Penelope Schwartz Robinson's first book (already favorably reviewed), is the essay collection Slippery Men, winner of the Stonecoast Book Prize, and published this month by New Rivers Press. Penelope teaches creative writing at University of Maine Farmington, and is a 2004 graduate of USM's Stonecoast MFA program. Our time at Stonecoast did not overlap, but we have a number of writer friends in common, and I got to know Penelope when she visited Stonecoast during residencies and by sharing meals, ideas and walks together at writers conferences from Iowa to New York over the last year. I was thrilled to hear that she recently was awarded a $13,000 Maine Individual Artist Fellowship, and I can't wait for her book to launch this month. She took some time out this past weekend to answer my questions.
LR: Penelope, you've done something thought virtually impossible for literary nonfiction writers -- getting an essay collection published without being an already established author. You must be feeling pretty great about that.
Penelope Schwartz Robinson: It’s amazing! An essay collection is very hard to place. Usually a writer publishes something else—a memoir for instance—and then is asked “do you have anything else?” And that’s when it’s possible to put up a collection. I am enormously grateful this has worked the other way around for me because I think the collection showcases different strengths of mine that might not have been so apparent in a more “cohesive” piece of work.
LR: Can you talk a bit about how the book came together? Did some of the essays come out of your work in the MFA program?
PSR: Five of the seven essays in the book originated in Stonecoast workshops; however, each has been significantly revised post-Stonecoast. The other two are excerpted from two book-length projects I worked on after Stonecoast. The overall vision was cast with the MFA thesis because it also was titled Slippery Men and my selective process of the many pieces of work I had to choose from was shaped by the title.
LR: Can you describe what life has been like in the months, weeks and days leading up to the publication date? Enjoyable, frantic or both?
PSR: I wasn’t sure what to expect. In the beginning, it was very quiet. New Rivers Press is a teaching press which means I worked with a team of college students from Minnesota State University at Moorhead in the initial phases. This is a situation which requires a good deal of author patience. The team was very enthusiastic. In the end, everything came together. NRP is fortunate to have Donna Carlson as its Managing Editor. She had the enormous responsibility of wrangling the student team and working with the author— both of which she handled beautifully. She was thorough and flexible and I credit her with everything good about the finished product. As for the timetable, things heated up a little as we approached the publication date, but not too appreciably.
LR: You have a reading coming up in Boston (Oct. 14) as well as in New York City (Oct. 29). In what ways, if any, do you prepare differently for a Manhattan audience?
PSR: I have read previously a couple of times in New York City. I don’t prepare terribly differently, but since I am something of a “nature” writer, I do tend to tone that down for a city audience and go with material which is a little less “outdoorsy.”
LR: Many essayists (me included) and memoirists struggle with putting their relatives and friends on the page. How did you deal with that? Talk to them about it? Get an OK? Change names and details? Let them read it first in draft form? Just plunge ahead hope for the best?
PSR: Writing about friends and relatives (and people who just happen to cross one’s path) is definitely a challenge. In a general response to your question: none of the above. I don’t ask anyone’s permission and I don’t let anyone read drafts. (So far.) I have a couple of ground rules: when I’m writing about people who didn’t ask to be included in my (writing) life—as for instance “Elliot” in “Mucking About”— I change their names. The same is true for friends. I do not write about my daughters—unless the work is undisputedly positive. I don’t write about my husband. Parents, because they are so formative, I believe have to be placed carefully on the page. My father, as an example, has recently died and so did not see the piece I wrote about him. My stepmother, however, is another matter and I am concerned that she will be offended by this work. I have tried to prepare her and, as you say, shall hope for the best. My mother is still living and I have written a great deal about her which I will not publish during her lifetime.
LR: As you know, I finished an MFA a few months ago and I'm in my late 40s; so it's wonderful and hopeful for me to see a graduate of the same program who is older than me, getting her first book published a few years post-MFA. What advice, if any, do you have for fellow writers getting started at a certain age?
