A Conversation with Robin Black


Your new book, Life Drawing, isn’t yet released in the United States. Can you tell us a little bit about it?

It’s the story of a married couple. The narrator, a woman named Gus – Augusta – had an affair some five years before, an affair she confessed to her husband, only to discover that confession and even forgiveness do not close the matter. As part of their recovery process, they’ve moved out into the country to live together in shared solitude and to work on their arts – she’s a painter and he’s a writer. The book chronicles the months during which the intrusion of a new neighbor, a British woman, changes everything, making it clear that demons and ghosts and history do not sleep for long.

Robin, I know that you are not one to “churn out” work. It takes you a long while to write a book. What is your process?

It’s so scattershot and ADD influenced, I’m almost ashamed to call it a process. But maybe the key feature is that I let things take the time they take. I don’t strain to write on schedule – because I know that for me that’s a bad idea and I have been fortunate enough, when it comes to books, to be supported by publishers who let me take my time.
But I don’t want to dodge the question. The main thing – maybe – about my process is that it’s ruthless. If a thing isn’t working, I will chuck it. And of course that’s easier in the computer age when “chuck it” just means, start anew version and hold onto the old one.
What was your favorite book as a child? Why?

I’m not sure I had a single favorite, but I’ll go with Little Women – and the two sequels. I read it when I was quite young and it’s possible it was my first real novel. It’s certainly the first time I remember being so emotionally moved by a book, not only engaged or entertained, but also devastated and angry. Because of that, my sense of what literature can do changed – forever.

I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer until I had raised children and had a different life, altogether. Did you have another career besides writing?

I had many years as a full-time mom, interrupted only when I went to law school between marriages. I didn’t graduate for reasons having to do with health and my children, but my heart was never in it anyway. I’ve done some painting and other forms of visual art that I’ve sold, so it went a little beyond a hobby. But pretty much I have had two full-time occupations, mother and writer. Or, as I used to call it when I was home with the kids: Running a small universe and writing.

When did you become a “writer?”

After my father died, when I was thirty-nine. Or anyway, that’s when I started writing “seriously” – meaning, determined to give it my best shot. To be exact, it was three weeks after my father died. I’m stressing that because, in retrospect, thirteen years later now, I understand that I needed him to die in order to feel free both to speak and also to achieve. He was a complex figure, with good and bad all mixed in there, and he was very much a silencing power in my life, a professionally successful man whose message to his own children was that they would be wisest not to compete. Having said that, I should add that he struggled with mental illness and whatever damage he did, was not in any way intentional.

If you could have another set of talents, which ones would you choose?

I’m not sure this is a set of talents, but I truly and seriously wish I were better organized. The ADD is no joke. It has cost me hours and hours every week, just looking for things, trying to remember where files are, having no clean clothes, going through my own life as if I were a permanent amateur at the simplest tasks. I often wonder what it would be like not to struggle with these things so constantly.

I also would love to be athletic. But that’s never happening.

What is your (to steal from Mr. Lipton on that famous interview program) least favorite word? Your most favorite?

My favorite word is unmoored. My least favorite word is harder and I’m on the record somewhere with one which is probably different but I’m going to go with booger.

As a reader, what is your pet peeve?

I hate authors who are mean to their own characters. If fiction has a “higher calling” – and since it’s what I do all day I hope it does – it’s to encourage empathy in people. Through and through bad people are a rarity in life. When they turn up in fiction and I can tell that the author is working out some unconscious or even conscious grudge, I am out.

What is your favorite line from a book?

It’s from a Pat Barker book, Double Vision, and I don’t have the book where I can find it (see above!) but it’s something along the lines of real adulthood coming when you realize that in the face-off between good and bad, or right and wrong, you yourself may not always be on the right side. I think that’s so important. As much as I want authors to avoid creating “all bad” characters, I also want real people to stop believing they themselves are flawless. We are all a big mix.

Give us a list of five books that we, as readers, would absolutely love.

Solace, by Belinda McKeon
The Master, by Colm Toibin
Accidents of Marriage, by Randy Susan Meyers, (forthcoming, September 2014)
A Three Dog Life, by Abigail Thomas
The Suicide Index, by Joan Wickersham

This may be an unfair question, but what book have you just never liked?

It’s not an unfair question, but I’m still going to dodge it, for a couple of reasons. One, there are many, so singling one out feels unfair. But also I don’t think it’s an author’s role to put down other people’s writing. I mean, maybe one day I’ll write the kinds of reviews that include negative treatments, but right now I’m more comfortable with “If you have nothing nice to say, zip your lips.”

And finally, what question have you always hoped someone would ask you, but you haven’t yet been asked? Your answer?

“Why do you write?”
My answer: “I have no idea.”
Which raises the question, why do I want to be asked? It’s illogical – but then so much of creativity is.



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