A Conversation Between Karen Russell and Robin Black
Karen Russell is the author of the story collection St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and the novel Swamplandia!, both published by Knopf. Recently she was selected by the National Book Foundation as one of their "5 under 35" and by The New Yorker as one of their “20 under 40.” She is the Writer in Residence at Bard College.
KR: Robin, these stories are so rich, and fed by so many different streams of life experience—they may be "short," relative to, say, "The Brothers Karamazov," but they have all the insight, heartbreak, and complexity of the best novels. In your acknowledgments, you mention that it took you eight years to write the ten stories in the collection. Do you feel like the gestation period for the stories has something to do with their emotional depth?
RB: In part, I think the whole process took a long time because I never set out to write a story collection.I wrote each story as its own thing without focusing on how it would fit into a manuscript, so I didn’t feel hurried to finish a book.And I am remarkably inefficient.I honestly think I throw out a good 80% of what I write.On a less logistical level, I think that some of what you call complexity and depth – thank you, Karen! – comes from a childhood spent trying to figure out the familial complexities into which I was born.So many of my stories deal with aftermath, years of history echoing down, and I can see now that I grew up with a sense of a household still trying to deal with its own history.Maybe this is true of all families, but in mine anyway, the stories from the past seemed to loom incredibly large and I was always aware that my parents and my grandmother, who lived with us, were carryingthe legacies of these complex narratives within them.There had been deaths before my birth that were still being grieved, injuries and illnesses from which people had never recovered.I know that isn’t unique and my preoccupation with those things is probably the strange part, but for better and worse, I have always been obsessed with the question of how personal history determines the present moment.
KR: Your characters felt very real to me, some more real than many people I know, as though they had a secret life beyond the page. I got the sense that every one of them casts a shadow, has a past and will have a future. How much do you know about your characters when you sit down to begin a draft? Do you draft out biographies for them? Or do their histories, quirks and preoccupations become clearer to you as you write?
RB: My characters definitely reveal themselves to me in process. Going into a story, I know almost nothing about the people, the events, the reason it feels urgent to me.And I like that.Characters develop in a kind of conversation that takes place between actions or plot elements that occur to me as I go along and the responses the characters have to those which then in turn spark on more plot developments.In the sort of stories I write, the story grows out of character, meaning the people do things because it makes some kind of psychological sense to me that they would, but the characters also evolve to serve the story.Like so much of fiction writing it’s a messy and inexact process.
KR: So many of the stories in this collection focus on an emotional or spiritual blind spot—their characters' inability to accurately see themselves, or their failure to fully apprehend a lover, a parent, a child, or, in the case of the title story, the neighbor who lives behind your cunningly-erected fence. I'm thinking of the sort of intimate one-upmanship of the conversation between Clara and her ex-husband, Harold, in "Immortalizing John Parker" or Jeremy's startling discovery in "A Country Where You Once Lived." How can we be so wrong in our judgments of those to whom we are closest—our parents, our children? What blinds these characters; in your opinion, what prevents them from truly seeing one another?
RB: I honestly think it’s just how we all bungle through life.We make mistakesWe assume we know what’s going on and we don’t.Every person carries a vast number of secrets, even people who don’t think of themselves as secretive.We withhold from one another as a kindness or to be in control of some situation or because we don’t want to violate someone else’s confidence.Or because it’s not even theoretically possible to tell someone everything you know.So much of life is conducted in this kind of strange murky darkness.I think I may be more attuned to that than some people or I may be naturally drawn to it as an area of narrative potential, but I think it’s a condition that exists for us all.What’s amazing to me, and continually beautiful, is that we manage ever to connect to one another at all.
KR:Memory, in your stories, felt suddenly so precious and so terrifyingly fragile to me. These characters suffer losses in the present, but often it's their version of the past that is most at risk. In "Immortalizing John Parker," there is a wonderful dinner scene between Clara and her ex-husband where reminiscing becomes a heart-stoppingly dangerous activity: "Harold has just taken from her a part of George she thought she held…as effortlessly as she has just rewritten decades of Harold's life for him." Is this a loss or a betrayal that you wanted to explore in the collection--how even the past can be taken from us?
RB: Definitely.And also how it can be preserved and how we conspire to create the past.In “Immortalizing John Parker,” Clara robs her former husband of his version of events, but she also offers to preserve John Parker for his wife, agrees to try and keep the past alive that way.In “Tableau Vivant,” Jean and her daughter tell and retell the story of a shared evening to one another because doing so preserves a moment of happiness.It’s a kindness they give each other.I think there’s something inherently hurtful to someone saying “Really?That’s not how I remember it at all.”It strikes a very deep chord.I imagine that we all want to believe we are reliable witnesses to our own lives.Maybe because it makes time itself seem more like something we are able to hold.
