Black Lawrence Press
November 1, 2015

NaNoWriMo Feature: Betsy Robinson

Welcome to National Novel Writing Month, 2015! We’re celebrating all month long with a gangbuster sale on some of our favorite novels, a consultation program for those of you with in-progress manuscripts, and this–a daily feature profiling a Black Lawrence Press author who has done the unthinkable: completed a novel.

Today’s featured novelist is Betsy Robinson, author of The Last Will & Testament of Zelda McFigg, which won the 2013 Big Moose Prize. (P.S. We’re running an early bird special on the Big Moose Prize this month. Send in your manuscript by November 30 and get $5 off the entry fee!)

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Excerpt: PrologueRobinson_thinframe

Dearest Reader:
My name is Zelda McFigg, and, until recently, I weighed approximately two hundred thirty-seven pounds. I am four foot eleven inches in stature, and I have not had sex. Ever. Also, I have never been anybody’s favorite, and this last fact, in my opinion, is an injustice of the highest order perpetrated by all persons I have ever met.

Before I begin the tale of the unforgivable and thoughtless actions of everyone from my neglectful parents to the lunch delivery lady who, yesterday, mumbled insouciantly at my request for lightly salted snacks and then sneered at her twenty-five cent tip, which, believe me, for a forty-nine and one-quarter-year-old in my circumstances, is generous—before I begin, there are a few things you must know about me:

Although I have found legitimate fault with most humans, I have been a contributing member of society. As a teacher of seventh grade English, to be precise. For nearly three decades I instructed ungrateful provincial juvenile delinquents in the art of self-expression and proper punctuation until I was forced to retire almost two years ago during the depth of the recession. Yes, I was a dedicated educator, a profession deemed one of the most important in the universe by the most popular television hostess in the world—an African American lady with a weight problem similar to my own, whom I will call Miss Olga. But I will get to her later.

I am writing this memoir not only to set the record straight, but to make a confession: due to the dearth of respect as well as the larceny I have experienced at the hands of everyone in a position to showcase my unique talents, I was forced to pursue alternate routes to survival. I lived under what another self-educated artiste, Mr. Jack London, called “the law of club and fang,” creatively adjusting to changing conditions in the ruthless struggle that is required of feral animals and humans working in capitalist systems where worth and status are assigned in correlation to pleasing or less- than-pleasing appearances. As a master of invention, I have done things that some of you may judge harshly. Therefore, I have one request: please suspend those judgments until you have considered my entire story.

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Craft Notes

The prologue of The Last Will & Testament of Zelda McFigg is the book’s foundation, very much as a basement is the foundation of a house. But when I wrote the first draft of it, I knew very little about the character and a lot less about the story that would follow.

I knew Zelda’s name, that she was a frustrated and angry would-be writer very much like the ones who used to query the magazine I used to work for. I knew she felt her time was running out to achieve the grandiose success she longed for. And that’s about it.

As I wrote, I discovered that she was very fat and a virgin. I seeded in where I thought she would be at the end of the book and a little bit about where I thought she’d be in the middle of the book.

So I knew little about the book that the prologue introduced, and for some reason I was excited rather than scared by that. I never show writing to anybody until it’s fully birthed, and that makes this process the most intimate experience I could possibly have with myself and very safe. Perhaps that’s why I’m not afraid of the blank page.

As the book proceeded—as the story developed—I went back to the prologue and added set-ups for the events that ensued in Zelda’s life. You could never build a house this way, but it is the only way I know to build a book: the foundation (including set-ups and knowledge one can only know by the end of the story) evolves as long as the book does. And this is the enormous fun of writing: to go back and plant a seed you haven’t known was there and see a paragraph pop into life.

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Q&A

1) What is the hardest part of writing a novel? What are your techniques for dealing with this aspect of the process?

First drafts. They require a lot of waiting, teeth gnashing, and lying on the couch. I find that writing longhand helps. I’ll type up sections, then go back to longhand on a clipboard. The writing comes in surges, and I do it as you might record a dream. Longhand is much more conducive to this than typing. It’s still hard, but it helps to remember it’s always this way. This is just the process of beginning something new.

2) What is the best writing advice you’ve received?

On a first draft of my first novel, John Sayles asked me why the protagonist didn’t seem curious about the other characters in the book. It was a gentle way of nudging me out of my navel gazing—a kind of thing first-time writers do with their first books, unless they are people who research and reach far outside themselves from the get-go. From that time on, I’ve been more aware of the whole canvas of a book, connections the characters might not know about between themselves, what they don’t know about themselves and might be hiding—but I, as omniscient author have to be aware of.

3) How long did it take you to complete your novel? Please talk a little bit about your journey from first word to final draft.

This is hard because I forget this kind of stuff. I think the first draft of The Last Will & Testament of Zelda McFigg took close to a year. But then I rewrote it many times over a few years with gaps as long as a year between reading it. There were two major rewrites prepublication. One was when another publisher showed interest in it, but had concerns about the timeline; I discovered many mistakes that I corrected. And after Black Lawrence Press accepted it, I went through it on a whole new level. By that time, I had really good distance from it, and I was able to mechanically fix things I hadn’t noticed before—for instance, I went through the last draft just looking for literal things (objects, events, characters, etc.) that had the import to be seeds. When they did, I grew them, and threaded them from first appearance to the conclusion of the book. This had the effect of powerfully tightening everything.

4) What is your favorite writing time beverage?

Ginger tea.

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Suggested Reading

How-to-write books don’t work for me, so I prefer reading writing that inspires me to write better. My books might not be the same books others would choose, but here are some:

Stoner by John Williams—for me, this is a perfect book: structurally, economy of language, and emotionally.

 The Stories of John Cheever—his poetry and vocabulary are magnificent. His language is a course in literary writing.

 A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole—for the sheer glee and humor and freedom. The end was reconstructed by an editor, and you can feel it, but the book is one of the great works of controlled wildness.

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Betsy Robinson headshotBetsy Robinson’s novel The Last Will & Testament of Zelda McFigg won Black Lawrence Press’s 2013 Big Moose Prize and was published in September 2014. This was followed by the February 10, 2015 publication of her late mother, Edna Robinson’s, novel, The Trouble with the Truth (edited by Betsy) as the debut book of Infinite Words, a new imprint of Simon & Schuster. Betsy’s first novel, Plan Z by Leslie Kove, was published by Mid-List Press in 2001 as winner of their First Novel Series Award. Betsy has been a working journalist for over a decade; she was managing editor of Spirituality & Health magazine for almost seven years and she currently freelances for various websites. Betsy is a former actor (appeared in John Sayles films Return of the Secaucus Seven and Lianna) and present book editor, specializing in self-help and spiritual psychology.