Posted in Author Interviews

Author Interview: Robert J. Harris

Scotland author, Robert J. Harris (born in Dundee, settled in St. Andrews) has been a bartender, a game creator, and an author (among other things). Having co-written novels and short stories with Jane Yolen, including Queen’s Own Fool and the Young Heroes book series, Harris had his first solo novel – Leonardo and the Death Machine – published by Harper Collins in 2005. His latest novel is A Study in Crimson (read its review here), where he reimagines Sherlock Holmes in 1942 London.

So, without further ado, let’s jump into discussing writing, publishing, and everything else with Robert J. Harris.

Rishika S.: Tell us a little about yourself.

Robert J. Harris: I am a Scotsman married to a fabulous American lady. We live in St. Andrews, Scotland, where we met as grad students and have three grown-up sons. My wife Debby became a published author while I was creating my very successful board game Talisman. Later, our friend Jane Yolen took me under her wing and made a writer out of me. I enjoy a good cigar, a fine whisky, and listening to the Blues. My sporting activities consist of highly competitive croquet and petanque (French boules).

Rishika S.: What are the genres you love reading and that you enjoy writing?

Robert J. Harris: As a teenager, I read almost nothing but science fiction. As a student, I branched out into classic Russian and American literature. Later still I finally discovered Dickens, Wilkie Collins, and other great writers. Most recently I have been reading classic Scottish authors Scott, Stevenson, Conan  Doyle, and Buchan. Like any civilized person, I enjoy a good mystery and am absorbed in the novels of Fred Vargas and Christopher Fowler.

I consider myself to be a writer of adventure stories for all ages, now mostly for grown-ups. I feel I am following in the tradition of the four Scottish authors mentioned above, to whom I should add Alistair MacLean.

Rishika S.: Is there one (or two) of your books that you absolutely loved writing (or that’s closest to your heart)?

Robert J. Harris: My second novel, ‘Will Shakespeare and the Pirate’s Fire,’ was a real pleasure, as I immersed myself in Shakespeare’s plays while writing it. That was a very enriching experience and I felt inspired all throughout the writing of the novel. Aside from that, my favorite is always the current one, in this case, my second Sherlock Holmes novel ‘The Devil’s Blaze.’

Rishika S.: Who are your favorite authors, and what have you learned from them that you have tried to imbibe (or successfully imbibed) in your own writing?

Robert J. Harris: My first writing was done in collaboration with my great friend Jane Yolen. From her, amongst other things, I learned the importance of interior landscaping, making the personality and history of the main character part of the texture of the novel. My favorite mystery writer is John Dickson Carr often called the master of the impossible crime. He inspired me to create impossible crimes of my own, such as the activities of an invisible thief in ‘Artie Conan Doyle and the Scarlet Phantom,’ and the two mini locked room mysteries that feature in ‘A Study in Crimson.’

Rishika S.: Who are your favorite literary characters and who are the ones you most dislike, and why?

Robert J. Harris: The best characters are to be found in Dickens. My favorite is Sam Weller in ‘The Pickwick Papers.’ On the other hand, it is very hard not to dislike intensely Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop.

Rishika S.: What do you like the most and hate the most about the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson as they were originally created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle?

Robert J. Harris: I like the fact that there is a spark to their relationship and that Watson is occasionally able to score a point off Holmes by puncturing his vanity. Holmes is sometimes rather mean to Watson, but that too is part of the charm of the stories and there is never any doubt of the affection and respect they feel for each other.

Rishika S.: Tell us the one thing you love and one thing you hate about the process of writing.

Robert J. Harris: I love it when I am on a rush of inspiration and the words are flashing through my mind faster than I can type. On the other hand, there is the odd day when I stare at a blank screen and can’t think of what comes next. Best thing then is to go away and do something else for a while.

Rishika S.: You have worked on books individually and also as a co-writer. What is the biggest positive and biggest negative difference between the two?

Robert J. Harris: It’s very stimulating to toss ideas back and forth with another author and to hear them come up with ideas you hadn’t thought of yourself. There’s a lot to be learned that way. Writing by yourself gives you great freedom but doesn’t come with the security of having somebody else to blame.

Rishika S.: Tell us a little about what it’s like being married to another author. How do you help each other out and drive each other up the wall (if at all)?

Robert J. Harris: It’s great to have my own personal editor here in the house to give me advice and encouragement. That said, Debby is my most demanding editor, sometimes to the point of actual cruelty.

Rishika S.: Which of your past books would you say is your best work and why?

Robert J. Harris: A number of people have told me that ‘A Study in Crimson’ is the best novel I have written to date. Who am I to argue?

Rishika S.: What are some upcoming projects you’re working on as an author?

Robert J. Harris: I have just completed a second Sherlock Holmes novel (The Devil’s Blaze: Sherlock Holmes 1943). I am currently working on ‘Redfalcon’, the third of my Richard Hannay Returns trilogy which began with ‘The Thirty-One Kings’. For the future, I have in mind a medieval murder mystery and two cinema-related detective novels set in the 1960s.

Rishika S.: Tell us a little bit about the games you’ve created.

Robert J. Harris: Talisman is based on a game I made at high school in which the players are all teachers out to become head of the school. When I started playing Dungeons & Dragons at university, I had the idea of changing that game into one where the players are warriors, wizards, etc. seeking to become the ruler of a magical land. I later created another fantasy game Mythgardia which has a long and complex history. I self-published a limited edition of this and am still hoping to find a proper publisher.

Rishika S.: Are you working on any new games?

Robert J. Harris: No, I’m too busy writing novels, and I already have some games to offer around.

Rishika S.: Any books that you would recommend emerging writers as a ‘must-read’?

Robert J. Harris: That’s a bit of a tall order. I can recommend a mixed bag of books by authors I am friends with, which are favorite books of mine by favorite people. I know that they have all had their struggles and yet have produced these marvelous stories.

  • The Mysteries by Lisa Tuttle (genre-bending detective story)
  • Dark Lord: The Teenage Years by Jamie Thompson (hilarious teen fantasy)
  • Walking Mountain by Joan Lennon (wonderfully imaginative tale)
  • The Dark Side by Anthony O’Neill (lunar murder mystery)
  • The Unscratchables by Cornelius Kane (a dog and cat detective team investigate brutal murders in Kathattan)

Rishika S.: What’s the one piece of advice you’d give someone trying to cut it as an author on each topic – the activity of writing and on the publishing industry as a whole?

Robert J. Harris: Don’t be afraid to write badly. Get a flow going so that you write your story through to the end. Then you can go back and polish it. Second, don’t be discouraged by rejection, and don’t get too caught up in the reasons publishers give for rejecting your work. These are sometimes quite random.

Rishika S.: Would you like to share anything else with our readers?

Robert J. Harris: If they go to www.quantumfridge.org.uk they will find a series of comedy podcasts co-written and produced by myself and my friend Alan McFadzean and performed by our marvelous cast The Peak Performance Players. The shows are:

  • Watch the Skies! (eccentric scientists protect the Earth from alien invasion)
  • The Adventures of Saffron Star (space opera with a glamorous heroine)
  • Jack Standish the British Lion (two-fisted spy stories)
  • Backlash (the president of a newly created country comes up with various schemes to finance his miniscule nation)

We hope you enjoyed this insight into Robert J. Harris. To know more about him and his other works, you can check out his website at http://www.harris-authors.com. You can also follow him on Goodreads here. As always, thank you for stopping by The Book Review Station and reading this author interview.