this is a very recent interview with james robison, a truly generous writer and reader. his stories were among the most important to me when i was just learning to write, and i would read and reread his collection, rumor, finding new grace notes and moments of perfection every time through. more than 25 years ago, jim was one of my first writing champions and teachers, and it was great to see this lively interview with him (and find him kind enough to recommend the architect of flowers).
James Robison has published many stories in The New Yorker, won a Whiting Grant for his short fiction and a Rosenthal Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for his first novel, The Illustrator, brought out by Bloomsbury in the U.K. His work has appeared in Best American Short Stories, The Pushcart Prize, and Grand Street. The Mississippi Review devoted an entire issue to seven of his short stories. He co-wrote the 2008 film, New Orleans Mon Amour, and has poetry and prose forthcoming or appearing now in The Manchester Review, Story Quarterly, and Smokelong Quarterly, elimae,The Blue Fifth Review, Wigleaf, Commonline, Blast Furnace,The Houston Literary Review, Scythe, Metazen, The Raleigh Review, Corium Magazine and elsewhere. He taught for eight years at the University of Houston’s Creative Writing Program, was Visiting Writer at Loyola College of Maryland, was Fiction Editor of The North Dakota Quarterly.
How does your physical, geographical environment affect your writing, if it does?
The qualities associated with place are tools available for a story. I choose a voice because of other variables, then think where to locate the story in the world. “This sounds like a Pennsylvania story, winter, industrial.” Great advantage of having lived all over hell.
Do you listen to music when you write? What allows you to settle in and write optimally?
Music is out! If it’s The Crystals or Surf guitar, my characters start acting up, driving too fast, lipping off, being vain and dressing in aggressive clothes. If it’s Mozart or Bach, I’m intimidated by the design and organization of the music and stop composing myself. Opera sweeps me up so I forget to write. Greek Orthodox Byzantine chants are the closest to okay.
Early Morning, dead quiet, in the first rush of strong coffee is best.
How does teaching effect your own work (if it does)?
Teaching answers needs to communicate complex ideas, get laughs, hold court, right wrongs, control 90 minutes of narrative and therefore, after a happy teaching day, it’s impossible to write. One is sated.
What is your favorite books/or collections of recent times?
Stuff from former students. Bill Lychack, from a class at Connecticut College, has a new one, The Architect of Flowers, and I got a glimpse of part of that book and it’s great. Bruce Marchart, from a Houston class, has a new novel, The Wake of Forgiveness, causing large buzzings and hot feedback in New York. I recommend Marti Leimbach’s The Man from Saigon. Lots more.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I haven’t grown up enough to say. Nothing’s been ruled out.
What do you think of practicing multiple disciplines as a writer/ not limiting oneself to writing as a form of expression?
I draw and used to draw for a living but I could not be a fine artist, visual variety, and a good writer. I think the degree of concentration required for one discipline, (in my case at least), is so mind-eating that there isn’t enough self left to give to another discipline.
How do you come up with ideas for stories?
A story must have three ingredients, like, oral surgery, Puccini’s Turandot, and divorce.
Hurricane science, a niece, and physics.
If I have three large thoughts, intuitions or detections about three varied things, I’ll launch a story.
How is book culture changing? What do you notice in this regard?
I know only that people are reading, reading as much as ever, writing and reading and engaged by the processes. That’s what matters. As to the means of conveyance-I don’t know or care much.
How does the truth make us odd? The Flannery O’Conner quote is: “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.”
O’Connor said she pitied anyone trying to write about Simone Weil, and in the same sense, I know it’s a mistake to try to decode O’Connor. But, her statement means to me. Before you can be a writer you must make it new and the only way to do that is to run a harrowing, fearless, ruthless self audit. A psychological, emotional, moral inventory. You must know who you are, without delusions or self-deception, and what you find is apt to scare the spit out of you. But that is the truth you must accept and the truth from which you will construct every sentence. To that degree, writers are odd, I suppose. I don’t think we are set free by our truths, but then no one is. We are set free to make an alternative word world — an odd but imperative impulse, don’t you think?
The Fictionaut Five is our ongoing series of interviews with Fictionaut authors. Every Wednesday, Meg Pokrass asks a writer five (or more) questions. Meg is the editor-at-large for BLIP Magazine, and her stories and poems have been published widely. She blogs at http://megpokrass.com.