McCarthy, Lorrie Moore, Raymond Carver, Annie Proulx, A.M. Homes…
And non-literary idols?
Pedro Almodóvar. Bjork. Egon Schiele. Sean Penn. Leo Fender.
That’s a difficult one. I’ve a few. The ones that I’ve read over and over again – and get something new from each time – are Underworld, The Road, Winter’s Bone, Tinkers, Dirt Music, and the Plainsong trilogy.
A Taste of Honey. I love all of the films of the Northern Renaissance – Billy Liar; The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner; Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, and so on – but this film stands out for me. It’s over 50 years old now, and it was the first film to have an openly gay protagonist and the first to show a mixed-race relationship. It also shows what Salford was like not long after the war – a pile of rubble, basically. Morrissey has even appropriated lines from the film to use in his songs.
At the moment, my favourite album is Palindrome Hunches by Neil Halstead, and my favourite song ‘Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois’ by Sufjan Stevens.
What have been the landmark moments in your life to date?
That’s an interesting question. Well, I guess meeting my father for the first time has got to be up there. Getting a PhD was a real achievement, especially after leaving school with no qualifications, though I knew I was capable of much more and it was satisfying to prove it. Getting published was the biggest achievement, and the highlights of my career so far have been a month-long book tour of Mexico, and recently seeing my debut novel, Electricity, being turned into a film.
Your guiltiest pleasure?
The Australian soap, Neighbours. It doesn’t matter how crappy my day has been, the sun is always shining on Ramsay Street. I’ve watched it from the beginning, 25 years now, and it usually marks the end of my working day. It’s such bubble gum, and the perfect way to switch off. It’s the only thing that I miss when I’m abroad. My dream job? Scriptwriter for Neighbours.
What do you do to relax?
The same as everyone else, I guess. General fart-arseing about. Gardening. Playing guitar. Cleaning the house. Watching crap TV. But that’s when I’m in this country. When I’m in Spain, where I spend a lot of the time, I like to be outdoors all day, walking in the mountains, swimming in the sea, soaking up the sun, trying to improve my Spanish.
Approximately how many books do you own?
Nowadays, only about 30 (they’re in a box somewhere). I used to own hundreds, maybe six or seven hundred, but I got sick of lugging them around and so I sold some and gave the rest to charity. It was liberating. I only keep the ones I know I’ll read again. Once I read a book, I pass it on. I like to give books away. I like to spread the love.
Fantasy Dinner party. Who would be your four guests and why?
People I’ve lost and would love to share one last meal with. My nana and granddad and great aunt Mary – oh, and my dog, Rebel. We always had such a laugh together.
Tell us about a book you own that you’ve never read.
I did own Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past for years – in three fat volumes. It will now be collecting dust on someone else’s bookshelf, no doubt.
Cats or dogs?
I guess cats are OK – in their own weird, aloof way. But I love dogs. Dogs rock. We always had dogs when I was growing up. We had six at one point. The house must have stunk.
Any bad habits?
I swear too much. But I believe a swear word used in the right place, at the right moment, can be a very powerful thing. I’m just a real effing potty mouth.
Hunter S. Thompson used to type out The Great Gatsby to know what it felt like to write it. What would be your choice?
That sounds like a bit of weird thing to do, but if forced, I’d say The Road by Cormac McCarthy.
How many places have you lived?
I’ve spent most my adult life travelling, or working abroad, so I’ve no idea.
If you could be anywhere now, where would it be and who with?
Easy. Wine tasting in the Barossa valley with my mate Tracy from Adelaide. Sitting in the shade, a bit tipsy, catching up.
What are your writing habits?
I try to write every day, but if I’m not in the mood, I try to do some research. If I’m editing, I just sit and write until my back hurts. I managed a month of 12-hour days without break recently (and paid for it in physio). But generally, if I manage to do four hours of concentrated writing a day – and I mean concentrated – not fannying around on t’interweb – then I’m happy.
What are you reading now?
The Grapes of Wrath. I’ve read it before, but love it even more the second time around.
What and where is your favourite bookshop?
Scarthin Books, Cromford, Derbyshire. It’s England’s answer to Shakespeare and Co. in Paris.
Who is largely undiscovered and should be read?
Emma Lannie. She’s just about to publish her first collection of short stories, Behind a Wardrobe in Atlantis (Mantle Lane Press). Her debut novel, set in Iceland (the country, not the supermarket), is going to be fan-fucking-tastic – when she finally gets her arse round to finishing it.
Where is your favourite place to read?
Snuggled up in bed. I can’t think of anything nicer. I like to read last thing at night, and first thing in the morning. It sets me up for the day.