The Rumpus Interview with Robin Black


Robin Black’s story collection, If I Loved You I Would Tell You This, was first published by Random House in 2010 to international acclaim by publications such as O. Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle and The Irish Times, and was shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Prize. Her stories and essays have appeared in publications including  One Story, The Southern Review, The New York Times Magazine, Colorado Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Indiana Review.

Robin’s stories, written over a period of eight years, focus on families at points of crisis and growth. Her writing is influenced by her belief that the most compelling act of creativity is the daily manufacture of hope. The paperback edition of If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, was published in 2011.

The Rumpus: I want to start off talking about the character. You write about people at a time in their lives when certain options are no longer available to them. And yet, they still have wants and desires. They still want to live. This is really admirable and brave; there’s a huge emphasis, a lot of pressure to write what’s hip or cool, which sometimes comes off as snarky, detached or self-conscious; too clever for its own good. But your work resists that.  Even the young characters in your stories—teenagers, young adults—are grounded in something that feels significant. Even if they’re struggling to figure out their lives in the midst of misery or pain or confusion, their responses to situations suggests they’re awake. Can you talk about that?

Robin Black: The truth is that I don’t have the option really of being hip or cool.  I’m a forty-nine year old woman who has been home with her three kids since she was twenty-five. I’m about the unhippest character you’re ever going to meet. But also, I truly started writing to save my sanity. I went through several decades of very serious personal difficulty–a divorce with small kids, discovering that one of my kids has significant language disabilities, a late term pregnancy loss, parental illnesses and my father’s death which was quite amazingly gruesome–and the last thing I thought about when I sat down to write was what anyone else wanted the work to be. Every single one of my stories grew out of a need on my part to deal with something. The plots don’t come from my life but the central issues do. Loss. Anger. A certain stuckness in one’s own story. Grief over a child’s uncertain path. The way we disappoint and both knowingly and unknowingly betray those whom we love. I needed a way to sort through a life that by the time I was forty felt overwhelming to me. Writing stories is how I did that. And do that still.

But I will say that the being unhip thing bothers me from time to time. Everyone wants to be one of the cool kids.

Rumpus: Your stories always contain some remarkable reversals, what I can only describe as crossed wires. Characters may do one thing but are thinking something completely different. Their thoughts betray their surface appearance, revealing their secret selves.  I’m thinking here of the first story, “The Guide,” where, in the opening scene, Jack, takes daughter to get her seeing-eye dog before she goes off to college.  A less experienced writer would have him worrying about how his daughter’s reaction. In other words, the opening scene would be written as direct response to the situation at hand. But instead, Jack thinks about the young women he’s been seeing, about the sex he had the night before, which is so surprising and so true to the way people actually behave.

“And her father is trying to follow her, trying to respond appropriately; but thoughts of Miranda Hamilton compete with the girl’s words. Miranda Hamilton unbuttoning her jeans the night before, sliding them down her thighs, stepping panty-clad from the denim pooled at her feet. Miranda Hamilton unbuttoning his suit pants, leaving them bound around his legs until he kicked them off . . . Miranda laughing as she filled her mouth with bourbon from Jack’s glass and held the fluid there, smiling while it drizzled from her lips until he kissed her and swallowed it himself. Miranda whispering to Jack, her mouth still whisky damp, just lie back, lie still, while she moved her hips in something close to perfect circles over him.”

What made you decide to open the story that way?

Black: You know, to greater and lesser extents, fiction is about misbehavior. And one form of misbehavior that interests me a lot is inattention.  That question of where the gravitational center of one’s thoughts is at any given time – which is so very often not in the scene that’s unfolding and in which one is participating.  There’s just something kind of flat to me about characters who are always, in mind and body, fully engaged in a scene. It’s a delicate balance though because when you have a character perpetually preoccupied or whose memories are continually competing with the scene it can begin to make that character seem oddly hollow, just a vehicle for the author to dump out a lot of exposition or back story.

