Robin Robertson Q&A: “I was literally making it up as I went along”

The poet discusses film noir, the lost heart of Los Angeles, and his Goldsmith Prize-winning verse novel The Long Take.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Robin Robertson’s work as a poet is everywhere apparent in his first novel, The Long Take, or A Way to Lose More Slowly. The narration and dialogue are in verse (with letters and diary entries in bold or italic prose, as if to highlight the deviation), while the interest in Ovid exhibited in Robertson’s five poetry collections can be identified in the book’s portrayal of the many changes that occur, between 1946 and 1953, within a city, Los Angeles, and a man, the traumatised D-day survivor Walker. (The subtitle or alternate title refers to the idea that for America, as for Walker, the ‘postwar’ period was in fact a continuation of the war by other, mildly less frenetic means.) But while the medium and the sensibility and tropes may be poetic, the art form that most powerfully shadows the novel is cinema, especially the noir films of the period, from which Robertson has derived a structure, a tone, a milieu, various techniques, and a sense of the past weighing heavily on the present.

Robertson, who was born in north-east Scotland, and educated in Aberdeen, where his father was the university chaplain, has always been a prize magnet. He has won the Forward Poetry Prize for Best First Collection, Best Collection, and Best Single Poem (for “At Roane Head,” in 2009, in which the narrator, a man-seal hybrid, has murdered his four blind sons and is murdered in turn by his wife). His last three collections, Swithering (2006), The Wrecking Light (2010), and Hill of Doors (2013), all appeared on the shortlist for the TS Eliot Prize. A publisher by day, Robertson is surely enjoying the irony that a book whose spine and front cover – blazoned as they are with the words “Picador Poetry” – seems to be talking itself out of acceptance as a novel, has been recognised first by the Man Booker Prize and now the Goldsmiths Prize. The word “novel” appears nowhere on the jacket copy, so the book’s association with the Goldsmiths might be considered mutually flattering, a tribute to the daring of both projects.

The Long Take is conceptually taut in its use of Los Angeles in the Forties and early Fifties – a breeding-ground for ideas about exile, corruption and inequality. Was there a “eureka!” moment?

I wanted to address new themes, with an extended range – to stretch beyond the short lyric into narrative, as I have, occasionally, and in small ways, since my first book, A Painted Field. Though I’ve lived in cities most of my life I’d barely written about them, and I was interested in revisiting my own ambivalence arriving in London from the north-east coast of Scotland all those years ago: that outsider’s experience of the glamour and the illusion, excitement and fear, the possibilities and the loneliness.

I was after something more objective, though, with greater distance from my own experience, so I quickly settled on the American city as my setting (I have been travelling to the US and Canada since I was 20), but I knew immediately I should focus on the immediate post-war years, and that pivotal decade in US history: a time when victory soured into a slow failure and certainties were corroded by flux, greed and paranoia.

Was the continuing relevance of “urban renewal” one of the forces behind choosing to tell this particular story, or to emphasise this dimension of Los Angeles history?

I’ve always felt uncomfortable in Los Angeles. All cities can be complicated for visitors, outsiders, but few are as alien as Los Angeles. It is less an “unreal city” and more an unplanned one: a sprawling mess of highways, freeways and interchanges with people and parking lots in between. I am used to the medieval European city, Baudelaire’s (and Eliot’s) “fourmillante cité, cité pleine de rêves” that grows organically, historically, around the needs of its inhabitants. Los Angeles grew from the greed of oil-men and property developers, the cult of the car, and terrible urban planning. When Fritz Lang fled Europe for Hollywood in the late Thirties he would have recognised his Metropolis in the cityscape of Los Angeles, and his M on the city’s streets and back alleys. The Expressionist director became a noir director (notably of The Big Heat), but that wasn’t a complicated style-shift in Los Angeles.

The more I read about the city’s history from the Thirties to the late Fifties the more I wanted to make it my backdrop. This was a city being demolished and rebuilt at unusual speed, with no apparent care for its citizens, its culture or its heritage. The operational drivers were commercial expediency and corruption, and those in the way were the poor, the deprived, and the non-white: largely the Chinese, Mexican and black communities. During this period, areas of downtown Los Angeles were emptied and partly levelled to become a “central business district”, a “commercial hub”; but that never actually happened. The city continued to spread to the sea, and downtown is full of unused parking lots; its only remaining established community (a settlement which has outlasted most of the city’s buildings) is living on the streets between Main and Alameda, south of 3rd and north of 7th – on Skid Row.

Could you describe the evolution of the book’s form? Was it liberating or constructive to think that you were writing a “novel”?

I never thought about genre. The form of The Long Take emerged from the turns my character took within the narrative. There was no plan, beyond allowing Walker to move through America in search of all the things he’d lost in the war: community, an emotional life, moral balance, a sense of peace and beauty. He would go to the three cities of noir, but Los Angeles was the one that mattered, because it was, and is, a place of cars, and of unnatural speed – where the sprawling city is constantly being demolished and rebuilt so its citizens outlive their own homes.

