In her historical novels, Annapolis author Erika Robuck invents everyday men and women whose lives intersect with those of acclaimed American authors. She figures that fiction is sometimes the best way of learning something true.
"I'm interested in famous writers and how they used the people in their lives," Robuck says. "They take things, and they don't always ask permission. It's such a betrayal."
Robuck's current novel, "Hemingway's Girl," tells the story of Mariella Bennet, a young, half-Cuban housemaid who must negotiate the marital minefield created by Ernest Hemingway and his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer. The story culminates with a disastrous 1935 Labor Day hurricane.
Even as Robuck is promoting "Hemingway's Girl" — she'll appear Sunday at Greetings & Readings in hunt Valley — she's anticipating the publication in May of her third novel, "Call Me Zelda." This book, which relates the story of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald from the perspective of a psychiatric nurse at Johns Hopkins Hospital, is filled with such Baltimore landmarks as Edgar Allan Poe's grave and the Owl Bar.
The 35-year-old Robuck recently chatted by phone about how she brings the past to life — and vice versa.
How did you make the transition from being a self-published author to landing contracts for four books with the Penguin Publishing Group?
My first book was set on an abandoned Caribbean sugar plantation, jumped back and forth between two time periods, and had an element of the paranormal. I had a hard time getting an agent, so I published it myself. It was chosen by some local book clubs, picked up steam and sold about 2,000 copies.
I wanted a traditional publisher for my second book, so I attended a pitch-fest at a writers' conference. You stand in line and get three minutes to pitch your book. They time you with a bell; it's a lot like speed-dating.
I pitched six agents, and all six requested full manuscripts. Three ultimately offered to represent me, and I went with the one who was the most compatible. The agents know who in the industry is looking for historical fiction. Penguin offered me a contract not just for "Hemingway's Girl," but also for my work-in-progress about Zelda Fitzgerald. I was flabbergasted.
It must have been a great vindication of all your hard work.
I still can't believe it. I get excited when I get emails from my agent or an editor. It took 10 years from beginning my first novel to getting an agent. There were many rejections along the way. Some were kind, and some were not.
My husband and I have three little boys, and going to writers' conferences and retreats costs a lot of money and time. I was starting to think, "This is never going to work. I might as well play the lottery."
You're clearly a fan of Papa [Hemingway].
I remember the exact moment I fell in love with Ernest Hemingway. We were reading, "A Farewell to Arms" when I was as sophomore or junior at Stevenson University. The writing is very tight. Then the hero falls in love with Catherine, and some of their dialogue exchanges are almost silly.
Hemingway has a reputation for being this macho figure, but he really exposes himself in these passages. Even when he was being cruel to someone, he had a tender side. His writing is so spare, and yet there's this high emotional content. I still don't know how he does that.
How did you get the idea to write "Hemingway's Girl"?
I'm often inspired by a particular place. When we were visiting Hemingway's house in Key West, I began to get the feeling that writers get of falling in love. I said, "I'm going to write about him some day."
But at the time, I was working on a sequel to my Caribbean novel, so I put it off for the future.
A few weeks later, I had a dream that Hemingway and I were standing in his house in Key West. He told me that I had to write about him because he was becoming irrelevant. And so I just did. I don't know whether it was my subconscious at work or something else, but I knew that I had to start right away on a new book.
You're a modern woman. Don't Hemingway's female characters bother you? They're either emasculating witches or male fantasies, and they're all horrible. He seems utterly unable to imagine any woman as an actual human being.
Some parts of "To Have and Have Not" make me want to cringe. In my novel, I do try to print a realistic picture of Hemingway. He's definitely a jerk. But as part of my research, I went to the JFK Library in Boston where his archives are kept, and I read letters and journals not meant for public consumption.
His letters to [Hemingway's friends] Gerald and Sara Murphy after their son died from tuberculosis are some of the most touching letters I've ever read. The crueler aspect of his personality was as painful to him as it was to others. He's somebody who always tried to be a better person.
Hemingway has such a distinctive narrative voice, one that's often parodied. Read too much of him at one time, and he gets stuck in your head and takes over your own way of phrasing things. How did you keep his voice from invading your prose?
[Groan.] It was a struggle, especially since much of his writing is instructional. He loves to teach what he says is good writing. The last thing I want is to imitate Hemingway, though I have learned a few things from him. I usually don't write with too many adjectives.
The only place in the novel where I take on Hemingway's voice is in the epilogue. I'd been to the archives where I'd read hundreds of his letters. His voice was in my ear, and a series of letters from him to Mariella started coming out.
Sometimes, as a writer, you disappear into the work. Three hours have gone by. You have no idea how time passed, but you look down and you've written 10 pages. Other times, you struggle to write three sentences. That's the writer's high you're always chasing.
If you go
Erika Robuck will read from and sign copies of her new novel, "Hemingway's Girl," from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday at Greetings & Readings in the Hunt Valley Towne Centre, 118-AA Shawan Road. Call 410-771-3022 or go to greetingsandreadings.com.
About the book
"Hemingway's Girl," published by New American Library. 326 pages, $16.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun