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Posts Tagged ‘Roxana Robinson’

Reading Roxana Robinson’s latest novel, Cost, I was struck by how beautifully and naturally she writes about place, from the coast of Maine to the streets of New York.  Consider this, for example – a coastal view from the perspective of a painter: “Julia’s studio was in the barn overlooking the meadow. Through the big picture window she had painted this many times, the rich rippling grass, the moving water beyond it, the glittering sea-bright light…. For the meadow, for that smoky pink grass, first an undercoat of dead green, for depth.  Or maybe yellow, deep yellow, for vitality.”  Or, later on, this visit to a drug dealer’s Brooklyn apartment:  “The foyer was tiny, with scarred gray walls and a floor littered with Chinese restaurant flyers. The lock on the front door was heavily reinforced with metal plates, but the door itself stood slightly ajar.  They went inside.  There was no light, and they started gingerly upstairs in the dark.”

I wanted to know how Roxana approaches writing about place, and what she may have learned about her process over the years that could be helpful to others.  So I wrote her and asked.  Below is her thoughtful response:

When I teach, I tell my students that, first of all, you must write the scene so that  your reader can see it. Sight is the sense we depend upon most, so, show us the room, or describe the forest path, or create the supermarket aisle, so that we feel as though we’re in it ourselves.

Place, the location, the setting, is integral to fiction. We’ll never forget the sense of openness and possibility, of well-groomed, natural loveliness, of the combination of freshness and candor with deep subtlety and venerability, that underlies the scene in “Portrait of a Lady,” when Isabel Archer has afternoon tea outside, on the lawn of an English country house. The velvet grass, the Persian rug, the tinkling cups. The glorious young woman, and the world before her.

But creating place isn’t simply a question of seeing, it’s a question of feeling as well. The way you feel about a place is the way your reader will come to feel about it – which is as it should be. So you must write from your heart about the place – about every place, a gas station on the New Jersey turnpike or your old kindergarten classroom. The way it makes you feel should be included in the description. Maybe you (or your character) are in a state of exaltation when you stop there for gas, and the way the sun gleams on the gas nozzles makes you giddy with joy. Maybe you hated your kindergarten teacher, the way her dress wrinkled across the hips, and her bad breath. Your feelings should go into the way you describe the wooden tables, the big windows, the boxes of blocks.

I often write about a place that I love. In my story collection A Perfect Stranger, the story “Assez” is, on one level, a love-letter to a part of France that I know very well. I wanted to write about that part of Provence, the way the wind sounds, the way the dark cypresses look, the way it feels to walk through a silent village late at night. So that part of the process of writing that story was really my own pleasure in remembering and revisiting a place I love so much.

In Cost, I did something similar. Much of the book is set on the coast of Maine, in an unnamed place. The book is centered on a shabby old clapboard farmhouse near the water, as the old saltwater farms often were. I have spend many summers on the coast of Maine, and it’s another region I know well and love, with its deep blue skies, bracing waters, staggering tides. But the house I describe is actually based on a particular saltbox cottage in Cape Cod, a place where I went as a child. So the book is, in a way, saying goodbye to a place that I felt very strongly about. It was a way of paying tribute to it, describing the place as I had known it. It was an opportunity for me to reveal, to the reader, the great delights of a place like that, for all its shabbiness and quirks. The house I knew was a place of great solace, solid and silent, peaceful, sheltering and beautiful in its deep connection to its surroundings: the lilacs outside the windows, the apple orchard gone wild in the meadow, the water in the cove, murmuring at the bottom of the hillside.

Because the house was so beloved, it became an integral part in the narrative. That wasn’t something I planned beforehand, but it somehow wrote itself into the story, because the house, and the landscape around it, were such a powerful presence.

Place should always be a part of the narrative – and it always is, really. What two people say to each other in a small stuffy bedroom will be very different from what they say to each other in a noisy train station.

And it’s also just as important for me to visualize the scene before I write it. I’m describing it for myself as much as for the reader, allowing myself to enter into that space, and those emotions. Here we are, I’m saying, this is how it looks. This is how it feels to be here. Now we’ll begin.

*****

Roxana Robinson is a critically acclaimed fiction writer, author of four novels (including her latest, Cost) and three collections of short stories. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, and The Atlantic; it has appeared often in Best American Short Stories, and has been widely anthologized and broadcast on National Public Radio. Four of her works have been chosen Notable Books of the Year by The New York Times, and she was named a Literary Lion by The New York Public Library.  She has received Fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the MacDowell Colony.  Her website is www.roxanarobinson.com.

