The Texas / Boston Connection
What happens when a Texas Writer meets a Writer from Boston?
Instead of sweet tea on the front porch, we share a mug of hot cocoa on a cold day.
In the middle of winter, warm and cozy in front of a virtual indoor fireplace, I (the Texan, Kira Marie) had the recent privilege of chatting with my new East Coast friend, Robin Stratton, who is not only smart, but funny, kind, and, like me, thinks the 70’s is a cool decade.
We talked about her novel, Blue or Blue Skies—an extraordinary tale of “love, honesty, & other disasters.”
Robin’s Blue or Blue Skies is one of the most delightful novels I’ve enjoyed reading in a long time, and I consider it to be not only an entertaining romantic comic-tragedy, but a literary masterwork.
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.
So pull up a chair close to the fireplace, and join us for our discussion of Blue or Blue Skies…and other things literary, comic, sad, and profound….
Right away, the title of your book– particularly with the subtitle, A novel of love, honesty, and other disasters— triggers expectations of a Shakespearean-style irony. When love is a “disaster,” something has gone terribly wrong in a way that we can relate to, in a way that makes us laugh uncomfortably, and blush awkwardly.
Your knack for developing engaging characters and an interesting plot didn’t happen in a vacuum, though. Sometimes Authors wriggle out of taking responsibility for what they put on paper, as if it really isn’t any reflection of themselves in any way. Perhaps that is because there is a tendency in university English departments and among literary critics to teach readers to interpret works of fiction as if “the author is dead.” Roland Barthes as well as other literary critics, I think, helped propagate the theory. While I am all for multiple interpretations of texts, I do get a little irritated by the idea that the way in which the Author developed the story, his or her inspiration and interpretation, doesn’t matter, really. In other words, A reader’s interpretation matters, perhaps, more than the intentions of the Author. When we read texts in that way, it is as if all imaginative ideas have appeared from some other source far beyond (in a galaxy far, far away…), and the Author’s unique and human purposes or interpretations are secondary to those. What are your thoughts?
Robin: I tend to come up with plots when I see, hear, or read about something “out there,” but my characters always reflect my own interests, hang ups, goals, or passions. Being in love with a famous rock star… wanting to be a writer… having a dream and not letting anything or anyone get in your way… watching all your best friends get married and ditch you… the eternal search for the perfect mate – those were my gigs for years. So as I craft a storyline, I have an idea of what the global theme and moment of redemption is going to be, then I make it personal and relatable by building characters around it. In this case, you could make the argument that the Narrator’s decision to be honest at the end had disastrous consequences, and of course on a smaller scale, honesty frequently does.
Kira Marie: Yes, her honesty certainly seems to have triggered one of the most tragic moments in the novel (which results in the main Narrator’s own feelings of deep guilt). Yet, that same disastrous moment seemed to be inevitable, because of the flaws of a minor tragic-hero, Terry Kastle.
Have you experienced some similar “disasters” in your own life, and in what ways did you tap into those—or did you draw from the unfortunate escapades of others you’ve known—to produce this novel?
Robin: My plots are not usually based on life experience, but the people they happen to are. I’m always startled when I finish writing a novel to discover that the main character is usually me.
Kira Marie: Why startled?
Robin: Because of all the different careers, circumstances, and backgrounds. They feel so different from me while I’m writing, and then when I’m done, I see I’ve created one more character who represents some aspect of my personality. In my novel, Of Zen and Men, the main character has always been allowed to do what she wanted – she had a rich husband. But after he dies, she has no way to support herself, and has to move back in with her parents. That was me all over. A few times (not the rich husband part, but the moving back in with my parents part!).
In In His Genes, another of my books, the main character is in love with science and works a lot of long, long hours and doesn’t have much of a personal life; again, at the time I was writing it, that described me. In Blue or Blue Skies I think I was examining my tendency to mother people…
Kira Marie: Explain that tendency….
Robin: Well, it’s weird, because I never had kids, and I never wanted kids… but I do love taking care of grownups. Maybe it started after my parents both got cancer, and through all the years and the many, many recurrences I found that it was a role I played well. So I have this real mothering side to me, and I don’t think I actually knew that until I wrote Blue or Blue Skies. As a matter of fact, I felt like I was going out of my way to finally write a character who wasn’t me because she was so beautiful and so successful and so rich.
Most of the men in my books are based on men I’ve known, or wish I’d known!
