7 Questions With Author Mike Robbins
Mike Robbins is the author of two books of travel memoirs, a novel, and a scientific book on climate change. He has been a journalist, traveler, development worker and climate-change researcher. He currently works as an editor in New York.
Born in England in 1957, he graduated in 1979 and worked in rock-music publishing, financial journalism, as a traffic broadcaster and as a reporter on the fishing industry. In 1987 he went to work as a volunteer in Sudan, an experience he described in his book Even the Dead are Coming (2009).
He later also worked as a volunteer in Bhutan and went on to live in Aleppo, Brussels and Rome. These travels led eventually to a collection of long travel pieces, The Nine Horizons (2014), and a novel, The Lost Baggage of Silvia Guzmán (2014).
The latter is the story of a young refugee in London, as was Robbins’s reaction to the “war on drugs” and its effect in Latin America. In Robbins’s own eyes it’s the most important thing he’s written.
As one reader review put it: “There is much to enjoy here – the insightful descriptions of the fascinating mass of contradictions and beauty that is South America; the emptiness of London’s fashionable moneyed liberalism; … the parallel world lived in by Britain’s refugees – be they from overseas or from failed families around our country.”
A collection of three novellas, Three Seasons: Three Stories of England in the Eighties, was released at the end of 2014. In 2015 Robbins published a novella, Dog!, which has been his best-seller so far and had also been published Spanish (as ¡Perro!, translated by Sandra Fernández Campos).
Dog! is a funny, but also very frank, look at what might happen to us when we cross over to the other side. What awaits us there? And is it our final destination? As one reviewer put it: “Dog! Is a tale of redemption, of a soul in torment, but with some hilarious, laugh out loud moments as well as some profound sadness. …I particularly liked the way that Dog started to lick his bits in the middle of the room every time he got bored with the conversation of the humans.”
Robbins is also the author of a scholarly work on agriculture and climate change, Cropping Carbon: Paying Farmers to Combat Climate Change (2011), published by Earthscan (now part of the Taylor & Francis group).
This is an important book if you are concerned with climate change and agriculture. If you are not, it may cause you to lick your bits, too.
In today’s interview, author and environmentalist Mike Robbins speaks about future projects and profiling target readers among many other interesting aspects of his author life. If you are a writer, please stop by to check the best tips & tricks From Writing To Publishing and sign up to my Newsletter for the latest & greatest.
Esther Rabbit: How does a day in your author life look?
It starts with the journey to the day job. Few of us writers are full-time. In my case I leave my brownstone just north of New York’s Central Park and ride south through the Park on a bike from the city’s public bike-share scheme.
As I ride I’m usually thinking about the day ahead, but sometimes about what I’m going to write next. I’ll also be enjoying the surroundings. Central Park can be very beautiful, especially in spring, and it’s mostly free of cars.
But when I get to the end of the Park I go on down Seventh Avenue towards Times Square, and then I’m definitely not thinking about writing.
I’m thinking about staying alive. As a New York cycling blogger, Bike Snob once put it: “As a cyclist, all that’s between you and being run over by a Ford Explorer is the driver bending down for half a second to retrieve a dropped McNugget.”
Cold, wet days drive me onto the subway instead. Then I use the time to read. It’s very crowded, but I have learned how to hold a hardback with one hand and hang on with the other while my face is jammed into someone’s armpit. I do also use a Kindle.
I have a blog which is centred mainly around books, so what I’m reading will usually be for that, but I like also to read work by other indie authors. Recent highlights have included Jay Spencer Green (who you’ve just interviewed), Rupert Dreyfus (very political), Rebecca Gransden (mysterious, wonderful imagination) and an American thriller writer, S.L. Shelton.
When I get to work I may be concentrating quite hard. I am an editor. I work on official reports, not literary writing or journalism. It sounds boring but the subject matter is not; I work for a humanitarian organization and I care about what we do.
So I won’t have time to think about my own writing. But when I do get home, I try to get an hour’s work in before I make dinner. If I can write just a few words a day, that helps.
Apparently Kingsley Amis used to write 500 words every morning in later years, knowing that he would probably drink at lunchtime and wouldn’t do much in the afternoon. I suppose that’s the key for a writer; make sure you do something before the hour when you know you will stop writing.
When I was younger, my writing day could look very different. I first started writing seriously when I was a volunteer in rural Sudan. I lived in a mud-brick hut with a thatched roof. There were chickens and goats for company, and an elderly aggressive turkey. There was a hedgehog that sometimes came to see me at night.
