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Interview with Erika Robuck

Therese here. I’m thrilled to present today’s interview, profiling WU contributor Erika Robuck [1] and her novel Hemingway’s Girl [2], which releases today! Erika’s book presents a fascinating look at an author we only think we know, Ernest Hemingway. Said Publishers Weekly of the work:

Robuck brings Key West to life, and her Hemingway is fully fleshed out and believable, as are Mariella and others. Readers will delight in the complex relationships and vivid setting.”

Though Erika self-published her first book, Receive Me Falling, in 2009, Hemingway’s Girl marks her debut in traditional publishing (NAL/Penguin) and will be followed by Call Me Zelda, a novel featuring Mr. and Mrs. F. Scott Fitzgerald, in 2013.

What was Erika’s journey like, and what’s Hemingway’s Girl about? Let’s start with a look at Erika’s book trailer, and go from there.

Q: Hemingway’s Girl paints an intimate portrait of one of the most iconic authors of all time. How did this story become the tale you had to write?

My fascination with Ernest Hemingway began in college when I took a course on his works. A MOVEABLE FEAST and THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA have stayed with me, and I’ve reread them often over the years. When I visited Hemingway’s home in Key West I felt a strong connection to it and to his life during the time he lived there. The dreams and stars aligned so it felt like Hemingway was haunting me until I began writing HEMINGWAY’S GIRL. He hasn’t stopped.

Q: The average Joe likely knows Hemingway as an iconic author but may know little to nothing about his personal life. I didn’t realize he’d killed himself, for example, or anything about his tendency to be cruel. What was your process in terms of getting to know Hemingway at this level? Being a fan of his work, was it hard for you to reveal his dark edges and not whitewash his personality? Did you pick and choose personality traits to display in your story, or was it your goal to show him in true form, for better and worse?

I was surprised to hear from some of my beta readers that they didn’t know Hemingway had killed himself. I don’t know when I found out, but I believe it was before I’d read anything he’d written, and I’ve always viewed his work and reputation through the shadow of his suicide. I think that’s why I’m sympathetic to him, even when he was a terrible bastard. I think I also forgive his cruel side because of how much regret he expressed about it in letters and in his work, with which I spent a lot of time while researching my book. A MOVEABLE FEAST was written near the end of his life, and while it sharply criticizes some, his ending where he confesses his fear of being a man without a heart is an apology of sorts and a revelation of his deep, personal anguish. I wanted to reveal him as he was, but also offer him a chance at redemption.

Q: Broadly speaking, how much historical research was involved in creating your story? What form did that research take? Were any aspects of that research tempting your story arc in ways you had to resist?

For me, the research phase usually precedes the writing by about four months, during which time I visit places in the author’s life (when I’m able), interview sources, visit archives, Photobucket [3]view photographs, read biographies, letters, journals, and finally, the body of work of the author.

I pay special attention to the work and writings around the time my books are set to get the most complete and accurate emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and physical representation of my subject.

Hemingway lived such a long and fascinating life, and I’ve only written about nine months of it! I could spend the rest of my life writing about him. Sometimes, though, other writers demand to be heard.

Q: Hemingway and the protagonist of the story, a half-Cuban girl named Mariella, had a singular relationship throughout the course of the novel—a relationship partially defined by sensual tension. At the same time, I felt this relationship between “Papa” Hemingway (his favored name for himself) and “Daughter” Mariella (his favored name for girls as he’d always longed for a daughter) could be seen as paternal. There was tension there, for me, between these two polar ideas— sensual v. parenthood. I’d love for you to speak to that. Was this purposefully done, and what as an author did you hope to achieve here?

I did purposefully create this tension. While reading about Hemingway’s friends and lovers, I was often interested to hear women with whom he appeared to have romantic relationships refer to him as Papa. I also found it interesting that he wanted a daughter so badly that he called young women Daughter. Historically, this would have been accurate, so I had to weave it into the story. It worked well because Mariella was at the brink of adulthood, had just lost her father, and was facing terrible identity confusion as she yearned for independence but had to support her mother. She was drawn to Hemingway because she subconsciously needed a strong male figure in her life, but his interest in her as a woman drew out another aspect of that relationship.

Q: I found the storm sequence in your story especially compelling. It must’ve been challenging to weave this real-life event into the narrative in such a climactic way, and you definitely pulled it off. What about the storm drew you toward its possibilities? Did the storm itself help to define the story’s overall arc and theme?

