Robin Black Interview

Robin Black, this year’s final judge for the Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction, and keynote speaker for Philadelphia Stories’ 2016 Push to Publish conference, seemed to burst, fully formed, upon the national literary scene with the publication of her story collection, If I loved You, I Would Tell You This. The book earned Black rave reviews, comparisons to Alice Munro, and the consensus that an important new literary voice had just emerged – basically from nowhere.

Literary cognoscenti in Philadelphia knew otherwise, for Black, who’s lived here all her adult life, and raised her family here, had been charting her own quiet but determined path in local writing groups for many years, creating for herself, before and after earning her MFA in the Warren Wilson low residency creative writing program, a loyal and supportive writing community. Nobody who knew Black then was surprised when, in 2008, in an event as rare as the sighting of a white peacock, Black’s collection of eleven stories triggered a bidding war among major New York publishers with prestigious Random House the victor.

A bidding war for a story collection by an unknown writer! Incredible!

Four years later, Black, followed up If I Loved You with her radiant novel Life Drawing, an unflinching and fraught examination of a long marriage, damaged by infidelity; threatened from both within and without. Like If I Loved You, Life Drawing garnered stellar reviews, international publication, and enviable sales, thus confirming critics’ predictions that Black’s was a significant new literary voice.

“I am anything but a haphazard writer,” Black said in a recent interview with Philadelphia Stories. The process Black described is very much like what Louise DeSalvo has articulated in her eponymous book, The Art of Slow Writing. “Often stories take me many years,” says Black, noting that she has dozens of unfinished stories languishing on various hard drives. “And I revise endlessly…every word is considered many times.” Like Munro, Black completes only one or two stories a year. She spent four years on a novel that she eventually trashed. But the final story she wrote for her collection, A Country Where You Once Lived, as complex and multi-layered as a novel, took her only eight months. “That was short!” she said.

For Black, stories “usually begin with some random thought about an interesting situation. Or about a dilemma someone might find themselves in. The truth is, at the time I start typing, I am working with next to nothing, and very often the original spark is gone long before the story is complete.”

Black’s recent successes have come to her as a ‘late bloomer.’ She did not begin publishing until after she’d mostly raised her three children. In an essay in Crash Course, her just published collection of craft and personal essays, she describes a 15-yearlong period, from 1987 to 2001, during which she not only didn’t write but did not read fiction. Reading fiction, she theorized in the essay, “became too painful to me, too much of a reminder of what I’d been unable to do.” In retrospect she realizes that she didn’t abandon “the joy of reading fiction” because she had a “houseful of children” and the many responsibilities bound to running a household, but more likely because she had, at that time, abandoned her deepest ambition, writing books. By the time Black finally turned to writing seriously, she was obsessed “with worries about being an unfashionable writer. I knew that my work …was neither edgy nor, in the most obvious senses, unconventional. These worries slowed me down.”

A ‘turning point’ story for her, and still one of her favorites, is Immortalizing John Parker, a 34-page tour de force meditation on identity, love and betrayal, loss and forgiveness, as experienced by a septuagenarian painter, Clara. She’s commissioned to paint the portrait of an elderly man who might be sliding into dementia. “He’s lost and growing more lost by the moment,” Clara thinks while pondering the ‘dullness’ of his face. “That’s what the eyes of her painting will show, she hopes, a man in the process of becoming lost.”

Black says she wrote Immortalizing John Parker “in a spirit of self-acceptance…very early on in the process of writing that story I explicitly gave myself permission to channel my inner sixty-five year old British woman.” That story taught her, she says, that she must tell the stories she has to tell and must tell them in her own way. “We are who we are, which means we write what we write.

Such turning points, the writer wrestling with subject matter and style, Black notes, “may have to be engaged over and over and over again.” Salvation or, at least satisfaction, comes from “realizing that you are writing for those people who like and relate to and respond positively to your work, and emphatically not to try to get every reader out there to love your work…Knowing that, believing it, helps a lot, though the fantasy of universal love is a sneaky one, and a resilient one too.”

Like Munro, Black rarely strays far from home and family life. “I never set out to center my stories around the home, but that’s where I was then, and I wasn’t the sort of writer to reach way outside my own experiences in that way.”

Black’s abiding fascination with marriage, she says, is “ a subset of a fascination with all relationships. But maybe what interests me most about marriage, and not only between a man and a woman, is the free will …you can’t choose your family. But you do choose your spouse – sometimes more than one spouse, if the first choice, or the second, is wrong.”

