Ray Robinson first won attention in 2006 with his debut novel, Electricity followed by The Man Without and Forgetting Zoe. To mark the release of Robinson’s latest novel Jawbone Lake (see below for review), an emotive and captivating thriller set in the brooding landscape of the Peak District, he has kindly answered some questions about the new book, the nature of storytelling and the journey of his book, Electricity, from page to screen…
Can you tell us a little about Jawbone Lake and the inspiration for the book?
This is the first book I’ve written organically, meaning I didn’t have a clue what the book was going to be about when I started writing it. It’s the first time I’ve used this chaotic method, and it’ll be the last. Usually I have the bookends – I know where the book starts and finishes, and have a rough idea of the journey between. But I made Jawbone up as I went along, writing maybe five books in the process. I was constantly open to new ideas and, as a consequence, made a lot of wrong turns and false starts. But saying that, been out of my comfort zone for the past three years has been a massive learning curve.
I’d been writing Jawbone for about a year when I realized what was at the core of the novel: I was writing about something that happened to a friend of mine, and so the inspiration came from quite an unusual place. Just over 10 years ago, my friend Adrian, a filmmaker from New York, was visiting me in England when he received a phone call to say that his mother had driven off a bridge and been killed. Three months later, I went to visit him in New York. He wasn’t coping. Nor was he willing to talk about what had happened. Instead, he went down to the park below the Manhattan Bridge every morning and flew a kite.
Once I realized what I’d actually been writing about, I called Adrian and nervously told him what I’d been doing. I then read him the scene where Rabbit flies her kite beside the lake, communing with her dead son. I was scared I was desecrating his memories somehow, by twisting what was a difficult time in his life into something fictional, but he said I could do whatever I wanted with it. He read the book recently and said he felt like it had created a kind of punctuation, a full stop to his mourning.
As with some of your previous books, I didn’t feel that Jawbone Lake was easy to label as just a thriller, due to the exceptional exploration of the emotive aspects of the protagonist’s lives. Do you perceive the book as a ‘thriller’?
I’m not sure about the thriller label, either, but it does have the traits of noir, with its mandatory detective (in this case, Joe, the son of ‘the criminal’), a good share of femme fatales and guns, and of course we gradually enter the shadowy world of CJ’s nefarious business dealings. All of these add the essential elements of fear, violence and disgust that noir demands. But noir is inherently genre-bending and I’ve tried to create a type of Peak Noir, I guess, that I hope will appeal not only to fans of hardboiled fiction but to those with more a literary bent, focusing on the effects that the crime has on the criminal’s family, instead of just the crime itself, and rather than making the crime super-complex and rushing through the plot at breakneck speed, I’ve focused instead on the ripples that spread throughout the families and community involved, as CJ’s secret life is revealed.
I never started out with this in mind, of course (I’m suspicious of writers who talk about ‘intention’). I started out just trying to write the best book I could; I wasn’t thinking about genre, and I didn’t realize for a long time that I was writing another noir-ish, literary thriller.
There’s a wonderful line in the book about the essence of secrecy being as ‘Silence upon silence. Stones piled upon stones’. How important was it that all the characters appear to be haunted by secrets? Likewise, you explore the notion that many versions of one person live within other people’s narratives as they perceive different sides to our personalities and this is particularly pertinent in relation to Joe’s father CJ. Perhaps this would account for the influence of CJ throughout the book, although he is physically absent?
‘The world is full of people who aren’t who or what they say they are. The people who believe them aren’t who or what they say they are either.’ A quote from the Russell Bank’s novel Lost Memory of Skin, that neatly sums up the idea that we’re all unreliable narrators. In my experience, most men of a certain ilk – gangsters and criminals that I know – lie a lot. Their lives are built on bullshit, pretence, and bluster (I try to make a living from making stuff up, so I guess I’m no better). But I think as humans we constantly reinvent ourselves by telling stories. Story telling and identity are, perhaps, converse sides of the same coin. I think we all have a need to create, and in many ways be defined, by stories and storytelling. And sometimes by spouting complete and utter bullshit about ourselves we often trick ourselves into believing is true.
Family secrets are at the heart of all my books. Secrets eat away at people and can ruin lives.
Questions about family secrets, the burden of grief, and small-town claustrophobia are elicited by CJ’s crash at the beginning of Jawbone. I wondered what would happen when the person you feel closest to in life turns out to be somebody you never really knew. But the novel is also a momento mori. As you said, CJ is the main protagonist in the book, though he is firmly off-stage – possibly, probably, dead.
The inspiration for this came from the John Darwin case – the guy who ‘disappeared’ while canoeing in the sea near Hartlepool and was believed to have drowned, but it turned out it was an insurance scam. I found the case fascinating. I felt so sorry for his sons. Imagine finding out that not only had your ‘deceased’ father been living in the bedsit next door, but that he and your mother faked the whole thing so that they could start a new life in Panama – a life without you. Heartbreaking.
