Robson offers a royal review of writer’s life

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On Nov. 20, 1947, a fresh-faced young couple – Princess Elizabeth and Philip Mountbatten – were married at Westminster Abbey in London. Less than five years later, the bride became head of the Commonwealth and Queen Regnant of seven independent Commonwealth countries.

This week, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip celebrate their 72nd anniversary.

So, what do you get the Royal Couple who has everything? Absolutely nothing. They are fine.

But in honour of the big day, we offer you 72 insights into a writer’s life and writing from Western’s own literary royalty, Jennifer Robson, BA’92. (OK, it’s only 50, but wouldn’t that have been cool if it worked out to 72.)

Robson penned the international best-seller The Gown, a novel that tells the story of the creation of then-Princess Elizabeth’s wedding gown, one of the most famous gowns in history, through the lives – and times – of three unforgettable heroines.

The self-professed “history nerd” and author of five novels recently sat down with Western News editor Jason Winders to discuss failure, inspiration, and the things that keep writers up at night.

Special to Western NewsSmiling happily the princess and her fiance, Lieut. Philip Mountbatten are pictured at Buckingham Palace.

“The worst thing a writer can do is start believing you’re the cats-ass.”

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“Once you start believing you’re the cats-ass that is how you begin to compromise everything that made you a good writer in the first place.”

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“An immoderate belief in yourself and your abilities is the death of curiosity, the death of hard work. It is the path to failure.”

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“I cannot sit back and think success is all about me. It has as much to do with weird, strange market dynamics, what is hot, what isn’t, and that often has nothing to do with the work you produce.”

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“Never underestimate a fabulous cover – 90 per cent of the battle is getting someone to pick up the book.”

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“After every lovely comment people give you about your current book, the next question is, ‘What are you working on now?’”

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“Writers write. It takes me six or seven months of long-daily sessions to turn out a book.”

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“I am always 90 per cent excited and 10 per cent terrified.”

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“Pressure builds diamonds …”

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“… and so can deadlines.”

Special to Western NewsThe scene at the altar steps during the Royal Wedding Ceremony in Westminster Abbey. H.M the King stands to the left of the bride. On the bridegroom’s right is the groomsman, the Marques of Milford Haven. The bride’s train is held by two pages T.R.H Prince William of Gloucester and Prince Michael of Kent.

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“Don’t be afraid to have a stern conversation with yourself about your writing.”

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“Know when the book you are working on is not setting you on fire.”

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“When I started writing The Gown, I knew I had something. But there, the fear that propelled me was I would mess up the story before I was done telling it.”

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“Find a tremendous editor.”

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“Curiosity is the defining characteristic of a good writer.”

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“The incurious mind is, in many ways, at the heart of what is befalling society.”

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“If you have no interest in the world beyond your fingertips, beyond what you can personally sense or feel or experience, then you are incapable of empathy, incapable of true generosity. And if you are a writer, then how do you describe the lives of others? You have to be able to ask yourself what it is like to stand in the skin of another. I am endlessly interested I what other people’s lives are like.”

*   *   *

“Success can dull your sense of curiosity.”

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“It is easy to become a prisoner of success.”

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“Have to have a sense of wonder.”

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“Ask questions of everyone.”

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“We are all lurching from one small disaster to another. That is what my life was before success – and that is still what it is.”

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“There are very few famous writers who stand a chance of getting recognized in public, so we must get over ourselves. In Canada, I can only think of Margaret Atwood as someone at risk of that. There are huge authors, even in the States, who just go about their life without any notice.”

*   *   *

“Research is an endless detective hunt with no guarantee you are going to find what you are looking for. That has been true with every book I have written.”

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“Chase down possibilities.”

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“The hunt is exhilarating.”

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“When you chase plot bunnies, you are never sure if you will catch then or they’ll just scurry away down a hole. Be careful about falling down those holes. Because if you do … there goes an entire day chasing things you didn’t really need to know about.”

*   *   *

“I will spend a whole day reading up on something I need to know about, but I found the answer in the first five minutes, but all sorts of ancillary bits and pieces come up and I find them fascinating.”

*   *   *

“I want to go as deep as I can. What I don’t need, I don’t need, but I don’t want to miss anything.”

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“I cannot talk to the dead. What is the next best thing? I can talk to someone doing the work now. They can show me what that was like. When writing The Gown, my gut sense was that not much had changed – and I was right. Hand embroidery today, for instance, is basically the same as hand embroidery 100 years ago.”

Special to Western NewsThe scene heading to the altar steps during the Royal Wedding Ceremony in Westminster Abbey.

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“Unlike history, in fiction, you never have to guess what your characters’ interior lives are like. They are your children.”

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“It was suggested, at one point, that I write the book from the perspective of the Queen. I will never be Queen, or even understand what the interior life of a Queen can be, and even trying to do so – me writing about her, making all these guesses, maybe ascribing thoughts and feelings to her that are not hers – it felt kinda gross.”

*   *   *

“I incorporate well-known historical figures into my books, but they are always secondary characters. I cannot imagine changing that. It makes me deeply uncomfortable.”

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“Fiction liberates me – not writing a narrative history that had to hewn absolutely to known facts.”

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“I find my stories is in the wiggle room between what is known and what is plausible.”

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“I don’t want to write anything completely unbelievable.”

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“History is the scaffolding of historical fiction. Let your knowledge of how people of an era behaved and thought about things govern what happens to your characters and the decisions they make.”

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“History is the fabric, stretched out before me, I am working with. My job is to embroider upon it. I add my embellishment on top of what is already there. For me to play fast and loose with what is already there makes everything feel off.”

*   *   *

“With historical fiction, you either get it right or you don’t. The really good writers get it right. They take a lot of time making sure what they have written is truly, truly grounded in truth.”

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“When it is bad, it is so bad. I know from page one if something is going in a bad direction.”

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“Vagueness is a tar the reader gets stuck in. They need to know the specifics.”

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“When you don’t do historical fiction well, a lot of readers won’t notice – and that is a problem. It is possible to get away with a fair bit of sloppy writing and not be tripped up on it. But what a terrible disservice to readers and to history.”

*   *   *

“When someone gets it right, really, really gets it right, it is amazing.”

Special to Western NewsQueen Elizabeth II shown in July 2007 looking at her 1947 wedding gown and 13-foot bridal trail designed by Norman Hartnell with the naval uniform worn by the Duke of Edinburgh, which are on show for the Summer Opening Exhibition at Buckingham Palace to mark her Diamond Wedding Anniversary.

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“If I have an Achilles Heel, it is plot. It is a complete nightmare – how A turns into B turns into C is so painful. That is why I sort out the plot first before I start writing.”

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“Always get your nasty part out of the way first.”

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“Fiction is so powerful when you give into its transporting power.”

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“The digitized world cannot compare to a really good book.”

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“Like many, I rely on social media and all the bells and whistles. But when I need comfort, or when I need something distracting or enjoyable, I switch all that off and open a book.”

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“When books work out well, there is nothing better.”

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“Celebrate your book by curling up with a nice cup of tea.”