Roxana Robinson lives on the southern edge of the territory she has claimed for her own in fiction: New York City's Upper East Side, residential headquarters of the nation's WASP elite. Her spacious apartment between Park and Lexington Avenues is filled with antique furniture and oil paintings, one a full-length portrait of Robinson in a strapless black evening gown commissioned from an artist who later painted President George Bush. A table in the living room holds vintage snuff boxes collected by the author and her husband, investor Hamilton Robinson, as well as a silver cigarette case that belonged to his father.
Dressed in black jeans and a T-shirt topped by a printed blouse, her straight brown hair loose and her face makeup-free, the 51-year-old writer sits casually in a wing chair, her feet drawn up underneath her, nursing a cup of tea. She seems serenely at home in the advantaged world her characters inhabit in the short-story collections A Glimpse of Scarlet and Asking for Love and in her new novel, This Is My Daughter. Yet it took a while, she says, to lose her self-consciousness about it as the setting for her fiction.
"WASPs have been on the top of the heap for a long time in this country, but in the '50s and '60s they started losing ground. So that any mention of WASPs is now ironic; you expect the adjective to be deprecating. It was hard for me to write about people who were affluent and privileged without a kind of conspiratorial aside to the reader that I understood that they were in some way morally deficient."
Robinson, on the contrary, treats her protagonists sympathetically and respectfully as she limns with psychological precision their complex relationships. This Is My Daughter, out from Random House, chronicles the often tense interactions of Emma, an editor at an art magazine, and Peter, a lawyer, as they struggle to build a new family with the reluctant participation of Tess and Amanda, their respective daughters from previous marriages. As usual, Robinson excels in depicting the emotional fallout from divorce: Emma and Peter feel guilty, regarding the breakups as moral failures on their parts; Tess and Amanda are angry and confused; the ex-spouses, Warren and Caroline, are vindictive and not above manipulating the children to get back at their former mates.
This is familiar terrain for Robinson. The author, who has a 25-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, has touched on the divided loyalties and difficult adjustments inherent in second marriages in almost everything she's written. "I think it's a very interesting dynamic that has a very broad resonance right now," she remarks.
"The traditional love story includes two participants who are adult and who are in love. If you have children from a previous marriage, you have any number of main characters, and only the two adults are positive they want to make this work. There's this notion in America that you can always have a fresh start, but you are not starting over here: you are setting out on a whole new project with resistant partners."
The question of how to deal with these resistant partners prompts bitter arguments between Emma and Peter that frighten them both; the author makes it clear that two people who love each other might not be able to work things out. "The arguments are meant to be scary," Robinson says. "In the group I write about, arguments are repressed and postponed; these people are not used to letting off steam very easily, so when they do, it's very serious."As in all of Robinson's fiction, her characters' financial ease and physical comfort are merely a backdrop for their internal lives. Unlike Edith Wharton or Louis Auchincloss, she does not portray people scheming to rise in society or to keep intruders out of it. Her protagonists' concerns, like their author's, are domestic. "I don't write about money and class," says Robinson. "Those things don't interest me at all. What interests me are the politics of the family. And families are families. You know, Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear are dramas of the family. The only reason they're perceived in a wider arena is that they're about kings, so anything that happens to them affects the whole country."
A Class Apart
Her immediate family gave Robinson an intriguing perspective on the American elite: within it, yet not entirely of it. Both her grandfathers were lawyers, and "everybody went to Harvard," but her father, Stuyvesant Barry, declined to follow the traditional career path.
"He went to St. Bernard's, St. Paul's, Harvard and Harvard Law; he was meant to take over his father's law firm in New York," says Robinson. "Then he made a complete life change: left the law, became a schoolteacher, became a Quaker, was prepared to be a conscientious objector during the Second World War -- and his father had been a colonel. My mother, Alice Scoville, was from Philadelphia, went to Shipley [a fashionable Main Line school] and Vassar, but they both took on a new sort of life. They moved down to Kentucky, where I was born, and taught at a mountain school, then went back to Pennsylvania, where he was the head of Buckingham Friends. It was an odd mix growing up, moving back and forth between my parents' and my grandparents' worlds."
Roxana Barry shared her parents' love of books, and teachers at Buckingham Friends and Shipley praised her youthful writing abilities. "Since I was ambivalent about teachers," she recalls, "it made me ambivalent about writing. I was slightly rebellious, didn't see myself as doing whatever I was told, so the fact that I was told early on that I should write put me off."
Nonetheless, she studied creative writing at Bennington with Bernard Malamud. The conjunction of a Jewish-American novelist with a scion of the WASP aristocracy may seem unlikely, but Robinson credits Malamud as a formative influence on her work. "He never suggested that I change the way I wrote," she recalls. "He gave me that sense of meticulousness that is so crucial. He was a small, methodical man, and he told us that you had to sit down and write every day -- no waiting for inspiration. Of course, we all know this now, but to a 19-year-old it was a revelation. His calm, focused attentiveness to craft was what stayed with me."
