An Interview with Erika Robuck
Stephanie Renee dos Santos
On March 4, 2014, Erika Robuck’s historical novel Fallen Beauty will be published by NAL ($16, 384pp). The novel features the eccentric American literary figure Edna St. Vincent Millay and is set during the Jazz Age of the late 1920s and early ’30s.
Antiquity’s Greek lyrical poet, Sappho, was Millay’s muse, as was the forbidden, the taboo. It is my pleasure to welcome the author and share this exclusive pre-publication interview.
SRDS: As Fallen Beauty is your third novel to explore a famous 20th century American writer, this time Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, what drives you to write about writers?
ER: As long as I can remember, I have had a book in one hand and a pen in the other. Reading is like inhaling, and writing is like exhaling. Because of my obsession with words, it is fitting that I write about my favorite authors. It is selfish, really, because I wanted an excuse to bury my nose in the pages of my favorite writers, to learn about their processes, and to understand the context of their work in their lives. That is what draws me to them as subjects.
SRDS: Please tell us a bit about Edna St. Vincent Millay.
ER: Vincent, as she was called, grew up in poverty with three sisters and a mother, who divorced her father in 1900 for gambling—quite the scandal at the time. Though poor, her mother saw to the education of the girls in music and literature, and had high hopes for them. She worked as a practical nurse, often leaving the girls alone for days on end, to make money to support them. Their closeness carried through their entire lives.
Vincent was discovered when she recited her poetry before a crowd at the summer hotel where she worked in Maine. A woman in the audience became her mentor and sponsor, and eventually funded her education at Vassar College. After graduation, Vincent moved into Greenwich Village, then to Paris, and then back to the United States, collecting lovers and writing poetry. She married a fellow free spirit, Eugen Boissevain, and the two settled at Steepletop, a remote estate in upstate New York, where she continued to work and love freely. She won the Pulitzer Prize and used to sell out thousand-seat auditoriums on her reading tours. She made $30,000 a year at her peak in the 1930s, which is nearly a half a million dollars today.
SRDS: Is the novel’s protagonist, Laura Kelley, inspired by someone connected with Millay’s real life? If not, how did you come to conceive of this character?
ER: Laura is fiction born from historical and literary fact. While researching the Millay Archive at the Library of Congress, I came across seamstress receipts. I recalled a poem of Millay’s—“The Fitting”—and several others that formed the basis for a woman who would have intimate contact with the poet, but whose life was probably very different from Millay’s. As Laura’s story crystallized in my mind and her relationship to Millay became clear, the novel became about women and their connections to one another, their cruelty to one another, and their deep capability for love and support of one another.
SRDS: What archival resources and objects did you draw from to understand Millay’s personality and eccentricities? Are there recordings of her public readings that you were able to hear and/or see?
ER: The archive at the Library of Congress and a visit to Steepletop in Austerlitz, New York were essential to creating Millay’s character. Steepletop has been so perfectly preserved by The Millay Society that it is as if Vincent has just stepped out of the room, and will return at any moment.
The biographies and recordings of Millay reading her poetry are very helpful, and finally the writings of Millay herself—from letters, to poetry, to journals, to fiction.
SRDS: What was your writing method to enter into the mindset and “soul” of Millay? Mid-novel, your writing in Millay’s voice expresses a poetically beautiful imagining of her. There were some truly exquisite passages that left me impassioned and curious about how you came to create them.
ER: Thank you; it was very difficult for me to tap into her voice.
As I mentioned above, there are recordings. Her voice, visiting her house, and having photographs of her all over my writing space allowed her to “haunt” me. Her style was very elusive, however, and in the middle of writing the book, I felt like I could not effectively write from her point of view, and nearly abandoned the idea in favor of telling the story entirely from my protagonist’s perspective.
To give it one last try, I spent weeks reading only Millay’s poetry. Then I had a particularly difficult day and could not sit down to write until very late at night. I thought I would try once more to harness her poetic and savage style, and lo and behold, I was able to “channel” her. From that moment on, I only wrote her point of view when I was unsettled, dark in mood, and very late at night.
SRDS: Was there anything surprising you discovered about Millay while researching that you couldn’t include in the novel, but can share here?
ER: I was surprised to find that she became addicted to prescription drugs after being thrown from a car in an accident. Her injury and the resulting lifetime pain from it contributed to her decline. Her husband was so devoted to her that he purposely became addicted to the same drugs to know precisely how she was feeling. There is only one scene from late in her life when we see her and Eugen’s feebleness, but I would have liked to explore that issue more.
SRDS: Will you explain to us your writing process and your daily and weekly writing schedule?
ER: On the macro level, my process begins with the research. Visits to sites where my subjects lived, places they traveled, cities they frequented, and their gravesites, if possible, give me the feel for their settings. Then I move inward to the biographies to see what is written about them. Finally, I go deeper into their artifacts at archives, and then immerse myself in the writings of the authors themselves.
I try to write every day—morning or night—whenever time will allow. If I go too many days without writing, I get very cranky. It feels as if I’m being tapped on the shoulder and I have to ignore it. Writing is the antidote for that unsettled feeling.
SRDS: Do you write poetry? If so, would you be open to sharing a piece with us here, and/or your favorite work by Millay?
ER: Oh, how I wish I wrote poetry. I do not, sadly, and have not since I was a child. Millay is my favorite poet, and her poem “Love Is Not All” is the ultimate in beauty and sadness and truth. In the back of FALLEN BEAUTY I list my favorite poems that informed the sections told in Millay’s voice. My favorites of those are “Buck in the Snow” and “Night Is My Sister.”
Thank you, Erika, for joining us here at the Historical Novel Society and for this intriguing sneak peek interview!
Erika Robuck is the critically acclaimed author of Hemingway’s Girl, Call Me Zelda and Fallen Beauty. Born and raised in Annapolis, Maryland, Erika was inspired by the cobblestones, old churches, Georgian homes, the mingling of past and present of the Eastern Shore, the Annapolis City Dock, and the Baltimore Harbor. Erika writes about and reviews historical fiction at her blog, Muse, and is a contributor to popular fiction blog, Writer Unboxed. She is also a member of the Historical Novel Society, Hemingway Society, and the Edna St. Vincent Millay Society. Her work will also appear in Grand Central (June 2014), a short story anthology set at Grand Central Terminal in New York, following World War II. For more information please visit www.erikarobuck.com, and Twitter @ErikaRobuck.