Interviewed by Sommer Schafer
Read A.R. Robins’ fiction piece, Philomel
Sommer: This story is very meta: it is a story about a woman who’s been molested writing a story about a woman who has been sexually assaulted. And as she considers her character’s inner dialogue, she is having her own inner dialogues: one as she writes her story, and another that appears in footnotes that shows the reader actual things she’s said over the years. It’s an interesting and varied way to get a richly developed picture of this wounded person. How did you decide upon the format for this story? And, given Philomel’s capacity to dodge the real issue, how did you keep her from usurping (or sabotaging) the story entirely?
A.R.: When I started writing, I was feeling exhausted and inspired by the wave of #metoo hashtags filling up my social media. Inspired because I could see that something was changing. Exhausted because I didn’t want to talk about it anymore. People think the reason why so little is done to combat sexual violence is because victims don’t tell their story. I feel like I never stop telling mine. I wanted to write something about that. The footnotes developed later in the process. They work because they are easy to ignore. It is important for the reader to make an effort to hear her.
Your final question is interesting because I’m not positive that I was able to keep her from sabotaging the story. There were a lot of moments when I felt like I wasn’t making her enough of a victim. Some people could say she doesn’t fight enough against her abusers and she doesn’t always see them as abusers. I tried to be honest.
I love the irony about writing and the writing industry in this story. This is hilarious: “One of them got published in a mid-tier journal and then nominated for a Push Cart,” as are Philomel’s comments on her peers’ stories. Both Philomel and writing seem to be masters of sleight of hand and illusion—I guess in many ways they’re perfect for each other. Did they develop together as you crafted this story, or did the issue of one present itself before the other?
Making her a writer was an early decision. When I decided to connect this story to the rape of Philomela, I thought about the kinds of art she created in response to her rape: the tapestry, her nightingale song. I thought about how strange the myth would be if Philomel went to workshops and submitted her art to editors. It was fun to expose that part of writing, to pull it out a little and talk about it. It’s a part of writing that most writers deal with. When we read about fictional writers, we usually see the parts that most writers never deal with, like seven figure book advances and agents.
It takes Philomel the entire story to finally pseudo-reveal the horrible truth of the matter, ending the story with, “…he ripped up my shorts, and that really upset me.” Here the astute reader can see another irony: Philomel is actually still that young girl (unable to fully mature), using the ripped shorts as a cover for the tremendous harm done to her by her stepfather’s sexual abuse. You do a masterful job at showing us the depth of her wounds and the complexity of her character. How did you approach writing her? Do you write character sketches before embarking on a story?
I began with a few thematic goals. Mostly I began with exhaustion, exhaustion with this country, with this culture, and with myself for always writing about my trauma even when I’m not writing about it. I stayed with that feeling for as long as I could, building as much around it as I could. When I started writing her footnotes, I really got to know her, to understand what kind of person I was dealing with.
A lot of my stories begin with a theme or an emotion that I try to build around. This means a lot of messiness because I’m not always sure who my characters are or where they will end up.
I’m a fan of stories that feel as if they keep going after they end. The end of your story doesn’t feel like an ending. Yet, it also doesn’t feel as if it keeps going. It feels as if Philomel just can’t get past the shorts; will be worrying the fact of those shorts for maybe years to come. Thus, the ending feels like a drop, and it works given the nature of Philomel and the spiraling nature of the story. What are your thoughts on endings? How do you know when a story for you is finished?
With this story, I really wanted to explore how trauma appears and reappears in the art we create. When Philomel begins her story, it looks as if she will resolve or has already resolved this trauma, but it isn’t over for her. This has not been her first attempt at a resolution and it will not be her last. You are right that she doesn’t have anywhere new to go yet.
I try to make sure there is a character arc before ending a story. For me, Philomel’s growth depends on her relationship with her daughter and her ex-husband. In general, once I’ve developed an arc, I try to end with a good line or a good image, something a little jarring. The shorts felt like the right image to end with, but I’ve debated with myself about it because they are a new problem for the reader, though they are not a new problem for Philomel. It works because that’s how trauma works. Once you address it, something new and scary pops up and now you are dealing with another part of the same problem.
Do you have any advice for writers on handling rejection?
Be proud of your rejections. Many people write but don’t send out their work because of their fear of rejection. If you have a lot of rejections, that makes you pretty damn brave.