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Holding Multiples in My Head

Robin Black, a Novelist at Last

PUBLISHED: October 7, 2014

Robin Black’s collection of short stories, If I loved you, I would tell you this, was released in March 2010 and earned critical praise and acclaim. It was a finalist for the Frank O’Connor Short Story International Award. And yet Black’s success was, for her, overshadowed by the anxiety that she hadn’t published a novel. “When I signed with Random House in 2008,” says Black from her home in Philadelphia, “I sold them my story collection—and a novel that I had drafted.”

“The hope was to publish the novel first,” she continues, “because we all know that it’s difficult to start a career with stories, right? But in 2009, when I sent the draft of the novel to my editor, we decided to go with the stories anyway. The novel just wasn’t there.” It was when the stories came out that Black truly panicked. “I went through a kind of horror at the sudden reality of the world reading my work. I looked at my novel and thought, this is never going to be good enough.”

Even before that fear, Black had dealt with serious anxiety of influence. She grew up with two hugely high-achieving parents: Her father, Charles L. Black Jr., was a constitutional law scholar who taught at Yale and Columbia and who authored the NAACP Defense Fund Brief in Brown v. Board of Education, while her mother, Barbara Aronstein Black, was dean of Columbia Law School at a time when many women did not work outside the home. “The difficulty with being ‘the great man’s daughter’ was silencing to me in many ways,” Black says. “I was the mystery failure of the family, mysteriously unable to succeed. I was always reading, I always ‘got’ literature, but that was it—I graduated eighty-seventh out of a high-school class of 104!”

Somehow, although she always had difficulties with following through and completing things, Black started thinking of herself as a writer while in college, around 1980. “I worked with the novelist Allan Gurganus, who taught me among other things that not everything I wrote was going to be a gem, something he did by having us write a story every week. But it took me twenty years to embrace the idea that I truly was a writer. I would make these little forays—join a workshop, get some pages done—then stop.”

It wasn’t until Charles Black died that his daughter could unleash her own purpose. “I started writing three weeks after my father died, when I was thirty-nine. I didn’t let myself see that timing for five more years, which was kind of a blessing, because it might have stopped me in my tracks. But when I started writing again seriously it was with a kind of passion of somebody who feels the boat may have left the dock without her.” 

Black reached out to her old teacher Gurganus, who reminded her that “the most important thing to do is surround yourself with people working at your own level.” She spent two years with the Rittenhouse Writers’ Group before applying to Warren Wilson College in North Carolina for its low-residency MFA program. “I did this in large part because in the writing group I discovered this real craft-nerd side of myself that I’d never known before; it was like stumbling onto a language that I seemed to speak already.” 

At around the same time, when she was in her early forties, Black discovered that she had Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). “The ADD explained so much about my childhood. It didn’t have a huge impact on my writing, at first. One thing I try to educate people about is that ADD is not just about the ‘deficit’; it’s an attention disorder, which means sometimes you don’t pay enough attention, and sometimes you pay too much, which is called ‘hyperfocus.’ I can easily sit and write for eight hours and forget to eat and walk the dog,” she says.

For many years, that worked for Black. She could block out the rest of the world whenever she needed to and get a story finished. She published in Southern Review, Colorado Review, Georgia Review, and One Story among many others and, of course, released If I loved you, I would tell you this, which is when she turned back to the novel. 

“I always knew that the stories were the best thing I could write at that point,” she says. “But the novel draft wasn’t right. I would pick it up after a few days away and I never understood why I was writing it. I had no sense of inevitability about why I was writing this particular book.” Walking away from the novel that Random House had bought was one of the hardest things Black says she’s ever done: “Because I’d been paid! I’d been paid enough for this to be an issue for me. My editor told me to go home and write the best novel I could write. But my response was three years of silence. Three years of utter and complete misery. There were days when I would wake up and say to my husband, ‘We’re going to have to take the shingles off the roof and send them to Random House to return the advance’.”

Black was in an “absolute panic.” She felt she’d destroyed her career and that no one would ever work with her again. “All I knew about myself as a novelist was that I could write a bad novel, which in some ways was worse than never writing a novel at all. Over those three years, I started many projects that died. I could feel them die while I was writing them. It was a terrible, terrible period of my creative life.” Did she ever give up on the idea of writing a novel? “Yes. Yes, yes, and you can write ‘Yes’ five times and put three dots after it,” she says. 

Then “a few things happened.” In January 2012, Black went on an annual retreat with some women friends, and decided, “This is the week where I have to accept that this isn’t going to happen. This is it, I have to come to terms with it, I’m not going to write a novel. I’m just going to read while I’m here.” She chose to read Ovid—“I cannot imagine what led me there”—and became obsessed with the very different stories of Medusa and Galatea. “These two women, the ideas of animated beauty and ugliness that petrifies—they kickstarted something for me about the extent to which an artist can animate human beings, not to mention how we remember the dead and how we keep them alive. Then when one of the friends on my retreat asked, ‘Is there really nothing you like about the last piece you wrote?’ I realized that I liked the first paragraph. I sat down with it, and wrote six thousand words in one day—the only time I’ve ever done that. Those are the same six thousand words that make up the first section of my novel today.”

Those words contained the germ of an idea that would become truly important for Black: She realized that this new novel was going to be about a childless couple. “I’ve been a mom since I was twenty-five, and a domestic creature pretty much all my life, even taking a lot of time off from college to return home and care for an ill grandmother,” she says. “I always assumed any novel I wrote would be about parents and children—but whenever I started one focused on that, I would lose interest.” Something different happened when the characters had no offspring. “I was fascinated. Suddenly, I wasn’t just writing about my own observations and experience. I was considering what might keep people together when they don’t have the counterweight of raising children, about a romantic companionship, or companionable romance, in its purest form.”

While she’s not a bit tired of her own children, Black admits that she’s “kind of burned out on the subject of parenthood. Which is funny as a woman who started writing after being home for so long. And in a sense, this novel is the point when I became a writer who has children, as opposed to a mother who writes. That focus is sexist, of course, even to talk about the kids so much. We rarely know about or discuss paternity for writers, but women writers are constantly quizzed on domestic questions, and I needed them to fade a bit.”

The main characters in Life Drawing, Gus (short for Augustus) and Owen, may not have children, but Black does share some qualities with one of her characters. “Gus’s anxiety, as a visual artist, about how to bring human figures to life, how to get those figures to convey their own animus and spirit—that’s me. That’s what I worry about. Physical descriptions. I have to remind myself to think, ‘Am I remembering to give these people faces and idiosyncrasies and hair?’ It’s very possible, I’ve learned, to inadequately bring characters to life visually and write a story that’s basically an essay as opposed to a fully populated piece of fiction.” (She shares that a story workshopped during her MFA was once described by a fellow student as “two big brains arguing underwater.”)

There’s a reason this is a challenge for Black. “Here comes the big ADD confession: My voracious reading as a child was largely possible because I would skip any paragraph longer than two inches as too daunting. There were lots of kinds of writing I’d therefore never read, particularly descriptive passages. But if your narrator’s a painter like Gus, her awareness of what she sees is a part of the story.”

Like other writers, Black relied on a few tricks to keep her manuscript moving, “so I could always see a finish line, if not the finish line.” She confesses that she needs to keep herself “stupid” about her work, so she never uses an outline. “I like to puzzle through psychology as it unfolds, rather than predetermine what people are going to do, which always feels too much like paint by numbers to me.” She enlisted an author-friend as her coach, submitting fifty pages at a time and getting a simple “Good job, Robin!” e-mail back. When she got in the dumps, she would remind herself, “Write the book you most wish you could read right now.”

She explains how vital this was to her process. “I had an accompanying anxiety, along with all of the ones about failure to finish, that what I was writing wouldn’t be viewed as ‘literature,’ but pegged as what is called ‘domestic fiction,’ and we all know what that means,” laughs Black. “It means that it’s written by a woman!” How would she describe Life Drawing, then, and the kind of book she most likes to read? “I don’t gravitate to fiction because of subject matter. I’m much more interested in the intellect of the person who writes it,” she says. “I would describe what I love as ‘observational fiction,’ the kind that focuses on human motivation, on some interpretation of human behavior—and that’s probably as far as I would go in categorizing it.”

But then she goes a little further: “I’m a writing teacher as much as I am a writer, and one of the things I always ask in a class is, ‘What is this story really about?’ That question is always central. One answer could be a simple plot summary. Another could be a little more generic than that—like it’s about fathers and daughters, or it’s about a married couple. And the third is the universal answer: It’s about people learning to let go of one another, or it’s about loosening control. Something to which everyone can relate. Reaching that third level is part of what makes a complete work of literature—for me.”

What about style? Black has thought about it: “I never want any one element of the work to stand out. ‘Wow! Look how she used assonance here!’ To me, one element of a successful read is that the reader is oriented and knows what to pay attention to without being distracted from the dream state—even by something the author is supposedly doing well.” 

As she responds to more questions, Robin Black stops herself in the middle of a response and says, unguardedly, “It’s hard, writing a novel. It’s a little scary, talking about it now. What if I think about something I could have done better?” Fortunately Black pushed through that fear to publish Life Drawing, and her efforts reward both author and reader.


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