I learned about the storm while researching Hemingway’s writings at the JFK Museum in Boston. I discovered a piece he wrote for a communist paper after the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 expressing his outrage over the government’s failure to evacuate the vets in time. As I further researched the hurricane and the veterans, I felt the need to tell their story. My character, Gavin, emerged to deepen the themes I wanted to explore in the book, particularly about how people use one another, and the differences between the rich and poor in society. I built the whole book around the hurricane.

Q: I was struck throughout with your talent for natural dialogue. [Scene segment excerpted here with permission, in which Hemingway and Mariella are at a cafe, enjoying lemonade and key lime pie, when he chases away a fan/onlooker he finds annoying.]

“Can’t a man sit and write without being aggravated?

“You’re in a public place, Papa.”

“But I’m doing a private thing.”

“You’re a famous writer. You can’t expect to sit in public, unnoticed, doing the very thing you’re famous for.”

“But I need to watch people for ideas.”

“Then expect to get interrupted every now and then.”

“You could sit here without interrupting me,” he said. He stopped to take a long drink of his lemonade.

“That’s because I had my pie to keep me occupied. I’d probably interrupt you if I didn’t have my pie.”

He broke into a grin and shook his head. She went back to her pie, and he went back to his notebook. He stopped after a few minutes and reached into his pocket.

“I just remembered, I have something for you,” he said.

He placed a black rabbit’s foot on a key chain in her hand.

“For luck,” he said.

“Where’s the rest of it?” she asked.

“How the hell should I know? The foot’s the only lucky part of the rabbit.”

“Wasn’t so lucky for him,” she said.

He laughed loudly and took another drink. “You know, I’m going to write a story about you, Mariella.”

“Please don’t,” she said.


“I won’t be used.”


“When you put people on your pages, you take something away from them.”

He looked at her closely, and then at his notebook. “I don’t want to share you with anyone, anyway.” He drew a long, diagonal line over everything he’d written, and turned to a clean page.

She felt chills rise on her arms when he crossed the pencil down the paper.

There. Gone.

Do you have any tips for writers who also want their dialogue to ring true?

Photobucket [4]Thank you! I’ve always been drawn to dialogue. In fact, when I begin writing, I often start sketching my ideas as a screenplay, but pull away because I’m somehow fearful of the form. I choose actors to represent characters based on headshots, imagine locations for filming, and select music for a soundtrack. Essentially, I build a movie in my mind, and then write it as a novel.

Hemingway’s voice was so firmly in my ear after reading so many of his letters that I could almost hear him whispering to me while I wrote his scenes. I know that people often don’t want to hear about the magic, but there is something to idea of writer as “transcriber.” I would often reread Hemingway’s sections somehow surprised that I’d written them. But that’s the
key: reread out loud. It never fails with dialogue.

Q: You’ve been vocal with your praise about the Donald Maass Breakout Novel Intensive [5], which you took about seven months before your novel sold. How did this workshop help you to take your work to the next level? What in particular did you hone in on for improvements?

I have to first back up and thank Writer Unboxed for announcing that the Breakout Novel Intensive (BONI) had a scholarship to offer. My husband was out of work at the time, and I was still wallowing in the misery of unrepresented author land (sad but true.) I applied for the scholarship and won, and that really began to turn things around for me.

I cannot praise BONI enough for several reasons. First, the value of going away from your everyday life to focus on writing for five days is priceless.

Second, the instruction from Donald Maass and the feedback from the editors at the conference can not be beat. Third, the feedback from the other writers in critique group sessions enhanced both my work and my eye for editing. Finally, the one-on-one manuscript sessions with the four editors helped me untangle plot lines, elevate themes, identify ways to make my characters larger than life, and really draw out the heart and soul of my novel. BONI is the most comprehensive and useful workshop I’ve ever attended.

They don’t pay me to say that, either.

Q: Would you like to show us an example of one thing you learned at BONI and applied to your ms? How did it make you a stronger writer?

At BONI, we learned that all novels should have layers. Simply put, the first layer includes the physical, “save the farm” goal of the protagonist that guides the plot. The second layer contains the intellectual or emotional arc of the character–the changes she makes or the goals she inwardly seeks. The final layer encompasses the subplots, and must support the physical and psychological goals of the character.

