Q & A with Robin Black

Is there an element of craft you are most excited to use when you begin writing a new piece?

There isn’t really one—meaning it varies from piece to piece. When I wrote the stories in my collection, If I loved you, I would tell you this, I consciously used each one as a way to explore a different craft element. So there’s one that’s structured, purposely, so that it’s equal parts “front story” and “back story” with neither being more important that the other, but the actual story being about the intertwining of the two. And there’s another that was the result of my wanting to write a story in which the plot takes a kind of ninety-degree turn—because I was exploring the way that short stories seem to limit themselves and their possibilities as they progress and I wanted to see if I could buck that.

With my novel, Life Drawing, I was interested in different craft challenges throughout. Dialogue is always fascinating—how to make it sound natural; how to give characters distinct speaking voices; how not to fall into using it for exposition. The management of time is also on my mind and surely was with this, a novel told entirely in flashback. And there was always the challenge of plot, moving it along, making it seem “right”—which for me tends to mean having it grown out of character, having it be psychologically plausible.

And endings. Endings are always a challenge because for all that everything in fiction is contrived—which it is—endings are the most obvious contrivance of all. Endings are the point at which you most risk having the falseness of the whole thing reveal itself because there is an inherent paradox in ending a story that, in the realist tradition, you are pretending “actually happened”—or might have. We all know there are no such things as endings in real life, so an ending is invariably a magic trick, a form of misdirection where you must make a reader forget that she knows that endings are false, and that, by extension, so is fiction. Endings are where the possibility of the author stepping out from behind the curtain to ruin the illusion is at its riskiest.

As a reader, how do you judge a “good” ending then? Does it have anything to do with neatness? 

I think it varies very much from work to work. I remember when I read Coetzee’s Disgrace the first time, I was sitting outside on a porch with my husband, and after the final words I had to close the book and walk away from him. I needed solitary recovery time. And that’s definitely a good—great, really—ending. But it probably wouldn’t be the impact you’d want for a light comic novel. Maybe it works to say that a good ending is one in which, as a reader, you don’t feel immediately out of the book, but as though it’s continuing in your consciousness in some way. But even as I say that, I think it’s wrong just because there is no one answer that suits all works.

As for neatness, when I started writing—and I don’t think this is unusual—I had that impulse with every story to “solve” it by the end. Every nuance had to be seen through to its most obvious meaning. Every possible issue had to be “fixed.” And of course that kind of neatness is exactly how the author intrudes the most to say: Here I am! Look! I wrapped up the whole story!! Which is definitely not ideal. You don’t want the author standing there screaming at the end.

But a couple of different questions I ask myself a lot these days are: “What is an ending, anyway?” and “When does the ending begin?” Is it the moment after the work is over? Some stretch after the plot concludes? Or does the ending begin with the very first word? Or is it all of them? These may sound like silly, abstract questions, but I think that they can be helpful in shaking up how a writer thinks about questions of finality and conclusion. And shaking up assumptions is always a good thing.

When you read a novel, how do you recognize a stunning detail?

That’s an interesting question. I suppose it’s that sense of either, “Oh! I never thought of that that way,” or, “Yes! That’s exactly right!” or sometimes an odd combination: “I never saw that before, but of course! That’s just right!” And then there are the details that one hasn’t experienced oneself; an insight into a different culture, or just a different sort of person in terms of emotional make-up or any kind of life experience.

But stunning details are tricky things. I’m a great believer that there are only so many times you want a reader aware that there’s a craftsperson behind the scenes. Too many stunning details, and you are likely to have a reader who admires your writing more than she inhabits your work. Which isn’t to say I ration my own—I’m grateful for any stunning detail I can muster. But I think we’ve all had that experience of reading writers who seem to be continually reaching for ways to impress. And sometimes, in terms of popularity or critical acclaim, they do impress. But the sort of writing where I’m constantly thinking, “Wow, that’s a stunning detail,” never works for me. To some extent, as a reader, I want the whole craft aspect to be invisible—at least on the first read. I say “to some extent” because obviously it’s not true that I never want to admire a turn of phrase or particular observation, but I don’t want to be preoccupied by doing so.

