DEAN CODY CASSADY INTERVIEWS ROBIN STEVENS
DCC: Your blog is a pleasure to read and your writing style on that site really captures this reader’s imagination. You’re an avid reader. So, to get things started, which writer inspires you the most and why?
RS: Diana Wynne Jones was a huge influence growing up – she writes the kind of books that I want to. They’re so funny and creative and, even though they’re fantasy, they manage to be incredibly true to the way human beings behave. Apart from her, Charlotte Bronte and Neil Gaiman both showed me that writing for adults doesn’t have to be boring, Dave Barry and Lucy Mangan taught me that journalism is allowed to be funny and Virginia Woolf and A. S. Byatt proved to me that some writers are better than I’ll ever be, and that I’m OK with that.
DCC: On your blog you write about your internship at Litro Magazine. What is it that this requires you to do?
RS: I get to blog every week, which is wonderful. Any excuse to write! Litro’s great – it’s a really interesting short story magazine but it also does a lot of live literary and spoken word events around London. At the moment I’m involved in a Dutch-themed literary festival taking place at the end of February. We’ve got authors and journalists coming to talk about the culture and their work and it should be really fun. I’m excited to be part of it.
DCC: You write that you’re:
‘the unlikely product of the Midlands and the Midwest, the owner of two passports (useful) but someone whom neither the CIA nor MI5 will ever trust enough to hire (disappointing)’.
How do you consider your relationship with words in the context of George’s Bernard Shaw’s often quoted ‘two nations divided by a common language’?
RS: I do often feel like I have two languages in my head. Obviously that deeply undervalues people who can actually speak two languages, so maybe it’s better to say that I’ve got two cultures and two dialects constantly competing for brain space. It’s like an argument that never ends. Most of the time I can keep on top of it, but I do think I sometimes make strange word choices that I’m not even fully aware of.
DCC: You recently completed the NaNoWriMo writing challenge. How would you describe your writing?
RS: In terms of my latest NaNoWriMo, I think the word would definitely be ‘unconsidered’. But, in general, I’d say that I have a lot of difficulty being entirely serious. Whenever I try to write high tragedy it always comes out slightly silly. Everything I write also seems to somehow end up being about a large family and a murder. I don’t know if I should be worried by that.
DCC: You’re also studying for your MA. You write that it’s ‘an MA in books!’ Can you elaborate a little more on this and on how this study affects your life? That is, presumably there’s some sort of immersion in words in your scholarly activities?
RS: Really it’s just a standard English Literature Masters, but with a slant towards the last 150 years so I can focus on fat exciting novels, which are what I’m really obsessed with. It means that I have to spend a lot of time reading and writing, which is obviously a terrible chore for me. I believe that really good scholarship should be fun and accessible, as well as rigorous, and that’s what I try to do on my course – I think my MA bleeds into my blog a bit and ends up making it slightly scholarly, but (hopefully) in a good way.
DCC: You’ve set yourself the challenge of, in your own words, ‘the incredibly rash promise I made to read half of the 1001 Books List before I turn 28’. By my maths, that’s around 500 books in 5 years. What more can you tell us about that book list? Also, how’s that challenge going, and do you think you’ll achieve it?
RS: I think when I set myself that challenge I forgot how old I was! At the moment I’ve got less than four years to read over 300 books, so I’m not sure it’s going to work out. But I like having the list – and the challenge – as a way to make myself try new authors, and actually experience the books that people talk about so much but never seem to read. If anyone else is mad enough to want to try it, the list I’m working off is part of the ‘1001 Before You Die’ series, and it’s pretty easy to find in bookshops.
DCC: How do you discipline yourself to read?
RS: It just sort of ends up happening, unless what I’m reading is something like Foucault, for which I need serious coffee. I also compulsively carry books around in my handbag, like really solid comfort blankets. The month I read The Count of Monte Cristo I almost gave myself a permanent sideways lean.
DCC: Your reviews are refreshingly honest and some books you’ve read are given the frank treatment of being openly disliked. What’s the worst book you’ve ever read and why?
