INTERVIEW with Erika Robuck
I’m a huge fan of Erika Robuck. Her ability to make the personal lives of artists such as Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald and Edna St. Vincent Millay accessible to readers is the reason I fell in love with historical fiction. In addition to providing me with hours of pleasure, Hemingway’s Girl, Call Me Zelda, Fallen Beauty, and The House of Hawthorne have given me guidance for how to craft an emotionally powerful story. Then at the end of 2017, Erika surprised me by stepping away from the historical fiction genre she’s known for and self-published a modern-day satire.
#Hockeystrong is timely and thoroughly engaging. Although I rooted for characters, I was appalled by their behavior in equal measure. It is a fabulous ride; a ride that prompted me to re-evaluate how I feel about Social Media and the pressure placed on kids in sports, while reminding me of the importance of a strong, loving family unit. In the midst of this country’s social and political unrest #Hockeystrong is a must read.
Robuck’s decision to layer satire over her successful historical fiction run aroused my curiosity about her debut: Receive Me Falling. This historical drama weaves together the lives of Meghan Owen— who inherits a plantation house on the Caribbean island of Nevis— and Catherine Dall whose family owned and operated the plantation in the early 1800s. Like #Hockeystrong, Receive Me Falling nudges the reader to grapple with their social and moral beliefs as it examines slavery through the rise of the Abolitionist movement through Robuck’s signature storytelling style. Each page is filled with heartfelt prose that forces characters to uncover the truth about themselves and those around them, and although the lives of Meghan and Catherine converge in tragedy, the reader comes away wrapped in love and hope.
Receive Me Falling was a marvelous, uplifting way to start 2018, and I’m thrilled to launch this year’s Interviews with the author, Erika Robuck.
In Receive Me Falling, Meg learns that her father’s estate was built on stolen money. How much did the 2008 Bernie Madoff scandal influence Meg’s storyline?
I had already crafted most of the novel when the Madoff scandal hit, but it was timely in its arrival. I couldn’t help but wonder how the children of criminals feel, especially when their entire lives have been built on lies and exploitation. Do they have any inkling about their parents’ illegal activities? Are they in denial? Or do they legitimately not know about the crimes? And finally, once the deception is revealed, what do they do with their inheritance of sin?
In Hemingway’s Girl, Ernest says, “You never talk about a book till you’re done with it.” Do you believe this is sound advice for writers or superstition?
I’m divided. With my intellect, I know it’s superstition, but there are very few with whom I’m willing to discuss works in progress. It seems as if the collective unconscious begins bubbling ideas up to the surface the moment they are mentioned aloud.
Nurse Anna is so vulnerable and open about her experience of working with the Fitzgeralds in Call Me Zelda, the story often felt like a memoir. How are you able to slip into your characters’ skins and deliver them with such vibrant authenticity?
My grandmother was a psychiatric nurse, so I was able to use my knowledge of her work, combined with interviews of current nurses and readings on the subject, to take on the persona. The combination of extensive interviews and research allows me to become my characters.
In spite of her fame, the character of Edna St. Vincent Millay in Fallen Beauty is clearly the antagonist. Her selfish, child-like behavior, on top of her neediness, is most unlikeable. Yet, whenever we feel the magic of the poet inside we easily forgive and root for her as much as we root for Laura, the novel’s protagonist. What do you believe is the key to developing empathetic characters?
I believe vulnerability is the key. When we see a character’s fears, anxieties, and self-doubt, they become human and redeemable. Vulnerability is almost always revealed in journals, letters, and photographs. They are treasures and, if I’m able to get my hands on them, key to helping me develop multi-dimensional, empathetic characters.
The first chapter of Hemingway’s Girl and The House of Hawthorne begins in the protagonist’s present, and then the story moves into the past, while Call Me Zelda and Fallen Beauty have no timeline shift. What determining factors do you use to help zero in on the best opening moment?
Each story asks something a little different from me, and I try to be faithful to what is asked. I allow decisions on point of view and time period to arise organically from the research, and I’m often surprised about the directions my novels take. That said, I almost always change the beginning of the novel once it is complete.
Can you give us an example of how one of your openings changed, and why you felt the change was necessary?
