Again and again, I’m thrilled by how the Internet brings us together as writers and readers. Today, I’m honored to host Betsy Robinson here on my little piece of that vast universe of binary code. Enjoy.
My literary novel The Last Will & Testament of Zelda McFigg was published last September by Black Lawrence Press as winner of their Big Moose Prize. Zelda McFigg is a somewhat grotesque funny character—cousin to Ignatius J. Reilly (A Confederacy of Dunces) and Homer Simpson. She believes she could have been somebody, if only someone had recognized her inner beauty and star quality. She runs away from home at age 14, and at age 49 1/4 writes this furiously funny memoir to “set the record straight.” I’m actively trying to find readers who have the rare qualities of enjoying books that poke and challenge them, as well as make them laugh—with a female protagonist who is not always likeable. One reviewer said the “writing constantly has a ‘Mark Twain-esque’ undercurrent flowing through it: direct, call-a-spade-a-spade honesty, that had me laughing, while I actually wanted to cry. She [Betsy] has a chutzpah to her that I have not found in any female author anywhere, anytime, ever.” I consider this a high compliment, but it is also hard to find readers who are okay with this kind of stuff coming from a woman writer.
The second project is my late mother, Edna Robinson’s novel, The Trouble with the Truth, written in 1958, optioned by Harper & Row in 1960, just in time to get dropped because the single, older, free-thinking father with two idiosyncratic kids in the 1930s scenario was considered the domain of To Kill a Mockingbird. I edited and doctored the book in 2013 and sold it four months later to a new imprint of Simon & Schuster called Infinite Words. It is a charming and vibrant coming-of-age story, but also a quest for a complex truth that sometimes comprises contradictions. (Booklist called it “a gem of a book.”)
2. What role, if any, did books, writing, and reading play in your childhood?
Although my mother was a writer, she oddly did not share her love of books with me. But my father shared his love of reading and read to me; I knew he thought reading was a very good thing to do. There were two room-length shelves in our living room—one at almost ceiling level. Nobody ever told me to read, but I quickly discovered it was the most exciting activity there was. I used to get on a ladder to reach the top shelf where all the good books were, and I’d read anything with a lot of quotation marks—I liked people talking. I read James Baldwin before I could know what he was talking about and the complete series of O. Henry short stories with a reading lamp under my covers. I was so enthralled I burned my blankets.
In the fifth grade a little girl who everyone called Bozo because she had orange hair wrote a story about chasing a penny down a street. Our teacher read it to the class, and something in my brain exploded. I knew that I wanted to do that and could. It made no sense because nobody at home encouraged this, but I went for it. When we began studying gerunds in English class a couple of years later, I wrote a composition with every sentence beginning with a gerund. I gave it to my mother, and she was brutal in response. But the odd thing was I concluded from that not that I couldn’t write, but that I should never show my writing to her. I didn’t until we were both adults, had not only repaired our relationship, but were such good friends we became partners to write screenplays. Then I was the brutal one: structure, structure, structure!
3. What is your writing practice, your writing routine?
For me that’s like asking what my life is like. I have no routine, no practice. I just write. And when I don’t write, I have no problem with that. There are plenty of other things to do: I read a lot. I do the business of writing (like doing this interview to tell people about what I’ve written). My personality is that of a writer. I love solitude, doing nothing, having an idea come and working with it. My favorite thing is rewriting. I make my living as an editor, and that, too, feeds my writing. There is nothing like editing somebody else’s work to teach you mechanics. I think I’m a really good mechanic. So some days I just work on other people’s writing, and I consider that part of my writing life.
4. Who are you reading now?
John Cheever. I read Falconer and What a Paradise It Seems, and for the last couple of months I’ve been slowly imbibing the Pulitzer-winning Stories of John Cheever. Cheever ruins me. To my mind, his work is the perfect combination of solid technique, deep understanding of human foibles and pain, humor, and spontaneity. It takes me a day to recover from one short story. I say he ruins me because sometimes I think he’s written everything there is to write as well as it can be written—so why bother? (But I still do.)
5. What are three of your all-time favorite books? Why do you love those?
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole—one of the funniest books I’ve ever read and definitely an influence on my book, The Last Will & Testament of Zelda McFigg.
Stoner by John Williams—simply one of the best books ever written. I’ve read it twice and will probably read it many more times. The second time I read it to see how he did it. I may try to do my version of what he did.
The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger—life changing. I’ve read it many times. The dialogue and humor were what seduced me when I was young, but as I’ve gotten older, the book has aged with me. Remarkable.
6. How do you balance “building a writing platform” and the actual writing to set on that platform?
The different activities occupy different stages of work. Right now I’m in the “writing platform” stage—seeking places to publicize my books, posting on social media, trying anything I can think of to find readers. I have no frustration about “not having time to write” during these periods because I am writing—for promotional reasons. I trust that something is brewing inside me (something that will eventually demand to be written for artistic purposes) and when it announces its presence, I’ll acquiesce. It all works out.
7. What is a typical day like for you?
I wake around 4 or 5 a.m. Check email, putter around social media, find ideas for stuff to do (submissions to make, places to query, etc.). I’ll do some of that work. Have my first cup of coffee and go to the bathroom—the great joy of the day! Walk my dog. Have the second cup of coffee and no more. Putter, read, or do editing work, depending on whatever is on the agenda for the day. Do my video aerobic workout, when I’m good. Walk my dog at 5 p.m. Eat dinner. Watch the news. Go to bed early.
8. Describe your dream writing space?
I have it. I’m sitting in it. My home office, which is my desk in my living room. It’s filled with plants. It’s quiet. Nobody bothers me.
9. What is the hardest writing critique you ever received? How did you respond?
Going back to that first question where I mentioned the difficulty of finding readers who are compatible to my work—the hardest critiques are readers who do not like to be poked and challenged. They HATE what I do. They feel assaulted by it, which I certainly don’t intend. Often they have clear reasons for their fury. But my personal take is that there is something exposed in the work that they are denying in themselves and it triggers them. This stuff is hard to hear, particularly from people who want to like what I’ve done and who I like. But it has happened enough times that it’s not a surprise. I usually feel very sympathetic. I’m sorry they are so upset. And when people have actually been so upset and still finished reading the book, I feel awful. Reading a book is a huge time and emotional investment and to be furious and still take in something that makes you furious … Well, I wish they’d just put the book down.
10. What is the best wisdom you have to share with other writers?
If you want to write, write. If you don’t, don’t. The world does not need more writers and writing, so if you don’t enjoy it, find something you do enjoy and do that instead.
Betsy Robinson’s novel The Last Will & Testament of Zelda McFigg is winner of Black Lawrence Press’s 2013 Big Moose Prize and was published in September 2014. This was followed by the February 10, 2015 publication of her late mother, Edna Robinson’s, novel, The Trouble with the Truth (edited by Betsy) as the debut book of Infinite Words, a new imprint of Simon & Schuster. Betsy’s first novel, Plan Z by Leslie Kove, was published by Mid-List Press in 2001 as winner of their First Novel Series Award. Betsy has been a working journalist for over a decade; she was managing editor of Spirituality & Health magazine for almost seven years and she currently freelances for RewireMe.com. See www.BetsyRobinson-writer.com for more information and friend her on Goodreads.