The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Robert Crompton

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The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Robert Crompton

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Summary: Ani spent a very indulgent weekend reading two of Robert Crompton's novels and she was fascinated by the stories. When Rob popped into Bookbag Towers they had quite a lot to chat about.
Date: 18 June 2015
Interviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson

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Ani spent a very indulgent weekend reading two of Robert Crompton's novels and she was fascinated by the stories. When Rob popped into Bookbag Towers they had quite a lot to chat about.

  • Bookbag: When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?

Robert Crompton: I see a class of kids listening to stories and catching their teacher's enthusiasm for the written and the spoken word, and taking that enthusiasm into grown-up lives. I see a group of walkers who always want to ask who first trod those footpaths and what were they doing. I see people who appear to be saying to strangers around them, Come on, tell me your story.

  • BB: As a new author who has self-published, what part of the writing/publishing process would you do again and what will you definitely avoid in future?

RC: For now, at least, I will stick with the story-within-a-story format. And I will go directly to self-publishing. For my next novel, however, I won't attempt to create the cover myself. I'll find a designer to can produce the cover I envisage or perhaps even suggest something more appropriate.

  • BB: Your writing style in both Bunderlin and Leaving Gilead intrigues with endings of compartmentalised viewpoints, each unwrapping another layer of the story when told. Why did you choose this method?

RC: I guess it began with a TV drama series I watched back in the days of thermionic valves and take-it-or-leave-it two-channel TV. No Hiding Place featured Raymond Francis as Superintendent Lockhart and each episode opened with a scene in which we saw the crime committed. Then we would watch as Lockhart and his team set about discovering what had happened. I construct my novels in a similar way – there's a target story and a finder-out. And the novel follows the progress of the finder-out until the target story becomes clear. It results in a story-within-a-story format which I find satisfying and I hope my readers like it as well.

  • BB: Tell us about Peter, the enigmatically original title character in Bunderlin; what was your inspiration for him and the story that unfolds?

RC: He is an amalgam of various memorable characters I have known over the years. I am naturally drawn towards people with slightly eccentric habits – the compulsive quoter of verse and mangler of proverbs; the can't-stop-it collector of interesting junk to fill his house; the man who disappears for days and weeks and turns up again unexpectedly but never says anything about himself or where he has been. Bunderlin's oddities were inspired by people I've known, but he didn't come to life for me as a character until I gave him a mother, the goat lady, who was loosely based upon an eastern European lady who lived next to the primary school I attended and who kept goats. Neither of them are intended to be anything at all like the real people who inspired their creation, of course.

  • BB: How did you gather the research to portray that section of Manchester's criminal underbelly in the novel? Did you run into any problems?

RC: Drinking in some of the seedier pubs of Bolton and Manchester! As my Dad used to say, If you want to be a writer, go and listen to the babble in the bar. The landlord of a Bolton pub once told me that his previous work before taking on the pub, was as a prison officer in Strangeways. Bit of a change, then, I suggested. Not at all, he replied. I meet all the same people.

No real problems – except that I once met a rather scary bloke who was convinced that I was the driver of a JCB who had deliberately injured him to get him off a building site. And there was another pub where, whenever I walked in, several of the guys would suddenly disappear out the back and I felt very unwelcome and unsafe. A couple of years later the pub changed hands so I ventured back and learned that one of the regulars (a quite delightful rogue, actually) had told folk when first I went in there that I was a social security snooper. You'd have had an accident on your way home, he told me, if I hadn't said I was only kidding.

  • BB: In Leaving Gilead there's a clear link between the heroine's struggle to leave the Gilead Jehovah's Witnesses and your own experience of being brought up in the religion. How did having to take yourself back to those days affect your writing and, indeed, did it affect you?

RC: I believe that it is only by experiencing first-hand the struggles involved in breaking free that it becomes possible to write authentically about it. And it was also important to have laid all the ghosts of those years well before I tackled the subject in fiction.

But there was something else which I had not fully appreciated until I chose to use this part of Cheshire as my novel's territory: writing this story and re-establishing my Cheshire roots, I came to appreciate more than ever how lovely some of the non-JW people were with whom I had spent time (nowhere near enough) as a child. I hint just a little at this in Tom's attachment to his aunt and uncle in their splendid flat in Ringwood Hall. But no, I should hasten to add, I never had a crush on Lord____'s daughter!

  • BB: Why did you specifically select the Gilead Jehovah's Witnesses for the Ridley family's devotion and not just the Jehovah's Witnesses?

RC: I needed to avoid any possibility of being interpreted as describing actual people. Gilead isn't intended as a branch of the JWs or a break-away from them; it's a fictional parallel. There are some differences between Gilead and the JWs but they are irrelevant to the story and it would take an insider to spot them. But they are enough for Gilead to be a bit like some other sectarian fringe groups which are also liable to tend towards the same sort of ugly pseudo-righteousness.

In his preface to the second edition of Nicolas Nickleby, Dickens tells us that in creating Dotheboys Hall he had to tone down the awfulness of the real Yorkshire schools because if he described it faithfully, it would be simply unbelievable. Creating the Fellowship of Gilead was a bit like that. It also meant that I was free to portray the offensiveness of some of the elders at the Gilead Hall – Bannister and Overend as well as Susan's brother – without giving anyone cause to imagine that I had in mind specific elders at an identifiable Kingdom Hall.

  • BB: How closely does your experience reflect Susan's and is she wholly you (apart from gender differences, of course)?

RC: I had it much easier than Susan. I was fortunate in that my father was only ever an on/off JW. So for example, unlike Susan, I was able to represent my school at cross-country without fear of suffering severe penalties. I only ever got stern reminders from my mother like, Running for the school (or whatever else I actually enjoyed doing) won't get you through Armageddon. So, like Susan, when I was invited to become a member of a good athletics club I had to turn it down. When I was disfellowshipped (expelled from the JWs) I became persona non grata among all my former friends and acquaintances, but I have to say that although my mother completely disowned me eventually, she was never as horrible to me as Susan's mother was. Over the years, though, I have listened to many people's stories of breaking free and far too many of them faced much worse treatment at the hands of this unlovely movement.

  • BB: After all you've been through and, effectively, the different lives you've led, if you met your adolescent self now, what advice would you give him?

RC: It's tempting to say, For goodness' sake, don't pass up on these wonderful opportunities which are coming your way. I did miss some great openings for the sake of my naïve devotion to the JWs and sometimes I regret it. But others came up and in the end I made some good choices and I arrived at a great place by an interesting route.

So if I do meet the young me, maybe I will just say, If you really can't resist finding out what those seedy pubs and their regulars are like, stay close to the door.

  • BB: What's next for Robert Crompton?

RC: I am back in the forest at Delamere. It's the early 1800s and Mary Heron, who lives in a ramshackle hut/cottage in the forest has met a shadowy foreigner who needs her help because he has hurt his leg. He tells her that he is one of the gang of ditchers who had been set to work draining the ancient peat bogs.

The present day finder-out is 15-year-old Judy whose Grandad has given her an old document written by their distant Grandfather Solomon. He was Mary Heron's son and his document tells his mother's story. Or it would if it was legible and if all of it was there. No problem, though, because Judy is not just a good finder-out. When it comes to stories, she's also a good maker-up. But she has to be right, she's not just spoofing, about the bit chopped off the end of Solomon's story. It's obvious. Has to be...

  • BB:

You can read more about Robert Crompton here.

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