An interview with Robin Black
Robin Black, author of the beautiful collection of stories If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, answers questions about her debut.
Do you have a favourite story in the collection?
I really don't. I have a couple that aren't in contention, but I think I won't say which those are. I feel personally closest to 'Immortalizing John Parker', because in many ways, though our life histories are different, Clara Feinberg is the character in there who is most like me. I sometimes refer to that story as 'Portrait of the Artist as a Portrait Artist'. There are certain things she has to work through about the morality of depicting human with an unsentimental eye, about using other people as fodder for one's own art and the dangers of that, that are very much preoccupations of mine. And she's a bit sharp which for better and worse is part of who I am as well.
Can you talk us through your personal writing process – from conception to publication?
I am pretty much just flailing in the dark when I start a piece. I'll generally begin with some tiny observation or a question really about a particular situation and for the longest time, I have no idea what I'm doing beyond a hunch that there might be a story there. The stories themselves are never autobiographical but that spark often does come from my own life. For example, my daughter suffers from difficulty with word retrieval, more so when she was very young. During the worst of it, I became fascinated by the intimacy and dynamics of my relationship with her, as a result. I literally had to know how she meant to finish all her sentences so I could help her with them – or not help her, if that was the better choice. So that was the jumping off point, but then, when I wrote 'The History of the World', the whole thing was transposed onto sixty-five year old twins touring Italy. Most of the stories carry some such trace of me in their DNA.
These days, meaning for the past five or so years, I don't write first drafts from start to finish anymore – or anything like it. I used to do that and then go back and revise many, many times. But somewhere down the line I started just scribbling odd bits and letting stories build from scraps. I rearrange a lot. I try to be very open to the idea that what I'm writing on any given day may be a misdirection. And it takes months and months even to have a full draft of a single story, but then, by the time I do, I don't generally have huge amounts of revision to do. I've been revising all along. It's not a process I would ever advise anyone else to choose, but I'm a bid believer in the idea that we're all very different and all have to find out own method – which of course might change with time.
I send stories out when I'm convinced that I know why each line is the way it is – though somehow even so I end up thinking things need to be changed. The publication process is always strange because I think of my stories as so fluid up until then, everything in motion and then it's all set in type. With the book though I actually did make some big changes in a few stories that have previously appeared. And now as I reread with an eye to what I'll share at readings, I find myself marking things up, cutting words. From what I've heard that's pretty much par for the course though. No one ever feels like their work is perfect.
Which other authors inspire you?
A.S. Byatt is always very high on that list, particularly her stories. Virginia Woolf is in a special category, a kind of patron saint. But the truth is, if we're really talking about inspiration, I'm inspired most by the writers I know, the ones with whom I went through graduate school, the ones I have met through various workshops. Some have achieved recognition, others haven't, but that's not really the point. What's inspiring is their commitment to writing even without any promise of what the world sees as success. In a way, when I think about whose standards I want to uphold, it's the standards of unrecognized writers that seem most important to me. It has much more to do with attitude than with achievement.
Your stories feel incredible personal and mostly centred around the domestic, where do you draw your inspiration from?
Well, I talked a little bit about that earlier, about those sparks that come from my own life. The domestic part grows out of the fact that I have spent the greater part of my life in that setting. I had my first child in 1988 at twenty-five and, with the exception of a very brief period, never worked outside the home until I went to graduate school at forty-one. The dramas I have watched unfold in my life have largely unfolded in familial contexts. I worry sometimes about the limitations of that, I find myself wishing I'd had more adventures, experienced more life outside my house, but then when I sit down to write I never feel myself to be short on material. It's possible that the lack of adventure has driven my gaze inward, so I'm very focused on emotional implications, on people's interior lives, but so far I haven't found an end to my interest in those things.
There are rumours of a novel in the pipeline; could you tell us any more about this?
I don't want to say too much because I'm one of those writers who finds that if they talk a lot about work while it's in process, the pressure on the writing itself can let up in unhelpful ways. But I will say that I'm excited about it and that it won't come as a huge shock to anyone who reads and enjoys my stories. I think my larger themes are my larger themes whatever I write. So I'm still working through those questions of how people move on from their own sorrows and how people work to connect with one another, against the odds. One thing that the longer form has given me though is the chance to write about people not only when they're in crisis, so there will be more glimpses in this book of the happy times that preceded – and maybe even follow – the difficulties that come.
For more information about contemporary women's fiction and the role it plays in the modern age, read our interview with the author Kate Mosse.