Author Interviews
3:35 am
Sat July 12, 2014

A Marriage In Crisis Is The Model For This 'Drawing'

Originally published on Sat July 12, 2014 10:12 am

Life Drawing is a novel that will make you want to hug the person you love and never let go.

It's a thriller and a love story. But it isn't about over-the-moon, happy, young love; it's about love when the marriage is no longer easy, when every move the couple makes is haunted by a betrayal.

Life Drawing is Robin Black's first novel. She tells NPR's Tamara Keith why she chose to explore a marriage in crisis and the challenge of writing about Alzheimer's when she had no experience with the disease.


Interview Highlights

On her main characters

My narrator is a woman who's 47 years old. She's the painter; her name is Augusta, though she's known by most people as Gus; and she's had an affair with the father of one of her painting students and she's confessed it all to her writer husband, Owen. And they, after that, reached a point of such discomfort with the world and with memories of that, that they fled to a farm out in the country, where they've been for a couple of years by the time the book starts.

On why she wanted to write about a marriage in crisis

In my writing, I'm very interested in how people get through life's difficulties — more than I am interested, as a writer, in the good times. ...

This is very much a book about marriage at a point where the illusions of it being simple have gone by. They have taken some hits. She's had an affair and it's, to me, it's really a fascinating subject: Who stays together and how do they manage it? And I very purposely didn't give Gus and Owen any children. I wanted to look at what keeps two people together when they never had that fallback line: "Oh, let's work on this for the kids. Let's stay together for the kids." But it's really just the pure feelings they have about each other and what that commitment is about.

On the reader never learning what Owen is thinking

He's not the narrator, and narrators have agendas. And Gus, my first-person narrator, she doesn't tread too closely to some of the things she's afraid of thinking about: How angry is Owen at her for this affair? What does he really think about it? She's kind of casting it the way she wants to.

On writing about Gus' father's Alzheimer's when she had no experience with the disease

I actually have been very pleased because a couple people who do have [experience with Alzheimer's] said they thought I must have. And I feel very comforted to hear that, in a sense, because I think that when you write about a disease with which you don't have personal experience, there's always a risk of it being very presumptuous. And if you get it wrong, you really have done something that crosses a line. You have to be very, very careful.

I have a child who has special needs, and I am very sensitized to this because when I read books that have fictional characters with conditions like her, or syndromes like hers, and they don't ring true, I feel invaded in a way. So it's been very important to me in my work, when I write about something like Alzheimer's, to really talk to people who have experienced that and try to get it right.

On how the book ends

I think with this story, by the end, it's taken on a little bit the shape of a classic tragedy in that you can't parse through where the responsibility is. But at a certain part, all the pieces have just come together and there's not going to be a happy ending here — it's just a downhill roll. I think of this as what Gus describes in the end as a series of "small collaborative sins;" that everybody's a little bit guilty, and nobody's very guilty.

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Transcript

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

"Life Drawing" is the name of a new novel that will make you want to hug the person you love and never let go. It is a thriller and a love story. But not the kind of over the moon happy young love. This is about love when the marriage is no longer easy, when every move the couple makes is haunted by a betrayal. This the first novel from Robin Black, whose previous book of short stories won critical acclaim. She joins us now from WHYY in Philadelphia. Thanks for being with us.

ROBIN BLACK: Oh, thank you for having me.

KEITH: Your main characters are a writer and a painter and they've moved out to the country to escape it all. Can you tell us about them?

BLACK: Sure. My narrator is a woman who's 47 years old - she's the painter. Her name is Augusta, though she's known by most people as Gus. And she's had an affair with the father of one of her painting students and she's confessed it all to her writer husband Owen. And they, after that, reached a point of such discomfort with the world and with memories of that, that they fled to a farm out in the country, where they've been for a couple of years by the time the book starts.

KEITH: (Laughing) And of course people who flee to the country - nothing ever turns out quite right when you do that.

BLACK: No. There are no Edens out there.

KEITH: We learned two things early on in the book. One - and we aren't giving anything away - one is that Owen is going to die, what we don't know is how. The other thing is the affair that you mentioned. And I'm hoping that you can read a little section about the affair with a man who is named bill.

BLACK: Sure. This is Gus, my narrator, ruminating on her affair. (Reading) Deserved - what exactly had I felt entitled with Bill? There is an answer - joy. Not happiness, which by that time seemed a fantasy one had to agree to give up in order to keep from going mad. By 40, is there anyone who hasn't had to recognize that happiness, as understood by youth, is illusory? That the best one can hope for is an absence of too many tragedies and that the road through inevitable grief be, if not smooth, then steady? Daily life was a pale gray thing, it seemed. And to expect otherwise was to be a fool at best.

KEITH: It is so grim (laughing).

BLACK: I know.

(LAUGHTER)

BLACK: I really don't just talk about how sad life is all the time. But I will say that in my writing, I'm very interested in how people get through life's difficulties more than I am interested in, as a writer, in the good times.

KEITH: I read that you once said that your stories aren't about the tragic event itself but how people have creativity to go forward. Does that explain Owen's character at all - his decision to stay with Gus?

BLACK: Well, it's definitely a look at how two people do that together. This is very much a book about marriage at a point where the illusions of it being simple have gone by. They've taken some hits. She's had an affair. And its, to me, really a fascinating subject - who stays together and how do they manage it? And I very purposefully did not Gus and Owen any children. I wanted to look at what keeps two people together when they never have that fallback line - oh let's work on this for the kids. Let's stay together for the kids. But it's really just the pure feelings they have about each other and what that commitment is about.

KEITH: The book never really gets into what Owen was thinking. Was that on purpose? I mean, obviously he's not the narrator.

BLACK: Well, he's not the narrator and narrators have agendas. And Gus - my first-person narrator - she doesn't tread too closely to some of the things she's afraid of thinking about. How angry is Owen at her for this affair? What does he really think about it? She's kind of casting it the way she wants to.

KEITH: The way you write about Gus' father who has Alzheimer's disease seems so realistic. Do you have any experience with Alzheimer's?

BLACK: I do not and I actually have been very pleased because a couple people who do have said that they thought I must have. And I feel very comforted to hear that in a sense because I think that when you write about a disease with which you don't have personal experience, there's always a risk of it being very presumptuous. And if you get it wrong, you've really done something that crosses a line. You have to be very, very careful. I have a child who has special needs and I am very sensitized to this because when I read books that have fictional characters with conditions like hers, or syndromes like hers and they're just - they don't ring true - I feel invaded in a way. So it's been very important to me and my work when I write about something like Alzheimer's to really talk to people who have experienced that and try to get right.

KEITH: I want to get into another plot point, which is the neighbors that move in next door to the country home. A woman moves in and then her daughter visits. These characters aren't outwardly malicious or dangerous. They're really quite likable. But they provide the drama and the tension in some ways of the story. Did you want readers to like them?

BLACK: You know, I never want my readers to like or dislike characters. What really fascinates me and has driven me to write for as long as I've been doing it is motivation. I'm interested in why people do what they do. Not so much in whether what they did was good or bad. I think with this story - by the end, it's taken on a little bit the shape of a classic tragedy, in that you can't parse through where the responsibility is. But at a certain point, all the pieces have just come together and there's not going to be a happy ending here. It's just a downhill roll. I think of this as what Gus describes in the end as a series of small collaborative sins - that everybody's a little bit guilty - and nobodies very guilty.

KEITH: Robin Black is author of "Life Drawing," a new novel out this week. She joined us from WHYY in Philadelphia. Thank you.

BLACK: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.