I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
In the early ’80s, Mary Robison, alongside other Minimalist writers such as Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie, upended the short story and made us question what a story is and how one could be told. Robison’s dead-on depictions of fractured lives, her unusual narrative strategies and sparkling dialogue have won her critical acclaim for the short story collections, An Amateur’s Guide to the Night, Believe Them and Days, and her novels, Oh! and Subtraction.
Now, with her new book, the long-awaited Why Did I Ever, Robison reworks the shape and dynamics of the novel by breaking it up into more than 500 fragmented sections, piecing together a startling collage without giving up an inch of the humor and pathos that has come to define her work. Money, the protagonist, is a three-time divorced Hollywood script doctor who has to face the unimaginable: the violent, sexual assault of her son. She says, “My thoughts about Paulie are a thing, over there. I’ll have to go through and sort sometime. Maybe keep some of it separate.” Robison delicately slips in descriptions of Paulie (his bandage gloves and petal-green sweater, the emerald chip in his ear) but the wider story becomes Money’s attempts at distraction. She spends her time milking her doctor’s nurse for more Ritalin, tacking up posters of her missing cat Flower Girl, and colliding with a truly original cast of family, friends, and film industry crazies. Her neighbor, The Deaf Lady, seems to have wandered from the staging of a Beckett play. When Money asks her (she can hear, by the way) how she got her name, The Deaf Lady responds, “I’d prefer you weren’t involved.” The art of this novel becomes Robison’s sharp cuts between what Money can and cannot feel. Money tells us, “I can fit the palm of my hand between Paulie’s eyes. I know what it feels like to do that.”
I interviewed Mary Robison at her home in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, when I was four months pregnant and just a few days past morning sickness. Mary pointed a fan at me and then prepared what she calls “picnic food”—chilled fruit, raisin toast, and latte bowls full of hot tea. As soon as Mary sat down, her five cats joined us, a couple high up on book shelves, the others by our feet. For years I had loved Mary’s work, the wild humor, elegant intellect, her characters’ decency, and the attention to family love. I can tell you that sitting with Mary Robison, talking over tea, is like stepping into one of her stories.
Maureen Murray You said that you wrote your new novel Why Did I Ever on note cards. How do you assemble your fiction? Is that the right verb? Are you assembling?
Mary Robison Yes, I assemble it.
MM Are you hearing voices and then putting together scenes through dialogue? Do you see it, or do you hear it first?
MR Maybe I’d better not admit, right off, to hearing voices. (laughter) It’s more that I had—in my fictional account, is how I like to think of it—hundreds and hundreds of scenes and fragments, or whatever they are.
MM In your new novel, these short scenes are hinged together by white spaces—some sections are only one sentence long. Your earlier fiction also relies on ellipses, but here the white spaces have a structural presence.
MR Oh, the white spaces make sense, don’t they? Like the fact that the gas station is not in the mall—it’s kept separate, for several reasons. All the little sections are employed differently. They’re meant to have different jobs. And that’s as far as I was able to go in providing a customary shape for the story. Let me start at the beginning: various horrible things had happened, as they sometimes will, and I was having difficulty. I was having more than difficulty. Like a repulsive videotape was on automatic replay in my head. So to get through, I began scribbling notes. I would go out, take a notebook. Or drive, or park wherever and take notes. I would note anything left. Anything that still seemed funny or scary or involving for four seconds. Some berserk conversation I overheard. The crap on the radio. This big, brilliant cat. Ridiculous weather. Then it was months before I read over the scribbles and realized they had a steady voice, and that there were characters and themes. Although none of the material was organized at all except around my urgent need to distract myself. So I gave the sections different headings and typed them onto index cards, punched and popped the cards into a binder. And looking through, I thought, This is the only writing you’re doing. You ought to try to make it interesting for others to read. That meant, to me, a reappraisal, and taking a more fictive approach to the narrative, and then, pretty literally, assembling it. Still, I never did give it a hat or shoes, and if you read the pages in reverse order, they work about the same.
MM Most of your short stories don’t track a traditional narrative arc, either. A typical Robison story almost never spans from beginning, middle, to end. Many people think of that as experimentation, but are you saying that form—that fragmentation—is what replicates your experience?
