John Robinson - A Literary Life
At the University of New Hampshire's Dimond Library, three levels down in the basement are the Milne Special Collections and Archives, where rare books, manuscripts, photographs, and other unique items are housed. There, too, is a book titled January's Dream by John Robinson. To read this book, you have to have an appointment. Once there, the book awaits you on an assigned table where you go after stowing your bags and purses in lockers to prevent any theft of the rare items. January's Dream shares shelf space with the Robert Frost collection, composer and musician, Amy Beach's collection, a copy of the Gregorian Chants, and from 1961, Betty Hill's dress she wore on the night she and husband, Barney, were abducted by aliens.
John Robinson and I meet at a local Portsmouth, New Hampshire restaurant on a sunny morning to talk about his writing. He awaits me in a booth with his coffee and cinnamon raisin toast. I order the same, and we begin our conversation about his life as a writer. He pulls several books from a well-worn leather satchel and hands them to me. These books are who he is as a writer. They are literary journals.
Born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, in 1972, he moved to Edinburgh, Scotland, with his new wife to work on his first novel. In an April 2012 essay for The Writer, John talks about what it was like to try and write during that time in a piece titled, How a Literary Life Begins.
John is brutally honest in the essay. He writes, "I had not expected this merciless onslaught of self-deprecation. Nor was I prepared for it. I would leave the bed, cross the cold floor to the bedroom's lone window and stare out over the pitched, corrugated roofs of south Edinburgh, and seriously question my motivation and commitment, the frivolity of quitting a tenured teaching job in Chicago to arrive in Europe to live on the meager salary of my wife. I felt—for the first time—a fraud."
As dire as it got, he comes away with his characteristic positivity when reflecting on that time and how it gave him his future. "Yet every day there was reason to hope, and, after a time, I struck onto an idea. I began to use my isolation as a source of inspiration, as a pose for my rebelliousness to become a writer. As I walked the ancient streets of Edinburgh suffering from insecurity and ennui, I would tell myself that I belonged to the purest group of writers in the world, the great unwashed: unpublished writers. We were the real outcasts, the true rebels. We had no allies, no fans, no encouragement, and little hope. We did not even know each other. Yet we marshaled the nerve each day, if not to write, then to believe in the next day when we would."
He tells me, "Even though a lot of that amounted to failure, as massive a failure it was, it wasn't. It was a massive success. I ended up at UNH, where I got my master's. I wound up writing all these memoirs about my time in Europe. So many of them occurred there."
To say he is successful would not begin to tell the tale of this writer when he refocused his writing from novels to writing for literary journals.
"In the '70s, I thought maybe I should be publishing in literary journals rather than writing novels that were going nowhere, and they take forever, and you think you're losing your mind."
"I decided why don't I take, not just the short stories, why don't I take a chapter and develop it into an independent story, non-fiction, and memoir, and then sell that. I had the beginnings of something. From the year 2000 to about now, I've had 33 or 35 that are out. I average about three publications a year."
John Robinson's bio on Poets & Writers tells us he "is a novelist, playwright, essayist, memoirist, and short story writer. He has contributed political commentary, created award-winning drama, appeared in various anthologies, and has been translated into thirty-two languages."
In the 2 Bridges Review, published by New York City College of Technology of The City University of New York in 2019, John gives us glimpses of his wide-ranging journeys in a piece titled, Travels.
He takes us into a dungeon in Scotland and makes us feel the agony still existing there. He writes, "East Lothian, Scotland. Summer 1973: At Tantallon Castle, I descended into the dungeon. Other than a small ceiling hole casting meager light, the place was dark and cold though outside, it was mid-summer. While centuries had passed since the last prisoners were held, the smell of them remained shackled in the cellar air."
And then, he shares with us a moment of discovery in July 1971 in Florence, Italy. "We found an abandoned dress in our hotel room with an outer design resembling the facade of the Duomo, which was visible through our window. The dress like those worn by women in the fifteenth century. My wife wore it to dinner that first night in Florence. She looked as if she had stepped out of a Vermeer painting." What a lovely image these words invoke. His writing takes me to the hotel, the window, and I can see the beautiful dress in my mind's eye.
