Robinson imagines the lives of her great-grandparents in an unrepentant South two decades after the end of the Civil War in Dawson’s Fall (FSG/Crichton, May).
You address contemporary issues—addiction, PTSD—in your recent work. Why move to historical fiction?
The impetus for my fiction is something that confuses and disturbs me; here I wanted to explore the subject of slavery in America and my own family’s connection to it. The subject existed in the past, so that’s where I had to go to write about it. I think of this as rich and complicated literary terrain, the setting for great historical novels like Wolf Hall, Beloved, and War and Peace. It makes immediacy more difficult. But since my family was a source, I had direct access to their experience, both through their archive and also through the culture that families pass down to their descendants. And, as in all my novels, I was exploring the moral consequences of our behavior.
You’ve explored familial bonds in your other novels. Dawson’s Fall tackles the weight of history and place upon individuals. Is there a link?
Family is essential. It’s the crucible for our greatest stories. This book is about a family caught up in the currents of national history. There is definitely a connecting link among my books—it’s the question of moral consequences. What interests me is the responsibility we bear for what we do. Here I’m exploring the moral consequences of slavery.
You don’t whitewash the brutality of slavery. What were your thoughts as you worked through your family’s history?
Since my great-grandfather was an editor, I read through old issues of his paper, to learn his views. I became aware of a lethal strain of violence. People killed each other all the time, over nothing. They killed each other with knives and fists and ropes, but mostly with guns: violence permeated Southern society. As an institution, slavery is based on violence. This meant that the slave-owning states had a different relationship to violence. In 1878, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont each reported one murder. South Carolina reported 128. After emancipation, the tradition of violence continued.
Did you grow up hearing stories of the Dawsons?
I did, and I’d read Sarah’s Civil War diaries when they were republished, but at that time I felt no inclination to pursue the family history. As you are growing up, you are trying to create your own discrete identity. You put your family history away. Then, when you have become yourself, it’s safe to look at the family from which you came. For some reason, these stories took on an urgent, clarion note.
Was it difficult weaving historical incidents into those you imagined?
I made up almost nothing. I drew on historical documents and first-person Congressional testimony for dialogue, and on family stories from my grandmother, whom I knew. It reminded me of writing Georgia O’Keeffe’s biography. I was given a wonderful set of characters and a fascinating story—all I had to do was set it down.