James Robertson is the author of five novels: The Fanatic, Joseph Knight, The Testament of Gideon Mack, And the Land Lay Still and, most recently, The Professor of Truth. Both Joseph Knight and And the Land Lay Still won the Saltire Book of the Year Award. Before becoming a full-time writer he worked in bookselling. The Professor of Truth has as its backdrop the Lockerbie bombing in December 1988 though it is not mentioned specifically. Its narrator is Alan Tealing, a university lecturer who lost his wife, Emily, and daughter, Alice, in the tragedy and who, twenty-one years later, cannot accept the official version of what happened. As he is at pains to point out, he is not a ‘real’ professor, ‘only an imagined one’. Robertson divides his time between Angus and Edinburgh, where this interview with Alan Taylor, editor of The Scottish Review of Books, took place.
Scottish Review of Books: I don’t think I’ve ever read a more apposite epigram to a novel than the poem by Emily Dickinson quoted at the start of The Professor of Truth in which she writes: ‘The distance that the dead have gone/ Does not appear at first appear;/ Their coming back seems possible/ For many an ardent year.’ You must have whooped with joy when you came across it.
James Robertson: When did I find that? This is where you go, in which order did this stuff come together? Did I already have Alan Tealing’s wife’s name, Emily, before that quote came? I can’t quite remember, to be honest. But I had got interested in Emily Dickinson and I had started reading her poems, which I have to say had never really done anything for me, and I thought, some of these poems are amazing because they’re just so concise. At first you think they’re not saying very much and then you go, wait a minute they’re saying a huge amount. You could write a long essay about that one poem. It was so perfect, I just thought that’s ideal. And because I had already worked out that this guy’s wife was American and so on that came nicely together. But even if she hadn’t been American and hadn’t been called Emily that would have been what went at the start of the book.
It’s one of those poems which could inspire many different kinds of novels but it’s especially pertinent here because of its expression of loss.
Absolutely. That’s one of the things I’ve always been interested in. In one sense what The Professor of Truth is about is absence. I’m interested in dead people continuing to have that effect, sometimes over long periods of time, even going back hundreds of years.
It’s a special kind of grief, isn’t it? The people who’ve died haven’t died what we call naturally. They’ve died tragically and violently.
And they haven’t even died tragically and violently in circumstances that you could have predicted, such as in a war zone. If somebody loses their husband because they’ve been on active service in Afghanistan that’s terrible for that family but it’s not entirely unexpected. But this, coming out of the blue – literally out of the blue sky – is unexpected and therefore it’s something that people have no preparation for at all.
And it’s not something you can ever dismiss from your mind.
It’s never over in that sense. Actually, Alan Tealing says something about that in the book. He talks about how if this isn’t resolved before he dies then in a sense it’ll never be solved or resolved because even if twenty years further down the line people say, oh, this is what really happened, that’s that sorted, it’ll be like watching the news from a foreign country. You can only sustain your sympathy for so long, whether over time or distance. When something happens in a far-flung part of the globe you can go, that’s awful, that’s terrible, but somehow it doesn’t quite have the impact of something that happens closer to home. I can remember quite distinctly the night that Lockerbie happened. And when it happens right there, in your place, it does have a greater impact than something that happens 10,000 miles away.
I remember that night too. The first callous reaction of a journalist is that it’s a great story. There’s an air, then, of disbelief, followed swiftly by the realisation of the enormity of what’s occurred. Though of course at that stage no one – certainly no one in the newspaper where I was working – had any idea of the implications.
I remember I was working in Waterstones in George Street, Edinburgh, at the time, and it was four days before Christmas. It was seven o’clock at night, the place was heaving with folk buying books, and the phone went and it was a work colleague, a friend now for many years although at the time I didn’t know him particularly well, but we knew each other for quite a while. And for some reason he had a notion that I came from that neck of the woods and he phoned to say, I’m just watching the news, is this anywhere near where you’re from? I said no it’s not. And, you know, you forget this is all pre mobile phones, pre internet, pre everything. So what he was communicating to me was what he was seeing on the television. People knew something had happened but they didn’t know quite what. Later I went home and I watched it on the news. After that it was the only story for days, weeks even. But it took quite a long time for the story – even just the basics of the story – to build up. News was a slower process then.
