I’ve been a fan of Roxana Robinson’s for some time. I think I first saw her short stories in the New Yorker and one of my favorite essays of all time, on the writing process, is in the New York Times essay collection, Writers on Writing, Volume I. I came in contact with Roxana when I joined Readerville
last year. Then she came on my show last week to talk about her new book, A Perfect Stranger
Here is Roxana, on writing, and her work:
BDB: A Perfect Stranger is a collection of short stories. Writers are often cautioned against writing short stories because they can be difficult to sell. What do you say to that?
RR: Unfortunately, it’s true. They are harder to sell than novels. It’s odd, because you’d think that nowadays, when we all seem to have Attention Deficit Disorder, and spend our time rushing around in a state of distraction, that short stories would have more appeal than novels, which are longer, more complex, and have more information to keep track of. But a friend pointed out recently to me that short stories are actually quite similar to poems, in that they are highly focused and highly compressed, and quite demanding for the reader. You can read a novel in small doses, before you go to sleep, and you can rely on the narrative to remind you of who the characters are, and what’s going on. But a short story must be read in one sitting, and you must pay careful attention to it the whole time. So maybe the story is too demanding for the reader.
BDB: You also write essays and novels and narrative nonfiction books. Do you prefer one form over another?
RR: I like all the forms that I write in. I use them for different things. I write non-fiction about things that are more abstract and less personal, usually. If I want to write about something personal, I’ll switch to fiction, where I have more privacy and more flexibility. People have the notion that the memoir is somehow truer than fiction, but usually in a memoir you must be careful about the facts. So why not use the fictive form, where everything can be subordinated to the emotional truth you are trying to present? When I wrote the biography of Georgia O’Keeffe, it ws a wonderful opportunity to combine all the forms, really. I loved writing about early modernist art, and the emergence of photography, and the world of American art, which satisfied all my art historical tendencies. The story of O’Keeffe herself was a marvelous one, rich and complex and full of action, so in one sense it was as though I was writing a novel in which the characters and the narrative line had already been given to me.
I love the short story form, obviously. It’s a very demanding form, very exigent, but very powerful, and I like it for delivering a certain kind of emotional moment.
The novel–which I also enjoy–is a much looser form, much more forgiving, capacious and generous. It takes on your form as you write it. If you write a novel over too many years, you find yourself disagreeing with your earlier self, as your thoughts appear in the beginning. You can stuff anything into the form, anything you’re thinking about right then, there’s room for it.
BDB: What are you working on now?
RR: I’ve just finished writing the Foreword to a collection of early stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald, published by Modern Library, which I much enjoyed. It’s always wonderful to reread work by a great writer, because each time you read it you’re at a different stage of your own life, and your responses are new.
I’ve also written an essay for an anthology which will come out in the fall called “The Nuclear (as in Family) Bomb,” published by Norton. I’m writing a couple of new essays for other anthologies, too – it seems to be a very popular form. And I’m going to write a blog for the Natural Resources Defense Council, for the last two weeks of this month. It will be about the natural world–about great blue herons, and fox cubs, and rogue storms, and climate change–anything that comes across my horizon. The natural world is a great passion of mine, and was one of the themes of my last novel, “Sweetwater.”
And of course I’m working on a new novel, though I can’t talk about that until it’s finished.
BDB: Why don’t you like talking about it till you’re finished?
RR: Talking about a novel–or any fiction I’m working on–before it’s finished is a dangerous move. Most novelists I know have found this to be true. If you talk about something before you’ve written it, somehow it vanishes from the arena where the two of you exist. Somehow its living presence dissipates, it seeps out and evaporates into the air, so that when you next try to work on it, this priceless, fascinating, vigorous presence it has become lifeless and empty, nothing you can make anything from at all. For a similar reason, I don’t show my work until it’s entirely finished. Until it’s whole and complete, it’s in a malleable state, and at that time anyone’s comment has too much weight, too much power, to risk my learning it. I need to finish the work in my own mind, for myself, before I expose it to anyone else’s gaze, or opinion.
BDB: When you write, are you looking to affect the reader in some way?
RR: Hmm. I don’t really think about the reader–unless it’s that I feel I am the reader, myself. What I’m trying to do is present something in a way that will be both clear and powerful for the reader to experience. I want to engage the reader both emotionally and intellectually, to lead them through some sort of questioning process, some exploration that I myself am going through. I don’t usually write about something unless I feel very strongly about it myself, so I want it to mean something powerful to the reader as well.
BDB: Who do you read?
RR: I’m an omnivore. I like books about dogs and about nature. I read AliceMunro and Ann Beattie. The last book I read was The Gate, a memoir by Francois Bizot, a French anthropologist who was captured by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Right now I’m reading Mary Gordon’s new novel, Pearl, which I like very much. I’m working my way through Proust–I recently finished Sodom and Gomorrah, but it will take me some time to tackle the next volume.I read more books by women than by men, partly because our sympathies are often more in alignment, and partly out of solidarity. More books by men are published, reviewed and given prizes than books by women, despite the fact that more women read literary fiction than men. So I try to redress the balance a bit.
BDB: How do you know when an idea is to be a novel or an essay or a short story?
RR: The dynamics, for me, are very different. A short story presents itself to me as a very powerful moment. It can be
something I’ve experienced myself, something I’ve watched, or something I’ve heard about, but that moment is the core of the story. I write toward it, trying to create characters and a narrative that will make the moment as powerful for you, the reader, as it was for me. When the moment finally arrives, something else always happens–a shift occurs, a change. But the
moment is still the core of the story.
What happens with a novel, though, is completely different.
A novel appears, rather dimly and obscurely, as a set of characters and a conflict. Once I know the characters well enough, they carry out the narrative, working their way through the conflict. It means that, since I know the characters, I have some sense of what they’ll do, but I don’t have control of them. So I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen; I certainly
don’t have a plot outline beforehand.
It means that I know less about what will happen in a novel than in a story.
BDB: Advice for writers?
RR: Oh, write, write, write. For yourself. Forget about publishers and agents and the market. Write about whatever you need to write about. Write about the things that trouble you, things that make you feel ashamed, things that make you weep with rage, or cry with laughter. Write about the things that are the most important in your own secret life. The reason to write is to try to explain the world to yourself, and if you do it well enough, you’ll find that you explain it to other people too. But do it first for yourself. And good luck.
Roxana’s Web site is here