Many writers are smart about romantic relationships, but few manage the rare wisdom Black offers in her consideration of marriage: “Anyone with any years at this will tell you, it’s not always easy. All relationships change over time. One party may change dramatically, but in the traditional marriage model, that isn’t supposed to result in changes in closeness or in the basic structure of the relationship. That means that marriage asks a lot of us as we grow through life. It asks that we accommodate changes in our partner and also that we balance our own changes with the needs of our partner.”

She also points out that marriage is a relationship “in which there is a single, generally agreed-upon form of disloyalty: sexual straying. It’s hard to think of another relationship we have that has so obvious and singular a line that can’t be crossed. For literary purposes, that’s one of the reasons that betrayal stories (and my novel is one) are so tempting to write. There’s a crisis that we recognize as universal in traditional monogamous marriages. So what happens if that line is crossed?”

‘What happens’ after infidelity is the concern of Life Drawing and several stories in If I Loved You. The challenge for Black has been to write ‘a new story’ about this ancient and universal story. “How do you do so without either romanticizing the notion of marriage or denigrating it?” she asks rhetorically. The answer can be read in her stories and her novel.

It wasn’t until Black was about halfway through graduate school, and had had a few published pieces, that she began to think of herself as a writer. “But in retrospect I was wrong. I had been a writer for years by then, because I had been writing. Like many people I felt insecure and looked beyond my own commitment for some kind of official right to the word. But I believe strongly that everyone who writes, who devotes themselves to it in whatever time they have, who cares about it, is a writer.”

Her recent publishing successes notwithstanding, Black says her most rewarding professional experience so far has been teaching. “It is a wonder to have books published and have them read, and it’s amazing when a review is a rave – which doesn’t happen every time, for sure! But there is nothing like getting to teach. The pleasure of helping people who so, so want to get better at this, understand a new concept, or take a leap forward in their work, is just incomparable.”

 


Julia MacDonnell’s second novel, Mimi Malloy, At Last! was published by Picador in 2014 to widespread praise in national media. The paperback and a German-language edition were published in 2015. Her first novel, A Year of Favor, was published by William Morrow & Co. Julia is the nonfiction editor of Philadelphia Stories.

Interview with Author Gary Lee Miller

Museum of the Americas, Gary Lee Miller’s debut story collection, published in 2014 by Fomite Press, ponders love and longing and loss and redemption through the experiences of highly unconventional characters, the kind of people who, says Miller, “nobody pays much attention to.”

Steve Almond called the collection, ‘vivid and arresting.’ The stories, he said, “have a gentle fabulism that grows darker as Miller plumbs the human psyche.” 

Miller’s new short story “The Salted Leg” appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of The Missouri Review and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He’s currently working on a novel, which he hopes to complete in September during his second residency at the Byrdcliffe Artists Colony in Woodstock, NY.

Miller grew up in the 70s and 80s, in Eldred, Pennsylvania, a tiny town of about 800 that sits along the Allegheny River, in what he recalls as ‘a storytelling culture.’

“My dad was a drinker and when I was five years old I was sitting next to him at the bar drinking orange pop, listening to all the hunters, fisherman and factory workers tell their stories. Storytelling was a big part of life there and these guys had it. They had timing, they knew what to tell and what not to tell.  They had irony and description.

“I sat and listened to them and it was fantastic. I ended up going to college to be a wildlife biologist but I was terrible at math and chemistry.”  Miller, who worked to pay his own way through college, struggled for three years before dropping out because he ran out of money.  “I was living in upstate New York and couldn’t find a job… I didn’t know what to do. My roommate said, ‘Look, you don’t have to be in college to learn stuff. Go to the library and read books.’”

Miller took that advice, going through the fiction section in the local library book by book.

“I loved it. Within a few months I was writing. I came back as a senior, changed my major to English. I did the entire English major in a year. I got straight A’s…I had a teacher who said, ‘You know you have a little talent and if you work harder, you can do something with it.’ That guy, that one person, was the first person in my life to say, ‘You can do something. You’re a good writer.’”

Miller went on to earn an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier where he resides with his partner and his teen-age daughter.  Miller says he has had great teachers, Steve Almond and Ellen Lesser among them, but he credits his writing passion to ‘growing up in a culture with people who loved to tell stories.’

Many of Miller’s stories are set in rural Pennsylvania.  His story ideas “come from things  I’m obsessed with or things that happened to me. I don’t ever really tell a straight story of something that happened to me … I just take a little kernel of it and create a completely different story.”

In the title story, “Museum of the Americas,” which displays curated samples of earth, ‘I was driving through Vermont and decided to take a back road. I drove by this place and there was a sign that said ‘Museum of the Americas’. There were two cars sitting out front and I thought, ‘What a bizarre thing, a Museum of the Americas on this little tiny road in the middle of farm country.’ I made a promise to myself that I’d never go and see what was inside. I’d just make it up.”

