Iain Robinson’s story In the marshes features in an upcoming anthology of short fiction about modern fatherhood. Called Being Dad the anthology’s Editor, Dan Coxon, has launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund its publication.
Iain’s story in the collection sits alongside writers that include Toby Litt, Nikesh Shukla, Nicholas Royle and Andrew McDonnell.
I spoke to him about his story in Being Dad.
I loved the atmospheric quality of your story, its eeriness, and your setting makes the perfect backdrop to that. Are the marshes imagined or based on somewhere real?
Place is always really important for me, and I won’t be able to get into writing a story until I can sense the setting in some way. Over the last year I’ve become increasingly interested in watery places, especially the broads and marshes that you find in Norfolk. For our ancestors such places were gateways, portals into underworld. However, I didn’t have a single place in mind. The cottage is based on one I visited in Wiltshire with a few added details. The hedgerows could easily come from the Dorset village where I spent my early childhood. The common and the marshes have a more distinctly East Anglian feel about them, and that was deliberate. The landscapes around here can feel unsettlingly eerie at times, as M.R. James knew all too well.
In the story your main character, Hamish, is raising his children alone. Was that a conscious decision, to make the father the sole carer of his children?
My wife is the main bread winner. I work part-time. So I’m in the fortunate position of spending more time with my children than many other fathers are able to. When my wife is away on work trips abroad I realise just what an act of teamwork parenting is, and how very relieved I feel when she returns home. Part of a fiction writer’s responsibility is to think the unimaginable, and so I placed Hamish in the role of a father grieving for his wife, whilst trying to cope with the loss felt by his two daughters. I wrote the bulk of it whilst my wife was on a trip to Argentina.
In writing the story, how much did you draw on your own experience as a father? Hamish’s daughters felt very real…
I have two daughters of a similar age, and I have quoted one of them verbatim in the story talking on the subject of death. Children say the most amazingly profound things, but if you don’t write down these developmental insights, where you can see an understanding of the big terrifying realities of life developing, then these moments are all too easily forgotten. Becoming a father has certainly made me into a more confident writer. When I left the delivery room after the birth of my first daughter, still on the supreme high of having witnessed the birth, I realised that everything had changed, and that the world seemed altered, more vivid, viewed through an entirely different gaze. Parenthood has helped me revisit my own childhood, bring about an understanding of my own parents and upbringing, and to be more forgiving of any shortcomings they had. I think such insights, which strengthen any individual, can’t help but feed the writing.
Did you write it specifically in response to the anthology’s theme or did you have the story sitting on your hard drive waiting for a home?
It was written in response to the anthology’s theme. I knew that the deadline was looming, and although I had a few ideas, nothing was falling into place. I had read a newspaper story about a girl in Seattle who had been befriended by crows, and I knew that I wanted to use this in some way. We were on holiday in Dorset, close to where I grew up, and I was reflecting on school friends who had died tragically young, and of how the promises we made to each other, to meet up at such and such an age, could never be fulfilled. This was the starting point and suddenly the story came together in note form. The crows became jackdaws because they seem like such intelligently sociable birds in the way they move and communicate, though I have no idea whether they would actually do what they do in the story.
As well as short stories, you write essays and have published a novel. Do you have a preference for one form over another?
At the moment I find it difficult to establish the sort of writing routine needed to sustain a novel. Short stories and short pieces of creative non-fiction can much more easily be slotted into the small parcels of time that are available to me. There is also something pleasing about the quick fix that completing a short work brings, something close to elation. That said, some of my stories have sat in an incomplete form for years on my hard drive before I have worked out what it is they need to work. The literary criticism I have written has been demanding in a different way, in that each peer-reviewed article needs to be rigorously researched and argued, and the editing process toward publication can be gruellingly and dispiritingly slow. Writing a novel can be satisfying, but much of the time you feel as if you are simply wasting your time, and that it will never come together. Kazuo Ishiguro compares it to marathon running, and in this regard you have to learn to live with the pain in order to cross the finishing line. Which form do I prefer? I’m really not sure, it is usually whatever I’m writing at the time.
You’re the Prose Editor for Lighthouse and teach creative writing at the University of East Anglia (UEA), do you have a strict writing routine to make time for your own work?
I wish that I did! Writers need to be ruthless with their time, but I don’t have the heart to be that ruthless with family time. Editing Lighthouse can be busy before the issue deadlines, but we have a big team of editors to share the load. Every issue of Lighthouse is a superb team effort. My teaching at UEA certainly dominates my time between October and May. I tend to do what I can when I can, and sometimes months can go by without any writing taking place. I try not to worry about this, but usually just trust that when the time is right, a good idea or two will come along. I’m also reluctant to become one of these writers who can only live and breathe for literature, as that so often seems to lead to an insularity in the writing and the individual that I don’t think is healthy. Life is too short to remain cloistered up with only books. My wife and I are just about to purchase a small parcel of woodland. The next twelve months will see me training to use a chainsaw and manage the wood. I will probably end up drawing on these experiences for my fiction or essay writing in some way, but first and foremost I’ll be getting some fresh air and learning new skills.