portrait Roxana Robinson

interviewed by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 165 ~ February, 2011

Roxana Robinson is a critically acclaimed fiction writer who is the author of four novels, including her most recent one, Cost (Picador, 2009), which was named one of the five best novels of the year by the Washington Post, won the Maine Fiction Award, and was long-listed for the Dublin Impac award, among others. Her other novels are Sweetwater(2005), This is my Daughter (1999), and Summer Light (1995).

Robinson’s fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, and numerous other magazines and journals. She is also a frequent contributor to The New York Times Book Review and Travel Section, and also reviews books for The Washington Post.

Her collections of stories include Asking for Love (Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, 1997), A Glimpse of Scarlet and Other Stories (Perennial, 1992), and A Perfect Stranger and Other Stories (Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2006).

A scholar of nineteenth and early twentieth century American art, Robinson’s biography of Georgia O’Keefe was shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and was named one of The New York Times Notable Books of the Year. Robinson lectures frequently on O’Keefe, and her articles on art have appeared in Art & Antiques, ARTnews, and Arts, as well as in exhibition catalogs for the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Katonah Museum of Art, among others.

Over the years, Robinson has taught creative writing at Bennington College, the University of Southern Indiana, George Mason University, and in the Creative Writing Department at the University of Houston, as well as teaching frequently at the Wesleyan Writer’s’ Conference.

Derek Alger: Childhood is always a pretty good place to start.

Roxana Robinson: I was born in Pine Mountain, KY, but my family was not from there, and I grew up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where my father was the head of a Friends School. Bucks County was rural, then, farm country, and very beautiful. Open, rolling countryside, streams with trees along them, wooded ridges, orchards and eighteenth-century stone farmhouses.

I started writing when everyone else does, in first grade. I always wrote, it was very natural to me.

My mother wrote a column for the local newspaper, so she wrote all the time. Her father, Samuel Scoville Jr., was a lawyer, but also a writer, who wrote nature books and adventure stories. Writing seemed very much a part of our family tradition. Harriet Beecher Stowe was my great-great-great aunt. I think that’s the right number of greats.

DA: Your college venture did not continue in a straight line.

RR: I chose an unconventional college, because my family had already followed the conventional paths: my father went to Harvard, my mother to Vassar, and my brother and sister had gone to Harvard. So I went to Bennington. After two years there I left and went to New York where I worked for a publisher, then got married and went to the University of Michigan, where my husband was at graduate school. He finished before I did, and we moved back to New York. I finally finished up at the New School, though my degree is from the University of Michigan.

DA: You were fortunate enough to study with Bernard Malamud.

RR: Malamud was a very good teacher, he was one of the reasons I went to Bennington. The faculty there was phenomenal: I studied with Howard Nemerov and Stanley Edgar Hyman as well as Malamud. Malamud was a very careful teacher, patient and focused. He made us very conscious of the fact that there was no such thing as inspiration, it was work, every day. I admired him very much.

DA: You did take a break during your college years.

RR: Yes. I worked for a year at Dodd, Mead, which was the publishing house that published Agatha Christie. I read the unsolicited manuscripts for them, and in my lunch hour I went into the senior partner’s office and took out an Agatha Christie to read. At that time they weren’t all in print, so this was a treasure trove. I read all of them there, including the ones under her pen name, Mary Westmacott.

When I finished college, I did a lot of things. I worked at Henri Bendel’s selling belts. I modeled for awhile. Then I got a job at Sotheby’s, in the American Painting Department, and considered going on to get a degree in Art History. I started writing about art, but I was also writing fiction.

DA: You’ve received high praise for a biography you wrote about Georgia O’Keeffe, with Calvin Tompkins of The New Yorker calling it “without question the best work written about O’Keeffe.”

RR: O’Keeffe was a great subject. I was very fortunate to have been able to write about her at a time when very little work had been done on her. It was an incredibly challenging and exhilarating project. I was also very fortunate to be the only writer given access to the family material, and to a lot of material that had been unavailable.

I had already written about other members of the Stieglitz circle, and I was very interested in that period of American art. O’Keeffe was the great mystery. When she died she had refused for years to allow much of her work to be reproduced, and she refused to be interviewed. But the work was so powerful and beautiful, everyone was drawn to it, and to her.

Her life was fascinating in lots of ways – for one thing, it was part of the quintessential American story. Her father’s family were Irish immigrants, and they took a wagon train out to Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, where they broke the sod. O’Keeffe’s family culture is full of that pioneer spirit, the ethos of self-reliance and hard work. O’Keeffe’s story reflects that.

After O’Keeffe’s death, there was a lot of interest in her work. The BBC did a documentary on her, in which I appeared, along with other O’Keeffe scholars – Sarah Whittaker Peters, and Barbara Buhler Lynes.

