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I Don’t Think I’ve Ever Written A Happy Couple‘: An Interview With Cynthia Robinson (At One Sitting)

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Q + A with Cynthia

Where do you get inspiration?

Anywhere and everywhere. Overheard conversations, my own stories, my friends’ stories, current events, history… There are a couple of files in my computer with random ideas thrown in willy-nilly that I pull from. I suppose most of the core ideas for pieces do come from my own past, but by the time they’re a story or a character or part of a novel, they are (hopefully) changed almost beyond recognition. Actually I think that’s the first step in fictionalizing elements of your own past (or present)—actively distance yourself from your own ‘stuff,’ otherwise you can’t see the forest for the trees.

What do you do about writers’ block?

Honestly I have never had it. I have the opposite problem. I need to be reined in. I need to be edited. I type too fast (I actually took a typing class in Tennessee in ninth grade, with a virginal spinster with a towering white bun, twinkly cat-eye glasses and a mean swat with her ruler). I need to be told to stop, slow down, and think. Fortunately for me and my writing life, there is someone *in* my life who does that.

Do you have a ‘process’?

Yes, and I have a schedule. I am borderline OCD about my schedule. Ass-in-chair for a certain number of hours per day or as close to that as I can manage. Afternoons are my writing time. I start off by reading, picking at bits of the 8-or-so novels I have going at any one time. Then I transpose the random esprit de l’escalier thoughts that came to me the day before following the writing session, scribbled onto a pad I keep in the kitchen, onto notecards and put them into their corresponding piles, bound tightly with rubber bands. Control freak? Who, me? Notecards and whiteboards are my best friends. I will often do two or three drafts of a story or a novel in notecard form before anything ever goes onto the screen in coherent form. I first write in Spanish. My signal to myself that “this is serious now” is switching to English. I go through hundreds and hundreds of notecards. And of course I recycle.

How much do you revise, and how?

The best part of writing is revising. I find it much more painful to get the text onto the page for the first time. Once I have something loosely deserving of the name “draft,” I print up the document, cut it up (literally), and reorganize according to the reigning set of notecards at any given time (this is oh-so-inefficient, but that’s what writing is – a wise friend told me that at the beginning of my return to writing and it took me a couple of years to realize that she was right… the best way is to just embrace the inefficiency and recycle).

Does your scholarly work influence your creative work and/or vice-versa?

Yes. Though I am still finding my way toward articulating how. Beyond the presence of art and artists as characters, BIRDS OF WONDER bears little if any obvious relationship to my scholarship. The novel I am working on now, currently in its third draft, is much more obviously connected, and the one I’m planning for after that, even more so. In a sense this has to do with my unwillingness, until very recently, to tread into the territory of historical fiction. When I read fiction that has anything to do with my areas of specialization (which I very rarely do), at least 50% of my brain is busy identifying all the errors and that is not fun. But my comfort with bringing merging these two parts of my creative activity has increased steadily, and now I am actively endeavoring to do that. Hopefully future publications will reflect this. On the other hand, a number of scholar friends have expressed no surprise at all that I have returned to fiction because they’d always noticed ‘writerly’ qualities in my academic writing.

You’re a late bloomer as far as fiction goes. How did you (finally) wind up here?

I wrote stories and plays and all sorts of things as a child. In third grade I had my Christmas play performed by our class. In junior high school my silly notes to my friends were so epistolary that my parents finally bought me a typewriter (yes, I am that old). A literature professor during my freshman year of college told me that I absolutely *had* to become a writer. And so I became an art historian (I’ve never been one to take advice). The story is much more convoluted than that but you, dear Reader, do not have all day…

Somehow I became enamored of the Middle Ages, and obsessed with scholarship and got accepted to grad school and found myself with an Ivy-League PhD…  I did write a novel during this time – it is lost, and probably better so; maybe all first novels should be lost – and during the years I was having to sling hash and cater to make up the difference for the expenses not covered by adjunct teaching, I wrote another (neither of these became BIRDS OF WONDER).

When I got my first tenure-track job at the University of New Mexico, that meant leaving Manhattan. The internet was not much of a thing in 1999, or certainly not as much of a thing as it is now, not by a long shot, so the beginnings of discussions I was having with agents got parked. Also, Art History departments are not known to grant tenure on the basis of novels, whether published or not, so writing, too, got parked while I went down the tenure-track black hole.

 But I missed it – so much so that I forbade myself the pleasure of reading fiction for a decade and a half, because that pleasure was too painful it I was not also writing. Once I attained the nirvana of full-professordom, long about 2011, events began to conspire so as to suggest it might be time for me to try again. And to start reading again. And so here I am.

Does having grown up in the South figure in and, if so, how?

I’ve been away from the South for a long time now, and have a pretty conflicted relationship with it. But it does crop up in some of my published short fiction, in a character here and there in the novel I’m currently working on… and I suspect my verborrhea, if not a uniquely Southern trait (Southerners love-love-love to tell stories), is certainly associated with those origins. And of course the novel I’m (maybe ironically? Not quite sure about that yet…) trying to reconstruct on the Lost Novel Blog is all about the South.

A lot of your work is centered on bad things happening to women, or, alternatively, women behaving badly, or at least transgressing limits that most people probably consider boundaries. Care to elaborate?

Not really. I think the work speaks for itself. As does the historical moment in which we live. ‘Nuf said.

Occasionally there’s a wink or a nod toward (or, in BIRDS OF WONDER, a significant presence of), the supernatural. What’s up with that?

For an agnostic, I am awfully fascinated with the mystical, the supernatural, ghosts, visitations… and I have, over my life, experienced several contacts with beings (humans and animals) who had recently left this world. Too many to discount. Maybe these things enjoy happening to people who believe (a bit too much…?) in scholarly argument and footnotes. Actually I think this sort of subject matter was one of my paths back into fiction writing.

What are you working on now?

A novel which is nearing the end of its third draft, in which the supernatural is heavily and intimately involved. If I say more I might jinx it.