In that particular story, as in so many in my book, part of my challenge from the get go was to write about a situation that could be treated with all kinds of treacle and sweetness – blind girl prepares to leave home, father is having trouble separating from her –  and not have it become maudlin. I’m very conscious in my fiction of working against the potential Hallmark greeting card quality of some of my situations.  And nothing says “this isn’t maudlin” like a father being inattentive to his blind daughter because he’s thinking about his mistress straddling him the night before.

Rumpus: My follow up observation is that your stories are never about just one thing.  Typically, you hear writers say short stories are about a single moment.  But your stories actually read like novels—lots of issues are braided together.  One of my favorite examples of this is “Immortalizing John Parker.”

Reading that story feels like reading a whole world. What do you think short stories should do? How should they work?

Black: Truly, I think they work in all different ways which is part of the pleasure. One of the reasons I like to write stories with more than one plot line is that, as in collage structures, a lot of the work gets done by the interaction of the two (or more) elements. In most of my stories there are connectors, causal, temporal, between all the strands, but really what they’re doing is resonating, each strand serving a quasi-metaphoric role for the other.  It takes a lot of pressure off of me and kind of frees the whole thing up. I like the messiness of stories that can’t be summed up too easily, stories for which it takes more than one sentence or phrase to convey the plot.

Rumpus: You give us a character’s life story in a single thought or gesture. How do you build your characters?  How fully do you imagine their lives before you write, or is it more a matter of discovery?

Black: For me it’s close to 100% discovery. I have never had the patience or organizational skills to do all that stuff some people advise about knowing everything about your character before you start writing. There are writers who are afraid of knowing too little about their stories before they write them, and then there are writers like me who are afraid of knowing too much.

Rumpus: Your stories are brimming with tension and yet, with the exception of one story, “Pine,” characters rarely confront each other directly.  Similarly, your characters rarely experience what we’ve come to think of as traumatic life events—molestation or child abuse. How do you manage to create so much drama without writing about subjects that are sensational?

Black: There’s an actual physical fight scene in Harriet Elliot and I am probably prouder of that than of any other scene in the book. It was so hard for me to do. (Just. Write. Physical. Action. Robin.) And it wasn’t even my idea. The scene was written as a direct result of Hannah Tinti telling me, when she was editing the story, that the sisters’ relationship needed to come to a boil.  And even there, as conflict-laden as that scene is, they aren’t really fighting about what’s upsetting them.

I guess the honest answer is that it’s never occurred to me that run-of-the-mill unsensational everyday stuff that goes on between human beings isn’t filled with drama.  Maybe that’s a comment on my own life. Even as a child, all I had to do was step into the upstairs hallway to experience all kinds of tensions and to be aware of strand upon strand of story, much of it unacknowledged.  It’s really that sensation, that childlike sense that life is a little more complicated than I can possibly understand, that I try to reproduce in fiction.  And I don’t think you need any bells and whistles for that.

Rumpus: Your last two stories are set in England and Italy.  It wasn’t until I read those stories that I realized place and setting aren’t prominent features in your work.  In all of your stories, the reader always has a sense of where they are (mostly in the North East), but place and setting aren’t in the foreground.  Why is that?

Black: That’s another thing that I have had to work really hard at. It didn’t come at all naturally to me. So, here’s the big bad confession: I tend to skip descriptive passages when I read. I’m better about it as an adult, but when I was younger I just routinely skipped any paragraph longer than about an inch.  (Very sophisticated, I know.) It’s a way in which I’m a bad reader–physical descriptions tend to leave me cold. (I can’t tell you how it pains me to admit this.) But after a while I realized that I was going to have to supply them. And gradually I have come to love doing so.

I’m very envious of people who have what is always referred to as “a strong sense of place.” I don’t. I grew up in New Haven, Connecticut, and it just didn’t stick. I left when I was in my very early twenties and haven’t been back for more than a few hours every once in a while. (This doesn’t mean I broke with my family; they all left too at around the same time.)  My father was a Texan, my mother is a New Yorker.  I always felt a little displaced.  But in the end maybe my “place” is the home.  I can’t tell you how many of the stories in my book start, in my mind, with an actual image of a home – all of them very different.