It was first thought to be an accident, wasn’t it? That there had been some plane malfunction. But what you’re concerned with in the novel is not who did what but the effect on the victims’ loved ones, on those left behind. That nothing, not even knowing who really planted the bomb, can ever entirely wipe away their grief.
I think that’s part of what I wanted to explore through this book. When that kind of thing happens, when parents lose children, that’s just such a horrible, awful thing, but particularly to lose them in the kind of circumstances that you’ve just described, or the kind of circumstances that happened at Lockerbie. You try imaginatively to put yourself in that place but actually you can’t do it. When somebody writes about it who’s been through it you know they’re telling the truth. Fiction can only be an approximation of that kind of suffering. That’s all you can say about it really.
‘If what you do as a writer is talk about, write about, the space you inhabit the novel does give you that much more scope. I remember years and years ago going into the National Library and there were little leaflets about contemporary Scottish writers and one of them was about Jim Kelman. At the time he only had one or two books published. His statement of intent was, “I live in Glasgow, this is what I write”. And that was it. Basically what he was saying was, the fact that I exist in Glasgow gives me the material to write.’
Can you talk a little about your choice of narrator? Alan Tealing lectures in English literature so he can write, but in a certain dry style. But he’s not given to Updike-like images. He doesn’t think in metaphor or simile, which, I’m sure, is deliberate on your part.
There were reasons for making him who he was. I knew the story was going to be in the first person from somebody in those circumstances. There was no question of me writing in the third person. I just didn’t think I would be able. So then I had to think about who was going to tell the story. Yes, he’s an academic whose trade is literature. As you say, he can write but he’s not going to be doing flamboyant flourishes. He’s not going to write like John Updike or anybody else. He’s going to write like a man who knows about literature and that was quite useful. Sometimes he appears quite cold, even when describing his own emotions but that’s also because of what he does for a trade. He writes about fictional characters. He understands what narrative is. One of his concerns, in the first section of the novel when he is visited by the dying American intelligence officer, is this whole question of narrative; the official narrative of events has been altered, distorted to fit political objectives and requirements, and he understands this because of his academic work. He sees that narrative can be changed in real life just as the narrative of a novel might change between drafts. And this is what has happened and this why his search for truth and justice has been frustrated — because certain individuals and organisations have changed the narrative. They haven’t always done this maliciously but the effect has been malicious.
What I didn’t want was for him to become histrionic. This has been going on for twenty-one years so he has some measure of control over it when he writes this thing. He does talk about how he’s gone through moments of despair, a sense of being in prison and failing to escape, he keeps making what he thinks is a breakthrough but it’s not, the breakthrough is only into another cell. So he’s able to describe all the anguish and pain he’s gone through but also to put that little distance on it, that academics can do when they’re writing about literature.
It’s his way of dealing with what’s happened.
Maybe that’s also how you survive, by – if you can put it this way – mastering your emotions. Again, you’ve got to be careful, and not say there’s one way to deal with grief. Of course, everyone deals with grief in many, many different ways. This is the way he does it.
His way, also, is to try and get to the bottom of a cover up. Or at least an injustice. Another way would be to find the people who planted the bomb and deal with them, as they do in the movies. Instead he seems to want clear someone who’s been found guilty of a crime Tealing believes he did not commit.
Yes. The way Alan Tealing thinks that through is that he’s never going to locate the people who did it, therefore the only way for him to expose that cover up is by demonstrating that the man convicted of the bombing didn’t do it and therefore the case will have to be reopened. But the nature of Alan Tealing’s character is that he wouldn’t be able to hunt down the real culprits anyway. He’s not in a movie. It’s as if he’s too constrained by his own civilisation. His own polite decency.