MR No, I don’t care about experience, Maureen. My assignment is to make things up! And, as it happens, I’m more able to get a full story that way, out of a little reality and a lot of invention. So that writing is probably closer to—I don’t know—long-term memory, than experience, for me. I’m allowed to include all these bizarre, shadowy details. I can shade things however I prefer—such as say that I meant to fall down, and that everybody liked me. Or, omit anything the story really doesn’t need. There’s still plenty of practical work. I have to see to it that problems get solved and questions get answered and that nobody wears a snowflake sweater in July. But I’m not obligated to the order and sequence, or to the details or the whole that I would have to try to authenticate if I were recounting an experience. These are some of the good reasons I’m not a news writer or journalist. At times, though, I think the beginning-middle-end structure is very appealing and very comforting. It’s similar to north-south-east-west. Both of them help us know where we are.
MM In this new novel, many of the vignettes break or turn on humor. Sometimes the humor ropes the characters together, other times it scatters them. Why entrust so much to humor in a story?
MR Well, because you can, when the humor succeeds, don’t you think? On the other hand, stories that are free of humor are far harder to write—far harder. I was asked the other day, to write a little prayer and I did, and it took all my thoughts and about three hours and 45 minutes. Humor is a lubricant. When I was first starting out—it was way long ago, back when cars were tough to crank—nobody knew anything, except this one man, Mr. John Barth, who was my professor at Johns Hopkins. So I was scrapping around for any tiny thing I could do and had the thought, “Make the story really funny; all else will be forgiven.” That calmed me and helped me construct something to show him, when I had been at the point of just wadding up pages and rocking in a chair and pounding my fist on my knee. Of course, the man is truly good and kind. He read the story. He understood in a blink that it had been more constructed than composed and he treated that as something fairly interesting. He used the word disjunction in explaining to me what I was trying to do—patiently and knowledgeably explaining, as is always his fine habit.
MM One more thing about humor: it collects in some really dark places in your new novel.
MR Well, true, as not—dark humor would have been disrespectful, in my view. And inappropriate to the nodi my characters have to abide.
MM Many of your stories are anthologized, taught in college classrooms. You’re known, in part, for your dialogue. It’s impeccably edited; anytime someone is saying something that pertains to the moment, they’re also saying something about our condition, how we are or how we live. Your dialogue works double time. Is that through editing? Or are you hunting around for lines, overhearing things and jotting them down?
MR Thank you for saying that about the dialogue. But no, I really haven’t had much luck with overheard talk. It seldom seems useful. It’s seldom convertible. There is something you do with dialogue that makes it sound more like our talk than our talk does. However, I am not able to articulate what that something is. Yet, I am not wrong! (laughter) And nobody ever had a better editor. Roger Angell, at the New Yorker, has been helping me with stories for 23 years. It’s one of the happiest facts of my life.
MM In the eponymous story “Coach” the protagonist taunts his teenage daughter. He’s always sending her off even though perhaps his truer impulse is to draw her closer. Few writers make those daring moves with their dialogue—letting a character repeatedly say the opposite of what he means.
MR I think any signal you consistently send someone, she or he is bound to start disregarding the words and what they mean. The more important point being that you are all the time signaling her or him. And anyway, don’t college coaches generally have a kind of withholding and gruff way of doing business? But whether most of them do or not, this guy, Coach Noonan, to his knowledge, has just two or three tones of voice. And he uses the same tone with his daughter Daphne as he does with the young men on his team. He’s got all this stuff. Things are tense at home. Coach and his family have just moved into town. He needs to do well and prove himself and fit in and feel he belongs. A change like that changes everything for everyone, as I see it. Maybe before this, they all got along fine. But this new community, neighborhood, institution, team—they are all in control of Coach’s livelihood and they control his future, so he wishes his wife and daughter would just get with the program, even if it means ignoring themselves for a bit.
MM As we talk about “Coach,” I’m reminded that your characters often interrupt or correct each other.
MR Well, I grew up in a family of ten. You had to have, like, a burst appendix to get the floor. (laughter) Maybe a brick in your hand would have worked. Nobody went there.
MM Things were a little chaotic and swarming?
MR Yes, but I don’t mean they’re impolite people. Or that they’re insensitive. My brothers and sisters are very quick, intense, brilliant, very sarcastic people. And they were always right there with you, right there, missing not one little throat clearing. Whereas, our mother is a completely charming person, who seems totally taken by surprise, and although she’s a brain, in a trig and Latin way, she would spend most of the meal hour giggling helplessly, with her plate pushed away and her forehead on the table. And meanwhile, in this zigzagging talk, there were lines you wanted to keep, and announcements, and disclosures, and cracks, one after another, so you had to be in it, hearing with all your ears, or you weren’t in it.
