Roxana Robinson, LEAVING

Roxana Robinson, LEAVING

Zibby chats with award-winning author Roxana Robinson about her bold and insightful late-in-life romance, LEAVING. Roxana describes the intricate dynamics between her two characters, Sarah and Warren, and then touches on themes of personal growth, familial obligations, and mature love. They also discuss the role of children in shaping relationships, the importance of self-discovery, and the challenges of navigating love in the later stages of life. Finally, Roxana reflects on her creative process and shares valuable advice for aspiring writers.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Roxana. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Leaving.

Roxana Robinson: I am so thrilled to be here. Thank you so much for inviting me.

Zibby: Your book is so beautiful. I am so captivated. The sentences that you write are gorgeous, so much so that as I was walking around New York yesterday, even walking past the entry to a subway station, the way you wrote about it when you said something like, the sidewalks opened up, you just take everything, like a simple subway entrance, and make it into something poetic and beautiful, which changes how I view the world. Thank you.

Roxana: Thank you for that. Any writer is — you know because you’re a writer. You know what you’re trying to do is set down your own experience and make it something you can share and that sort of illuminates your reader’s world. It illuminates yours. That’s why you’re trying to transmit it. It’s exciting to hear that it’s being transmitted. Thank you.

Zibby: Transmission accepted. Received. Tell listeners what your book is about, please.

Roxana: It’s about two people, Sarah and Warren, who had a relationship when they were in college. They split up because of a misunderstanding and just the way those things happen in college. They were quite far apart, and it fell apart. They both married other people and really didn’t see each other for decades. Then they run into each other by chance at the Metropolitan Opera. They’re both sixty. He’s still married to the same woman. She has been divorced, and her ex-husband died. She’s single. He’s not. Everything starts up again. It’s a story about connections between people. It’s a love story. It’s also about a different world. We’ve all read many, many love stories. I teach Anna Karenina. I teach Madame Bovary. I love love stories. They are sort of what makes the world function, keep moving, is people’s attraction to each other. I hadn’t read many love stories that are set in the second half of someone’s life. It’s so, so different. When you’re in your twenties, you are a free agent. You can both decide to move to China and learn the language or become environmentalists.

When you’re in your sixties, you have a place. Whatever your life has been, it’s there. It’s part of you. You have established something. You’ve established a job and colleagues and friends and a place that you live. To uproot all of that for someone else becomes very complicated. You have to measure what you have against what you want. Then there are people around you who may not allow you to be so free. In this case, they both have adult children. They realize that their adult children feel that they have a right to play a part in this relationship, which is something, really, a young person doesn’t have. Even if you have kids that are six and eight and ten, they may be furious if you get a divorce, but they can’t stop you. If you have adult children, they can take a very powerful place in your life. There are all sorts of things that happen in a relationship that takes place in this part of your life that I wasn’t seeing written about. I was seeing it around me. I thought it was so interesting that I needed to set it down and transmit it.

Zibby: Wow, really beautiful. Not only do you have the love story in the present, but even when you write about it in the past, it can appeal to people who are used to the younger love story. You still have all of that, and even some simple gestures like when Sarah feels the weight of Warren’s body on her, and they’re trying to lean on the couch in a certain way to offset the weight. Just those little moments are still there. You still check that box. There are some discussions, not even the love story, but even just the dialogue between Warren and Sarah where they talk about having kids and how before you have your kids your conversations are one way, and then of course, once — the power dynamic shifting, like you said, in their involvement, but also in the way they occupy your life and how you’re trying to get their attention when they’re older as the parent versus the child desperate for your attention as a child. You had a whole section about that that I was just like, yes, this. It was just so spot-on and well said.

Roxana: Children are the big presence in our lives. They’re the big other. We want them. We love them. We love having them in our lives, and they’re a tremendous nuance. Whatever you want to do is more difficult if you’ve got three toddlers hanging on your legs and crying. They’re a part of your life in a wonderful way. They give you enormous joy, but they also complicate your life. In the beginning, your conversations are about what you’re doing as an adult and with your job and your colleagues. Your kids aren’t really part of the conversation because you think your real life is elsewhere, is being a professional or whatever you’re doing. Then things change. Then you start talking about your kids and what they’re doing. They take over the conversation. You’re so proud of the fact that your child got into Stanford or your child has won an award. They become more and more dominant. Then when you step away from the world — Sarah and Warren are still working, but they no longer are planning to run the world, which they might have done when they were forty, so their children become more and more important. Then you realize that your children are not paying attention to you. They’re not asking for your attention. It’s wonderful. I love examining families from every aspect.