The name of the contemporary writer whose books had the most profound impact on Robinson is less surprising. "Updike was the one," she comments. "If I'm a writer, it's because he taught me. I think he's the best living writer in the English language, and he's driven by compassion, which is the most interesting emotion to explore."
As Robinson discusses her work and her literary influences, the adjective she often uses to describe her characters, "conscientious," seems apt for their creator as well. She considers questions carefully and answers them thoughtfully, even phoning her interviewer later to clarify a point she felt hadn't been made lucidly enough. She saves her psychological insights for her work, sketching her personal history briefly and factually.
Robinson dropped out of Bennington after two years and got married, finishing her B.A. at the University of Michigan, where her husband was in business school, in 1969. Her major was English, but she wound up working for the next four years in the American painting department at Sotheby's in New York. "I had taken some history of art courses, and I got the job through friends. It was a wonderful education: we sold about a thousand paintings a year, and I probably looked at triple that; it gave me a range of experience I would not have gotten in school. I was writing fiction in a very secretive, ineffective way, and in fact I started publishing art history [in the mid-1970s] because I couldn't get my fiction published."
Divorced and remarried, Robinson began to break into the short-story market on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Her work appeared in McCall's, the New Yorker and the Southern Review in the United States. Publication in a British literary periodical, the Fiction Magazine, prompted a letter from an English editor asking if Robinson had a novel -- "and of course I did!" Summer Light was issued by J.K. Dent in 1987; Viking released it in the States the following year, with a few changes made by editor Amanda Vaill (whose biography of Gerald and Sara Murphy has just appeared from Houghton Mifflin). Still in print in a University Press of New England paperback edition, Summer Light addresses, in a slightly tentative manner, subjects Robinson would explore more deeply in later works, including a divorced woman with a child hesitantly embracing new love and the complicated relationships among a group of intelligent, self-analytical people.
Ironically, just as Robinson felt she was settling into life as a fiction writer, she received a nonfiction offer she couldn't refuse. Edward Burlingame, a personal friend who then had his own imprint at Harper &Row, invited her to undertake a biography of Georgia O'Keeffe, who had just died. Although Robinson had recently vowed to give up art-history writing, she promptly accepted. "It was such an extraordinary opportunity," she explains. "O'Keeffe was a towering figure with a hugely powerful grasp on people's imaginations, and there was very little published about her. It would be like writing a biography of Virginia Woolf if no one else had ever done it. It was just irresistible."
Immersing herself in the vast O'Keeffe archives at Yale, which included hundreds of personal letters, Robinson found that "there are a lot of ways in which biography and fiction overlap. The kind of delving into people's personalities that you do is very similar to writing fiction: you need to understand the characters as completely as possible before you write about them. But instead of creating them in my head and having to think up a plot, I could just tell the story."
Published by Harper &Row in 1989, Georgia O'Keeffe: A Life was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award and made the New York Times list of recommended books for the year. Burlingame also edited A Glimpse of Scarlet, which appeared in 1991 to excellent reviews. But when Burlingame was fired from HarperCollins following the company's acquisition by Rupert Murdoch, Robinson changed houses.
"HarperCollins was not really supportive of literary fiction, as far as I could tell," she says. "So I went to Random House." Susanna Porter handled the 1996 publication of Asking for Love, but "my story collections really get no editing," says the author. "I do them so exhaustively there isn't room for the shift of a comma. Susanna did suggest some cuts in This Is My Daughter, which I was perfectly happy about.
"The form of a novel is more forgiving and more voluminous, sort of like baggy trousers -- I kept remembering that you could take a whole chapter and write about the whiteness of the whale! In a short story, nothing can be there that isn't directly germane to the last moment: not an adjective, not a sentence, nothing can be extraneous to this perfect curve that you're trying to create. In a novel that's not true; I put in lots of things just for fun. So if Susanna said, 'We don't need to know this much about such-and-such,' I said, 'Fine: take out three pages.' "
Now working on a new novel, once again about struggles within a family, Robinson hasn't written any stories since handing in This Is My Daughter a year ago. "I might," she says, "but maybe I'll just use all the material in my next novel instead." It's also still possible that she'll write another biography. "People ask me all the time, because biography is so popular now, but the subjects they've suggested have either not been as powerful [as O'Keeffe] or were someone everyone has heard of and read 15 books on. But it's not out of the question."
As in her fiction, Robinson doesn't make sweeping statements. She prefers to deal with the moment, and let life unfold as it will, while she observes with interest.