What’s most important when writing dialogue?

As I alluded to earlier, it’s probably making it sound like actual speech as opposed to words in service of the story. One of the most basic things writers have to learn is how messy real communication is. I very rarely have a character answer a question put to her, directly. In real life, when my husband walks in and says, “Did the dog get walked recently?” I’m just as likely to say, “I can’t believe you were outside without a coat. It’s freezing. What? Yes, about an hour ago,” as I am to say, “Yes, about an hour ago.” In real conversations, we keep expanding the topic as we move along, introducing random threads, interrupting, ignoring. People are infinitely more interesting—and also ruder—than is often the case when beginning writers write conversations. It’s a good exercise to write scenes in which people are what I think of as “casually, inoffensively rude,” because most of us are when we speak.

Who are the masters of craft you often revisit?

That’s a funny one. I reread Mrs. Dalloway often, mostly for the forward momentum of the sentences. And I have particular short stories I’ll go back to: “Silver Water,” by Amy Bloom; “Ralph the Duck” (arguably one of the best stories ever written) by Frederick Busch; “A Stone Woman” and “Body Art,” by A.S. Byatt; “Remission,” by Mavis Gallant. Also, the short novel, A Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes. Disgrace, by Coetzee. But there’s something in me that kind of bridles at the terms “masters of craft” and “revisit” strung together. I actually prefer having my socks blown off by new voices and new work to paying homage again and again to recognized “masters.” I read Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels this past month, and I learned more about writing doing that than I have learned from reading anything else in years. I suppose she’s fast becoming a recognized master, but maybe my point is that I am more interested in having writers unknown to me teach me new possibilities than in going back to the ones whose work I have been studying for years. Maybe—is it obvious that I’m thinking aloud?—maybe it’s because I’m afraid of getting stuck myself. I don’t want to keep trying to be Virginia Woolf or A.S. Byatt, or worse yet, an imitation.

I know that it’s very in fashion to say that all writers steal—maybe Chekhov said it first?—and of course it’s true. But you have to be sure you are stealing new things all the time.

James Wood wrote, “In the novel, we can see the self better than any literary form has yet allowed; but it is not going too far to say that the self is driven mad by being so invisibly scrutinized.” In Life Drawing, Augusta, your protagonist, scrutinizes herself so intensely, and the reader feels this because you allow us such free exploration of her consciousness. I wonder if opening her so generously was a daunting undertaking?

In a way, for me, not doing so would have been more difficult.Most writers have strengths that are also their weaknesses or that present pitfalls. One of my strengths as a writer, I believe, is an ability to dissect motivation, to find the layers and layers of past, present, desperation, hope, fear, desire and so on that go into human actions. So, having Gus’s interior so splayed wasn’t hard for me.

What’s hard for me is to remember that not everyone finds that as endlessly satisfying as I do; that readers need action too; that it can seem self-indulgent to have a narrator who, depending on your view, either discusses her inner life so much or yammers on about it.

And of course, there’s the other “self”—the author. All novels also put the author under the microscope. Not because any one character is necessarily a stand-in, or because the events are “ripped from the headlines” of the authors own life—in my case, they are not—but because to write fiction is to share your subconscious being, to share your dreams—not the aspirational sort, but the sleeping sort. Fiction comes from we know not where in our beings, and it carries all our secrets, whatever the content. And if you think too long about that part, it might well drive you mad.

Do you ever feel more like a psychologist than a writer?

I think maybe I feel like both psychologist and patient. Psychologist because with the sort of so-called “psychological realism” I mostly write, there is always that challenge of trying to allow for comprehensible reactions in your characters. I want their motives to make sense—to be surprising, but always to make sense. But I also feel a bit like the patient in that my own psyche has to be a little fluid throughout the writing process. The more I can let myself make unexpected associations, be a little illogical, jabber on a little without too much self-consciousness, the better for the work. The best early drafts, for me, are the ones that have a little craziness in them—mine, if not necessarily my characters’.

