THE COST OF LIVING
is an American novelist, short-story writer, biographer, and essayist. Born in Pine Mountain, Kentucky, U.S., Robinson is the author of four novels: Cost
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008/Picador USA, 2009), Sweetwater
(2003), This Is My Daughter
(1998) and Summer Light
(1988); three collections of stories: A Perfect Stranger and Other Stories
(2005), Asking for Love
(1996) and A Glimpse of Scarlet and Other Stories
(1991); and a biography: Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life
(1989). Her latest novel, Cost
, explores the intricacies of family relationships during times of crisis, particularly the trials and tribulations of a family torn asunder by the life-threatening heroin addiction of one of their young adult sons. A resident of New York City, her work has appeared in The New Yorker
, Harper’s Magazine
, The New York Times
, The Atlantic
, The Washington Post
, The Wall Street Journal
, and Vogue
, among other publications. She has taught creative writing at the University of Houston and Wesleyan University, and now teaches at the New School in New York.
Please tell me something about yourself.
I love horses, and I have ridden since I was a child. Two years ago I went riding cross-country in Mongolia, which was the best trip I have ever taken.
Where were you born and raised? What was it like growing up?
I was born in Kentucky, but grew up in Pennsylvania. We lived in an old farmhouse in beautiful farming country. I had a horse which lived in a tiny barn behind our house. I rode all the time, in a very unprofessional way, often bareback. I read all the horse books I could find. I subscribed to horse catalogues and I pored over descriptions of martingales and stirrup leathers, curry combs and ankle boots.
When did you know you were going to be a writer? Was it something you had always set your heart on?
I was always a writer, starting in first grade.
What do you enjoy most about your life as a writer?
I like the control over the word on the page. I like being able to set down exactly what I want.
Could you describe your writing process? What part of the process do you enjoy most as a writer?
When I write a novel, I start out with a conflict and a set of characters, and I let the characters create the narrative. It’s different with a short story. I rewrite constantly. I like all aspects of the process—and find them all difficult.
Was it difficult getting your first novel, Summer Light, published in 1988? Did you experience difficulty in finding an agent or a publisher?
My first novel was published first in England, by a sort of fluke. I was publishing short stories in a literary magazine there, and an editor wrote and asked if I had a novel. I was having a more difficult time in the U.S., and the novel wasn’t published there for another year. My first agent sent it to six houses and she gave up on it, and me. I found another agent, and he found me a publisher.
Could you tell me a bit about your latest novel, Cost? What was the seed of the novel? Did it evolve into a work different from what you imagined it to be? If so, in what way? What are some of the themes you dealt with in it? Were you conscious of these when you first set out to write the story?
In writing Cost
, I started first with the idea of the difficulty of being a good adult child. Of how hard it is, when you are with your parents, to be the good grownup you think you are—how often you hear yourself speaking in the voice of a needy six-year-old, or a rebellious adolescent, or a superior twenty-one-year-old. I wondered when it was you would be calm and adult, an equal, with your parents. I thought this would be the only theme, and that the book would be very quiet and meditative, but then it turned out that one of the characters, a twenty-two-year-old son, is a heroin addict, so that changed things dramatically.
Did the writing of this novel require much research?
I did a great deal of research for Cost
, of all sorts.
I am always interested in the kinds of books writers read during their early or developing years. What kinds of books did you read when you were growing up? Who are some of your literary heroes?
I read every book about horses I could find when I was a child. Enid Bagnold’s National Velvet
was a great favourite. I also began reading more grownup books; I loved English writers, and many of my favourite writers are part of that Anglo-American line of descent: Elizabeth Bowen, E.M. Forster, Henry Green, Shirley Hazzard, Rosamond Lehmann, Paul Scott, Elizabeth Taylor, William Trevor and Virginia Woolf. Also Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day
Who are some of your favourite contemporary novelists? What are some of your favourite contemporary novels?
I think John Updike was our greatest American 20th-century writer; he’s a great hero of mine. Some favourite novels: J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace
, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours
, Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus
and W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn
Who are some of your favourite American authors? Could you suggest a good read that hasn’t got as much attention as it deserves?
