On Sunday, May 25, TheReadingRoom is sponsoring an event at The Sydney Writers’ Festival, the largest and most successful literary event in the country and one of the largest in the world. In Violence, Lust, Revenge and a Touch of Poetry, bestselling author Michael Robotham will lead a discussion with Adrian McKinty and John Connolly on how modern crime fiction can be a prism for examining contemporary mores, and deliberate the place of lyricism, poetry and style in this gritty of genre. We sat down with Michael a week before The Sydney Writers’ Festival for his thoughts on crime fiction, writers’ festivals, and his role of facilitator at his panel.
You appear regularly at writers’ festivals – do you ever find that they can be inconveniently timed and you think, I just really want to be alone with my manuscript but I have to go and do this panel or I have to go and do these interviews? Yes – more so now that I’ve just thrown 40 000 words away [to start the new novel afresh] when I’m looking at my schedule thinking, Oh my God, I’ve got to be in Germany in November or somewhere else and you’re suddenly thinking, There’s too little time. Normally, when things are going swimmingly, I love it when festival season comes around because I spend so much time in complete isolation in my Cabana of Cruelty [as his workspace is known] that it’s one of the few opportunities I have to get out and meet readers and people who are as passionate about books as I am. And also to meet other writers and realise I’m not the only person who wrestles with writerly dilemmas – that all the other writers out there feel much the same way. And that’s where my social life is. My social life tends to revolve around writing festivals – even more so than tours because tours are just punishing – you’re often on your own – whereas festivals are a great chance to catch up and meet new writers and meet people you admire and all sorts of things like that. The event at Sydney Writers’ Festival for TheReadingRoom is one in which you’re the facilitator – what sort of preparation do you need to do for that role? Fortunately I’ve read John Connolly – what I thought was his latest, only to discover that he had a new one come out a week ago, so I’m now reading two John Connolly books in preparation. But I’m a big fan and I’ve known John Connolly for many years, and I’m a huge admirer of his work, so for me it’s a great opportunity to catch up with John. I’m thrilled that he’s coming to Australia again. I’m a huge fan of Adrian McKinty’s work and I’ve just finished his latest in the Sean Duffy series. So the preparation – as I’m the participating chair in that session obviously I read each of the authors’ books and then tailor a session that will allow them – all of us, really – to chat to each other as though we’re sitting around having a drink and let people eavesdrop on what crime writers talk about when they have a drink. There’s always a little bit more pressure on you when you’re keeping things going but I know from experience – particularly because I’ve worked with John, who’s Irish, and Adrian’s also Irish, they can talk under wet cement, and they’re both great storytellers, so it should be enormously entertaining, the panel. The one advantage that comes out of having a crime writer running stuff like that is that I realize the questions these guys get asked day in and day out that bore them senseless. So the audience can ask those questions but I’ll ask them the questions that they don’t get asked very often but that will challenge them a little bit. Crime writers all have to go through the process when someone will ask you the question which will almost unwittingly demean the genre by suggesting that it’s not a serious or as difficult as writing other kinds of books. So a question that says, ‘So tell me, where did you get your formula from?’ There’s also the statement that it’s ‘transcended the genre’, as if the genre is somehow a problem. Or the other one is, ‘Have any of your books ever been made into films?’ as if you’re only ever going to regard yourself as being a successful or serious writer unless someone’s made a shitty film out of one of your books. So that’s why I think it’s nice [to have a crime writer chairing the panel] – in the cases of John and Adrian, I know them so well that I know some of their best stories, so if necessary I can just prompt them to tell a story that I’ve heard from them before, which I know the audience will find entertaining. You mentioned that festivals are good for your social life as a writer but it seems that they’re increasingly important for developing and maintaining your audience as well – how important do you feel festivals have been for your career? I think they’ve been very important – that opportunity to get in front of a large number of people. Every writer will tell you about their horror stories of the early days of their career where they’d turn up at events in libraries and there would be three people there and one of them would be in a pram. We’ve all got those mortifying stories. In the case of festivals, invariably you get really good crowds. And the thing is, you’re preaching to the converted – they’ve come along because they love books and whether they’ve never read you before or not, I always take the attitude – and this is one thing I wish I could stress to more writers at festivals – it’s not about selling their books, it’s about selling themselves. It’s about entertaining people and making them think for that fifteen minutes or hour long, and if they walk out of that session saying, ‘That guy really entertained me or made me think’ or whatever, at some point – whether it be in a library or a bookshop – they’ll pick up one of your books and read them. But it’s not about how many books you sell on the day or how many books you sign after your session, it’s simply about people remembering your name and at some point they will pick up your book and read it, and you’ll have a new reader. It’s not just remembering your name but making it easy to do so – when you are on a panel and you understand the contract not just with the audience there but your contract as a storyteller with the reader, people can sense that and you make it easier for them to feel good about picking up your book. That’s right. Even in an audience of 500 people there’s still a connection there – people feel as though they’ve heard you speak, they’ve seen you in person and there’s a connection that will mean that they are more likely to remember you and to investigate your work in the future because of that connection. For more on Michael Robotham, visit his personal website. For more on TheReadingRoom SWF panel Violence, Lust, Revenge and a Touch of Poetry, click here.