Meet the Author: Cynthia Robinson

Cynthia Robinson was born in Tennessee, has lived and traveled extensively abroad, and holds a Ph.D. in Art History from the University of Pennsylvania. She is Professor of Islamic and Medieval Art History at Cornell University. The Will of Venus is her debut novel.

When did you start writing professionally?

I have written fiction off and on throughout my life, but have always had “day jobs” -- anything from bartending and catering to my now quite serious academic career. I am a professor of Medieval and Islamic Art History, and have published widely for an academic audience (which is what you have to do if you want to get tenure and then a full professorship). Especially during the tenure process, academia can be all-consuming, so I had actually parked the fiction thing for a number of years until relatively recently. 

The Will of Venus is my first published novel, but I have one other novel finished. It has been submitted to a small, independent press; we’ll see what happens there. I have recently written my first short-short story, and have begun to send out excerpts and chapters to contests and journals. I also plan to begin a methodical and serious search for a literary agent (Venus happened without one) during the next few months, so we’ll see where this all goes. One thing is certain, however: now that I have started writing again, I don’t think I’ll stop anytime soon!

Why do you write women's fiction?

At first glance, Venus definitely looks to most people like Chick Lit, and most of the sites that have featured or reviewed it are Chick Lit sites. That doesn’t bother me at all—I am delighted for anyone to read or review it. At the most basic level, the interchange between author and reader/reviewer is an investment of the reader’s or the reviewer’s time, attention and energy, and I am appreciative of the investment any reader or reviewer dedicates to my work.

I wouldn’t say, though, that I necessarily set out to craft stories for an exclusively female audience—as a matter of fact, I know that a number of the reviews on Venus’ Amazon page were written by men. It is true that my central characters or protagonists are almost always women, probably because of my own lived experience. It has always been more of a challenge for me to “write men,” so that is one of the goals for my next project—three of the most important characters are men, and they seem to be on their way to becoming three-dimensional without much help from me at all.

I think members of all genders can learn a lot from reading a narrative constructed from the perspective of someone of another gender.

What is your novel The Will of Venus about?

The central character is Livia, a thirty-seven-year-old Manhattan chef. When the narrative opens, Livia has just received a letter from her sister, Danae, who lives in New Orleans with her husband, asking her to come down for her fortieth birthday (Livia will be making dinner). Danae has made some rather theatrical declarations in the past about just cutting her losses and getting out (i.e., committing suicide) if she isn’t happy by her fortieth birthday, and Livia has a sinking feeling that her sister—who she knows is not happy—might actually be serious about this.

Livia books a ticket to New Orleans and then turns to her friend, Éster, an aspiring santera, for some white magic to insure the success of her efforts to save her sister from herself. The trouble starts when Livia mixes these filters and herbs with another set of santería spells she has been using to keep the romantic side of her life under control.

It’s a bit of Flannery O’Connor meets Gabriel García Márquez – not that I am seriously comparing myself to those two literary giants, but in terms of there being a lot of Southern material (Livia and Danae grew up outside Baton Rouge, Louisiana), laced with a generous helping of magical realism.

How did you get your novel published? Tell us about your journey to publication.

This novel has followed a long and winding road. I wrote it a number of years ago. I was living in Manhattan at the time, and had some very near misses at getting an agent and believe that if I had persisted, I probably would have found one. When I moved out west to take up my first tenure-track teaching position, though, I dropped the ball on the fiction writing. As I mentioned above, there is enormous pressure on tenure-track faculty to publish in the academic realm, and when you combine that with all of the other duties attendant to a teaching position at a research university, it can be pretty overwhelming.

Recently, though, I was approached by Shoto Press—a friend of mine is involved with that group, and he had read Venus back when I first wrote it and loved it (see, another guy!). He asked if I would be interested in publishing digitally (Shoto is an all-digital operation) and I thought, why not? 

