Interviewed by Katharine Eliska Kimbriel
Writer Madeleine Robins was once a certified Renaissance woman. Truly. The Society of American Fight Directors said that she “Knows Her Stuff” in broadsword, rapier, rapier and dagger, short-sword, quarterstaff, and hand-to-hand combat. She also can create period costumes when time and whim seize her, has worked as both singer and sword-wrangler at the NY Renaissance Festival, and realized one day that she should be creating stories, not acting them out. She’s taught, she’s edited comic books and she’s worked in Major New York publishing houses. Robins has also shepherded children for fun (Avocado and Sarcasm Girl) and for profit (I suspect Robins and Susan Sto-Helit would respect each other).
As proof of her artistic roots, I must tell you that it is true—she really was raised in a barn. Although she finds San Francisco wonderful, she is an unrepentant New York City girl. And she gets paid to test Klutz games. Is that a great job or what? Around work and life and whatever strikes her fancy you’ll find alternative history touched with magic, mystery and even romance. Return to the past with Madeleine Robins—It’s not quite how you remember it.
1.) I’ve read at least a half-dozen of your novels, and I’ve noticed at least two things about your protagonists that repeat. They are women of integrity, and they are people who make the best of what life has handed them. Otherwise, they are unique, their own selves, in different circumstances. Did you consciously choose to create such protagonists, or did they spring from your subconscious fully grown to tell their stories?
A) The two things dovetail, don’t they? Integrity forces one to make the best of what life has handed them. I am fascinated by people who deal honorably with the consequences of their actions. It’s what Point of Honour and the books that follow it are, at base, about. Sarah Tolerance runs away from home and lives outside of marriage with her first love until his death, and she pays a significant social price for it. A few women—Mary Wollstonecraft is the perfect example—managed to live lives very different from the norm, but Sarah is, in certain ways, a very conventional woman. I believe that no day goes by that she doesn’t wrestle with regret that she threw away things she did not know enough to value at 16—social position, a comfortable home, reputation, the opportunity for a conventional marriage and children; I don’t believe she regrets having run away with Connell, the man she loved, but she’s old enough and wise enough to see, now, what she lost, and to rue it (she tells someone, in the first book that she is is “good for none of the commonplace uses of young ladies.” And she believes that, perhaps beyond the point where it’s realistic, which is a point about her character that I write quite deliberately). To a lesser extent, I think that Laura (in Sold for Endless Rue), after some very significant blows, attempts to confront what life has given her. But in her case she can’t quite let go of the hurts of the past, and that causes trouble for her and those around her.
I love competence—It’s probably the virtue I most admire, and I think one of the aspects of competence is a willing to pull up your pantaloons and deal with the situation in hand, rather than what was. I may not start out to write about competent women, but I always seem to come back to it.
2) You began your fiction career playing with the Regency, writing wonderful little romances in the tradition of Georgette Heyer. I loved watching you hone especially your supporting characters. Then you detoured into contemporary fantasy, and finally found a home in historical fantasy. Now in your Sarah Tolerance tales you examine the darker side of the Regency, a magical Regency, and dig deeper into forgotten pockets of history. What draws you to these times and places?
A) I love the Regency. It’s a tremendously vital, pivotal time, both because where it lies (after the Georgians and the tail end of the Enlightenment, but before the Victorians) and for its own sweet sake. You have everything: the Napoleonic Wars, the Romantic poets, famine, the rise of enclosure, new science, new technology, a rising middle class, the beginnings of a police force in London, a shift in attitudes from the passionate rationality of the Enlightenment to a more romantic sensibility that would eventually find its peak of expression with the Victorians. It’s a fiercely dynamic, fascinating time.
I grew up reading Georgette Heyer (whom I love, although I now have a better appreciation of how unlike the Regency her Regencies were in many ways). I read hundreds of books by her imitators, many of which were notable only for having a beginning, a middle, an end, and high-waisted dresses. And what began to chafe at me, even when I was a teenager, was the lack of context surrounding those stories. Everyone imagines they would be part of society, they would be the duke’s daughter or the dashing female who gets the duke. Servants exist to help the heroine into or out of her gown, or to carry her parcels home from the Burlington Arcade. I tend to be a contrarian: my favorite moment in the Emma Thompson Sense and Sensibility is when Mrs. Jennings warns the girls to be careful of their slippers when they ascend from their carriage because “the horses have been here.” Translation: don’t step in the horse droppings. I have many quarrels with the most recent Pride and Prejudice film, but one thing I loved is that you can see that the “home farm” at Longbourn is right outside the back door, as it might well have been. I think part of my fascination with the Regency is that it has so many faces, many of them distinctly unsavory, and I wanted to see what a lady of good family—Sarah Tolerance—would make of them. The other part is my fascination with people who live in a very rule-bound society, and which rules they break, which they uphold, and what the costs are. There’s always a price, and the thing about a society with clear cut rules is that the costs are clear cut too. How do you live with those costs? What costs are you willing to accept?
