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Author Spotlight: Robin Black and J. Courtney Sullivan

Monday, July 7th, 2014

Black_Life DrawingJ. Courtney Sullivan joins Robin Black to ask her a few questions about her upcoming novel, Life Drawing, on sale next week!

Courtney: Robin, I first fell in love with your work while reading your nonfiction essays about the writer’s life. In the novel, you extend these observations on the indecision, inspiration, and doubt that all artists experience. Was it therapeutic in a way to write about these ideas through your characters?

Robin: I’m so glad you’ve liked the essays. Thank you! I love writing about the creative process in essays, and blog posts, and also in fiction. And you’re right that in a way it is therapeutic to describe what it feels like to be consumed by a creative project or abandoned by one. Those states—both of them, the exhilarating and the depressing—are lonely ones. It’s been important for me to find ways of sharing the sensations since they so often define my daily life.

Courtney: The novel begins with two powerful epigraphs–one from Victor Hugo and one from George Eliot. How did you choose them? Were they part of the inspiration for the story, did they come first, or did you find them a fitting start to a tale you’d already created?

Robin: I found the epigraphs after writing the book. I hadn’t titled it yet and was cruising through quotations looking for relevant phrases, partly to spark title ideas, possibly to use a quote as the title. I think of these two quotations as representing the two gravitational centers of Life Drawing: one being about “our dead,” the ghosts and shades we all carry, and the other being relevant to the evolution and survival of long-time romantic relationships, what it means for a person to be loved in a clear-eyed, realistic way rather than idealized. When I found those two lines and they dovetailed so perfectly with these two aspects of the work, I just had to use them.

Courtney: Novelists have so many choices when it comes to structure. I’m intrigued by the decision-making that goes into such choices. We know about a very big plot point that comes much later from the first sentence of the book. Why did you choose to tell us about that up front? I think it’s a brilliant choice. Did you ever consider doing it differently?

Robin: Strangely enough, the first paragraph was originally the start of another piece of fiction about entirely different people, with a completely different plot. But seventy pages in, I had hit a wall, big time. A writer friend asked me what, if anything, I liked about the work and I said: “Just the first paragraph. ” So I lifted it and started all over. Then, as I was writing the novel that became Life Drawing, I forbade myself to change those lines or take out the plot disclosure. I liked the challenge of finding my way back to it, and I liked what I think of as the tautness of a circular plot. I’m hearing from readers now that many of them forget about opening, and I’m delighted that the early disclosure hasn’t seemed to limit the suspense or surprise of the book, because that was a risk.

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Author Feature: 5 Books Robin Black Loves

Monday, February 10th, 2014

Black_Life Drawing Happy Valentine’s Week! We are kicking things off full of love for books and sharing our love for books. Random House Reader’s Circle author Robin Black shares 5 books she loves right now. Her upcoming novel, Life Drawing, is on sale July 2014.

Solace, by Belinda Mckeon

Solace is always now the first novel I recommend, especially to Americans who are less likely to know about it than are people in McKeon’s native Ireland where it won a slew of awards including being named Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book of the Year 2011 at the Irish Book Awards. It is a book about loss (this is going to turn out to be a theme in my list, I’m afraid) but also about gains – if that makes sense. In my own work, I am always trying to convey that balance between grief and the spirit, the determination that makes the unendurable endurable. Set largely in the Irish countryside, the book is also a fascinating look at that milieu, certainly an unfamiliar one to me. Just a great, beautifully written book.

The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes

When I recently read The Sense of an Ending, I had no idea the book’s own ending would come so soon. I was reading an e-copy, not tracking pages, and didn’t realize it is well under 200 pages long. I say this, not because its brevity is by itself a virtue – not exactly – but because what Barnes accomplishes in those pages is simply extraordinary. It is a neat puzzle of a book, a kind of clockwork-precise meditation on certain kinds of love, of attachment, of loss (that word again!), of self-delusion, but though an extremely precise, well-structured book, it left me, in all the best ways, with a sense of how messy life is, how full of misunderstanding and crossed wires. It has the feel of a magic trick, a kind of “How on Earth did he do that?” book.

Ancient Light, John Banville

What is remembered and what invented – for any of us? That’s the question at the heart of Ancient Light, and it’s a question that fascinates me, both as a writer and as a person (though those aren’t entirely different things). I think that for many of us, at a certain point in life, you begin rerunning the oldest reels of memory, constructing your own narrative, trying to make sense of it all. Ancient Light, about an “older” actor, newly cast in a role after a time away from his career, explores all these issues of permanency and its opposite when it comes to knowledge of our own distant – maybe not so distant – past.

Someone, Alice McDermott

I enjoyed Someone, enjoyed the story a lot, but I also admit I dip back into this one for the sheer craft of it. The particular way McDermott weaves a present day narrative with a story of the past is wonderfully effective, and, for a writer (since we writers are always on the prowl for new techniques) wonderfully instructive too. But it isn’t at all a technically flashy book, and McDermott’s insights into love, heartache – of many sorts – and also into the role death plays sociologically as well as emotionally within a community, are not only wise, but also very beautiful.

