Robin Black is the author of the critically acclaimed and just published short story collection, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This. I first heard about the book on Twitter, and after reading an excerpt from it, fell in love with her style. I’d forgotten how much I loved short stories, and I’m happy to meander back to a form I’d left for awhile.
Ms. Black was kind enough to answer my questions about the book, her writing, and her future projects. For more information, please visit her website.
1. You’ve published your short stories in a number of places. How did you decide which stories to put into this collection?
For the most part, I just chose the stories I thought were my best work. There is one, “A Country Where You Once Lived,” that I wrote specifically because I knew the book needed another male point-of-view story and because I also thought it needed something I can’t quite describe but sense, another story with a kind of large scope to it. But with the exception of that one, I just chose my strongest work.
I have had a lot of time in the past few years to think about the whole form of unlinked story collections, and I’m going to write more about this, but basically I think it’s an odd conceit. Not at all a bad conceit, but an odd one. I didn’t write these ten stories to be read one after the other, or all in one sitting, or even all in one week. Each one was written to stand on its own, but now they’re discussed and experienced as a group, and sometimes I wonder about the impact of that. In a way, I wish I could sell the book with a sticker on it saying “TAKE ONLY AS DIRECTED; READ ONE PER WEEK.”
2. Your characters and plots are extremely original: a blind girl and her father meeting a guide dog, a woman whose father dies the day electricity gets into her water, an artist painting a portrait of a man nearing the end of his life. Where do you get your ideas? Do you come up with the characters or the situations first?
Some of the stories have roots in real life. Not because they’re autobiographical, but because some odd occurrence in my life sparked something. We actually did have electrified water once – our house wasn’t properly grounded, so that weird detail came straight out of life. But sometimes it’s just a matter of my preoccupations being reconfigured in a way that I don’t at all understand. I wrote the story about the blind girl at a time when my niece was about to go off to college and I was a bit worried about how my brother, one of the most involved parents I know, was going to do. It was also just a couple of years before my own daughter went off to school. So I know those concerns are all there, but why I made her blind and why she gets a dog, I really don’t know.
In a sense that’s the scariest thing about writing. If you don’t quite know how you get your ideas, you can’t ever be sure you’ll have more. But ultimately I think relinquishing the illusion of control over your own imagination is a good thing, if scary.
3. Your imagery adds depth that resounds deeply with the reader, and makes the reader pause and consider what you’re saying. The haunting images at the end of “Immortalizing John Parker” come to mind: the blue paint on Clara’s knuckles from painting John’s tie, the dent in the couch disappearing as he stands to leave. Also, Claire’s yellow beach chair on the soccer field at the end of “Pine.” Do these come in the first draft, or do you include them during the revision process?
Thank you! Sometimes an image just arrives early in the process. I know specifically that the blue paint was on Clara’s knuckle from the very first draft. When I’m writing a scene, it is a very visual thing for me. I have a vivid picture in my mind of what’s going on – almost like a mental movie running. And the paint on her knuckle, her noticing it just then, was always part of that. And the same goes for that couch dent – though I remember not being sure if I should say the couch was “exhaling” or not. I thought the implied metaphor of breathing might be too distracting. But the yellow chair was not even in the published version of “Pine.” (Colorado Review) There are a couple of stories in the book that I restructured fairly extensively for the book, and that was one of them. So in that case I had to write and write before I hit upon the image that I thought made the right kind of sense. And that’s a case of it being quite difficult because it’s the ending so that image has a lot of work to do. And the danger with such images, the ones that come at an ending or at some other crucial point, that aren’t just passing details but are really functioning in some important way, is that it’s very, very easy for them to be overdone, too obvious. So I do a lot of work on how to use fairly heavy symbols and images while somehow relieving them of that heaviness. It’s actually one of the things I work hardest at.
4. Short stories are notoriously difficult to sell to agents and publishers. How did you get an agent, and ultimately, a publisher for this collection?
I truly believe the real answer is that there was a huge element of luck involved. I found and connected with one of very few agents who actually, positively enjoys selling short story collections. I actually had offers from several other agents who had no interest in the collection at all. But he believes in them, believes in good writing whatever form it happens to take. I was shocked that he thought they would sell, and in fact they sold at auction as part of a two book deal with a novel, which I suspect made all the difference. I very much doubt that the same editors who bid on the books would have been interested had there been no novel. What I was told by the editors I spoke to at the time was quite simply that sometimes you have to buy books that you love even if you know that they are unlikely to be your big moneymakers. I’ll also say that every one of the interested editors (and there were, of course, uninterested editors too) mentioned the degree of craft involved, the intricate and technical aspects of the writing – which made me feel better about having taken so, so many years obsessing over that side of things. But that was October 2008 and I think that changes in the economy, and within the publishing industry specifically, have made it tougher and tougher for editors to have that view and go for quiet literary works. I think it’s even harder to sell literary fiction now than it was even just 19 months ago – much harder. So that was another piece of luck for me, that my book went up for sale then and not now.
5. Finally, the most often asked, sometimes despised writer question: What are you working on now? (I ask because you now have a lifelong fan in me and I’m greedy for more.)
Thank you, again! I’m working on a few things. The central project is my novel which I’d like to have pretty much drafted by the end of the summer. But I am also always working on stories and also on essays. I’d like to write a craft book at some point and I’m taking notes for that. I do a lot of individual teaching and very small group teaching and I’d like to use those experiences in a book both about writing and about teaching writing. I feel very passionate about teaching and am on a little bit of a mission against the pedagogy that involves a lot of negativity and harsh critique. So, the novel is definitely my focus, but I do much better when I have a few projects going all at once. And really thank you so much for being a fan! As writers – as you know – it’s the readers who complete our work for us.
*(photograph by Marion Ettlinger)