Robin Stratton has been a writing coach in the Boston area for over 20 years. A four-time Pushcart Prize nominee, she's Managing Editor at Boston Literary Magazine, Acquisitions Editor at Big Table Publishing, and Director of Newton Writing and Publishing Center.
Loren Kleinman (LK): It took you 20 years to finish your latest novel, Blue or Blue Skies. Can you tell us about the writing and editing process for this novel?
Robin Stratton (RS): One morning in 1994 while I was driving to my parents' house I heard a song on the radio by Level 42...the line was "a man so big he barely to fit his circumstances," and I thought that would be an interesting character - a dirt poor starving artist with a dream so huge that he couldn't possibly accomplish it... or could he? I scribbled the line on an envelope as I drove, and got thinking, what's the biggest dream there is? Making a movie, right? And becoming rich and famous? So for contrast, I wanted a character who had everything the first character didn't have, but he was unhappy too - in a different way. Remember that line from Anna Karenina, that happy families are all alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in their own way?
I knew I needed a woman for the love interest/triangle, and I wanted it to be narrated by an outsider type of character - like Nick Carraway describing the eccentric Jay Gatsby. Unexpectedly, the narrator didn't just sit back and report, she began to participate more and more in the storyline, and then turned out, in a way, to be the main character. I wound up loving her sad vulnerability. I got a kick out of how many of my friends who read the book said that she was me; I didn't see that at all, because she and I have nothing in common - but as time went on and more people said it, I realized they were right, somehow she IS me. That really came as a surprise.
LK: What was the most rewarding part of writing the book?
RS: After 20 years of redoing it from start to finish, agonizing that it didn't match my vision for it, and redoing it again (and I don't mean editing a current document, I mean starting a new one from scratch,) you can imagine that the most rewarding moment was when I realized I finally loved it, through and through, every single word. During the final writing that took place in 2013, right after my father passed, and then a few months later, my mother, I was able to access the most powerful emotions I'd ever had. Grieving is what turned this book into what I wanted it to be.
LK: You provide accounts of love and other disasters, and offered a sense of redemption at the end. What was your own redemption?
RS: This book humbled me. It made me realize that I wasn't going to sit down and write the Great American Novel until I'd made every single writing mistake there was, and from that, learned how to refine. I kept putting it aside, because I knew I wasn't good enough. When I finally hit that MOMENT, man, I felt like my heart would pop!
LK: What are you working on now?
RS: Right now, no new books. Now that Blue or Blue Skies is done, I feel so satisfied with my literary output that I'm not driven to write anymore. I'm madly in love with my other novels, too -On Air, Of Zen and Men, and In His Genes - each one reflects who I was while I was working on them. But where they took about four years each to finish, they don't have the scope of Blue or Blue Skies. I'm not saying that Blue or Blue Skies is my favorite... but of course in a way it is; it's been such a big part of my life for so long. BUT - I will say that I'm always delighted when someone who has read all my novels favors another one. Men tend to prefer On Air; maybe because it features a male lead, and I find that lots of women relate to Claire's journey of self discovery in Of Zen and Men. And my scientist friends are most enthusiastic about In His Genes.
LK: What's next for Robin Stratton?
RS: In May 2015 some colleagues and I will be opening a writing/publishing center in the Boston area. There will be workshops and classes and community outreach programs for kids, but mostly we're going to be a place for writers to come and promote their book. I also run a small publishing company (Big Table Publishing Company) and a magazine (Boston Literary Magazine) and so there will be lots of exciting publishing opportunities, too, for our guests and members. This is something I'd been thinking about for a long time, but what really pushed me into finally doing it was the day I realized that the only venue I could book to promote Big Table Publishing Company authors was at a Whole Foods. Nothing against Whole Foods, of course - the one near me is brand new and has a very nice events room with a coffee bar. But it sort of became a joke, you know - where would we be, near the deli? At the end of aisle 8?
LK: How exciting! So where will it be?
RS: I also have an antiques store, and the writing/publishing center will be in the main room. It's a great place with a strong literary vibe, and poets are welcome to set up readings and open mics and sell their books without having to give up a percentage of their profits. And of course participants in the workshops will get special attention from Big Table Publishing Company and Boston Literary Magazine, so for anyone trying to get published, it's a great way to meet editors face to face.