Interview: Ray Robinson
With his 2008 novel, The Man Without, reissued as an ebook this week, we talk to Ray Robinson about this 'vivid and unforgettable' (according the The Times) follow-up to his acclaimed debut, Electricity.
What has it been like revisiting The Man Without after, blimey, nearly ten years? And you have made some changes for this reissue. What sort of stuff did you tinker with?
Folks often ask if I read my own books once they’re published and the answer is no. I dipped in and out of Electricity once and it did my head in because I wanted to make changes but, obviously, it was too late. However, having the chance to go back and make a few editorial changes to The Man Without for a re-issue—well, the temptation was too strong. I made cuts rather than add anything new. For example, I knew starting a novel with a lengthy questionnaire was a bit risky and probably a bit off-putting for many readers, so I edited it down. I also found a few silly mistakes and took the opportunity to tone down some episodes. I think the book is now a lot tighter, both in construction and content. It was all about how to show a series of events in Antony’s life without the certainty of chronology, of questioning that chronology, and questioning the book’s overall form and one-word-after-another-ness.
This suggests that you have retained an important connection to the book; are you able to work out why it means so much to you?
Writing The Man Without was like passing through puberty again. After the success of Electricity my mental health took a nose-dive. Thankfully I got a lot of support and was encouraged to start writing about certain aspects of my childhood, and, yes, it helped. Synthesising these experiences with imaginative response and research in order to make new work is what The Man Without was all about: confronting and relieving trauma without being all woe-is-me and drifting into the pornography of suffering; a compulsion to recount and heal but also to create something new and exciting upon the page. Electricity skirted around these issues but I didn’t hold back with The Man Without. For that reason, I think The Man Without is my most honest work. But honesty can be a dirty word. ‘Write about what you know,’ they say—but what if all you know is distasteful and abstract? ‘Then write about it in a beautiful way.’ But will anyone want to read it? Will a publisher even want to touch it? All I can hope is that readers come away thinking the book is a positive one, meaning it’s human and illuminates possibilities and transcends the shit of living. Not much to ask for, then.
Do you ever wonder what Antony is up to now?
I’ve just started writing a sequel to Electricity and The Man Without. The book is set 10 years on, and Antony and Lily are living in the same city and are close friends. Lily is about to have surgery to remove her epilepsy and Antony is about to transition. So yes, they’re both very much alive and kicking.
As with Electricity, you play around with type and the design of text in this book (which is a bloody nightmare to get right for the ebook!) but your later novels have less in the way of visual trickery. Are you done with this now or is it something you may return to?
I wasn’t trying to be wanky or abstruse. With Electricity, I had to work out how Lily’s consciousness—and the consciousness of epilepsy—got onto the page. I studied typography at university (I trained on a hot metal Monotype press) so the solution was always going to be typographical. In order to replicate the full symphony of Lily’s seizures I had to reconsider the phonological, lexical, syntactic and narrative rules of the novel, experimenting with verbal textures to try and recreate a seizure upon the page, and trying to achieve the correct balance between the quotidian and the lyrical. In The Man Without the ‘lookfeel’ is more structural and I was less conscious I was doing it. My subsequent books just didn’t require any ‘trickery’—there was no call for it—but it’s definitely something I want to explore in my new work.
Do you read ebooks yourself? Read any good ones of late?
I like to read ebooks when I’m on the move, usually short story or poetry collections. The best I’ve read recently are: Amy Hempel’s, Dorthe Nors’, Richard Yate’s, and John Burnside’s.
And finally, can you recommend a book that maybe isn't all that well known, that we should all try to read?
I can think of a few: Jeff Jackson’s Mira Corpora; Robert Williams’ Into the Trees; Tom Franklin’s Poachers; Matt Bell’s In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods; Lewis Robinson’s Officer Friendly; Emma Lannie’s Behind a Wardrobe in Atlantis; Dorthe Nors’ Karate Chop; and Padrika Tarrant’s Broken Things.
Ray Robinson's unforgettable novel, The Man Without, is available now.