Today, we're featuring James E. Robinson and his debut novel. I interviewed him earlier in the year with his non-fiction title, Prodigal Song.
In this, my first novel, there’s a lot of autobiographical content woven into the story. I wrote about the places, people, and emotional issues that I understood most intimately. However, even though I used real people and places as early templates, eventually the characters took on personalities of their own. The same is true of the small town where the story takes place. I drew visually from my own hometown, surrounding countryside, and real people there to paint the locations and characters in the book, but ultimately the place and people took on their own identities. So, hopefully I blended things to achieve realism and originality; though what I ended up with in the story wasn’t really my hometown at all, it will nonetheless resonate as a real place, if that makes sense. I’ve started my next novel, and this time I’m going to try to lean a little less into my own life experience, and rely instead on research about characters and places that might initially be less familiar to me.
If you're coming to the ACFW conference, you might want to take the workshop I'm teaching on how to find all kinds of information to make a book real and authentic. What is the quirkiest thing you have ever done?
Hmm. Well, as a recovering alcoholic, sober 19 years, I’m afraid I might have to respectfully take a pass on that question. “Quirky” is too nice a term for some of my behavior prior to 1989!
Good for you!!. When did you first discover that you were a writer?
I’m not sure I’ve discovered that quite yet! However…I know that I dreamed of being a writer for as long as I can remember, so I know I’ve at least had the heart of a writer for most of my life. But I was far too undisciplined to work on the craft until fairly recently. I used to recite “poetry” to my grandmother before I was old enough to write. Books were—and are—magical things to me. Writers have always been my heroes. In school, I was a bored, mostly average student. But in middle school one day a teacher handed out our textbook for the year, some sort of anthology of American and English literature, short stories, poems, and some longer pieces by a wide assortment of authors. And above each piece was a thumbnail sketch of the author. That book riveted me. I stuck my head into it, and in many ways have not extracted it since.
Tell us the range of the kinds of books you enjoy reading.
In high school I was a bit of a science fiction nut, but eventually I began exploring a wide range of fiction. I have always loved the classics. I have been influenced a great deal by older stuff, especially southern women writers of long ago—Welty, Glasgow, Cather. In many ways, The Flower of Grass is a sort of throwback tribute to that kind of work. Frederick Buechner was important to me once I got sober; my father-in-law, Bryan Haislip, who has played an important role in introducing me to some of the “good stuff” mentioned above, gave me a copy of Buechner’s memoir The Sacred Journey back in the late ‘90’s. I finished it and said, Whoa! Buechner made me realize that writing about faith could be literarily satisfying. I have pretty eclectic tastes, I suppose. I like British stuff. I’m one of those oddballs who really like Dickens, for instance. My agent, Ang DePriest, is always on me about reading more modern fiction, and she’s right, of course. I’m terribly out of touch with what’s selling these days. But she has introduced me to some wonderful new authors working out there now.
How do you keep your sanity in our run, run, run world?
My family keeps me grounded…at least as grounded as I’m ever going to get! I’m a bit of a “head in the clouds” kind of guy, I’m afraid. But Teresa and my two kids don’t allow me to ever float too far away. My faith, sobriety, quality relationships, creativity…these are the anchoring elements in my life.
How do you choose your characters’ names?
In The Flower of Grass, I had fun using names that held some personal meaning for me. Family names, names of friends, stuff like that. For some of the names, though, I had little to say about it; the characters insisted on their own names, once I’d stared writing. Jessie was Jessie from the moment I envisioned her. She was quite adamant about it. And I don’t know anyone named Jessie in real life.
What is the accomplishment that you are most proud of?
That’s a three-way tie: Getting sober in ’89, marrying Teresa in ’92, and the birth of my daughter and son twelve and eight years ago, respectively.
If you were an animal, which one would you be, and why?
A hawk. I love birds, and the big birds of prey are absolutely stunning creatures. Every time I see a hawk in the wild, I instantly become about ten years old. I even put a hawk in my novel!
What is your favorite food?
That’s a tough one. I love ALL food. I mean ALL. (This made me a very popular child with adults, by the way.) But if I have to choose one….very fresh seafood.
Tell us a little about your journey to publication.
Well, I owe the whole unlikely chain of events entirely to my agents, Ang and Dan DePriest. God led me to them through a friend and writer, Brian Schrauger. We all live in the same town. After a couple of meetings, we’d become friends. Now, only months later, we’re like family. I wrote the rough draft of the novel in a couple of months, February and March of last year, and they had a contract in my hands by Christmas. I had self published a memoir a few years earlier, for use in our ministry (www.ProdigalSong.com). But this was my first ever completed manuscript for a novel. I know how blessed I’ve been in all this. Still, it hardly feels like sudden success. I’ve been “writing” in my head for decades, and dreaming of being published for as long as I can remember. I’m a slow starter…but it feels good. I’m humbled, and very thankful to God. I know it often doesn’t happen this “easily.”
What is the problem with writing that was your greatest roadblock, and how did you overcome it?
Time. Or lack if it, to be precise. I can tell from reading all the comments on the ACFW Loop that my struggle is not unique. I love the writing process SO much…I can’t imagine there ever being enough time to write.
What advice would you give to others who are trying to get their first book published?
It’s almost a cliché…but the key is perseverance. I had to learn this lesson as a professional songwriter in Nashville for many years. All artists must learn to accept “no” and keep going, keep believing. Even if the “no” comes a million times. If you love writing, though, write. I’ll always write, published or not. Being published does not make a writer great, and not being published does not mean the writer has no gift. Read a lot, and write a lot. Learn the craft, but nurture your own unique voice. And never, ever stop praying.
The Flower of Grass is, as I mentioned before, a bit of an old fashioned piece. It’s driven more by the characters than by action. Much of what transpires is very internalized, in some ways. I wanted to write something that spoke to what I consider to be basic human longings: Love, family, a sense of connection and purpose, faith. It’s also a story about the precious brevity of life, and about the intense duality of flesh/spirit that challenges us all in one way or another. One of the themes I tried to induce was the supernatural elements of time…how man’s time and God’s time are two very different things, and how the passing of time does not limit God’s ability to heal and restore relationships. Though in some ways it’s a story of unfulfilled romance, ultimately the key characters come to learn unexpected truths about themselves, and discover what they need and believe on a deeply spiritual level.
The publisher is Lion Hudson of the UK, under their Monarch imprint. US distribution will be through Kregel. They are planning a simultaneous release in both markets in August ’08.
How can our readers find you on the Internet?
My author site is www.jameserobinson.com
James, thank you for spending this time with us.
Readers, check out his web site, but first leave a comment for a chance to win a free copy of the book.