Historical novelist Leo Brent Robillard is March's Author of the Month. The author of 3 books with Turnstone Press, Robillard's richly textured work encourages readers to examine the human condition. In 19 Questions about Process: An interview with Leo Brent Robillard (below), he shares with us a few thoughts about his creative process and let's us peek into his studio in My Studio: Leo Brent Robillard.
Leo Brent Robillard's books with Turnstone Press are;
19 Questions about Process: An Intervview with Leo Brent Robillard
When did you first come to think of yourself as a professional writer?
I was standing on the deck of my wife’s family cottage in Notre-Dame-du-Laus, Quebec, when my cellphone rang. On the other end was Todd Besant, Turnstone’s former Managing Editor. Nine months earlier, I’d sent in an excerpt from my first novel. I was expecting his call at any moment—though not necessarily that day. He had previously asked me to send in the full manuscript, so I was hopeful. When we hung up, I had rarely been so elated. I was twenty-nine years old, and I’d been publishing short stories and poetry since I was a nineteen-year-old university student. But it wasn’t until he offered me my first contract that I thought of myself as a professional.
Being a professional suggests that one pursues one’s craft as something more than a pastime, and it was at that moment that I began to treat writing as a pursuit—as something enjoyable, certainly; but also as something that I was undertaking for a purpose beyond personal pleasure. It became an opportunity to share my world view. To entertain. To commiserate. As humans do.
You also work full time as an educator. How do you balance the writing life with that of a teacher?
I don’t. I used to think that I did. But I was only fooling myself with schedules that were very often not adhered to. Teaching—like writing—is an obsessive passion. You can’t do both well at the same time. You must give yourself over to each pursuit. I do not stop writing because I am teaching. I dabble. I plot. I fill entire ringed notebooks. But I have to scuttle all other plans, put my wife and children on hold, and stash the unmarked essays in a drawer, if I am to write.
You are active in bringing global issues to the classroom and encouraging your students to take part in humanitarian projects in developing nations. How does your work in this area inform your literary life?
William Wordsworth said that poetry was the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings ... thought long and deeply.” In the field of international development, I have definitely experienced “powerful feelings” —particularly during my five missions to Nicaragua. However, I am still in the process of thinking “long and deeply” about them.
Drift is probably the most informed by these experiences. The protagonist grapples with some of the same questions I do every day as I am teaching. But we are both without answers, only questions. I expect this struggle to play a larger role in my future books.
What inspires you?
Great writers. Great music. Great movies. My children.
Please describe your typical writing routine.
Ideally, I want a three-day weekend alone, where I admit no callers “on business from Porlock.” I wake early in the morning and write without break until late at night. I consume too much coffee and eat far too little. I can write twenty or thirty thousand words this way. But I enter these weekends well prepared with a detailed plot outline and all my research complete. The difficult part is not the writing; it’s finding the three-day weekends.
How has your writing routine changed from that at the time of your first publication?
I have written huge sections of all my novels in the manner described above. And they have all been written in longhand with paper and pen. This has not changed. It is the editing (or rewriting) that has changed. I am more ruthless with my work.
Your novels to date, Leaving Wyoming, Houdini’s Shadow, and Drift are each historical. What is it about historical fiction which appeals to you?
Hidden in all history is an allegory for the present. Change is constant, but rarely is the average person an agent of that change. We are more likely acted upon by forces beyond our control or comprehension than we are to unleash or wield these forces. And yet we are not helpless. We maintain the capacity to choose our actions and reactions to these forces. All of my novels have been set during periods of upheaval and great change. And my protagonists struggle with their roles in the face of these turmoils. Drift may be set during the Boer War, but many of the struggles endured by its characters could just as easily take place in Afghanistan today.
Your books are rich with details related to their respective historical periods. What sort of research is involved to achieve this texturing? Did you encounter any surprises along the way?
Research is my excuse for procrastination. I love to read. I love to watch documentaries. In this way, research is more pleasurable than the actual writing. It’s easier—consumption rather than production. And it’s always interesting. As long as I’m researching, I have an excuse not to write. I’m not ready until the research is complete.
