Friday, May 14, 2010

A Chat with Robbi McCoy author of Songs Without Words

Hello again.Sometimes when I finish a book, questions to the author come to mind, and usually I just speculate as to what the answers might be. After I read Robbi McCoys Songs Without Words, I had the urge to drop her an email, and ask those questions. She gratiously answered me, and I wanted to share her thoughts with you.

RJ: Robbi , thank you for giving me the opportunity to ask you a few questions about yourself so I can share you with our readers. I put together a few questions. They are not in any particular order, but I would like to publish your answers in conjunction with my review of your book-if that ok with you?

I thought I’d ask a few questions about you as a writer, and then have us talk about Songs Without Words. First off, I really loved this book and want to congratulate you on writing a story that is interesting on many levels.

I see that you began your writing career with Late Bloomers: Awakening to Lesbianism After Forty. Of course my curiosity drives me to ask if this is a particularly common experience for lesbian women-discovering themselves whilst in the role of being a wife or mother? Was it your hope that you would help others to “cross the line”?

RM: Actually, I’ve been writing since I was a teenager and have published short stories and magazine and newspaper articles in the past, then two non-fiction books prior to my first novel being published by Bella Books in 2009.

I think it’s very common for lesbians to follow a traditional path of marriage and children prior to coming out to themselves. I’ve known quite a few such women personally, including some who were clueless about their sexual orientation well into their forties, despite a lifetime of sometimes obvious evidence. That experience fascinates me. Both Late Bloomers and Waltzing at Midnight grew out of that fascination. Being gay can be a struggle and it can take decades to overcome the conditioning we are subjected to as children and young adults. I think of this process not as a change that takes place but as an awakening to one’s authentic self. The prevalence of late bloomers may be diminishing now as homosexuality in general becomes better understood and less stigmatized, but the late-bloomer scenario still happens, as coming out is ultimately a highly personal journey for each individual.

RJ: Do you hope to achieve the same result when people read your stories, or is it just the shared experience that you are conveying?

RM: Shared experience, yes. I just want people to enjoy my stories and hopefully be emotionally moved by them. There have been some readers of Waltzing at Midnight who have thanked me for telling “their” story. I think people find comfort in the thought that someone else has felt what they’ve felt and gone through what they’ve gone through, especially when it’s something difficult.

RJ: You indicate in your webpage bio that writing fiction is your “first love”. Why so?

RM: I’ve always loved to read fiction and writing it is an outgrowth of that love. I devoured novels from an early age and became an English major in college because I couldn’t turn away from my love of literature. Fiction is such a powerful, limitless vehicle for self-expression, and often a way to turn a small bit of chaos into order. Order is beauty—choosing just the right word or isolating an emotion so that you and the reader share a brief but profound moment of understanding, that’s such a satisfying feeling.

RJ: I suppose this is a tiring question to be asked, but where do you get your inspiration from? In other words, are your stories born entirely from your imagination, or has ‘real life” ignited the fuse? I am also fascinated by the process of creating and writing. Do you become your characters, or, is the character you?

RM: Story ideas come from many sources, from within and without, and are usually a combination of both. Waltzing at Midnight was born out of pain and anger at my personal experience with homophobia. Beyond that, it isn’t my story at all, but it helped me to turn anger into something more positive. It’s an optimistic story. Songs Without Words was loosely based on personal experience, but would be unrecognizable to any real-life participants.
To answer your other question, about whether I become the characters or to what extent a character might actually be me, it varies. I identified very closely with Jean in Waltzing at Midnight. Not in her circumstances, as I’ve never been married or a mother, but in her emotional journey, and there were times while writing it that I felt very much like a woman falling in love. In my next novel, Not Every River, you won’t find me no matter how hard you look.

RJ: Does your “other job” keep your mind fresh, or are you constantly being challenged by the urge to write?

RM: I love to write, but have almost no time to do it. Life is constantly interfering. I’m looking forward to retirement and the novelty of being a writer on a more regular basis.

RJ: Robbi, one of the things that impressed me most about Songs Without Words is your choice to go into rather detailed commentaries about art, music, and the written word. You also spend a good chunk of time discussing what it is to be an artist. I thought it rather daring, perhaps because I was expecting something totally different as I must admit, that before I read your book, or any lesbian themed story, I thought that the story would merely be a devise for sex, sex, and more sex. Is how you write a departure from what is expected in a lesbian romance novel or, is this expected and you just dare to be different?