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WNBA-NY-October-2009From left to right: Rosalind Reisner (co-moderator), C.M. Mayo, Julie Metz, Eva Hoffman, Christina Baker Kline, Roxana Robinson, and Miriam Tuliao (co-moderator).

This month I was privileged to be on the Women’s National Book Association panel in celebration of National Reading Group Month.  On her lively blog, “A Reader’s Place,” Rosalind Reisner gives the full report.  She talks about my new novel, Bird in Hand, as well as recent works by Roxana Robinson (Cost), Eva Hoffman (Apassionata), Julie Metz (Perfection), and C.M. Mayo (The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire).   It was an honor to be in a room full of people who are passionate about books; as much as I enjoyed talking about my own novel, I was even happier to listen to the other writers talk about their work.

And here’s what Marian Schembari has to say about this extraordinary evening over at Marian Librarian.

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supermodel1. I am not a supermodel. Or a professional soccer player.
At times, over the eight long years it took to finish Bird in Hand, I was seized with panic. Look at all those fresh-faced young writers madly producing books, while I grow wrinkled and gray! But then I realized: it doesn’t matter how damn old I am. Unlike some professions, writing does not require that you have dewy skin or the speed of an antelope. All that matters are the words on the page. So when I got into a panic about my work, I reminded myself that life is long; some of my favorite writers have done their best work in their seventies and eighties. And not only that, but …

2. Older really is wiser, at least in some ways.
Climbing up and over the hill of middle age, I’ve learned that some of the positive clichés about aging really are true. I trust my first impulses more. I’m more confident about what I know for sure. I believe that I can write a decent sentence. I care much less than I used to about what people think. I understand my own process. Which leads me to …

3. What works for me is what matters.
Writers are always asked about their work habits because it’s endlessly fascinating (even to other writers). Do you write in the morning or the afternoon? Do you work on a laptop or with a ballpoint pen? Do you sit in a basement, like John Cheever, or an austere sliver of a room, like Roxana Robinson? Do you work for two hours or ten?

But here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter what anyone else’s process is. What matters is what works for me. For example – unlike most other novelists I know, I’m not a morning person. My best writing time may be mid-to-late afternoon. Writing Bird in Hand, I often worked in a generic Panera Bread Shop in a different town, on subways, and in dentists’ offices. I also wrote the first drafts longhand, which few seem to do anymore. Maybe I could train myself to write first drafts on the keyboard, but why should I? This is what works for me.

And that’s my point. I’m still intrigued by how other people work, but I also know that writing is a strange alchemical business, and I need to follow my own impulses. Whatever it takes to get the words on the page is what I need to do. And I also need to remember that …

kid food4. My life feeds my work.
For a long time my “real” life and my writing life seemed like two separate states, and when I was in one I felt guilty about neglecting the other. I’ve come to understand that time away from writing nourishes my creativity; time immersed in the creative process allows me to inhabit my personal life with less conflict and more serenity. All the bits and pieces of my life experience feed my writing in ways I don’t even realize until they’re on the page. I drew on this in Bird in Hand by writing about the minutiae of childrearing, “…endless bland kid dinners, fish sticks and chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese and Classico sauce with spaghetti, on a revolving loop.” At the same time, though …

5. Contrary to popular opinion, quality time is as important as quantity time.
In the final few months writing Bird in Hand, I went around in a perpetually foggy state, and I often felt guilty about my lack of focus. What I came to realize is that my kids – who are 9, 13, and 14 – like having me around, but they don’t always require my undivided attention. Being there when they got home from school in the afternoon, having conversations in the car, family dinners, weekend excursions, cooking together, and the occasional board game made up for a lot of times when I might have been physically present but mentally in a different time zone.

Knowing that there were plenty of times when I’d drop everything and focus on the moment – quality time, that is — my kids were happy to let me work when I had to. And they began taking themselves off to do their own work, too. The oldest one writes and records music. My second child plays piano for hours. And the younger one is currently obsessed with Harry Potter. Some of the best moments are when I feel the household humming with activity – mine and theirs.

I originally wrote this guest post for Lisa Romeo Writes, a terrific blog about “writing, reading, books, life after the MFA, editing (and editors), submissions, getting published (and rejected), media & the publishing business, journalism, revisions, and the writing life.”

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