RS: Most often, when I have to stop reading a book, it’s because it disgusts me. When I got to the part of American Psycho with the rat and the butter knife I started to see stars, so that’s as far as I’ve ever gotten with it. It’s perfectly well written but I thought it was vile. Off the top of my head the last book that I thought was irredeemably bad in terms of style was Essie Fox’s The Somnambulist. Pure drivel, and it contained an incestuous rape scene in a cave that left the heroine thinking her attacker was actually quite sexy. It offended all the parts of my brain at once.
DCC: It’s only fair to ask what the best book you’ve ever read is, but let’s play Desert Island Books! You get to take three of your all time favourites, but eventually you have to get rid of two of them to keep the fire going. Which book survives and why?
RS: To be honest, the thought of being in a Desert Island Books scenario always makes me feel intensely nervous. It would be a bleak, bookless existence and I’m not sure I’d be able to make it. Also, what if I made a horrible choice? I’d have to spend years in a state of bitter literary regret. In terms of the book that’s had the most profound effect on me, though, I’d have to pick Jane Eyre. I first read it twelve years ago and by this stage I think I love it like a friend. My other two would be Possession and American Gods, which are both immense and incredibly satisfying. They’d keep me going for at least two weeks.
DCC: Your reading doesn’t seem to be restricted by genre. Is there any genre that you do find either dull, unwieldy, ridiculous or any other term such as these? Please elaborate.
RS: I think there are certain genres that have particular potential to contain both truly excellent books and utter plonk – swords-and-sorcery springs to mind, as does romance – but there’s very little I just won’t try, in case it does turn out to be wonderful. I’m usually not particularly drawn to the nastier chop-off-bits-of-your-body crime thrillers, or medieval war epics, but that’s because I have very low tolerance for grim descriptions of mutilation, however it’s packaged.
DCC: I think it’s fair to say that you’re into books! Where do you see yourself in, say, ten years’ time?
RS: Ultimately I’d love to be a fully functional novelist, but I know that’s like wanting to own a dog with wings and the power of rational speech. More realistically, I’d like to get into publishing and work on books from that angle.
DCC: Ebooks versus traditional paper books? What’s your preference and why? Will ebooks ever kill off the paperback?
RS: I think that ebooks and paper books do two slightly different things – one’s portable and handy, while the other is personal, tactile and will never run out of batteries – so I think the two formats can exist side by side. Having worked in a bookshop, I do think they affect sales, but they’re by no means the death-knell of the printed word. As an ex-bookseller, though, I hope ebooks do manage to kill off hardbacks. They’re horribly unwieldy, pointlessly expensive and incredibly difficult to sell. But that’s just personal prejudice.
DCC: You’ve written about working in a book shop. What would the perfect book shop be for you? You have a completely blank canvas!
RS: I’d like all fiction to be arranged A-Z, with no concern for time period or genre! It’d be wonderful revenge on snobby literary authors and a great way of promoting lesser-known writers who languish in the genre sections of most bookshops at the moment. There would also be an enormous cookery section and a whole wall for true crime.
DCC: Let’s talk food! Your initial blog idea was to have a section on baking. In the spirit of merging food and words, could you write a few lines on something delicious?
RS: The two most valuable culinary lessons I’ve learnt are that when you’re cooking you should put alcohol in everything, and when you’re baking you should always add buttermilk. If you follow those rules you can never go entirely wrong. Seriously, though, at the moment my favourite cook books are Ottolenghi, Thomasina Miers’ Mexican Food Made Simple and anything written by The Hummingbird Bakery. I would wear hair shirts and hug spiders for one of their cupcakes.
DCC: Lastly, what line from any book inspires you the most (for its beauty, its profound effect, its humour, etc)?
RS: Probably my favourite opening line from any book anywhere is Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, which begins ‘I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.’ It’s so simple, so strange and so interesting that it makes it almost impossible not to want to read on to find out why. That’s the sort of writing that really impresses me, and that’s what I want to be able to do when I write.
DCC: Thank you, Robin. It’s been a pleasure (and keep reading and writing about reading – I look forward to your future words).