The Sunday Rumpus Interview: Robin Black
Robin Black’s debut novel, Life Drawing, was published July 15 to widespread critical acclaim. Claire Messud said in her review for The Guardian, “Black is a writer of great wisdom, and illuminates, without undue emphasis, the flickering complexity of individual histories…Life Drawing is at once quiet and memorable.” Robin’s story collection If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, published in 2010, received similarly global praise. I think that to read Robin’s words is an opportunity to sharpen our understanding of the world and ourselves, akin to reading any of the masters, which is how I think of her. It was pleasure to interview her for The Rumpus and discuss Life Drawing with her, as well as friendship, how we define a life, literary community, sexism, and so much more.
The Rumpus: One thing I really love about Life Drawing is how you illuminate specific points of emotional backstory in the lives of both Gus and Owen. Disparate events — deaths, losses — that shape each of them, especially things that have wounded them, individually and as a couple. You offer an emotional biography.
Robin Black: Thank you, Anna. It’s always an interesting question, when you are inventing human beings, what to tell, what not to tell – and what even to “know” (which really means tell yourself) about them.
I’ve never been one of those authors who fully creates a character in some form distinct from the writing of the story. I don’t do character sketches or “learn” (which actually means invent) things like what they wore to Halloween at the age of eight, or how recently they’ve been to the dentist – unless that comes up naturally. I can understand why people do that, but I tend to start with a few big-picture facts, or not even those, but with a situation or, as in the case of this book, an opening sentence, and then make it all up as I go along.
And I definitely have a tendency to define people by their tragedies, so I can always count on myself for a healthy number of those. Then I have to remind myself to put the happy memories and pursuits in as well. And I swear that isn’t because I’m a miserable person, but I suppose it is because I feel both consciously and at the level of my bones that I am who I am mostly because of difficulties I have faced in my life – and how I responded to them. The joyous moment were few and far between for many years and gradually have had their impact, but even the parts of me that are happy or funny were initially forged by significant stress.
It would be an interesting challenge for me to write about someone who had a happy childhood – whatever that means.
Rumpus: Are you in writing in part about resilience or the lack of it over the long haul of a committed partnership? The mundane and ordinary things it takes to make it work (or not) as well as the core things and the overlap of those two territories — how often the mundane is the core?
Black: I’m definitely writing about resilience, or as I think of it, the capacity of some long-term relations to expand and change shape, as they encompass events and losses that the couple might have found unimaginable when first together – and, by implication, the inability of other relationships to do that.
The mundane, the everyday, is interesting to me in that it’s both the glue in many ways, this interlocking of essential activities of each day; but then a sense that those things are becoming too prominent, can be a warning that something’s wrong. In other words, the mundane is necessary but not sufficient for any relationship.
One of the signs that Gus and Owen are in trouble is that their conversations are winnowed down to the small change of everyday life: What’s for dinner? Who’s doing the grocery shopping? And so on. You need those things, of course. And there’s even comfort to them, but if a relationship has dwindled to such exchanges there’s obviously a problem.
And in one way, while the fireworks that follow the appearance of a new neighbor don’t by any means signal a positive turn for my poor couple, those fireworks do also jolt them out of a real rut. Their first reaction to a change of routine is to have some pretty intense sex, unlike any they’d had for a while. This simple change of routine and addition of a catalytic character excites them both. So even though the story of Alison’s arrival isn’t a happy one – in fact it’s tragic – if you alter a few events, change a couple of interactions, it’s possible that a third person in their midst could have been the best possible thing.
Rumpus: You lay so much truth out through your depiction of the friendship that develops between Alison and Gus. The confidences and openness that can be shared between relative strangers — sometimes more easily than between intimates.
Black: I think most of us have had that experience (maybe even more so now that we have the internet and have expanded the notion of “friends”) of finding ourselves suddenly sharing confidences with someone we barely know. Sometimes, I suspect, there’s a sense of safety to that, sort of the secret-telling equivalent of Jong’s “zipless fuck.” You spill your secrets to a stranger and there aren’t the same reverberations and consequences there would be had you done so with someone integrated into your life.
