Thursday, July 30, 2020

Roxana Robinson Interview - Dawson's Fall

Photo Credit: Beowulf Sheehan

Roxana Robinson is the author of ten books - six novels, three collections of short stories, and the biography of Georgia O’Keeffe. Four of these were chosen as New York Times Notable Books , two as New York Times Editors’ Choices.

Her fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s, Best American Short Stories, Tin House and elsewhere. Her work has been widely anthologized and broadcast on NPR. Her books have been published in England, France, Germany, Holland and Spain.

She is the recipient of many awards, the most recent the Barnes & Noble “Writers for Writers” Award, from Poets & Writers.

Tell us your latest news.
I am happy to report that my biography, Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life, is being reissued this fall. This expanded edition contains a new foreword (with the story of how I met O’Keeffe), and Georgia’s letters to the first important man in her life. I once worked in the art world, and so the writing of this book combined two things I love: art, and telling a story. In some ways, writing a biography is like writing a novel, except that you don’t have to make up the characters or the plot. It allowed me to dig deep into O’Keeffe’s mind, her life, and the way she thought about art. And in some ways writing that book was like writing my most recent book, Dawson’s Fall, which combines biography with fiction: again I was telling the story of the lives of real people. The plot already existed, it was my job to make it fascinating to you.

Who or what has influenced your writing, and in what way?
I think Virginia Woolf is my greatest influence, and her work, which is so full of beauty and compassion. In my favorite of her books, To the Lighthouse, she inhabits the mind of each character so deeply and sympathetically that we come to know – and to love - each of these people as we move, in and out of their minds, and through the narrative. Woolf was one of the first novelists to use this stream-of-consciousness technique, though now it’s quite common. I love the way she uses language – her prose is nearly poetry, and this made me very aware of the way I chose my words. From her I learned that each sentence should be beautiful, it should sound beautiful, and it should be new. And I love the way the novel is informed by compassion, which allows us to understand other peoples’ thoughts, their lives, their private fears, their fervent hopes.

Tell us your most rewarding experience since being published.
I love hearing from readers who have connected with my work. My novel Sparta is about a Marine lieutenant coming home from Iraq, and after I published it I received many wonderful messages from veterans, some of them from the Iraq war and some from the Vietnam war, thanking me for telling their story. I loved hearing from all of them, and was glad to think I had done something useful for them. The most unexpected response came from a woman who runs a therapy project for veterans, using horses. She said my book had given her the deepest understanding of the experience of a returning vet, and that she used the book as a reference source, and asks participants to read it. I was so proud to think I had made something that was valuable to a whole community.

What do you hope for readers to be thinking when they read your novel?
I hope readers of DAWSON’S FALL will find a new way to think about family and our history. I hope it gives them a way to understand where we come from, and how to reconcile our own beliefs with those of our parents and grandparents: how can they be so right about some things, and so wrong about others? I hope people will think about how we came to be where we are now, how America came to be what it now is, and how people can understand this.

In your new book; DAWSON’S FALL, can you tell my Book Nerd community a little about it.
DAWSON’S FALL is the story of my great-grandparents, Frank and Sarah Dawson, who lived in Charleston, South Carolina, during the tempestuous time after the Civil War. Dawson was an Englishman who came to America to fight for the Confederacy, and stayed for the rest of his life. He became the liberal editor of the Charleston News & Courier, during the rise of “Redemption,” which was the start of the Jim Crow era. Frank and Sarah Morgan met after the War, on a family plantation, during a romantic encounter that was the beginning of their love story. Their marriage was happy and its ending was tragic. As a biographer, I was careful to make the story entirely factual, but as a novelist, I created the inner thoughts and dialogues of the characters. As an observer, I was struck by the drama of the period and of the narrative itself – it’s incredibly suspenseful and exciting, a true-life romance and a true-life crime story. And, because of its place and time, the book is about race, family, principle, romantic love and our country.

What was the single worst distraction that kept you from writing this book?
Oh, which was the worst? So many things! It took me five years to write it. I teach a literature course every fall, and each year I read the books again with my students, including Anna Karenina, so that distracted me; some digressions into writing about politics distracted me; and my family, of course. Maybe the main intellectual distraction was the existence of all sorts of mechanical issues, like where did I put that file? How did I find that quote? Is it in Dropbox or just in Downloads or in an email file? Or did I copy and paste and put it into some document file? I did a lot of research into 19th-century history, and in some ways the internet has made research immeasurably easier, because you can find everything; but in some ways it has made it immeasurably harder, because you can’t remember where you put anything, and you can’t put everything in the same place, or even the same kind of place.