In the resulting story, Tom Grant owns a decrepit and mostly forgotten museum displaying, in rows of Bell jars, earth samples from all over the Americas that he inherited from his father. He also inherited a set of rigid ‘Christian’ values and terrible memories of abuse. When an elderly couple visits the museum, on a mission to connect with their dead son through a particular earth sample, Tom’s carefully constructed world begins to collapse. Tom at first refuses them, but their quest eventually forces him to confront his own shortcomings and longings.

“In His Condition” explores the emotional and psychological ravages of alcoholism as the narrator, on a seven-week long bender, ponders his uncle’s addiction and that man’s recovery through his devotion to collecting butterflies. He is home, in the house where he grew up, searching for his own “saving thing” as his mother, downstairs, calls doctors and “drunk farms”, hoping to find a placement for him.

Several of Miller’s stories, set so carefully in place and time, edge toward the magical, while others, including Night Train, Killing Houdini and Certain Miracles weave lyricism into traditional realism and historical events. Afficionados of short fiction may detect whiffs of Russell Banks, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Denis Johnson and Daniel Woodrell in the work of Miller, but Miller offers a bit more lyricism in his prose, along with a tad more tenderness in his resolutions.

Even so Miller’s route to publication was full of disappointments and rejections.  Before assembling his story collection, he’d written two novels and signed with ‘a very high-powered New York agent, top of the line.’

“He looked at me and he said, ‘Gary, I’m going to tell you something right now. There is going to be a happy ending to your story. These books are going to be published.’”

For two years the agent did everything he could to “make it happen but he couldn’t…That was a devastating time. I didn’t write for another two years.”

Finally, he sent one of his novels to Fomite Press, a small publisher in Vermont that describes itself on its website as “a post-capitalist operation in which the authors get almost all profits, and Fomite gets little or nothing beyond expenses. We have no plans to make money with the press, only to serve the writing community by bringing out high-level literary work and making it available.”

The publisher, Marc Estrin, got back to Miller quickly.  “He said, ‘You’re a good writer but I don’t like this book…Do you have anything else?’ I sent him my story collection and a day later he emailed me back and said, ‘I love this book and I want to publish it. Will you please let me publish it?’ I said yes.”

With his first collection published and a novel in its final stages of creation, Miller has this advice to young ambitious writers: “Don’t wait for the world to tell you when you’re a writer, just write. Start writing, send your stuff out. Form relationships with magazines and with other writers and read all the time. You can’t be a writer if you don’t read. Find a book you like and try to figure out how it works. Go through the book, write all over it, make notes, and underline sentences you like.

“Persist, don’t give up, just keep writing and don’t ever be afraid. Find a newspaper, find a blog that will let you write for them and get your work out there. Just start being a writer. Say it now, say you are a writer right now and be one. That’s number one. And persist is number two. Every minute you’re not writing, somebody else in competition is.”

 

Profile: Emily Rose Cole, Poet

Emily Cole is this year’s winner of the Sandy Crimmins National Prize in Poetry. She was kind enough to sit down with us and answer a few questions about her process, plans, and love of poetry and music.

 

Congratulations on winning the Sandy Crimmins National Prize in Poetry for your poem, Self-Portrait as Rapunzel. Can you tell me about what inspired you to write this poem?

Thank you! “Self-Portrait as Rapunzel” is, in many ways, a family poem, so it’s mostly inspired by my relationship with my mother, and, of course, from the fairytale itself. However, one of the poem’s most direct influences is the book The Unexplained Fevers, by the wonderful Jeannine Hall Gailey. The book features a lot of Rapunzel poems and I was reading it just before I drafted my own Rapunzel poem. My poem is not a direct response to any of Gailey’s, but there’s definitely a visible influence.

 

I thoroughly enjoyed the language of Self Portrait as Rapunzel. I found it playful, yet challenging, and enjoyably metaphorical, but without sacrifice to narrative. When you write, do you tend to focus on any one particular aspect over another? Whether it is tempo, sound, story, structure, etc.?

Absolutely. Before I was a poet, I was (and am still) a musician, so the music of language is always the first thing I focus on when I’m writing. One of my favorite things about poetry is the way poets pay such careful attention to sound in their language. Sound is always one of my first considerations. Narrative though – that’s harder for me. Much of my work has to go through a lot of drafts before I can tease out a consistent narrative. Fortunately, Rapunzel lent itself very well to narrative, since the poem is partially modeled on the fairytale.

