07 February 2011


The first time Robin Wood was ever interviewed about his own work, in the spring of 1972 by Michael Wilmington and Gerald Perry for Film Heritage (Vol 9, no. 1), he observed : “It is said that behind every critic there is a failed artist. In my case, I write film criticism because I am a failed novelist.” Although the interviewers didn’t press him any further on this, Robin was only half joking and had in fact attempted writing fiction many years earlier in England. On numerous occasions before he died he said that one of his chief regrets was never having had any of his novels published.

When I was first getting to know Robin in 1970 he told me that he had written two novels (while in his 20s) but had never considered pursuing possible publication and had shown them to few people. He had asked his future wife, Aline, to read at least one of them because he thought the novel would help make it very clear that he was homosexual. Despite that fact they married, and soon Robin began writing film criticism with the enthusiastic encouragement of Aline. After the marriage ended Robin never expressed any interest in returning to fiction; he was so busy writing articles, working on books, and establishing his academic career in Canada, then England (and then Canada again) that he would have had scant time to even consider the thought.

After the great success of the “American Nightmare” – the ground-breaking series of 70s horror films accompanied with Robin's on-stage directors’ interviews and a concurrent book of critical essays – which Robin, together with Richard Lippe, organized for the 1979 Toronto Film Festival, he was contacted by a film producer to write an original screenplay for a horror film. Though the outcome was unsatisfactorily realized – to put it mildly – the actual process of writing it did encourage him to consider dabbling in fiction again.

During a twenty-ear period from the early 1980s when his health (and lack of success) prompted him to stop, Robin somehow found the time to write four novels (three of which he also later adapted into screenplays with the help of his filmmaker friend Jaime Humberto Hermosillo – with whom he also wrote an original screenplay), and to start two other uncompleted novels.

Robin always read fiction and throughout his life regularly re-read Tolstoy, Dickens, George Eliot, Jane Austen, Henry James, and Joseph Conrad. He made no effort to keep up to date with contemporary trends and bestsellers but would occasionally discover someone new to him – Nadine Gordimer, Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison – and then devour all their work. In the early 1980s however Robin became increasingly intrigued by the burgeoning crop of female detective and mystery writers. I introduced him to Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine but he then branched out to many other English, then American novelists, such as Elizabeth George, Val McDermid, Martha Grimes, Linda Barnes, Patricia Cornwell, Sue Grafton, Sarah Dunant, Sara Paretsky and on and on. He read them all and eventually even a couple of male writers, in particular James Lee Burke, as well as an Ian Rankin and Dennis Lehanne.

In the late 80s Robin decided to try to write a popular novel of his own. The result was That Last and Fatal Time, a suspense thriller set in Toronto’s gay village (and obviously In Robin’s own apartment building) about young woman Karen (Robin’s eldest daughter is Carin), with a cat named Max and a friend called Yuichi, who gets mixed up with some very corrupt Toronto police. Robin made no serious attempt to publish the novel. He had been so fortunate in the immediate acceptance and continued interest in his critical writings throughout his lifetime that he somewhat naively thought the same might happen with his fiction. When friends tried to encourage him by reminding him of the early rejections of so many successful novelists and urged him to get an agent or at least send his work to every possible publisher, he just seemed depressed by the prospect. I recall suggesting to him that the work seemed eminently filmable and that he send copies to some of the filmmakers whom he knew, and who respected him, for their comments and advice, but he wouldn't impose himself in this way.

And then he abruptly decided to take early retirement from York University and to move for a year to San Francisco to take a serious stab at writing a novel. The result was I Remember, I Remember. He was particularly pleased with this work and when he showed it to friends was disappointed that several seemed less pleased and were also, I suspect, quietly upset by it but reluctant – or afraid – to say so.

In San Francisco he contacted an agent who was immediately taken with the book and excited Robin with predictions of a possible bidding war over what she deemed a shocking potential bestseller. I can recall Robin’s nervous anticipation over the Christmas holidays of 1991 when he had been led to expect positive news from a major New York publisher who had been very interested on first read through and was to announce a decision after a reread.

Starting in October 1991 and through January 1992 the agent sent Robin copies of eight letters of rejection – but at the same time of encouragement – from top New York publishers. Senior editors had variously found the book “fascinating”, “fast paced and suspenseful”, and “unnervingly chilling”. Another said “all readers agreed that this book had one of the most gripping openings in recent reading (and some really outstanding superheated sex)”; and another, “a zingy plot (which I must admit with a certain amount of breathlessness, this book certainly has)”. Several commented on the book's filmic elements. One of the publishers suggested that they “would have been more tempted were there a film in the works as well”.

