Our Darkest Night author Jennifer Robson on the books that changed her life
Jennifer Robson has always been obsessed with history.
The daughter of a history professor, Robson holds a strong academic background herself and has ended up channeling her love for the past into writing historical fiction. Her sixth and latest, Our Darkest Night, hits shelves Tuesday.
The novel is set in Venice in the autumn of 1943, and it follows young Jewish woman Antonine Mazin as she leaves her home city for the countryside with Nico Geradi, a Christian farmer who had plans to enter the priesthood. He pledges to keep Nina safe, agreeing to pose as a married couple to protect Nina from the suspicious Nazi officers that dog their every step.
The book builds on Robson's fascination with wartime history, while capitalizing on her lifelong interests as a reader and a writer. Ahead of Our Darkest Night's release, we called her up to talk about the books that shaped her and the stories that continue to provoke and enchant her today.
My favorite book as a child
My go-to answer is Charlotte's Web, because it's one of the best books ever written in terms of the prose. But the years that my family spent in Oxford in 1976, '77, I was turning 7 that year and one of my distinct memories is getting a book token to go to Blackwell's children's bookshop. Just the idea that I could choose any book, it was crazy to me. Like any book, anywhere in the shop, within reason. I picked out the Children's Illustrated History of the World, and I read that book so often that the backing of the spine came off, and my mom had to tape up the pages. I would give anything to have that book again. It made everything so interesting. Between that book and having my history professor dad, I was done for, there's no chance I was going to do anything else for a living but something that revolved around history.
A book I read in secret
I remember getting in trouble for staying up late reading Judy Blume books. My mom had no problem with Judy Blume, it's just that I would invariably want to read them and re-read them and re-read them. I would smuggle a flashlight into my room.What gave me away was because I was laughing so hard. It was probably Blubber. It could have been Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. But those two books, I remember just laughing so hard that I couldn't catch my breath.
The book I enjoyed most in school
The Great Gatsby. That's the first one that I voluntarily re-read. Most teachers now seem to offer books that do seem a little bit more grounded in making [kids] into readers, as opposed to, "This is the canon, and you must read it and just choke it down. I don't care if it's like swallowing a bag full of bran. Just choke it down." We all had to choke down stuff that looking back; what did that add to my life reading that book? The Great Gatsby, that's the first book that I read in school and I could barely even wrap my brain around it. At first it was just how beautiful the writing was. I spent the following summer in France on an exchange, and that was one of the books I took with me. I had it pretty memorized by the end.
A book that changed my life
A trilogy of books by the great British writer Pat Barker, called the Regeneration trilogy, but it's the third book in the trilogy, The Ghost Road. It made me want to write about the Great War; it crystallized my ambition. For the record, I will never come close to what Pat Barker does. If I was ever in the room with her, I'm sure I would embarrass myself. But that book hit me so hard. I read it when it came out, and then I re-read it every few years just to remind me of what a book about war can be like and how powerful it can be. That's the first book I associate with thinking to myself, "I wonder if I might try something like that."
The book that cemented me as a writer
It probably was that trilogy. Before I started writing and I was still trying to figure out if it was something I could do, I looked to all the books about the Great War that I could get my hands on. To be honest, I had already read a number of them, because that was part of my area of study when I was in grad school. But there were books like Testament of Youth, by Vera Brittain, which I come back to again and again. Paul Fussell's The Great War in Modern Memory got me thinking. That's what we want to do, ultimately, is just leave us thinking beyond that moment where we close the final page. The books that changed you are the ones that you carry around with you even when you're done with this physical book.
A book I've read over and over
I do return to books obsessively. Beauty, by Robin McKinley. It is very beautifully written, and there's something about the quality of how she described the settings that the characters find themselves in that I keep returning to. Another book I returned to — and it's not, I should add, for religious reasons, even though it's by C.S. Lewis — it's called The Screwtape Letters. The premise is that it is a senior devil sending letters of instruction to his nephew, who's a junior devil, on how to tempt human beings, who are very fallible. The way that he exposes the underbelly of all of us and the petty things that we can do to undermine ourselves and to make ourselves less decent, it's very funny, and just the way that he pokes through our pretensions and this veil of goodness that we'd like to wrap ourselves when maybe we're not actually being as decent to our fellow human beings as we can be. That is one that I return to when I'm struggling with what the world is like and the condition the world is in. I do find it comforting. Because ultimately, the senior devil is confronted by humans, [and] it's a very ordinary person whose goodness is innate. It's not a hero with a capital H, just an ordinary person. That confounds him. And I think that's all we should really aspire to, that ordinary decency and goodness.
