Writing Forty-Plus, with Robert Allison

Following last month's Authors' Awards, we spoke to this year's McKitterick Prize winner Robin Allison about his process, becoming a better writer and how age changes an author.

Robert Allison

Robert Allison has been a theatre director, a film music reviewer and a copy-editor. He lives in London. His debut novel, The Letter Bearer, was published by Granta Books in 2014 and was shortlisted for the 2014 Desmond Elliott Prize for New Writing, and won the 2015 Society of Authors' McKitterick Prize for a best first novel by an author over the age of 40.



When did you start writing? Were there any abandoned projects before The Letter Bearer? 

I think I probably started writing seriously back in Junior School! But not until my mid-to-late thirties did I start considering it as a career. The Letter Bearer wasn't the first novel I'd written, but it was the first one I was happy to have published. The two others I'd written were essentially steps to becoming a better writer, and were very much part of the learning process.


What does a typical writing day look like for you?

It varies, and I don't really have a regime. I won't say that I wait for inspiration but neither do I believe in forcing yourself to the keyboard. I do try and factor in some time on my cross trainer every day though, because it's all too easy to become sedentary when writing a book. Healthy body, healthy mind, etc.

Tell us about winning the prize. Have you been getting more attention since the announcement?

I think that I perhaps won't reap the full benefits of winning the award until further down the line. I'd like to think that when it comes to pitching the next book, the McKitterick will be a persuasive entry into the CV. To receive acclaim and approbation from within the literary community is a wonderful endorsement to take forward.

Do you have a ‘writing shed’ – a particular place you use to get writing done?

I have an office area which also has a bed - which can be a dangerous thing! But the advantage is in being able to wake on a spur of inspiration and hop straight to your writing desk. Good ideas can be hard to recapture if there's any delay. It also means I can power nap!

Do you think there is a prejudice against older writers in the publishing industry?

I think the work comes first, and I don't believe a publisher would decline a commercially viable property based solely on the writer's age. That said, I think a younger writer is easier to promote, and the story of a very young writer enjoying great success is perhaps more newsworthy than that of an older one. As a culture we do tend to idolise youth, and publishing isn't immune to that.

What do you think are the advantages of writing a first novel in your forties or fifties, as opposed to, say, your twenties?

One can't really generalise, because some writers have written extraordinarily accomplished and mature novels in their twenties, but for me personally, I don't believe I could have written The Letter Bearer any earlier in my life than I did. It has to with emotional and philosophical maturity and with developing full confidence in your abilities. I suppose I'm a late developer.

What do you think sets The Letter Bearer apart?

I think that's something that's probably best answered by readers, because as writers I don't think we ever fully appreciate the reading experience. But I can say that I wanted to write something that would live beyond the page. And that I wanted to do it in a voice that was consciously distinct, and that would reward careful reading. I wanted something that was both haunting and elegant. That was always my ambition for the book.

What advice would you give to people thinking about writing their first book?

Read. Read as much as you can. It's the best classroom there is for learning to write. And if you want to take practical steps towards success, join a writing course. Not necessarily because it will make you a better writer - though there's a chance of that - but because you will make contacts, and stand a better chance of showing up on an agent's radar if you can show talent. Pursuing a career as a writer is now a very proactive enterprise, and one needs to strategise.

And finally, what are you reading at the moment? Anything you’d recommend?

I've recently been re-reading Jenny Offill's Dept. of Speculation, which I think is outstanding. And I'm enjoying a first novel by Bruce Holbert called Lonesome Animals, which is rather in the vein of Ron Hansen's work. I've also just received a copy of Jason Hewitt's new novel, Devastation Road. Jason and I have come up together as debut novelists - both coincidentally writing stories set in WWII - and have featured in several prize lists together, so I'm very much looking forward to reading his latest.



Robert on Twitter >>

Read more interviews >>

The Rider has no memory of who he is, or how he came to be lying - dying - in the brutal heat of the North African desert. Rescued by a band of deserters, the Rider begins to piece together his identity, based on shards of recollection and the letters in his post bag.

The Letter Bearer is unlike any other novel of World War Two. It asks profound questions about trauma, warfare and the experience of desertion. This gripping story asks us to consider how men build hope when they have nothing left - not even a name.