DOWN THE STREET FROM THE graveyard and cater-cornered to the ubiquitous Southern Baptist church is where you'll find Mary Robison and her four white cats. She's altogether too striking a figure for the Wal-Marts and Sonic Burgers of Hattiesburg, Mississippi: Gray and black hair swoops down around her olive skin and dark eyes; shirts, pants, mules, and socks are black; silver chain bracelets dangle at her wrists.
The centerpiece of a cluttered mantle in the living room of her modest brick apartment is a 2-foot figurine of the Virgin Mary in blue and white; behind the mantle Robison has painted a large golden arc.
"I was raised Catholic," Robison confesses, "but I've never thought of myself as religious. Still," she says, looking sharply at the porcelain Virgin, "that's not a doll."
On a neighboring wall hangs a Robert Motherwell forgery, crashing abstractions of black paint, the signature carefully replicated in the corner.
"I paint everything," Robison says, "hammer handles and things like that." She points to a bowl of bronzed remote controls on her coffee table.
"Barry Hannah's son used to live in these apartments." She waves her hand at the window. "Po-Boy Hannah," she laughs, "but he went by Po."
The irrepressible Hannah (who lives just up the highway in Oxford) has best captured her fiction: "Mary Robison's stunned and plunging creatures are the truth. This is pure, grim poetry."
Robison's "grim poetry" first appeared in the literary world in '77 when her short story "Sisters" ran in The New Yorker, her first publication. "It was just knockout," she says, "it changed my life entirely." Dozens of New Yorker stories followed, and by 1983 she had three short-story collections, Days, An Amateur's Guide to the Night, Believe Them, and a novel, Oh!
Her meticulous delineation of American life soon led critics to lump Robison as a minimalist, with all the abuses and denigration (and defenses and exoneration) associated with that literary inclination. "I detested the term," Robison says. She's sipping Diet 7-Up from a goblet, and piling an ashtray with Camel Light after Camel Light. "I thought it reductive, misleading, inconclusive and insulting. It was the school that no one ever wanted to be in. They'd bring your name up just to kick you."
Still, Robison admits, it brought her "more attention than I deserved" and, alongside such writers as Amy Hempel, Frederick Barthelme and Raymond Carver she was certainly in "good company." Though Carver and Robison interacted primarily on a professional level, they had common ground in what Robison refers to initially as "the same problem" -- editor and minimalist mentor Gordon Lish.
"It turned out we fired Gordon on the same day," she says. "You can understand an editor wanting to put his mark on the fiction. He was so powerful in those days, and he could be generous and helpful and very sane sometimes. But, oh God, he was an overbearing bullying type of person: so bright you couldn't dismiss him, but just out of control."
AFTER THE PROLIFICACY AND HIGH-profile period of the early '80s, Robison didn't publish again until Subtraction in 1991; the novel tracks a foursome of emotionally stricken and soused characters as they chase one another across geographic and psychic landscapes. And then another long silence from Robison . . .
"It was a time in my life when I was having trouble writing," she says, "and I was having trouble, period. For about 10 years I didn't publish much of anything, and I didn't have anything. I had nothing, and I really didn't know if I ever would again. When I was young and heard about writer's block, I thought, 'Oh, they're just doing other things, and they're busy, busy, busy.' All that is true, but then there's the real thing: You're balling it up 26 times, and just weeping. It's about pride, really; feeling the words on the page can never represent you. It's the worst thing you can learn about yourself. You could go mad. It's a paralysis that I pray on my knees never visits me again."
Finally, however . . .
"I was driving around and screaming into the tape recorder, and I started typing the stuff on index cards. I had thousands of these index cards. I started to become aware of reoccurring themes and situations and characters, and I realized that if I pushed it, it was malleable enough, and I could have a novel."
In what she calls "the great tradition of writing in cars," Robison worked on Why Did I Ever in her now-deceased Honda, recording thousands of microtapes, transcribing them with an electric typewriter plugged into her cigarette lighter; for illumination she positioned her "moon-roof" under street lights. She had all she needed: a/c, music, ashtray, zero interference.