I found the discussion with Robin Stratton so delightful that I decided to create “Part One” and”Part Two” of our chat called “Sweet Tea on the Front Porch.” If you’re just joining us, let me share with you Robin’s incredible accomplishments, and point you in the right direction if you’re hankering to read more of her wonderful fictional tales….
Robin Stratton BIO
Robin Stratton has been a writing coach in the Boston area for over 20 years. She is the author of a four novels, including one which was a National Indie Excellence Book Award finalist, two collections of poetry and short fiction, and a writing guide.
A four-time Pushcart Prize nominee, she’s been published in Word Riot, 63 Channels, Antithesis Common, Poor Richard’s Almanac(k), Blink-Ink, Pig in a Poke, Chick Flicks, Up the Staircase, Shoots and Vines, and many others. She is Acquisitions Editor for Big Table Publishing Company, Senior Editor of Boston Literary Magazine, and Director of the Newton Writing and Publishing Center.
K.M. Blue or Blue Skies takes us on a journey through the 70s, one of my favorite decades. To the 21st century reader, (or anyone much younger than me), the 70s conjures up images of John Travolta and bell bottom pants and disco dancing—but it was more than that, as you so cleverly show in your references to icons of the times, including:
Two liter bottles of Tab (the grossest drink ever)….
Not to mention references to President Jimmy Carter, Dolly Parton, polyester suits, and Candid Camera….
Was there a reason you chose one of my favorite decades as the time-frame for your story?
RS: Great question. In the 25 or so years it took to complete this novel, I changed the time frame from the 1960s, to the 1980s, to the 1990s, but finally chose the 70s because rock was so raw then; it was about the music, not about the videos on MTV or anything corporate driven. Also, it was before all the animated full-length movies started coming out. Just for the record, when I wrote this book the only full-length animated movie with a musical score was Fantasia. When all the Disney movies started coming out all I could think was, Uh oh, that was my idea! That’s another reason why it became important to put it back in time… the whole point of the character’s idea was that this was something that had not ever been done.
K.M. Before we go any further, I just have to talk about “the 25 or so years it took to complete this novel.” You’ve just given me hope for all of my own ideas still simmering on the back burner, or stories gathering dust in cardboard boxes. In an age when so many authors are quick to write and even quicker to publish independently, it is rare to see someone as talented as you are take her time…In fact, I would venture to say that only the most gifted Writers know how to move slowly through their projects…why did you restrain yourself? Is there any benefit of patience?
R.S. I’m not saying I didn’t send it out to agents and publishers in all that time! It was rejected by everyone, and I think one of the reasons was not the writing (no one even asked to see any chapters) but because my tag line stunk. It stunk horribly. And even though I knew it stunk, I sent it out anyway. Anyone who tries to write a synopsis or “elevator pitch” for their novel knows how hard it is to capture both theme and plot in a way that sounds captivating. A novelist’s second least favorite question is, So, what’s your book about? (Our first least favorite question is, How many copies have you sold?) So to answer your question, it wasn’t entirely that I was “waiting” so much as it just wasn’t ready. And I knew it, Kira. I knew the book had problems but I sent it out anyway.
K.M. For those who don’t know, what is a tag line?
R.S. A tag line appears on the front cover and gives a hint of what a book is about. They’re really hard to write – sometimes I like to flip through channels and when I see a movie I’m familiar with, I hit the button that gives a description, just to see how someone did it, and most of them are truly great. I often wonder if it’s much easier to boil a plot down to one line if you’re not the author.
Anyway, so suddenly 25 went by; I kept putting it aside, then dragging it out. Over and over again my writing partners were forced to read it (luckily I had the best writing partners in the world.) It was only after both my parents passed away, one right after the other, that I was able to get so deep into the pain and finish it. I knew it was perfect.
K.M. Going deep into the pain…reminds me of my first essay, “The Power of Pain,” on “The Prosaic Pen.” There, I talk about the difference between writing confessionally, before you are ready, and writing redemptively, once the pain has been processed. Tell us how you used your pain to finish this story and make it perfect?