Every now and then someone would sway past on an enormous camel. It was too hot to do anything physical, and I wrote in the afternoons, after work. I did most of the first draft of Three Seasons in Sudan; I typed it on long sheets of very thin foolscap from the office. I still have the manuscript.
Esther Rabbit: What were some major setbacks of this profession?
If you mean the biggest obstacles, I’d say marketing. This is a particular problem for an indie author; we have limited budgets and can’t stick ads in The Bookseller or in newspapers.
I do have some success using advertising on social media, and have also tried outfits that tweet your book out and put it in emails to subscribers; most of these don’t work, but there are one or two that do. By and large, though, we’re very dependent on our friends to share news and views about our books, and they don’t often do it, even when they’ve enjoyed a book.
This isn’t only a problem for indie authors, though. I published my book on climate change with a major academic publisher, but they were in the process of changing hands at the time of publication and the marketing got messed up badly.
Other writers will tell you the same thing; also that publishers only do any marketing and publicity at launch time, and once the book goes on the backlist it’s largely forgotten.
Esther Rabbit: What should readers expect from your next novel?
A lot of snow.
The upcoming book is set in England in 1946-1947, which was the worst winter ever in Northern Europe. It was especially hard for the countries that had been fought over, but Britain also had a hard time; the weather was so severe that coal could not be moved from the pitheads, power and gas was rationed and a lot of industry stopped.
Also, the population was not insulated from the weather the way they are today, and many people were exhausted from the war. There are thought to have been about 15-20,000 extra deaths. The snow was followed by severe flooding.
I’m looking at it mainly through the eyes of an elderly doctor, who is nearly too old to work but cannot afford to stop. There is a romance between his widowed daughter-in-law and an American officer, and various sub-plots, including one involving German prisoners-of-war; there were 400,000 in Britain at the time, and from December 1946 most were not confined to their camps but could work in the community and mingle with the population. This led to some extraordinary interactions.
I believe in this book but it has been very, very hard to write, and I have been working on it, on and off, for a decade (I’ve written other things in the meantime of course). But it may be finished sometime early in 2020.
It will be my next novel but won’t be my next book. That’ll be a collection of non-fiction pieces, some of which have already been on my blog in some form. I have this format whereby I’ll look at three or four books on a given topic and by reviewing them, give an overview of it.
Some of the subjects I’ve treated in this way have included aspects of the two world wars, TV in the 1970s, the last great sailing ships, and the relationship between inequality and democracy. There are a couple more pieces I want to write for the book, but they’re underway and I hope I can get it out before the end of 2019.
Meanwhile I’m looking at producing one or two of my existing books into other languages. Dog! is already available in Spanish, as ¡Perro! It’s a lovely translation by a young Spanish translator, Sandra Fernández Campos.
Dog! is rather English and I wondered what Spanish readers would make of it, but they seem to be enjoying it. I would now like to do it in German, and The Lost Baggage of Silvia Guzmán in Spanish and maybe German too.
Esther Rabbit: Have you profiled your readers? Let’s have a look at how you imagine your target audience.
I’ve thought a bit about who would want to buy my books – one has to if one is going to target ads on social media. But I haven’t really profiled my audience. I’m one of those writers who shouldn’t do so. I write because I want to and because something that grabs me has come into my head.
I can’t write any other way. To try and write for my audience would be the kiss of death and anyway, my books are so diverse that it’d be hard to say who they are.
It’s not the same for all writers, though. If you write romance or detection, you do know who is reading your books and why, and you will write for them. Barbara Cartland and Agatha Christie did that through their long careers and were very successful. This takes great skill. But it isn’t me.
Esther Rabbit: There are a lot of experts behind the novel, editors, developmental editors, proofreaders, beta readers, etc. How did you find your perfect crew? (They would thank you if you’d recommend them.)
I’m mostly a one-man band. For my most recent fiction book, Dog!, I even did the cover myself. That said, I don’t actually recommend this. I used to be a publishing professional but even so, I am risking a lot by doing so much on my own.
I definitely wouldn’t suggest working this way to anyone else; if you can afford a professional editor/proofreader and a designer, you should use them.
I do take some precautions. I will proofread from printouts and will use the “cigarette packet” technique I was taught as a young sub-editor; you take an object (it often was a cigarette packet) and move it down the text one line at a time, blocking what lies ahead.
