Roxana Robinson is the author of nine books: five novels, including Sparta and Cost; three collections of short stories; and the biography Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life, which was short-listed for the National Book Critics Circle Award and was named one of The New York Times Most Notable Books of the Year. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s Magazine, The New York Times, The Washington Post, BookForum, Best American Short Stories, Tin House and elsewhere. She teaches in the Hunter MFA Program and divides her time among New York, Connecticut, and Maine. She has received fellowships from the NEA and the Guggenheim Foundation and is the President of the Authors Guild.
This essay is reprinted from the Winter 2016 issue of the Authors Guild Bulletin.
While you’re working on a book, you’re living in two worlds.
There is the world that you inhabit with everyone you know—your husband, your children, your friends, your colleagues. This is the tangible world, and you inhabit it easily. You don’t have to try. You can e-mail people, or call them or talk to them at dinner. The things you share with them are immediate. But your presence there becomes increasingly insubstantial: you realize that it doesn’t really matter if you’re there or not. This world will go on without you.
The other world you’re living in, the world of the book, is just as vivid. You’re living with people you’ve never seen, though you know them as well as you know everyone else in your life. But it’s not always easy to connect with them. Sometimes it seems as though a translucent scrim separates you, and whenever you’re not writing, you’re worried that you won’t be able to get past the scrim.
In the novel Time and Again, the protagonist is asked to live in circumstances that exactly mimic those of a century earlier, in hopes that he’ll be able to slip through a portal into another era. He does, of course. I think about this when I’m trying to move into the world of my novel. I’m never quite sure if I’ll be able to get there. “This novel” is the place that I inhabit while I’m working. In this world, I’m necessary. It won’t go on without me.
When I began writing fiction, the rule for young writers was, “Write what you know.” It’s a good rule, meant to avoid the inauthentic use of places, people, and feelings. The idea was that the writer should know herself first, examine her own world before she begins to examine others. It’s still a good rule for young writers. But it needn’t hold true throughout a whole career. It is beginning to seem that contemporary novelists have used up what they know. The present seems over-explored, so why not write about the past and the future?
Futuristic and historical novels are becoming all the rage. There are lots of distinguished ones: Frankenstein, The Handmaid’s Tale, Never Let Me Go and The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five. And of course Wolf Hall, Mary Reilly and The Blue Flower. (I know, I know, I’m naming mostly works by women, and I’m sorry. It’s just that there are so many more good books by women than there are by men! If I could think of more by men, I’d name them, of course.)
When you are writing a contemporary novel, you’re already living a covert life. You talk to your family as though you’re all occupying the same place—the kitchen. And you are in the kitchen, but you’re also in that other place, the place where the novel lives, with its great rolling landscape of emotions and conversations and characters on their way to the unknown destination at the end of the narrative. Those people in that other place are all around, constantly swimming through your consciousness.
But when you’re writing about another time, you are in even more trouble: you’re doubly removed from the tangible world. The words and sentiments from the people of that other time become more and more real. You’re fascinated by them. You’re bemused by people who talk in today’s language, the one you’ve stopped speaking. You’re deep in another era. You can hardly believe that your husband wants to discuss this year’s politics, when he could be talking about those of that other year, which are so much more vivid, those candidates so much more astonishing in their declarations, their dastardliness, their ambitions, their facial hair.
And all the time you feel as though that other world, the one where you’re writing, is elusive. It is slipping through your hands like water. You can’t quite close your fingers on it, yet that’s the place you’re living. You can’t quite close your fingers on it, yet you’re swimming through it. It’s become your medium. It’s all around you, but you can’t quite breathe.
One afternoon, when I was writing my biography of Georgia O’Keeffe, I was driving down the street in the small town where I then lived. A man was driving toward me, and I recognized him. He was handsome, with a square face, a dark, serious gaze, metal-rimmed glasses and a mustache. I knew I knew him, but couldn’t think of who he was in time to wave. After he’d driven past, I realized it was Alfred Stieglitz. The funny thing was that Stieglitz never learned to drive.
Once you’ve finished the book, you stop living in that world. It’s lost to you. People ask me afterwards if I’m thinking of writing a sequel. Don’t I want to know what happens next, they ask? But I can no longer find the portal. Sometimes I’ll hear from a reader, years later, reminding me of that place, telling me how it felt while she was reading it.
Then I remember what it was like when I lived there.