February 17, 2018

Best Books Q&A: Roxana Robinson, author of Cost

By Barbara Hoffert

In this day and age, what adult child hasn’t dreaded a parent’s slide into Alzheimer’s? And what parent hasn’t dreaded a child’s slide into addiction? Julia, the troubled heart beating at the center of Roxana Robinson’s harrowing Cost, an LJ Best Book, must deal with both. Robinson’s novel is notable for its scrupulous detailing of the characters’ actions, reactions, and psychic pain, and reading it indeed comes at a cost. But the benefits—a depth of understanding and a profoundly moving reading experience—are immeasurable.

Cost enfolds two stories: a woman’s dealing with her aging parents and with her addicted son. What prompted your investigation of these issues?
What started me writing this novel was curiosity about something rather quiet. I was interested in the problem of being a good adult child. I wondered why it is that, even when you’re a grownup and have, theoretically, moved beyond this, the fact is that when you’re with your parents it seems as though you are still awkwardly and inextricably connected to earlier, demanding, immature, and unwelcome selves—the needy child, the rebellious adolescent, the superior 21 year old. And I wondered why it is always so difficult to be the person you want to be, at whatever age you are. Why do we allow those earlier selves to dominate the discourse between ourselves and our parents? Why can’t we rise above those old, immature selves, disengage, and cut them loose? I thought that was an interesting question.

I was also interested in what it would be like to be an older parent and feeling your hold over your own life start to fail, feeling fear set in: fearing that your child might lose respect for you as you lose power, feeling uncertain of what your strengths are, fearful of becoming pitiable, trying to negotiate all this new, difficult territory. So I thought I was writing a modest domestic novel about the relationship between a grown child and elderly parents. Heroin addiction emerged as a presence for the author at exactly the same time it emerges for the reader—in an early chapter, when we’re inside Steven’s mind, and he’s remembering his visit to his brother. As he remembered that visit it became horrifyingly apparent to me, the author, that Jack was a heroin addict.

This was horrifying for two reasons. First of all, I had become deeply involved with my characters, and this was such a dire prospect, so dark and ominous, for all of them. The second was a purely selfish reason: I knew that heroin addiction would be a prodigiously difficult subject to explore. I had already known I was going to learn about Alzheimer’s disease, and the history and mechanics of neurosurgery, but now I could see that I’d also have to learn about an entirely new world as well. I’d need to know everything possible about heroin and what it was like to be an addict and the mother of an addict, and to learn about the community of addiction. I was daunted by this discovery but also fascinated. I actually found it deeply compelling: I was hooked.

How did you manage to enter into each character’s pain and then surface at the end of the day and, say, cook dinner and go to the movies?
It took me four years to write the book. I write quite slowly, and I rewrite a lot. At the start of a book, I can’t write very long on it each day, and I dip in and out of it. At that stage, it’s easy to return to my life from writing, and for a couple of years I lived inside the book only on a part-time basis. But once things get going, a kind of momentum becomes established, and the book begins to take me over, and then I begin living more inside it. 

With this book, about the last half or third of it was written, very intensively, over a period of about four months. During that time I lived almost completely in the book. It was difficult for me to be away from it, because what was going on in it had become so compelling. I don’t remember what was going on in my life then because I was really living in the book. During those months, if I did cook dinner and go to the movies (which I’m sure I must have), I did so in a parenthetical state. Inside my mind, my real life—the book—was still running continuously, absorbing my thoughts. I only disengaged when I had to talk to someone. Whatever I was doing in the outside world felt secondary; I was only marking time until I could get back to my people.

One thing I particularly admired about Cost was that you didn’t go for a soapy Oprah ending. Why not?
I wrote the ending the way I wrote the rest of the novel—by feeling my way slowly through people’s minds and discovering their responses to the unfolding narrative. And since the narrative unfolded as the result of the characters’ responses, it was really the characters themselves who were writing the book.

The final scene wasn’t something I planned any more than I planned the narrative itself. But it wouldn’t have been possible to have an easy and heartwarming resolution because it wasn’t possible for the characters to become transformed suddenly into people who were no longer constrained by their own limitations. The characters were changed by what happened, and changed quite deeply, but they were still themselves. And it was those characters—flawed and limited and struggling—who moved toward the final scene, it was they who spoke the last dialog, performed the last acts. It couldn’t have been any other way.

Have you ever knelt in the prow of a sailboat and taken hold of a heavy, waterlogged rope, and begun slowly to pull yourself, and the boat with you, toward the submerged anchor? To me, writing is a bit like that. You can’t raise the anchor until you’ve arrived at it, and at first you don’t know where it is. Your task is to draw yourself closer and closer to that deep, submerged presence. The line is weighty and mysterious, and within a few yards it becomes invisible, plunging down into the green depths and vanishing. The process is ponderous: you pull yourself onward slowly, hand over hand, coiling the dripping line below you on the deck as you pull it up. As you draw nearer, the angle of the line changes. It starts off at a casual oblique slant, from wherever you have drifted, but when you finally arrive directly above the anchor the line will be a strict taut vertical. You draw yourself through the dark water, toward the hidden presence, and so I pulled myself toward the ending, and the narrative went further and further into the depths.

Another thing I admired was your ability to write about a son’s addiction in a way that was not exploitative or a device—meant only to yank my heartstrings and set up a big crisis for the other characters. How did you manage it?
I’m not sure how to answer this. It’s difficult to explain how I avoided something that isn’t part of my writing world. I don’t use plot outlines, and I don’t know beforehand what’s going to happen in my books, so I don’t think in terms of devices, or of using one thing in the narrative in the service of something else.

I suppose that exploitation of a tragedy would mean that the writer would manipulate the reader’s emotions without engaging her own, but that’s the reverse of the way I work. I become completely engaged by the characters. My intent is to inhabit each of the characters as fully as I can, and to explore the possibilities of the narrative as fully as I can. Whatever happens to the characters affects me. Jack’s addiction wasn’t a device for anything. It was a torture for himself and his family, and they—and I—had to live through that.

I am curious to know about individual reader response that you found particularly surprising or gratifying.
The response to the book has been incredibly moving. I’ve received many grateful messages saying, “This is what happened to me. This is my story. Thank you for telling it.” Sometimes the readers themselves were addicts, though more often they were relatives—parents, aunts, siblings. People who struggle with addiction often feel they can’t talk about it, partly because the subject is so deeply intertwined with pain and shame and partly because most outsiders don’t understand it. So they bear their pain in silence, and pain borne in silence is somehow terribly magnified.

Readers have told me what a relief it has been to have this silence broken for them. The written word can give a story a kind of legitimacy, and people have told me how grateful they are to see their own experience articulated, how heartened they feel at being seen and known, at being given a place in the world. I can hardly express the respect I feel for the people who struggle with addiction, and I feel honored to bear witness to their extraordinary bravery and compassion.