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Literature : Interview

Take Your Time, Reader: Robin Black

by B.C. Edwards

Robin Black’s debut story collection, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, is chock-full of impeccable examples of how and why the American Short Story remains a vibrant, meaningful genre. BOMBlog’s B.C. Edwards asks the how and the why of first-time publication, readers’ approach to the short story, and inevitability of negative feedback.

In her fantastic debut collection, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, Robin Black displays a metered, skilled hand and a handle on language that surprises in its subtleties. Her characters are flawed—some are completely broken—but all exist in a familiar world that is painful yet hopeful, bleak yet, at moments, startlingly rich. Black walks a fine line, tying the stories together with common themes and ambiances while simultaneously maintaining a variety and nuance of character. Of particular note are the title story, which displays a wonderful technical skill, “Harriet Elliot,” which first appeared in One Story in 2008, and “The Guide.” Her work is chock-full of impeccable examples of how and why the American Short Story remains a vibrant, meaningful genre.

B.C. Edwards There is a withholding in much of your writing, especially in the descriptions. You seem to write around things. It’s somewhat frustrating, but in this very wonderfully rich way that forces us to fill in the gaps and nooks of your stories ourselves.

Robin Black I’m sure some details aren’t there because I forget that the reader isn’t picturing what I am picturing. But I am always conscious of trying to leave some room for a reader’s imagination. One example of my doing that is Harriet’s mother in the story “Harriet Elliot.” I very purposely give no clue about whether she is alive or dead or whether the Elliots are divorced. I like the idea of readers writing that part of the story for themselves.

BCE I just went back and looked at “Harriet Elliot” and even when I know that Harriet’s mother is purposefully not present, I still don’t miss her. In fact it almost seems that to have mention of her would unnecessarily color something in.

RB I thought so much about Harriet’s mother. There were so many reasons I thought she was most powerful as an absence. But I was very aware of that danger of coyness in leaving her out. Withholding is a phenomenally difficult subject and it can’t be avoided, because all storytelling is withholding. When you tell one thing, you aren’t telling an infinite number of other things. There are always those choices. Or, to put it another way, as others have said before, don’t kid yourself that good writing isn’t manipulative. It’s just being good at being manipulative.

BCE Your third-person narration is very close—practically a first-person point of view, only with third person verbiage. Which always brings to my mind a question of author/character relationships. How close do you feel to your characters, generally? How much do you agree with them, their views, their decisions? In “The Country Where You Once Lived,” for example, it’s clear that Jeremy blames his daughter’s running away from home for the ultimate dissolution of his marriage. But do you also blame her for it?

RB No. No, I do not. I just don’t buy simple explanations, though, in some ways, simple or at least immediately plausible explanations are the stock-in-trade of so-called realist fiction. The causality has to make a certain kind of sense so your readers don’t get thrown right out of the story. For me, since I very much doubt that anyone can ever accurately sum up something as complex as why a marriage fails, one challenge of writing such stories is to give just enough information that readers feel like they have the basis to hypothesize and not so much that they feel like they have no reason to.

I do, however, feel very close to my characters in that I feel as though I know them well, and there’s a genuinely peculiar kind of intimacy in that, but for the most part I don’t feel merged with them or with their views on the world. One of the big steps I take as a writer is to differentiate my views from those of my characters. So there’s just enough distance to suggest that the central character’s perspective isn’t to be taken as Gospel or as being wholly endorsed by the larger consciousness of the story.

BCE It seems like almost all of the stories deal with characters in various states of physical disrepair—blindness, stroke, cancer, dementia etc. Do you see this as a theme to this collection specifically, does it pervade other of your writings, or are you just really into giving all your characters diseases, like some terrible god?

RB Effective, you have to admit. You know, I’ve been waiting for someone to figure out that I’m just into Old Testament-type vengeance and that’s why all my characters are so miserable. As my friends are fond of pointing out, no one wants to be a character in a Robin Black story. I see this as a limitation, particularly for a short story writer. A novel can get away with being tragic more easily because with a collection you have the repetition problem. Oh, I wonder who’s going to die in this one. . . Which also gets to the larger question of what it means to collect stories that were imagined and written as stand-alone pieces. We all take it for granted that that’s what one does with stories, but increasingly it strikes me as a strange thing to have their togetherness, for want of a better word, be part of how they’re experienced and evaluated when that notion played no role in their creation.

And I’ve been wondering lately if the people who don’t like story collections would like them more if they had permission to take a year to read through them. After my book came out it really hit me that people might sit down and read it straight through in a day or a few, and I have to say, it wasn’t a happy thought. In part because If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This does deal with so much tragedy, I think it’s better taken in small bits. I’m just not sure that the measure of every book’s worth should depend on its being consumed in the same way. A book that is best read over a period of months may be just as good as one best read in a sitting.

BCE So you think the short story is a form best consumed at a trickle. I would completely agree with that. Story by story rather than all at once. Would this be true if we were talking about an anthology rather than a single author’s collection? I.e., do you find the problem of a repeated theme in a collection is what in some ways bogs the reader down?

