'The most political book there is'
INTERVIEW:Robin Black will be in Cork next week at the Frank O’Connor Short Story Festival. Her debut collection of stories is a stellar read, writes BELINDA MCKEON
‘AT SOME POINT,” says Robin Black, “I realised that I’d never written a love story in which both people are alive.” Which presents two possibilities: one, that Black writes vampire fiction (she does not). Two, that Black’s fiction is, well, black, or bleak, or buried in the sorrows that her characters bear. Wrong again. Certainly, in Black’s debut collection, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, her characters might find that life has been less than kind. A father might grieve for the things his blind daughter will never see. A child might overhear her parents as they fall apart. And, in the title story, a dying woman terrified of leaving her disabled son might have an imaginary conversation with the neighbour who thoughtlessly intensifies the difficulty of her last months of life.
But as this character addresses her tormentor, she does so not with anger, or bitterness, or self-pity. As the title suggests, she does so, rather, with a vast and painful effort towards love, towards compassion, towards empathy. Which is, ultimately, how the journey of each of Black’s characters might be described. And which could describe, also, Black’s journey as the writer who created these characters in the first place.
“In some ways, it’s why I write,” says Black, speaking at her home in Philadelphia. “Because I’m fascinated by the question of how real we are to each other.”
If her fiction gives an answer to that question, it’s not a straightforward one. Her characters try to imagine life through each other’s eyes even as they accept that this is one vantage point they can never really have. Parents stare at their own children, trying to remember who they really are. Friends watch each other as though from behind a screen. Spouses lie to each other as an act of kindness.
“I’m fascinated by the fact that people who may or may not be particularly empathic with the people they actually know become very empathic with fictional characters. For me, one of the great things that fiction does is to give people the experience of caring about other people and believing in the reality of other people. One of the great gifts of being able to tell stories is the realisation that nobody ever thinks they’re the bad guy. So what story are they telling themselves? And how do you represent both perspectives?”
Black’s collection has been lauded for the depth with which it represents the perspectives of older women, who rarely appear as protagonists in contemporary fiction. There is an urgency to Black’s writing as she delves into these lives.
“There is a bit of a mission here for me about representing older people,” she says. “And trying to combat the societal tendency to view women, as they age, less and less. Women talk about that encroaching invisibility. And many of the people whose company I enjoy most are in their 70s and 80s and that has always been true for me. So I want to portray them as real people. Not with a pitying sympathy, or as comic characters, which is what happens on television. And I think that older women, particularly, present tremendous fictional opportunity. They have unseen, private lives, and there is huge freedom in that.”
One of Black’s most trusted readers is her mother Barbara, who was dean of Columbia Law School in New York until recently. Their relationship deepened over the course of one decade, she says, when they had to deliver eulogies for lost friends and family members. She would read her mother’s drafts, and her mother would read hers. “We gained respect for one another’s perspective and one another’s ability to write and to read and to express what most matters about the human life.”
Like her mother, Black’s father Charles was also a leading law scholar; when he died in 2001, he was professor emeritus at Yale. It was only after his death, Black says now, after many years away from writing fiction, that she went back to a writing workshop and began to put together the fiction that would become If I Loved You. “He was a huge personality and a huge ego,” she says, “and I think I got the message very clearly not to speak up while he was alive. We were also close. It wasn’t all bad, but there was something incredibly liberating, to me, about knowing he wasn’t there.”
Black is herself a parent, to the three children (now in their teens and early 20s) whom she acknowledges in the book as “my true first collection”. Parenting is a conspiracy, one of Black’s characters observes, and the author herself is “surprised”, she says, at the frankness with which she writes about the parent’s perspective. “I’m often surprised by having to see in my own writing how unsentimentalised it is,” she says.
Does her commentary on Twitter – her daily bulletins on writing, the publishing industry, and much else – render her, perhaps, a more socially and politically-engaged author than this collection would suggest? Black has an easy answer for that.
“I never set out to write an apolitical book,” she says. “And I don’t think I would do it in a longer work. But then again, I could also argue that a book about empathy and compassion is the most political kind of book there is.”
If I Loved You, I Would Tell You Thisby Robin Black is out now (Picador, £12.99). Black will read from the collection at the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Festival next Thursday at the Metropole Hotel, Cork