Writing and the environment

Last week was insanely busy, so I now have a backlog of items to share, including--later in the week--some tidbits from interviews with Michael Cunningham and Sean Wilsey.

Meanwhile, I recently spoke with Roxana Robinson for the Westchester Journal News. She was preparing for a talk on "Mountains as Metaphor" at the Hudson River Museum, so much of the conversation dealt with the environment, the Adirondacks, and American painting (which in retrospect seems to inform her fiction more than anything.)

Here's an excerpt:

Ask novelist Roxana Robinson when she became a writer or when she became an environmentalist and the answers to the two questions are likely to be the same. “It’s a little like asking someone when she first thought of herself as a walker. I grew up in beautiful open farm country, in rolling fields, and I spent a lot of time outdoors, with animals,” Robinson says. “As I grew older, and I watched the landscape beginning to change, I became increasingly concerned about what was happening. So, yes, pretty much, I've always been an environmentalist. The natural world means a lot to me. It's frightening to me, to see what's happening.” As for writing, “Writing was always an integral part of my life, but there was a big gap between knowing I liked to write and actually writing things that the world wanted.”

Robinson combines both of these lifelong sensibilities in her novel Sweetwater, which has recently been brought out in paperback in conjunction with her latest collection of stories A Perfect Stranger. “I don’t set out to write stories,” she says. “They sort of appear from time to time. The main project is always the novel.” In Sweetwater, Robinson stays close to the theme of family, the complications of which have enlivened all of her previous fictions. But this time around, Robinson wanted to cast the intimate dynamics of family against a larger, literal landscape: the environment in general, and the Adirondacks specifically. For Isabel Green, the novel’s protagonist, the tensions of assimilating into the culture of her husband’s family are heightened by her environmental sensibility and her intuitive sense of conflicts beneath the surfaces of both the people and the serene, gorgeous lake where they spend their summers.

Robinson, a resident of Katonah for twenty-seven years, has frequently set her fiction in Maine, but with Sweetwater she was looking for a change of pace. “Since I was writing about the natural world, I wanted to choose a place that everyone has a sense of—and everyone has a sense of the Adirondacks.” Part of that familiarity, she says, is routed in the history of American painting, and the philosophical movement known as “the sublime.” “What it meant was nature in a guise that was beautiful and majestic and much more powerful—a sort of inhuman power. This was nature at its most awesome and majestic--Niagara Falls, The Yosemite Valley—nature that was uncontrollable and therefore slightly dangerous,” she says.

But it is the work of Georgia O'Keeffe that Robinson has found most inspiring. “She uses emotion as the presiding energy in her work, and requires it to be beautiful, and creates images that are both immediately, intuitively, familiar and somehow mysteriously unknowable. That’s what I’d like to do.” Not surprising then, that Robinson is also the author of a massive, critically acclaimed biography, Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life.

As much as the environment informs the fictional world of Sweetwater, Robinson was careful to keep moralizing at bay. “I think novels should actively engage the reader on lots of different levels,” she says. "But a desire to instruct is very dangerous in a novelist. To include in a novel a passionate feeling about a large issue need not be didactic. Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres is very much about the environment, and about the vanishing of the family farm. Anna Karenina is about social codes concerning marriage; it's also about the issue of liberating the serfs. Really interesting fiction can be read on lots of levels, and contains all sorts of issues within them.” Robinson looked to the classics, including Tolstoy and Woolf, for “examples of characters who feel passionately about social issues, and who make fools of themselves because of it - which is what happens to zealots. It's what happens to the character in Sweetwater - she can't help herself, she goes too far in her zeal.”


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