Posts Tagged Robin Black
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.
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
1. Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi [Riverhead]
clever, stunningly gorgeous novel about race.
2. The Daring Ladies of Lowell by Kate Alcott [Doubleday]
If you grew up in Massachusetts like me, you likely went on a Lowell Mill tour at some point during an elementary school or junior high field trip. I went twice because when my Aunt and cousins visited from Texas they wanted to go. While you rode on a boat along the Merrimack River listening to a guide speak about girls and young women leaving their families from all over New England to work at the Lowell mills it was easy enough to disassociate from it yet dreadful to think about the harsh conditions these women faced back in the 19th century.
Like the Salem witch trials the industrial revolution and bitter working conditions for Lowell mill girls happened essentially in my backyard and I feel particularly close to the plight of the mill girls depicted in this novel. It’s only the second five-star rating I’ve given to any book this year. Kate Alcott vibrantly brings the stories of the Lowell mill girls to the page as she creates strong, outspoken female characters enduring adverse situations that dare imagine and dispute better working and living situations.
3. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng [Penguin Press]
Anything I write will never be enough to convey the power and magnificence of this debut novel.
4. Fallout by Sadie Jones [Harper]
Fallout revolves around Luke Kanowski, a young man with a mother living in a mental institution and a a former Polish POW father who remained in England after the war. Both parents rely tremendously on Luke. Living in a rustic northern town, Luke escapes the familial strain and dead-end choices through a passion for theatre. He reads everything and remains updated on all theatrical goings on. One night he meets aspiring producer Paul Driscoll and theater student Leigh Radley who will influence his future in myriad ways
5. Visible City by Tova Mirvis [Houghton Mifflin Harcourt]
Author Tova Mirvis writes with a melancholy gorgeousness about connectivity and disparity. When we imagine others’ lives we never expect what we eventually discover to be true. Perfection masks insecurities. Contentment hides dissatisfaction. What is happiness? Our ideal is never another’s ideal. How something looks from afar rarely looks as virtuous once you start to delve into the grit and imperfections.
6. Pioneer Girl by Bich Minh Nguyen [Viking]
Author Bich Minh Nguyen writes about a Vietnamese-American family and its connection to the beloved American Ingalls-Wilder family as seen through the eyes of a savvy, inquisitive young woman. Almost everyone remembers reading the Little House on the Prairie books about Laura Ingalls and watching the television show.
7. Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce [Doubleday]
One of the best novels in a while about finding your way and developing a sense-of-self in your twenties.
8. The Garden of Letters by Alyson Richman [Berkley Trade]
When I’m thinking about a novel for some time after reading it, I know it’s remarkable. Think you’ve heard all the stories about WWII. Think again. The Garden of Letters by Alyson Richman focuses on the Italian Resistance. Elodie, a young student and cello player, becomes involved in the Italian Resistance when artists and teachers at her school become targets for Mussolini’s Fascist regime.
9. Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill [Vintage]
10. All Days are Night by Peter Stamm [Other Press]
A popular television news reporter wakes up severely disfigured by a car accident. The novel beautifully traverses past and present. Stamm writes in an effectively laconic and melancholy style. He’s exploring appearances from various angles. It’s a gripping read about art and connection.
11. Life Drawing by Robin Black [Random House]
stunning writing. brilliantly explores marriage in all its nuances.
12. The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant [Scribner]
This is the story of the education of Addie Baum. Jewish daughter to immigrant parents Addie grew up during the mid-1900s in a one-room tenement house in Boston. In telling Addie’s story, author Anita Diamant covers a lot of history: prohibition; 1920s flappers and artists; WWI; The Great Depression; illegal abortions, birth control and Margaret Sanger; the Spanish Flu; women’s education; women’s careers; journalism; civil rights. Like The Red Tent, Diamant depicts history through a feminist eye. Intelligent, resourceful and intellectually-curious Addie is a wonderful feminist character. I probably truly fell in love with this novel when Diamant mentioned Simmons College, my women’s college alma mater in Boston. At one point, Addie discusses her goal to attend college but that she fears many won’t accept her because she’s Jewish. [“There’s Simmons College,” I said. “They even accept the Irish if you can imagine.”]
Joyce Carol Oates
Lovely, Dark, Deep: stories
At Coolidge Corner Theatre
Thursday, September 11 at 6pm
Harvard Book Store
Thursday, September 11 at 7pm
The Bone Clocks
Porter Square Books
Thursday, September 18 at 6:30pm
The Paying Guests
Harvard Book Store at Brattle Theatre
Thursday, September 18 at 6pm
Harvard Book Store at Brattle Theatre
Friday, September 19 at 6pm
The Liar’s Wife
Porter Square Books
Monday, Sept 22 at 7pm
Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution
Harvard Book Store
Friday, September 26 at 7pm
Thirteen Days in September
Harvard Book Store at Brattle Theatre
Monday, September 29 at 6pm
Harvard Book Store
Tuesday, September 30 at 7pm
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan [Knopf]
–Egan writes with impressive attention to detail and possesses the ability to craft a unique, humorous and riveting portrait of two people invested in the challenging and ever-changing music industry.
