Interviewed by Sue Leonard.
Published in The Irish Examiner. January 17th 2009.
When Robert Fannin was 24 years old, he was sailing in the Arctic when the yacht capsized. Hanging upside down, as the water flowed in, Robert surmised that he had just two minutes left to live.
“And the thought annoying me more than anything else, was that I had never written a book,” he tells me, on the phone from Bristol.
Writing seems a strange aspiration for a rebel, who, since being expelled from St Paul’s College, Raheny at 15, had worked as a fisherman, and had dabbled with drugs. But the reason for his expulsion lends a clue.
“I wrote a poem in answer to a question, ‘why we should love God.’ It was called, ‘The Prostitute,’ and I thought it was spiritual. But the chap beside me laughed and I was thrown out the next day.”
Robert’s father, the cartoonist Bob Fannin, was a keen yachtsman in Howth Harbour. And Robert admits that becoming a fisherman in that same harbour was a way of embarrassing his family. And so began his chequered career.
Now 54, Robert has worked as a cartoonist; an illustrator, a radio presenter and a sign writer. He’s been a salesman, a steam cleaner washing wax off new cars; he was a T shirt designer, a curator, a rubbish collector and a chauffeur.
And he spent years sailing; both delivering ships worldwide, and working a skipper on Charter Yachts. All this, though, was a transference from the job he really wanted; which was that of writer.
“I was always writing,” he says. “I wrote articles for The Guardian and the Times. I wrote for various yachting magazines, but I always wanted to write fiction. I’d tried drafts of novels but nothing stuck.”
Fannin wrote a successful play though. ‘In a Different Light’ toured New England and had a three week run off Broadway, before coming to the Dublin Theatre Festival in 1996.
During this time, Robert had an on off relationship with Denise; living with her and her small son in Bristol from 1997, when their daughter, Aoife was born. They married, but have now split. It was Denise’s pregnancy that gave the spark of an idea for Robert’s debut novel.
“I wanted to write down those experiences I had at 15 and 16 when I was arrogant and ignorant,” he says, “I wanted my child to be able to read about it when they were a teenager. And perhaps I wanted to cleanse myself before I became a father.”
It had been a wild time.
“I earned a load of money as a fisherman, and I started getting into a lot of trouble. There was an awful lot of drinking and motorbike using.”
“I wanted to try LSD,” he says. “I’d listened to Jimmie Hendrix and the Beatles, but it was impossible to get your hands on it. So in 1972 I went to Amsterdam where heroin cured me of LSD. A friend and I messed around a lot, but a friend died and we had to return to Dublin where there was no heroin to be had.
“Gradually, I realised that I’d come close to something very destructive and in the process my survival instincts had capsized. It takes a short time to get over the physical effects of drugs, but many years to un-capsize yourself.”
Before long, Robert realised that these early experiences would transfer well into a novel.
“So I employed tactics I had learned in play writing. I realised there was something there.
“Six years ago I sent the manuscript to a London agent who had worked with me on a BBC radio play. She liked the novel. She thought it was lovely, but felt it should not all be set in 1972. She said, ‘I think you should bring the novel into the modern day,’ but I felt I could not do that.
“As we were discussing it on the phone, my now ex wife and I were waiting for a babysitter so that we could go to marriage counselling. We’d been going for about two years. That thought gave me a flash of inspiration.
“I said, ‘what if I write in two time zones, and make my hero, Sean a marriage guidance counsellor? We could link back to the earlier story through a client.’ The agent thought that was brilliant.
“I sent a new version, and she said, ‘that’s good, but do another rewrite.’ The manuscript went backwards and forwards for four years. Meanwhile I was the main breadwinner for my wife Denise and the two children. I was doing sign writing, mural painting and paint effects. I’d do anything.”
When the agent, finally, rejected the manuscript Robert was devastated.
“She said, ‘you have done all you can, but I won’t take it on.’ She said it did not fall into any genre. I’d worked so hard on it, and now, I thought, it would never be published. I didn’t know what to do.”
He told a friend one day, as they ate their lunch in an architect’s garden. And he suggested that Robert apply to university.
“I hadn’t been in education for 37 years, but I applied that night, on line. I was accepted by the University of the West of England in Bristol. I’m now in my second year.”
Whist he was there, Robert was diagnosed with Dyslexia. It was found he was functioning way above average in some aspects of learning; way below in others. Knowing this has made sense of so much.
“I read very slowly and it takes time for me to write; it has to be clear who is saying what. I’d always thought I must be stupid. So being diagnosed was a relief. And I’ve been showered with help.”
Last year Robert sent his manuscript to agent Faith O’Grady. She accepted it, and brokered a two book deal for Robert with Hachette Books.
“When I got that phone call I was numb. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I had to keep taking deep breaths.”
Classified as ‘accessible literature,’ Shooting the Moon is a wonderful read. Part romance, and part adventure, the novel has some clever plot twists. It’s page turning, but the writing shines. Fannin is strong on characterisation, and the nuances of relationships. What would he like readers to take from it?
“That it is like life. That the process of falling in love when you are young; and that more soured and jaded hopefulness of later encounters rings true. That love never dies, it just changes in form.”
Writing for Robert is a struggle. He rewrote the novel around 28 times.
“The most disappointing part of writing, is when you have done two or three hours work and you think, ‘I have got it.’ You have a glow like being in love, but you go back to it the next morning, reread it, and realise that it is rubbish.”
Now that Robert has written his book, what is his ambition?
“To sail alone around the world,” he says. “And to write a really, really brilliant book.”
Shooting the Moon by Robert Fannin is published by Hachette Books at 12.99 euro.
© Sue Leonard. 2009.