How did you become a writer?
I was always a writer, and as soon as I learned to write, at the age of five or so, I began to write stories. Writing itself was always easy for me, and seemed like part of being alive. But my big shift as a writer came when I was in second grade, when I started a newspaper, called The Daily Nut. The first (and only) issue was written in our classroom, on the second floor of the eighteenth-century building of our school. It was winter, and outside it began to snow. I was a newshound then, with a nose for a story, and I rushed to the window to watch the snow flickering past the blurry eighteenth-century glass panes. Then rushed back to my desk to record the information for my breathlessly attentive readers. “It’s snowing!” I announced, then rushed back to the window again. Now it was snowing harder, and I ran back to my desk. I had chosen to use crayons, which slowed me down. I couldn’t give the instantaneous response that a Tweeter now could. I sat down again at my small wooden desk. “It’s snowing REALLY FAST!” I wrote. I slanted the letters, to give some idea of the speed involved. Then I went back to the window again, but more slowly this time: I was wrestling with a metaphysical problem. No matter how many times I rushed back and forth to the window, I would never be able to give my readers the immediacy of the swirling, scattering snowstorm that was taking place outside. Newswriting, it seemed to me, required a kind of connection to the event that I wouldn’t be able to sustain. It was in that moment that I became a fiction writer. I wanted to create a narrative that I could explore in my own time and present through my own lens, one that would show only the aspects that I found most powerful, most essential, most deeply important. My version of the snowstorm story would have something to do with weather, but not much. My snowstorm narrative would be about a different kind of weather, the interior sort, the kind that might be predicted but cannot be avoided. The kind that must be lived through, weather that ripples through your heart and mind, turbulent and distressing, violent and heartbreaking, exuberant and joyous. But it would have nothing to do with running to the window and back to my seat. All the weather would take place inside the heart.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
When I was in boarding school I had a wonderful English teacher, Isota Epes. She was from Virginia, deeply intelligent and intellectually sophisticated, and she took writing, and reading, very seriously, as things that should provide us with a kind of profound sustenance. She was also glamorous in every way – she had worked for the OSS, and she had written for Vogue. She came to class beautifully dressed and turned out, so she was someone who demonstrated the complexities of what a woman could do. She asked us to investigate literature at the outer limits of our abilities, to search the texts for elegance, for meanings, for complexity. She asked us to incorporate literature in our lives, to use it as a way to read the world. I was deeply indebted to her for that. Years later, when I published my first story in The New Yorker, under my married name, I received a letter from a reader. She said she had never written a letter like this before, but she had so admired the story that she was moved to write to the author. She said she had never read my work before, but she looked forward to reading more of it. She was, of course, Mrs. Epes, and I wrote back to say that she had read my work before – she had given me an A on my paper on Hamlet. It gave me the most enormous sense of satisfaction, that I could give back to her using the same currency in which she had given me such a profound sense of respect for literature.
When and where do you write?
I try to write every morning, and wherever I am I try to find a secluded place where no-one will look in the door and ask me something. In New York and Connecticut I have rather austere rooms where I work, without internet connections. I write first thing in the morning, before I do anything else, for as long as I can. Sometimes that’s two or three hours, sometimes more. In the beginning of a book it may be only a few hours. Toward the end of a novel I write longer and longer, and by the end of it I will write all day and long into the night as well.
What are you working on now?
I never talk about what I’m working on. Sorry!
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Yes. It’s a misery. You just have to work through it. Sit down and write. You can’t let it win.
What’s your advice to new writers?
Just write and write and write. Don’t think about publication, and don’t think about externals. Don’t think about literary trends or fashions. Don’t write from the outside in, write from the inside out. Write from emotion. Emotion is the engine of all great fiction; all great books engage the heart as well as the mind. Write about the things that frighten you and tear you apart. Write about the worst things in your life. I don’t mean write memoir, write it as fiction, that way you can change the facts to make your emotional reality precise and true. Write down the things you have found most difficult, the things that wake you up at three in the morning, the things that remind you that we are fragile beings, kept only by a metaphysical rule from falling off the surface of the earth and flying helplessly into black space. Write about the beautiful terror of being human, being alive, having a soul and a heart.
Roxana Robinson is the author of nine books. Her most recent, Sparta, won the Maine Fiction Award and the James Webb Award, and was one of the BBC Top Ten Books of the Year. Her work has appeared in Slate, Best American Short Stories, The New Yorker, The Atlantic and Harper’s, and has been translated into French, Spanish, German and Dutch. She has received fellowships from the NEA and the Guggenheim Foundation and she is the President of the Authors Guild.