Hemingway’s Girl initially began at my protagonist’s interview for the cleaning job at Hemingway’s House, but I decided the reader needed to see my protagonist in her element before placing her out of it. Opening the action with her at a boxing match on the wrong side of town, gambling to support her family, provides the right contrast between her world and that of Hemingway’s genteel parlor. The irony, of course, is that Hemingway is also more at ease with the poor boxers and fisherman than he is in the luxurious surroundings of his home.
One of the most intriguing relationships in The House of Hawthorne is Herman Melville’s admiration and obsession with Nathaniel. Melville dedicated Moby Dick to Hawthorne. I’ve also read that MB showed a shift in writing style for Melville. That novel displayed a stronger deftness in the handling of chapters, as well as a richer vocabulary than in previous works. Did you find any evidence that without Melville’s access to Nathaniel, Moby Dick may not have been written?
I found evidence that Melville was borderline obsessed with Hawthorne, and while the relationship initially intrigued and flattered Hawthorne, it ultimately appeared to suffocate him. Melville was an intense, mercurial man who wanted a lot from his friend, that—due to his marriage, his family, and his private personality—Hawthorne was unable to deliver. It was a fraught relationship that has been speculated upon by many a biographer.
If you had the opportunity to talk with Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Millay, and Hawthorne what would be the one question you would ask each of them?
There are different questions I’d have for each to do with his or her own life, but in terms of my portrayals of them, I’d want to know if they felt as if they had been rendered fairly and with redemption.
What prompted you to turn to satire? Was it a reaction to the recent frustration with historical fiction that you spoke of during your poignant post, “Remember Why You Started,” on Writer Unboxed? Or was #Hockeystrong’s story brewing over time because of your experience as a hockey parent?
#Hockeystrong has been brewing for years. I didn’t think I could write satire, but I felt called to social commentary after almost a decade of watching adults lose their minds over youth sports. I gave myself a month to attempt contemporary satire, and within six weeks, had a working first draft of the book. It was an excellent palate cleanser after a rejected historical novel, but my first love will always be historical fiction, and I’m back in the saddle.
John Banville— the winner of the Man Booker Prize for The Sea— believes books should be shelved alphabetically by author, not genre. A genre label is an important marketing tool early in a writer’s career, but can that label become an obstacle later on?
After a time, it definitely begins to feel constrictive. I’m a reader before I’m a writer, and—while I reach for historical novels first—I choose from and enjoy a variety of genres. Authors like Jojo Moyes, Chris Bohjalian, Nora Roberts, Anne Rice, Judy Blume, Stephen King, and A. S. Byatt move between genres with ease, and I enjoy following them. It keeps the writing and the reading fresh.
You’ve written five historical novels and a modern day satire. Research aside, is one easier to write? Will we see more satire from you in the future?
While the contemporary satire was by far the most amusing and easiest novel to write, I don’t imagine returning any time soon. Writing about dead people is ideal; they make far less fuss.
What is your biggest stumbling block as a writer?
When the business side of publishing about market, brand, and sales infiltrates my mind during the first draft, I know I’m in trouble, and have had to abandoned projects because of it. Business aside, I have to be totally, truly, personally consumed with my subjects for them to work.
You have a family and a successful writing career. When you do you find time to read? And when will we be able to settle in with the next Erika Robuck novel?
I’m an avid, obsessive reader. From my prayer and mediation books in the morning and before bedtime, to the newspaper while I eat lunch, to novels while I wait in lines, sit rink-side during my son’s hockey practices, and before I go to bed, I read widely and prolifically. Poetry warms me up to write each day, and there are research books all over my desk. I can’t get enough.
As for my current project, I’m hard at work on historical fiction, but I’ll have to take Hemingway’s advice, and keep the subject quiet. I hope I can tell you more soon.
Thank you so much, Jocosa.
My pleasure, Erika.
Erika Robuck is a member of the Historical Novel, Hemingway, Millay and Hawthorne Societies. She is a contributor to Grand Central: Original Stories of Postwar Love and Reunion, and Author in Progress: A No-Holds-Barred Guide to What It really Takes to Get Published. She also writes about and reviews historical fiction on her blog, Muse.