Last week, we talked to a brand new StoryStudio instructor, Emily Maloney. This week, we’re happy to bring you another great conversation with another exciting new addition to the StoryStudio team, Emily Robbins!
Emily Robbins has an MFA from Washington University in St. Louis, and a forthcoming novel with Riverhead Books. With a background as an anthropologist and experience reading, writing, and translating fiction around the world, Emily is sure to bring a unique perspective to her upcoming class, Making Your Fiction Matter.
Emily took the time to share with us some fun facts about her life and work, and some thoughts about writing great fiction– and sticking to a routine.
StoryStudio Chicago: Welcome to StoryStudio, and to Chicago! Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and the kind of writing you do?
Emily Robbins: I grew up in New Mexico, Oregon and Montana, but I have family all over, and have lived in many countries and many states. Before becoming a fiction writer, I trained as an anthropologist and lived in Syria; this gave me a love of language and culture that influences much of my current work. I am still very attached to my studies in Arabic and the Middle East; they inspired my first novel. We came to Chicago for my husband’s work. He’s an evolutionary biologist. We aren’t very new anymore, but we’ve grown to love Chicago, especially the lake in summer!
SSC: You have a novel forthcoming from Riverhead Books. First, congrats! Second, can you give us the scoop on it?
ER: Thank you! The novel is called A Word for Love. Set in an unnamed foreign country, though based lightly on Syria, it’s the story of a young American woman who arrives in search of an “Astonishing Text” — said to make its best readers weep, but finds herself caught instead in the lives of her host family and a Romeo & Juliet-like romance that ultimately teaches her about love, loyalty and herself, and changes her reading of everything.
In some ways, it’s a story about language and devotion, about what it means to love from afar, to be an outsider within a love story, and to take someone else’s passion and cradle it until it becomes your own. It’s due out Fall 2016.
SSC: In addition to writing fiction, you also do translation, and you speak Spanish, Arabic, and Portuguese. What’s it like doing translations as a creative writer? Has your knowledge of these languages affected the way you write fiction at all?
ER: Oh yes, very much! I love all three of these languages. I feel they have opened up my imagination and my world. Arabic especially plays an integral role in my fiction. The story of A Word for Love is inspired by an ancient Arabic folktale, Qais and Leila, which I learned myself as a student, and which always struck me for the beautiful way it combines language and love.
Apart from a love of written translation, I sometimes do oral translations for NGOs that work with Arabic-speakers in Chicago, and so in that way, knowing other languages has helped to broaden my community here.
SSC: You came to us with the idea for your upcoming class, “Making Your Fiction Matter.” What made you want to teach a class on this topic? Why is it an important topic for fiction writers?
ER: I myself feel that I engage most authentically with the world through fiction. Reading and writing have always been a form of processing for me, and also my most natural form of action. Sometimes, we fiction writers especially feel there is an uncrossable divide between fiction and politics, but writing is inherently political, as it allows readers another perspective on the world. We are often very conscious about developing elements of craft — characterization, setting, plot. But our fiction’s engagement with the world — how to create more complex characters, by letting the events of their world move them, how to allow setting to increase tension — is equally as important. So, I wanted to base a workshop around that.
SSC: Who should take “Making Your Fiction Matter”?
ER: Anyone who is interested in writing complex characters, and who loves thinking deeply about how they’re rendering a fictional world. Anyone who wants to think more deeply about the way the world works on their writing, and vice versa. Anyone who loves fiction, and experimentation!
SSC: What are you reading right now?
ER: Clarice Lispector’s short stories. And I’m eagerly awaiting The Queue, by Egyptian author Basma Abdel Aziz, which is forthcoming in English this March, and Anton Disclafani’s novel, The Afterparty.
SSC: Who are some writers who have influenced or inspired you?
ER: Marilyn Robinson, Kathryn Davis, Rebecca Makkai, Orhan Pamuk, Christine Schutt, Tiphanie Yanique.
SSC: Do you have a favorite place and/or time of day to write?
ER: In the morning, at home or at the Writer’s Workspace. I need quiet to write, so I feel very lucky to have these two places!
SSC: What advice do you have for aspiring writers? Was there ever a particularly great piece of writing advice that someone gave to you?
ER: A wonderful teacher, Saher Alam, once described revision not as editing, but as the act of re-imagining. I love that, and try always to approach revisions with this in mind.
I think the two most important things to me as a writer are habit and community. I write novels, which require a lot of perseverance, long after inspiration has left. So, it has been important to me to just keep sitting down each day at a scheduled time. Now, I find my writing schedule grounds me. I feel unmoored without it. And to know that I don’t write alone — sharing ideas and experience with other writer-friends has been invaluable.