MM That’s interesting, because for me, much of the tenderness in your stories comes from your characters making each other as they go along. Sometimes your protagonist in “Coach” can’t gain much headway because there’s so much coming back at him from the others, redirecting him. It’s almost reconstituting. To me, that’s about family love.
MR I’m pleased you think so. Some reaction, as he’s speaking, tells him whether or not he’s getting through. Say the conversation is going on as they’re walking somewhere and that’s too heavy, or he gets frustrated and trails off alone, or ends up with one of them, maybe, whispering in a hallway. Or if he registers a two-person glance at that end of the table, he has to figure out if it means cooperation or contempt. It’s as if every family has a big, fat code book.
MM I’ve noticed that your characters live very much in the present tense. You work with very little back story or flashback, and even when the story is not written in present tense, the reader is left with the feeling that all these characters have is what they have in that moment. Would you comment on that?
MR I’m happy to, as I was chided, in some Times piece or other, for usually writing in the present tense. This article was years ago, but just in case I haven’t complained enough about it … My new novel is narrated in the present tense, as you know. I saw no other way. The main character, whose name is Money, really shouldn’t know what’s around the next curve. (pause) But maybe you’re speaking about something else here. An impression that, for the characters, there’s only the moment, nothing more. I have trouble with that. Someone calls after six years and all the talk on my end is how the printer won’t feed or that this soup is the best minestrone. Right here in my own compartment.
MM Even though your fiction often reads as casual and funny, you cull details like a poet. We come to know your characters through the smallest details, because what they notice tells us what they feel—how they see the sky that day, how they move their coffee cups—
MR You’re referring to the criticism that I’m inconclusive.
MM Oh, I don’t know.
MR I have trouble with that as well. “Practicing incredulity” is the name of the mental habit. When you know things you can’t, somehow, admit you know. But, look, the moving around of a coffee cup, to take your example, during a conversation between a character and his former girlfriend, say, could be a fairly revelatory thing, couldn’t it? Different from his being lip-biting and timid. Or from his hulking around at some threatening distance. Or of course, if it were, instead of a coffee cup, a handgun. (laughter)
MM One critic had an interesting phrase about your work: “Minimalists take the position that reality has been handled too much and that they’re writing advanced fiction.”
MR Reality has been handled too much?
MM Yes, that Minimalism is reality meeting up with a good editor. You’re editing reality so that your stories seem credible to us but they’re also amped up, or hyperreal. Your stories are familiar but there’s something so chosen about the details that you create what this critic called “advanced fiction.”
MR Or rather, his report of how Minimalists perceive reality. See, there, again. I was never polled. Did he even agree? And I don’t know with whom that term advanced fiction could have originated. Somebody confident.
MM In your story, “In the Woods,” the protagonist is married to an older man who’s having affairs and she retreats to her sister’s place. She talks about it obliquely but then there’s an incredible image where she sees her sister’s husband at a water trough—he looks up and he doesn’t have his dentures in. “He faced me there at the trough with an unusual gentleness. And then he winked.” In that moment, I’m struck by the protagonist’s “unusual gentleness,” her decency, her sympathy.
MR That’s a very compassionate reading on your part.
MM Is it more compassionate than you intended?
MR No, but I’m grateful just the same. It’s a quiet family in that story, for whom anything said at all might be hurtful. And the brother-in-law is a man the protagonist has been viewing nervously and a little suspiciously, until that moment at the trough.
MM Some people say your work is bleak. What do you make of that?
MR Well, I don’t agree.
MM I don’t either. For example, they’ll say that the parents in your stories are usually incompetent or neglectful. But when I think about that woman in “In the Woods,” or how you handle human frailty in your work, I see your characters as often landing in territory somewhere between forgiveness and acceptance.
MR I deserve that particular piece of criticism, though. So does Faulkner. Fitzgerald. James. Joan Didion, Robert Stone, Richard Ford, Denis Johnson. Joy Williams and Barry Hannah. John Updike, Richard Yates. I could probably keep going. Nabokov! And if my characters are stragglers or negligent persons, some of them, none is mean, or cold-blooded, or greedy. None is unkind. They’re buoyant. They have stamina. They love each other. They have something like a need to tell jokes. And their bad behavior can serve as a kind of mechanism. The character Mo in my novel Oh! is such a mess that everyone around her is mustered into action and creativity and slapstick fights and speeches. I don’t know if you’ve seen the little movie made of that book, that Michael Almereyda wrote and directed. It’s very sharp. TitledTwister, but Helen Hunt was not in the cast. William Burroughs was, however, and he was superb.