3) I’m a Sarah Tolerance fan, and look forward to reading your latest Book, Sold For Endless Rue. In Sarah, we have a woman who is intelligent, healthy, attractive, and has skills she can use in markets all too narrow for most women to function. She has fallen from the grace of polite society, and found a way to function in the shadows. Laura, too, falls from grace and is fortunate to have skills that will keep her from a mean existence. But these twilight lives have their price, and the cost to the human heart is high. Can your heroines ever hope for any joy in their existence? Is this the dark side of where you began with Regency romance?
A) It’s a question I struggle with in writing the Sarah Tolerance stories. I love Sarah. I want her to be happy. But as I said above: she takes her own ruin and its consequences very seriously, perhaps more seriously than the people who care for her do. I think Sarah has a good deal of contentment—friends, a reconciliation with some of her family, work that she truly enjoys, and a life of her own shaping. And I hope to find a way to make her happy. It’s a tricky thing: if she loves her work, will she be willing to trade it for a traditional marriage? And is she, in fact, adventurous enough to accept a non-traditional marriage, one in which both she and her husband worked? The happily-ever-after stories take you to the threshold of the rest of the characters’ lives; what follows after will likely be a mix of joy and misery on a sliding scale. If you think of Sarah’s elopement with Charles Connell before the series begins as the threshold of happily-ever-after, she’s squarely in the middle of that joy-and-misery continuum, rather like the rest of us.
As for Laura di Crescia in Rue, she winds up content, although the path that takes her to that contentment has some horrific moments. And I hope, at the end of the book, that she has a hope for happiness (albeit not the traditional Happily Ever After). I am, at base, a fairly optimistic writer; I like happy endings, but I never believe they are unmixed. Even The Stone War, the fantasy in which I blew up New York City, has a happy ending. I think it’s happy, anyway.
4) Have you decided yet what writing means to you?
A) Wow. I can tell you what reading means to me (life itself). Writing is a way of giving myself something uniquely suited to my reading tastes. Writing gives me a way of arguing about what I think is important. I began The Stone War when I was trying to get down in writing the kind of hold a place (in my case New York City) can have on a person. I briefly lived in Los Angeles at a time when it seemed everyone I met was sneering at New York. As a seriously hometown girl, I felt that I was constantly trying to define what I found unique, amazing, and lovable about New York. Writing that book gave me a chance to work that out—and also to explore what can happen when you love a place more than its people. Writing means an opportunity to write stories about human behavior so that I can make sense of it. When I encounter incomprehensible behavior in my fellow humans the first thing I want to do is make a story in which that behavior makes sense. (This makes it difficult to do jury duty the way it ought to be done, since making up stories is exactly what you cannot do. I’ve been a juror and enjoyed the experience, but I was constantly aware of stopping myself from going down the “maybe this happened” trail.) And writing means play. Which sounds hideously pretentious. But really: words are like building blocks you can stack up, reorganize, tear down, rebuild, until you have something close to the bright tower you’d imagined. When the story is flowing and connections are being made, it’s like being on the world’s best theme park ride.
Of course, when it’s not going well it’s a bit like hitting yourself on the head with a spoon.
5) How important to you is success, and do you know what kind of “success” you are seeking? Is the writing enough justification in itself? Do you hope to be able to write exactly what you want, and still find an audience for it? Or is the writing what it is, and its own reward?
A) If I finish a story—novel length or short—and it does what I want it to do for me, that’s the first success. All others flow from that.
I wrote my first book simply because I had nothing to read, and was in an unhappy living situation. The fact that I finished it was one success. That someone wanted to buy it was another. That the same publisher bought four more was astonishing and gratifying. Every time I finish a book and it turns out to be written in English and people want to read it, that’s a success. Would I like to win awards? Sure. I have friends with statues on their mantels, and I am not immune to the occasional bout of statue envy. On the other hand, The Stone War was a New York Times Notable Book, and for a home-town girl that was almost surreally exciting.
One of the great things about the internet is that it makes it possible for me to know that there are people out there who are moved by something I wrote. Pre-Internet it wasn’t as easy, and people rarely bothered. These days it takes so little: a click of the “contact me” button on my website, and someone can write and tell me they liked something (or didn’t). Whatever the pernicious effects of social media (and as someone with a teenaged daughter who has seen first hand the kind of havoc Facebook can wreak, I do think it’s sometimes pernicious) it also means that people can find me. We can chat. And that’s wonderful, and didn’t much happen in the Olden Days.
