Open Book with Roxana Robinson
The story of Francis Dawson, an Englishman who fought for the Confederacy and founded The News and Courier in Charleston, S.C., was famous in Roxana Robinson's family. But it wasn't until some historians invited Robinson down to South Carolina for a Dawson-related event that the author's interest in her great-grandfather's experiences acquired a certain vigor, a curiosity strong enough, ultimately, to compel her to depict much of his life in "Dawson's Fall" (Sarah Crichton Books, $27), a novel that was published May 14. Using Dawson's letters and editorials, as well as the writings of his wife, Sarah Morgan, and other sources, Robinson details that a newspaper's survival wasn't the most important thing weighing on her late family member.
"The more I thought about him and focused on him, the more I became interested in the larger issue of the American South and the legacy of slavery and why it became part of the culture, why it became so deeply embedded in our country," Robinson said.
Her personal connection intensified that reflection.
"If you are from the North, which I am, and you find out that parts of your family are from the South and that they supported the Confederacy, which was designed to support slavery, then you start asking yourself questions about who the people are who support slavery, and why was it possible for people of good intentions and goodwill to be part of that culture?" Robinson said. "Because we can't simply eliminate everyone in the South and say, 'Everyone who supported slavery was a bad person.' It was a bad institution, but the entire South supported it, so how did that happen? I became very interested in this moral conundrum because it applied to my family. We all want to think that our family are people that we can be proud of, so how could I be proud of him if he crossed the ocean to fight for something that I found profoundly unconscionable?"
The author of six novels, three short story collections and a Georgia O'Keeffe biography will be in conversation with fellow author Amy Bloom at 4 p.m., Thursday at The Mount ($15 general admission, $10 for members). Robinson answered some questions about her favorite books and writers in advance of the event. The interview has been edited for length.
QWhat are some of your favorite novels that, at their core, are about family?
AI think that all great novels are about the family. I think the family is kind of the nexus of the human experience. It's the place where we first learn our strongest emotions, love and fear, and it's the place where we learn how to address the world. It's extremely important what those formative responses are. If your parents are frightened of the world, you may grow up frightened of the world. If your parents think everyone is out to get them, you will be fearful. Conversely, if your parents are generous and warmhearted and open-spirited, you will probably be like that. So, I think the family is really where the most powerful emotions lie. One of my favorite books about the family is "To the Lighthouse" by Virginia Woolf, which is really about children and parents. Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay are wonderful portraits of complicated parents and what their effects are on the children. It's extraordinarily precise and tender, and it's intellectual as well as emotional in its impact. So, that might be my favorite. I also love "Anna Karenina" [by Leo Tolstoy], which is about three different families, and it's a book that I teach [at Hunter College]. I tell my students that these are examinations of three different marriages and the way husbands and wives relate to each other. And "King Lear" [by William Shakespeare], not a novel, but a great work of fiction based upon the family.
What is your favorite book about the Civil War?
I don't have one. ... When I write about a subject — the last one I wrote was "Sparta," which was about the Iraq War and a Marine coming home from it — the Iraq War and the Civil War are such large topics that I knew if I was going to write about them, I couldn't start out by becoming a scholar. It would take me, you know, 20 years to catch up with all the scholarship on the Civil War. So, what I did with both books and actually all the books I've written, is to deal with first-person narratives. The research I did was based on primary sources. I did ancillary research to find out facts and dates, but much of it was done based on family documents, [including a large archive of letters and journals at Duke University]. Since Dawson was an editor, I used The Post and Courier, which is a current version of the newspaper he founded, The News and Courier, I used their historical archives so I knew what he was thinking every day for 20 years. He would write an editorial, so I could see exactly what had caught his attention and how he felt about it. My great-grandmother Sarah's book, her Civil War diary, which is called "A Confederate Girl's Diary," that was published, so that was a great source for me. That's what she was going through in Baton Rouge during the Civil War. Her brother wrote a book called "Recollections of a Rebel Reefer" by James Morgan. And then Dawson himself wrote ["Reminiscences of Confederate Service"]. Those three published books, plus all the documents, were really my sources for that period because I wanted to focus on the people, not the larger issue. As I said, I did ancillary reading to give myself a sense of context, but I didn't want to read other people's interpretations of the war.
Who are some of your favorite short story writers?
John Updike is one. William Trevor is another. And James Joyce, of course. Let's see ... Elizabeth Taylor, the English novelist, is a wonderful short story writer. [Anton] Chekhov, of course.
Do you have a favorite short story?
It's probably Updike's "Separating."
What books are currently on your nightstand?
A book that I discovered a bit late — everyone else knew about it, apparently — is called "Milkman" by Anna Burns. It won the Booker [the Man Booker Prize] last year or the year before [it was in 2018], but I only encountered it recently. It's a really wonderful, strong, powerful book. I liked it particularly because it seemed to me to do something similar to what Elena Ferrante was doing in her Neapolitan Quartet, which is to write about what happens to society when it's contaminated by crime and by violence. We have writers who write about crime and violence, and writers who write about children and families, but it's not usually the same writer. And what Ferrante and Burns do is write about the reality of the family in the presence of crime and violence. It's an incredibly powerful, beautifully written book, and she is kind of radical in her use of, not exactly form, but she challenges you to take charge of the narrative in ways that we don't expect. For example, she doesn't use any given names. Everyone is described by the way they fit into the narrative. The narrator is called "middle sister," and it takes you a long time to figure out how many siblings she has. You start off assuming it's one number, and then you learn it's a very different number. The "Milkman," the title turns out to be two people; there are two people called "milkman," and they play very different roles. It's set in Ireland, but she doesn't tell you if it's Northern Ireland or Southern Ireland, and she talks about the wrong religion and right religion, but she doesn't say which is which. She challenges all of your assumptions, all of your stereotypes. If she said, "We lived in Northern Ireland," you would make your own assumptions about that. You already know what you think about that. She doesn't tell you. So, you have to figure it out from the clues that she gives you. She creates a whole society, but you have to name it. It's a wonderful exercise, as well as a very troubling portrait of violence in a community.
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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