Friday, May 15, 2020

Roxana Robinson

Roxana Robinson is the author of ten books - six novels, three collections of short stories, and the biography of Georgia O’Keeffe. Four of these were chosen as New York Times Notable Books, two as New York Times Editors’ Choices.

Robinson's latest novel is Dawson's Fall.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

Dawson’s Fall gives the reader the name of the main character and a straightforward indication of the plot: we know that something bad will happen to him. Dawson is the protagonist, who happens to be my great-grandfather. I like the way “Fall” suggests not only physical descent but also moral and metaphorical ones: Adam’s Fall, and the Fallen Archangel, the Fall of the Roman Empire. It carries the idea of falling as being both catastrophic and inevitable. The word “Fall” also implies height: you can’t fall unless you are higher than. So the title informs the reader that this was someone who had attained a certain height, a place from which it would be dangerous to fall. So the two words carry within them ambition, precariousness and calamity.

What's in a name?

Names are very important: the way they look, the way they sound. (I like the fact that the two words in Dawson’s Fall sort of rhyme.) And of course the atmosphere they create. The title is often the last part of the book that I write. I usually have a working title, often one word, or the name of a character. Summer Light was called Lily’s World, as a working title, after a character who was then renamed. Once I wrote a whole book about a character nicknamed Fancy, I forget what her real name was. My editor read the book and said, “I have to tell you that you must change the name of the main character.” I was indignant and said, “Of course I will. I would never write a book about someone named Fancy.“ It seemed so obvious to me that it would be changed. That was Sweetwater. But I never know the real name of the book, the title, until it’s finished. It’s only then that I know what it’s about.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your latest novel?

My teenage self would be very surprised by this novel. Writers must first separate themselves from their family, their origins, their world, in order to take charge of themselves. Then they often write themselves back into their origins, and explore them. When I was a teenager I was busy separating myself from my family – but this book investigates my own origins, my family, and by extension, my country. It’s set in South Carolina, after the Civil War – two things I knew nothing about as a teenager.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

I almost never change the beginning of a book once it’s begun. I don’t think I’ve changed the first sentence ever. The endings are more fluid and difficult. Twice I’ve been asked by editors to write more, after what I thought was the end of the book. The request puzzled me, because I thought that everything was very clear: it was obvious what happened. Once my editor said, “You may think it’s clear, but at the Christmas party I heard someone from Marketing arguing with someone from Publicity over just what happens at the end of the book.” So I thought, okay, it’s not clear. I wrote another chapter. That was Cost.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

I think all writers are in their characters, a pattern announced by Flaubert, telling the world that Madame Bovary was he. The great writers occupy their characters absolutely. Certainly in some ways I was very far from Conrad, my twenty-six-year old Marine lieutenant, returning from Iraq, but I found myself inhabiting his life and mind as I wrote the book. I came to identify with him very closely, finding things in his world and his choices that were familiar or appealing to me. The 80-year old neurosurgeon, the fifty-year old Confederate captain, I inhabit all of them. I come to think their thoughts as I write my way through their lives. But I have connections to each of them, portals into their lives. Sometimes these are personal, familial, sometimes they’re quite distant from me. And sometimes I’ll write something – a short story, or a scene – that is unabashedly true, a piece of memoir. But I won’t tell you which they are.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

If you mean was there anything that informed me other than literature before I started writing in the first place, the answer is no. Literature was the only thing that made me want to write.

But I’ve been moved to write things because of non-literary things. Dawson’s Fall came upon me because of two things I inherited: a small piece of mahogany, labelled, in my grand-mother’s neat script, “A piece of pew from St. Michael’s, before the restoration.” The other was a hank of her hair, long, thick and honey-colored. She had been famous for her hair, which reached to her ankles. For some reason I ended up with a faded purple box, with a switch of her hair coiled inside. It was so tangible, so richly a part of her, and I was so clearly a part of her, that it haunted me. The two things had something to do with this book.
Learn more about the book and author at Roxana Robinson’s website.

My Book, The Movie: Dawson's Fall.

The Page 69 Test: Dawson's Fall.

--Marshal Zeringue