He’s constrained in other ways too, isn’t he? He doesn’t drive. He could have climbed the academic greasy pole but he didn’t want to do it. It’s almost as if he’s completely risk averse. In a way, he’s the wrong kind of person to go looking for the solution to such a huge problem.
But he can’t leave it alone. And who can say in similar circumstances how anybody would react? People sometimes behave in very unlikely, uncharacteristic ways. It depends on circumstances. There’s a discussion in the book about cowardice and courage and he suggests that if, for example, you really believe that there’s a life after death then going into a situation where you might get killed is perhaps not as scary as if you don’t believe there is an afterlife. Facing death when you don’t know what’s on the other side or don’t believe there is anything on the other side at all may actually be braver than somebody who thinks that if he dies in such circumstances he’s going to go to his god. That’s a speculative discussion.
But it feels authentic. It must, for example, be the rationale of some suicide bombers. Whereas those of us who believe that this is it place some value on being alive now.
Absolutely. Whereas people who genuinely do believe that there is something beyond this life place more value on what’s coming than on this life. I’m not thinking so much of suicide bombers. I’m think of people who believe in heaven and who think that they’re going to a better place than the one that they’re in at the moment. I don’t believe that.
Are you religious?
No. I grew up in a good presbyterian background and I believed it all until I was about 13 and then I didn’t believe it. The framework remains. I still find it a useful framework for coping with life — there was an intellectual rigour to the way I was taught to confront ideas of moral behaviour and spiritual belief, and even after the belief has gone the rigour remains. Protestantism is – and particularly Scottish versions of it are – so schismatic. Protestantism was designed to challenge, and often in an uncompromising way, with the result that it ended up challenging itself, and its own rules almost as soon as it made them up. That’s the history of Scottish christianity really. It’s interesting. It demonstrates to me that actually it’s a rational religion and at the end of the day that’s hard to sustain. Those two things, rationalism and faith, don’t really fit together.
It’s similar to the left of which you were – are – aligned. I recall you were involved with the magazine Radical Scotland.
I suppose then I would have described myself as a socialist and in some respects I still think of myself as a socialist but of course all of those isms have been chucked up in the air and have come down in different shapes since. I think in the 1980s particularly I got very very angry because whole communities and ways of lives were dismissed as irrelevant – or dismissed as having no value in themselves, and so it was justifiable to destroy them. We’re living with the legacy of that to this day, I think.
Were you then thinking like a writer? Even as recently as the 1980s Scottish books were conspicuous by their absence in many bookshops.
If there was such a thing as a Scottish section in a bookshop it was a couple of books on whisky, tartan and salmon fishing. It was Wee Macgreegor [by JJ Bell] and Whisky Galore [by Compton Mackenzie] and that would be about it. And Scott and Stevenson in Penguin Classics.
And the dominant writers were poets.
The living dominant writers absolutely were; they were poets and they were men. And that has utterly changed in the last thirty years. At that period I was a student, I was working part-time in the bookshop and I was really trying to immerse myself in Scottish literature and catch up. Because none of this stuff had been in my education. The idea that Scottish literature existed as anything other than an addendum, a footnote, to English literature — well, it just wasn’t there.
You were at Glenalmond.
Yes. You could argue that that was a posh private school and so you wouldn’t really expect it to be there. Nevertheless it was a school right in the heart of Scotland. But Scottish literature wasn’t really happening in state schools either at that point. Anybody who was interested in discovering the literature of this country had to do it for themselves after they’d left school. So I was busy doing that. There was a magazine called Cencrastus which was a bible for me because in every issue I learned more about this hinterland that I hadn’t realised or nobody had told me had existed, some of which was twentieth-century hinterland, some of which was stuff that went back hundreds and hundreds of years.
