Interview with Robert Pina

When did you first start writing?
Well, even before I knew what a novelist was, I had a very vague idea of what a writer did. But I knew certainly that he impressed his elders. Being a writer must be a big deal, I thought, because any successful paper of mine was always touted about the living room. So writing appealed to me as a child as a very decent profession. It certainly did a lot for me as a child. But I remember being recognized as a writer early on and celebrated by my teachers as one. Of course it would be many years before I relied on the positive regard I received to learn to speak through characters in a novel. But after much casting about for a career as an artist, I finally settled down with enough self-discipline to attempt my first novel.
Where did the idea for Porch of the Inferno come from?
You can think of fire and destruction and all the symbolism it entails as a menacing force, but for the main character, Eloy, and for myself as the writer, any regard to fire is very much from a perspective of calm isolation. It's a look back at a harrowing time from a more prosperous distance. So in that regard the novelist is destroying by fire all detritus of his life--all images, memories, anecdotes. Anything that does not serve him now must go into the fire. The book is a chronicle of survival and of ruination. It is a moving on, so to speak.
Who are your favorite authors?
My favorite authors are the ones I grew up with--Vonnegut, Steinbeck, and H.G. Wells. So I'm bewildered I turned to writing what I feel is the most deliberate, euphonious sounding prose. And I'm often ashamed to write a sentence that sounds like a song lyric, so I'm always discarding whole paragraphs. I have primarily in adulthood been influenced by the southerners--O'Connor, Greene, Eudora Welty, and, even though he's not southern, Cormac McCarthy.
What do your fans mean to you?
For me it means eyes on the page. And I don't have any pretense that anyone is a fan of mine. For instance, I adore many writers for their style. But the admiration does not come from any personal affinity for who they are as people. But I do admire the way some writers turn a phrase.
What inspires you to get out of bed each day?
It's never inspiration that leads me to get out of bed in the morning. Inevitably it's the urge to go to the bathroom. That said, I've always worked as long as I can remember. And the times I've been the most unproductive as a writer were the few intermittent times when I was unemployed. So writing for me is like work and a very noble undertaking for which I am always thankful to get out of bed.
When you're not writing, how do you spend your time?
I spend inordinate amounts of time cultivating friendships on the internet. Remember that character in Brave New World, I think it was Bernard Marx, who spends what privacy he has peering into a screen. Well, I used to equate that in my youth with spending too much time in front of the television. Well, now I know how prophetic Aldous Huxley was in foreseeing the enormous amounts of time we spend in front of the computer.
Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?
Well, yes, and I have a photograph commemorating it. My 5th grade teacher thought it might be a good idea for some of us to bind and stitch our own stories into books. Mine must have stood out as exceptional, because she took several pictures of me sitting next my storybook about a family of aliens just arrived on the world from outer space.
What is your writing process?
I write very much out of inspiration. I tend to work from a very short sentence or paragraph into a longer piece. For instance I'll write a sentence on one of my notepads in public about someone I've seen and then turn that sentence, using the same rhythms, into a longer form observation about something completely different. So it's often the feeling of awe about something that I wish to transcribe, not necessarily the event. I work from a feeling of excitement about something and wanting to share it.
Do you remember the first story you ever read, and the impact it had on you?
I was very much moved by Charlotte's Web as a child and wept for several days after the passing of what seemed to me was an insignificant gray spider. I was horrified such a thing could have an impact on me. But I immediately began to construct a career around the idea of becoming a writer.
How do you approach cover design?
A sense of unity and proportion is very important to me. The cover must contain some overall impression of the novel whether it's color to signify mood or image to convey a theme. But one of my most treasured books as a child was J.D. Salinger's, Catcher in the Rye, which featured a Burgundy colored book jacket with yellow lettering. There's just nothing more boring than that. But a dazzling, eye-catching cover will never convince a reader that the contents are equally arresting. And nothing is more important than what is inside.
What are your five favorite books, and why?
East of Eden by John Steinbeck because of it's sense of proximity.
Rabbit Run John Updike because it exalts modern man to a form of God.
Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy because it defuses tremendous beauty with ghastly imagery.
Hugging the Shore by John Updike because there's no better gift than a book.
The Collected Works of Eudora Welty because it's like dipping into a warm summer stream.
What is your e-reading device of choice?
I never leave home without my iphone and feel completely lost when I'm without it.
Describe your desk
My desk is intentionally inexpensive. I'm typing now with my feet up on one end and the keyboard laying partly across my lap and the other end of the desk. I write in various positions--sometimes my legs splayed out in front of me--so I must have a desk that is durable, stylish and can apparently stand being walked on.
Where did you grow up, and how did this influence your writing?
I grew up in the Central Valley of California in Dos Palos. And with those long, foggy winters--at times you didn't see the sun for a month--and those oppressive summers, you only grew up wanting to get out. Of course now I suffer tremendous bouts of nostalgia about my hometown, which I translate to my writing. But it was very much a small town back then with only 5,000 people. And although I write about the desperate fictional lives of its inhabitants, no one ever seemed back then to think they were missing out on a world beyond that small town. They were there because they wanted to be there and to raise their families. Well, of course, then I came along with a completely different set of idea.
Where did you grow up, and how did this influence your writing?
I grew up in the Central Valley of California in Dos Palos. And with those long, foggy winters--at times you didn't see the sun for a month--and those oppressive summers, you only grew up wanting to get out. Of course now I suffer tremendous bouts of nostalgia about my hometown, which I translate to my writing. But it was very much a small town back then with only 5,000 people. And although I write about the desperate fictional lives of its inhabitants, no one ever seemed back then to think they were missing out on a world beyond that small town. They were there because they wanted to be there and to raise their families. Well, of course, then I came along with a completely different set of idea.
Published 2015-08-18.
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