Interviewed by Diane Hall
Read Denise Robbins’ fiction piece, One Day Closer
Diane: What was the inspiration for the story One Day Closer?
Denise: A few things rumbled around my mind when I started writing this. My mom had just quit her job at a nursing home. I was having one of my yearly “do I ever want to have children?” crises—I still don’t. And California was experiencing record-breaking wildfires. Through all of this, a character in a nursing home was born who feels deeply for the people around her but is paralyzed by fear about impending doom and loss.
I’ve been working in the climate movement for more than a decade now. From time to time, I’ll see an article where an environmentalist pronounces that she’s never having kids and you shouldn’t either! This then inspires a cycle of predictable responses. I’m not opposed to people making this choice, but I won’t try to convince others to stop having kids. I don’t believe that personal lifestyle changes alone will solve global warming—oil companies want you to think that, to pass the blame. However, the fact that this is becoming a common question interests me. It’s interesting that young people these days are growing up with these hard questions around their shoulders.
I was thinking about how this question would play out in the mind of a woman who, in her heart, loves taking care of other people, but doesn’t want to have kids herself—for whatever reason. There are plenty of good reasons to not have children. In my opinion, if you don’t really extremely want children, you don’t need them. Kids are a life-changing experience, and some people (ahem) like their lives as they are now. But there are different forms of caretaking that don’t involve having children. I hope this isn’t a spoiler, but the protagonist in this story learns how to be a caretaker in a way that is right for her, not necessarily what’s expected of her.
This story is not about me, or my mom, or anyone I know. It’s about the part of my heart that worries over how the climate crisis will affect our relationships. The coronavirus crisis has laid some of that bare, partly for the worse. I’m sure many of us have fewer friends and acquaintances than we used to, but partly for the better, with deeper investment in the relationships we do maintain.
Structure was an important way for me to crack open this story. I had just finished reading Weather by Jenny Offill and was inspired by her use of “pointillism,” or fragmentary writing, to tell a larger story with discrete beautiful moments. These moments sometimes leap through time, so the reader needs to connect the dots and put the story together herself. I found that fascinating and fun to write. Through these small moments, I was able to explore the big questions of life, death, and everything in between.
In One Day Closer there are some great details that showcase the different relationships that form in nursing homes between staff, residents, and their families. Was there a life experience that gave you insight into these nuanced relationships?
My mom was a dietitian at a nursing home, so I’ve had the opportunity to visit throughout my childhood. I also volunteered there a little during college and I got a lot of fun secondhand gossip. There’s something about the atmosphere there that has always intrigued me. Everyone is calm and friendly, yet underneath, there is an expectation that death is around the corner. At a nursing home, death is part of life. The nursing home staff aim to make every day as comfortable and meaningful as possible for the residents. That might be why this story works in pointillism. Every moment matters for the sake of itself.
You have publications that span a broad spectrum of topics such as Oreos, climate change, love, and aging. Where do most of your writing ideas come from?
I feel seen. You picked out the four topics that matter absolutely the most to me! Let’s start with Oreos. I fell in love with Oreos during my vegan years (non-vegans are always surprised to hear that Oreos are vegan). When I hungrily watched friends eat cookies, I, too, now had access to cookies. There are a hundred flavors so I never got bored. More recently, it’s become a complicated relationship. The Oreo packages keep getting smaller as the prices increase. I was very upset to discover that they switched the packaging from hotdog-style to hamburger-style, allowing the box to stay the same size but with fewer Oreos. It was so deceptive! I wrote an angry email to the Oreo CEO. Secretly, though, I just wanted them to send me free Oreos. I still love Oreos. I’ve recently rediscovered how good Oreos are when dipped in milk. Oreo-flavored things are always great. People expect me to bring Oreos to parties, and no one is ever disappointed when I do. I could go on and on but I won’t. Okay, I already have.
Climate change, love, and aging. If you replace “aging” with “death,” those are the topics I think about most. And they are limitless. I think this is the case for any big idea. If you think about it enough, you’ll discover infinite ways into a story.
You are a climate activist and co-authored a book on Climate change – Rising Tides: Climate Change Refugees in the Twenty-first Century. How different was it to write a book compared to writing a shorter article or essay? Which do you prefer—writing longer works or shorter articles?
This particular book was different because it was nonfiction. A ton of research and reading went into it, but the writing itself was straightforward. Writer’s block didn’t exist. When I told myself to write a chapter about sea level rise in Asia, I simply wrote it. I don’t think I’ll write a nonfiction book again, though. It was a fascinating project about an issue I care about a lot, but I didn’t feel the same magic in it that I’ve found in writing fiction.
Writing that book helped prepare me to write a fiction novel. For me, the biggest difference between writing short stories and novels is the amount of research that goes into it. I only research as much as needed when I write short stories. When writing a novel, I research everything I can so I build a whole world and take the story wherever it wants to go. When you’ve prepared this massive world in your head, you can take your time with the story and let it breathe.
What is your writing pattern like? When do you find time to write? How do you find work/life balance?
Every morning, I wake up and write. This ‘write-every-day’ thing really works. I started it a few years ago, when I was working an intense full-time job as a communications director at a climate change nonprofit. I would wake up at five-thirty or six every morning. I was amazed to see how quickly my writing improved once I began this routine.
Right now, I’m in a period of flux. I’ve been saving up, so I left my communications director job in December with the intention to spend a full year doing a “DIY MFA”—a program inspired by Gabriela Pereira, where I would write, read, and study to my heart’s desire. But I also started freelancing, and that turned into forming my own communications consultancy business, so I can keep helping climate change nonprofits and have a bit of an income stream, which will let me extend this writing-reading-studying lifestyle beyond a year, perhaps indefinitely.