The Understory, Pamela Erens

This is the book I am reading now, soon to be rereleased, after Erens made such an impression with her recent novel The Virgins. The Understory was a critical success when it first appeared some years ago, but never found the audience it deserved. I am reading an advance copy, and so far what strikes me – as I was similarly struck when reading The Virgins – is the intelligence and certainty with which Erens evokes the world she describes. Every sentence is well-turned and accomplishes a lot. Her prose is what people like to call, “muscular,” meaning just that she does a lot with no waste. The pages positively bubble with evocative details. The narrator is a man whose psyche is peculiar – he obsessively or maybe compulsively collects sightings of identical twins, for example – yet, for all his oddity, he is immediately accessible, compelling. Only a couple of chapters in, I have a feeling that this time around a lot more people are going to know and love this book.

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Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia!, interviews Robin Black

Monday, April 25th, 2011

russell_karenKaren Russell is the author of the story collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and the novel Swamplandia!, both published by Knopf. Recently she was selected by the National Book Foundation as one of their “5 under 35″ and by The New Yorker as one of their “20 under 40.” She is the Writer in Residence at Bard College.

KR: Robin, [If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This is] so rich, and fed by so many different streams of life experience—the stories may be “short,” relative to, say, “The Brothers Karamazov,” but they have all the insight, heartbreak, and complexity of the best novels. In your acknowledgments, you mention that it took you eight years to write the ten stories in the collection. Do you feel like the gestation period for the stories has something to do with their emotional depth?

RB: In part, I think the whole process took a long time because I never set out to write a story collection. I wroteIf I Loved You I Would Tell You This each story as its own thing without focusing on how it would fit into a manuscript, so I didn’t feel hurried to finish a book. And I am remarkably inefficient. I honestly think I throw out a good 80% of what I write. On a less logistical level, I think that some of what you call complexity and depth – thank you, Karen! – comes from a childhood spent trying to figure out the familial complexities into which I was born. So many of my stories deal with aftermath, years of history echoing down, and I can see now that I grew up with a sense of a household still trying to deal with its own history. Maybe this is true of all families, but in mine anyway, the stories from the past seemed to loom incredibly large and I was always aware that my parents and my grandmother, who lived with us, were carrying the legacies of these complex narratives within them. There had been deaths before my birth that were still being grieved, injuries and illnesses from which people had never recovered. I know that isn’t unique and my preoccupation with those things is probably the strange part, but for better and worse, I have always been obsessed with the question of how personal history determines the present moment.

KR: Your characters felt very real to me, some more real than many people I know, as though they had a secret life beyond the page. I got the sense that every one of them casts a shadow, has a past and will have a future. How much do you know about your characters when you sit down to begin a draft? Do you draft out biographies for them? Or do their histories, quirks and preoccupations become clearer to you as you write?

RB: My characters definitely reveal themselves to me in process. Going into a story, I know almost nothing about the people, the events, the reason it feels urgent to me. And I like that. Characters develop in a kind of conversation that takes place between actions or plot elements that occur to me as I go along and the responses the characters have to those which then in turn spark on more plot developments. In the sort of stories I write, the story grows out of character, meaning the people do things because it makes some kind of psychological sense to me that they would, but the characters also evolve to serve the story. Like so much of fiction writing it’s a messy and inexact process.

KR: So many of the stories in this collection focus on an emotional or spiritual blind spot—their characters’ inability to accurately see themselves, or their failure to fully apprehend a lover, a parent, a child, or, in the case of the title story, the neighbor who lives behind your cunningly-erected fence. I’m thinking of the sort of intimate one-upmanship of the conversation between Clara and her ex-husband, Harold, in “Immortalizing John Parker” or Jeremy’s startling discovery in “A Country Where You Once Lived.” How can we be so wrong in our judgments of those to whom we are closest—our parents, our children? What blinds these characters; in your opinion, what prevents them from truly seeing one another?

black_robinRB: I honestly think it’s just how we all bungle through life. We make mistakes We assume we know what’s going on and we don’t. Every person carries a vast number of secrets, even people who don’t think of themselves as secretive. We withhold from one another as a kindness or to be in control of some situation or because we don’t want to violate someone else’s confidence. Or because it’s not even theoretically possible to tell someone everything you know. So much of life is conducted in this kind of strange murky darkness. I think I may be more attuned to that than some people or I may be naturally drawn to it as an area of narrative potential, but I think it’s a condition that exists for us all. What’s amazing to me, and continually beautiful, is that we manage ever to connect to one another at all.

KR: Memory, in your stories, felt suddenly so precious and so terrifyingly fragile to me. These characters suffer losses in the present, but often it’s their version of the past that is most at risk. In “Immortalizing John Parker,” there is a wonderful dinner scene between Clara and her ex-husband where reminiscing becomes a heart-stoppingly dangerous activity: “Harold has just taken from her a part of George she thought she held…as effortlessly as she has just rewritten decades of Harold’s life for him.” Is this a loss or a betrayal that you wanted to explore in the collection–how even the past can be taken from us?

RB: Definitely. And also how it can be preserved and how we conspire to create the past. In “Immortalizing John Parker,” Clara robs her former husband of his version of events, but she also offers to preserve John Parker for his wife, agrees to try and keep the past alive that way. In “Tableau Vivant,” Jean and her daughter tell and retell the story of a shared evening to one another because doing so preserves a moment of happiness. It’s a kindness they give each other. I think there’s something inherently hurtful to someone saying “Really? That’s not how I remember it at all.” It strikes a very deep chord. I imagine that we all want to believe we are reliable witnesses to our own lives. Maybe because it makes time itself seem more like something we are able to hold.


If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This is is now available in paperback. Read the rest of the interview in the back of the book.
Buy the book: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / IndieBound
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