But for Gus, who struggles in general with understanding intimacy and feelings of connectedness, the problem is that Alison is integrated into her life – or is soon to be – in ways Gus doesn’t recognize. So the confidences do have repercussions in ways she doesn’t anticipate.
More generally though, I want to keep writing about friendship as a central topic. The older I get, the clearer it becomes how vital and potent friendships are in all our lives, how connected with our health it is to have many people we love, to have myriad ways of being and interacting – even though as with all relationships, friendships can also sour, sometimes with extraordinarily damaging results.
I have had that happen only a couple of times in my life, but in many ways a “bad break-up” with a friend is more disturbing than with a lover. Or anyway, that was my experience. With romances a certain volatility is always built in, and also an awareness that romantic relationships may fail. It can be heartbreaking, but not quite as shocking as when someone who is integrated into your life in what seems like a less potentially volatile way, betrays you. The times that has happened to me have absolutely crushed me.
On the other hand, I surely don’t want to write only about good friendships gone bad. And in a way I wish that my first book that looks at friendship between women weren’t about betrayal, because I think that’s the exception, and I don’t mean to bolster the false stereotype of women tearing each other down. But that’s the thing about fictional characters, they aren’t really written as representatives of something. What happens between Gus and Alison happens between them, it’s not a statement about women’s friendships. Yet I’m aware that fiction is often read that way.
Rumpus: I love the presence of a next generation of women — Laine and Nora.
Black: I liked taking some breaks from the middle-aged demographic, myself. I have children in their twenties and through them have been reminded of what a strange and transitional period of life that can be, the pressure to know something about yourself as a formed adult, the unlikelihood that you do know as much as you’d like. When I was the age of Laine and Nora, 22, 23, I was both insanely impulsive and simultaneously convinced that I was making wise, well-considered decisions all the time. I don’t think that’s uncommon for people that age (and surely isn’t limited to that age) and I think it’s a fascinating state.
Writing two young women of the same age also gave me that challenge of working against the impulse to make one good, one bad, one creative, one practical, and so on. It’s always tempting when you have “twinned” characters as Laine and Nora inevitably are in this book, to begin to use them only as counterpoints or contrasts to one another – at which point they become flat, as does anything that exists so thoroughly in the service of some notion or reflex like that one. So, I tried to make them a little bit alike as well as very distinct. Both girls tend to talk about themselves too much, both have the common narcissism of youth, both also have tender sides, both have creative aspirations. One is treated with far more affection than the other in the narrative, but that’s not too surprising given who is narrating the book, and how the plot unfolds.
Rumpus: The intersection of domesticity and women’s creativity. Was that an intentional theme at the outset of your writing?
Black: It’s a book about creativity for sure, and mostly about the creativity of a particular woman, though again, as with women’s friendships, I don’t really think of her as any kind of emblem, or mean her processes to represent something general about women and creativity – any more than I mean her writer husband’s creativity to be representative of anything about male creativity. Nor would I swear that creativity can be divided or understood by gender.
I wanted to explore the subject of a relationship between artists, and particularly look at the problems that arise when work is going well for one but not the other, as well as the question of what it means to find a muse who is not your partner, the fall-out from that kind of erotic spark emanating from elsewhere. So I was very conscious, throughout, of the intersection of creativity and romantic partnership between these two characters.
But I guess I don’t see this as a book about domesticity. I see it as a book about a long-term relationship – and maybe that’s an invalid distinction to make, since theirs is in some way a domestic relationship. But the subject matter is so little about their domestic arrangements and so much about their intellects and their creativity and their moral landscapes and their psychological frailties and strengths. I may have a very literal mind, but the only scenes I think of as notably domestic are the ones where they talk about grocery shopping or thawing stew for dinner.
Rumpus: Can you talk about the presence of those who aren’t there — unborn children, ex-husbands, the dead? How they are present in the book even when they are not — all against the juxtaposition of Gus’s “inability” to paint human figures.
