Back in November I reviewed Julia Robb’s excellent novel, SAINT OF THE BURNING HEART – a gritty portrayal of passions and tensions in a small Texan town near the Mexican border. The spare, crisp, no-nonsense descriptions, authentic-sounding dialogue and expertly conjured atmosphere of the novel made it a truly gripping and impressive read.
So I feel very privileged to have been able to ask Julia a few questions about her life and work …
(SAS): Hello, Julia. Thank you very much indeed for agreeing to be interviewed for the Review Blog!
JR: My pleasure.
(SAS): Can I start by asking you to tell us a little about yourself? – your personal background?
JR: I grew up in West Texas, many years in Hamlin, where my father was the Methodist “preacher” and was referred to as “Brother Robb”.
Hamlin is a farming/ranching town on the Southern Great Plains, where the air is so dry it tastes like dust.
About 4,000 people lived in Hamlin, and the football team was named the “Pied Pipers”, after the famous German story about the Pied Piper of Hamlin.
Pioneers planted Pecan trees in the town, but outside the city limits, the only plants sticking above the horizon were mesquite trees and wheat.
Migrant workers came, living in their pickups. They stretched a canvas over the pickup bed and made campfires to cook their tortilla and beans.
At church, the services of which were at 11 a.m. and 6 p.m., we sang “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” and “Amazing Grace”. Everyone attended Sunday School before the main church service.
A Wednesday night “prayer meeting” was also held.
One Wednesday summer evening I stood outside the church and listened to the singing.
A sparse congregation sang “Pass Me Not Oh Gentle Saviour, Hear My Humble Cry”, one of the most plaintive hymns in Protestantism. The light mellowed to gold and the shadows stretched while I listened.
My dad also held a “children’s hour” during the week, during which he told us stories, most from his World War Two Navy days: like the time his ship was headed for the Philippines and was surrounded by Japanese submarines.
“Danger in front and danger behind,” he said, assuring us kids that if we just kept our eyes on the Lord, we would be delivered from danger, just like his ship was delivered.
So I learned to love stories.
(SAS): When and how did you get the writing bug?
JR: It was always there, like breathing. I can tell you all writers are triggered by something. Willa Cather was triggered by the Nebraska prairie, Joseph Conrad was triggered by the sea. I was triggered by Texas, her history and struggles.
(SAS): Could you tell us a bit about your first foray into novel writing?
JR: I lived in San Antonio, in the Hispanic part of town, and shared a house with a Hispanic family (the house was separated into two parts by a wall). Every weekend I went to a tamale factory and bought two dozen tamales. Then I sat outside in the yard and ate cold tamales for two days while writing on a portable typewriter.
(SAS): You’ve written and published several novels – could you tell us a little about each one, and maybe let us know if you have a favourite?
JR: I don’t have a favourite book because I loved all the characters and I miss them. But my favourite character is Mason Lohman, from SCALP MOUNTAIN. He’s in love with my main protagonist, Colum McNeal.
Colum is heterosexual and in love with his best friend’s wife. And he doesn’t even understand Lohman’s problem.
I’ve taken a lot of crap for Lohman. About ten people regularly accused me, online, of pushing a “homosexual agenda”. They almost ruined my relationship with a website I was writing for.
I’ve lost readers because of him, and a few reviewers have resented Lohman (although they weren’t honest about what offended them).
Homosexual agenda my ass: Lohman is not an agenda, he’s a person. He’s not even homosexual in the usual sense of the word. He wants Colum and has never wanted anyone else, of either sex.
(SAS): You’re very interested in American history and American art, especially that of the southern states. How much of your interest in these things is reflected in your writing?
JR: All of it. SAINT OF THE BURNING HEART is about the power struggle between the Anglos and Hispanics in Texas, which I witnessed. SCALP MOUNTAIN is about the bloody Indian Wars in Texas, which were fought here for forty years and created Texas culture. DEL NORTE is about the impact the Civil War (I have a friend who calls it “The War of Northern Aggression”) had on the men who fought it; north and south.
I’ve also tried to provide a more balanced view than some writers regarding these conflicts.
Who was right and wrong in the Indian Wars? I say (and I’m quoting myself here) “everyone was right, everyone was wrong and everyone got hurt.”
In SAINT, the Anglos were wrong, but they were human.
That’s so important, recognizing the humanity of other people.
In DEL NORTE, ex-Confederate doctor Wade Pickney had been jailed in a Union Prisoner of War camp. That’s his backstory.
Elmira was hell. Men died of starvation there, and, due to the conditions, died of cholera and typhoid and exposure.
Most people who read Civil War history know that Andersonville POW camp (run by the Confederacy) was hell for the Union prisoners. Men died there of starvation and disease.
But few people know about Elmira, the other side of the story.
In DEL NORTE, two of my protagonists are Chinese immigrants. But they are not victims, nor heroes.
I’m not interested in black and white, good and bad. I’m interested in failure and redemption.
(SAS): How would you describe your experiences in publishing so far?
JR: Dismal. Like many other writers, it’s hard to find readers or for them to find us.
In some ways, times have never been better for writers. We have been delivered from the tyranny of publishing houses and agents.
On the other hand, so many people are publishing most writers get lost in the torrent of words.
(SAS): Do you have a writing routine? If so, how would a “normal” writing day proceed for you – or maybe a “perfect” writing day?
JR: I’m hopeless. When it’s all going well I can sit twelve to fourteen hours at a time. (Going well usually means just pushing my way through.)
But when it’s going badly, I stay away from the keyboard for weeks, even months, until I can force myself to return.
(SAS): Are you currently working on a writing project (and, if so, is there anything you can tell us about it without giving the game away)?
JR: I’m on a writing vacation now, but will start something within the next few months.
The novel is set in West Texas during the Indian Wars. A U.S. Cavalry commander and a white boy adopted into the Comanche tribe are the protagonists.
(SAS): How do you see the future of publishing – are there any trends in the way books are published/bought/read that excite or concern you?
JR: I think everyone in this business is concerned about everything regarding book publishing.
(SAS): Is there a dream or ultimate goal (in other words, would you admit to having a major ambition for the future)?
JR: All writers are ambitious – we all want to be recognized, we all want to make a living at it, we all want readers.
(SAS): What advice would you give to anyone thinking of writing and maybe publishing a novel?
JR: Don’t listen to anybody about what you should be writing about. Learn to write well, yes, and that’s standard. But when someone tells you to write about such and such because the subject is hot, or will be hot, run.
Write your heart.
Anything that’s hot now, will cool way off by the time you write your novel.
The only success is when you write your heart, because if you don’t sell, at least you were honest and an artist.
Romance and mystery are the biggest sellers, not historical novels (which sell, comparatively, pretty badly), but I don’t care, I’m going to write what interests me. No matter what.
(SAS): If you had three wishes, what would they be?
JR: That’s a secret.
(SAS): Thank you, Julia – and all very best wishes to you for your writing career!
(Click on any of the book titles in capitals above to go straight to the appropriate book page on Amazon.com, CLICK HERE to go to Julia Robb’s author page on Amazon, or check out Julia’s website: juliarobb.com)
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