R.S. Did you make up those terms, “confessionally” and “redemptively?” I love that concept, because, yes, they are very different!
With regards to your question… On Air is about a 50ish guy whose mom passes away, and I based the death scene on my ex boyfriend’s mom’s last moments. There was nothing glorious or dramatic about it… she was just being kept alive by a machine, and when my ex boyfriend took the mask thing off, she stopped “breathing” and the nurse came in. I tried to capture the pain of the character, but since it wasn’t MY mom, I felt a certain distance. As a matter of fact, two nights ago I met up with a friend who had just read the book, and I was delighted when he told me the scene had really moved him, that I had “nailed” the emotions. But the pain I felt when my ex boyfriend’s mother died – even though we were really close – was simply a speck compared to the pain I felt when my own parents passed. I felt that sense that a huge huge chunk of my heart had been ripped off, and I knew it would never grow back or be replaced… that grief goes so deep it has no choice but to show up somewhere in your writing – and in fact, the tone of the Narrator’s journey in Blue or Blue Skies was a perfect fit. She was actually kind of a happy-go-lucky character at first. Then I starting bombarding her with pain.
So when I finally finished it, and I mean I finished it, I didn’t even bother to send it out to any agents or publishers – I felt very strongly that at that time someone would have offered me a contract, but my impatience kicked in and I just wanted to deliver the baby. I hope I don’t sound conceited when I say that I am so proud of Blue or Blue Skies that I could pop. I feel that way about all my books. But you know what, as the author, it’s how I’m supposed to feel about my books. If I don’t, I have no business publishing them. That’s the payoff; the feeling that I could hand that book to anyone who loves to read, and I’m confident that they will love it too. Not everyone has that. I didn’t for years. Does that sound stuck up? I know a lot of writers who say they’re perfectionists and are never completely satisfied… but I say keep working until you are completely satisfied. Don’t put it out there until you know in your deepest gut that it’s ready. So YES, to finally answer your question, patience is SO important.
K.M. On the topic of patience…The Narrator is wildly in love with 70’s pop star, Terry Kastle. While she is waiting for Terry to fall in love with her, she ends up developing a friendship with Terry’s brother, Jeff, who invites her to a church service. Rather than devolving into something preachy or religious, the story takes a turn as Jeff and the central narrator “cut out” of the church service before it’s over; they run out laughing and giddy, like children. Yet, they end up having a deep conversation about spiritual matters. She says,
. “…we have to have faith.” (Jeff replies): “In what?” (She answers): “In everything. In the sun coming out after days of rain. In finding a new job after you get fired. In meeting someone else if you lose your boyfriend” (140).
However, in the same way that she struggles with anger and attraction towards the men in her life, she also struggles with her concept of God and faith, because she later does a “180” with these remarks:
“…but his pain didn’t matter to the universe. And neither did mine. I’d been wrong to trust. There was no Divine Plan. Just shitty things bombarding decent people who were doing their best to find happiness” (237).
To me, this is real life—having a “faith high” one day, and a “down in the dumps” day the next. This makes your main character more human, endearing. What do you think? Is there power in creating characters who are conflicted, sometimes even hypocritical, as they search for truth, for love?
R.S. I wanted to show how easy it is to have a ton of faith in God and purpose when there’s the hope that things will work out the way you want. But when hope is shattered, what’s left, where does all the trust and belief go? Can you get it back, or was it all just bullshit? This was a major part of the Narrator’s character arc… to discover who she was when the chips were down.
K.M. Yes, she expressed herself, when the chips were down, in very human ways—shock, anger, grief, guilt. She represents us all…
R.S. So many kinds of grief, and so many reasons for grief, but at the end of the day, grief is something you have to face in life and get through. I liked how she was sort of philosophical about it in the beginning, but at the end there, when she feels that guilt… I tried to be real hard hitting with it.
