Every once in a while, you meet someone that just makes you smile. Dean Robertson, author of Looking for Lydia; Looking for God, invited me into her home and she was so supportive and very open with me. I couldn’t ask for more than that.
Hi, Dean! Most writers strive towards a career of just writing, but how do you think that is different because you are already retired? What are your ambitions for your writing career?
I guess all those years of reading and teaching literature and recognizing and admiring good writing were my preparation for writing when I didn’t even realize it. My first writing experience, as I wrote in my guest blog for you, was unusual and not anything I could call the beginning of “career of just writing.” I wasn’t even planning to write that book. Right now I am writing every day—mostly reviews of other people’s books and my own blog posts and I am editing manuscripts. I seem not to be able to not write—even if it’s answering these questions for you. My “ambitions” for my writing career, I suppose, include figuring out more strategies for marketing Looking for Lydia, continuing to write a weekly blog post, and when the time is right writing another book, and another one after that.
How do you think being an English teacher impacted your writing? Were you more critical of yourself?
I partly answered that in the first question. All that reading and thinking and talking about good literature and good writing just sank in at some deep level over many years. I don’t know if I was more “critical” of myself, but I do instinctively write, read, rewrite, craft sentences, and choose words very carefully and thoroughly. Without planning or any real effort I produced a clean manuscript on first draft; I think all that reading just instilled in me an intuitive grasp of sentence structure. I grew up and spent my life looking at the printed word. So, maybe not critical but certainly demanding. Once I’ve produced that first draft, I go over and over and over it until it “sounds” right to me.
You gave me a great tip about the editing process: reading aloud. Can you go into more detail about that?
There’s a long story behind that which I’ll try to keep short. When I first taught Faulkner to a class of high school juniors I found that the most effective way to “explain” some of the passages was to read them out loud, several times, and say to the class, “just listen.” And they did. Out of that grew a monthly play reading at my house—at the students’ request—where they came over, with lots of junk food, on a Sunday afternoon, and we assigned parts and stayed until we had read a whole play—we read everything from “Boys In The Band,” to “Hamlet.” That started the whole reading aloud thing. Then somehow I transferred that, probably along with my whole childhood experience of being read to, into having students read their essays out loud to themselves and each other as a way of “editing” before their final draft.
So—fast forward to today—that is how I edit manuscripts for other people. If you bring me your book and we agree that I’m going to edit it, what that looks like is that you and I are going to spend a lot of time on the telephone, both of us with the manuscript in front of us, and we are going to take turns reading it aloud, every single word, until we “hear” where the problems are and then again “hear” how something might sound better. In nearly thirty years of doing it this way, I’m going to say there’s about a 100% chance that it will produce a 100% better finished product. It’s hard work; it takes a lot of time. In the last six months I have worked with a writer of an “intergalactic romance,” and the author of a children's detective story. Neither had ever done it this way; both are sold!!
I see this isn’t very short :-) A final word: that’s how I edit my own writing. I never let anything go without reading it out loud a whole bunch of times. When I was writing Lydia, my cousin in Texas and I spent hours and hours on the telephone reading that book out loud to each other.
If you had written a book thirty years ago, do you think it would have been similar to the book you wrote now?
My first response to that was simply “No.” But maybe, in a way, yes. Lydia is about a community of people who read and talk together and get very close, and that’s not unlike a class of students doing the same thing. Because I was lucky enough to teach in independent secondary schools, the classes were small, the students hung out at my house, and there was a strong sense of working hard, accomplishing something together, getting to know each other. I also was beginning to teach the Bible as Literature at that time and had classes out in the community, one in particular was a Women in the Bible class that I taught for nearly four years and we definitely became good friends. I write about that in Lydia. But, still, thirty years ago I was not yet forty and there was a lot of road ahead of me. Does anybody ever write the same book at forty that she might at nearly seventy?
How do you think your life experiences impacted your writing?
That’s a hard question. My life experiences have made me who I am, a month shy of the 70th birthday, and that person wrote that book. I have had a lot of pain and difficulty and loss in my life; I’ve got some miles of bad road behind me. And I’m conscious of all of it—probably comes from all that reading :-) I am just now thinking about an interview I read once with a well-known southern writer (whose name I can’t right this minute remember) and he was asked, “Why do you think there are so many good southern writers?” His answer was, “Because we lost the war.” And I’ll just leave it at that.
Writers tend to form a community with one another. What have your experiences been with this?
Very good experience with the writers I know personally who have come to me for editing or—not advice, but to hear about my writing experience or my journey through the wilds of the publishing world. I have also been excited to discover the online writing community where there seems to be, for the most part, a sense of a group of people in it together who are eager to share their experience and any information they’ve gathered along the way. I’ve run across a few folks online who are a lot more willing to take than to give, but that’s probably true of people in general.
Which writers inspire you?
Joan Didion, Annie Dillard (especially For The Time Being), Emily Dickinson, Margaret Drabble, William Faulkner, Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Books, Tolkien, George Eliot’s Middlemarch. The novels just because they’re wonderful (I don’t aspire to write fiction), Didion, Dillard, Kingston because they are models for my own non-fiction. I wrote a long post on my blog about this. And it occurs to me that several of the major essayists/journalists should be on that list: Roger Rosenblatt, George Will, Lewis Lapham, John McPhee, Lewis Thomas, I could go on—several regulars at The New Yorker—Anthony Lane, David Redneck.
Why do you write?
I’m not at all sure, but I’m glad I do. As I said earlier, I can’t seem to not write.
Do you have any advice for someone looking to get published?
I’ll pass along something a wise friend said to me many years ago and on another subject, “Just continue.”
What is the hardest thing about writing?
Right now it’s finding time to sit down and begin my next book because—and this may sound odd—I am too busy writing to find time to write. Book reviews, blog posts, a story for my grandson, and then the activity that has grown out of writing—editing and marketing. My days are full. All of which is honestly just an excuse for not being ready to sit down and do it. Maybe the short answer to your question is “discipline.”
What is the easiest thing about writing?
I can do it at home in my underwear??
What books are you reading currently?
First, I’m catching up on what is now a stack of five issues of The New Yorker that I haven’t even opened—a first for me. I have just finished re-reading Esther de Waal’s Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict and am about to begin Ferlo’s Sensing God. Steve Wiegenstein’s A Slant of Light.
What is your favorite quote?
That’s a nearly impossible question—like what’s your favorite book, movie—but I’m going to say it might be Leonard Cohen’s “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
Is there anything else you would like to add that I haven’t included?
Probably just my whole life story and the story of every moment of my grandson’s nine months in this world.
How can readers discover more about you and you work?
Read my website at pdrobertson.com, the pages and the blogs.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I love getting emails, love engaging with people in “conversation,” on email, and I always always answer emails.
And, of course, buy my book! Looking for Lydia; Looking for God
Thank you for this great conversation and for the tea!
o Amber Gregg o