Updike, as I said. And Lydia Davis, Stuart Dybek and Edith Wharton, of course. A wonderful book that didn’t get the attention it should have is Lily Tuck’s Siam, or The Woman Who Shot a Man
Do you think more competitions or creative writing courses are imperative in increasing the number of good writers and/or improve the quality of writing?
I don’t know about competitions. I think very basic writing courses would help in producing better writers. Writing students need to be able to write simply and correctly before anything else.
In your opinion, what are the essentials of good fiction?
What I look for in good fiction is beautiful language (language in which each word is chosen precisely); complex and sympathetic characters (a psychopath and a Pollyanna are equally boring, as they are both without ambiguities); and emotional and intellectual engagement. Both levels of engagement are essential to me. A book that exists on a purely intellectual level, and doesn’t engage the reader emotionally is as dull as one that only attempts an emotional connection. I want everything!
What kinds of books do you read nowadays? Any particular genre?
I just finished reading Independent People
, by the Icelandic writer Halldór Laxness [winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature], which I liked a lot. I’m now reading Kristin Lavrandsdatter
, by a Norwegian writer whose name escapes me at the moment [Sigrid Undset, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature]. I read at random, often fiction, often not contemporary, often nonfiction about the natural world. I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction as research for the book I’m working on now.
Do you have a favourite short story or short-story collection?
The Collected Works of Anton Chekhov
, all 13 volumes. Some favourites in it: “At a Country House” and “Three Years.”
Do you think short stories are gaining more popularity?
It’s hard to say. Probably not. Very few magazines publish them anymore. Even writing students don’t subscribe much to literary magazines. I know a writer who was in graduate school and her teacher required the students, as part of the course work, to look over a list of literary magazines and then to bring in to him a check for a subscription to the journal of choice. Taking out a subscription was one of the requirements for passing the course.
Publishers find story collections a hard sell. Do you think it is harder to publish story collections than novels? Why do you think this is so? What can we do to make people read more of such collections?
It is harder to publish short-story collections than novels, because they don’t sell as well. I love short stories, and I’ve written three collections of them. Why don’t readers like short stories anymore? I don’t know. It may be a collectively diminishing attention span: I think short stories require close attention and close reading, which many people don’t want to give. On the other hand, poetry also requires this close attention, and poetry seems to be thriving. I don’t know why there is the decline in readership. Maybe there is less of an agreement, now, on what constitutes a short story. Is it science fiction, or magic realism? Is it realistic? Should it have an epiphany, some sort of change? All those questions are answered differently now, by different writers. The form is looser and less defined, and maybe that has lost it some readers.
Do you think there are differences between writing short stories and full-length novels? Which form do you prefer working on?
There is an enormous difference between writing short stories and novels. I like both forms, but they have very different sets of problems. When I write a short story, I start out with a particular moment that I find very compelling. Usually it’s one based on reality—something I’ve seen or been part of, or heard about. Then I write the story towards that final moment, trying to create a narrative that will deliver the moment with as much power as it had for me. I write novels very differently. I start off with a conflict and a set of characters, and when I know the characters well enough they create the narrative.
What do you think of the suggestion that writing short stories is training ground for novelists?
The short story is actually a much more demanding form than the novel. The short story demands perfection: it is like a fish. It must have a perfect arc, without digressions, without any extraneous parts or forms. Every part of it must be integral and essential. The words and sentences are like the scales—each one must fit perfectly over and under the one next to it, smooth and polished. The short story must be perfectly shaped, starting at the clear beginning, ending at the inevitable end. There is such a thing as a perfect short story, we all know them.
The novel, on the other hand, is a pair of overalls—baggy and capacious. The novel has room for everything, digression, meditation, false starts, diversions. The novel has room for a whole chapter on the whiteness of the whale. It can roll and bump along, or it can roar, or tiptoe. There is no such thing as a perfect novel; all novels contain flaws. Novels needn’t be perfectly shaped. They acquire strength through the incremental layering of words and images and emotion and narrative. All novels are flawed, even the great ones, but it doesn’t matter.
What are you working on at the moment? Another novel? A new collection of stories?
Both, actually. When the new novel feels stalled, I work on stories. The impulse comes from different places, so there isn’t much interference.
Reprinted in The Malaysian Insider of August 21, 2010