Roxana Robinson has written historic novels like Dawson’s Fall, a biographical novel based in part on the writings of her great-grandmother Sarah Morgan Dawson during the 1860s, her husband and her brother) and contemporary novels like Sparta, for which she spent four years interviewing Iraq War veterans.
Her new novel, Leaving, is more intimate, an emotionally nuanced domestic tale that revolves around Sarah and Warren, who were in love in college and reunite forty years later in a chance meeting at the opera. Their reignited passion sets off reverberations throughout their families. Echoes of Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf hover, but the storyline is sharply modern; twenty-first century manners underlie the affair and its accompanying moral arguments and emotional disturbances. The ending is both authentic and shocking. “In an opera, the tragedy involves passion and honor,” Robinson writes. Our email conversation connected two coasts.
Jane Ciabattari: How has your writing life gone during these years of pandemic and turmoil?
Roxana Robinson: During the quarantine, stuck at home like everyone else, I should have been able to write voluminously, but I could not. Everything seemed provisional. I was waiting for the whole ghastly thing to end, like a bad dream but it did not. Waiting, I couldn’t function. I was drained of energy: the tide had gone out. I was despondent, a state much more powerful than it sounds. I kept a journal, and each day I wrote down what I had done that day. Some days it was simply: Laundry. Or: bought food. I could hardly get out of bed. I wore the same sweater every day for six months (I threw it away when I got the vaccine).
It was difficult to write, to drag myself from the place of enervation all the way to the place of creation, where you must brim with energy. Simply living your life, making meals and doing laundry, doing normal things, was like trying to ski while carrying a huge bucket of water on your shoulder. You were overbalanced by something completely extraneous. The sense of fear and uncertainty was overwhelming—the fact that our government was not protecting us, our president was not even admitting what was happening, the fact that there was no vaccine, that we were all vulnerable to something silent and invisible and lethal, was devastating.
I had never been so aware of what it meant to depend on government for protection. I had always taken for granted the fact that our government would protect us. I assumed that in a crisis of public health the government would take charge. But our president did not take charge, and did not protect us. Hundreds of people were dying every day. It was draining. I could barely move. It was hard to imagine a reason for writing. It was impossible to summon the energy to do it.
I want to set down what real intimacy is—uncertain, hopeful, fragile.
JC: How were you able to write Leaving?
RR: I had started it earlier, and I was able to finish it during the pandemic. After that I had a very hard time starting something else.
JC: What was the inspiration for Leaving?
RR: I always write about something that troubles and interests me, something I see in the world around me that I need to work out in my mind. For this book, I began noticing that romance, a real emotional engagement, in the second half of your life, was something complex and interesting—and completely different from romance in your twenties. There are things you are not prepared for, things you had never imagined. I was watching people behave in ways that were completely new.
The sexual liberation movement changed the public view of relationships, which meant that respectable older people could live together without being married, and without censure. I remember being at a fund-raiser, years ago, and talking to a couple who were in their seventies or eighties. He was a widower, maybe she was a widow. They were not married. He said affably, “We’re living in sin. We’re not going to get married because it would upset the legal arrangements. And it would upset our children.”
I saw that the old rules no longer mattered: this wasn’t a pair of radical bohemians trying to shock the bourgeoisie. They were the bourgeoisie. I started thinking about what a romance at this age—sixty—might entail. What the complications would be when you were still perfectly healthy, so that old age would not be the issue, but other things would intrude, and affect your decisions in ways you had not considered.
JC: You begin with Sarah and her college boyfriend Warren meeting unexpectedly during intermission at the opera, decades after their relationship ended. How did you reach that opening (including the opera, Tosca)? Was that what you had in mind from the start?
RR: I don’t know where the opera opening came from. I don’t think it occurred to me before I typed the first sentence. But the scene was connected to a moment, years ago, when I saw someone I knew at the Met. I was down on the lower level and she was on the next, upper level. She was leaning over the railing, very relaxed and easy, looking down at the crowd. There was a man behind her, and she spoke to him over her shoulder. He was her husband. She didn’t see me. She was a teacher of mine, an art history professor whom I admired. I was watching her, unawares, in public, in a moment of intimacy.
That moment always stayed with me—seeing someone in a crowd, unexpectedly. And the opera was a great opening setting, because it introduces the presence of high art, of beauty and of passion, the possibility of tragedy. I used Tosca because I love that opera, and because I found that particular production, the one I describe, very moving.