PSR: The line I begin almost every interview with is, “I’m a late bloomer.” It has been enormously gratifying to me to achieve recognition during my mid-to-late sixties. I spent a good deal of my life putting off my own creativity in the service of others. Now, I don’t regret that because I learned so much that allowed me to move ahead with a voice of my own. A voice, I believe, that would not have found utterance even ten years ago.
My involvement with the Saturday Morning Club is an important part of not only my development, but also my ability to believe in it happening later in life. I’ve been a member of this extraordinary group of women since 1988. Founded by Julia Ward Howe in 1871, the Saturday Morning Club provides a forum for women to present personal philosophical and literary expression. We meet every Saturday at the Harvard Club in Boston from October to April; each member reads aloud a 25-30 page “paper” annually. When I was invited to join, I was forty-eight years old and the baby of the group. It was enormously important for me to see women in their sixties, seventies, eighties, even nineties, who were alive and vibrant. I credit the Saturday Morning Club with giving me a vision of what was still possible for me.
LR: Your essay about your father's aging especially speaks to me, as this is a theme I've been exploring as well. It really all starts with our Dads, doesn't it – our relationship with all the men in our lives, slippery or not?
PSR: In my case, although I have written about my father, that’s easier for me to do than to write about my mother, where the real conflict lies. But men. Yes. At least for me, most of the major decisions, choices, postures in my adult life were made in response to men.
LR: Since you teach at the college level, I imagine you need some pretty definite structure to your own writing time. Can you dish on where, when, how often, etc.?
PSR: This semester I’m not teaching so I have a really wonderful schedule, structured exactly as I like it: up at 4:30-5, write, meditate, move around words until 6. Breakfast, walk the dog, read the paper. Back at the desk from 9-12. Sometimes I’ll do a little more work in the afternoon, but essentially, I’m a morning person. Cooking is a vital part of my life and so every afternoon I go to the market and from 4 on, am involved in making dinner. I don’t strive for a particular number of pages, but I do need to run a few words through my fingers and my head every day. I thrive on structure and this semester I have it. There is no question but that teaching, especially college teaching, disrupts the creative cycle. I, at least, find it hard to switch gears. Also, since I teach creative writing, I have to shake my students’ words out of my head before approaching my own. And there’s no real boundary for the contemporary teacher: on any given day, I’ll get twenty to fifty e-mails from students, some in the middle of the night, and all requiring considerable response.
LR: What's on your reading table right now, and on the to-be-read list? And is it as frustrating to you as it is to me, that one never gets enough time to read everything one wants?
PSR: I consider my reading just as important as my writing— perhaps more so. I find I read entirely differently now from the way I used to: I really read like a writer, which means my reading is much more concentrated and if more intense infinitely more rewarding. I’ve been on a Richard Preston kick. He wrote The Wild Trees, about climbing the redwoods, an absolutely fantastic book. I read that a couple of years ago and this summer I caught up with his The Hot Zone and The Demon in the Freezer, books he calls part of his “black biology” series. I also love Simon Winchester and I’m just about to finish his latest, The Man Who Loved China. Those are all literary nonfiction. I have also been reading, from time to time, various “illness” memoirs as research for a project I’m working on.
In fiction, I’ve been indulging myself with Wallace Stegner (about whom I’m writing my Saturday Morning Club paper for December), one of my literary heartthrobs. I re-read Angle of Repose, a novel I greatly admire. Read Redemption, The Big Rock Candy Mountain and Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs, which is a collection of essays about the West. This is what I’ve been reading since July. I don’t exactly have a to-read list. I tend to pick things up as I go along. But I certainly agree, there is never enough time to read all the books one wants to. Recently I decided I need to re-read Norman Mailer, but I haven’t taken that on yet.
LR: What's next writing-wise?
PSR: I am working on a book-length project about assisting a friend through the initial terminal diagnosis to her death from uterine cancer. I have just received funding for this project from the Maine Arts Commission (a “Good Idea Grant”). It’s a little hard going because it’s intense, but I am moving on it. I have also been given her diaries by the family and I am going through this material to incorporate it into my text.