STEELE INTERVIEWS: Robin Black

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I’ve been a Robin Black fan since the publication of her short-story collection If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This five years ago. Her debut novel Life Drawing made my 12 Best Novels of 2014 list. Life Drawing comes out in paperback on April 14, 2015. So we discussed the novel about a marriage between an artist and a writer and its challenges when the couple moves to a house deep in the suburbs.

Amy Steele: Phenomenal novel. You examine marriage and art with this engrossing story and these layered characters. Marriage doesn’t sound promising. It sounds like too much work with only minimal rewards. Where did the idea come from?

Robin Black: Oh, I don’t know about the minimal rewards. I think that Owen and Gus have earned a role in each other’s life that is pretty glorious – bumps and imperfections at all. But having said that, I don’t think marriage is for everyone, and I recognize this definitely isn’t a very shined up view of the institution.

The idea really came from me wanting to look at a couple who don’t have kids, challenge that relationship, and then explore what would – or wouldn’t – keep them together. I’ve spent my adulthood around people with children who are always weighing splitting up with the impact of the kids – whenever tough times arise, I mean. I wanted to look at the matter of commitment without that consideration.

And I’m so glad you liked it! Thank you for saying so and for this interview.

Robin Black [photo credit:  Nina Subin]

Robin Black [photo credit: Nina Subin]

Amy Steele: What I thought would happen didn’t happen and I was shocked several times by events that occurred in Life Drawing. So it’s a completely unpredictable read. How did you develop the characters? Where did they come from?

Robin Black: I think it’s unpredictable in part because I make things up as I go along. I’ll take a strand of it: From the start I had no idea who if anyone would have an affair with whom. There were points at which I thought Alison and Owen would, points at which I thought maybe Alison and Gus would. . . So even though I certainly revised once I had all the major actions in place, I think that maybe there’s a lingering fluidity that’s the result of my not having had a set course of events in mind.

Amy Steele: Why did you decide to write a novel about a creative couple. A painter and a writer.

Robin Black: I am married to a lawyer, and every single artist who isn’t married to an artist wonders what it would be like. There’s always that fantasy of the shared bohemian life, the deep philosophical discussions of one’s work. . . I wanted to play with that idea a bit. And maybe it’s sour grapes on my part, but I ended up being glad I am married to a lawyer. I admit, I didn’t make the artist/artist marriage look like huge fun.

Amy Steele: This is a beautiful paragraph: “There are moments in a creative life when you understand why you do it. Those moments might last a few seconds or maybe, for some people, years. But whatever the actual time that passes, they still feel like a single moment. Fragile in the way a moment is, liable to be shattered by a breath, set apart from all the other passing time, distinct.”

Do you feel like this with writing? Is it worth the moments?

Robin Black: Yes. Absolutely. I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to experience that kind of complete mesh with who I am and what I do. It’s worth all the times when it isn’t quite working so well.

Amy Steele: Why did you decide to reveal the ending at the beginning and then work back to how Augusta got there? Was that always your plan?

Robin Black: It was always the idea, from the second I put that opening sentence in place. I think that it gave me a kind of goal and also relaxed me a little bit on the subject of plot. I can’t say that plot is my strength – though I’m getting better I think. And having so dramatic a fact shaping the book relaxed me in a way. I didn’t know how Owen’s death would occur, but I knew I had to get there. And that also provided a kind of intellectual challenge, like putting a puzzle together.

Amy Steele: Did you have a favorite character to write and why?

Robin Black: I suppose it’s Gus, my narrator. I love her, flaws and all. Self-delusions and all. My favorite moments of hers are when she describes her own limitations, as when she talks about not being naturally good at comforting people who are distressed, about having to relearn that every time. I see such earnestness in those admission. Like, Owen, I am prepared to forgive her a lot in exchange for that kind of hint at really trying to understand herself and improve.

Amy Steele: How important are fellowships and writing colonies to your process? Sounds lovely and idyllic.

Robin Black: I haven’t been to a writing colony in nine years, and the only other Fellowship I’ve ever had was six years ago. So I guess the answer better be “not very important.” I’m in a stage of life, my kids adults, my husband still working full time, when I have a lot of time for work, so I don’t know that I need the escapes.

I do miss the conversations though, especially with non-writers, visual artists and musicians. And I miss not having to cook dinner every night. But I have a child with special needs and even though she doesn’t live at home full-time, it’s still hard for me to plan many months out, which those all require. So I just try to be grateful for the freedoms I have.

Amy Steele: Another lovely part: “Life. It begins and begins and begins. An infinite number of times. It is all beginnings until the end comes. Sometimes we know it and sometimes we do not, but at every moment life begins again.” This sounds like it could have been the impetus for Augustus and Owen and Nora and Alison to cross paths and become involved in each other’s lives as they did.

How was the transition from writing short stories to writing a novel? What was the greatest challenge in writing the novel? What’s been the greatest reward?

Robin Black: The greatest challenge was overcoming my sense that it was somehow an entirely alien task, distinct from what I’d been doing for a decade by then. That and also being overly self-conscious about being under contract, so I was inordinately tense for years. Years!

The greatest reward, honestly, is having a piece of work of which I’m proud. Of having found a way to say some things I believe – even if in an indirect form. And I do love having creating characters. That’s like giving yourself the gift of new people in your life. Or anyway, in your imaginary life. . .

Amy Steele: Thank you Robin.

Robin Black: Thank you so much, Amy! I’m so happy to have this chance to chat.

purchase at Amazon: Life Drawing: A Novel

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