6) Why writing to communicate your vision, and not art, drama, etc?
A) I was raised, like a good girl, to feel that having a “vision” was a form of vanity, and not a thing I should admit to. My father was a designer, my brother a painter: the arts were important in my family. The branch I aspired to was acting. Unfortunately, I wasn’t very good. The thing I am good at is something I didn’t take very seriously for a long time, precisely because I am good at it. There are all sorts of things I enjoy doing that are creative, but I don’t have the patience or persistence to refine my sewing or crafting, whereas I can sit and work over a sentence until it says exactly what I want it to say. I like words, I’m quite capable of getting a little punch drunk on their texture and sound, a dangerous tendency on which I have to keep a strict eye.
7) Do you think your “voice,” the thing that stamps your writing as uniquely yours, changes from book to book, story to story?
A) Absolutely. Particularly because I write historical as well as contemporary and speculative fiction. For me, voice is something that conveys information as well as feel. John Fowles’s voice in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, or Umberto Eco’s in The Name of the Rose, both have this lovely expansive tone and convey a feel for their respective periods (Victorian, for Fowles; medieval, for Eco). Those voices also allow the author to convey a certain amount of exposition because the narrator sounds like the sort of person who would be explaining things as he goes. It’s a hard trick to pull off without bogging down; those two books are favorite examples of how it’s done well. As for me: The Sarah Tolerance books are written in a sort of pared-down faux-Austen voice, both to give the flavor of the time and to help the reader with the mindset, because if you don’t accept that the rules were different then, the setup makes no sense. In the same way, I have a somewhat formal voice for Sold for Endless Rue in order to give a flavor of “another time-ness”, but tried really hard not to sink into Forsoothliness (I spent four summers as a performer at a Renaissance festival, and have a visceral sense of how easily period diction can be mangled).
It’s tremendously hard not to bring your expectations of how the world works—with 21st century morals and attitudes—with you into a story. I have a friend, a writer and editor and a smart cookie, who hated Brokeback Mountain. Hated it. Because to her 21st-century self it made no sense that the two guys didn’t just move somewhere more congenial to gay men—Greenwich Village, maybe. She just couldn’t wrap her head around (among other things) how much less mobile society was in the early 1960s, and how few options guys raised as cowboys, with limited skills and not much education, really had. Or how really unforgiving most of society was toward anything that smacked of homosexuality. Ennis and Jack would have been raised with those attitudes themselves, and grown up believing them. If a reader doesn’t understand the complex web of guilt and longing that underlies a lot of their behavior, the story falls apart. It’s the writer’s job to help with that transition, and if the writer just takes it for granted that the reader will get it, that is a problem.
For me, voice is one more tool to lure the reader seamlessly into the story.
8) If your creative brain told you tomorrow to “take a sabbatical” what would you do other than write?
A) Sleep? Cook? Set up my loom and learn to weave again? Certainly, go to movies and read even more. I’m unlike a lot of my colleagues in that I have had years-long breaks in my writing; I never planned to earn my living by writing because I know that—for me—putting that kind of pressure on storytelling would likely strike it down dead. So if my creative brain told me to take a vacation from writing, I’d probably spend the extra time reading and storing up an emotional and creative charge for a later time.
9) What have you learned from your own writing? To what concepts, intentionally or not, do you think you’ve exposed your readers?
A) I’ve learned to edit and to analyze other people’s work, and latterly to apply those same skills to my own work. And I’ve learned to know when I’m so lost in the story that I need outside help: my writing workshop, the occasional first reader, so on. I’ve learned that I’m a little smarter than I think—I often leave myself little gifts as I’m writing, throw-away lines that turn out to be useful, maybe even pivotal, later on. I’ve learned that I’m dumber than I think, too—sometimes I am so standing-in-my-own-light that I cannot tell where I’m going. I’ve learned that certain things crop up over and over in my work: finding, or making, a home; living up to the costs of your decisions; forgiveness. What concepts have I exposed my readers to? One idea I come back to, again and again, is that the other—the past, the alien—is not a monolith. Within the most codified, stratified, settled society there will be outliers. More than that, our ideas of the past are shaped by very small samples; when you look at a time period, really look at it, you will find people whose existence is utterly different from what you expect. The past is not a set of cliches. As importantly, it is not Now dressed up in funny clothes.
10) Has writing taught you anything you didn’t expect?
A) How to manage my envy of better writers.