Interview with Robin Oliveira




by Linda Bond Prior to the author’s visit to Auntie’s on Saturday, March 22, 2014

Since you have done such a splendid job of covering all the pertinent information regarding your books on your own website, here I will focus on you. I appreciate your time, Robin.

LB) Your writing appears to reflect an interest in turning a spotlight on little-known women in unusual circumstances. Will this emphasis continue and, if so, what stirs you to cover their stories?

RO) I am not certain that I would describe Mary Cassatt as little-known, since she is a celebrated painter exhibited in nearly every major museum in the world. Nor would I say the same of Mary Sutter, since she is a fictional character. However, I do like writing women as protagonists in the 19th century, because the struggle for women’s rights remains a unifying theme across cultures. Western 19th-century heroines appeal to me because they led the vanguard for breaking through the glass ceiling, are relatively accessible in terms of history, and highlight the persistent and illogical prejudice against women as well as women’s efforts to counteract it.

LB) One of your novels (My Name Is Mary Sutter) takes place during the American Civil War, and the other (I Always Loved You) is placed in Paris, France, shortly after that same war. Is there something special about that period in history which draws your attention as an author?

RO) So much of the American story in the 19th century is dominated by the Civil War that it is impossible to write in that period without addressing its impact on individual lives. But it is more true that it just happens that the stories I like to tell so far have occurred in that century. I may write in another century if the story appeals.

LB) It’s obvious from the content of both books, as well as the narrative on your website, that a significant amount of research was required in order to make these stories not only believable but accurate. What is the hardest task you must face when conducting your research?

RO) I never consider the research a hard task, not any of it, though for I Always Loved You I did have to revive my two years of college French, a difficult undertaking which sometimes felt like mining my brain for rare earth metals. For the next book, I’m going to have to revive my knowledge of Russian, which will be equally as challenging, though no less fun.

LB) Please, if you will, compare and contrast these two novels in terms of character development and storylines. Is there anything in your own life experience that aided you in their writing?

RO) I wrote My Name is Mary Sutter after I learned that seventeen young women became physicians after their experience in the Civil War. I chose to not portray any of those real women, but instead to develop a fictional protagonist who I could move through historical events as I saw fit in order to explore how a woman might have accomplished such a feat. In I Always Loved You, I was writing historical personages—Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas to name two—which provided the challenge of crafting an emotional and narrative arc within known lives, and to portray those people as honestly as I could. Mary Sutter I could build from scratch; Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas and their associates had to be, to my mind, fairly represented within what is known about their lives, even as I imagined and crafted their emotional arcs.

To answer the second question, I am a registered nurse, which helped me enormously in writing Mary Sutter. Since I am a writer, it was easy to extrapolate the artists’ struggles. But the deeper drive of any novel is character desire, which is at the core of story, and is the most important thing for a writer to realize, whether your characters are fictional or historical.

LB) Sickness and disease play a role in both stories. Did you feel compelled to draw attention to them in a way that might point to the future of medicine?

RO) Not at all. Rather, I point to them because we all suffer in our lives from physical maladies. This is the core of the human experience. To leave it out is to lie about what it means to be human.

LB) Since you majored in Russian, might we expect there to be a novel about Russia in the future?

RO) What a terrific guess! You must be psychic. Or, you’ve read my biography very carefully. Yes, absolutely. I’m currently reading research on women’s roles in 19th century Russia.

LB) Your husband, Drew, must be supportive of your work. Any advice you’d care to share with other writers along the lines of dividing your time between your two loves?

RO) I try to keep my work life separate from my personal life. My husband does not read anything I am developing, mostly because human beings are natural storytellers and they cannot resist injecting their own “what ifs” into a developing story. That kind of interjection is not helpful to me. He reads the book when it is finished and the editor has okayed it. Then I am happy to hear what he has to say. He always helps me to think about how to talk about the book, because I am often too close to the work to understand it in its entirety. He points out the things that stood out for him, which helps me to prepare to be in the public eye.

LB) At what point in your life did you know you wanted to be a writer?

RO) Before I was ever interested in writing a book, I was an avid reader, from grade school through my twenties, when I read through the English classics, Shakespeare, and all the Russians. At some point in my thirties, when my children were very little (I was lucky enough to be able to stay home with them), I thought I’d try to write one of those things that I adored. When my son went to kindergarten, I began to try to teach myself how to write. It was a long apprenticeship during which I wrote a large number of very bad short stories and a novel that won an agent but was never published. I took community college night classes, then University of Washington Fiction Extension classes, then enrolled at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, from which I received an MFA in Writing in 2006. But first and foremost I was a reader. And remain one today.

LB) Would you talk about any authors who have been inspirational to you, or who served as mentors for your own writing career?

RO) Douglas Glover, the esteemed Canadian writer of Elle, Savage Love, and 16 Categories of Desire--to name only a few-- and the publisher and editor of the eminent magazine Numero Cinq, has been the strongest influence on my writing. I studied with him at Vermont College of Fine Arts and will ever remain deeply grateful for his mentorship and kindness. I am an enormous fan of the authors Col'm Toibien, Colum McCann, Virginia Wolff, Jane Austen, Somerset Maugham and Shirley Hazzard, but to be thorough you would have to come to my house to peruse my bookshelves because every book I have ever read has stayed with me. We recently recarpeted the house and all my books are packed in boxes in the garage. I am bereft.

LB) What is the one thing you would most like readers to take away with them after they have put down one of your books?

RO) That is a lovely question and very difficult to answer. Hopefully, that they’ve entered into a story that has helped them to better understand what it means to be human, which is the goal of literature, I believe.

Thanks for your time, Robin. I truly look forward to sharing your afternoon here at Auntie’s!