A Conversation with Robin Romm, author of The Mother Garden
1. Even though the stories could be considered magically real, your characters are very realistic. Were any of them or the episodes in The Mother Garden inspired by people or events in your own life?
Yes and no. My mother was ill for a long time and she died before the book came out. So the backdrop—death looming over everyone—is certainly real for me. Most of the characters, though, are made-up. Some are a side of me (I related to Uri, for example), some are a side of my father or mother. But no one is an exact replica of a person in my life. The situations are approximations of situations in my life. “No Small Feat” is about competition and death, competition about death. There’s a way that people rally around those touched by tragedy. People want to get in on it. It’s very odd. “Where Nothing Is” was my attempt at capturing love and hope, as I experience it. “The Arrival” asked why sometimes, at the end of a life, a person might invest her energies in people she didn’t love. All of the situations came from real experiences in my own life, even if the characters are invented.
2. Many of your stories deal with death and grief. How does writing dark material affect you – is it difficult, therapeutic? In “No Small Feat,” the narrator explains, “I don’t have a patent on death. I wouldn’t want one. Really, he can have the subject—the whole big feat of it. I’d love to write stories about surfing teenagers, international spies, funny grandmothers, dogs that fly. But death is my map, the thing I’ve been living next to for years” (p. 120). Does this statement in any way reflect your own feelings about your subject matter?
Well, it certainly did while I was writing it. I feel freer now to write about funny grandmothers and dogs that fly, but for a while, these subjects were simply impossible. Sometimes we are tethered to our circumstances, and this felt true to me for many years. In terms of writing dark material, I think it’s a common misconception that it’s difficult, therapeutic, or cathartic. Writing is not therapy for me. It’s a way of putting shape on the big chaotic world we all live in. It’s a very active, imaginative project and it is full of a rushing joy when the words and images come in an interesting way. I have always been intrigued by questions that are difficult to answer. For me, questions are the most humble kind of sentence—they let in all the mystery. And my stories (and characters) are far more interested in what they don’t and can’t know than in what they can. I hope that I can prevent the reader from leaving with easy answers about life and death, because that is the truest thing for me.
3. You were born in Eugene, OR. Some of the stories take place in Oregon and most take place primarily on the west coast. What about the Pacific Northwest is particularly inspiring for you? As a writer, do you think that it’s important to choose a setting with which you’re familiar?
My writing process is very organic. For instance, I imagine a forest and I can see potential story turns in that forest. If I can’t see the forest, well, I couldn’t see the Spanish moss or the wild carrots. It’s access to the small details that make the story whir. If I tried to set a story in Antarctica, a place I have never been, I would have trouble figuring out how to use the pieces of that world to further a story. My characters are a product of their worlds, and since they are also a product of me, I need to know their worlds.
I do find the Pacific Northwest deeply inspiring. I love the green and the rain and the feeling that you can look out from the edge of the country. I also grew up in a city that was pretty counterculture and I think some of the irreverence in the book must have its root there.
4. Where did the idea for the character named “Satan” in “A Romance” come from?
I have a vague memory of reading an early draft of this story to a friend in Berkeley. I was testing it out to see if it might be funny. I remember that I wanted to write something light and I think the question in mind was: what if someone got so desperate, they overlooked the fact that they were dating the devil? We all know someone like this.
5. There are several dogs featured throughout your stories in The Mother Garden. Did you make a conscious decision to include them in so many stories?
I grew up with dogs. My father is a big fan of the Hungarian Vizsla. I now have my own dog, Mercy (a small cattle dog). I suppose that they feel like a natural part of my world. Dogs have always been hanging around for the important moments in my life. And I think they know us in an instinctual and deep way. The day my mother died, Mercy chewed a hole through my bedroom wall. I have a great respect for metaphor, so this moment meant a lot to me.
6. Your characters are often haunted by their lost loved ones – many ghosts appear throughout The Mother Garden. Do you believe that we can communicate with the spirits of our deceased relatives in the way that the narrator can in “Family Epic” or is it closer to the way the Claire responds to her mother in “The Mother Garden”?
I do believe in ghosts. Here is a strange story. The summer after my mother died, my boyfriend and I went to my family’s cabin on the Oregon coast. (This is the cabin in “The Arrival”.) My mother loved that cabin—she lobbied hard for it and seemed to see something mysterious and comforting in the gray, roiling sea. She liked that you could be so close to the ocean and all its deathly implications while children and dogs frolicked on the sand.
