Monday, June 20, 2016

Robin Gaines, Author of INVINCIBLE SUMMERS: "a dream and some magic and a lot of hard work and loads of patience"

I love a good story with a happy ending! I met writer Robin Gaines several years ago when she was in the beginning of her writing career, and I read some of her early work in progress. You know how they say you just know you’re in love? Well, I just knew I was in love with her stories about Claudia growing up in 1960s-1970s era Detroit. And I just knew they would coalesce at some point into a book…and now they have, and here is Robin’s novel, INVINCIBLE SUMMERS! So I had to catch up with her and hear the epic journey of the book, and I do mean “epic”: as you’ll see below, at one point this book was shoved into the drawer, abandoned.

A bit more about the novel, from Robin’s website:

After returning home from burying her father on Independence Day, ten-year-old Claudia Goodwin watches from the kitchen window as neighbors drag picnic tables and coolers into the middle of the street to celebrate the holiday. How, Claudia wonders, will she fit into this new fatherless world with the old one still going on around her?

 INVINCIBLE SUMMERS follows Claudia through eleven summers, from the age of six through twenty-three, as she adjusts with varying degrees of success to what it means to be a daughter, a sister, friend, and lover in a world of loss, betrayal and bad judgment.

And some pre-release praise:

“…Gaines has created an unforgettable character in Claudia, but by following her through eleven years of her life, she shows us how each one of us is many characters throughout a single lifetime….  At the end of this novel, we’ve lived alongside of Claudia, and the world’s many mysteries, and those of the human heart, have been laid bare.  This is the kind of reading experience for which literature was invented.”
~Laura Kasischke, recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry, 2012, for Space, in Chains

“INVINCIBLE SUMMERS explores the agony of family. …Gaines deftly manages that loss and the way it floats through time—not shrinking but morphing, not fading but fusing to all of Claudia’s experiences. …This is no simplistic tale of self-discovery, nor is it a dirge. It is, in Claudia’s own words, a restless search for nowhere fueled by moments of whimsy, humor, and hope. …”
~John Mauk, author of The Rest of Us and Field Notes for the Earthbound
And now the main event, Robin’s responses to a few questions about the writing process, life without an MFA, writing tips, and that epic journey of abandonment and redemption:

I’ve stolen this question from an interview someone did with me: Describe your book in 10 words or less. (I’ll spot you the words of the title!)

Invincible Summers follows Claudia’s journey through father loss, misunderstandings, hope, and forgiveness.

You don’t have an MFA in creative writing, which I know many people will find refreshing and interesting. Can you talk about your approach to studying the craft of writing since it didn’t involve graduate school?

After graduating college with a business degree I’ve never used I worked peripherally in the music business as a box office manager, assistant to a band’s manager (glorified secretary), and as a tour logistics coordinator all while writing concert reviews and interviewing rock bands for newspapers and magazines in the 1980s. I went back to school and got a master’s degree in journalism and worked briefly as a research intern for Rolling Stone magazine—my dream job. They offered me a position at the end of my glorious five-month stint in New York City, but unfortunately (or fortunately!!!) my husband was in the midst of starting his own business in Michigan, and I chose a life with him instead of Rolling Stone. Life is a series of what ifs!

Writing fiction came late for me. I’ve always been a big reader but never thought I could create a fictional world until I read somewhere that writing fiction was like interpreting a dream. Dream interpretation, heck yeah! I wish I remembered who said that or where I read it because it gave me the permission I needed to work at the craft. I got started by studying other writers’ work.

After reading a short story I admired or loved I’d type it out verbatim to pick up the rhythms, structures, and nuances in the stories. Then I would deconstruct the stories doing a kind of copy and paste thing. I’d apply (or at least try to) some of the same elements in my own stories, which were more Raymond Carver-esque early on. When I started to get some recognition locally through writing contests, I got the courage to send out work to journals. One of those early stories became the genesis for Invincible Summers.  

I think the disadvantage of not pursuing an MFA in creative writing is how lonely it felt in not having a community of writers to commiserate with, to get feedback from, and to partake in the general camaraderie in cheering one another on. In journalism, the editor sends your copy back to cut or re-write or add to, and there’s immediate evaluation of the work. Writers of fiction, as Jayne Anne Phillips writes in her sublime essay Outlaw Heart, “Writers focus perpetually on the half-seen, and we live in the dim or glorious shadows of partially apprehended shapes.” In other words, that dream-like quality that got me into the mess of writing fiction in the first place has been the hardest for me to get on the page, at least the way I see and hear it in my head. 

