Monday, July 25, 2011

Guest Blogger: Erika Robuck

by Joan

Over the last several months, I’ve corresponded with Erika Robuck online via Facebook and through our respective blog comment sections. I first noticed her when we both ran a review of Kate Morton’s Distant Hours around the same time. After sharing some favorite titles, it seems we share a lot of the same taste in books, steering toward stories which weave together the past and the present. I also learned we hail from the same state, Maryland. So I was thrilled when she agreed to run a guest blog for us.


About Erika (from her website):
Erika is an historical fiction writer. Her first novel, RECEIVE ME FALLING, was released in March of 2009. She is also thrilled to announce a two-book deal with NAL/Penguin for her novel, HEMINGWAY'S GIRL, and another historical novel.

Erika has a keen interest in all things historical, and spends her time reading, writing, researching for her writing, and visiting local, national, and international historic sites.

Erika guest blogs at Writer Unboxed and There Are No Rules, and has a reading and writing blog at Wordpress. She is represented by literary agent, Kevan Lyon.


I am so thrilled for her and anxious to read Hemingway’s Girl when it hits the shelves next year. Thanks again to Erika for stopping by What Women Write.

POSSESSING THE PAST

By
Erika Robuck

It must have started with the old chest in the basement of my grandparents’ house. While my family’s laughter and conversation was a distant echo above me, I fumbled with the clasp on the chest’s polished wood and opened the lid, releasing the smell of antiquity and travel, old papers and photographs. The odor of that musty air excited the thrill of discovery in me. It showed me that my grandparents, who seemed impossibly old and settled, were once young people with exciting lives.

In the chest were painted pictures of my young flirty grandmother and my handsome uniformed grandfather. There was a pack of yellowed letters and piles of black and white photographs: my grandmother leaning into my grandfather on a New York City street and laughing with her sisters, my grandfather horsing around with sailors on a navy ship. He called her Bunny. She called him Bobby. These were my grandparents! My head buzzed with questions as I carried the artifacts upstairs. Did he fight in a war? How long did they live in New York? What was her family like?

Even though I was just a child I could see the tumult of emotions on their faces when I presented the pictures. The flickers of recognition started the stories. It was the picture of my grandfather with a tumble of filthy city boys with cigarettes hanging out of their thirteen year old mouths that caused him to smile.

“We all ran around Brooklyn together—a protestant, a Catholic, and a Jew. We went to each other’s churches and temples, and hitchhiked to Canada and back.” His voice grew quiet and his eyes glazed over. I could almost hear him wondering where they were now.

Then there was another picture of my grandmother from not so long ago, with two women startling in resemblance to her.

“My half-sisters. It turns out that my father had two wives—one here, my mom, and one in Ireland. These are his daughters from Ireland. They found me a couple of years ago and we met up.”

I was flabbergasted. She enjoyed my reaction.

It had to be on that day that my obsession with the past and its connection to the present began. I believe it’s why I write historical fiction. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than finding a photograph or a note that sparks a dozen questions that lead to a story. In my research I’ve found over and over again that these stories want to be known. Sometimes they arrive quietly, almost shyly, as a factoid in a newspaper article or a solitary figure on the periphery of a picture. Other times they come thundering out without coyness or pretense: “My father had two wives.”

My novel, HEMINGWAY’S GIRL, is set in Key West in 1935. Several years ago, I visited the Hemingway house and wanted to write about it. Then I had a dream where Ernest Hemingway told me I had to write about it. A handwritten note from Hemingway to a former lover, his angry article about the treatment of the vets working on the overseas highway left to die in a hurricane, and a photograph of a young Cuban woman at a fishing dock became the ingredients that stirred a story in me that connected the rich and poor in depression-era Key West. The story grew around the facts, and on a recent visit back to Key West I had to keep reminding myself that my protagonist didn’t really exist, though I could see her vividly in the streets and docks of town.

Once day I will write about my grandparents. Their lives would make a rich and fascinating novel. My greatest regret is that I didn’t ask my grandmother more questions while she was alive. Still, I’ll pour through her old photographs, seek interviews with children of her sisters, and comb her letters for clues to the past. If I’m lucky, she’ll visit me in a dream.

It might sound strange, but I think that chest was waiting to open me up to the past that day and I hope my stories will do the same for others.

15 comments:

  1. Cindy Keeling25 July, 2011

    Great post, Erika. Love the dream connection!
    Congratulations on your forthcoming book. I look forward
    to reading it.

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  2. Wow, Erika ... I love it that you write about the past. There always are stories to hear if we just listen, or dig, or dream. Can't wait to read your novels, and follow which past roads they go down. Thanks!

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  3. Wow, Erika, I can so relate! In my case, the story revolves around my great-grandparents, a landscape painter (Carl Ahrens)and his muse. My "trunk" was always out in the open, though. I grew up surrounded by his paintings and by saved artifacts of their lives. My grandmother's stories about her father were the fairy tales of my youth. I've known since the day I visited the house where she grew up, the day I touched the stone walls and heard a young girl's laughter from within, that I was meant to write this story. Just nine short chapters left to go...

    Hemingway's Girl sounds like a fantastic read!

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  4. My greatest regret is that I didn’t ask my grandmother more questions while she was alive.

    I love this post, Erika. I can so relate to you opening the chest and finding the old photographs of them. You're lucky you've got those letters! What treasure! It's too bad we don't begin to perceive our grandparents as the people they actually are until it's too late. I feel the same regret.
    Nicely done.

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  5. I write a lot of historical fiction as well and a lot of the time it does come down to a desire to share stories of days gone by. They might not necessarily feature people I've known or been related to (not in this life, at least) but I love the ability of historical fiction to preserve the past, and to give us an escape into our heritage.

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  6. I have almost a hundred letters that my father wrote while stationed in Burma during WWII. I'd love to create a story from them one day--definitely fiction because they're either illegible or not that noteworthy!

    Thanks for a great post, Erika!

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  7. Kim--I can't wait to read your book! I love books about artists.

    Joan--Have you read LETTERS FROM HOME? That could give you some inspiration. Long distance letters from the past achieve a form of legitimacy and mystery even if they're as simple as thanking a loved one for a gift or telling where the writer will go next.

    Thanks so much for all of your comments and warm wishes. And thanks to What Women Write for having me here.

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  8. Hey Erika! What a great post. Wow, two wives. Now that ought to get some ideas going - wonder how he managed that one. Makes me think about my grandmother. Perhaps there's a few stories I can glean from the family tree.

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  9. Great post! I am currently writing a historical novel of my own, so it's nice to hear from another writer like myself! There is nothing I love more than black and white photos.

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  10. My mother has a trunk that came over with my ancestors from Germany. It is full of pictures and letters as well. Some of those letters are from my father to my mother when he was overseas in the Vietnam war. Not sure if I can read them while they are alive. ;)

    Going through an old trunk like that is like finding treasure. Pieces to a puzzle that we never knew was there, waiting for us to solve it. Ahh, historical fiction! Love it. And love that you are writing it! XO

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  11. The manuscript I'm querying riffed off a tiny bit of family lore--a story that turned out nothing like the real thing. At least not that I know of. :) Thanks for posting at What Women Write today.

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  12. I love hearing all of your family secrets and interesting finds.

    Hallie--Great comparison to the puzzle,and I love that you write historical fiction, too!

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  13. What a post, Erika! I loved reading your personal motivation/start to the genre. CANNOT wait for the novel!

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  14. Erika--Letters From Home is on my list! I'm sure I'll love it--and it might just give me the push I need to form an idea around my father's letters.

    Thanks to all who stopped by--what a fun day!

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