Robin Black's Fascinating (Older) Women

"Late June, the garden was still more beautiful than demanding."

No Fading Away
Robin Black's short story collection If I Loved You I Would Tell You This is full of women the French would describe, with pseudo-gallant euphemism, as being "d'un certain âge," but one of the wonderful things about Black's writing is her characters' unconcern with ageist euphemism--they are forging on and fully entwined with life. Black lavishes vivid prose and rich context on each of her stories, which makes them extremely satisfying, even if you're a reader who usually prefers novels. Because it's almost Mother's Day, I'd like to tell you that this book, just out in paperback, would make an excellent gift for a mother of any age.

Listen to Black
When I listened to Robin Black's interview with Ed Champion for his Bat Segundo Show podcast, posted in April 2010, shortly after If I Loved You I Would Tell You This came out in hardback, I was not surprised to hear her say:

"I think that the most interesting people I meet are older women.... The way that older women are looked at in society, which is to say barely at all, and the degree to which women do become increasingly invisible as they outlive societal notions of what's sexy, and why one might look at a woman--there's a wonderful discrepancy between what people think they're looking at when they look at older women, and what's actually going in that woman's life and in her consciousness. Any time you have characters who are leading essentially undercover lives, you have tremendous fictional potential." (Minutes 29-31)

This is one of the pleasures of the collection--Black reveals the inner thoughts and corporeal reality of fascinating (older) female characters as they experience both loss and joy with intelligence, perspective, and wit. Black's work shows that life as an older woman is not the wan diminishment or the goofy-granny gavotte that popular American culture often projects. Nor does her collection, though female-centric and full of powerful emotion, contain a speck of that acidic quality--stridency--that is sometimes used to dismiss a strong female point of view. And there are also men: one of my favorite stories in the collection, "In A Country Where You Once Lived," is told from a male point of view, and the men in the lives of the female-narrated stories are as human as the women.

The Close-Reading Bat
Like many of Ed Champion's interviews, the Robin Black episode of the The Bat Segundo Show contains a lot of discussion about the writing process based on a careful reading of the text, and Black is both open and articulate about her methods. She talks about "ruminating" at the keyboard, the separation of fiction and autobiography (memoir) in her work, and says, "When you write stories, what you're really exposing are your obsessions, and it's much more like showing somebody your dreams. What you make up I think is infinitely more personal that what you choose to recount from your own life." (Minute 7) The latter half of the 53-minute episode gets more craft-oriented, with interesting exchanges between Champion and Black about: sentiment and sentimentality, the use of gesture and facial description, the defamiliarization of sex, the impact of names on narrative distance, and even Black's strategy to avoid the overused trinity effect: she lists things in twos and fours, not threes.

Black on Black
Here's the link to the post Black mentions at Minute 17 about "Going Long" for The Story Prize blog. Black also regularly posts excellent essays on writing at BeyondTheMargins.com (viz this one on beginnings).

FTC Disclosure: I received a free galley for the hardback publication of If I Loved You I Would Tell You This when I reviewed it for The Book Studio in April 2010 (the review no longer available online). The Bat Segundo Show podcasts are free, but donations are welcome.


Tina Fey Reads From Her Bossypants

Bossypants: Self-Scribed Ode of a Grecian Daughter
So far I've found two podcasted interviews from Tina Fey's promotion of her meteoric memoir, Bossypants. One is gal-pally and sort of skimmy; the other is more focused on the comedy industry. Both are worth listening to if you're a die-hard fan, but if you're short on time, I recommend the first half of the NPR: Fresh Air Tina Fey interview with Terry Gross, followed by the whole spanikopita of Fey's appearance on WNYC's Leonard Lopate Show (permanent iTunes link here).

"She Need Not Lie With Drummer"
One of the best bits of the 45-minute "NPR: Fresh Air" interview (perishable iTunes link here) comes right at the beginning, when Fey reads the entire text of "The Mother's Prayer for Its Daughter" [<-this links to transcript]. The mock-serious poem is just what you'd expect from Fey: a gnarly and zeitgeisty momjacking of William Butler Yeats' "A Prayer for My Daughter" which should do more for young female empowerment than a tweendom of earnest lectures or a drawerful of abstinence panties (said messagewear is probably less effective than "mom jeans" and not a joke; discovery credit to Ms.Magazine blog]. Shortly after the poem Gross also plays the audio from the "30 Rock" episode in which Liz Lemon debates career vs. hot young motherhood with a "sexy-baby" mentee. The rest of the interview is a panoramic cruise through Fey's experiences in comedy writing and performing.

Super Fey
For a more zoomed-in account of Fey's career, listen to her 4/14/2011 appearance on WNYC's Leonard Lopate Show here (iTunes link). Lopate gets a lot of good stories out of Fey about the behind-the-scenes world of "Saturday Night Live," sexism in the comedy industry, and the confluence of Lorne Michaels' doorman and Robert De Niro in the Sarah Palin casting (at Minute 20 Lopate plays the audio for the Palin character's sanctity of teenage/gay marriage joke). Fey and Lopate talk a lot about "30 Rock" at the end, and Lopate plays the audio of Liz Lemon's projectile-sharing toward Oprah on an airplane. Lopate wraps it up with Bossypants, and asks Fey how she adapted her  comedy writing voice to memoir. Fey says, "you have to be as honest as you can and to remember to still have jokes." Excellent choice.