All this is to say that I’m extremely lucky right now to have the flexibility and time to write for hours every day. Now, instead of waking up at five-thirty, I get to wake up at seven, sometimes eight. But I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t spend years waking up at awful hours in the morning to sit at my desk in the dark. If I do go back to the 9-to-5 lifestyle, I’m sure the early mornings will resume.
What led you to want to write? Was there someone in particular who inspired you?
I started writing fiction after my college boyfriend died. He was hit by a car shortly after we graduated. He was a really significant person in my life; we dated for four years, he was my first love, and he was with me through many important changes and experiences of growth. When he died, I basically realized for the first time that I could die, too, and I mean really realized it, felt that it could happen any time. Writing became an important way for me to process and grieve. Throughout this, I started to question my legacy, what I would leave behind. Fiction feels more permanent than nonfiction. When done well, it’s timeless. So I started writing fiction, in a way, to combat death. What’s the opposite of death? Creation.
A caveat, though. I often struggle with this origin story. The plain facts are: He died, then I started writing fiction. But I hate the idea that I wouldn’t be writing fiction if he hadn’t died. I can’t stand the thought that his death was necessary to create this passion. I frequently go back to my journals around and before that time period. I believe I’ve found the seeds of my current self in there, and that I would have found my way to fiction eventually. It probably would have taken a little longer.
What is your favorite genre to read? What is your favorite genre to write? If they are not the same, why do you think they are different?
My reading tastes are very eclectic. I can fall in love with anything if it is written well, no matter the genre. I read sci-fi, fantasy, realist, surrealist, classic, modern… I’ll read it all, if the sentences are strong enough to carry me through. But perhaps it’s helpful to say the book I always recommend is A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. It’s unbelievably beautiful and incorporates fantastic time-changing elements while bringing in discussions of Zen philosophy. The characters are real and the plot is engaging. It has everything I want in a story all at once.
My writing tastes are nearly as eclectic, though I do find myself gravitating towards stories that are speculative, fantastic, or surreal in some way. Actually, realism is a challenge for me to write. I consider One Day Closer realism, and as I mentioned, the pointillist structure opened up the writing for me. With pointillism in mind, I could focus on discrete moments and make them matter. Lift them up above the real. I’ve been interested in this theme for a long time, how any individual moment can rise above itself and attain new meaning. Oftentimes this meaning is obtained through fantastic or surreal elements. It was a fun challenge to make each moment completely real and still rise above itself.
I am aware that there is a smidge of speculation in this story. There are small hints that it takes place in the near planet-warmed future. Just hints, though. All the octopi have died. There’s prolonged flooding in Madison. I didn’t make an intentional choice to include them. But it’s about global warming, so these speculative hints cropped up around the outskirts of the story.
What is an interesting fact about you that would not be found on your resume?
I just asked my boyfriend what is an interesting fact about me. He said: “We run a kombucha brewing empire within our house. We also run a correspondingly-sized kombucha consuming empire.” We’ve been brewing kombucha together for over a year now, and we’ve been drinking it all. He also says: “We auto-golpe our kingdom down, gulping just massive amounts of the stuff.” Apparently autogolpe means self-coup. Anyway. We love the ‘booch.
What is a technique you use to help get past writer’s block?
My technique is to have too many projects at the same time. As of this writing, I’m working on two new novels and writing new short stories once every week or two. I also write an essay once a week for an email newsletter. I have several stories I need to edit as well. Too many things!
But it’s nice, it’s how I thrive. I get to wake up and decide which world I want to live in that day. There’s always something to work on so if I ever feel really stuck on one particular project, I simply put it away and work on something else that excites me more. There’s always an old story that could use an edit. There’s always a new form of flash I could try instead. Then, by the time I return to that first project, I’m excited about it again.
Eventually, I’ll find a way to be more disciplined, but right now, this process is working for me. At least in terms of writer’s block. Too many stories need my attention!
As a climate change activist, do you see yourself writing more about the issue? If so, in what format or type of publication?
I’m finding climate change to be an incredible fount of inspiration. Here’s one example: Project Drawdown, edited by Paul Hawken, catalogues more than a hundred solutions to global warming. I hope to one day write a story about each one of these solutions. I’ve already written stories about high-speed trains, utility-scale battery systems, and the efforts to re-introduce woolly mammoths to the Russian tundra. Yes, woolly mammoths. It’s really cool.
On a bigger picture level, climate change is this huge, terrifying thing that most people don’t want to think about. And I get that, especially because of what I said earlier—that I don’t believe personal lifestyle choices will fix everything. But I need to be careful with those words because there is something to be said about efforts to make our relationship with food and transportation more sustainable—bigger cultural changes. And personal actions absolutely matter when they are plugged into a bigger network of activism. I’ve witnessed grassroots movements bring amazing changes. Overturning pipelines that once seemed inevitable. Banning fracking in Maryland. Passing clean energy legislation on the state levels. These wouldn’t have happened without the individuals who took part. (Here’s a really awesome podcast that tackles the question: what can one person do?)
Global warming doesn’t have to be scary. We have an amazing opportunity to reshape society and reshape history. It sounds dramatic, but it is dramatic, and it’s true! That’s what makes the topic so generative. It’s why I find it so important to write these stories. And why I hope it will make its way into other writers’ stories as well. The stories we tell about global warming matter. And they are limitless.