When I first looked at the cover art, I imagined a sort of tragicomedy, with a romantic Ménage à trois occurring between at least three of the five bohemian artists portrayed there. The story takes place in Boston, and circles around the central narrator (a famous children’s author and illustrator who looks like Linda Rondstadt with her long, dark hair, bangs, and hoop earrings), Daryl Peters, (the starving but brilliant and sexy artist living in a run-down apartment), Meredith, (the scholarly, beautiful red-head who dreams of writing a book about the history of psychology), Terry Kastle (the sexy 70’s pop music star every girl is in love with), and Jeff (the down-to-earth, handsome brother of Terry).
The opening paragraph of Chapter One did not disappoint—clearly, we’re headed somewhere with these five, as the narrator begins her story:
Before our group formed, before we fell in love with the wrong people, and before success ruined everything, it was just me admiring this painting of a sand castle slowly being consumed by the tide. I didn’t have to check the signature to know it was by Daryl Peters. In 1976 hardly anyone knew who he was, but I’d been following his career since his first exhibition three years ago….” (11)
Of course, Daryl (with his sexy hair and beard, and black turtleneck) happens to be at the art gallery, and comes up behind her while she is admiring the painting. I simply had to continue reading until I learned whether who was who in the group, and who fell in love with whom (and whether it would be “she” and Daryl hooking up).
You chose to write the story from the perspective of this central narrator, the “she” who has no name, and who tells us the story. It is a very effective technique. Did you consider other points of view, or did you immediately select this one? And why did you choose to keep her nameless?
Robin: It’s funny that you think she looks like Linda Ronstadt… I hired a wonderful artist, Patricia Witherington, to do the cover, and she wasn’t around during the 70s, so I sent her a picture of Linda Ronstadt to show her how women wore their hair and earrings in those days. I love that you spotted that.
This book took over two decades to write, so you can imagine the number of revisions, and even though it was always told in first person via the Narrator, I had a lot of scenes that the Narrator wasn’t in. Not only is that literary cheating, but I noticed that any scene without the Narrator dragged and lacked her energy. Originally she was not supposed to be a major character, she was just there to report the events of the more remarkable people around her. But she took on a life of her own, and I really grew to love her so much. I never gave her a name because I didn’t want any distance between her and the author; I wanted people to get partway through the book and then say, Wait a second…. and flip back to the copyright page to see if it was non-fiction. I really wanted it to read like a memoir. That was my way of letting readers know what became of the Narrator – that she went on to write this book.
Kira Marie: I find that deliciously brilliant! It gives me a sense of relief, knowing that this wonderful, endearing woman has gone on to write her own memoir. At the beginning, you mentioned “literary cheating,” in reference to writing “a lot of scenes that the Narrator wasn’t in.” That is because you were writing in first person, right? To “break away” from her discourse to show us other characters having lives and scenes of their own would be…literary cheating, in your words.
Do you think that switching points of view might work in certain stories? I’m trying to think of an example….
Robin: First person POV is effective in so many ways, but since the main character is the narrator, technically there’s no way for her to know what’s going on in the minds of the other characters. I think it tempts writers into getting lazy and telling readers absolutely everything, rather than allowing the actions and dialogue of characters to show who they are and what they’re feeling.
Remember The Body by Stephen King? First person narrative. Through the kid’s eyes we see his friends… the badass with the abusive father, the overweight kid that always gets made fun of, the kid who has serious anger issues and we’re not really sure why… imagine if we got into the heads of all of those characters, in addition to seeing them through the eyes of the narrator? There’d be no mystery, no interpreting on our own. To me it would demonstrate a lack of skill on the part of the writer, because so much of the craft is giving readers the opportunity to become engaged in the characters and wonder what they’ll do next.
On the power of sexual tension—your story bristles with it. Yet, as readers, we often see more, imagine more, the less one writes graphically (a lesson young writers often need to learn). You manage these moments of romantic breathlessness wonderfully. The central narrator says, “Was he flirting? He looked so sexy—brilliant artist with drowsy half-drunk smile. ‘I can’t stand the thought of you sleeping on the floor. Is the couch big enough for two?’”(25).
Another example of mastering the art of writing about sexual tension is this really sensual moment I call “The Cocoa, the Burn, and the Touch Scene.”
Basically, your main character makes cocoa for the famous singer, Terry Kastle, in his kitchen. She says, “…I inhaled him—is shampoo, his skin, his breath, his plaid flannel shirt” (164). Then, as he reaches into the cupboard above the stove where she is standing, stirring the mixture, she practically swoons because they are within “kissing distance” (164). In a romantic tizzy (overwhelmed by his presence, presumably), she accidentally burns herself on the pan, and he, like a knight in shining armor, “…lifted the lid of the butter dish, and with a finger, scooped off a blob and gently rubbed onto the spot” (164). The thrill of these kinds of romantic interludes—without graphic sex—kept me flipping the pages! Why did you build our expectations, keeping us wondering what would happen next?