So at least this leg of the journey was very unorthodox. I think, though, that, for future projects, I am going to try to do it the old-fashioned way—I don’t really think the publishing world is ready to take digital-only operations seriously. It has been difficult for us to get the book reviewed, or to get promotional opportunities, for example, through B&N. Even though they accepted Venus for their Nook (and they don’t accept everything, so we were happy about that), we ran into a lot of walls with them when we wanted to do promotions, because we didn’t have a paper product. And I have to confess that I like the feel of a “real book” in my hands!  I do have a Kindle and I love it for travel and for the ease with which you can just stick it in your bag and take hundreds of books along with you that way, but for the next one, I want to go a more traditional route, which will be a great deal more difficult—I will need to find an agent, for starters.

Where do you find the inspiration for your stories?

I find that almost all of my stories germinate initially from bits and pieces of the past (and this includes not only things I have lived, but things that other people have told me they have lived). These bits and pieces may be events, dreams, conversations, or personalities, but they morph, almost immediately, into something other than the reality from which they proceed.

Given my knowledge of medieval material, you might expect that I would draw more on that, but thus far that hasn’t happened.  I have one thing begun that is set in 10th-century Spain, but I haven’t been able to decide whether it is a novella or a short story or a novel proper, and even though I like it well enough, it keeps getting displaced by other projects.  Maybe some day…

What is the most challenging part about being a writer? What is the most rewarding?

The most challenging part has got to be getting published, and as I outlined above, I am just now undertaking the journey toward ‘traditional’ publication. It might be a long one.

Most rewarding: when something comes together and you know it’s good; when someone whose opinion you value highly tells you it’s good; giving a reading and realizing that people are spellbound. Warning: these things don’t happen every day, and I have yet to have them all happen on the same day.

Why should people buy your book?

Well, first of all because it’s only 99 cents! A total bargain! Seriously, because I believe they will enjoy it. It has been read by everyone from a serious professor of English literature to two of my doctors to a couple of my students—men and women, of a variety of ages—and they have all loved it. You can kind of take it on whatever level you want to: there is some very funny stuff in there, so that it feels almost farcical at times, and yet there are serious and poetic moments as well. You can take the implicit social critique seriously if you so choose, or you can laugh at it, up to you.

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

I myself find that I need to be disciplined about writing every day, or almost every day. But then I am a very organized and schedule-oriented person (as my S.O. is fond of saying, “Routine is freedom”); others may find that too constrictive. I have a particular niche in the day that I have now trained myself (over the last several months, that is, since I have started writing again) to envision as “writing time.” It doesn’t happen every day, of course, but the goal is to have it happen every day. Sometimes I don’t feel particularly inspired (it’s sort of like scheduling sex, I guess – you aren’t always in the mood!), but I at least try to do some editing or re-writing, and I often find that I get a couple of decent paragraphs out of myself even when I didn’t think I was in the right frame of mind.

Having a few of friends who are willing to read your stuff and give you honest, unvarnished feedback is invaluable. I have one friend with whom I swap critiquing services and his comments are always incredibly useful. I would like to start a fiction workshop, but my efforts thus far haven’t really gelled. I think you need at least three participants, and everyone needs to be compatible—not an easy thing to put together, as I am discovering.

Finally, being persistent and thick-skinned (all the while remaining open to constructive criticism!) are probably not bad qualities to cultivate.

What are you working on now?

Right now I am in the middle of writing a novel based on the murder of a young woman that happened in my town while I was growing up. I want to use that platform not in order to construct a classic who-dun-it, but rather to consider the effects the discovery of the body and the ensuing investigation have on a smallish university town in upstate New York (I have moved the setting from my childhood home to a place that looks and feels very much like where I live now). A number of current issues are weaving themselves into the narrative, such as the foster care of adolescents, difficult family relationships, and adolescent access to technological tools that they don’t always use with a great deal of wisdom. As I said above, three of the principal characters are men, which is new for me, and it is thus far a pretty exciting ride.

Thanks for answering our questions, Cynthia!