Black: One way to look at all our lives, not the only way, but one lens through which to look at life is that it’s composed entirely of presence and absence, of the people we still have, the ones we don’t, the ones we dream of who never appear. It’s inherent in the business of being mortal that absence will shape us – including awareness of our own impending absence – as much as presence will. We are all haunted, not only by people we’ve lost, but also by our own ghosts. For me, as a chronicler of human life, the absent will always be present because it’s the way I see life.
And for Gus, the inability to depict human figures has all kinds of significance, most obviously with roots in her father’s refusal to acknowledge anything about her dead mother. Because that one life and that death became taboo subjects, Gus doesn’t quite feel entitled to animate the human figure. The message was: You cannot proceed as though your mother was a living, breathing person. And the message had great, spreading power.
But of course with anything like that, any characteristic or habit or tendency that can be read as “significant,” the trick is to keep its significance from being so clear that it requires no act of creative engagement from the reader. Despite what I just wrote, I can’t exactly define why Gus can’t paint human figures, in part because, while writing, I never let myself think it through too clearly. I’d hate for a reader to be able to detect the simplicity of that. So I can theorize, and I hope readers will too.
Rumpus: One thing I appreciate is how much there is about the homes in so much of your fiction — maybe because of the time you and I have spent talking about renovations and moving and so forth.
Black: Like you, I adore houses. I adore design and decoration. I have actually looked into what it would take to be certified – if that’s even the right word – as an interior designer. Sadly though, I discovered it would take more time than I have – and probably also more talent. So I continue to work on my own house, and some of why I write so much about houses is just that simple: I love them.
I have also never identified strongly with a particular city or region. I feel that lack all the time. I grew up in New Haven, but really in Yale University where both my parents were affiliated. The university was our town – due to the extraordinary and awful town/gown split in New Haven. And I haven’t – yet – wanted to write an academic book, which is the sort of book that would use that childhood “region.” All of which is to say that I think of my geographical location as houses. They are my city, my literal, physical area of expertise. Which makes it complicated of course because writing at length about the characteristics of a house – a domus – shouldn’t make your work “domestic fiction,” a term with which I feel endless discomfort. But there’s no question that homes, the spaces, the walls, the materials, the landscape, play an enormous role in my work.
Rumpus: One thing that’s been important to me about you as a writer is that you emerged publicly as such in middle age. That was important to me when I came back to publishing at 42 after I had disappeared for 10 years. It gave me a kind of hope. A sense that I wasn’t “too old” to publish a first book. Do you hear that from people?
Black: I hear it a lot, and I’m always glad to be a source of encouragement in the world. But I also feel sometimes as though much of the discussion out there about being a “late bloomer,” including some of my own writing from around when my first book came out, errs on the side of relentless silver lining emphasis.
It’s a very fine line. I greatly value the chance I’ve had to demonstrate that being in one’s forties – or beyond, as I now am – doesn’t make it too late to start new endeavors; but recently, now that the novelty of having finally “bloomed” is a little less novel, I’ve started wondering if people are given enough information and support about the downsides, or if we’re leaving people a bit alone with whatever sorrow they feel about the years gone by, the opportunities they feel they’ve missed.
It’s all very well to tell people “You can do it!” And it’s important to do so, but. . . The truth is, it can be depressing even after things begin to fall into place. It’s hard to watch people half your age doing what it took you half a century to do. It’s beyond irritating (and to me still inexplicable) to see the number of “emerging writer” prizes and recognitions that are set aside for the young. It makes zero sense to me that if you happen to start writing in your forties, you are immediately cut out of the running for so many recognitions. I roll my eyes – or more likely say, “fuck this shit” – every time I see a prize for “young writers” or for writers under 35 or 40 or whatever the cut-off happens to be. And so do many, many of my fellow late-bloomers, though some instinct to avoid seeming ungracious tends to make us limit our irritation to communications among ourselves. And of course, I should add, I’m not saying I would have been in the running for any of those awards, much less won any, had they not discriminated by age, just saying the age cut-off strikes me as absurd – and incidentally, presumably unintentionally, sexist since so many “late blooming” writers are women.
