The Beatrice Interview

Robb Forman Dew

"I have a feeling I've been writing about the same group of people all this time..."

interviewed by Ron Hogan

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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 trilogy.

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 family's history?

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 happened.

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 sense?

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 people.

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:'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 award.

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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BEATRICE Suggested further reading
Sue Miller | Complete Interview Index | A. Manette Ansay

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