A Conversation Between Mother and Daughter: Authors Betsy and Edna Robinson
By Betsy Robinson
It all started at BookExpo America (BEA) 2013, arguably the largest book publishing convention in the U.S., so it seemed fitting that I asked my mother, Edna Robinson, whose debut novel, The Trouble with the Truth, found a copacetic agent there, to accompany me to BEA 2015. The fact that she has been dead since 1990 is inconsequential.
“Mom,” I said, “things have changed since 1958 when you wrote your coming-of-age book about a lost but funny girl named Lucresse in the 1930s, (called by Booklist, ‘a gem of a book’) [No, of course I didn’t really say all this, but I’m trying to make this conversation both comprehensible and appealing!] You thought getting a word processor in 1989, a year before you skedaddled, was wild. Just wait till you see what’s going on now!”
Edna Robinson: “I can hardly contain myself. Are you really going to wear those shoes?”
Betsy Robinson: “I’m 64 years old and nobody will look at my feet. Okay, here we are. Simon & Schuster. Can you see it, Mom? Are you crazy happy, flying over all these people? Hey, where the hell is your book cover?!”
ER: “Now, Betsy, they told you they were concentrating on fall titles, and mine came out in February. Will you please just try to enjoy yourself? And smile!”
BR: “All right, all right. So what do you think of all this? Getting a book you wrote when you were 37 published when you are— I’m not really sure how old you are. Does age continue after death? Let’s see, if you were 68 when you died, and it’s been 25 years . . .”
ER: “You never could do arithmetic. But it’s inconsequential. All this emphasis on years is so silly. I wrote, I raised children, I made a living, I wrote some more, and then I left my body. I’m the age I’ve always been: ageless. However I want you to know how grateful I am that you edited my book and sold it. It’s the one thing I always wanted. And, if you recall, I never stopped trying—even into my last years.”
BR: “It is pretty amazing. BEA is for publishers to sell to booksellers. Nobody wants to hear about an author’s unpublished manuscript. It just doesn’t happen. How come it happened, Mom? Did you have something to do with it? Did you zap that agent into listening to me, and me into talking like a maniac about how brilliant and original my dead mother’s novel was?”
ER: “We’ll never know, will we?”
BR: “Hey, look over there? I think that’s your publisher, Charmaine Parker. I can almost read her name tag. She said she’d meet me here. It’s so weird to have this whole thing happen virtually—with no personal contact. Oh god, I should have worn pretty shoes! Is my hair sticking out funny? Is there crud on my teeth?”
ER: “Relax, sweetheart. She’s not going to unpublish the book.”
BR: “Charmaine! It’s so nice to finally meet you.”
Charmaine Parker, publishing director of Infinite Words (an imprint of Simon & Schuster/Atria), looks tired. She is a writer in her own right, and the combination of all her duties plus travel give her a sympathetic look. I love her immediately. We find a relatively quiet corner in the Simon & Schuster booth and I ask her what I’ve been longing to know since she and her publisher sister Zane (a bestselling author) accepted the book: “Why? What compelled you to publish a midlist literary novel by an unknown dead author in this day and age when authors not only are supposed to be alive, but are required to blog, tweet, and relentlessly ‘interact with community’? Are you insane?” [No, I didn’t say that last part, but I thought it.]
Charmaine Parker: “No. [Is she a mind-reader?] I thought the whole thing was fascinating. It had a surreal quality.”
BR: “Can you elaborate on that?”
CP: “I thought it was a blessing that you were able to pick up this manuscript and have it come to fruition. Zane and I thought it was hidden treasure that you’re sharing with the world, and Infinite Words was thrilled to have been the conduit for this treasure.”
I thank her. I hug her. We part.
Edna wrote The Trouble with the Truth in 1957–58, surrounded by three noisy children. It was pre-women’s movement, but she never fit into the 1950s housewife role. When Donna Reed came on the TV, Edna would mince back and forth between us kids and the TV, with a phony “nicey smile,” laughing about how no real person acted like that. She unapologetically disdained the PTA, disliked cooking, complained about having to chauffeur us anywhere, and gave off steam when she was writing.
In 2009, after getting laid off from my magazine job (where I had fought for a fair salary, and at the age of 50, realized perhaps I was worth it—don’t get me started), I began freelance editing and pouring out the book that had been gestating for the last year—talk about giving off steam. The Last Will & Testament of Zelda McFigg is about a woman with none of my hang-ups: she feels entitled to work, acknowledgement, fame, and glory, and she doesn’t care about rules or telling the truth. Writing it was exhilarating. And did I say, it’s a funny story? So I laughed my behind off—a badly need release in the midst of the not-so-Great Recession.
In 2013, my agent hadn’t been able to sell Zelda, freelance work had plateaued, and I thought about my assets—one of which was Edna’s editable novel, sitting in my closet since her death in 1990, just as it had sat in her closet ever since the debacle with Harper Lee.
Allow me a slight tangent to explain.
The Trouble with the Truth was an expansion of a short story by the same title that was published in the 1959 edition of the New World Writing book series, selected as one of the “most exciting and original” stories of its time. And when Harper & Row optioned the novel, it seemed as if Edna’s fantasy of becoming a successful novelist was at hand. However, in a writer’s worst nightmare of bad timing, her book collided with To Kill a Mockingbird, and was dropped because there just wasn’t room for another period piece about a single father with two peculiar children.
Okay, back to the present. When you edit, you virtually see through an author’s eyes, feel what they felt, live their life. Mind-blowing when you are living through your young mother’s eyes. So this was what all the steam was about. The book was great! Funny, charming, relevant today. I was so out of my mind, I posted on Facebook: “Talk about time warps! I’m a 62-year-old book editor working on the novel that 6-year-old me observed my 36-year-old mother writing in 1957. And the story takes place in the 1920s and 30s. Kerfuffled!” But head travel goes two ways, and Edna was, and remains, in my head.
BR: “So, Mom, what do you think? Charmaine called it ‘treasure.’”
ER: “Yes! Yes! Yes, thank you, yes.”
Sometimes I think fruition is even sweeter when it happens later in life . . . or even in the beyond.