“I write about everyday people, mainly because they’re such good company. They’re characters who’re expected to lose but who, with surprising grace and humour, always exceed expectation.”
Robin Falvey, photographed at The Victoria Art Gallery in Bath by Emma Seal Photography
Robin Falvey wrote Fulmar, his newly published and Bath Novel Award shortlisted debut while living in a van. Set in the surfing scene in North Cornwall, FULMAR (Hermitage Press, August 2023) is the story of fifteen-year-old-Jacob Penhallow who has fallen in with the wrong crowd when he is gifted a vintage surfboard and through lifesaving discovers how to save himself, just as surf lifesaving once saved Falvey too.
Jacob finds a better future through becoming a surf lifesaver and you’ve said this was also the saving of you – how did surf lifesaving change your life?
Before I found surfing and surf lifesaving, I had my finger firmly on the self-destruct button. I was brought up in a home where violence and intimidation were commonplace. This has an immediate impact, obviously, but it also has a chronic effect. There’s only so much rebounding a person can do before they lose their bounce.
My well-being plummeted from about the age of fifteen or sixteen onwards. Eventually, I reached the point where I, like Jacob, the character in my novel, was teetering on the brink. Somehow, I found the will to take control of my life, but I didn’t know where to begin. The only thing I felt was in my power to do, was to get fit, so I began running every day. It was a good start, but it wasn’t enough – I was searching for something, and by luck, found surf lifesaving and surfing, and a connection with the sea which continues to this day.
My adventures have taken me from the sands of Dawlish Warren to the surf beaches of Devon, Cornwall, Wales, France, Portugal, and even, briefly, Tahiti. I’ve been a lifeguard and lifeguard captain, a surf lifesaving instructor. I’ve been yacht crew and a tall ship sailor on the high seas – I wrote about those adventures for the national papers in New Zealand and Australia, and then I made a radio documentary about them and sold it to Radio New Zealand National. Because of that success, I had the confidence to put myself through journalism school here in Falmouth. From there to radio journalism, and then to another dynamic meeting of elements – not the land, sea, and sky this time, but fact and fiction, and my debut contemporary YA novel.
It all began with having the courage to make one change – to set the ball rolling in a different direction. I don’t know what might have happened if I hadn’t discovered surf lifesaving; thankfully, I never had to find out!
It’s sometimes said that writing is life-giving, but getting published can be soul-crushing. How would you describe Fulmar’s path to publication?
Long! I began writing the first draft of Fulmar in 2011, was runner-up in the Bath Novel Award in 2015, and then just missed out on being published several times. I’m a journalist and copywriter by trade, and so I’ve been able to keep the wolf from the door, but my main thrust has been my creative work. I choose the projects that capture my imagination at the time, which means that, while I haven’t been getting published, I’ve always had the consolation of being fully engaged, working on the next thing. So, yes, the long wait has been frustrating at times but never crushing. I trust in the process. Also, I enjoyed writing Fulmar so much that I always had that to fall back on – it was never time wasted; writing it was a life-affirming act of creation, and you can’t go wrong with that!
“Troubles will come, but we are humans, and our hearts are mighty.”
How did your publishing deal with Hermitage Press come about, and what’s been the best part of working with them?
A friend of mine saw a call for submissions and let me know. I submitted my manuscript, and here I am. The best part of working with Hermitage has been how positive they are about the book and how committed they have been to creating a beautiful product. I think they’ve done a great job. Also, there’s the fact that Hermitage Press is Cornish. The books are written here, designed here, the artwork is all from here, and it’s printed up the road in Padstow. Cornwall has so often been written about, but now we have our own literary voice, and I think that’s just great. I’m not Cornish, but I’ve lived here for a long time now, and I think it’s cause for celebration that we finally get to publish stories about the lives of the people who live and work here, told from our own unique perspective.
You’ve had multiple shortlistings for our awards over the years; any advice for anyone thinking of entering a manuscript?
Enter. You’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain. It took me a long time to get published, but as I finished each of my novels, I entered it into the Bath Novel Award and was delighted when each was long-listed, then shortlisted. Of course, I would have liked to have won, but three shortlistings aren’t a bad result, and they meant that even though I wasn’t being published, I was reassured that my work was reaching the required standard – that’s a big confidence boost. Plus, there’s the fact that the Bath Novel Award community is such a mutually supportive one and that Caroline (Ambrose, awards founder) herself is such a great advocate and supporter of emerging writers. I have nothing but good things to say about the Bath Novel Award, and whether or not you end up making the longlist, you’ll enjoy the ride. I say go for it.
What is the one thing you hope readers take away from your books?
I write about everyday people, mainly because they’re such good company. These friends of mine are often life’s left-behinds; they’re the traumatised, the embattled, the unqualified, the hopeless, the useless, the bitter, and the depressed. They’re characters who’re expected to lose but who, with surprising grace and humour, always exceed expectations. I find that deliciously satisfying. In terms of what people take away, I’m not sure. I don’t write for causes, or to ‘raise awareness’, or to represent any interest group, but simply to give my characters the dignity of self-expression. If there is one thing, I guess, it’s a little reminder that, yes, troubles will come, but we are humans, and our hearts are mighty.
What does a typical day in the life of Robin Falvey look like?
I like to get my thinking-type work done in the morning – either articles and copywriting or my creative writing and then, if there’s time, head to my workshop around mid-afternoon, where I either make furniture and other things from reclaimed wood, either that or I paint. Later, I might swim in the sea, then back home for tea. I often carry on working into the evening but try to stop by nine. Living in a caravan makes life trickier sometimes, and so the pattern of my days tends also to reflect the weather – staying warm and dry takes a lot of effort in winter. During the summer, I sometimes have to take shelter in the workshop, which is granite and so like a fridge all year!
When and where do you write?
Mainly I write at home, but during the winters, being cosied up in a warm café with a coffee and a slice of carrot cake is ideal for conjuring inspiration. When I wrote Fulmar, I was on the road, living in a van, so on that occasion, I wrote mostly in laybys, something I still like to do. You can’t beat sitting in the car, overlooking the Helford River, laptop out, windows down, and the sounds and scents of summer wafting in.
What’s next for you?
I’m just going to keep on keeping on.
Originally from Brixham in Devon, Robin Falvey joined Dawlish Warren Lifesaving Club, qualifying as a beach lifeguard, and later becoming a lifeguard instructor and club captain. In 2007, he left for New Zealand, where he worked as a deckhand aboard the tall ship Soren Larsen. Returning to the UK, Robin studied for a Master’s degree at Falmouth University and is now a freelance writer. Fulmar is his first novel and was runner-up in 2015’s Bath Novel Award http://www.robinfalvey.co.uk
Set in the surfing scene in North Cornwall, FULMAR (Hermitage Press, August 2023) is the story of fifteen-year-old-Jacob Penhallow who has fallen in with the wrong crowd when he is gifted a vintage surfboard and through lifesaving discovers how to save himself.
Praise for Fulmar:
‘A nuanced and affecting story that will stay with me for a long time.’ Catherine Barter, author of Troublemakers and We Played with Fire.’
‘An utterly unforgettable story: you’ll be rooting for Jacob at every turn.’ Maggie Harcourt, author of The Pieces of Ourselves
‘This elemental story of a boy and the sea wakes up our own dreams and inspires us to follow them.’ Lucy Van Smit, author of The Hurting
‘A wonderfully gritty and gripping debut.’ Tim Hannigan, author of The Granite Kingdom