There were other magazines around at the time. There was Radical Scotland, Chapman, Lines Review, New Edinburgh Review. To me, they were meat and drink. I was writing poetry, short stories. I was getting the odd thing published here and there. I did keep thinking I did want to write a novel. I’d written novels when I was in my teens. I’d always written. I wrote a couple of westerns actually. When I was a kid I was really infatuated with the American West. I wrote quite a lot in my teens but I didn’t have a real focus that was going to give me something to get a hold on.
And it was that period in the 1980s when I began to get a focus. Reading poets. Reading MacDiarmid, for example, totally revolutionised my thinking about loads of things: language, literature, politics, all kinds of stuff. MacDiarmid led on to lots of other people as well. And, of course, when I was working in the bookshop – MacDiarmid was dead by that point – but most of the other big name poets were still around. They all came and did readings at that bookshop. That was a real privilege. So I met and got quite friendly with people like Norman MacCaig and Iain Crichton Smith. Sorley MacLean I met a few times. Now I think, god that was special, to be at the tail end of that clutch of people. Eddie Morgan and so on. To actually meet them and know them was an amazing thing.
For the first time, it seems, there were people aspiring writers could relate to.
Yes, although that wasn’t the original impetus for me. From a very early age – six, seven years old, I did know I wanted to be a writer. I didn’t know how one did it, how you got there. There weren’t any writers in my family; I’d never met a writer. I went to the library every week and took three books out and took them back again and so on. I just knew that that’s what I was wanting to do and somehow I knew I was going to do it. That seems so precious now, it’s almost embarrassing. But I had written at least one book by the time I was fourteen and I’d sent it off to a publisher. And they very nicely sent it back again and said, thanks very much but it’s not for us!
In recent times there’s been a quite marked shift in emphasis from poetry to fiction. You’ve written both. What advantage – if any – does the novel have over the poem?
If what you do as a writer is talk about, write about, the space you inhabit the novel does give you that much more scope. I remember years and years ago going into the National Library and there were little leaflets about contemporary Scottish writers and one of them was about Jim Kelman. At the time he only had one or two books published. His statement of intent was, ‘I live in Glasgow, this is what I write’. And that was it. Basically what he was saying was, the fact that I exist in Glasgow gives me the material to write. Not all writers obviously do it that way, because you’ve got genre writers and so on, but those of us who write what you might loosely call literary fiction (I hate using those categories) and are therefore writing out of that sense of place or tradition or whatever, yes, you can say a lot more through fiction sometimes than you can through poetry. Or you can say different things. And you can also vary it. You can write different kinds of books.
Your early novels were set in what might be called the distant past. The Fanatic was set partly in the 1670s in the days of witchcraft. Joseph Knight has as its period the aftermath of Culloden. But with And the Land Lay Still and The Professor of Truth you’ve come virtually up to date. In defiance of categorisation?
There was a period when – you know, publishers always love to pigeon-hole you – when I was in danger of becoming a historical novelist. I didn’t want to have that label pinned on me. I did history as a degree – two degrees actually – and I’m always interested in history – I think it’s very important, crucial even. But I’m not actually interested in history – and historical fiction – if it’s just about recreating the fourteenth century in fantastic detail. That to me is tedious. What I’m interested in is if you can locate a story in the eighteenth or seventeenth or whatever century which has some kind of resonance for today. I’m interested in that relationship between past and present. That was my interest in writing The Fanatic. It’s only half a historical novel, the other half is set in the 1990s. And in Joseph Knight I was interested in uncovering this story about Scotland’s deep involvement in slavery, because it seemed to have been conveniently forgotten, and remembering it seemed very necessary and relevant to the challenges of Scotland becoming a multi-racial, multi-cultural, mutually tolerant place in the twenty-first century. And then you have to ask, where does history end? Much of the period covered in And the Land Lay Still is history to anyone under the age of thirty. Lockerbie happened twenty-five years ago: does that make The Professor of Truth a historical novel?