All of which is just to say that while I hugely value being a kind of role model, I also worry that there’s a danger to oversimplifying the issue of “blooming late.” It’s not all sunshine and daffodils, and very often there are significant feelings of sorrow about lost time mixed in with the joy. I have definitely felt pressure to emphasize the positives to the exclusion of acknowledging those pangs and pains, and I just wonder if at this point the most helpful thing I can do is both encourage through example of “later” achievement and also, to the extent that anyone’s listening to me, give my fellow “late bloomers” permission to see something other than unmitigated good news in their own narrative.
Rumpus: You are known for being forthright and helpful with other writers and doing a lot to foster literary community. Is that a conscious decision? The advice I give to writers — at every stage — is “be generous.” How do we foster that in other writers? Should we be fostering that?
Black: It’s nice of you to say that about me, and I hope it’s true. I certainly aspire to be that way.
I was at an event recently that involved standing at a table with another writer and then chatting with attendees as they came by. I was paired with Elizabeth Berg who has had more NYT Bestsellers than I’ve had hot dinners, and she also has the most devoted fans imaginable – and colleagues who adore her, all of whom were in evidence that day. And every time anyone came up to our table she went out of her way to introduce me, and to urge them to read my work.
In addition, years ago, when my first book came out, she read and liked it, blurbed it generously, and also arranged for us to do a shared event truly so I could have the chance to read to a crowd that was there for her.
That kind of behavior is such a beacon for the rest of us. And what comes shining through, along with Elizabeth’s kindness and decency, is that none of this took anything away from her. I’m not minimizing what she did at all, because it requires large-heartedness and thoughtfulness even to think of making such introductions and sharing the spotlight. But in no way does it detract from her or diminish her success – and in fact it makes her an even more admirable figure in our world.
Which I guess is just to say that I think what holds people back sometimes from being as generous as they might be is this illusion – and to be clear it is 100% illusion – that we’re all in competition. That if I help so-and-so, then that person may “win” in some way I’d rather hoard for myself. It just doesn’t work that way.
And being “a good literary citizen,” a much-used and recently debated phrase, should not be transactional, a choice because you think it will help you in some way.
Having said that though, I’m also adamant that people shouldn’t give their work away unless they really want to, that reading a 300 page manuscript gratis for an acquaintance is almost certainly a bad idea, and that frankly, we are all underpaid and underappreciated, so need to be cautious about being even more so. Generosity should not be confused with giving away work for which you are entitled to be paid.
But reaching back and offering a hand to the next person coming along is different. I aspire to that, and I know that if I remember to, I lose absolutely nothing and may have done something important for someone else.
Rumpus: I’ve heard you say have your skin be thick as possible for the business side of publishing and thin as possible for the actual writing.
Black: It’s taken me a long time into the publication process of my second book to understand this need to be two different women in these two intertwined but wholly different contexts. My natural state is insanely thin-skinned. I take everything personally. I assume that unreturned phone calls are proof positive that I have offended someone. I get my feelings hurt over nothing. I am weirdly and unpredictably shy. And though I hate the idea that mental illness and creativity are linked, I buy the idea that extreme sensitivity and creativity are linked. And I do believe that if you become too protective of yourself, if you learn to be less sensitive, you may well lose something valuable along the way.
But then along comes publishing. And, whoa baby! You’d better have a hide on you to get through Goodreads, through marketing realities, through frank appraisals of your commercial and artistic worth, and so on. So it really does require a kind of chameleon act – not changing color, but changing the texture and toughness of your skin.
I am by no means as good at this as I’d like to be. I still occasionally react to certain business decisions as though I’ve been stood up for the date at which I was planning to propose. . . But I’m getting better at switching the hide on and off.
Rumpus: So, what about the way women writers are treated? The demand for likable characters. The personal attacks. The comments that we aren’t funny or as good or writing about important topics.
Black: It’s such an important question. On some days, especially awaiting my book’s publication, it feels like The Only Question.