When I took my manuscript to BONI, I had the second and third layers, but was missing the most basic element: a physical goal for my protagonist.
Without that goal, the novel’s structure wasn’t sound. Mid-week at BONI, I was exhausted, couldn’t find my goal, and felt like I should give up. It was then that I met with one of the editors who asked me a very simple question:
“What does your character want to do when she grows up?” I quickly answered, “She wants to start a charter fishing boat business, but she can’t because she needs money to support her mother and sisters.” He stared at me for a moment until the light went on in my head and I realized that the physical goal was nestled in my protagonist’s dream for her future. I know I hugged him, I might have kissed him, and I definitely skipped back to my hotel room to get busy weaving in that plot layer.

It sounds so simple, but I needed help discovering the goal. That discovery not only changed and enhanced the novel, but it gave me a surge of much needed confidence and momentum.

Q: Dan Blank recently wrote a post about the importance of knowing your readership [6]. Who do you see as the readership for Hemingway’s Girl? Do you have any interesting initiatives underway, in terms of finding that readership?

I believe my first readers will be fans of Hemingway, and my outreach in Florida, in particular, has been intense. I filmed the book trailer at The Hemingway House in Key West, and their bookstore and the bookstores around the island will carry the novel. I also have several signings in Florida, and a signing up in Chicago at the Hemingway House and Museum. I would love to get to Kansas City for an event. Hemingway wrote for the KC Star, and he has a large and loyal following there. It is a beautiful thing to see so many people out there still interested in his work.

Photobucket [2]Q: That’s fantastic! For the less extroverted among us, would you discuss how best to approach groups like this? Were they “in the loop” from the beginning, aware of your project, or did you wait, send them an ARC and gauge their interest at that point?

Long before the publication of the novel, I targeted the areas in the country that I felt had strong Hemingway followings. Once the ARCs were ready, I personally reached out to reviewers and booksellers in those areas and had copies sent to them. We set up signings shortly thereafter.

I have to stress that you, the author, know your work and audience best, so lead the charge. Reach out, set up signings, know your market–this makes all the difference at launch time. I’m blessed that I have no fear of talking to strangers. If you are not an extrovert, I think Hemingway would recommend a shot of something alcoholic to produce liquid cohones.

Q: Hemingway’s Girl marks your debut in traditional publishing, but you self-published a novel prior to this: Receive Me Falling. What would you like readers to know about your journey to publication with Hemingway’s Girl? Did Receive Me Falling play a role in that? Did self-publishing prior to a traditional publishing deal impact your journey in any notable way?

I believe that self-publishing RECEIVE ME FALLING helped prepare me for traditional publishing, and I’m glad I did it. As a self-published author, I had to not only write the book, but I had to design the cover, reach out to reviewers and bloggers, secure events where I could sell the book, and meet with book clubs. I learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t, so I was able to apply that to the launch of HEMINGWAY’S GIRL. It is especially nice that I’ll get to revisit all of the book clubs who supported me as an “indie” author and show them what their support has done.

That said, I self-published in 2009 when there weren’t as many authors doing it, and I set a fairly large paper print run for myself. It’s motivating to have hundreds of books sitting in your dining room, so I spent countless hours at fairs and festivals peddling my wares. The self-published ebook market seems to be bursting right now, so I’m very glad I self-published when I did. I honestly don’t know if I would recommend it at this point.

Q: Has anything along the path to publication surprised you? Is there anything you wished you known ahead of time?

The outpouring of support and generosity from friends, writers, booksellers, my publisher, my agent–truly, it is overwhelming and surreal. I wish I had known about this when I felt like I’d never get published, when I was getting rejections by the dozen in the mail, and when I almost gave up.

Q: What advice do you have for aspiring novelists out there?

DON’T GIVE UP. Dogged stubbornness, belief in yourself, a strong writer-tribe, and the work itself will get you where you want to go, if you keep writing and growing.

Thanks for a wonderful interview, Erika! Readers, you can learn more about Erika and her novel Hemingway’s Girl on her website [7] and blog [8], and by following her on Facebook [9] and Twitter [10]. Write on.

About Therese Walsh [11]

Therese Walsh co-founded WU in 2006 and is the site's editorial director. She was the architect and 1st editor of WU's only book, Author in Progress [12], and orchestrates the WU UnConference. [13] Her second novel, The Moon Sisters [14], was named one of the best books of the year by Library Journal and Book Riot; and her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy [15] was a Target Breakout Book. Sign up for her newsletter [16] to be among the first to learn about her new projects (or follow her on BookBub [17]). Learn more on her website [18].