K.M. The fancy literary term for Blue or Blue Skies might be “cosmic irony.” Janet Burroway, a writer and professor, says cosmic irony is “our perception of the human condition, in which our efforts are thwarted, often by our best intentions” (Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft 52). Your central narrator, “She,” certainly has good intentions; however, she seems to be the ultimate non-mother Mother; a codependent, living to help others, often at the expense of her own needs and desires. And, in the process of protecting others, she often becomes the victim. She might be called a comic-tragic hero, which makes me think of another Shakespeare analogy: King Lear.
Rejected by his daughters, feeling cheated by the gods, King Lear’s words could just as easily have been said by her: “I am a man (woman) more sinn’d against than sinning” (King Lear, Act 3, Scene 2, 57-60).
In Blue or Blue Skies, One example of her “best intentions” turning back upon her, causing her to feel “sinn’d” against, occurs when “She” introduces her new friend, Meredith, to her own love interest, the artist, Daryl. Even though Daryl has made it clear he only wants a friendship with the central narrator (and she has agreed), she still feels victimized by his obvious attraction to Meredith:
“A primitive instinct to compete, to fiercely protect my territory swept through me…then passed. Only pain and aggravation lay ahead for the woman who thought she could knock down Daryl’s walls” (54). And, “I liked her, so part of me hoped she’d win him over. But the other part was scared they’d get married and would, like my other friends, ditch me” (54).
Finally, she says this, which gives us the biggest clue about the root of her codependent tendencies: “I never got a chance to let stuff go, it was always taken from me” (72).
So to get back to what you were saying earlier, do you agree that “She” is a type of a comic-tragic hero, with smotherly-motherly codependent tendencies, a woman who is often victimized by her best intentions?
R.S. I do, I think you summed her up beautifully. Let’s face it, people who constantly ignore their own needs in order to take care of others are not always being noble – to me it shows a lack of self-worth, and as her character developed more and more, I saw how wounded and damaged she was. Not to give away too much plot, but she seems like the person who has it all in the beginning; it’s only as her friends coax her out from behind her facade that you realize how sad she is… how hard her life has been, and how much covering up she’s done to keep from feeling the pain. That line about not letting stuff go because it was always taken from her… that was one of my favorites.
K.M. That line was one of my favorites, too, because you astutely keyed into a feeling I’ve had for years…and I thought I was the only one who felt that way! That is the beauty of books, of Writers—you reach our souls.
R.S. Nice compliment, thank you!
K.M. Some of my favorite scenes happen after Meredith moves in with the Narrator. Meredith moves in with her because she finally realizes that Daryl is a wall of resistance, a man refusing to become sexually involved with Meredith. True to the central narrator’s motherly instincts, “She,” fixes Meredith her favorite meals, and “Like a mother, I enjoyed watching her eat, wanted to take care of her, see her happy again” (97). It’s as if “She” becomes her AA sponsor, gently guiding Meredith to admit that Daryl is her preferred “drug of choice.” She says:
“’Try to go 24 hours without him. Can you do that?’”
“’I don’t know.’”
“Be strong. I’ll turn on the radio.”
But, when Meredith breaks her vow of sobriety, and meets Daryl at a Boston bar called “Buster’s,” “She” thinks,
“I was hurt. After all, I was the one who discovered him. And you might even say I discovered her, too. Yes, he met her first. But I was the one who gave her a chance. Who brought them together. And now they had a place” (82).
In an era of pressure to “be” strong women, blazing our own trails, never catering to emotions or men, do you think most female readers can relate to her self-sabotage?
R.S. Back then, of course, the term “co-dependency” didn’t exist; we were raised to see to the needs of others first… can I tell you how many footballs games I’ve sat through? Or episodes of The Three Stooges? And yet, in a million years, do you think it would ever occur to me to say to a man, “Hey, want to watch Gilmore Girls?” I can’t speak to younger generations of women, but we were wired to do what other people wanted us to. It’s why so many of my girlfriends have trouble asking for help, or accepting help. We were raised to do the helping. I don’t know if women are still raised to feel that way… probably not… which is another reason this had to be set in the 1970s.