MM Let’s talk about Coach a little bit more. That character is benevolent but also very flawed, fumbling. He’s the center of the family.
MR That he is. Wholly invented. I mean, I’ve never really known anyone like him.
MM You have Coach’s dialogue, his physical gestures down so well. Where did he come from?
MR I had this job working for the football department at Brown where a half-dozen persons were called “Coach.” They were a different kind of being. They’d be pulling each other’s clothes and wrestling on the floor. I was fairly obsessed with them, but I was just there, you know? It’s not like we, any of us, ever sat down and had a talk.
MM What was your job?
MR In recruiting. I didn’t last long, you understand. The preoccupation with coaches went on a great deal longer than the job did.
MM Well there are those lines in the story, “A coach can work miracles with a good team, but he’s helpless if his personnel don’t want it bad enough. That’s the worst part about running a team, you can’t—”
MR “You can’t climb down into your people’s hearts.”
MM “And change them.” I’d imagined that Coach is based on your father.
MR No, no, I could never be trusted to portray anyone. My father was very intelligent; a patent attorney, inventor, engineer, but he was more like, I’d say, Anthony Quinn than Coach. He had physical might and was an intense presence, but not a sports type at all. I’ve never had a character more than loosely based on someone. Beyond that, they’re me. Plenty of traits and features I dislike in myself, to build on. How preoccupied Coach is, that’s like my father. He was always studying and observing there in the background, if we were driving across a bridge or something, saying, “Good Christ, they’ve got a Smarthen folding welded above a 36 two Hiedercon coil.” Of course, my brothers would have to challenge him on that and insist that he be sure. And my sisters, my sisters are the funny ones, just killingly funny, would be like: “Shut up, all of you! Get me home!”
MM In your novel Oh! Mr. Cleveland says something that resonates with some of your other characters. He says, “I just realized that my kids don’t look nearly as old as they’re supposed to.” He has two adult children living at home, Howdy and Maureen, and Maureen has her little child, Violet. The adult characters don’t want to move out of their parents’ home. There’s a sense of confinement within the family but also the fear that it will dissolve. No one wants to leave—it’s as if they’re sealed inside.
MR Yes, exactly. They’re all trapped in that house. Maureen and her brother Howdy are most immature, at times aggressively immature. And very gifted at making the father feel guilty or making him furious. So that he goes to greater and wilder and louder attempts to gain control. But that just causes them to be more outrageous. Which makes more control necessary. Until the father’s approach to them really borders on the sadistic. He’s angry that they’re not adults but he has kept them being needy children. He’s never made room in that house for another adult and he never will. His fiancée wears braids and a rag doll costume. But I’ve heard the complaint that my characters don’t act their age, or sound adult enough. For instance, you know how publishers will use copyeditors who work freelance. They don’t know you; you don’t know them. Well, with my novel, Subtraction, the copyeditor went all through and reduced the character’s ages by a decade. And I asked, “What did she think? That I was going to write a second book?” Because, now they’d have been like nine years old and carrying their Jetsons lunch boxes to the induction center when they were drafted for Vietnam. So I bitched and moaned and Bobbie Bristol, who did all the real work and edited the book, very understandingly helped put things back.
MM Do you mind if we talk about Minimalism a little?
MR Have at it.
MM Well, most critics see you as one of the originators of Minimalism. They say that some of your Minimalist fiction predates Raymond Carver’s. How do you feel about being thought of as establishing that genre?
MR That’s hooey. Raymond Carver was a master of the short story and the master of a kind of short story. There was no one else. I was very lucky to be allowed to play on the same field. The other convicted Minimalists are Ann Beattie, Frederick Barthelme, and Amy Hempel. These are all writers for whom I have admiration, fondness, the deepest respect.
MM But initially, how did you feel about being categorized as a Minimalist?
MR I detested it. Subtractionist, I preferred. That at least implied a little effort. Minimalists sounded like we had tiny vocabularies and few ways to use the few words we knew. I thought the term was demeaning; reductive, clouded, misleading, lazily borrowed from painting and that it should have been put back where it belonged. However, it did a lot for me (laughter) in that I received some attention other deserving writers did not. Patricia Geary, Moira Crone, Liz Inness-Brown, Steve Barthelme, or even my late husband, James Robison. Joke, my little joke.
MM How have your friendships with other writers influenced your work? Or your life? You were friends with Raymond Carver.