What part of Frank did you enjoy writing the most?
I came to know Frank very well through his letters and reminiscences – it was an odd feeling, to become so close to a great-grandparent, and to share his most private thoughts. I found him very sympathetic in most ways, he loved his family, Sarah and his children. He loved reading, he loved riding and he loved music - all things I shared. I especially loved telling the story of his Ash Wednesday, that quiet morning when he was alone in the world. That morning has stayed with me. I also loved writing about his romance with Sarah, how they met, and how he wooed her, how determined he was, how gallant and loving. I used his real letters in the book - they were so intimate and so touching. But I also enjoyed being in Frank’s mind during moments of crisis and high drama – I think I’m drawn to the most challenging kinds of behavior, and Frank was challenged at every level, and had to respond. I had to understand his feelings about so many things – his private fears and vulnerabilities, his blind spots, his principles. It was fascinating for me to enter into the mind of a nineteenth-century man.

Why do you feel you had to tell this story?
We all have reasons to be proud of our families, for one reason or another. We thought of Frank Dawson as a hero, because he was a progressive during a racist era. But the more I learned about him and Sarah the more I realized how complicated the issues were, and the less I could idealize my great-grandparents. It wasn’t just them, of course – they were part of what was happening in our country. I realized how complicated my family history was, like everyone’s, how complicated my country’s history was, and how large a part was played by racism. I felt I had to tell this story as a way to show one personal strand of our national history - how we came to be the country we are today. I wanted to tell part of our country’s history through the lives of two real people, who were trying to navigate through complicated and dangerous times. It’s a real-life romance and a real-life tragedy.

  • 1. You want to know what it was really like when your great-grandparents were alive, what happened when they got up in the morning, what they ate for breakfast, what they talked about.
  • 2. You want to know how to pack for a trip in 1889, in Charleston SC. (Tissue paper and steamer trunks, to start. And little bags of pungent herbs, for moth.)
  • 3. You want to learn what it was like to have your house fired on by cannon in Baton Rouge during the Civil War.
  • 4. You want to watch while the Baton Rouge residents gather all their cotton and rum and burn it out on the Mississippi, so the Yankees won’t get it.
  • 5. You wonder what it would be like to lose almost all the men in your family during a war. You wonder what it would be like to be in the Battle of Beaver Dam.
  • 6. You want to eavesdrop on the correspondence between a man who’s deeply in love, and absolutely determined to win his suit, and a beautiful woman who has absolutely determined never to marry.
  • 7. You wonder what it would be like to be a beautiful young Swiss woman, living in Charleston, S.C. in 1889, far from home, without guidance and, some might say, without good sense.
  • 8. You’ve already read A Confederate Girl’s Diary, by Sarah Morgan (Dawson) and you want to read more about her.
  • 9. You wonder how the great-great-great niece of Harriet Beecher Stowe could have great-grandparents who supported the Confederacy.
  • 10. You like sympathetic characters, a romantic story, suspense and urgency.
What’s the most ridiculous fact you know?
The moa was a flightless New Zealand bird, one of the largest in the world. It could reach a height of 6 feet and a weight of 500 pounds. It survived the arrival of South Sea Islanders, about six hundred years ago, but when the European colonizers came they hunted it to extinction. Before humans arrived, New Zealand had no mammals, so the moa was safe. After humans arrived, a 500-pound flightless bird was an evolutionary error.

What according to you is your most treasured possession?
A little Inuit sculpture that my daughter gave me, in the shape of a seal, lifting his head up. It’s smooth and beautiful, I love the idea that the seal was an important presence in the sculptor’s world, I love seals anyway, with their steady otherworldly gaze and boneless moves, and I love the fact that my daughter (who’s an artist herself) gave it to me.

Best date you've ever had?
First one I had with my husband. He took a day off from work and drove me from New York to Rhode Island and back in one day. This was officially so that I could visit a historical society and do research on a painting, but really it was a chance for us to be alone and talk for six hours straight. He did all the driving, and then waited patiently while I was at the historical society. I could see that he was determined, he was interested in art and he was a wonderful companion. Also handsome.

If you could go back in time to one point in your life, where would you go?
The first time my husband took me to Paris, a city he loved.

Which incident in your life that totally changed the way you think today?
I grew up in a very reserved household: we were Quakers, and my father was the head of a Quaker school. Confrontation was disapproved of, arguments were frowned upon, raising your voice was not done, and violence was unheard of. We were meant to be quiet, kind, and thoughtful. I thought that was what everyone aspired to. When I was a teenager I watched the Fellini movie “Amarcord,’ in which the boy gets into trouble at the local movie theater by dropping a paper bagful of water down from the balcony. Afterward he goes home and the whole family is sitting at the table having dinner. The doorbell rings, and the father goes off to answer it. It’s the owner of the movie theater. The father comes back into the dining room and asks his son if he did anything wrong? The son shakes his head and says no and the father yells at him and makes a go for him. The son jumps up and runs and the father chases him and the two of them run around the table, the father after the son, both shouting and shoving things out of the way. The whole family yelling at the tops of their lungs as they pass and reaching out to interfere and assist as the two hurtle around the table. I was speechless. I thought, This is another way to live.

What is one unique thing are you afraid of?
Heights. I can’t stand being near a cliff or even thinking about falling. If I’m near a cliff or high balcony I immediately want to jump off, just to get it over with. I go into a sort of suicide spiral, imagining the feeling of falling, the terror of it. I’m doing it right now. Luckily I’m sitting on a sofa.