K.M. I think this is the genius of being a Writer—we take those unspoken hurts and wounded self-images caused by unprocessed, taboo cultural mores, and we tap into them, opening them up and letting them ooze out, sometimes even gush out, into our stories. We give people permission to explore, and redefine what they have always thought of as “true.”
R.S. I love how you put that, and yes, it’s part of the “writerly” life to notice those things… the little hurts that happen all around us. One of my favorite scenes in a book by Elizabeth Berg, I don’t remember which one it was, but in the scene the narrator sees this middle-aged housewife and her husband shopping, and the wife picks up this little knick knack and says something like, Oh isn’t this cute? and the husband says Yes but he doesn’t even look at it, he’s looking at something else. The scene stuck out in my mind because those mini assaults to our psyche add up and can really make us unhappy. A writer notices those things and feels the pain.
K.M. Let’s talk about “Art and Madness.” Daryl dreams of turning a Herman Hesse story, “Klingsor’s Last Summer,” into a full length feature film. Klingsor is a vagabond artist who commits suicide. Daryl says, “It was that madness that made him such a brilliant artist” (23). This reminds me of an epigram at the beginning of your book: “What garlic is to salad, insanity is to art” (August Saint-Gaudens).
I remember in college, having to write an essay on the question, “Does art lead to madness? Or does madness lead to art?” I must admit, I came to the conclusion that neither is related. I believe that one can be an artist without being insane; or one can be an artist who happens to be mad—but art, in my opinion, whether paintings or music or books, is one of the highest forms of sanity there is.
What are your thoughts?
R.S. Such great questions! Originally I had a scene with Terry and the Narrator and he made the same argument – that without madness you could not be great, that madness was the sign of genius, and the Narrator’s response was, “There must be some other sign!” She was hurt that he thought she couldn’t be a genius, because she wasn’t mad. In other words, I totally agree with you – there’s plenty of room for “sane” geniuses. Maybe the “mad” ones use that line as a coping mechanism to make themselves feel better.
K.M. I’m laughing—that would have made a great scene! And, yes, maybe it is simply a “coping mechanism,” but perhaps not for the mad ones, but for the non-artistic ones who call themselves sane…the ones who run the world, and who have no clue where imagination and art come from…they can’t see it, feel or touch it, or explain it…and they pressure the artist to either “sell” his or her soul, or reject the artist in other subtle ways. No wonder some go mad.
R.S. That’s an interesting theme to me, you know… the idea of the idealistic artist type selling out in order to be a star… remember that episode of The Brady Bunch where Greg agreed to ditch his brothers and sisters because the talent agents only wanted him?
It’s the age-old question: What would you do? Stay pure and starve, or sell out and get to quit your day job? When I was fresh out of college and having trouble getting published I used to console myself with the assurance that at least I could write a romance novel, make a lot of money, then go back to my more high brow style. Until I met a brilliant science writer who had always wanted to be a romance novelist and couldn’t break in! It was Marilyn Ferguson, and she went on to write one of my all-time favorite books in the whole world, The Aquarian Conspiracy.
K.M. Did you write romance novels under a pseudonym?
R.S. . No! I wrote a mock romance novel years ago, but just for fun. I’m sure my friend was right, that it’s a lot harder than most of us think.
K.M. To me, your book transcends Chick Lit, and certainly sails above any modern romance novel. In my opinion, Blue or Blue Skies lands squarely in the literary fiction category—primarily because of the prose, the witty dialogue, and the tasteful use of irony. Did you have a genre in mind when you wrote the story?
R.S. At a writing workshop years ago I was told that chick lit is dead, but I don’t think that’s the case at all. I don’t get to read for pleasure very often, but for a while it seemed to me that every chick lit book had this plot: main character is overweight and finds out that her boyfriend is cheating on her, so she dumps him, then is so upset that she can’t eat, and she loses weight, and she finds a much better man who thinks she’s beautiful. I’m always amazed at how many times that storyline can sell. I prefer books with a plot that goes deeper than the search for a husband in order to define yourself thing.
K.M. Which books, Authors, have inspired you the most as a Writer?