RB That’s a question I’ve thought about a lot. It points to some very interesting extra-textual stuff that goes on with readers. Let’s say you write a dozen stories and you decide you’ll make a book. Immediately these question arise about linkage and thematic cohesion. And in the middle of the process, one of the anthologies comes out—the O. Henry or B.A.S.S.—and people discuss these books without ever once faulting them on the ground of lacking thematic linkage, because if a reader goes into a collection knowing that the stories weren’t written by the same author he or she has a completely different set of expectations, which I find genuinely strange. Why does that matter?

I don’t actually think there is one best way to read a collection – but that means that I also don’t think it serves every collection well to read it front to back, straight through, as though it were a novel.

Having just had a first book published, I’ve been struck by the tension between the industry’s hunger for something they have “never seen before” and someone they can say will appeal to fans of various already established writers. “A voice we’ve never heard before”—unless of course that makes you nervous about buying the book, in which case, “very like so-and-so.” It’s a laughable marketing paradox—almost. Story collections are often dinged for a) the stories all being too similar or b) the stories not seeming “cohesive.” It’s as though the whole book business is caught on this weird thin edge between originality and familiarity, difference and sameness, with a foot in each camp, though they are opposites. And in a larger sense, both issues point straight to the heart of the tension inherent in the process of translating Art into a Commercial Product. In one way and another, all of these issues have to do with packaging much more than they do with writing.

BCE Or, is the problem one more of confusion? Being inundated with so many different characters, settings, plots, devices, etc that switching from one story to the next gets everything a bit muddied. Or, is the popularity of the short story so waning simply because it is so short?

RB I ask people a lot what their problem is with story collections, and the answer I get most often has to do with emotional attachment. They don’t like being asked to care about characters and then having to say goodbye so soon. I have another theory, too, which has to do with the short stories that a lot of us were forced to read in high school. They were all constructed around the clever twist. “The Gift of the Magi,” “The Necklace,” “The Most Dangerous Game”—whatever else can be said about those stories, the experience of reading them involves sense of having been tricked, or at the very least, manipulated. I wonder a lot about the unconscious associations that this creates in people. Do readers see short stories as little exercises in the author being a bit smarter than they are? Showing that they have something up their sleeve?

Maybe this is too peculiar a view to share, but if you think about conducting a relationship of any kind in which the other person was constantly holding back information that, once disclosed, would prove that you had been tricked into investing your emotions in pointless ways, well. . .it doesn’t sound like much fun.

BCE I was speaking with some of the people at One Story at AWP [Associated Writing Programs, an annual conference of writers and publishers] shortly before we met and they wove this pretty fantastical story of pulling ‘Harriet Elliot’ off the slush pile and publishing the story. And the collection and a two-book deal sort of resulting from all of that. Is that roughly how it played out?

RB Weirdly enough, it is. I have been substantially humbled by the undeniable role of good luck in my professional progress. The story came out in June 2008 and almost immediately I started getting calls from agents—which I’m convinced had as much to do with it just being in One Story as with the story itself. The Esquire book blog ran a piece which included a very generous headline about it, and also a picture of a black robin!

And at the same time, this nice man who works in publishing saw that I had a story in One Story and wrote to congratulate me. He also asked me what else was going on and I said something like “UGH. I’m gearing up to do the hideous and humiliating thing of trying to find an agent.” And he said “Oh, that doesn’t have to be hideous! Let me help!” The next thing I knew, he had sent a few of my things around to a few agents he knew and I was having meetings and getting offers. About six weeks later, my agent, Henry Dunow, submitted the stories and fifty pages of a novel, there was an auction the next week and six foreign contracts within a month. And honestly none of that would have happened had One Story not pulled the story from the slush pile. They have a kind of visibility and credibility that put me in a different category.

And this is why I know that whatever the merits or deficiencies of my work, a lot of what’s happened has been the result of sheer dumb luck. One day, everything just started breaking my way. What’s frustrating is how many amazing writers there are for whom that never happens.

And there’s something else that’s maybe important in this story. Only about 1/3 of the editors to whom Henry submitted the collection bid on it. That was a hugely wonderful outcome for me, but it’s also worth remembering that if I had been in a workshop instead of in the real world, and only 1/3 of participants had liked my work, it would have been a very bad day. This is just my plea to people who are in workshops—or wherever, really—to fight against the sense that the goal here is for everyone to love your work. People always hear what happened to me as a huge success story, but 2/3 of the editors who read my book passed on it. I’m probably not supposed to say that for marketing reasons, but it’s just so important that people not get discouraged by negative responses. Even when it’s all going extraordinarily well, they are usually the majority vote.

BCE How’s the novel coming along? Forgive me for assuming that you’re working on a novel next, but that does seem to be the trend these days.

RB Can I let you know at the end of the summer? I have two full months set aside. . .

Robin Black’s If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, is available from Random House.

B.C. Edwards is a novelist and writer who lives in New York City.

Short stories