JC: At once Sarah is of two minds. “He’d asked her to come out for a drink afterward but she’d said no. She’d said it would be too late. Actually it had been too sudden. She couldn’t decide, in that moment, if she wanted to sit across from him again, letting him look into her.” Her ambivalence is intriguing. How were you able to capture that aspect of this relationship throughout the novel?
RR: This wasn’t something I was conscious of—it was just part of Sarah’s character. I wrote a lot about Sarah in the beginning, about her parents, her family, her childhood, so that I would know her character very well. Once I knew her, she was consistent throughout the book. She was brave in some ways, but uncertain and timid in others. Her parents hadn’t given her much experience of intimacy, and it was something she was afraid of. So any gesture of real intimacy unsettles her, maybe it frightens her. Yet it is something she yearns for.
JC: Sarah is divorced. Warren, she discovers, is still married, but, he says, ready to leave his wife. The two of them seem committed for some time. Until they aren’t. How did you plot the pacing of this love story and its complications, which structure the novel?
RR: I never plot or pace or plan the structure. I just write the story. This is what the characters did, in this order. I just write it down.
JC: Your erotic scenes are beautifully wrought. Was that difficult to accomplish? What were the challenges?
RR: Thank you for that compliment! Whenever I write about this subject I feel the cold warning hand of memory, reminding me that John Updike, king of the intimate sexual encounter, once received the Lifetime Achievement Award for Bad Sex in Fiction from the Literary Review. I’m reminded that it’s possible to be too explicit, to force your reader to learn more than she wants. I don’t want that.
I don’t want the reader to feel like a voyeur, watching a porn film. Instead, I want the reader to understand how it feels to be Sarah, in these scenes, and how it feels to be Warren. How it feels for them to meet in such an awkward and vulnerable state. I want to set down what real intimacy is—uncertain, hopeful, fragile. Dependent on trust.
JC: You also tell the story of Sarah’s daughter Meg and Warren’s daughter Kat. Each exerts a powerful pull on the relationship, illustrating the power of parental love. What do the differences between these daughters and their attitudes toward the affair reveal?
I always want to give two sides to a story. There are always two sides.
RR: I am always struck by how important children are in our lives, that they play a hugely powerful part no matter how old they are. Both daughters encounter broken marriages: both responded with fury. Kat feels utterly wounded by her father’s actions, and she takes her mother’s side with a passion. Meg is now long past feeling resentment at her parents’ divorce. She is largely consumed by her own complex and busy life, but when she realizes her mother’s need, she offers love and comfort.
JC: At what point did you decide to tell this story through more than one point of view? How did that change the narrative?
RR: A good question. I probably chose to include Warren when his point of view appears—in chapter four. I didn’t want Sarah to be the only one in charge of this story, because she can’t know everything in Warren’s life, and his life is just as important as hers. Her point of view is limited, like everyone’s. I wanted both characters to have full voices, I wanted the reader to learn about their lives from their own personal perspectives.
Sarah wouldn’t be able to know about Warren’s marriage, the intimate moments of it. This must come from Warren, we must learn from him about the deep love, and the profound pain that he experiences. I always like to write from a very close point of view—I want the reader to feel her nose is pressed against the glass of the character, as though she is inhabiting that person. That gives the story energy, but it’s limiting. If you do that, then you need to write from other points of view as well. I always want to give two sides to a story. There are always two sides.
JC: Your ending is shattering, and foretold, yet unexpected. Without any spoilers, what can you say about crafting this conclusion?
RR: Writing the last chapters was challenging because I wanted to make the ending feel inevitable in retrospect, without giving anything away in advance. I kept putting things in to inform and taking them out as too obvious.
JC: What are you working on now/next?
RR: I’m working on another novel which I won’t discuss—I never talk about fiction while I am writing it. Also a nonfiction book about gardening and the natural world. I think a lot of writers are also gardeners, or at least close observers of the natural world. And as our world becomes more imperiled the natural aspects of it seem more urgently important.
I’ve been gardening for years, and my attitude toward The Garden has changed over time, adjusting for new things that are just as important as aesthetics used to be—now it’s climate change and invasive plants and pests. And I have always been just as interested in The Critters—skunks, possums, butterflies, birds, whoever shows up—as I am in the flowers. So this is a sort of garden/nature memoir.
Leaving by Roxana Robinson is available from W.W. Norton & Company.