Robin Black is the author of the story collection If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, a finalist for the Frank O’Connor Prize. Her novel Life Drawing was published in 2014. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including One Story, Colorado Review, The Georgia Review, The Southern Review, O: The Oprah Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, and the anthology The Best Creative Nonfiction, Vol. I. A recipient of fellowships from the Leeway Foundation and the MacDowell Colony, Black was the 2012 Distinguished Visiting Writer at Bryn Mawr College and has taught in the Brooklyn College MFA Program.
“The ‘Unfinished’ Stuff,” an Interview with Robin Black
This interview was conducted via email by Interview Editor Niki Johnson. Of the process, she said, “I feel lucky to have had the chance to interview Robin Black. I truly appreciate her thoughtful, genuine responses. Her writing is so powerful—full of the complexities and joys of life.” In this interview, Robin discusses valuing personal voice, her experience writing in various forms, and the relationships in her recent novel, Life Drawing.
Superstition Review: You used to be a writer for the late Beyond the Margins blog. Of its departure, you wrote, “I have come to understand far more about my own relationship to this profession and this craft.” How has having a writer’s community influenced your writing?
Robin Black: In many ways, having a community of writers gives me courage to write what I want to write and feel naturally compelled to write, as opposed to writing what in weak moments it feels like I should be writing, those moments when I get worried about what’s “in” or what’s “popular.” When you’re on your own, as writers so often are, it’s perhaps paradoxically easier to fixate on trying to be something other than what and who you are. But friends are very good at reminding you why you do this and what’s valuable about your particular perspective, and also at exemplifying the need for everyone to be different.
SR: Your story collection, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This was published in 2010. Life Drawing (2014) is your first published novel and you have just announced that we can expect a collection of essays next spring—congratulations on all your success! How do you alternate between writing stories, a novel, and essays? What draws you to explore so many different forms of writing?
RB: Thank you for the congrats! It’s been an exciting few years, for sure.
The truth is, it doesn’t really occur to me not to write in all kinds of forms. I don’t think of myself as a short story writer who wrote a novel, or a novelist who writes essays. For me - and I don’t mean this should be true of everyone – but for me, being a writer means just that: writing. It doesn’t mean constricting myself with genres. Different things float into my consciousness and when they do I have no preconceptions about what form they need to take in order to be best conveyed or best fulfilled. When I was under contract to write a novel, which is really the only time I have been obligated to write in a certain form, it was a long time coming, because I’d start things, and they’d want to be stories or essays or scraps. And, by the way, I think that’s a genre too, the “unfinished” stuff. We think of those as failures, but maybe it’s healthier to see them as fragments – which is a beautiful word.
The closest thing to a rule that I have, and it’s more a rule that’s formed itself than one I have imposed, is that if it’s directly about me, I don’t pretend otherwise. So, I don’t write fiction about myself. I write fiction about people I make up. When events in occur in life that seem to me to be worth writing about, I approach them in essay form. I don’t see that as a superior approach to fiction based on one’s own personal history, it’s just the way it falls out for me.
SR: In Life Drawing, Gus is innately drawn to landscapes. Painting them brings comfort, reassurance, and confidence—especially while working her lost soldier’s project. Could you speak to the ways in which writing brings you comfort?
RB: It steadies me. Writing is very much an act of translation – translation and interpretation. I take what I know of life, some jumble of experience, imagination, the warps of my personal psychology, and from all of that I fabricate written work that makes some kind of sense – by which I mean, makes sense to me of my impressions of life. And in that way I suppose it comforts or soothes me. Maybe it convinces me that the world has some kinds of order to it, though if it does convince me of that, I have to say, it’s a pretty fleeting sensation since in fact the longer I live, the less ordered a thing existence seems to be. As you watch the suffering, see young people die, see evil people triumph and thrive, it becomes ever clearer that if there is an organizing principle at work, it’s not one that has anything to do with what’s right or just.
But back to another way writing soothes me: I have very bad ADD and my physical spaces tend to be very chaotic. My writing, though, isn’t. My process may be, I can easily work on five things in a day. I jump all over the place. But the actual words on the page are the one area of my life where I feel like I know how to make order, where that comes naturally to me – and that is a giant psychic relief. Because of the ADD, I’m sure, but perhaps also because of the more universal sense I just described of the world beyond me being chaotic and out of control.