But several also had trouble with the authenticity of the first person female voice telling the story, with the sameness of tone resulting from the novel's format of a personal journal and most felt “the ending was too slow in arriving”.

Most seemed to think the agent would find a publisher for “the lurid and often compelling subject matter … so I wish you every success selling Mr. Wood's book for a lot of money”. And another ended with “hope you do find a good home for this hugely interesting project”.

When it was suggested to Robin that the book would certainly be published if he would consider agreeing to suggested changes he outright refused any editorial interference, as he did with all his fiction, and his book was dropped.

Robin had a similar problem with his next thriller, Mixed Doubles. A publisher offered to  publish the novel if Robin would agree to rewrite the female narrative, which comprised fully half of the book. Needless to say, Robin didn’t and the offer lapsed.

As for Robin and editing: Robin composed everything (both fiction and criticism) in his head over a lengthy period of time, sometimes scribbling rough reminder notes on scraps of paper during the gestation period, and then wrote the complete work first in notebooks in longhand and then typed the full manuscript himself. Extraordinarily, he usually wrote only one draft of any work, fiction or critical essay, and deeply resented any kind of editorial interference or suggestion (which he usually saw as interference anyway). Though this worked beautifully for his critical analysis of concrete completed works about which he was able to think and develop his precise, detailed thought, theory, or statement, it didn’t work so well for his  fictional narratives, where plot and character can often evolve in the process of rewriting and revising.

From 1995, depressed by lack of progress on any of his projects and fatigued by numerous health problems including a diagnosis of leukemia and two hip replacements, Robin stopped writing fiction to concentrate on his critical writing and eventually, for financial reasons, to return to teaching.

Then in 1998-99 Robin decided that in fact he would like to revise I Remember, I Remember and utilise some of the earlier suggestions, which perhaps had some merit after all. In particular he expanded on the enigmatic, threatening aspects of the male protagonist, Jeremy, which helped increase the suspense throughout the novel as it now stands. Robin sent some of his work to his niece in England, the distinguished television and screenwriter Paula Milne, who had suggested that she might be able to help with British publication and in his own curriculum vitae update of 2002 Robin stated: “My novel I Remember, I Remember, substantially revised, is currently with an enthusiastic agent in London, England.” But again nothing ever came of it.

In old age and increasing ill health Robin wrote fiction only sporadically. As part of an application for a writer’s grant for a proposed novel in progress he stated:

"I am trying, as a writer of fiction, to reach a wide audience (rather than a bourgeois elite), using the modes of popular fiction to encompass radical ideas about our culture. This has proven (over several failed attempts) to be a very problematic undertaking, but I am committed to it. The enormous gulf between the ‘great bourgeois novel’ and the popular melodrama has to be breached if concepts that are crucial to any radical social change can become widely accepted. Therefore, I write in a ‘Popular’ style (or try to).… I believe very strongly that persons on the Left should be trying to reach into popular culture. I was told that the criterion for these awards was ‘literary quality’, and I am wondering just how the term ‘literary’ is interpreted. I am not trying to write ‘beautiful prose’."

Anyone reading I Remember, I Remember will certainly not think of beautiful prose. Robin’s elegant and distinctive style is nowhere in evidence as uneducated young woman amnesiac – her name, she eventually learns, is Cathy – who awakens in a very Hitchcockian Grand Central Station and is urged by a mysterious rescuer, Jeremy, to start a daily personal journal in hopes of recalling some causative traumatic event. Readers may indeed recognize variations on the Hitchcock Woman and the Female Romance that extend from Daphne du Maurier to Harlequin romances. But readers of I Remember, I Remember would also be especially well advised to remember Robin’s abiding interest in the horror film, in the family construct, and sexual politics. They’re all here and those easily shocked are forewarned that they definitely will be.

It might also be useful to know that at the time of the original draft in 1990 Robin had been greatly taken with the then fashionable vogue in “recovered memory” and in particular the work of Alice Miller. This led to many conversations about his own unhappy childhood growing up in England as the youngest in a family with very much older siblings and elderly parents. Fortunately his outcome was considerably less harrowing than that of his heroine.

And finally, potential readers may be interested to know that at the time of the rewrite Robin said he imagined Sarah Polley, whom he admired equally for her politics and her acting, as Cathy. I suggested he send the manuscript to her. He told me I was crazy.

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