Robin: Oh I loved the cocoa scene! I’m so glad you thought it was effective!
I have graphic sex scenes in other novels, but this one didn’t call for them, in my opinion. These characters are so busy hiding who they are and what they want… to me, the book is very emotion driven. Vulnerable and scared, don’t you think? My heart breaks for all of them at least once!
And interspersed through it all, humorous statements about men:
While the “male-bashing” is limited (and warranted), this story is clearly told from the perspective of a young and talented woman who is struggling with life, friendship, sexual attractions, and faith.
Robin: Exactly. I am not a male basher; I like creating female characters who eventually recognize the roles they’re playing in the love game. In other words, is her self-esteem healthy enough to just say I’m done, I deserve better! or is she needy and desperate, and therefore willing to put up with whatever the male character is putting out? If I have any “bad guy” characters, it’s only to show the reaction of the person on the receiving end. My novel On Air features a male lead character, and the way he relates to women is so funny. He’s so neurotic but loveable. I’ve had many people tell me I nailed the guy thing. Having a man in my writing group helped, for sure.
Kira Marie: Mmm…. writing groups. I’ve heard positives and negatives about them. What is your opinion, based on your own experience?
Robin: I am always surprised when I meet a writer who is completely anti-group. I’ve seen my writing with feedback and my writing without feedback, and I can’t even begin to tell you what a huge difference there is. Great example… in my book On Air, the main character, a guy in his fifties, falls head over heels for a much-younger girl, and I had him notice her hair, her skin, her great legs, and that she had no varicose veins. Right away one of my writing partners, a male, said “No guy would ever notice if some girl didn’t have varicose veins, that’s something only a middle-aged woman would notice.” And he was SO right about that. Ugh, it still embarrasses me that I wrote that!
Let’s talk about “Art and Money.” There’s considerable discussion (and always has been) about whether or not “true artists” should make money, especially obscenely large amounts of money, for their art. In Blue or Blue Skies, the central narrator has become a wildly successful children’s author and illustrator, with credits like,
She says, “I had so much money and owned my expensive house outright and never had to write again and could still retire rich. But rich isn’t the same as great” (21).
Sounds like a subtle argument that literary genius often doesn’t (and maybe, to stay pure) shouldn’t get rewarded…and to be a great, but poor, artist is better than being rich but mediocre.
Robin: Exactly. The Narrator was a twist on the typical “starving artist” archetype. She’s a complete sell out; but is she fulfilled? I sometimes ask myself: Would I rather be rich and famous after publishing a couple of hot best sellers that aren’t at all good but for some reason are popular, or would I rather put out a few books that don’t sell many copies, necessitating a constant scramble to make money doing something else, but feel proud of them? I bet most indie writers ask themselves that.
Kira Marie: Honestly, (and maybe this will lead to disastrous consequences…), some of the indie authors out there probably haven’t asked themselves that question. I made up a new saying, in fact: “An amateur Writer has just enough control over the language to be mistaken by the un-discerning Reader for an expert Writer.” I think that the fact you even asked that question puts you in a completely different, and professional, ball park!
Robin: Love the saying! But with regards to this, as a publisher, I can tell you this is completely true – it’s easier now to get published than it ever was, no question. So yeah, you’ve got a lot of authors hurrying through the manuscript, hooking up with an on-line (Print On Demand) POD place, and getting the book “out there.” But in this scenario there can only be one of two outcomes: the author discovers that the book stinks because he didn’t spend enough time on it, or the book stinks but the author doesn’t realize it. Writing a top quality book is hard. It takes years. Just because you can publish doesn’t mean you should.
I applaud your last statement! However, for those indie authors, or wanna-be authors, reading this interview, what advice would you give to them—especially those with some real talent– in order to avoid writing a stinky book? And how can an author get past his or her own filters and ego to discover that, perhaps, “I love to write, but it’s not my best talent”?
Robin: Years ago I was on a radio show and the host asked me if it’s possible to teach someone to be a great writer, and I hesitated (for what felt like hours to me) because I wanted to be gracious and say Yes, of course! But I knew that wasn’t true… so I wound up saying it was possible to teach someone to be a better writer, and I think there’s a lot of power in that statement. Writing isn’t a free-for-all. There are rules. There are opportunities to use style and finesse, and there is a strong need to slow down, look at what you’ve done, get feedback, read it out loud – all stuff that takes time and energy and discipline.
Deep down, your main character wishes she could write an adult novel.