No small part of the appeal, I guess, of And the Land Lay Still was that people who read and enjoyed it had lived through the period you were writing about. They recognised the times and perhaps thought they knew personally some of your characters. It also painted a wonderful portrait of Edinburgh and its segmented nature.
If you want to get a sense of nineteenth-century London who do you turn to? Dickens. In And the Land Lay Still, what was fascinating about the response was how many people came up to me and still come up to me and say, it was like re-reading bits of their my life.
What was the reaction to And the Land Lay Still outside Scotland?
The brutal truth is that it has not actually been widely read outside Scotland. Penguin have distributed in places like Australia but it hasn’t been published in the United States and it hasn’t been translated into other languages. One of the problems there is the size of it which has frightened off some publishers — it’s nearly 700 pages in English and god knows how many pages that makes in German. I’m not a well known writer outside of Scotland, I really am not. But also I think – this is the feedback I get – the book is considered to be too Scottish. That’s a bizarre thing for people to come back and say. We’re not going to publish a book because it is too Scottish or too French or too Hungarian. This is the feedback I get from my agent, the response they get from foreign publishers.
Is Ismail Kadare too Albanian? Is Orhan Pamuk too Turkish?
It’s ludicrous. I don’t know what it means. What I suspect it means is that people in other parts of the world don’t have a very clear sense of what distinguishes Scotland from the UK, England. They come across a book like And the Land Lay Still and they say, what is this about? To me, there’s just not an issue there; you read it and you know what it’s about. To be fair some editors in other countries have really loved it but been unable to persuade accountants to go with it. So the answer to your question is that outside Scotland there is very little reaction because it hasn’t been widely read outside Scotland.
I don’t know the answer to be honest. Part of me thinks, well, what I do is write and it’s down to the machinery of publishing to try and get the books out there in as many different places as possible. So part of me doesn’t want to engage with that stuff because it’s energy sapping. But another part of me is a wee bit disappointed that there hasn’t been a wider take up on what I’ve produced.
And the Land Lay Still was something of a breakthrough book, in that it was an ambitious attempt to embrace Scottish politics in fiction which no one had done for decades. Were you surprised to have the field left open to you?
I was a bit. Even when I was much more politically active than I am now I remember thinking this is such great material and I remember thinking someone’s going to do it. Iain Banks had captured some of it in The Crow Road. Alan Warner’s most recent novel, The Deadman’s Pedal, I think has something of that scope. I was thinking of American fiction when I started scoping out And the Land Lay Still. I wanted to do something on the scale of Don DeLillo’s Underworld. One of the things I find interesting about contemporary Scottish fiction – and this is a bit of a sweeping statement – is that a lot of it is quite focussed on individuals. It’s what you might call fiction that’s interested in psychology at an individual level.
That’s one way of putting it. There’s nothing wrong with that focus, that attention on particular lives, but there are not many Scottish writers out there who’re not genre writers who are writing big picture stuff. But yes, in a way I was quite surprised that nobody got there before I did that book.
I don’t want to put words into your mouth. But isn’t this indicative of a contempt for society or politics or even religion?
Or a feeling that this is not anything to do with me, or perhaps that these things are too big to grapple with. I’m not sure. Maybe it’s a phase: literature always has phases. The things you’ve mentioned, and finance, economics, business: that was all meat and drink to the great nineteenth-century writers like Scott or Eliot or Anthony Trollope. I read for the first time a couple of years ago Trollope’s The Way We Live Now. It’s a fantastic novel. I didn’t read that until after I’d finished And the Land Lay Still. Otherwise that would have been the book I’d have wanted to emulate. Dickens does it as well in Our Mutual Friend. Maybe that will come around again. There’s so much material to be mined in Scotland you don’t need to look anywhere else for it. We’ve got politics on our doorstep; we’ve got religion on our doorstep. We’ve got finance; we’ve got banking. We’ve got city life, rural life, the environment. Everything is here.