Zibby: You also paint a picture of a single older woman who is totally happy being alone, which is great because I feel like there’s this common misperception. Oh, no, she’s alone. In this book, you’re like, no, no, no, this is amazing. I can come in, and it’s quiet. There’s just this beautiful dog. I can do what I want. You painted this aspirational setting for the person with the kids hanging off them or anyone else. That’s to say, we don’t need to be surrounded by people to be happy. There are many different ways that life can look great later in life, or really, at any stage in life.

Roxana: That was interesting too. Sarah has a job that she loves, which is working at a museum, and has a place to live that she loves and she’s lived in for years. She loves the natural world around her. She has this wonderful dog. She has friends. She has a job. She has a daughter and a son. She’s very well taken care of by the world her.

Zibby: I feel like this might have deeper roots in the societal construct of needing a — you could take this to a whole feminist place if you wanted. At the least, it makes a beautiful setting and a sense of place and all of that. You were inspired by people in your world. You saw this happening. You are not a new author. I want to hear about how you even got into writing to begin with. When you have that spark of an idea, what is the journey from, oh, maybe I should write about this, to this book coming out? What happens next?

Roxana: When I write a novel, it’s because I’ve seen or heard something. Something has gotten into me that is kind of troubling to me, something I can’t understand. I can’t lay it to rest. It’s something that just stays inside making trouble. Each of my novels has this kind of germ, something that bothers me, that troubles me. With this book, I started seeing — I remember years ago, meeting a couple in Maine at some fundraiser. I think they were in their eighties. It became clear that they were a couple, but I knew that he was Mr. MacMillian, and she was Mrs. Sherman. I was really shocked. They were these dignified, gray-haired people, and they were living in sin. I said, “So do you two –” He nodded. He said, “We live in sin. We’re not married.” It was really surprising. They seemed very happy. They said, “Our finances are settled. Our kids would be upset if we got married and changed all the legal things, and so we just live together.” I thought, well, why not? That seems very sensible. It was really a departure for that kind of person to challenge the norms of society so drastically, and to be so happy about it . I thought that was really interesting. That was a shift that was going to happen.

Really, the two big reasons, practical reasons, for marriage are protecting the children and protecting the inheritance, whatever that is. That legal commitment is to make sure that the family money passes on to children and that children are protected, apart from the emotional parts. These two people didn’t have any reason, practical reasons, to get married. Then I just started watching people around me. I knew something like three couples in New York who would not give up their own apartments. Sometimes they’d stay at his apartment, but they would not give up their own apartments. That’s not something you do in your twenties. You want to be together all the time, and you do. I was just seeing so many different ways of dealing with romance, which was certainly still there. I remember also seeing — this was a number of years ago. I was at a party in Boston at a club, also very dignified. I met this woman who was gray-haired, in her eighties. She had this beaming expression on her face. She said, “Right over there in that corner is where Bill was standing when I fell in love with him.” I said, “Oh, that’s so wonderful. When was that?” She said, “Three years ago.” They were married. They’d been married for three years. They were very happy. I was just getting signals that there was a lot more that I hadn’t paid attention to and that was happening around me. That’s how this all started.

Zibby: Then do you start taking notes? How do you turn that into the manuscript? Do you just start writing? Do you outline? What does the process look like for you?

Roxana: No outlines. No notes. The only way I can write something is to write my way through it. I may have a sense of where it’s going, but it always changes. With my first book, I — my husband was a lawyer. I first showed him the draft of my first novel, or I told him I was writing it. He said, “Have you made an outline?” I said, “No. Do you think I should make an outline?” He said, “I would make an outline if I were writing a novel.” I thought, he’s right. I should make an outline. I should write down every chapter and what happens in it. I did that. I felt really good about myself. I’d accomplished something. Then I started writing it, and nobody would do what they were meant to. They wouldn’t say what I had planned them to say. They wouldn’t do anything. I gave up the outline. For me, it is really an organic process. I start out with a problem and a set of characters. Their task is to move through that problem and resolve it in whatever ways they can. The only preparation I will do is I will often write little tiny biographies of the characters, when they were born, what color their eyes are, where they grew up, what their parents were like, so that I know that character very well and so that character is consistent through the book. This is somebody who’s very ambitious and who is impatient and doesn’t ever let you finish your sentences. This is somebody who grew up in the country and is really uncomfortable in the city. I know that person before I start writing so I don’t end up like Flaubert saying that Emma’s eyes are blue on one page and brown on another page, which fascinates all of us. I need to know the character very well and what kind of actions and what kind of behavior that character will deliver during the book. That’s the only thing I do so that the characters are consistent throughout. Other than that, I just start writing.

Zibby: Tell me about how you originally got started and how you’ve kept writing novels a career with your teaching and everything else. How do you do that? How did you get started?

