An Interview with James Robertson

By Corbett, John | European English Messenger, Winter 2014 | Go to article overview

An Interview with James Robertson


Corbett, John, European English Messenger


The ESSE 12 conference in Kosice was enlivened by the presence of Scottish writer James Robertson. Dr Robertson read from his work on the opening day, and stayed to participate in several sessions, amongst them a panel organised by Professor Carla Sassi and Dr Jessica Aliaga Lavrijsen, on the ways terrorism has been framed and reframed in novels and on-screen. Robertson is a poet, publisher, writer, editor and translator, a cultural activist who was prominent in the 'Yes ' campaign for Scottish independence--but he is best known as a prize-winning novelist. His novels are The Fanatic (2000), Joseph Knight (2003, winner of both the Saltire and Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year awards), The Testament of Gideon Mack (2006, longlisted for the Man Booker Prize), And the Land Lay Still (2010, winner of the Saltire Book of the Year award) and The Professor of Truth (2013). His latest novel was inspired by the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 on 21st December 1998. This atrocity resulted in the deaths of all 243 passengers and 16 crew, as well as 11 inhabitants of the Scottish town of Lockerbie. He has translated several children's books into Scots, including works by A.A. Milne, Roald Dahl, Alexander McCall Smith and Julia Donaldson. Robertson has held writer-in-residence posts, at Brownsbank Cottage (former home of the poet Hugh MacDiarmid) from 1993 to 1995, at the Scottish Parliament (2004), Edinburgh Napier University (2010-11), and is an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow. His most recent book, published in November 2014, is 365, a collection of 365-word stories written every day during 2013. He lives in rural Angus, near Dundee.

John Corbett: I know you resist the label of historical novelist, but if you look at the books you've written, going back to The Fanatic and more recently And the Land Lay Still and The Professor of Truth, the thing that unites them, as you said on the opening day of the conference, is the way the past haunts the present. The interaction between past and present is the abiding concern in all of your novels.

James Robertson: I think that is probably the overarching theme that I keep going back to: the passage of time, its effect on individuals and wider communities, and, as you say, the relationship between past and present, which is a two-way relationship. I'm very clear about that: yes, the past haunts the present but the present also has an impact upon the past. We think of the past as being static, as being over, and therefore whatever else happens, the past is the past--it can have an influence on the present, but the present can't influence the past. But at the level of both individual and social perceptions of the past, of course, every time you go back and look at the past, it shifts, because you bring new ways of looking at it. And in Scottish terms that is very evident if you look at my novel Joseph Knight, for example which is a fiction that is based on a true story of a slave brought to Scotland in the 18th century who then wins his freedom through the legal system.

JC: Can you tell me more about how you came to that story?

JR: Well, after I had written my first novel, a friend who lived in Dundee came up to me one day with a photocopy of a page from a history of Dundee and said, 'This might be of interest to you as subject matter for your next novel.' And it was just a paragraph, really, that mentioned the name 'Joseph Knight' and said that this man was the first slave to win his freedom in Scotland and he married a Dundee girl, or something to that effect. And I thought this was interesting because, as somebody who, as a student, both as an undergraduthate and a postgraduate, had studied history and, as a postgraduate who had studied 18th century Scottish history, I was completely ignorant of this man's name and I had never heard of the case of Joseph Knight versus John Wedderburn. So that piqued my curiosity and then I began to reseathrch it, and I discovered this whole forgotten, or neglected, story from the Scottish 18th century. …

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