Robb Forman Dew's The Evidence Against Her once again
displays her affinity for portraying the details of family life, but unlike her
previous novels, which were all contemporary works, this one is set in the
first decades of the 20th century. She starts with three infants born in an Ohio
town on the same day in 1888--Lily, her cousin Warren, and Robert--and
follows their lives--and their families--through roughly thirty years. "I love
this book," Dew enthuses during our phone call. "I had the most fun I've ever
had writing a book. And I found out something really interesting--when
you're writing about another era, you can't have any props, like being able to
say so-and-so drives a Volvo. You have to imagine your characters much more
fully. I always used to think I'd imagined my characters pretty fully, but I feel
like I've learned to do it more intensely now." But she never intended for
The Evidence Against Her to be an historical novel: "That's not how I
write; that's just when these people lived."
RH: It hasn't really been talked about much, but you wrote
The Evidence Against Her as the first book in a
RFD: The book I first started to write is the book that I'm writing now,
which begins in 1946, and as I was writing it, I kept having to go back and
explain why these people were the way they were. Finally I decided it was
getting ridiculous, and I should just write another book first to explain
everything. Of course, as I started writing The Evidence Against Her, I
had to go back and explain about their parents, and I started thinking
that if I wasn't careful, I'd start the story with creatures coming out of the
ooze and developing legs.
RH: And some of the events in the novel come from your own
RFD: I've done is to put both my maternal and paternal grandparents in
the same small town--one where none of them lived--and tried to figure out
how a family becomes what it becomes over time. I know that sounds trite, but
I've always felt that the only way we can define our history is through stories.
The things that we all believe about ourselves and our family are based on
communally agreed upon stories or myths. We all agree that Aunt Bea was a
beauty and Aunt Doris was frivolous, for example.
One of the things that prompted this book was a scene that was told to me by
several different people in my family about an aunt of mine who was just
gorgeous and very wild. During the war, she ran off with somebody and her
two brothers, my father and my uncle, got their shotguns and tracked them
down--and this is probably apocryphal, but it's what I've heard--to some hotel
in New York, where they were discovered in their room nude, reading the
newspaper. The image of that has been in my mind since I was about ten.
What really happened I don't know, but that's what my family believes
In my husband's family, his mother and her two brothers inherited stock in a
company called Cincinnati Financial. They never sold it, and eventually what
with splits and everything, it grew into a fortune. Well, his Uncle Howard sold
his shares to invest in something or other, and the legend became, "Don't ever
sell Cincinnati Financial, or you'll end up like Uncle Howard," who everybody
loved, but he ended up dying grimly in a nursing home, having to borrow
money from everyone. We had to put our kids through school, and I insisted to
my husband that we had to sell at least half of the stock. I've never seen my
husband so upset; he came home from the brokerage pale and shaken. I asked
him what was wrong, and he said, "I can't talk about it. I'm just terrified that
I'm going to become Uncle Howard." He didn't, of course. Everything turned
out fine, we put the kids through school and law school and put a roof on the
house. But Uncle Howard's failure became the standard against which
everybody measured their own success or failure. I've heard everybody in
that family invoke him at some point.
There must be myths like that in your own family, stories that you take at face
value and agree that's how you'll think about the family.
I just got the oddest review from Michiko Kakutani where she said she found it
odd that these people wouldn't talk to each other about their family members.
That Warren doesn't tell Agnes that his father's a drunk, for example, and that
Agnes doesn't tell Warren about her father's temper or that her mother is
crazy. But I think people still don't talk about those things. My father was an
alcoholic; my husband's father was an alcoholic. We both knew that about
each other's fathers, sort of, but we never talked about it. We could be angry at
our parents for their failures, but not each other's parents... Does that make
RH: Oh, sure. I think it's pretty standard that you don't get to
criticize your loved one's relatives...
RFD: ...and woe betide anyone who does. My husband can't say anything
bad about my mother or my sister. Well, he wouldn't, he likes them anyway.
But I can. That's just understood. I can't understand why she would have a
problem with that.
RH: There's no polite way for Agnes to tell Warren she hates his
uncle, after all.
RFD: Exactly! You just can't. My grandmother used to tell me that she'd
end up locking herself in the bathroom when my grandfather's brother came
over. She just didn't want to be by herself with him. And my mother did the
same thing. Nobody ever told my grandfather. They knew that if they told him
about it, he'd choose to never see his brother again, and nobody wanted that to
happen. It was just one of those things...
RH: You've said elsewhere that as the trilogy goes on towards
the present day, you might include characters from all your books.
RFD: It's tempting. Right now I think they might show up, but with
different names. I have a feeling I've been writing about the same group of
people all this time... It really is character development that interests me, and
these people have been with me almost like invisible friends, except they're
not all friends. It's like there's somebody I know that I just need to explain to
RH: Your first book was very successful, so successful that
critics who dislike this book often cite how disappointed they are
because of how much they loved it. That kind of early success
seems like a blessing, but...
RFD: ...it's a curse, too, sure. Everything you do is measured against it.
But Dale Loves Sophie to Death wasn't the success everybody says it was.
It won what was then the American Book Award for first novel, not for best
fiction. I keep telling my publishers not to say I won the National Book Award,
but they'll never change the blurb now... I can't remember who won for best
fiction, but whoever it was must really hate me by now for eclipsing their
I loved that book, though. I don't remember much about it now, and I
purposefully don't go back and read it. My favorite of the books I wrote, before
this, was The Time of Her Life, which I know now is so unrelentingly
grim. In a way, it was the flip side of Dale Loves Sophie, because it was a
family that wasn't ever going to work. And it made people angry. My
publisher insisted the protagonist had to die at the end, because he said if she
didn't there wouldn't be any redemption for her parents. I told him I didn't
even know what that meant. I still don't, but he was so insistent on changing
the ending that finally I had to find a new publisher.
Before I started writing, I thought having a book published would be the
ultimate wonderful thing in my life. But I was wrong. I'm finally forced to
believe what I told my students when I was teaching at Iowa: it's the process
that's the reward. People don't believe that when you have a book published
and they don't, but it's true.
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