SR: Speaking of landscapes, your pastoral descriptions are so beautifully written. I believe Gus shares your talent for creating beautiful scenery. What is your process in translating such scenery to the page? Being an artist yourself, do you find that it influences your writing?
RB: Thank you for saying that. I am both delighted and always a little surprised to hear anyone admire my physical descriptions. In my application for grad school I emphasized how bad I am – was? – at writing settings. I think some of that is again my ADD. Not because I don’t notice settings, I do, I love beautiful surroundings and am very attuned to them, but as a youngster I always skimmed descriptive passages when reading, because they required a kind of focus that was beyond me. I read a TON back then – but I didn’t always read the stuff that felt like tonnage to my jumpy, impatient brain. So writing physical descriptions is very much a learned skill to me, one of the aspects of writing I have to think about consciously and remember to do. And yes, I do think all my interest and experience in both visual art and also interior and garden design – those last two are close to obsessions – goes into that work now.
SR: I truly enjoyed the plot disclosure at the beginning of the novel. The glimpse of Owen walking the snow-covered hill to and from Allison’s house set up this pervasive suspenseful tone. I was interested to discover in an interview with J. Courtney Sullivan that you wrote this scene with a whole different story in mind. Despite the writing teacher in you advising you not to “be too attached to your opening,” could you describe why were you so drawn to this opening sequence?
RB: There are things I could say about the way the initial disclosure acted as a kind of grappling hook – so I always knew what was going to happen, though I didn’t know how. That knowledge definitely relieved me of a kind of plot anxiety from which I often suffer. But as I’ve moved away from the process of writing the book and have a different perspective on it, I see that the entire novel really is embedded in that opening image. It’s a book about betrayal, about secrets. Gus is literally wondering if Owen has two faces – one for her and one for Alison. The central anxiety of the book is right there, which I suppose means that the central anxiety of mine, worries and musings about betrayals, is also there. And I suppose I knew that.
I will admit, too, that I love the image. Simply that. And despite the whole “kill your darlings” school of thought, sometimes when you really love something that you write, there are good reasons.
SR: The explosive scene where Gus goes over to Allison’s to confront her and Nora was one of the most realistically intense scenes I have ever read. What was your process in capturing such intense emotions?
RB: I don’t know, maybe it was just my mood that day, but it felt go-o-o-o-o-d writing all that anger down. I definitely channeled Gus’s rage. And in some ways, at some moments, I think most writers do channel their characters, as opposed to eternally feeling a cool distance from them. I surely didn’t think: “Gus should be really angry here” and then write a lot of cuss words down. I got mad.
I should add though, I’m not a writer who believes in characters telling the author what to write or in them having quasi-mystical powers. I am pretty clear that I’m in charge of the characters and I get to decide everything about them – but once I have, that doesn’t mean I don’t feel their rages, or their affections either.
SR: In Life Drawing, I noticed your characters are portrayed in an unbiased manner. Each has a voice, even if it is their own, in which some sort of empathy is possible. They experience a full range of the emotions like infidelity, friendship, betrayal, regret, success, death, etc. How important is portraying your characters in this manner? Do you generally know your characters’ flaws and redeeming qualities from the start or is this something that develops in the process?
RB: I know pretty much nothing about my characters when I start a piece. I am very much a “make it up as you go along” kind of writer – within specific constraints and exceptions for particular pieces. (For example, in Life Drawing, since I had a huge plot element in the first sentence, I always knew that was coming – but I didn’t know how it would happen until about ¾ of the way through.) My characters develop as I write them, and I puzzle through questions of motivation. And yes, I’m so glad it comes through that I’m unbiased. My project as a writer has very little to do with taking sides or creating stories in which some characters are “good” and others "evil” – or even just dislikable.
That would be different of course if I were writing about people committing atrocities. There are always people who say: “If you don’t want to judge your characters, then what about Hitler?” But my characters aren’t Hitler. They are not sociopaths or mass murderers. They’re flawed. And I don’t feel like being flawed makes someone dislikable, besides which, lacking flaws makes them inhuman.
SR: Odd as it sounds, one of the most beautiful scenes occurs after Allison hits the deer. Gus transforms into this ultimate mother-figure, comforting Allison and the dying doe. “I wanted to encourage the shattered animal to die…That being alive was no gift.” How does this scene relate to the fact that Gus is a motherless and childless woman? Could you talk more about the way the theme of motherhood enters your work?