Roxana: I started writing when everybody else does, in first grade. It’s just, I never stopped. I always loved writing. It was something that made me happy that I could do. It was something that worked for me. I studied it in college. I studied with Bernard Malamud at Bennington. After college, I went to work in New York and worked for Sotheby’s, which I loved. That’s where I became interested in American art, which I still write about. That’s why I wrote the biography of Georgia O’Keeffe, because I became so interested in American art. While I was working at Sotheby’s and another gallery too, I was always writing fiction. I was trying to get my fiction published. That was really my goal rather than writing nonfiction, writing art history, which I also did. Then finally, I started publishing. As every writer knows, it’s just a lot of rejection. You write something, and it gets turned down. You write something else, and that gets turned down too. I can’t tell you how many times I quit writing. Many, many, many times. Okay, if they don’t want this story, they don’t deserve any more stories from me. I am not writing stories anymore. That made me feel very good. I would quit. Then I would think of something I wanted to write about, and so I’d write about that. All writing students need to remember there’s a lot of rejection. You can’t depend on the world to love your work. You have to depend on yourself to love your work. You have to love what you’re doing. That how it was.

Zibby: Wow. When you were doing these pretend quitting things —

Roxana: — They weren’t pretend.

Zibby: They weren’t pretend? You meant it?

Roxana: Oh, no. I was really —

Zibby: — Okay, okay. How long would it last?

Roxana: A couple of days. Maybe a week.

Zibby: So funny. When you went back to it, did you try something new? When you were mad about the stories, were you like, okay, this time I’m going to try blah, blah, blah? No? Same thing?

Roxana: I got enough positive feedback so that I knew that people were interested in what I was doing. I always wrote about the things that really gripped me. They were always about personal relationships. They were always about intimate connections that went wrong and that had to be resolved. Those things kept coming in my life. I kept seeing them or experiencing them. I had to set them down. I just had to do it.

Zibby: Are there any of your past works that you look back on now and you’re like, oh, I wish I had changed this about that, or that you have any second thoughts about or that you’re like, I hope I could ever do as good a job as that one?

Roxana: I never read my stuff again. I would never look at it. It would probably horrify me. I probably would think, oh, that sentence is bad. On the other hand, when I write, I am so obsessive. I start a new file, which is a new chapter, and so every time I open that chapter, I reread the opening paragraph. The opening page of every chapter has probably been rewritten a hundred times. Every time, I have to go through that. This word is too heavy right there. I have to change that to a two-syllable word instead of a three-syllable word. Everything gets combed through for the tangles. It takes me a long time to get out the tangles. That’s how I function. If I went back, there would be some words — also, my toes would probably curl. I’d probably think, this is a stupid scene. I shouldn’t put it in. My O’Keeffe book was published first by Harper & Row, which was bought by HarperCollins. Then it moved to University Press of New England. Then they went defunct. Another publisher asked me if they could publish it. I said sure. She said, “Is there anything you want to change? Is there anything you want to add?” I thought, yeah. That book, I wrote in the thick of feminism. There are a lot of feminist passages in it which I wouldn’t put in today. I’m not embarrassed by them, but I could take them out. I started reading it, and I thought, I would change everything. I would start saying, this paragraph should come before that. I wrote a forward. I added some letters that had never been published before. We added new material, but I couldn’t go back and start editing. It would drive me crazy. I never reread my work at all.

Zibby: Interesting. How long does a typical book take you? How long did Leaving take you to write?

Roxana: It’s probably the shortest time I’ve ever spent on a novel. My first novel took me seven years. The O’Keeffe book also took a very short time because there were other people writing the same book, and my editor told me that I had to be first. I had a gun to my head. If he hadn’t said that, I would still be writing that book. I would still be finding more material. Often, because a book turns out to include material that I don’t know about and have to do a lot of research — when I wrote Cost, which I thought was going to be very short — it’s about a two-week vacation in Maine, three generations of a family. I thought it was going to be very intense and short and just about those people in that place at that time. It turned out that one of them was a heroin addict, so all of a sudden, I had to learn about the entire world of addiction. I had to talk to heroin addicts. I had to talk to policemen. I had to talk to interventionists and doctors and go to meetings and meet heroin addicts and learn a whole world that I did not know anything about. The same about my book Sparta, which is about a Marine lieutenant coming home from Iraq. I had to learn about Marines, the military, what it was like to be in Iraq, what the Humvees were like inside, everything. Those books took me five years each. This book, I didn’t have to do any research for. I think it took me three years.

Zibby: Wow. Have you started your next book?

Roxana: I have.

Zibby: Can you say anything about it?

Roxana: No. I have found — I think a lot of fiction writers feel this too. If you talk about a book while you’re writing it, you lose the intensity that fuels the writing. I remember early on telling a friend of mine what was going to happen in a book. I said, “He says this amazing thing.” She says, “I can’t believe you said that.” I told her the whole scene. Then I got back home the next day. I thought, this is a really boring scene, because I had used up all the energy that I had on that scene by telling it. It was no longer inside me to put down on the page. I never talk about the book while I’m writing it. There’s that. It’s like those winter tennis bubbles that depend on keeping the air pumped up. If you let the air out slowly, the whole thing just collapses. I don’t ever let the air out while I’m working on it.

