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zzzzzblacktree2James 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.
Anyway.

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.

Or.

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.


  1. Kathy Fish

    Yes, to this James:

    “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.”

    Great, great. Thank you.

  2. Julie Innis

    This one ends with a bang. Wow. Breathless. Excellent interview, much to chew on. Thank you James, and Meg.

  3. Laura Ellen Scott

    wow, this i-view is crackerjack! thanks.

  4. Ramon Collins

    Unpretentious interview by the interviewer and interviewed. I, too, used to draw for a living but after several rereads of Robison’s comments I’ve decided to try selling vitamins.

  5. W.F. Lantry

    I loved this part:

    “A story must have three ingredients, like, oral surgery, Puccini’s Turandot, and divorce.

    Or.

    Hurricane science, a niece, and physics.”

    We should all write a story on that second one!

  6. Elizabeth Hegwood

    ********

    I give you guys The Eight Stars of Interesting things. The maximum.

  7. James Lloyd Davis

    “…an odd but imperative impulse …” A fine way to put it. Wonderful interview.

  8. Kim Hutchinson

    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.

    So glad nothing’s been ruled out! Great interview.

  9. Jason Henry McCormick

    Super cool!

  10. Marcus Speh

    what a wonderful interview to wake up to in the morning.

    incidentally, this is early praise for my new novel, tentatively titled “oral surgery, Puccini’s Turandot, and divorce.”

    seriously though: james robison’s active community presence means a hell of a lot already and his closing “imperative impulse” to make an “alternative word world” makes his prose and poetry so important and his sincere suggestions so indispensable.

    so many people say so much in so many interviews about their process and why they ought to be listened to and what’s so great about their way of doing it – but i cannot recall an interview that got to me the way this did.

    there’s no fictionaut award yet but if anyone should get it, it’s james robison.

  11. susan tepper

    YES to all the above comments and then some…

  12. Bill Yarrow

    All the good quotes have been taken! LOVED this interview. Period.

  13. Gary Percesepe

    is a fine interview, meg, with one of the good ones–

    i remember when showed up on fictionaut–i mean, i have a clear memoryof this. the place started jumping. it was the way he READ our stuff, the way e listended to our voices, the way we began to figure, those of us who were lucky enought to have captured his attention, that–jeez–if HE is reading our stuff, maybe….we can stay with this damn thing a while longer. because we fail, sure, but the hard part is that we fail so silently, into the void we go. and then someone like jim robison shows up and he reads our work and he gets it, and then–the best part? which hasn’t been commented on so much here–is not only is he an artist himself, a helluva writer, but he also has a fine editor’s eye. in a few perceptive comments he has the ability to make our work better than it is. he does great line edits, when he is of a mind to, but he also has an instinctive feel for for, for the structure of a piece, the materials from which a story is made.

    he’s also been a good friend, and i know i am not alone in saying this.

    from all of this, one might conclude he is perfect.

    ha! what i love best about him is his foolish, errant heart, the way he embraces his fallible, fallen sorryassed hangdog brokenass self and carries it across every level of dante’s hell. here in hell, he’s the most reliable guide i’ve seen thus far. you’d be a fool to listen to him, but a bigger fool not to.

  14. Jane Hammons

    Love the triptych story ingredients.

  15. George LaCas

    Great interview, James! I’m always curious to hear about the processes, on a practical level, used by other writers. Your comments about no music while writing are particularly interesting.

  16. Lou Freshwater

    Late getting here, but thankful I did.

  17. Gloria Mindock

    What a great interview. I am at work not wanting to be here.
    Starting reading this and it really made my day. I loved the questions Meg and James, what great answers. I agree with what the others have said.
    You are one amazing writer. It is more than an honor to read your work. I am becoming more familar with it and I love it!
    I got a kick out of the story requirements and why you don’t listen to music when writing. Clever answers there that made me chuckle.

    Ok, you’re probably blushing so I’ll shut up!!!!
    So, all I can say, great interview and thanks for the read!!!

  18. Michelle Elvy

    What a marvelous thing to find here tonight — the interview and the man. Thanks to Meg and James for sharing. Rich, insightful, and so honest. Really loved this. And the comments add even more to the reading experience.

  1. 1 interview with james robison in fictionaut « Bill Lychack

    [...] Fictionaut Five: James Robison [...]



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