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.