Interview: Robert Jenkins talks about The Fell
‘The Fell’ is a great new novel by Nelson based writer Robert Jenkins. I think it would be fair to call it a rite of passage novel, in which a son is sent away from his family and has to learn to survive in the harsh environment of a school for difficult and troubled boys. There he finds friendship and conflict, not to mention drugs, alcohol and eventually girls. It is a hard hitting novel about children but certainly not for children. Robert captures the feelings of the boys, their language, feelings and their humour, perfectly.
Robert discusses his book, his writing routines and some of his earlier writing experiences with Marcus Hobson.
What inspired you to write ‘The Fell”?
I wanted to encourage readers to question how we judge people who find themselves outside of society. I hoped to give a voice to the sense of isolation and vulnerability young people (especially males) grow with, and present the start point for dysfunction, before it can be called dysfunction. Before you judge or discard the person, look at the beginning… the tiny increments that shape us.
I grew up with challenging people who lived in a counter-culture where crime was the norm, and later worked with very challenging young people. I spent several years working in residential centers for up to 90 boys. It was great learning and incredibly funny, moving and sometimes tragic but always inspirational. It feels to me that so many people (especially young males) have no voice or forum to be what and who they are. I sought to address that. Youth without apology.
You left the location and the time period of the book deliberately vague. Was there a reason for this?
I wanted the themes to be universal and the reader to add their own experience, era and their own geography, even their own name. It’s proved polarizing, with some readers really opposed to it. On the other hand, I have had emails from all over the world each saying they strongly relate to the narrator and asking if I ever visited where they grew up! It seems to be proving quite cathartic for a lot of men but women too are finding themselves relating to the characters so it seems to find relevance across genders.
Are you able to place ‘The Fell’ in a particular genre? I have categorized it as rite of passage, but you may have a different view.
You have it right. Definitely for me it’s a Rite of Passage. A coming-of-age.
Is there any incident from your own life that you have fictionalized in the book?
Yep, for sure, but I’m not telling!
You didn’t have a name for your central character. Did that cause you any difficulties?
Not as much as I thought it would. It’s quite normal not to use names frequently when interacting with people we know well, so providing you’re writing natural dialogue it isn’t a huge barrier. The lack of a name also allows readers to kind of bleed their own identity into the narrator, and it demonstrates his distance from his previous life. There were a number of other reasons but the reader can figure them out!
Tell us a little about your writing routine.
I try to write every day, even if it’s just to tweak what I wrote the day before. I rarely go a day without putting something down, even a note or line of dialogue or rough idea that adds to the story. I have writing pads everywhere I use for notes. Once the actual novel is being written, I like to write for several hours straight and break every few pages or so.
Do you have a writing spot, a desk with a view or the kitchen table, or can you write anywhere?
If I can I write at a desk on a computer, but I can write almost anywhere and once I’m in the groove I don’t mind noise and commotion around me. I usually pick up the beat of the story and I’m in another world (when it’s going well…)
What did you enjoy about the writing process and what did you struggle with?
For me, writing is kind of a compulsion and I really enjoy every aspect. When writing The Fell sometimes something happened which took the story in another direction and this could be unexpected and lead to struggles later. My characters become very “alive” to me, and things don’t always go to plan. I also hate to cut material I really like, but if it doesn’t move the story forward or add to the picture, it has to go. The earliest drafts of The Fell were about three times the length of the final book. Everyone tells you editing your work and cutting is the hardest part, but it’s essential not to be too kind to yourself. No tantrums!
If ‘The Fell’ was made into a film, who would you see playing the main characters?
The Fell features a lot of young people, and I’m no expert on young actors, so I have no idea. I am super finicky though, so when I see kid actors they have to be the real deal or I am turned off straight away. As for the adult characters… picking actors from any period sounds like a good game… maybe it’s best played over a few glasses of whisky?
Your author website says that you have written plays, scripts, novels, short stories and poems. Do you have any other published work? What part does writing play in your life?
I discovered early that if I wrote, I kept out of trouble.
I was about 21 when I got into a contract shoot-out with a writer who won a major contract instead of me with a top drawer publisher. My book had been with them for a year or so but publishing was a lean business and they decided they could only afford to take one risk… I wouldn’t make a few requested changes, so they went for commercial over literary and I walked away in frustration and had a tantrum.
I decided I would write plays.
A couple of plays got as far as development on the fringe in London but not into production and I just missed out on London Young Playwright of the Year. I walked away in frustration and had a tantrum.
I wrote poetry and some of that was published but it was late 80’s and is now lost. Published might be the wrong word… printed might be better, although I recall at least one made it into an anthology, again in London. Stand-up poetry in the pubs and on street corners was happening back then and that was fun, very challenging, and merciless! I walked away often in frustration and had a tantrum but it was poetry and everybody did that. The doors were jammed with poets walking away, and coming back.
Short stories appeared here and there but not with any great exposure and I ghosted on two novels.
I wrote a film script and a famous director became involved but in the end couldn’t get backing and I was utterly dismayed because he was so famous I naively imagined he could get funding at the drop of a hat. He mentored me on the power of accountants… I walked away in frustration and had a tantrum. This time I pouted too. Seeing a pattern yet?
Then a few years ago, and after a break from writing, I decided to return to novels, where I am most happy, and where The Fell was conceived.
As I said previously, writing is a compulsion. I love to write, it can exhaust and challenge me, but I get to explore new worlds and have all these people and voices going on in my head and talk to them, and about them to other people, and not get locked up! (So far).
What is next on the agenda for you?
Do you have a favourite book?
There are no authors I like in a “fan” kind of way, but there are many books I cherish and often I am caught by a line or paragraph or play on words. A whole book or poem can be made for me by a single line… for example everyone knows of The Handmaids Tale, by Margaret Atwood, and speak of the politics and message and power, the relevance etc. all of which may or may not be true, but for me the book has, in places, a beauty that makes it very special; “…our voices soft and minor key and mournful as pigeons in the eaves troughs…” Perfect. It’s that kind of thing that feeds my love of reading and writing. Literature can reach people everywhere and influence so many things… and it can be beautiful and romantic at the same time. And I don’t really care who-dunnit, provided they done-it poetically! The plot, the themes, the voice are hugely important, but so is the wordsmithing and for me, words are filled with magic.
You can find out more about Robert on his website www.robertjenkinsauthor.com