The other thing is that for me, when I’m working on the book, and even the first person who reads it — it’s like a cake that’s not quite baked. It’s still kind of rising up and down. It’s very, very susceptible to any touch. If I were to tell you what this new book is about and I saw you frown, I would think it’s a really stupid idea. I shouldn’t have started this book. That’s a bad idea. Any response at all, it has way too much weight for me when I’m writing the book and when I first show it to somebody. Anything my agent says, I listen to, but I am very, very vulnerable when it’s not quite finished. I don’t want to hear anybody’s comment because it will have an enormous amount of weight. I need to finish it by myself before I show it to anyone.

Zibby: I’m working on a new book myself. Before I started writing, I was running different ideas past people to get a temperature check. What do you think about this? What do you think about this? How about this? I found very quickly that one idea was just way too dark. People were like, no. I’m like, it still would’ve been fun to write, but if nobody wants to read it at all, I could just do that off on my own. I do a little more market testing, I guess. Once I’m getting into it, I’ll probably wait. I don’t know. Maybe I don’t have as much air in there to begin with.

Roxana: You pump the air up yourself.

Zibby: That’s funny.

Roxana: The thing is that talking to your friends about it and saying, what do you think about this idea? you can’t give the idea the amount of weight that you would when you actually write it. You’re asking them for their opinion on a shorthand thing that they can’t possibly know. They can’t possibly understand how you’re going to really present it in a book.

Zibby: Yes, that’s true.

Roxana: You’re giving them too much power.

Zibby: I also feel like sometimes by asking it — if I know what I’m wearing looks good, I’m not going to ask five people for, how does it look? If I’m asking people, it’s probably not the right thing anyway. I finally arrived at what I’m doing, and I don’t need to ask anybody about it. I feel like it’s part of how I do it, at least. I guess I need to know that there’s something wrong with it. I don’t know. If I’m like, what do you think? then it’s probably bad.

Roxana: If it drives you, then you should write it.

Zibby: Very true. Tell me more about your teaching and how the teaching sort of intersects with the writing and all of that and what you’ve learned from being a teacher yourself.

Roxana: Sometimes I teach at a conference or something, but I teach at Hunter in the MFA program. It’s all writers. I teach a lit class, actually. It’s not a writing class, which is so much fun. We read Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, Chekhov, To the Lighthouse. What else? Then there’s always one other that I put in at the end. We read these great, great books. The students have mostly never read them before. They want to read them in a group. There’s this wonderful sense of discovery. People will say, I really wanted to read Madame Bovary, or I really wanted to read Anna Karenina, but I knew I’d never get around to reading it myself. It’s such a delight to read that book. Everyone loves reading it. It’s so absorbing. You get so involved with the characters and the two love stories that are at the heart of it. You get so involved by Tolstoy’s vision, which is vast. He’s trying to figure out how to deal with the Russian continent as well as his own love life. It’s a feast. I love the students. They bring me stories. They have to write one paper, sometimes two. They can write creative stories in response to the books we’ve read. They tell me stories that I would never have thought of in relation to these books. It’s really a great pleasure for me.

Zibby: Amazing. What are you reading now for fun?

Roxana: For fun, I just read Anne Enright’s wonderful new book, The Wren, The Wren. I love her writing. I’m going to start reading the Slow Horses series, which are English detective stories that had been made into a TV series called Slow Horses. Those are really fun.

Zibby: I know you’ve already given advice, but if you had any more parting advice for aspiring authors, what would it be?

Roxana: Trust yourself. If it’s interesting to you, it will be interesting to your readers. Write what excites you the most, what frightens you the most. Really, the reason that I write books is because I’m disturbed by something. I’m troubled by something. I can’t get it out of my head. The way I write about it is to set it down on paper. Write about the things that trouble you the most. Trust yourself. Trust that your ideas are important. Forget about the world. Forget about this devil on your shoulder which is telling you that it’s no good and no one will want it. If you want it, it’s good. Just write what you need to write.

Zibby: I love that. Did you have any other titles for Leaving? Was it always Leaving?

Roxana: I did have another title for it. I wanted to call it The Other Life.

Zibby: That’s good too. Amazing.

Roxana: Well…

Zibby: What? What?

Roxana: Nothing. It’s just that people thought that that would suggest some kind of spiritual, which it isn’t. Leaving is good.

Zibby: Leaving is great. Great title. Roxana, thank you so much. I really appreciate your time. Again, your writing is so phenomenal. The book is beautiful. Congratulations.

Roxana: Thanks for having me.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Roxana Robinson, LEAVING

LEAVING by Roxana Robinson

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