What was the best memory you ever had as a writer?
When my first story was published in The New Yorker, I had begun to use my married name, Roxana Robinson. Afterward I received a letter from a reader, sent in care of the magazine. She began by saying that she had never written a letter like this before, but that she had never read my work before and wanted to let me know how much she liked it. I wrote back to thank her, but said that she was wrong in thinking she had never read my work before. She was my high school English teacher.

A cinematic Reconstruction-era drama of violence and fraught moral reckoning

In Dawson's Fall, a novel based on the lives of Roxana Robinson's great-grandparents, we see America at its most fragile, fraught, and malleable. Set in 1889, in Charleston, South Carolina, Robinson's tale weaves her family's journal entries and letters with a novelist's narrative grace, and spans the life of her tragic hero, Frank Dawson, as he attempts to navigate the country's new political, social, and moral landscape.

Dawson, a man of fierce opinions, came to this country as a young Englishman to fight for the Confederacy in a war he understood as a conflict over states' rights. He later became the editor of the Charleston News and Courier, finding a platform of real influence in the editorial column and emerging as a voice of the New South. With his wife and two children, he tried to lead a life that adhered to his staunch principles: equal rights, rule of law, and nonviolence, unswayed by the caprices of popular opinion. But he couldn't control the political whims of his readers. As he wrangled diligently in his columns with questions of citizenship, equality, justice, and slavery, his newspaper rapidly lost readership, and he was plagued by financial worries. Nor could Dawson control the whims of the heart: his Swiss governess became embroiled in a tense affair with a drunkard doctor, which threatened to stain his family's reputation. In the end, Dawson--a man in many ways representative of the country at this time--was felled by the very violence he vehemently opposed.

Praise for DAWSON'S FALL

“Dawson's Fall asks what truth means in an era when conviction matters more, and Roxana Robinson's answer―that morality is friable―should make us sit up and tremble.” ―The New York Times Book Review

“Robinson’s documentary novel . . . proves unyielding and compelling in its timely themes, with many depictions of how white men’s seething resentment erupts into racist violence and how Southern codes of honor and toxic values, particularly slavery, corroded individual lives and the national character.” ―Booklist

“Robinson bases her formidable novel on the lives of her great-grandparents, exposing the fragile and horrific state of affairs in the American South two decades after the end of the Civil War . . . Robinson’s descriptive and imaginative prose sings; this book is a startling reminder of the immoral and lasting brutality visited on the South by the institution of slavery.” ―Publishers Weekly

“Robinson uses lynchings, duels, and sexual assaults to shed light on populism and toxic masculinity . . . A stylish and contemplative . . . novel, considerate of facts but not burdened by them.” ―Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Dawson’s Fall is a remarkable achievement, a fully realized vision of a time and place long gone. I was astonished by the ease with which Roxana Robinson meshes the known and the imagined to make a texture utterly trustable and often stunning. Most of all I was impressed by the language of this book, at once restrained and powerful; the delight in detail; the telling word. This is masterful writing.” ―Josephine Humphreys, author of Nowhere Else on Earth

“Roxana Robinson is a great American storyteller and never better than when she braids history and fiction, pulling truth out of mere facts. Dawson’s Fall grips us with fascinating characters, great and small, caught in the powerful unfolding of events that have shaped our country, and Robinson’s own wise, clear-eyed, and heartfelt narrative.” ―Amy Bloom, author of White Houses

“Acclaimed writer Roxana Robinson delves into her own family history as she sets her sights on the Civil War at its very heart, South Carolina, with spectacular results. Like Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, her own Dawson’s Fall will be a revelation to many readers in its profound and nuanced depiction of Southerners’ widely varied feelings about the Civil War and its aftermath. The past springs brilliantly to life in this tragic and compelling story, as accurate and fully realized a depiction of daily life and the extraordinary events of this time as has ever been written.” ―Lee Smith, author of Dimestore: A Writer’s Life

“Roxana Robinson tells the moving story of her great grand-parents, who lived in Charleston after the Civil War, her great-grandfather an Englishman and editor of the city paper. She draws on letters, journals and newspaper articles about them and adds her own novelistic grace to make them come to life. With a fine eye for detail, she describes the horrors of the post-war period of racism and violence they could not escape.” ―Frances FitzGerald, author of The Evangelicals

“In Dawson’s Fall, acclaimed author Roxana Robinson has turned her own family history into a propulsive novel. She unspools the story of Frank Dawson, a Confederate veteran struggling to redefine the South, an Englishman in a land thick with suspicion of outsiders. With complicated characters and a rich sense of time and place, this is an immersive tale about the meaning of America.” ―T. J. Stiles, author of Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America
You can purchase Dawson's Fall at the following Retailers:

And now, The Giveaways
Thank you ROXANA ROBINSON for making this giveaway possible.
Winner will receive a Copy of Dawson's Fall by Roxana Robinson.