Reading Roxana Robinson’s latest novel, Cost, I was struck by how beautifully and naturally she writes about place, from the coast of Maine to the streets of New York. Consider this, for example – a coastal view from the perspective of a painter: “Julia’s studio was in the barn overlooking the meadow. Through the big picture window she had painted this many times, the rich rippling grass, the moving water beyond it, the glittering sea-bright light…. For the meadow, for that smoky pink grass, first an undercoat of dead green, for depth. Or maybe yellow, deep yellow, for vitality.” Or, later on, this visit to a drug dealer’s Brooklyn apartment: “The foyer was tiny, with scarred gray walls and a floor littered with Chinese restaurant flyers. The lock on the front door was heavily reinforced with metal plates, but the door itself stood slightly ajar. They went inside. There was no light, and they started gingerly upstairs in the dark.”
I wanted to know how Roxana approaches writing about place, and what she may have learned about her process over the years that could be helpful to others. So I wrote her and asked. Below is her thoughtful response:
When I teach, I tell my students that, first of all, you must write the scene so that your reader can see it. Sight is the sense we depend upon most, so, show us the room, or describe the forest path, or create the supermarket aisle, so that we feel as though we’re in it ourselves.
Place, the location, the setting, is integral to fiction. We’ll never forget the sense of openness and possibility, of well-groomed, natural loveliness, of the combination of freshness and candor with deep subtlety and venerability, that underlies the scene in “Portrait of a Lady,” when Isabel Archer has afternoon tea outside, on the lawn of an English country house. The velvet grass, the Persian rug, the tinkling cups. The glorious young woman, and the world before her.
But creating place isn’t simply a question of seeing, it’s a question of feeling as well. The way you feel about a place is the way your reader will come to feel about it – which is as it should be. So you must write from your heart about the place – about every place, a gas station on the New Jersey turnpike or your old kindergarten classroom. The way it makes you feel should be included in the description. Maybe you (or your character) are in a state of exaltation when you stop there for gas, and the way the sun gleams on the gas nozzles makes you giddy with joy. Maybe you hated your kindergarten teacher, the way her dress wrinkled across the hips, and her bad breath. Your feelings should go into the way you describe the wooden tables, the big windows, the boxes of blocks.
I often write about a place that I love. In my story collection A Perfect Stranger, the story “Assez” is, on one level, a love-letter to a part of France that I know very well. I wanted to write about that part of Provence, the way the wind sounds, the way the dark cypresses look, the way it feels to walk through a silent village late at night. So that part of the process of writing that story was really my own pleasure in remembering and revisiting a place I love so much.
In Cost, I did something similar. Much of the book is set on the coast of Maine, in an unnamed place. The book is centered on a shabby old clapboard farmhouse near the water, as the old saltwater farms often were. I have spend many summers on the coast of Maine, and it’s another region I know well and love, with its deep blue skies, bracing waters, staggering tides. But the house I describe is actually based on a particular saltbox cottage in Cape Cod, a place where I went as a child. So the book is, in a way, saying goodbye to a place that I felt very strongly about. It was a way of paying tribute to it, describing the place as I had known it. It was an opportunity for me to reveal, to the reader, the great delights of a place like that, for all its shabbiness and quirks. The house I knew was a place of great solace, solid and silent, peaceful, sheltering and beautiful in its deep connection to its surroundings: the lilacs outside the windows, the apple orchard gone wild in the meadow, the water in the cove, murmuring at the bottom of the hillside.
Because the house was so beloved, it became an integral part in the narrative. That wasn’t something I planned beforehand, but it somehow wrote itself into the story, because the house, and the landscape around it, were such a powerful presence.
Place should always be a part of the narrative – and it always is, really. What two people say to each other in a small stuffy bedroom will be very different from what they say to each other in a noisy train station.
And it’s also just as important for me to visualize the scene before I write it. I’m describing it for myself as much as for the reader, allowing myself to enter into that space, and those emotions. Here we are, I’m saying, this is how it looks. This is how it feels to be here. Now we’ll begin.
Roxana Robinson is a critically acclaimed fiction writer, author of four novels (including her latest, Cost) and three collections of short stories. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, and The Atlantic; it has appeared often in Best American Short Stories, and has been widely anthologized and broadcast on National Public Radio. Four of her works have been chosen Notable Books of the Year by The New York Times, and she was named a Literary Lion by The New York Public Library. She has received Fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the MacDowell Colony. Her website is www.roxanarobinson.com.