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.
536 fragmentary mini-chapters later and she had her third novel: the tribulations, conversations and misadventures of Money Breton, a thrice-divorced, Ritalin-hungry screenwriter in the South. Careening around Money are a foolish boyfriend, Dix, her infuriating best friend Hollis, Belinda the “producer witch,” and her damaged children: daughter Mev, going through a methadone program, and gay son Paulie, the victim of a horrible assault by the “Lice-Faced Criminal.”
With her leap-of-faith structure, damning hilarity, irreverent precision, and a narrative voice so live that it calls you up and talks to you on the phone, Robison wrangles the illogicality of life into a battered and beautiful texture. Earlier this year the novel filched the 2002 L.A. Times book award from thick competition, a nick in The Corrections' publicity juggernaut.
A story: “I was in Books-A-Million [Hattiesburg's finest bookstore]. I wasn't crabbing, but I said, 'All these books are displayed up front, and this'” — she mimes holding out her book — “'is a recent work of fiction . . .' I learned that those racks up there are paid for by publishers. The guy said, 'There's a plan for those,' and I said, 'Well, I have a plan too.'”
“So he looks at my book and he says, 'What's this about?' I just, you know, broke down and my voice is way up there, Minnie Mouse, and I say, 'Well, it's mainly about a screenwriter?' He said, 'So it's purple prose?'It was very defeating.”
Yes, both Money and Mary have slogged the screenwriting (and rewriting) trail. Robison got involved shortly after her novel Oh! was made into the film Twister (not the one with the airborne computer-generated cow), starring Crispin Glover and with an appearance by a gun-toting William Burroughs. Suddenly Robison found herself commuting to Hollywood to doctor screenplays.
“Uh. I don't have much to say about that. It was fun, but it never had much to do with writing . . . I needed the money. You want to do it, make your money, and get out.”
Now she teaches in the writing program at the University of Southern Mississippi (full disclosure: I'm a graduate student at the university). Right this minute, there's a beeping somewhere in her purse. She fishes out a beige plastic device and shuts it up. Next she finds a few pills and swallows them with soda.
“I have this beeper thing,” she says, unapologetic. “It's handy for that moment when you can't decide, 'Was that yesterday? Was it this morning?'”
Ritalin is a guiding metaphor for Why Did I Ever as both the protagonist and the formal architecture of the novel itself struggle to maintain a semblance of control over their attention deficit disorder.
“No, this isn't Ritalin. It's something else,” she says. “But yes, my drugs now are all prescription. For three or four hours Ritalin gives you an intensity of focus. Unfortunately, it's like a tap. When it's finished it just runs out. Like taking your glasses off.”
The L.A. Weekly wants to know: Are neuro-pharmaceuticals good for America?
What she thinks: “People who don't believe in taking medication are probably fearful people. They're ignorant and destructive. I wouldn't take out my own appendix; there's science for that. Science can help. It can help with a great many things.”
ROBISON'S LEFT SIDE IS COATED with white hair; the fat and purring Flour is the likely culprit. “It's hard to be a beatnik,” Robison sighs, “with white cats.”
Her publishing lull has passed. Early next month, Counterpoint is releasing Tell Me, a collection of 30 short stories, most culled from her out-of-print books, though a few are new. The process of revisiting short fiction “can only annoy you, depress you, irk you,” Robison says. “You're different and you would do things differently. But there are a few surprises.” “Apostasy,” for example, from Robison's workshop days in Baltimore with John Barth (“The man was magic. I'd be helping in some beauty shop if it wasn't for him”) still snicks with pathos and pleasure. The warm, crazed love in “Father, Grandfather,” a previously unseen piece [it appears in this issue], hurts wonderfully. And a new novel is coalescing. It's about two women married to twins, and Robison promises, “I've been careful to do 30-word paragraphs. None of the smash cuts from the last novel.”
Will she get it done?
“I'm a very single-minded person. Whatever I'm doing, I do so hard that you would have to use machinery to get me to stop.”
Is it keeping her up nights?
“If I'm working I don't say, 'Oh no, I better go to bed.' I have the rest of my life to sleep.”
Mary Robison will read from Tell Me at Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., on Wednesday, November 20, at 8 p.m. (310-659-3110) and at Skylight Books, 1818 N. Vermont Ave., on Thursday, November 21, at 7:30 p.m. (323-660-1175).