MR No, I knew him a little, but not well, when we were working with the same editor at Knopf. And we had written back and forth when he was at Syracuse and using a story of mine—I think it was “Kite and Paint.” To me he was generous and giving; and he seemed a very serious man. I met many great writers in the years I was teaching at Harvard and at the Bennington summer conferences. Those were the days. After that I went to Houston to work with Donald Barthelme. And then I started doing script stuff: teaching fall semesters and spending the rest of the year in Hollywood. But in the end that didn’t work out. So, I joined up with the brothers B at Southern, in Mississippi. Rick Barthelme and I have been friends since our Hopkins days in the ’70s.
MM Anatole Broyard said about your work, “I saw her writing as a deliberate counterpoint to the actual, just as in certain kinds of jazz singing, the vocalist sings against the melody.”
MR I want to think hard about what he meant. From the sound of that, he came quite close to something almost like praise. What do you think he meant?
MM Well, to me the melody is realism. You come up against the realism in some way that forces it, confronts it, but is in sync with it, and that creates something. I’m always trying to get at what that is in your work. I don’t know. Maybe it’s unanswerable.
MR Let’s say it is, at least by me. I once wrote a review of a review that Mr. Broyard did on me. He repeatedly used the construction, “It’s as if she’s saying”—and then he would suggest something crackball and wrong, and then argue hard against that, and scold me, and lower my grade another letter, and then, next sentence, he would pull it again! (laughter)
MM Well, Anatole Broyard aside, I think other writers really love your work.
MR I’ll need their names and e-mail addresses.
MM (laughter) Okay, on to readers. How do you feel about the criticism that because your work demands so much of the reader, you don’t have wide appeal?
MR Meaning that readers are stupid people? Or they’re just tired from too much Beowulf? Can’t these critics be satisfied blaming the teller of the tale? Sigh. I haven’t written bestsellers. But I’ve had all the other breaks: had nice jobs, six books, been anthologized and translated. I’ve traveled all over, lived at the Chateau Marmont, made plenty of money to owe the IRS. Dated jazz stars and French film directors. Or, actually, that one is still on my wish list.
MM When you write, do you have someone in mind who is reading the sentences?
MR Maybe 10 or 12 someones, whose opinions I need. I clear everything by Virginia Harabin, a writer and activist; and by the poet Mark La Rue. Rick Barthelme. He understands all of it, the strangest things I say. Our talk is almost code. Not code that would be useful in any way around a blackjack table, do I mean. (laughter) And I show work to Laura Lark, who’s my favorite painter. She’s out of Houston. Chaz Hibbler, a jazz musician. He’s gone with me on road trips and listened to my live performance. And Little Jenny Watson, my daughter, reads, rereads, and proofs every word, and knows if I make the teeniest change. I deleted a word the other night and she browbeat me into putting it back. She is one sharp tack. My sisters give me material. We’ll have these preposterous conference calls and then meet in some Whozitville somewhere in the country. They know I’ll drive anywhere: coffeed up, tape player screaming, smoking six cigarettes, wouldn’t know it if my tires were on fire. And to Rachel, my younger daughter, I read things aloud. She is Miss Razor Ears: “Mom, you couldn’t mean another Second World War. They just go up each time in number.” They’re the strictest children! And I talk a lot of the writing over with Richard Ford. He looks out for me. Then gives me hard things to do like days of fishing on the bayou with Cajun guides. Astounding heat, alligators, you’d think you were in Down by Law. My chess pal, Rick Moody, trades pages with me. I trust every single sound out of him. And I will call my mom if I need the source of something—a line out of Tennyson, or some such. She’ll know, usually, and recite the whole thing, which does mean I have to sit still and listen. I show work to my New Orleans boyfriend when he isn’t too blitzed. (laughter) He won’t know to read this. I didn’t give him my real name. And again, Roger Angell. He helps me find the level with ellipticality as he has a perfect sense of how much is too much, and can direct me into a connection with the character: “Where does she dream of traveling?”—“Indiana.” “What’s she hungry for?”—“A radish.” “She certainly is your character,” he’ll say. But now, having named those good people, one of the advantages to getting old enough for silver hair is that you will have put so much time into private talks with yourself. And so much time, you know, writing in the little diary. One of the results is that others have less sway. And are less able to give you much in the way of validation. Ah, but you probably wanted the shorter answer to your question. Yes. Or you meant during the writing. And then, no, I’m just a machine. Or more aptly, I’m an appliance, like an electric mixer on the slowest speed. With no off switch. You’d have to knock me down and throttle me before I’d let it go.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee