“[Robin Black] writes with exquisite precision, dark humor, and compassion about the tenderness as well as the savagery and terror of family and marriage. Her debut novel, Life Drawing, will be published this summer, and it’s a stunner – at its center is Gus, a painter who becomes complicit in a variegated affair that involves her husband and the “new couple” next door, a mother and her twenty-something daughter. For such a slender book, it does so much – it’s a meditation on female creativity, a love story and a ghost story, and a Greek tragedy staged in the contemporary American countryside.
“In her deliciously controlled prose, Black shows us how even our best intentions can genie out of our grasp, preparing the table for what Robert Louis Stevenson called “the banquet of consequence.” – Karen Russell
What is the title of your book? Why?
The title is Life Drawing. My narrator Gus is most comfortable painting landscapes and interiors, and she has never felt gifted at painting people, never felt that she has what it takes to animate human figures. But during the course of the book, she takes on a project that challenges that limitation. The term Life Drawing also resonates with a question that haunts the book, which is: How do our loved ones who have died fit into our lives once they’re gone? That’s very much what Gus is trying to understand. And of course, it’s also what she’s doing in telling the story, in bringing it all to “life” again.
Was there a particular moment that this book became its own beast, outside of you?
Life Drawing really took off for me when I made my narrator Augusta – or Gus – childless. It just made her so different from me since I’ve been a mother since I was twenty-five. It gave me permission to explore the depths of a woman living a kind of life I have never lived. And also, I know so many people who stayed married “for the kids,” I was really interested in looking at why- and how – a couple might stay together, despite a real breach of trust, when it’s really just about them. Like many writers, I’m interested in investigating a lot of different permutations of love and of attachment, and it was really that absence of kids, that area of the unknown for me, that unlocked this book.
What sentence (or phrase, or idea, or innovation) in this book are you most proud of?
My narrator Gus is a painter, and in trying to describe the difference between understanding her life as it unfolded, and then looking back on it after some time has passed, she states: “As one of my teachers used to say, you cannot see a landscape you are in.”
I like that idea of the present as a landscape that you’re too involved in to see clearly, and I do think of time as a kind of distance that gives us all a clearer perspective. It makes sense to me too that a painter would make that connection between experience and something visual.
I’m not sure I would exactly say I’m proud of that concept, but it definitely helped me understand a large piece of what Life Drawing is really about.
Are there any elements in this book that are drawn from your own life?
I have an informal but lifelong background in painting, so I felt like that was helpful in understanding some of Gus’s perspective – though I should say, if I had made her a more successful artist, truly part of the art world, as opposed to an art teacher with some local success, I would have been out of my depths. I know very little about the contemporary art scene, which is part of why I steered clear of it in the novel.
The other thing that I really drew on is my absolute passionate love of the countryside. I should have known that my first novel would be a pastoral one – as a lot of my short stories are. There’s really nothing I enjoy writing about more than a house in the country, than people living in that house, than the seasons turning, the trees casting shadows. It all feels so much more compelling to my imagination than any other setting. Barns. Ponds. Snowy hills. I love it all.
When did you first know you were a writer?
I wrote when I was in college, but then took about seventeen years off to start a family and raise my three kids. I began writing seriously again when I was 39 but didn’t think of myself as a “writer” until I went to grad school at 41. And even then. . . Hmmm. To be honest, it was probably long after I’d started publishing stories that I could say, “I’m a writer,” without feeling like it was more wishful thinking than true. It seemed like a heavy identity to take on. But now, when I think of other people, I don’t feel that way at all. My feeling is that if you write, you’re a writer – and publication isn’t the determining thing. But when it came to giving myself that “title,” it took me a long, long time.
If you weren’t a writer, what do you think you would be? Put another way, what else fills your life besides writing (and how does this influence your writing, in practical or ephemeral ways)?
When I was young, I wanted to be an actress and singer, but was too scared to try, and in many ways I now feel very distant from those dreams. At this point, if I weren’t writing books, I would be an interior designer. Or a house flipper. I love design and I love houses – to an obsessional degree. I think that comes through in just about everything I write. I’ve actually been asked in interviews why there’s so much about houses in all my work.
Life Drawing itself started with just an image of two houses in the country, of a man walking between them in the snow. That was the first thought I had about the book, and it’s still in the very first sentence.
More About Robin Black
Robin Black’s forthcoming debut novel Life Drawing has been called “(possibly) the nearest thing to a perfect novel that I have read,” by The Bookseller (UK) and “a riveting story about the corrosive effects of betrayal,” by Alice Sebold. Black’s 2010 story collection If I loved you, I would tell you this was a Finalist for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize and an O. Magazine Summer Reading Pick. Robin blogs about writing and being a writer at beyondthemargins.com. She lives in Philadelphia with her family and is at work on her next book. You can find her on her website, Twitter, and Facebook.
Enter Today’s Giveaway!
To enter, answer the following question in the form below:
In a Q & A on her website, Robin Black says, “in a very long term relationship, it can be difficult to remember that you are separate people” – read the Q & A here. Have you ever felt your identity blur with someone else’s – be they family, a lover, a friend, etc?
One winner will win one signed copy of Robin Black’s novel Life Drawing. Limit one entry per IP address. No purchase necessary. Open to legal residents of the United States, who are the age of 18 or older. Deadline for entry is 8:00 P.M. ET on May 5th, 2014. Read the complete rules.