Robin Black is an award winning writer and a graduate of the MFA program at Warren Wilson College. Her fiction and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including Alaska Quartely Review, The Georgia Review, One Story and others. She has received fellowships from the Leeway Foundation and the MacDowell Colony. She lives with her family in Philadelphia.

Short Story Collections

If I Loved You I Would Tell You This
(Random House, 2010)

reviewed by Michelle Reale

Interview with Robin Black

The Short Review: How long did it take you to write all the stories in your collection?

Robin Black: It took me eight years – to the week, strangely enough. That’s just a little better than one a year which sounds amazingly sluggish. I wrote a lot of other stories and essays and drafted a novel during those years, but I don’t think that slowed me down. I think it just took that time for these stories to emerge. And it’s very cool for me now to see one written in 2001 in the same collection with one written in 2009. I changed a lot in that time, as a writer and as a person, but in some way they do all connect.

TSR: Did you have a collection in mind when you were writing them?

RB: I definitely didn’t. I wrote each story separately as it presented itself to me, or as I stumbled onto it. The selection process was separate. Except, I should say, for the last one I wrote, A Country Where You Once Lived, which was a kind of late addition. I had learned that the book would open with what was then the only story with a male point of view; and that seemed odd to me, to have one and then no others. So, I did write that story with that absence in mind.

TSR: How did you choose which stories to include and in what order?

RB: In a way the stories selected themselves. They were the nine - at that point before the last I just mentioned– that I thought were my best work. One thing I remember very clearly was that I had long thought the stories wouldn’t collect well in part because they were so different stylistically. Then, when I met my editor Kate Medina, that was one of the first things she said to me – that she loved how varied they were. It was a lesson for me in not thinking I’m any kind of expert on what will appeal to other people.
   The order was very much the result of a collaboration with Kate and others at Random House. Because the stories are unlinked, there were an infinite number of possible ways to go. For me, because the book has this theme of loss running through it, and in many cases that’s specifically through the death of a loved one, my concern was making sure there was as much variety in that exploration as possible from story to story.

TSR: What does the word "story" mean to you?

RB:  The short answer is: a lot of different things. There are always, especially when teaching, those attempts to come up with technical definitions (does something have to happen? does something have to change?) but for me what makes a story a story, as opposed to say an anecdote, is that it has a kind of infinite capacity to deepen in meaning, long after you’ve finished reading it – or writing it. In some ways, it’s easiest to see with memoir because when you’re writing about yourself it’s more obviously rude just to jabber on if the stories you’re telling aren’t also going to have meaning to the reader, implications for him or her. Then you’re just talking about yourself. Maybe what I’m trying to say is that to me, the best stories, true, made-up and in between, end up belonging to the readers as much as they ever did the author. They stay alive and in motion long after they’re committed to the page.

TSR: Do you have a reader in mind when you write stories?

RB:  Not anyone in particular. I was on a week-long retreat earlier this year with 6 other women and each of us cooked one of the nightly dinners. These meals became rather beautiful, a way of giving to one another and also of displaying creativity – and also of conveying something necessary. And of course, each was very different, and some worked better for individual people than others. Toward the end of the week, I realized that it was very much how I think of writing while I’m doing it. It feels necessary, it feels like something I do want other people to appreciate, but the best way I have to do that is to try to give them something I myself like. Not that I like all my work – I can be very down on it at times – but my battle is always to write something I think is good enough for me to present it with pride. It’s very much like cooking for people you really care about but whose tastes you can’t guess.

TSR: Is there anything you'd like to ask someone who has read your collection, anything at all?

RB: I’d like to talk to people years down the line, and ask what stayed with them, ask if there were ever particular moments in their lives when some line or image flashed into their minds. I think that’s in part because it is a book about people at difficult points in their lives, about what drives them to keep pushing forward, and part of my fantasy as a writer is that something in there will be of some help to people at similar points.

TSR: How does it feel knowing that people are buying your book?

RB: Horrifying. (First word that came to mind.) But seriously, horrifying. And it isn’t just because I’m nervous about reviews or the world’s judgment. It’s also because I’m actually a very private person – at times in my life, to a neurotic degree – and stories are remarkably personal. Like showing people your dreams.

TSR: What are you working on now?

RB: I’m working on a novel which was the other half of my two-book deal and I’m also, always, working on short fiction and essays. I’m one of those people who is more efficient when she has a lot of projects going on.

TSR: What are the three most recent short story collections you've read?

RB:  Two are rereads: A.S.Byatt’s Little Black Book of Stories and Mrs. Somebody Somebody, by my brilliant friend Tracy Winn. I like rereading excellent collections over and over. The great ones – and those are – keep revealing new depth. The new one that I read recently was The Bigness of the World, by Lori Ostlund – the Flannery O’Connor Award winner from 2008. It’s simply wonderful. I recommend it as highly as the other two - which is saying a lot. Between the three of them I have the feeling of having spent many hours recently in the company of women of extraordinary insight and talent. Lucky me.
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Find out what other authors, from Aimee Bender to Sana Krasikov, said about their collections, what the word "story" means to them, and how it feels to know that people are buying your books! More interviews >>>