An Interview with Robert Lewis
Author of SWANSEA TERMINAL and THE LAST LLANELLI TRAIN
Robert Lewis is the author of two novels, The Last Llanelli Train and Swansea Terminal. Lewis recently graduated from the University of Wales, Aberystwyth.
This interview was conducted by Guy Savage (MF).
RL: The Last Llanelli Train is about an unsuccessful private detective whose feelings of guilt and corruption reach such a point he pretty much unravels. When the sequel, Swansea Terminal opens, he’s probably the most messed up private detective you will ever read about. But when you’ve got nothing to lose, of course, you can take some pretty big risks, and that’s what the second book is about.
MF: You have a long list of jobs behind you: silver service waiter, painter, barman, secretary, bookkeeper, salesman, banker, shop assistant, web editor, yardcat, help desk staffer, storesman, high-voltage cabler, data-entry clerk, housing officer, mail boy, audit junior, welder’s assistant, and betting shop counterman. That’s quite a range. How did these work experiences contribute to the novel?
RL: The main thing was that they were jobs you could walk out on at any time. None of them really mattered. I could hold them down for long enough to keep myself fed and housed when really all I was thinking about was my writing. On the other hand, it is a pretty big string of bum jobs. Sure, it meant I met a few characters and heard a few stories, but it has also made me a bit of an outsider, and that attitude probably echoes throughout all the Llewellyn books.
MF: Would you tell us about the worst job experience you ever had?
RL: After a while they all blur into the same bad job. You’re either doing as little as possible, ripping off your employer (who is probably ripping off someone else), or you’re working your guts out and being ripped off yourself. One thing that I do recall is working in a meat processing plant, and being told at the end of my shift that I had filleted the breasts of 16,000 turkeys. I also got involved in an advertising scam a couple of years ago, where I was putting together four monthly newspapers pretty much single-handedly, only to find out the print run was almost zero, and what was printed was just sent to the local dump.
MF: The protagonist of your novels is P.I Robin Llewellyn. Please describe him and how you came to create him.
RL: He’s just an unlucky guy who has had the bad judgement to get into a few situations he couldn’t handle. It’s kind a of there-goes-but-for-the-grace-of-god thing.
MF: When you wrote THE LAST LLANELLI TRAIN did you plan to write another Llewellyn novel?
RL: Not really, I thought I had the character’s story arc pretty sewn up. Then it occurred to me I could really plunge the depths. Just when you think things can’t get any worse, they invariably do.
MF: At the moment you are attending university, and it must be a world that’s far removed from Llewellyn’s all nighters. What made you decide to take this step?
RL: I graduated from university a little while ago. It seemed like a good way to stay out of mischief for three years. I studied at a little town halfway up the Welsh coast. When you get a degree, you realize it’s just a piece of paper, but without one you can feel terribly excluded.
MF: Will we see any more of Llewellyn?
RL: Llewellyn and I will be riding this out to the bitter end. If you want to know whether things will finally work out alright for him when his life finally comes to a shuddering close or not you’ll have to read the next book.
MF: SWANSEA TERMINAL could be described as a cross between Raymond Chandler and Mike Leigh’s film NAKED. Any thoughts on that?
RL: Raymond Chandler was an incredibly strong influence on me so the comparisons have not surprised me that much, although it is flattering to be compared to a writer you admire so much. As for Mike Leigh, I think we’re both people who are prepared to try and convey real-life Britain in an honest and non-aspirational way, and we do share a fondness for black humour.
MF: I would think an author needs a particular world vision in order to write noir fiction. Do you agree with that? If so, how does your world vision permeate your fiction?
RL: Noir fiction does have to be pretty dark, and noir authors traditionally tend to be pretty dark too. Occasionally you get writers who do noir without the darkness and it comes off as satire, and it can be pretty amusing.
MF: You describe Swansea as a very bleak place—ground down by globalization. Just how much has Swansea changed in the last decade or so?
RL: Swansea hasn’t changed that much in ten years. There’s some big property development going on right now but the credit crunch will probably but it on pause for a good while. Recreational drug use has gone up – it’s always been a working man’s town, but now the working men aren’t happy just sticking to booze any more. And suicides have gone up. People have started throwing themselves into the docks after a night on the piss.
MF: SWANSEA TERMINAL will launch your American debut. Any thoughts on that?
RL: America is such an aspirational, can-do place, generally speaking. What most Americans want from their fiction is a triumphant hero, an obstacle overcome, a challenge seen through. My books are pretty different to that. I’m hoping there are some people in the States who are fed up with that convention, and are hungering for something a bit more profound, something more atmospheric that haunts and lingers for a little longer.
MF: I’ve read the comment that some readers are astounded that someone your age can create such an anti-hero as washed-up, burned out, down on his luck Llewellyn. How do you feel about that?
RL: Llewellyn was a man I was terrified I would turn into. I guess the honesty and accuracy of my fears may have come through in the realism of my character, even through he’s almost twenty years older than me.
MF: Scotland has produced many vibrant new authors in the last few decades. Do you see your work as striking a blow for recognition of Welsh talent?
RL: I think it might be doing something like that. The problem is, despite the small size of Wales, and its tiny population, people are constantly arguing over what Wales is really like. Other people that have lived in Swansea tell me I’ve got it pretty much bang on. People from the mountainous North, up the other end of the country, keep banging on about how their village isn’t like that at all. Good luck to them.
MF: Are you working on anything at the moment? And if so, could you give us a clue or a sneak preview?
RL: I’m working on a final book in the Llewellyn trilogy. I’m aiming to make it the darkest and funniest one of the lot. It starts off in a cancer hospice. It’s like an inverted country house murder mystery – everyone’s dying, and everyone knows why.