RM: Thank you for calling that “daring.” I’ve heard less flattering descriptions. The ongoing discussion of art, what it is and what it means to be an artist, is crucial to Harper’s identity. Her story is about discovering her voice as an artist, or, as Hilda says, more poetically, the song her soul wants to sing. If the reader is going to understand Harper at all, she needs to accompany her on that journey.

I can’t say what is expected in a lesbian romance, but I do believe that generally it is more about love than sex. People have said that Waltzing at Midnight was also a departure from the norm in that it was more a journey of self discovery than a romance. I suppose you could say the same for Songs. I feel that a certain degree of self-knowledge and self-acceptance is a requirement to becoming happy and fulfilled in life, and finding the right person to love is a natural extension of that. I don’t think love is a stand-alone aspect of a woman’s life. So, to me, falling in love is larger than how you interact with that other person, and it is definitely larger than sex. As to what the readers want, that may be completely different, but all I can do is tell the stories I have to tell and hope they resonate with people. One thing I appreciate about Bella Books is the lack of constraint regarding subject matter within the context of the romance genre. Our readers are mostly lesbians, but they are by no means a homogenous group, so why should their stories be?

RJ: Tell me about the musical nature of your work-one of the things you have done on your website is to provide us not only with a listing of all of the music used in Songs, but links to the actual music itself. Readers may not know this, so I will refer them to the page. Did you ever consider a companion disc-as your book is so very musical-it almost begs that you provide it with sound?

RM: Thanks. That’s an interesting idea. It would be fun, but I’m not a musician, so producing such a thing would be a daunting undertaking and far beyond my talents.
RJ: You present a mythological parallel to Harper’s journey with Chelsea by citing one of the greatest mythological tales of all time--Orpheus and Eurydice. What prompted you to do so?

RM: I love mythology. The story came to mind, so why not use it? I’ve always enjoyed how fiction builds on literary tradition, how it becomes cumulative. Coming across something like that is like seeing an old friend. One of my favorite books of all time is James Joyce’s Ulysses—old friends galore there! There are no new stories, just new ways of telling them. To me, that’s great fun, but I do wonder what Homer would make of Joyce.

RJ: It also appears as though you know a good deal about being a librarian (as I am one too). Are you or have you ever been?, or is it just that you know and admire them?

RM: I’ve spent a lot of happy days in libraries and have known a few librarians, even loved a couple, but have never been one, no.

RJ: One of the things you chose to do is tell your story by using what I’ll call flashbacks. Why not tell the story in one continuous line?
RM: If you mean why not tell the story of Harper’s past chronologically rather than playing stump the reader by jumping all over the place, well that was the biggest challenge of this book. I did try it chronologically, but it didn’t work. The past is designed to provide a running commentary on the present, adding up, I hope, to an understanding of how Harper came to be the woman she is. Real life doesn’t travel in a straight line with structured beginnings and ends. That’s one of the themes of the story, that Harper took an indirect path to get to the point she is when the story opens. We also don’t experience the memories of our lives chronologically. What is happening in the present triggers memories in random order. But, really, I didn’t do it just to be contrary.

RJ: This is a me just needing to know: On page 80 of Songs, in the midst of your discussion about art and artists, Hilda makes this statement: “There is no way to create a sentence that properly displays the process of thinking, feeling and remembering several things at once.”
I’m not sure this is true, so I wanted to ask if you are familiar with Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time? To me, the gift Proust possessed was the ability to capture it all…or am I deluding myself?

RM: What she means is that words on a page have to be read in sequence. There’s no way to superimpose one sentence on another. I’m not familiar with that work, but James Joyce is a master of stream of consciousness and comes about as close to capturing the thought process as anyone I’ve read. Even he can’t give us two thoughts simultaneously. But he does a reasonably good job of capturing the way our minds flit about in sometimes bizarre and wonderful ways.

RJ: Ok, I could probably ask you loads more, but I will stop here.

RM: Thank you for the kind words and the thought-provoking questions, not to mention the opportunity to talk about my writing.

RJ: And thanks again to you Robbi McCoy. I know your readers are eagerly awaiting your next book.

Of course, even while transferring this post for you to read, I had several questions more, but, I am happy that I asked the ones I did. I am looking forward to Not Every River, which is due out in August.

Please visit Robbi's website:  and discover more about this wonderfully personable and talented woman.

Until next time, may your days be filled with wonderous reading.
Robert Jaquay

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