That way your brain cannot jump to the next line, and auto-correct so it sees what the line you are reading should say, missing a typo. The other thing I always do is give the draft to two to four beta readers. These are normally friends who are interested in the subject (I’ve considered paying a professional beta reader, and wouldn’t rule it out – but it is hard to identify the right one).
I’ll run up a few paperback dummy books to send them, so they can read it the way they would the finished product. Then I’ll see what their reactions are. I reworked one of my books very heavily on the basis of the readers’ comments. It was my 2016 political essay Such Little Accident.
The beta readers thought there was no strand tying all the chapters of the book together. I had thought there was. But they could not see it.
Finally I’ll post dummy covers on my public Facebook page and ask people which they think works best, and why. They won’t all agree of course. But a trend usually emerges. And it’s quite fun!
Esther Rabbit: How do you deal with negative feedback or negative reviews?
I don’t deal with them, really – I just let the reviewer get on with it. After all, they’re entitled to their opinion. You can’t do anything about it and shouldn’t try. Besides, I’ve been quite lucky in not having too many negative reviews.
There have been a few for Dog!. I think these arose because people thought they were going to read a cute story about a cute dog. Well, the dog in Dog! may be funny sometimes, but he sure as hell isn’t cute; he is trapped in a nightmare and haunted by a terrible past.
I think the odd reader was also offended by some of the sex and foul language, though the book’s blurb should have warned them.
I know some writers do get frustrated when someone writes a one-star review because the book was not what they expected when it obviously wasn’t going to be, or because they didn’t like the colour of the cover, or whatever. You have written yourself on your blog about this.
I also remember that a few years ago a popular (and normally very good) reviewer gave an indie book a one-star rating because the writer had dared contact them and invite them to review it. I am not sure the reviewer had even read the book.
Some of their reviewer’s followers then also lashed out with negative ratings. It actually is not good to spam people with requests for reviews and I don’t do it, but this seemed harsh. In fact I decided to read the book myself and found it was very good; I posted a complimentary review.
Esther Rabbit: Just how much research is there behind a novel? Tell us how it looks behind the scenes.
For me it’s varied enormously. The forthcoming book set in 1947 has needed an awful lot, though I think I’m done with it now. It’s demanded a lot of reading. But there are also things you just won’t find in books.
I mean, how do you find out what was on the radio on Christmas Day 1946? (I did find out!) In particular, the story of the German prisoners is not that well-documented. But the few books that do exist are very good; there is a wonderful one, Thresholds of Peace, by Matthew Barry Sullivan, who had been in intelligence during the war.
He later became a distinguished editor and broadcaster and was partly responsible for getting The Diary of Anne Frank translated into English. Unfortunately not all the books I have had to read have been as good as his.
The plot has also driven me down some unexpected byways. I needed to know what it was like for a doctor to work in general practice 70 years ago; online research didn’t turn up much, until I found out that in 1950 a distinguished New Zealand doctor had visited Britain to look into the state of family medicine.
He was not impressed, and his report was searing. It was published in The Lancet in 1952 and had a major influence on British clinical practice. So of course I read it, and it gave me superb background on the day-to-day realities and the way a doctor then interacted with patients.
My other books haven’t been as demanding. Dog! needed no research at all. Three Seasons has some scenes that look as if they needed a lot of background; the first of the three stories is about the fishing industry and there’s a lot of detail in there.
But I already knew most of it, as I worked on the industry newspaper, Fishing News, when I was a young man. When I published the book 25 years later, I asked Tim Oliver, who’d been the editor of Fishing News back in the 1980s, to check it for errors and he kindly did so (he did find a few).
The flying scenes were from memory; at the time the book is set, I was learning to fly gliders, or sailplanes as they’re called in the US.
Finally The Lost Baggage of Silvia Guzmán is set partly in a Latin American country undergoing a bloody coup. I had been living and travelling in the region for some months before I wrote the book, and was familiar with it and also the effect the cocaine business was having at the time, especially on Colombia.
So I didn’t do much research. I did talk to a friend who was a former detective, so as to try and get the interview scene at the end right. I hope I did.
Find Mike Robbins here:
Besides Amazon, almost all Mike Robbins’s e-books are available on iBooks, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, Flipkart, Vearsa, and in Mexico on Gandhi. The paperbacks can be ordered through brick-and-mortar stores as well as online retailers.
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“A new Interplanetary Alliance ambassador on an earthbound mission.
A handful of genetically altered humans to be rescued.
Meeting her changed everything.“