The Maladjusted Book Club September pick is the wonderful short story collection from Robin Black, titled If I Loved You, I’d Tell You This. It’s by far one of the best books I read in a long time, full of characters and circumstances that continue to linger in my head long after I’ve closed the cover and set it on the shelf. I had the good fortune to ask Robin a few questions recently. Here is the interview. Be sure to get your hands on a copy of her book and read along for the book club discussion on September 12th.
The title of your book, If I Loved You, I’d Tell You This, is actually what drew me to it. What made you choose this as the title piece of your collection? Do you see the title as a way to address your reader as well?
To be honest, I had mixed feelings about the title. I was worried that it sounds a little manipulative and also a little bit like a poor woman’s Raymond carver title. But Random House was very high on the idea – which to be honest was my idea originally, I just got cold feet. My editor, Kate Medina, pointed out to me that the theme of withholding information runs deep in the book. There are so many, many secrets, so much that goes untold – for both bad and good reasons. And I have come to love the title mostly because people like you tell me that they feel a connection to it.
Even though you’ve said that these stories were not intended as a collection, the stories explore a disconnect between parents and children. While the parents see themselves as their children’s protectors, the children end up looking after their parents (“The Guide,” “A Country Where You Once Lived,” “Tableau Vivant,” “The History of the World”). Is this indicative of the relationship between parent and child? Did you consciously try to write about this issue?
Such a great question! Because so much of what emerges thematically in story after story is not consciously put there. (I think that’s true for most writers, not just me.) That’s an excellent example of my own “stuff” coming through, I think. I definitely had the experience as a child of having to be careful with and protective of my father who was a fragile, difficult man. And also I grew up with my grandma in the house and she was paralyzed from the waist down. We all took care of her, but certainly my mother, her daughter did. So I think that in my work I am probably still working through that dynamic. I know that as a parent to my own three children I have tried to be very conscious of not “parentifying” any of the kids. Though I also think it can make children feel good about themselves to know they can help their parents in nurturing ways sometimes.
In “Harriet Elliot,” the narrator is instructed by her new friend to write down her wish in red pen and rub it all over her body, then swallow it. It is such an unusual and interesting ritual. How did you come up with the idea?
When I was young – teens – and planned to be an actress (ha!) I read endless Hollywood biographies, and somewhere I read that someone (I think Greta Garbo, but maybe Ingrid Bergman) had done exactly that with her first love letter. And I just loved the idea, loved the sense of the words themselves as physically important – ingestible. (Just try doing that with a text message!!)
How do you come up with titles for your stories?
I am not a natural Title Genius. The earliest stories in there, the ones I wrote first, are mostly punny, double-meaning title. “Gaining Ground,” “Pine” “The Guide” – those are the three oldest ones. Gradually, I have figured out how to do other things with titles, beyond leaping on some potentially resonant double-meaning. In an ideal situation, the title will tell you something about what the story is about, but the story will really tell you what the title is about. The last three I wrote are “Immortalizing John Parker,” “Tableau Vivant” and “A Country Where You Once Lived.” My hope is that they sort of glance the story, not really defining it, but giving a reader something to think about after the story is over. The themes are there, mortality, the urge to stop time, and the role of one’s own past – but then, those themes turn up in all my work. . .
Your Twitter bio says that tweets are where you do most of your writing now. Do you think the pressure to become a social media presence is a positive or negative influence for writers?
I really think the jury’s out on that. There’s a lot I love about the internet and about social media, primarily the other people. There have been – I believe – studies that show that people involved in social media are more politically aware and that they friends are more culturally diverse than folks who aren’t as “on.” And all of that is to the good. But it is absolutely a huge distraction. I am still figuring out how to be engaged and also regain the kind of quiet that first enabled me to write.
You said in many interviews that you worked on these stories for a number of years. How do you know when a story is done? Now that you’re working on a novel, what is it like to write with a deadline?
I think that most writers THINK a story is done a few times before it actually is. I know I do. And in fact in two cases, I made significant changes to stories for the book though they had been published before. For me, now, the test is: can I explain why I made all the choices I did? If someone were to say, “Why did you choose to describe the room that way? Or, “Why is the point-of-view so close?” I want to be able to answer knowledgably. Now, that doesn’t mean I want to know all that while I’m writing. There’s a degree of ignorance about my own stories that I really like to have in the early drafts. I think that’s the best way to stay open to surprising events and turns.
You were a stay-at-home mother for years while you wrote and published short stories. Do you think that the daily activities of parenting helped or hindered your progress as a writer? Has publishing a book changed the way your children or your husband see you now?
Well, yes and no. I think it’s all been a little bit shocking to them – and to me, actually. About ten years ago I announced that I was going to finally, finally try to make a go of writing instead of just doing it occasionally and getting frustrated. That marked a huge change for us as I’d really been primarily focused on my kids for years and years. And for a while, to be honest, it was difficult for us all because with the decision to try and “make a go of it” came the potential for disappointment and bouts of workaholism and, I am sure, some hurt feelings on the part of my family. But I think they have also watched me become a much happier person over this decade and I have no doubt that that makes them very glad. I spent so much of the first four decades of my life convinced that I would never figure out how to express myself in a way that felt truly satisfying. So, all in all, I think it would be a little too simplistic to say “oh, the family has been just thrilled with my having found this career!” but at the same time, I know that they are proud of me and happy for me that I’ve found the words I was looking for for so long. And for the record I have no regrets about the fifteen or so years spent as a full-time mom. Those years were important ones for us all and part of my own growing up process for sure.
Again, Robin, thank you for this opportunity!
*Visit the Maladjusted Book Club page for more details about our September pick.