That summer, my father asked me to clean out my mother’s things from the closet. He couldn’t face the task. In a rush to be done with it, I ripped out the jackets and bathrobes and shoved them all into black bags. That night, my boyfriend and I slept in my mother’s bed and suddenly, we were assaulted by the strangest smell. It seemed to rise from the floor and had a bitter, citrus tinge. A storm had moved in and the room filled with wind. Neither of us could sleep and I was filled with the sense that I had angered someone.
I don’t think ghosts can linger forever, but my mother spoke about having a sense of her mother after she was gone and I certainly felt that. I think what I am trying to suggest in “The Mother Garden” and in “Family Epic” is the lack of control the living have over how and when they will be confronted with the past. This is true of interacting with ghosts, but also of interacting with memory. After someone dies, you might be fine walking through the cemetery. You might be untouched by photos or old letters, but suddenly, in the gym, you find yourself doubled over with grief.
7. Faced with grief, your characters find various ways to cope. Do you think that dealing with loss is a defining moment in a person’s life? Or is it the opposite – does loss obscure the person you once were?
Oh, I think both are true. I was a whole person before my mother died. Many things define me. But after my mother died, I think I was re-defined in some ways. I had to fumble down a tunnel, through a lot of rage and unanswerable questions. And this trip has certainly broadened my empathy and my sense of mystery.
8. After writing a collection of short stories, do you find that you have stronger affections for some characters more than others? Will any of these characters appear in future projects?
Someone asked me this recently and I said I loved them all while I was writing them. And this person said, “Yeah, yeah, I love all my children equally.” But it’s true. I like them all, loved them while they were being written. I think you have to love your characters while you write them. But I doubt any will come back exactly as is in a novel. They did their work, told their tales. Some of them—India and Uri, for example—could resurface in somewhat altered form because they did feel they had a life outside that story. But part of the fun of writing is coming up with new people. So I imagine that my next project will include a whole new cast of characters.
9. In “Family Epic” you write, “At this point, I’d like the page to burst into song, but pages don’t do that” (p. 173). Have you ever written songs or is it something that you might like to do in the future?
I write songs all the time for my dog, Mercy. They are really silly and nonsensical, but if I put the word “tangerine” into the song, she howls. Who could resist such a game? Aside from these “songs,” I really don’t write songs. I do think that music affects us profoundly. We hear a song and our body reacts. Music doesn’t really need the intellect. That’s what I mean in “Family Epic”. I wished, when writing that moment, that I could produce that kind of quick gut reaction without using words. Also, in those musical interludes, there is literally song.
10. The Mother Garden is your debut short story collection and your memoir, The Mercy Papers, will be published in January 2009. How different is the writing process between short stories and a memoir? Do you have any interest in writing a novel?
Like many writers, I love the short story. It’s probably my favorite form of prose. I love memoir, too. And I love novels. But there is a condensation of craft and emotion that must occur in the story. It is a hard form to pull off, but it’s immensely satisfying. And a person can actually finish one in a month or two (if she’s lucky). Writing a memoir was similar to writing fiction in that I could visualize a scene in my mind, and I could then choose how to represent it. I got to revel in the sensory world, my favorite thing. I could use metaphor and dialogue. The biggest difference, I think, in writing a memoir, is that you know where you are going. You have your plot. You have your characters. I can see how this could deaden a piece of writing. In fiction, if you know where you are going, you risk being predictable. In nonfiction, though, thought is the thing that takes the place of plot. For instance, in my memoir, we all know the mother is going to die. It’s not a secret. Read the back flap. But what the reader doesn’t know is how I will think about this, how I will cope. I hope that this becomes the tension.
Fiction requires an almost insane faith in the unknown. You are investing hours of your life in a dark little room with a notebook or computer. You forgo coffee dates and parties. You make up characters and a world, a desire, a problem. But there is no guarantee this will work out for you. I abandon more stories than I finish. But the only way to write a book of stories is to believe that some of them will rise up and take over, that you will find that wave inside your subconscious and be able to ride it home.
Memoir requires something else. The writing of “The Mercy Papers” required faith that my feelings, as small or mean as they might have been at times, were valuable because of their honesty. It required hope that I would be able to reach people with my telling of this story. That there would be people out there who didn’t want a regular self-help manual, that craved complicated truth and rawness, that hoped to find someone speaking their conflicting feelings. And there is an element of the unknown in writing memoir. I knew what happened to me—but I needed to pick exactly the right moments, the right details, to make this come true for you. No one has the map for writing books, despite how many there are for sale. It’s an instinctual process that requires gumption, faith, discipline, and time. And an understanding that it is the small things that make the big things, that complexity and conflict drive us forward, that there will never be a clear road to walk down. There will always be an element of chaos. And folded into this will be violence and beauty—the bones of story.
I’d love to write a novel. But I haven’t done it yet.