Ray Robertson: How I wrote Lives of the Poets (with Guitars)

Ray Robertson's tenth book, Lives of the Poets (with Guitars), is a collection of essays about 13 "outsiders" who changed the music industry. Robertson creates portraits of poets like The Ramones, Gram Parsons, Willie P. Bennett and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, delving into their lives, music, triumphs and flaws in equal measure. Below, Robertson discusses the process of writing his book.


The story in the story

I was writing another novel called I Was There the Night He Died, which came out in 2014, and I wanted to - for the first time - have a character who was a novelist. He was suffering through a lot of personal travails... and what he's working on is a book called Lives of the Poets (with Guitars), a book of this guy's fascination with music. So it was kind of a test run and when I was writing it, I thought, this is a lot of fun. When I finished I Was There the Night He Died I thought, I'll take a cue from my narrator and write the book that he was writing.

The Two Solitudes

I've got a little shack out the back of my house. My wife's a painter so she paints upstairs. For six months of the year, we live in a country place near Kinmount, ON, on a road appropriately named Mark Twain Road. Most of the book was written either the back of my house or in the bunkie up north.

robertson-quote-hiwi.pngPhoto of Ray Robertson's bunkie in northern Ontario. (Courtesy of Ray Robertson).

I always liked the idea of the solitude of two, in a house where you both work. You need your own little place. The major thing for a writer when they're younger is time - you try not to give your time to a job that you need to do, because you need to make money and pay bills. But the second thing is when you get older is space - not to have a big room to write in but just to have space to be able to goof of and imagine things. Time and space have accumulated for me over time.

I can't listen to music when I write. When I write, for better or for worse, I have my own music in my head, like the music of my sentences, the way they sound. I know when they sound right and when they're not right. I can listen to music when I read, but not when I right. I have an air purifier that I use in both places, so there's just this constant whirring sound that allows me to make up my own music when I write.

On doing research, without working

Research always sounds like work to me, and I always try to avoid work. I've been listening and reading about these people my whole life. I did bone up in certain places - what was Sister Rosetta's second husband's name? - things like that. There were places where some of the lesser known people I wasn't able to call upon recorded history, I had to actually talk to people, which is not my strength. I play well alone, but I had to talk to certain people.

One thing I didn't do in the book is I never let the person speak for themselves. If there's one thing we learn from good fiction, it's that what we say is rarely a good indication of what we feel and think. It's more what we do and so for the most part. I try to trace their narrative through their life, their narrative, their actions, their music, the affect they had on other people.

On the necessity of being lazy

This is my tenth book, and I think one of the keys to being prolific is being quite lazy, in the sense that you don't have any compunction about just sitting on a topic for a long time until it becomes necessary to write about. V.S. Pritchett talks about one of the necessary conditions for being a novelist is the ability to have a vegetative temperament, letting something boil until it needs to happen.

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