James Robertson is the author of four previous novels, The Fanatic, Joseph Knight,The Testament of Gideon
Mack and And the Land Lay Still. The Testament of Gideon Mack was longlisted for the Man
Booker Prize, picked by Richard and Judy's Book Club, and shortlisted for the Saltire Book of the Year award. And the
Land Lay Still was the winner of the Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year Award 2010.
About James Robertson
An Interview with James Robertson
More About James Robertson
James Roberston author of The Testament of Gideon Mack answers our questions...
What always puts a smile on your face?
Taking time off to go hill-walking. From my home I can reach scores of mountains in a couple of hours’ drive, so I leave early and make a full day of it. I go on my own and it is pure therapy. The sense of liberation and exhilaration, the physical challenge and peace of mind always make me feel restored.
What are you reading at the moment?
Underworld by Don DeLillo. I read it when it first came out in the late 1990s and the scope and scale of it astonished me. It’s a hugely impressive attempt to capture America in the second half of the 20th century and I want to see how it reads second time through.
Which author do you most admire?
Impossible question, but probably it would be Hugh MacDiarmid, the great Scottish poet and polemicist. He revolutionised my attitude to language, politics, culture, literature and poetry, and he did it from an uncompromisingly Scottish perspective. Often he was wrong about things, but more often he was right. He had the courage of his convictions and the kind of tenacity, in the face of almost constant, grinding poverty, that very few writers possess. He also produced an immense body of work, amongst it some of the finest poetry ever written in Scots.
What’s your earliest memory?
Playing on a tricycle in the street. It had a tin boot on the back that rattled every time I went over a bump. My father took it off so I wouldn’t disturb the neighbours.
What is your greatest fear?
That somebody, somewhere, is going to push the button that ends everything. As a child I used to think this would be God. Now I realise that as human beings we are quite capable of bringing mass destruction, whether through nuclear or biological weaponry or melting the ice-caps, down on our own heads.
Have you ever done something you’ve really regretted?
Yes, plenty, but I’m not elaborating!
What’s your favourite book?
This is another impossible question. I suppose it comes down to the ones I’ve returned to most, which would include At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’ Brien, The Mating Season by P.G. Wodehouse (definitely the funniest book I’ve ever read), Raymond Carver’s collected stories, Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Scots Quair and The Heart of Midlothian by Walter Scott. But ‘favourite’ is a shifting word. At other times I’d have said The Mill on the Floss or Middlemarch, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde or Kidnapped, Great Expectations or Bleak House. And what about short stories? I read Stevenson’s ‘The Bottle Imp’ once every couple of years. And poems? Burns’s ‘Tam O’ Shanter’ is as good as any novel.
How do you spoil yourself?
With single malt whisky.
Who (or what) do you turn to in a crisis?
I’m quite resilient and independent, so try to sort things out myself, but I’m also lucky in knowing I can rely on family and friends if I have to.
What makes you angry?
Arms dealers, whether they’re selling AK-47s or fleets of bombers, whether they’re individuals or governments. To sell a weapon in the full knowledge that sooner or later it’s going to be used to inflict injury and death on other human beings seems to me about as low as you can sink. It’s worse than pulling the trigger, which people sometimes do in self-defence or to resist oppression. The arms dealer is not moved by such imperatives because he is at home counting his money.
Which foreign country would you most like to visit?
Mexico. I’ve been across the border from the USA a couple of times and have always wanted to go back and get right down into the heart of this huge and fascinating country, with its amazing blends of races and cultures.
Where do you write?
I have a room which I use solely for my work – a luxury I’ve only enjoyed in the last few years. Last summer I had bookshelves built along the length of one wall and got a new desk and filing cabinet, all of which was designed to curb my tendency to untidiness. It’s worked but only up to a point. A certain amount of chaos is conducive to creative thinking and writing. I write straight on to a PC most of the time, although I make a lot of handwritten notes on scraps of paper. It bothers me that the advent of the ‘word-processor’ has changed the whole nature of the creative process. Something is lost in the ‘processing’, in the speeding up, in the fact that you’re editing a sentence even before you get to the end of it. What’s a first or second ‘draft’ these days? Sometimes I yearn for the physical decisiveness of a typewriter key striking paper through the ink-ribbon.
Which is your favourite city and why?
Edinburgh – although New York or Paris would come close, but they’re so utterly different they can’t really be compared. I was a student in Edinburgh and have lived there at various times. It’s a village really, not a city like Glasgow or Barcelona or London, and its intimacy is one of the things that is so appealing. Its topography too – the way it dips and flows over and around the contours left by the volcanoes and glaciers. And, as someone fascinated by history, I love the way the past constantly intrudes upon the present, particularly in the Old Town. You get a sense that, despite everything, Edinburgh hasn’t changed that much over the centuries.
Which is your favourite place in Scotland?
In spite of my fondness for Edinburgh, it would have to be somewhere wilder, further north. The Angus Glens or Assynt or Glen Lyon or any number of hills. Give me a clear day on the ridge of a Scottish mountain and I’ll be pretty content.
Describe your favourite church or place of spiritual sanctuary?
There’s an old churchyard in Easter Ross on the Cromarty Firth where some of my ancestors are buried. A very peaceful spot right down by the shore. The interesting thing is that out in the firth there are usually several oil-rigs anchored, in from the North Sea for maintenance work. I like the idea of the modern world rubbing shoulders, as it were, with the old in this way. There’s something reassuring about that contact, that sense of interlocking change and continuity.
One wish; what would it be?
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To be a brilliant musician.
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