A classic I'm embarrassed to say I've never read
There's so many. We all have the bookshelf of shame. One that I realized I hadn't read the other day, and I was mortified, is Catch-22. Given what I write about and, and the idea that this book that everyone I know who's read it says among other things it's one of the funniest things they've ever read, I don't know how I managed to not read it.
A book people would be surprised to learn I love
I love high fantasy. But I'm picky about it. I'm not interested in the high fantasy that caters to the male readership, where there's a lot of fighting with swords and orcs and decapitations and so on. It's the world-building I find so fascinating. I'm constrained in writing historical fiction to worlds that exist and that I have to depict as accurately as I know how. I can't just fly off and invent things. But there's an American writer called Grace Draven who writes these incredible books in this alternate universe. It's a little bit vaguely Tolkien-esque, vaguely, slightly medieval European. There's one book she wrote, Radiance, and it's about an arranged marriage between the second son and the unwanted niece of noble families. The catch is that they're from two different species. They fall in love despite everything, but the heroine and the hero are so appealing.
A book I'd wish I'd written
Let's go back to Oxford: A Discovery of Witches. Less the vampire stuff, which is fun and [Deborah Harkness] does it really really well. It's the premise that a book can be lost inside the Bodleian Library. I remember thinking [years ago when I was there in the early '90s] that would be a premise for something really interesting, and I never got any farther. Then she took it to, "What if the book is enchanted, and what if it wants to be lost?" That's so brilliant.
The first historical fiction novel I ever read
The first one? That's lost in the mists of time. But the book that I read and re-read and re-read it again is The Girl With the Pearl Earring. For me, that's the touchstone of imaginative re-creation. We can't know who the girl was, but it's so compelling. It makes me think, of course, that's a good an answer as anyone is ever likely to offer. Writing historical fiction, we're actively recreating the past. There's this notion of everything having to be authentic and true. You're aiming for that, but no matter how many years we spent researching a book, we're never going to get to the actual truth of it because it's a quicksilver thing. And it changes depending on who's telling the story. But you're trying to ask, "Is it plausible?" Not just, "Is it possible?" but, "Is it plausible? Does it make sense? Is it convincing?" That's when you know you've done something right. That's what [Tracy] Chevalier did.
My favorite literary love story
Benedict and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. There's just something about it because she gives up nothing of herself. She is no way diminished, in the end, by her love for him. For a story written in the 1590s, that's extraordinarily unusual for women to be as strong at the end of the story as the beginning. I've always wanted to name a pet for them.
The last book that made me laugh out loud and the last book that made me cry
Laugh out loud is Mhairi McFarlane. Her dialogue, her absolute mastery of the British lexicon of swear words, it's incredible. I went through a binge read of her backlist with a friend of mine who's a writer, and we kept texting insults to each other. The English language is so rich, and I feel some of the places where you see that is actually in British insults. Her books too, there's a depth to them. They stay with you, and the characters are very, very well-rounded. Crying — I'll get a little misty, but in terms of the actual had to put it down and have a good cry, it's called The Light of the World, by Elisabeth Alexander. She's a poet, and it's a memoir about loss and the loss of her husband.
My literary hero
Charlotte the spider [from Charlotte's Web]. She's a wonderful friend and a good writer. You can't aspire to more than that.
My literary crush
If we go back to A Discovery of Witches, I do quite find Matthew [appealing]. The whole vampire thing, I'm not super-interested. I don't find that terribly compelling as a genre. What I find interesting about Matthew Clairmont is how long he's been alive. I would be the boring person who want to just sit and be like, "Okay, 15th century. Just like run through the whole thing with me."
The last book I gave as a gift
It would've been one of Deb Perelman's cookbooks this past Christmas. I am such a Deb Perelman superfan that I refer to her to my friends as "Deb." It's so mortifying, one of my friends actually thought I knew her. I had to say, "I'm sorry, Deb is only my friend in my imagination." But I also think she is arguably the best food writer working today. Her recipes are wonderful, but her writing is just as good as her recipes, and that's not an everyday thing.
My favorite movie or TV adaptation of a novel
Have long do we have to talk about Bridgerton? I almost had to lie down and recover from the experience. In a good way. I feel as if I was given an education in how to be a historian when I watched that show. It's one that I fully have taken to heart. Because I think this obsession, and I am guilty of it, of looking for historical accuracy [isn't useful]. In a really clear-eyed way with that show, they took this notion of historical accuracy and said, "Fine," and then just stepped over it. Our notion of the Regency is a historical reconstruction anyways. What are we whining about when we talk about historical accuracy? The breadth of that vision was so incredible that it made me start asking questions about the kind of books that I want to be writing. If anyone wants to whine at me about even the little details in the show whether they were right or wrong, I will go to the wall to defend the decisions that they made. I had not expected to see what I saw, and I was blown away.