It's been a great three years - and more - since my story collection IF I LOVED YOU, I WOULD TELL YOU THIS, first came out. I've been amazed at how moving it's been to hear from readers who felt that the book reflected an experience they'd had, and even in some cases made them feel less alone. Those have definitely been the responses that have meant the most to me and for which I'm most grateful.
And now it's exciting to see that my novel LIFE DRAWING is finding its way out into the world and into readers' hands. I wrote this book after a long time of wondering how it would be transitioning from short stories to a novel - and then ended up really loving working on a longer form. LIFE DRAWING has some themes that will be familiar to folks who know my stories, like loss and the redemptive potential of art; betrayal and forgiveness; many, many different kinds of love. But what's different is that instead of focusing on compression as I did with the stories, I really had a chance to spin the plot out and let the characters go through more phases and reveal themselves more completely. I can't say I prefer novel writing to story writing, but I like them equally which came as a surprise to me.
I'm excited to see how readers respond and then of course to get back to work on the next novel - and the next stories too. Meanwhile, once you have LIFE DRAWING in your hands, I very much hope you enjoy it!
It's interesting...finishing a book of stories about love on Valentine's Day. "If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This" is an interesting title as well.
Having finished it, I wouldn't say it's about love...but the loss of love. Or in some of the stories, the changing of love...usually into ways that are sad or disappointing.
While these stories of husbands, wives, fathers, daughters, sisters and brothers do touch on the very aspects of love that make it such an important part of most peoples lives, most of those moments are seen in retrospect. The reader does not experience any of the joy or excitement firsthand.
"He was, he is, the love of my life. He was, he is, the only possible reason a woman of my cynical nature would ever think to use a phrase like that."
Reflection on a lover that recently died.
"So what choice did she have but to unbraid the different strands of love and learn devotion without desire again? Desire without devotion?"
On a much older husband who is starting to fade from life.
Once I reached the last few stories, I began to understand that they appeared to actually be about the affect that time has upon love. And in these stories, time is very rarely kind. It robs us of our loved ones, either by death or infirmity or with gradual lack of feeling.
"Time, she thinks. Both foe and friend. It will destroy John Parker, but it will also soon relieve him of the knowledge that he is being destroyed."
And, "It doesn't matter, though, she knows. It doesn't matter what warnings there were or were not, or whether she could somehow have averted his departure had she been more aware. That is the problem with the past, she thinks, as she flicks off the light.Read more ›
Not being familiar with the author, I had no expectations for this collection. No overwhelming positive or negative thoughts, just the eagerness to read and discover a writer I had never been exposed to before.
"If I Loved you, I would Tell You This" is a strange (not so much strange, but just kind of lengthy and a bit awkward) title, but the stories contained within are pretty good. Other reviewers have commented on the amount of detail and the overall gloomy nature of the book, but as another reviewer pointed out, the amount of detail is why I loved the stories so much.
My favorite had to be "Immortalizing John Parker." A friend of mine is dealing with a loved one's inevitable demise, and I found myself really able to identify and empathize with her. I'd recommend this book to any fan of short story collections.
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I'm sure my fellow subway riders were curious as to what could make a grown man well up while he's reading, but some of these topics can be a little heavy, (cancer, loss of a spouse, alcoholism, etc.), however, the writing serves the reader in building a desire to "press on" and finish.
Her words in these essays are so carefully, purposefully, and perfectly chosen that it's a joy and a credit to English language.
The stories reveal a tenderness, caring that anyone who has "loved and lost" will identify with.
This is a great book to share with someone.
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After reading this delicious collection of short stories I went to Amazon's author website to discover that this is Robin Black's first book. I would like to begin this review congratulating her for a brilliant first work. It's obviously a collection of shorts that she has crafted and tightened for years. I am impressed that while these stories are razor sharp and sparse they are still fresh and immediate feeling. Bravo. They felt like watercolors with substantial white space, not retouched or labored, though I image each phrase has been.
To potential readers, these stories may seem sad or gloomy at first, they are definitely not glib. The author has the ability to quickly pull you into the internal emotional landscape of her characters. Her first person narrators and the character's they play on are realized with a few deft stokes. These stories are all feelings and most of them have a taste of desperation or loneliness. Fate has often not been kind to these players, but their humanity has been exposed by its harshness. If you are looking for nice trite endings and resolutions to these stories, you will not find them. Character's may reach an understanding or insight, an essential tension may be resolved, but they will move into a new fog of unknowing. In true stories as in life there are now endings, even death is just the next chapter in an unfolding story.
I would encourage anyone who loves stories to try this book. A final recommendation that I have greatly enjoyed is to recognize these stories as tellings rather than just silent hearings, we have taken the time to read some of them aloud to each other and they have been even more heartbreaking in this mode. Enjoy.
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Robin Black, whose first book this is, is a brilliant new writer whose insights into life at its vulnerable moments are superb. When you think you've read them all and no one alive can equal Alice Munro, you gasp with joy (and pain) at the insights Black shares.
I await her future work with eagerness/
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