The Dissemblers by Liza Campbell [Permanent Press]
–Through lyrical prose and stimulating descriptions, Campbell deftly transports the reader to Georgia O’Keefe’s New Mexico. She propels us inside an artist’s mind and twists a complex morality tale.
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender [Doubleday]
–Bender writes exquisitely. The fairy-tale magic realism propelling this novel is charming and irresistible.
Solar by Ian McEwan [Nan A. Talese]
–crazy story told with McEwan’s brilliant style [simultaneously amusing and uncomfortable] about a physicist working with alternative energy sources including wind power and solar
If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This by Robin Black [Random House]
–exquisitely crafted, eclectic collection of short stories
City of Veils by Zoe Ferraris [Little, Brown and Company]
–Ferraris illuminates the varying levels of religious devotion and the status of women in Saudi Arabia from several viewpoints. It contains plenty of twists and thought-provoking cultural situations.
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart [Random House]
–Shteyngart brilliantly describes a dystopian future with fantastically elaborate detail through emails, IM exchanges and diary entries.
This Is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper [Plume]
–Tropper has quickly become one of my favorite writers for his sensitive and often hilarious insight on relationships.
Small Kingdoms by Anastasia Hobbet [Permanent Press]
–beautifully crafted a complex, layered story about the abuse of a household servant in Kuwait. Moving from character to character and each individual story, Hobbet provides a rich background about life in Kuwait and the complex structure of the Middle East where class divisions remain strong, Americans and British are simultaneously despised and coveted, arcane laws and customs remain in place, yet Kuwait, compared to other Arab nations appears modern.
The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi Durrow [Algonquin Books]
–provocative and creative coming-of-age in the 1980s story. Blue-eyed, mocha-skinned Rachel is the daughter of a black GI-father and a Danish mother. The sole survivor of a Chicago rooftop tragedy, the 12-year-old ends up at her boozing and opinionated grandmother’s house in Portland, Ore.
Emily Hudson by Melissa Jones [Pamela Dorman Books]
–Jones has created a rousing feminist character in Emily. She’s outspoken and likely to shun conventionality. Emily’s a bit ahead of her time. Women are supposed to be married off by a certain age and then be relegated to the kitchen and drawing room, only to come out for parties and entertaining. And to be an artist at this time? It’s rather unusual and Emily certainly meets those who doubt her talents and capability to make it out there on her own, including her dear cousin William.
How to Survive a Natural Disaster by Margaret Hawkins [Permanent Press]
–astute family drama filled with betrayal, envy, lies, discord, tragedy and forgiveness. It packs a real punch and will stay with you for days after you finish its last page.
The Wolves of Andoverr by Kathleen Kent [Reagan Arthur]
–I really liked this novel for a number of reasons. It provides a detailed, rich description of daily life in 17th century Massachusetts. Smallpox travels through the town and I’m fascinated by infectious disease and how it’s contained. Kent takes the reader to England for its civil war. And the wolves? There are two kinds of wolves in this novel and they are sneaky and vicious.
An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin [Grand Central]
–Martin delves into the complicated New York art world and particularly into the life of art dealer Lucy Yeager. Like an Edith Wharton novel, this glitzy, posh scene has its nuanced participants and sinister underbelly.
Something Redby Jennifer Gilmore [Scribner]
–Gilmore instills equal parts cheerfulness and solemnity throughout this meditative second novel. It’s a superb reflection on the connection between external events and our psyches.
If I Loved you, I Would Tell You This is an exquisitely crafted, eclectic collection of short stories by Robin Black. Diverse characters and Black’s unique style and an eye for the darker side of humanity spring forth from the page. Recently, I spoke with Robin about her writing process and her debut collection of short stories.
Amy Steele [AS]: What do you like about writing short stories?
Robin Black [RB]: In a way I think that there are parts of short-story writing that tap your brain like doing a crossword puzzle or jigsaw puzzle because you’re working within a limited space and every part has to be the right part.
I think novels, even though it shouldn’t be this way, are more forgiving in a way. But since I’ve written some stories that have done well and one novel, that is really bad, it’s easier.
AS: What are the challenges in writing short stories?
RB: The biggest challenge in short stories is compression and re-learning that. In novels, a lot of it is about expanding things and following possibilities. At least it is for me. In short stories you really are asking yourself, “Do I need this?” or “Do I want this?” or “Should I use this space for something else?” or “Is this really relevant to the story?” In novels, you can have these long digressions. My stories are long. I pretty much have forgotten how to write a story under 8,000 words.
AS: How does your teaching affect your writing and writing affect your teaching?