RB: This book is haunted by the absence of motherhood. Gus doesn’t even have memories of her mother. Part of my project with her was to explore a life very unlike my own and that’s definitely an aspect that is. I am very close to my own mother and also have been a mother since I was twenty-five. For fifteen years or so I was a full-time “stay at home” mother. So taking on a narrator who lacks all of that context that’s been so much a part of my life was great fun, in fact – even though for Gus those absences are painful.
In my first book, the short stories, there are tons of mothers, and the question I’m most often asked about them (or it can take the form of a comment) relates to how unsentimental they are – most of them, not all. They don’t gush over their kids or fail to see their children’s shortcomings. I don’t tend to write emotionally gushy people in any context, and when it comes to mothers in particular, I’m actually a little repulsed by that kind of worshipful “my kid can do no wrong” fictional mother. There’s a ton of love passed around the generations in my family, but there is very, very, very little . . .I don’t even know what to call it. Treacle sentiment. Idealization. Blinders. I feel like the depiction of mothers as blinded by maternal admiration is demeaning and a perpetuation of the notion that women are dopey – to put a complex matter in very simple terms. There is a difference between knowing you would give your life for your child, and failing to notice when your child is being a jerk.
When I tell people that my mother is my first and best reader, I sometimes get the reaction, “you shouldn’t show work to someone like your mom who’s likely to be uncritical.” And, let’s just say that’s never been a problem.
So, to circle back to your question, motherhood plays a complicated role in my work, I guess. Though maybe not as complicated a role as fatherhood. . . But that’s another story!
SR: In your interview with Curtis Smith, you mention that your experience with writing what would eventually become Life Drawing came from an intense breakthrough. I am reminded of Laine’s advice for Gus: “Don’t think of it as work.” As a writer, how do you balance the idea of writing and work?
RB: Writing that novel was the first time it felt like work to me. Or rather, the years before I felt capable of writing it, before I was in the novel itself, felt like work. I was under contract and so instead of just doing it for myself on my own time, I grew incredibly self-conscious and doubtful of my own abilities. (I suppose I’d also had deadlines in grad school, but they never felt arduous at all.) I love writing. I love it. I hated the years before this novel took off because my sense that I had to write a novel and was breaking a contract every day I didn’t do it poisoned the whole thing for me. And I felt bereft. It had taken me forty years to find an occupation I loved – and suddenly it had been rendered painful by obligation and by feeling under pressure. And I say that though I completely understand why being under contract for a book might sound like an enviable problem to have – and in many ways it is. But it can also be miserable if it isn’t going well.
I write for hours and hours every day. Not because I have to, but because it’s how I think and how I process life. I used to say I toss 80% of what I wrote, now I think it’s closer to 90%. So it is play for me, a lot of it is. And it’s important that as I circle around my next fiction project it remain that way.
SR: After finishing the novel, I reread the two epigraphs you chose. The one from George Eliot particularly struck a chord with me and I couldn’t help but think of Gus’ experiences with death. What made you decide to use Gus’ desire to immortalize her losses this way?
RB: Like most people, I think about death a lot. My own, but also as the number of my dead beloved increases, I think often about who they are to me still, how they fit in to my life, how the absent are incorporated into everything - newly, in different ways. I have no religion so I don’t have a pre-existing structure for understanding that, or rituals that have been given me. Life Drawing, to me, is ultimately a book about that. About remembering the dead. About living with the dead. About what being animate might mean when one’s body is not. About how Gus herself was completely screwed up emotionally as a child by having a father who wouldn’t share memories of the mother she herself was too young to remember.
Remembering the dead matters. It has to. I suppose that’s the simple summary.
I’m not the first person to be a little fixated on this notion of two deaths – the physical one, and the other, the one that comes when no one is left who remembers us. The first may be scary or incomprehensible, but the second, for me, is heartbreaking – in a way that physical absence is not. Among the many heartbreaks in this novel, that one is central.
SR: What is some advice you give to aspiring writers?
RB: First: figure out who you are – at any given moment - and do what works for you. Don’t assume that what works for someone else will be the best approach for you. Don’t even assume that what worked for you a month ago will work for you today. Pay attention to your own identity, priorities, passions, and habits.
Two: Don’t listen to people who make you feel bad about yourself or your work, because they can’t help you. Even if they’re making you feel bad because you’re more thin-skinned than is ideal, they still can’t help you. The first and lowest bar for any teacher or reader is that they not turn you off your own work but help you relocate why it excites you. No amount of craft can be learned if you just plain old hate your projects. I’ve said versions of that before and been accused of suggesting that people eschew criticism. I can only say, my students would laugh at that idea. I am plenty critical. But if I make people feel hopeless or confused or like giving up, I am not doing my job, and they should put their hands over their ears singing “lalalalalalalala.”
