robin_antalekRobin Antalek is the author of The Summer We Fell Apart (HarperCollins 2010), chosen as a Target Breakout Book and soon to be published in Turkey by Artemis Yayinlari. A frequent contributor to The Nervous Breakdown, her short fiction has appeared in 52 Stories, Five Chapters, Sun Dog, The Southeast Review and Literary Mama among others. You can visit her site @ or if brave enough, publicly admit to liking her on Facebook.

Q (Meg Pokrass): Have you had mentors? Do you mentor? Talk about the mentor relationship if you will, its importance for a writer…

I can’t say that I can name any one person in particular. Where would I begin? The teacher who realized I could read at four? The librarian that led me outside the kids’ room for the very first time and into the main library? Sister Jean in sixth grade for getting sick and agreeing to allow me to write and direct a very non PC Christmas pageant much to the chagrin of the diocese? For getting kicked out of Catholic school when they discovered my mother marched in Washington for Roe Vs. Wade from my article for the newspaper? The very first boy who shredded my heart by choosing my best friend after he had already chosen me and left the words “I’m Sorry” scrawled across a torn piece of newspaper taped to my locker? For the writer who picked my story out of a pile of submissions and accepted me into his workshop when I was a very fragile and tired young mother of a one year old baby. All of these people and so many more, for better or worse, had a hand in “mentoring”… I guess whether they knew it or not.

As far as my own mentoring, I have tried, since the most fortunate windfall of publication of The Summer We Fell Apart, to use my minimal influence for good use. There are enough negative forces at work for the writer, most of them self-inflicted – that the very least I can do is be a voice of encouragement. It’s been a very humbling and exhilarating part of the post publication madness.

What do you do when you feel stuck or uninspired… suggestions for unblocking creativity?

I find looking at the work of certain artists to be very freeing. I often return to the photographic worlds of Tina Barney, Diane Arbus and Sally Mann. Also the paintings of Lucien Freud, John Currin and Alice Neel. There are stories hidden in those works. Beautiful amazing glimpses into a life I otherwise would not be a part of…. and often, I relax and let go of the problems in my fictional world. I am a very visual person – it is the way I write – almost as if the story and the characters are on a movie loop in my brain and I am just the conduit.

Best advice you ever got? Words of wisdom… What helped you as a young writer?

Let go, stop editing yourself. If you feel like a door is closing, open it and let your characters and your readers go there with you. If it feels scary, keep at it. That’s where the real writing begins.

Talk about writing a novel vs. the short story form.

I fell in love with the short stories of Ann Beattie and Ellen Gilchrist. I wanted to be a writer because of them. A short story writer specifically. However, writing a successful short story means you need to know when to get in and when to get out. Brevity is the friend of the short story writer. In school, if the perimeter of the assignment for a short story was 7 – 25 pages, you better be damn sure that I was at the very end of that 25 pages – perhaps even with the margins adjusted. Consequently my professors told me I was a novelist masquerading as a short story writer. That knowledge scared and thrilled me. I never imagined I could fill up 300 plus pages. I know now that I can. Still, it’s not as if you can throw everything in and it all works. Through a lot of trial and error I learned pacing and plotting is everything – no matter the length. I still struggle with wanting to give the reader all the information I know in the first draft. Learning to love editing, cutting out swaths of narrative is now one of my most favorite parts of writing. I am brutal, and so NOT in love with my own words.

Regarding story plot: How firm do your original plans for a plot remain… Do they develop during the writing? Describe?

Ah, well, that would be assuming that I am an outliner and know where my characters are going. I don’t. I start with an image, a feeling, an idea, a bit of dialogue and a very, very vague notion of what I want to happen. It is a bit like falling in love. You just sort of know that something big and important (to no one but you) is about to happen and you can feel it everywhere – that bit that quivers on the page makes me keep writing. That is the magic of writing. I worry about the rest later.

The Summer We Fell Apart…. Can you talk about how this novel came to you? How it evolved…

I very clearly saw the special relationship between two siblings, brother and sister and I wanted to tell that story. They protected each other and sheltered each other in a large family fraught with uncertainty. They raised each other when their older siblings and parents proved incapable. I heard their voices. And yet, when I was done, I found that each of the siblings wanted a say, and in the end, their mother deserved a voice as well. I played with the structure for a long time until it all made sense and in the end those original two siblings: George and Amy, shared the pages with Kate and Finn and their mother. It was two very long years in the writing, but when I was done, it was so very, very, hard to leave their world. Still, I am amazed at how that fictional family has touched people and compelled them to share their personal family stories with me. I am amazed, simply amazed, that fiction has that power.

What kind of community (writing groups, etc) has been most helpful and nurturing to you personally?

Even though I had been writing for years and achieved some success with a few published short stories and contest wins, that kind of thing, I am was still a newbie writer with ZERO connections in the publishing world when TSWFA was accepted by HarperCollins for publication. I was instantly humbled (there is that word again, humbled, but it is so true), by the community that stepped forward to embrace my fictional world and me. Writers I admire, writers who I never imagined, reached out and offered blurbs, advice, introductions. The community over at The Nervous Breakdown has been like my own personal cheering section offering boundless support and making me feel less alone as I navigated the post publication world. Consequently any writer who approaches me now (and can I say just how much of a thrill that is) I try to help by writing blurbs and advice and always a guest post on my blog. Helping each other certainly ensures success for all of us, doesn’t it? Why all the negativity? We writers alone can keep the word alive on the page. In the end, that’s what matters.

Tips for creating memorable, richly drawn, sympathetic characters?

I think characters evolve organically with the story – even if it is the barest smoke screen of an idea. The essence of the character is in there somewhere and the author sometimes has to trust that the character will show itself and not rush to burden the writing with too much information. It’s hard to do – that trust with the page – and your muse – but I think in the end the character is much more authentic.

Are there favorite writing practices/exercises that you can share?

I don’t have any tricks. I have trained myself to sit at my desk first thing in the morning and hammer it out. I try to limit the Internet or distractions until afternoon. But I am human and therefore prone to breaking my own rules about the Internet. Often. But I always, always, always sit down at my desk and open a document first thing. I read over the pages from the day before and work my way slowly back into the story. By noon I usually need to walk the dogs and that way I get to talk my plot points out loud as we wander. I have been known to cry when I have a breakthrough and yes, undoubtedly, my neighbors think I’m odd. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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. Her first full collection of flash fiction, “Damn Sure Right” is now out from Press 53. She blogs at

  1. Katie Norton

    Robin, thank you for your thoughts and advice. I love the fact that you don’t work from outlines. I’ve never been able to outline and have always felt like I should buckle down and “learn it,” but it doesn’t feel right to me.

    Meg, thanks for doing these interviews. Very helpful to those of us out here working alone.

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