One of the key techniques of film noir is the flashback, which was a necessary device in The Long Take, as the past throws such a long shadow over Walker. These passages of italic prose sit alongside the open-line third-person narrative and act as a counterpoint. There are memories of the island of Nova Scotia, particularly Inverness County, Cape Breton, where Walker was raised, in a rural, Catholic backwater both beautiful and dull; and there are the memories of what happened to him in his immediate past, as a soldier – before, during and after D-Day – events that were not dull, and almost never beautiful.

All of this story-telling, this characterisation, this dialogue, was entirely new to me, and I was literally making it up as I went along, trying to find the right balance between the propulsive narrative line – the present – and the reflexive past. As the book reaches its conclusion, the storylines start to break into each other until there is some sense of what I realised I was looking for – unity and fracture.

Could you give a brief account of your research process?

Once I knew my setting and subject I spent two years tracking down all the key films in the noir cycle, and steeping myself in that very particular state of mind. There were subjects I needed to understand properly – including American social history and urban planning, and the Normandy landings and their aftermath, focussing particularly on one Canadian regiment, the North Nova Scotia Highlanders. I kept returning to the films during the four years it took to make this book, watching them, as time went on, less for tone and morefor other details: the clothes, the cars, the interiors, and – most importantly – the idiomatic language and the street-by-street geography of Los Angeles. Much of The Long Take is set on Bunker Hill: an area of the city’s downtown that was the living backdrop of noir but was cleared and levelled in the late Fifties. There are photographs, of course, but it turned out the most accurate way of mapping that lost heart of Los Angeles was through a careful study of the films that were shot there. I could walk the actual streets of New York and San Francisco, the cliffs of Cape Breton, but only through watching 500 period movies could I get to a point where I felt familiar with the terrain of Los Angeles: knew which bar was round which corner; where the hill was highest, and what you could see from the top; which streets led to tunnels, which streets dead-ended on a drop.

Could you describe the challenge of inhabiting Walker’s experience as a traumatised veteran?

War trauma, under various names – shell shock, battle neurosis, combat stress reaction, PTSD – has been under-reported, misdiagnosed or simply ignored for the last hundred years, and the world’s hospitals, prisons and streets continue to see new victims. The symptoms include tinitus, headaches, tremors and hypersensitivity to noise, and the complications can lead to self-harm, suicide or mass shooting. In the post-war period in America in the late Fourties there was no real attempt to monitor demobbed combat troops for signs of PTSD, and they simply went back into society. They had changed – often catastrophically – but so had society. There was no welcome home for the heroes, and a significant proportion of rough sleepers were – and still are – war veterans. The more I read on this subject, the more I saw a connection between the trauma of these returning soldiers and film noir – which was, after all, created by Jewish émigrés who had escaped from Nazi Germany, and is a style engrained with persecution and paranoia. My character, Walker, feels his PTSD being triggered by the noise, congestion and speed of the city, and finds some solace in the films – where he recognises a tone, a sensibility not unlike his own.

Did it feel fairly natural to channel the devices or techniques of film in a long poem? 

The Long Take was always tending towards the sui generis, as I needed to tell different stories from different angles. There is the propulsive third-person narrative set in broken lines, and there are flashbacks in italic, set as justified prose. There are also diary entries and postcards; photographs and a map. As the writing went on, I saw how Walker’s backdrops – the territories I was describing, particularly the cities and battlegrounds – seemed to need their own hard style. This was often jagged, angular, abrupt: unbalanced compositions made of oblique, vertiginous angles, extreme deep focus, chiaroscuro lighting. I could see how noir style had found its way in, but now more generic film techniques were starting to feel comfortable: cross-cutting, cutaways and jump-cuts, flashbacks and voiceovers, tight framing and pull-backs, montage and, of course, the long take.

Was there a particular piece of art (other than movies), literature or music that was important to you in the writing of this book?

The soundtrack of noir is jazz, of course – and particularly those melancholy late-night ballads on saxophone or piano. This is before bebop, so it’s Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster, Bud Powell and Art Tatum: slow, smoky and sad.

As a publisher or as a poet or both, have you seen the industry change in its attitude towards experimental or adventurous writing?

In my time in book publishing there has always been a conflict between the persistent drift, or drive, towards the popular, the commercial (which is often, also, the simplistic and the banal), and the need for work that feels original and artistically innovative (which often fails: financially, at least).

What past British or Irish novel deserves a retrospective Goldsmiths Prize?

The early novels of Janice Galloway, James Kelman, A.L. Kennedy, or Alan Warner.

The winner of the Goldsmiths Prize, in association with the New Statesman, will be announced on 14 November. “The Long Take” is published by Picador Poetry.

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.