And third: When you feel unable to write, instead of trying some behavioral approach, like forcing yourself to write every day, consider instead trying to figure out who in your past has tried to silence you, and what liberation there might be in telling them to go fuck themselves – which is what the act of writing is. I don’t know a single writer who didn’t feel significantly silenced in their youth, and it’s that early silencing, I’m convinced, that shuts some of us down. Most of us don’t fail to write because we have bad habits. We fail to write because we aren’t sure that we are entitled to. Figuring out if that’s true of you can be a big step. And then getting angry is the next healthy step. . . Then write something down.
SR: Gus eventually finds comfort in her father’s company and declares him “the one person in the world to whom [she] could, finally, finally, talk about anything.” I was curious to know how much of her willingness to open up stems from the her father’s dementia? Could you speak to the theme of forgetting in the story?
RB: Memory is enormous in this book, memory and forgetting, and also the willful suppression of memory. Gus’s father wouldn’t allow discussion about her deceased mother. Gus and Owen exist in a form of “forgiveness” that requires a mutual pretense that nothing happened, no affair, no joy for her from that. She has to suppress even memories of it. Her father’s dementia is obviously another area where this plays out, but as with many who have dementia, it doesn’t only take the form of forgetting, it also takes the form of disinhibition, remembering and sharing things that have been buried for years.
I am glad for the arc in the book through which Gus’s father goes from being the person in her life who silenced her most damagingly, to being, because of his dementia, the person to whom she can say anything at all. There’s a strange, unexpected healing there, a weird path to freedom and to intimacy between them as they meet anew in a different “reality,” one that isn’t ruled as much by his anger and hid fears, one that brings them closer.
As the mother of a child with special needs, though, I’m very sensitive to the danger of trying to find silver linings in diseases and condition that affect other people, other families, so I hope the rest of the book makes it clear that I see dementia for the tragedy it is, and am not trying to make some point about it being a blessing.
SR: Gus admits that if she and Owen were able to have children, “there wouldn’t have been a Bill.” Or in other words, Gus would not have had an affair with Bill. I find Gus and Owen’s relationship so interesting because the two stay together despite their failure to conceive, and despite Gus’s infidelity. What drew you to represent such a complicated relationship?
RB: Well, first off, I think it would be super uninteresting to write about uncomplicated relationships – and it would also be fantasy. Life is so complex and people’s interactions are a mess, meaning they are messy, weird, particular to individuals – with just enough universality there that we can sometimes imagine why people might be doing what they do. But we can never know for sure.
So I have no interest in trying to create people who can be understood any more readily than the rest of us. But more specifically, I have spent much of my life surrounded by married couples who have children. And often – often! – there’s some bump in the road, and always when there is, the question of the impact that splitting up might have on the kids is just about the first thing anyone mentions. That’s the social/emotional landscape in which I have passed my adulthood. I was interested in looking at what might hold people together who don’t have that kind of scaffold to their relationship. What does love and commitment look like when it isn’t interwoven with so many dependents? To understand the nature of love, to look at questions about lifelong monogamy and commitment, it seemed important to make it as “pure” as possible – or anyway, it was something I wanted to do.
Gus and Owen do have a very fucked up marriage – but in the end, it’s an incredibly romantic one because they stay together, and not just because of anyone else’s needs, or because they’re too neurotic to break up. But because they genuinely love one another, hurt and all, anger and all, betrayals and all.
Nobody reading my work has ever accused me of being a romantic, but to me that is romantic as hell.
SR: What does your writing space look like?
RB: Ugh. Sigh. Um. I don’t have one. I float around the house from room to room. I am in the process of trying for the gazillionth time to make myself a study – and it will look lovely the day it’s finished. But then I won’t be able to sit still, and I’ll decide I work better in a room with the TV on, or I’ll mess the study up so much that it makes me feel bad about myself every time I go in, and so I’ll avoid it until I clean it – which could take months. ADD is a real thing. I medicate for work, but no amount of Ritalin has ever made me physically organized or even just not chaotic and unmoored. And there’s a part of me that’s really sad about not having a beautiful, quirky, artsy study, but it’s never been something I’ve been able to maintain. Who knows, though. Ask me in a year if this new one sticks. . . .