I was on a panel the other day and we were at the Q& A part, and a woman raised her hand and asked about the problem of being told that her stories aren’t “new enough” because they are – and these were her air quotes: “domestic fiction.” And I said, maybe too honestly, that I wish I had published under a man’s name and somehow managed to get away with it. Or at least, barring that, I wish I could manipulate time and space and whatever other dimensions necessary to publish my work once as a woman and then as a man – and compare the reactions.
Here are my suspicions: I doubt that I would get reviews, as I have for my novel, that say things like: “The focus on friendship and family will appeal to fans of women’s fiction, while the role creativity plays in the lives of the characters will attract readers of literary fiction.” (Library Journal) Translation: women will like the stuff about feelings, while men and maybe some smart women will like the stuff about ideas.
I doubt I would be questioned so often about why my work “has to be” dark and depressing. I’m no Coetzee, and I don’t claim to be, but I do wonder how often he fields those questions, the ones about why he can’t make his people happier, why he has to be so bleak. (Really, Mr Coetzee, did the dog have to die??)
I could go on and on – and of course these are only musings. You can’t prove alternate realities, and the current reality is that I am a woman and have made no secret of the fact. So publishing as a women is all I know.
But I know that we women will, if our work is at all focused on relationships, be accused of committing “domestic fiction.” And I believe the term is meant as a demeaning one, almost every time it is used, code for “none too intellectual, well-covered ground, mostly about emotional stuff.” I also think we women live with a gender-specific pressure to make the world seem like a fair and cheery place. And I think the phrase “women’s fiction” would never arise in reviews to describe my novel were I male. I also think the phrase “women’s fiction” is inherently insulting to pretty much everyone. And the fact that it’s insulting is itself insulting.
Here’s the deal. The world is a sexist place. The writing world is part of the world. All the assumptions both about what women are like and what women should be like that exist in the greater American culture exist in American literary culture too.
Rumpus: What’s next? What are the challenges you are setting for yourself as a writer and/or goals you’d like to accomplish?
Black: I am working on a book with my entire family about my daughter’s experiences growing up with learning and social disabilities. That’s a pretty amazing experience. And I have about 400 pages of essays, many about craft, that I need to look at and evaluate to see if there’s a book in there.
I also have a novel in the works – which right now means mostly that it’s tugging at my imagination as I do all the things associated with book release. It’s one that gives me a particular challenge. I have never written about young people falling in love, and an aspect of this story would require me to do that. I’m excited to try. It’s so not what I feel comfortable with: The bright, shiny newness of it all. The clean slate. The conviction of lasting happiness. I’m curious about how I’ll handle that since it’s pretty clearly not a subject to which I have naturally felt drawn.
Rumpus: Any emerging writers you think we should know about?
Black: “You should know about them all! My pal Daniel Torday has a book, The Last Flight of Poxl West, coming out next year that is amazing. He’s a great writer. And I am forever telling people that Belinda McKeon, who has rightfully emerged as a star in the UK, should be getting the same attention here in the states as well. Her novel Solace is one of my favorites of the past few years, and she has another in the works to which I’m very much looking forward.”
Rumpus: Anything else you want to tell us?
Black: It’s funny, I always hear that as an invitation to give advice. Like I should say, “Just be kind to yourselves.” Or, “Follow your dreams.” Maybe, “Write every third day, and see how that works out for you.” Arguably, that’s a sign of age, this impulse to turn everything into an occasion to spout questionable wisdom.
But instead I’ll say something excruciatingly self-serving: I hope that both men and women will read my book. I hope that the former won’t be put off by the use of terms like “women’s fiction” in the reviews, and will see that for what it is: an anachronistic, sexist, marketing term. I don’t write for any one gender or sex. I don’t feel particularly aware of my own gender when I write. So I hope that both men and women who are interested in creativity, in betrayal, in the problems and joys of long-term relationships, and who enjoy a bit of suspense, will give my novel a chance. And then, if they like it, convince another reader to see past those unfortunate terms.
Also, try writing every third day and see how that works out for you.