As her aspirations to write for adults begin to revive a bit, she reviews her previous children’s books and is shocked to see how bad they are:
“…The Super Duper Biscuit Snooper was only sixteen pages, and the word ‘adorable appeared five times. In A Hen Named Gwen I wrote ‘Lilly the Lamb lowered her long lashes’ twice in one scene! Why hadn’t anyone ever told me? Did the writing matter so little, was it really just about the cute baby animals? Well no more….” (115).
This has to be every Writer’s nightmare—to review what we’ve already published and discover it has flaws. Errors. And we are embarrassed. Maybe that’s why so many Writers prefer to remain in the shadows, solacing themselves that “I could have been a great Writer, or famous, or sold lots of books, rather than, “I sold lots of books, and I’m not that great as a Writer.”
Can the truth be somewhere in the middle? What is your advice to aspiring Writers?
Robin: As someone who self-published back in the 80s – way before there was an internet! – I can tell you that all I wanted was to get the book out there, have it somehow discovered by someone at Random House, and get a call saying they wanted to buy it, and they’d fix all the problems. I think a lot of beginning writers feel that way. This goes back to your earlier question, about how easy it is to publish now. Back then it involved printing out your entire manuscript, driving to a place that manufactured books, and telling them how big you wanted it, what kind of a cover you wanted on it, etc. It seems so Dark Ages now, but back then it was a mechanical process that took a long, long time. Now you upload the document into the program and voila, it’s a book!
But now, as then, the MOST IMPORTANT THING is to slow down, don’t rush your book, don’t cut corners, don’t consider it ready to go if deep down you know it’s not. Most writers can tell you exactly what scenes in their book they don’t like or aren’t comfortable with. Sometimes a client will submit a query to me, but they don’t submit the opening pages, they send in their favorite scene. That tells me that they know the beginning isn’t perfect. I tell my clients that every single scene has to be their favorite scene. One thing I like to do is read my entire book out loud while pretending I’m sitting in a room with someone whose writing I admire. Does any of the writing embarrass me, do I feel the need to make excuses for it, or say, I’m going to fix that part later? If so, then the book isn’t ready.
Ten years ago I wrote a guide for writers – The Revision Process – which teaches writers how to recognize red flags that indicate weaknesses. It’s been used at the college level, and I still get Emails from people who say it’s the most helpful book about revising they’ve ever read.
Because I am a Copy Editor as well as a Writer, I tried reading Blue or Blue Skies like a Copy Editor—and finally quit trying. Your book read smooth as butter. Effortless reading means masterful writing…which, turn, means a lot of relentless, grinding, hard work on the part of the Author…describe your process…did you hold to a timetable, create a schedule, write at a certain time or in a certain place…daily, etc.?
Robin: Oh thank you! And thanks for appreciating the hard work that goes into it. There’s an old saying, Writing is rewriting, and I think that’s so important to keep in mind. The first draft, for me, is never hard at all, it’s fun. It’s the endless revisions… it’s the sitting down and reading every single word out loud, it’s the realization that something you really like simply isn’t performing a function and you have to decide if you should keep it or ditch it. There was another character in this book years ago – she was Daryl’s sister. I loved her; she was like a friend I’d love to have. But one of my writing partners pointed out that she didn’t serve a purpose, and suggested I see how the book felt after taking her out. That was a very difficult thing to do, but I did it, and my partner was right; what I loved about that character went into the Narrator or Meredith, and gave them more depth. So my process involves being open to feedback. Again, it’s why I love being in a writing group.
In terms of a writing schedule… when I’m working on a novel it becomes a priority and I somehow make the time to do it; making notes on napkins if I’m in the car, or texting myself an idea or a line of dialogue that I want to use.
Robin: I started Big Table Publishing Company 11 years ago. Like lots of other writers, I found the publishing world just impossible to break into. I even had an agent at a very well-known agency, and she was unable to sell my novel, Of Zen and Men. I sold another novel, On Air, to an indie publisher, and while I liked the job they did, I realized I could do everything they did in about half the time. So I made the decision to just start publishing myself, in addition to my clients.
Kira Marie: We’ve come to the end of Part One, “Sweet Tea on the Front Porch” with Robin Stratton. Join us next month for Part Two, when we discuss more topics, like:
The genre of Chick Lit…Cool or uncool?
Cosmic irony—How is the Narrator in Blue or Blue Skies like King Lear?
Codependency…How Meredith’s love interest, Daryl, becomes her drug of choice, while the Narrator takes on the role of Meredith’s “mother”…(teaching us all how to avoid the pitfalls of codependency).
The icons of the 1970’s…and how that decade inspired Blue or Blue Skies.
Art and Madness…Can a Writer be great AND sane at the same time?
The Muse…Where do we find it when we need it most?