On the first page of Life Drawing, Augusta thinks, “Imagining and remembering are not quite the same thing.” This called into question her reliability as a narrator, but what did this line allow you to do with her character?

It allowed me to create the sort of fictional dream in which it’s pretended that a character/narrator tells a story as if she is remembering every detail, every line of dialogue, from however many months or years before. It’s a tiny acknowledgment on Augusta’s part, that when she says, for example, “Alison took another sip of wine,” in regards to something that may have occurred two years before, that unless Augusta is a savant of some kind, she can’t possibly be remembering it all. And we do accept such character/narrators all the time. We allow for this odd limited omniscience of memory—limited because they aren’t actually in anyone else’s point of view, but then they “know” more than a person could know about the minutiae of their own memories.

But, beyond the technicality of me kind of tipping my hat to that convention, I wanted to instill in Augusta, from the beginning, an aura of longing, of wishing it were otherwise. She imagines beauty, but she remembers a sense of eeriness. I wanted to establish early on a disconnect in her that informs who she is as a narrator. And not just to have an unreliable narrator in the generic sense (and obviously, as I say, any narrator who claims so great a memory is de facto unreliable) but to explain the emotional genesis of her particular slant on things.

Setting is so essential in this story. Augusta and her husband live isolated in a rehabilitated farmhouse in nowhere, Pennsylvania. How do you form setting?

Setting has long been a struggle for me. I didn’t grow up with a sense of place. There isn’t a town or region with which I strongly identified. My parents were university professors, and I realize now that my “hometown” was a university, which will only come in handy if I ever write an academic novel. Also, I have very severe ADD, which can lead both to a sort of obliviousness to certain details, and, as I think I’ve written about elsewhere, to skipping descriptive passages in novels, a sin of which I have been guilty my whole reading life.

So “place” and “setting” have always taken a lot of conscious effort on my part. But I have also always had this bucolic fantasy, this sense of stories unfolding in the countryside, maybe from reading Jane Austen and George Eliot in my formative years. And also, maybe because in a weird way, the countryside is a setting in which human interaction can take center stage without the necessary choreography of traffic and restaurants and all the sorts of things that feel stressful to me to write, as opposed to two people walking around a pond.

As for actually evoking the setting, I have discovered—and this was by no means true when I started writing—a real love for describing visual details. I come at it from a psychological perspective, I suppose. My physical descriptions often involve imbuing the landscape (or a part of a home) with something close to a consciousness. For example, in one of my short stories, lampposts “argue” over what darkness is, each lighting up at a different moment during dusk. And I have a staircase that “lies in wait” like a dragon for the occupants of the home to become too old to manage it safely.


 

robin-black-photo-final_c-nina-subin

Robin Black’s story collection, If I loved you, I would tell you this, was published by Random House in 2010 to international acclaim by publications such as O. Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, The Irish Times and more. The stories, written over a period of eight years, focus on families at points of crisis and of growth. Her writing is very much influenced by her belief that the most compelling act of creativity in which we all participate is the daily manufacture of hope. Though the book can be seen as a study of loss, it is also a study of the miraculous ways in which people move forward from the inevitable challenges of life.

Robin’s stories and essays have appeared in numerous publications including The Southern Review, The New York Times Magazine. One Story, The Georgia Review, Colorado Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Freight Stories, Indiana Review, and The Best Creative Nonfiction, Vol. I (Norton, 2007). She is the recipient of grants from the Leeway Foundation, the MacDowell Colony, the Sirenland Conference, and is also the winner of the 2005 Pirate’s Alley Faulkner-Wisdom Writing Competition in the short story category. Her work has been noticed four times for Special Mention by the Pushcart Prizes and also deemed Notable in The Best American Essays, 2008, The Best Nonrequired Reading, 2009 and Best American Short Stories, 2010. She holds degrees from Sarah Lawrence College and the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers.

Robin’s first novel, Life Drawing, was published in 2014 by Random House.

 

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