Reading taught me to write. With each book I read, I learn something new about the craft. Sometimes it’s not to do A, B or C, but most times it's oh, I am so stealing that structure or the beautiful rhythm of that sentence.

Since my early days, I’ve workshopped stories and chapters at different writing conferences and have been involved in a writing critique group of MFA graduates for the past several years. I’ve found my tribe, and that has helped tremendously with new work.

Plot or characters? Which comes first for you? Or is it something else?

Definitely characters. The physical being of at least one or two of them morphs from jiggly plasma into fleshed human beings with thoughts and feelings. This happens when I can hear their voice(s). Once I hear them conversing with themselves or each other, I move them around in my head until I settle on a scene. Then I ask what do they want from one another? What do they want from themselves?

I surprise myself sometimes writing, as when Claudia pushes Carrie off the airplane wing in the skydiving scene in Invincible Summers. Or in the novel I’m working on now when one of the characters uses an undiagnosed illness to manipulate a marriage. But always I know how it’s going to end for the characters—or at least I visualize the last scene when they’re all speaking or thinking or doing something. I write the ending in my head before I sit down to construct the first line of the story or the book. Which, I guess, in talking to other writers about craft is kind of strange? Some, I know, like the mystery of where the story will take them. I like a map of where I’m headed. It doesn’t mean I won’t take the occasional side trip, but I know where the road eventually ends.

(As a side note, I was mesmerized by the endings of each story in This Angel on My Chest. Brava! I love a good ending, and yours were exquisite.) 
EDITOR’S NOTE: Well…how could I edit this out? J

I think about revision a lot, and how that magic can happen when moving between drafts. What is your revision process?

Revision is magical. I wouldn’t have thought so until I went back to the beginning and read the manuscript as a reader. And then out loud. Most beginning writers, me included, are just happy to get to The End, and the idea of going over it again, and again, and again seems torturous.

Through rewrites what I found in the maze of the work were patterns and themes and symbols I didn’t intentionally write to. In several of the stories or chapters in Invincible Summers the narrator, Claudia, is traveling to or from someplace either on foot, or by car, train, plane, ferry, or bus. In the chapters she’s not moving toward something Claudia feels stuck, and she spies on the neighbors and steals and plots against her family.

On a second or third rewrite, I uncovered a thread of miscommunication between the characters throughout the manuscript. Again, I didn’t plan these miscommunications—well, maybe one when Claudia finally makes it to Corfu only to find Elliot has left the island. It’s interesting to see how the silence in the Goodwin family catapults Claudia’s behavior. That was a complete surprise.

Rewriting seems to bring me to the work faster in the morning as opposed to sitting down and starting with a blank page. So, there’s that magic, too.

What was your road to publication?

Fraught with potholes, quicksand, and wrong turns. Seriously, if you’re reading this, hooray! Invincible Summers has finally birthed into the world. I will drop to my knees when I finally have the finished copy in my hands.

I’m not sure about other authors’ journeys to see their book in print, but I would love to compare notes.

I finished the book in 2008 and after several rewrites, I sent it out to 10-15 agents in the fall. Two were interested after reading the manuscript. One was one of my dream agents. Sadly, she passed on the book when the publishing world flipped upside down and selling a novel-in-stories to a publisher seemed an insurmountable task. The other agent, at a well-known boutique agency, was young and with less experience but passionate about the book and took me on as a client until something happened in her personal and professional life and she decided to leave agenting and go back to school. Other agents told me to put the manuscript in a drawer until my next book, “a real novel,” was finished. The idea was to approach publishers with two books instead of one. So, like a good lapsed Catholic girl, I did what I was told and put my dream in a drawer. And Invincible Summers sadly stayed in the dark for three years while I worked on other projects.

Until the summer of 2013 when I read in Poets & Writers about open manuscript submissions for The Iowa Short Fiction & John Simmons Short Fiction Award for 2014. I was notified in January 2014 that Invincible Summers was a semi-finalist. From that letter, I sent the manuscript to indie publishers and found out in January (might be my lucky month) of 2015 that ELJ Editions wanted to publish my book in the summer of 2016!

So, here I am [at this writing,] waiting to hold that finished book in my hands and share it with the world. It all starts with a dream and some magic and a lot of hard work and loads of patience. Oh, the waiting. Like an elephant’s pregnancy.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The book is out now!!!!!!!!

More information about Robin:


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.