Rumpus: There’s a moment in “A Country Where You Once Lived,” where a man and his former wife are talking and the man thinks their talk is just “Conversation for conversation’s sake. It doesn’t have to make much sense.”  Or the line in “If I Loved You,” where the narrator thinks about her relationship with her husband and admits she “picks through [their] lives, recounting good moments, like looking for treasures at a flea market.” Where does that ability to precisely capture thoughts and emotions come from?

Black: I’ve thought of a lot of answers I might give, but in the end, I think the truth is that to the extent that I am good at conveying that stuff, it’s because I genuinely love that aspect of life. I love how layered and fragile and durable and just plain beautiful human interaction is. I just love it. So I love thinking about it all and I love trying to convey what I have observed.

Rumpus: Okay, now for some general questions. Have you ever hit a wall, a block, with your writing? What are some of the specific things you do?

Black: I think of it as a maze with walls all over the place. Every day there’s a wall. The only trick I have ever used that works when I feel blocked is to forbid myself to write.  Sort of the opposite of what I was always told which is: put in your time every day.  When I am stuck, I need to go do something else. And then I will gradually “allow” myself a few minutes a day to write. It’s a matter of letting the urgency build up again. It’s also simple child psychology: if I tell myself I can’t write, I want to.  (And yes, I really am that simple about some things.)

Rumpus: You seem to write about the flip-side of the coin, the negative rather than the exposed image. A less skilled writer would write about the obvious. In fact, many of your stories seem to circle around the theme of absence. What questions do you ask yourself when you’re starting a story?

Black: The question I ask myself most frequently  while I’m writing is “what am I not thinking of?” which sometimes means that I sit there muttering “What else? What else?” like some kind of nut. “What else, what else?” I am always trying to outrun the tendency of short stories to limit their own possibility. So many times when I’m writing, I’ll realize that the story has taken on this binary aspect: will they or won’t they? Will she feel better or won’t she? And my goal is always to disrupt that so a reader can’t anticipate what she’s reading toward.

Rumpus: Stories take time to write. They require quiet. And yet, we are increasingly living in a time where everything demands a rapid, instant response. Do you ever feel the pressures of the external world, the digital world of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter blogging, and texting—pressing in on your work? On your psyche? Do you sense that anxiety or is it just me?   Similarly, what are your thoughts about fiction vs. nonfiction or memoir? Which leads me to ask about the project you’re working on now? How is it going?

Black: I’m a bad internet addict. Really bad. And that has definitely messed with my work.  I am in the process now of trying to figure out how to limit myself.  I use the Freedom Software which shuts off your internet for set times.  But then I turn my computer off and back on so it fails.  Or I use my phone. But I am getting better with it.  It was hard when my book first came out (meaning the first 14 months or so. . .) because it felt somehow as though my soul was tied into the internet.  Not just because of marketing “strategies” or because I was tracking sales; but because I had sent my innermost self out into the world, and contemporary life has actually provided us with a facsimile of that world – or maybe a window into it – via our computers.  It was as though by being on line all the time I could follow my book around, introduce it to people, just accompany it.  But really enough is enough.  And so I am trying to cut back and write my novel.  Which is about a woman who stalks her own book online.  (Not really.)

Natalie Baszile's debut novel, Queen Sugar, is forthcoming from Viking/Penguin. Natalie has a Masters in Afro-American Studies from UCLA, and earned an M.F.A from Warren Wilson's MFA Program for Writers, where she received the Holden Minority Scholarship. Queen Sugar won the Hurston Wright College Writer's Award, the Sylvia Clare Brown fellowship and was runner-up in the Faulkner Pirate’s Alley novel in progress competition. Natalie has had residencies at the Ragdale Foundation, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and Hedgebrook. More from this author →