 

When did you first discover your passion for poetry?

This is a hard question to answer! I’ve loved reading poetry since I was a small child and I’ve been writing it for as long as I can remember. I was always writing poetry during free writing time in elementary school, and all my study halls in high school were more devoted to sonnets than to textbooks. I didn’t really become serious about writing poetry until my last year of college though, and now that I’m in an MFA program, I can’t imagine doing anything else.

 

If you could control the affect that your work has in the reader, what affect would that be?

I’m a firm believer in the power of art – any kind of art – and its ability to inspire empathy in its readers (or viewers, or listeners). I think that poetry, given its compressed nature and attention to beautiful language, is perfect for showing us reflections of ourselves and helping us empathize with one another. So that’s what I’m going for when I write: I want to inspire empathy, or, at least, powerful emotion. Ideally, that emotion will lead readers to produce some art of their own.

 

As both a poet and a songwriter, how do your approaches differ in respect to each medium?

I adore both mediums, and they definitely inform one another – my musical knowledge helps me with sound and rhythm and narrative tension in my poems, and my background in rhyme and meter are invaluable in my songwriting. However, I think of these two mediums as very distinct from one another. I like to think of poetry as something closer to a two-dimensional medium and music as more three-dimensional.

In poetry, I’m concerned with sound and line breaks and the way it looks on the page, but all I have to worry about is words. In songwriting, though, I have to think about lyrics, melody, layering and arranging the other instruments… It’s a very different thought process. I think that, in general, lyrics are easier for me to write because I usually build them around a backbone of melody and I don’t have to worry so much about the individual sound structure, since the music and phrasing is generally more important. That’s the wonderful thing about songwriting – poetry is pretty static unless you change the words, but music can be rephrased and reshaped; it’s different every time.

 

What are your plans after completing your MFA at the University of Southern Illinois?

My long-term goal is to become a creative writing teacher. This year, I have the privilege of teaching one section of Introduction to Creative Writing and I absolutely love it. First though, I need to work on my poetry thesis. I’ll be entering the final year of my MFA next fall, which means I’ll need to produce a book-length thesis. I haven’t quite decided on the exact shape of the book yet, but it’s likely that “Self-Portrait as Rapunzel” will be included!

Local Author Profile: Lisa Scottoline

Killer Smile, Lisa Scottoline’s eleventh novel, has already been chosen as Main Selections by both Literary Guild and Mystery Guild. It will also be featured in Doubleday Book Club, Quality Paperback and Book of the Month Club. Philadelphia Stories talked with Lisa about her life as a writer, and what it means to be a writer from Philadelphia.

What was the inspiration for your latest crime novel?
My inspiration for Killer Smile came when my father, who was terminally ill, called me over. He said he had two important things to give me. One was the deed to the family cemetery plot, and the other he said was the last of the family secrets. He handed me two booklets covered in pink paper. They turned out to be my grandparents’ alien registration cards. It was then that I learned an important piece of U.S. history, and a very personal piece of my own family history.

During WWII, as many as 600,000 Italian Americans were forced to register as enemy aliens, and thousands more were relocated, and even interned. In Killer Smile, lawyer Mary DiNunzio sets out to get reparations for Amadeo Brandolini, an Italian American who committed suicide while interned during World War II. Mary discovers that Brandolini did not actually commit suicide, and she is determined to find justice for him.

Can you tell us a little bit about your writing process?
The truth is that I don’t write with an outline. When I have an idea, which is only once a year, I go ahead and write it. I let the story develop as I write it. Even I am not always sure which direction it will take.

Did you always want to write?

No, I loved Perry Mason, and always wanted to be a lawyer. I practiced law for several years, but at the same time I was a bookaholic. Eventually I traded one passion for another.

How did you become a professional writer?
I was working as a litigator at one of Philly’s most prestigious law firms, when the birth of my daughter coincided with a divorce. I wanted to stay home to raise my daughter, but still needed a way to pay the mortgage. At the time, Grisham and Turow had come on to the scene, and it occurred to me that there was no one writing from the female perspective. I lived off credit cards for several years, and wrote while my daughter slept (which wasn’t much). I had finally just taken a part-time job as a law clerk when my first book, Everywhere That Mary Went sold to HarperCollins.

How does the Philadelphia area influence your writing?

All my books are set in Philly. I love Philly for its neighborhoods, dialects and heavy dose of reality, and thought it would be terrific to put it on the literary map. The law was also born in Philly, so what better place to set legal fiction books?

Can you offer any advice to young writers?
Just to go for it! I believe everyone has a story in them, and they should never be discouraged to put it on paper.