I was very interested in the wildly different locations used in the book- the haunting natural beauty of Ravenstor, Andalusia and the rundown seaside resort of Hastings. How fixed in your mind were these locations before writing the book?
These were places I lived during the three years it took to write the book. Actually, I’ve just written a detailed piece for my publisher’s website, talking about these different landscapes, and how they came to play such an important role in the novel. You can read it at:
I see that Electricity is being made into a film. How directly involved have you been with this and how does it feel to see the product of your imagination via a different medium?
I’m lucky to have been involved with the film right from the start. Usually a writer just signs the option and that’s it, they have zero involvement after that. It took seven years to finally get the funding in place for Electricity, and during this period I spent a lot of time with the director and producer, discussing how we wanted not only the film to look, but to be perceived. Because of the nature of the book – about a young woman with epilepsy – and my knowledge of epilepsy, I’ve been on hand throughout the process to offer advice. We had an ethical responsibility to ‘get it right’, to educate the viewer about the realities of life with epilepsy, about how it feels to live within the disorder.
The first time I visited the set, they were on location in Saltburn – a place I spent a lot of time growing up. As I walked down the cliff road, I could see them in the distance filming on the beach, and I felt like I was having an out of body experience because I vividly remembered writing the scene they were filming, in a tiny room in Lancaster when I was a PhD student.
I spent time with Agyness talking about my personal experiences of epilepsy. I’ve nothing but admiration for her. She’s intelligent, intuitive, and sensitive, and I think viewers are going to be pleasantly surprised when they see her in her first lead role. I recently saw the final cut of the film and the portrayal of epilepsy is vivid, visceral and shocking. So yes, I’m more than happy with it. It’s been a real privilege.
Marking the start of a New Year could you share any of your favourite reads from last year or any new discoveries you have made?
For me, the cultural highlight of 2013 was discovering the work of Kent Haruf. I adore his writing. I want to have his babies.
What’s next for you – are you working on a new book at the moment? If so, any teasers for us?
Currently, I’m working on a film script, tinkering with a short story, and playing around with a few ideas for a children’s book, but there’s no novel on the horizon… yet. Though people are already pestering me to write a sequel to Jawbone Lake
Ravenstor, the Peak District. The early hours of New Year’s Day. A young woman stands on the shore of a frozen lake and watches a Land Rover crash off a bridge and through the ice. Two hundred miles away, a young man is woken by a devastating telephone call. The accident, and what it brings to the surface, will change both of their lives forever. The driver of the Land Rover was CJ Arms, a successful local businessman and pillar of the small community. The young man is his son, Joe, who returns from London to comfort his mother and to search for clues as to the causes of the crash. What he finds will take him from the desolate tors of the Peaks to the foothills of southern Spain, and to a group of ex-pats from CJ’s past with many secrets to hide. The woman on the lakeshore is Rabbit, a factory-worker struggling to recover from the sudden death of her son. Pursued by an unknown figure, Rabbit is spun from a cycle of grief and longing into one of fear. Seeking shelter at work, Rabbit finds that she can’t hide for long. What Rabbit saw that night will draw her, and Joe, towards a shocking act of violence.
From the very first visually striking scene of Jawbone Lake I became totally absorbed in this emotive and beautifully rendered novel, and in the lives of Joe, a young man facing life after the disappearance of his father CJ, and Rabbit, a local young woman, recovering from the death of her son. Their lives become inextricably linked as the events leading up to CJ’s death impact on both of them: Rabbit as a witness to the death, and Joe discovering many aspects of his father’s life, previously unknown to him.
With both Joe and Rabbit being unstintingly empathetic characters, there is a natural connection with them on the part of the reader, which ensures that your attention is fully engaged with them, and as the danger increases for them both, this engagement with them heightens even further. There is a wonderful unfurling and organic growth of their characters, in particular the formerly timid and downtrodden Rabbit, as Joe embarks on a personal mission to discover more of his father’s character and shady activities, that take him on a journey through his father’s life, from his formative years in Hastings to his other life in Andalusia.
Along with the assured development and linkage of Rabbit and Joe’s characters, underscored with some powerfully affecting scenes between the two, Robinson’s evocation of place is stunning. Gravitating between three entirely different locales, both geographically and visually, each location is colourfully painted in the reader’s minds with a superb evocation of the sights, sounds and atmosphere that Joe experiences in his travels, and the desolate beauty of Ravenstor to which he initially returns, as the scene of his father’s disappearance.
I would hesitate to label Jawbone Lake as a traditional thriller as although exhibiting signs of the genre, the writing is much more fixed in my mind as having a more ‘literary’ feel- I would easily compare it to a writer such as Jim Crace in the rendition of its deep rooted emotional themes, and its pitch perfect evocation of place. A beautiful and affecting read.
(With thanks to Emma Finnigan for the ARC)