R.S. Everyone who knows me knows that I love John Updike. He is my role model in terms of style. When it comes to crafting women in a tender, loving way, I have learned from Elizabeth Berg. I spend so many, many hours each week reading manuscripts that, as I said before, I don’t have much time to sit down and read for fun anymore, which is something I really miss, but I also love Ethan Canin, Michael Chabon. They’re magical writers to me.
K.M. What’s in store for you? What can we expect next?
R.S. After Blue or Blue Skies came out, I told people I was pretty much done. I no longer had the drive to create. I’ve been spending a lot of time on a memoir of sorts – poetry and vignettes about my life – and am hoping to have enough material to publish it next year. I had a really happy childhood and I had the greatest parents and the greatest brothers in the world, but as a writer, I was ridiculously aware of things I don’t think other kids my age were.
K.M. First of all, let me say I’m relieved you had a happy childhood—that is proof one CAN be a great Writer without having experienced childhood trauma! When you say you were more aware of certain things as a child and teen, can you give us an example?
R.S. I didn’t mean to sound like, Oh I was such a genius child. What I meant was, I had these stupid thoughts that took over sometimes, and I couldn’t get rid of them until I figured out what .. Well, for instance, this is going to sound tedious and dumb… when I was a teenager, I used to obsess about people who said they didn’t fit in. Just about everyone I knew said they didn’t fit in, so the question was, If no one “fits in” what is that concept even about? Is “fitting in” a curse disguised as a blessing? What would “fitting in” look like? Another thing that would take up a lot of my thinking time as a teen was… remember that song by Janis Ian, “At Seventeen?” I loved the lyrics to that, because I was an ugly kid – thick glasses, real skinny – and I wondered what it must be like to be beautiful… like, to walk into a class room and no one judges your clothes or your hair, they just admire you. I used to get really mad at God because he made some girls have everything – beautiful face, great body, perfect hair, great clothes – and I’d be like, What’s up with this favoritism, God?
Wow, I can’t even remember what your question was…
K.M. I was wondering what’s next for you in terms of your writing.
R.S. OH!! Yes, so yeah, those kind of things are what I love writing about now… the teenaged angst stuff. It’s fun to revisit, because as a fifty-something grownup I find it so comical.
Also, I’ve dragged out of the closet a manuscript that I started in – omg – 1988. Imagine? I started it when the first George Bush was running for president. It’s Little Women for the 80s. Like my other stuff, I’ve written it about a zillion times, and then kept putting it aside. But as I go over the most recent version (I don’t even know when I did it, it was probably early 2000s) I’m delighted to find that it’s not bad! So I’m having fun with that. It’s a two-volume saga that takes place over ten years. So to everyone who said, Quit saying you’re done writing, you’re not done writing! You guys were right!
K.M. What I hear you saying is that for all of those people out there who have spent decades writing bits and pieces, mulling over story ideas, but never having time or energy to finish something, there is hope! I also hear you saying that to write something really wonderful—like Blue or Blue Skies—and something you, the Writer, are really proud of, can be depleting. Fortunately, it’s a temporary feeling, right?
R.S. Well to me it wasn’t so much a time and energy thing… if you simply can’t find the time to write your book, chances are it will never get written . For me, it was a matter of being ready in my own head to be emotionally in the place to write the book I dreamed of writing. As a writer, you know how you start with this Great Big Idea and when you finish the first draft it’s usually light years away from your vision. That’s how Blue or Blue Skies was for me all those years… it was waiting for me, in a way, to be the person most qualified to tell that story. Many years ago when I was still living with my parents (the kind of parents who said Don’t get a regular job, stay home and write your novel!) I wrote about this guy, Emil, on a spiritual adventure, and he goes to India and has all these adventures… and I showed it to a friend I had graduated from high school with and she said I absolutely HAD to get out in the world more and experience what life was REALLY like. At the time I was so offended! But of course she was right. A writer has to wait until… well, like what you said, Kira, until they can write “redemptively.” To me, there’s no point in writing about pain unless you’ve grown into the person who can write about the wisdom that was born out of the pain.