And finally, to London, England, in July 1971, he talks about "three well-dressed British gentlemen" who bravely stand at Speakers Corner in Hyde Park for a performance "of wit and audacity." John shows us his humor and love of language when he writes, "As they stood in their three-piece suits, they began to reply, verbally jabbing and dancing their remarks like professional pugilists; and with each zinger they launched, the crowd that had grown around them responded – as did I – with Brobdingnagian laughter." This line makes me laugh and, of course, search out the meaning, where I find he's borrowing from Jonathan's Swift's 1726 novel, Gulliver's Travels, and the fictional land of Brobdingnag. The word has come to mean colossal or of tremendous size. As writers, if we aren't reading above our pay grade, then we will not become better. John Robinson does that for us. We read him and laugh and understand his pure joy of writing. What a gift it is he gives us.
Yet have you ever picked up and read a literary journal or magazine? I, for one, had not until I met John Robinson, and I'm not alone. These are not blockbuster works or mainstream media stuff but bear in mind newbie writers and not-so-new writers; what you do need to know is who is reading them: agents, editors, published authors, and the community of people who you want to read your work. They are the movers, shakers, and influencers. A published work in a literary journal will get your writing in front of those you could hardly reach on your own.
John tells me the wonderful story when he, too, thought no one would read the works he published.
"I thought what a great journal to be in, and then I was running around thinking nobody in Portsmouth is going to know this has happened. Here I am in this prestigious journal, and it's only between me and the journal and a handful of readers. Then I go into a Mobil Minimart to purchase some chocolate milk, and I'm paying for it at the counter and a guy wearing a baseball cap with a wizened face that looked like too many restless nights and too much alcohol and a long life of not taking care of himself. That's what was left of him. He's got his cap on, and I'm paying, and he goes, "Hey, are you the guy the novelist whose picture was taken 30 years ago in the paper with his dog?" and I said, yes. He goes, god, that inspired me so much. I never forgot it." This was the same day I'm brooding about no one will ever know me. This is what happens when you have a passion in life that pays off in ways that you'll not ever really see. This guy who would be the last person in the world who I thought would have read January's Dream got turned on by the newspaper article."
When he wrote the book 36 years ago, John readily admits that it was "a very dark novel and viewer discretion is advised." But, he then adds, "This part of my life I try to write about beauty." And beauty is what he accomplishes with his stylistic language and sometimes laugh-out-loud comments.
The Bed, Mount Hope, Issue 16, Fall 2019, is a perfect example of his humor. He begins the piece by telling us, "Witness anyone going anywhere, and willy-nilly, that person will inevitably end the day – or final days – on a bed."
In The Bed, he tells us about a friend, Logan, who can't get away from the scent of a former lover from his bed. Together, they strip his bed of its sheets and head to Bed, Bath and Beyond to buy new ones. John's advice to him is, "never take anyone two decades younger than you into your bed." Unfortunately, Logan doesn't take the hint and ends up dating the woman who helps them with the purchase. That relationship, too, ended poorly.
In another part of The Bed essay, he and his first wife ventured to Greece in July 1971, and they finally got to their accommodations after traveling thousands of miles. He writes, "I instantly saw that not only was the room without air-conditioning, it lacked a bathroom. I closed the door, dropped my bags, and fell exhaustedly across the lone double bed. It smelled of mildew and mold. Under the lumpy outer blankets, I imagined wet sheets. Of all the things wrong in this room, it was the bed that bothered me the most. I looked up at my newlywed wife and said, six thousand miles to get here."
In a tip for young writers, John advises, "you can do it all on your own, but you have to learn the business [of literary journals]. It's a wonderful opportunity to circulate your work to multiple places. I thought it was fun to learn this stuff. I line up forty literary journals. They're not all open at the same time. And go – hit a button. They're off. You know when you're in them, you're going to be read."
John and I spent a wind-up visit together, and afterward, he sent me some closing words all of us can understand and appreciate.
"I spent my early writing years exploring what was wrong with society. And I've spent my latter years examining what is beautiful about the human condition. So, I prefer the older writer's vision and response to the world."
"The importance of attempting to live a creative and adventurous life is the burden of the argument in my memoirs (and gathered in a book called The Hunger Years). Not everyone can write like Marcel Proust, but even lesser talents can find their place in the artistic universe. By spending time pursuing authentic creative pursuits, the writer not only bears witness to the age but finds pleasure and significance by examining and creating new perspectives on the nature of existence. As Proust famously wrote, "The real voyage of discovery is not in seeking new lands, but in seeing with new eyes."
And so, I urge you to seek out John Robinson's work. You will be rewarded with wit, wonder, and wisdom. I encourage you as well to find your place in the writing universe.
Finally, I would like to thank Morgan Wilson, Reference Assistant, and Elizabeth Slomba, University Archivist, Interim Special Collections Librarian, for their knowledge and help when I visited the UNH Library.
Photo Courtesy of Marsha Robinson