RB: My teaching makes my writing much better. I find teaching incredibly stimulating and exciting. Every time I read someone else’s story in whatever shape it’s in, I always figure out things about my own work also. I always learn. I think that for a lot of us that are probably not going to be in the student role anymore, teaching is just as good for that. I hope my students get a lot out of it. I know I do. And I do think being a practitioner helps in the teaching. The assignments I give my students really grow out of my own struggles which are ongoing. One weird thing about writing is you learn how to do it and you never learn how to do it.
AS: What do you teach?
RB: I’ve taught general creative writing classes, undergraduate and graduate level, and I’ve taught short stories. I do individual coaching and have done some weekend workshops where the points I’m teaching are very applicable to short stories or novels. I try to make it that whoever’s taking it gets something out of it. I also teach non-fiction. I write memoir essays. So I teach that as well.
AS: How do you decide whether to tell a story in first-person or third-person?
RB: That is one of the things I work hardest on and every story I go back and forth and more and more I end up in third-person. It’s always a question for me of how to tell the story best and what would be gained by having it in first-person because you lose a lot. You lose some distance. You lose some perspective. Most of the time, I feel that the central character is not the best person to tell the story. Usually they don’t have enough insight to do it. I don’t want them to be that smart, I don’t want to be that wise and I’m not trying to create an unreliable narrator. So I want a narrator who has a bit of wisdom about the situation.
AS: Where do you get most of your ideas?
RB: They’re not autobiographical. I’m not someone who goes through life and has things happen and thinks, “That would make a great story.” I actually really admire people who are able to do that because I’m not. Every story in there has some sort of spark of something that did happen to me. There’s a story about a neighbor and a fence [“If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This”] and there actually is a fence in my driveway. There’s a story about someone having electricity in the water and we actually did have our water electrified.
AS: Why did you want to tell that story about the woman and the father connection [“Gaining Ground”]?
RB: That’s one that I have no idea how exactly it came together although there are some autobiographical aspects in there. We did have electric water. My father did not kill himself. He died six months before that. I’m sure I was working through all kinds of stuff but for me the way that happens in stories is the way that happens in dreams. I can go back over them and see my obsession or my psyche but it’s all really changes and it’s really similar to dreams for me.
AS: The story, “If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This,” about a woman with cancer who has an inconsiderate, selfish neighbor who builds a fence that abuts in front of her house is told in an interesting style. How did you develop it?
RB:That one came about out of a real emotional impulse. Our neighbor built a fence that basically as in the story is in front of our front door. I couldn’t get over the fact that he could be that mean. I had this impulse to talk to him about it and then I realized that I didn’t care about him enough and I didn’t think he could learn anything. He was past caring. That was really wanting to talk to someone and that is why it is one person talking to another character. Emotionally there’s a lot of truth in that story.
AS: Can you talk about the woman with the prosthetic leg and the woman who was jealous of her [“Pine”]?
RB: That’s sort of a soccer mom story and I had one season of being a soccer mom. There was another mother there who kept inviting me to join support groups with her. It was clear to me that this was a woman who felt like there was something missing in her life. Again in that weird dream way, the way that came out in the character is that she’s literally missing a limb. But the way it started was someone who was in some way incomplete. Also, the people you meet through your children who are not necessarily a person you have anything in common with or would choose to spend time with but that’s part of the child-rearing years.
AS: What attracts you to writing about the darker side of people?
RB: I’ve always been drawn to how people cope to tragic situations. I grew up in a family whose grandmother was paraplegic. Around the time I went back to writing, I also had some losses in my own life. I think the stories for me were, in a way, trying to work it out and look at situations where people were grieving and write them into a more optimistic position.
AS: How do you decide which stories to put into a collection and what do you think makes a great short story collection?
RB: The reality of my stories is that they were not written to be read together. They were written over eight years and they were published separately. When I was writing them, I was not writing for a collection. I was writing each one to write the best story I could write. When I submitted a collection, I submitted the best stories I had. I wrote one more after I’d already submitted it. I have mixed feelings that they are in a collection. A lot of times I wish I could put a label on them that says, “Read one a week.” I didn’t write them to be read like a novel. I think in a way it does the stories a disservice to read them that way. I like that they are all together but I think that my collection would really benefit from people reading them [slowly] and [spaced out].
AS: What inspires you to write?
RB: I like to observe and share it. I want the words to be good because that’s the way to communicate. It’s that I saw something about the way people react and I think it’s cool and I want to describe it.
Robin Black is a graduate of the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. Her essays and stories have been published in The Southern Review, The Georgia Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Bellevue Literary Review, and other publications. She lives in Philadelphia.
Title: If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This: Stories
Author: Robin Black
Hardcover: 288 pages
Publisher: Random House; 1 edition (March 30, 2010)
Category: short stories
Review source: publisher
more information at Robin Black website
buy at Amazon: If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This: Stories