In both Leaving Wyoming and Houdini’s Shadow the research was so fascinating I was compelled to include “intercalary chapters” which informed the story in terms of atmosphere and theme, but were otherwise unconnected to the narrative.
There were many surprises in the research for all three novels, but Houdini’s life was by far the most absorbing—especially his later crusade to expose fraudulent mystics and clairvoyants.
Was one book more difficult to research than the others?
It is easy to find information on the Boer War, but not so easy to find information on the Canadian involvement. So in that way, Drift was the most difficult to research. I found a fantastic—though unreliable—source in With the Royal Canadians. I was able to access this period piece through Project Gutenberg, which was essentially a collection of highly patriotic stories written for The Globe and Mail. The discovery of this actually spawned the creation of a secondary character in the novel.
But as difficult as it was, it was also the most interesting to research. I spent a day at the George Metcalf Archival Collection in the War Museum in Ottawa wearing white gloves and poring through actual letters, scrapbooks, photographs, and news articles. I brought along a senior student who helped me catalogue my findings. It was great experience for both of us.
How do you organize your research?
I have great fat spiral-bound notebooks with pocket dividers that look as though they have been dropped into bathtubs and come out bloated and ready to explode. But eventually everything is entered into computer files which are dated and quadruple-saved.
Leaving Wyoming and Drift are loosely linked. Was this the plan from the start, or a happy accident? What was it about the connected characters which demanded exploration?
Originally I wanted to tell Robert’s story—a character discussed in Leaving Wyoming but never really seen as a figure of action. But as I began the process of researching and plotting, he took on a supporting role to Will. For a while, I did have plans to write a third installment set in the opal mines of Australia, where some of the more central characters from these two novels would collide, but now I’m not so sure. Other projects beckon.
Of all the characters who’ve walked through the pages of your work, who is your favourite and why?
Will and Jake—the protagonists in Drift and Houdini’s Shadow, respectively—are like two sides of the same coin and very much like different parts of my own (split?) personality. But Wyoming (Leaving Wyoming) is my favourite character. He’s completely unlike me, and perhaps in writing his story I was able to live vicariously through him. I also have strong feelings for Veccha (Leaving Wyoming) and Campbell Scott (Drift). Simply because they are good characters. And finally, I also like Bobby. This character is very complex for a secondary character.
Do you create an overlying outline of the story you hope to tell before drafting the narrative, or do prefer the story to organically evolve as you write? Do you know how it ends before you begin?
I craft the most elaborate outlines. Episode by episode. From beginning to end. But I view this as organic. Things change. Episodes are dropped, moved, and added as I begin to write. Nonetheless, in all cases I have known the end from the beginning. I think this is important in order to achieve a well-crafted, satisfying catharsis in the reader.
Some writers prefer the process of composing a first draft while others prefer the editorial stage of fine-tuning and polishing. Do you have a preference? Why?
I love them both for different reasons. There is a special freefall virtuosity in writing the first draft. It’s exhilarating. But editing is like pulling the laces tight on a boot. It’s not as glamorous, but it feels strong and satisfying.
And now a few fun questions...
Favourite time of day to write? Why?
The most productive time to write, for me, is between eight in the morning and noon. I’m fresh and my mind is active.
Do you draft first in longhand, or on a computer/keyboard?
Longhand. I love the physical act of writing.
Do you keep any talismans or lucky charms nearby when you write?
More and more I like to have guitar at hand.
Are you a habitual consumer of anything while you write? How about when you edit?
Coffee and junk food. Coffee to keep me going. Junk food as the reward when I’m done.
Favourite music to listen to while you write?
Music, for me, can only be played during breaks to wind me up again. And I like a broad spectrum from the Avett Brothers and City and Colour to The Black Keys and Jack White. If I play it while I write, I’ll end tapping my feet or humming along, and then all hope is lost.
You can visit Leo Brent Robillard's studio here.