DA: You’ve published three collections of short stories which have all been praised for succeeding in writing about diverse points of view and family relationships.

RR: I like the short story form very much. It’s much more demanding than the novel, but it’s better at writing something that’s whole, and precise, and discrete. I write a short story because of a moment I find compelling, and I create a narrative with that moment at the end of it. A novel is different, that starts with some kind of conflict, or struggle, and some characters who are involved with it. Then they have to write the narrative.

DA: You eventually found a hideaway in Westchester County just north of New York City to concentrate on writing fiction.

RR: I moved out to Katonah, in northern Westchester, with my second husband and my daughter. While my daughter was in school we lived there, on an old farm on a dirt road. We had dogs and cats and horses, and I did nothing but write. It was kind of isolated, in the literary sense. I didn’t know any other writers, but it was very good for concentration. (At least I didn’t know any other fiction writers. Billy Collins lived nearby, and we used to meet for coffee.)

DA: You went to great lengths to do research for a character in your most recent novel, Cost.

RR: Cost required a lot of research: Alzheimer’s, neurosurgery, and heroin addiction.

One of the characters turned out to be a heroin addict, and he sort of erupted into the narrative. When I found out about him I realized I needed to learn about heroin addicts. I used every kind of research I could – reading, talking to everyone who was connected to that world, and going to meetings of Narcotic Anonymous and meeting the addicts themselves. It was enlightening and humbling.

DA: I see you recently wrote an introduction to The New York Review of Books edition of The New York Stories of Edith Wharton.

RR: Edith Wharton has always been one of my favorite writers. She is a very elegant stylist, with an impeccable sense of drive and timing. She also writes beautifully and powerfully about the hidden life of the emotions. She was interested in everything, every aspect of relationships, ethics and morals and sex and passion and jealousy and nobility, everything.

DA: You have also taught writing.

RR: I’ve taught writing for years, and I really enjoy it. It’s odd, though, it’s one of the few things that you are asked to teach without any training. The assumption is that if you can write you can teach writing. I took very few writing classes, actually, and so I had very little sense of how to do it. The first time I was asked to teach a workshop I explained that I’d never taken one, but they didn’t care. You’ll be fine, they told me. It was a two-week conference in the Midwest. There were two fiction writers and two poets. I told the other fiction writer that I was a novice, and asked if I could sit in on his class. His class met at ten, and mine met at two. Everything he said at ten I said at two.

DA: You have a special feeling toward the Wesleyan Writers’ Conference.

RR: I’ve taught there for a long time, ten or fifteen years. I like it very much. It’s a beautiful campus, with huge gorgeous trees, and the conference is beautifully run, by the wonderful Anne Greene. She loves writers, and makes the whole experience very fruitful. You become part of a very vital community – the other teachers are always good writers and good teachers.

DA: I hear you’re an avid gardener, which, of course, translates into you writing about it.

RR: I am an avid gardener. My mother was a gardener, and when I moved to Katonah I started gardening myself. Our place was open and rolling, and I put in border after border. I love digging; I love planting things and watching them burgeon and reach out and thrive. I love working outside, and being part of the garden. The birds and insects and critters are all a part of it. It’s all just trial and error, every garden has a thousand ghosts of plants that died – you only see the ones that like it there. I plant more of the ones who like it there. It’s very peaceful, gardening, and a good counterpart to writing.

DA: Getting back to literature, John Updike was a great influence on you.

RR: When I was in my late teens, I guess, or early twenties, I discovered his stories. I read every one. They seemed essential to me: his extraordinarily beautiful style, his facility with words, and his great breadth of understanding. Great writing is about the power and complexity of human engagement, and his work unfurled before me as I was starting out, and for years and years thereafter.  I always tell my students that the best way to learn to write is through reading great writers. Updike was my teacher.

DA: In closing, it’s quite a tribute to you and your writing that the University of Connecticut, Torrington is offering a course this fall on the Short Fiction and Non Fiction of Roxana Robinson.

RR: It’s a great honor. My mother’s family, the Scovilles, come from Litchfield County, and it’s where I went during the summers when I was a child. Davyne Verstandig, who runs the Creative Writing Program there, knew about my family connection to Litchfield County.

She runs the Litchfield County Writers Project, and she had asked me to come and do some readings and appearances, and then she approached me about the course. I was completely delighted to be the subject, and enjoyed it a lot. It’s an odd experience, though, talking to people who have read so much of your work, so carefully. It’s sort of like feeling that people have been eavesdropping on your thoughts. How does she know that? You think. Then you remember, Oh yes, I wrote that down.