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In Talks With: Professor Robert Rosenberg

Ms. Nikita: We had the extreme pleasure of speaking with Professor Robert Rosenberg, let’s begin with a short introduction. Please tell our readers a little about yourself, professor.

Robert RosenbergThanks for the chance to chat.  I’m a writer and educator.  I’ve lived and taught all over the world – in Kyrgyzstan, Turkey, on the White Mountain Apache reservation in Arizona, and in New Delhi.  For the last decade or so I’ve taught creative writing and literature at Bucknell University, in Pennsylvania.  I write primarily fiction, and much of my writing has been inspired by my cross-cultural experiences and travel.

Ms. Nikita: Would you like to tell us a little something about your books ‘Isles of the Blind’ and ‘This is not Civilization’?

My first novel, This Is Not Civilization, is set in Kyrgyzstan, Istanbul, and on the White Mountain Apache reservation.  One thing that both travel and writing have in common is that they allow you to make new connections, to see universalities across the human experience.  So part of my goal in writing a novel with such a vast geographic scope was to explore these kinds of connections.

My second novel, Isles of the Blind, is a literary mystery set exclusively in Istanbul, and explores the relationship between two Jewish brothers living in a Muslim society.  I lived and taught for two years in Istanbul, and still hadn’t gotten the city out of my system.  Other than New York (my home) Istanbul is probably the city closest to my heart.

Ms. Nikita: What inspired you to write these books?

When you live in a foreign culture – when you make good friends, and fall in love with the food and the architecture and the music and the culture (in other words, when you really care about a place) – questions inevitably arise. You wonder about its history, how things came to be the way they are.  You wonder what is going to happen to it, to the people and culture, especially faced with the kinds of pressures we feel in a globalized world.  On the White Mountain Apache reservation, for instance, the language is quickly disappearing, and few people are speaking it anymore.  With what kind of resilience are they facing such a change?  Or in Istanbul, the small Jewish population is under tremendous social pressure to emigrate.  How do people navigate these kinds of pressures?  Writing fiction is a chance to explore these questions.  

Ms. Nikita: Do you think writing is therapeutic?

Some people do, but I don’t.  I find it takes an enormous creative energy and concentration.  It’s like exercise, or like playing a sport – football or rugby.  It’s exhausting.  You lose yourself in the effort.  Although it’s not easy, you’re satisfied after you’re finished – if not during the writing itself.  That’s the way it feels to me at least.

Ms. Nikita: Would you like to share your experience as a Fulbright Scholar with us?

Living and teaching in New Delhi was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.  I came to Jamia Millia Islamia as a Fulbright Scholar in 2013-14, and taught a few literature and creative writing courses at the graduate level.  I was lucky enough to work with highly motivated students (like yourself!), and to be warmly welcomed by the faculty in the Department of English.  Creative Writing is not yet widely taught in Indian universities the way it is in America. 

Despite the logistical challenges of trying to teach an American style writing workshop within the rigid Indian higher educational system (I had to administer a final exam, for instance, in Creative Writing, something we don’t do in the U.S.), the experience was enriching for both my students and for me.  I found the student stories looser than my typical American student stories: wider ranging geographically, less structured plot-wise, and more driven by theme (such as the hardships and abuse of women in contemporary Indian society.)  Through the writing workshop, I found myself receiving an education about the hopes, fears, and aspirations of young Indians.  I also participated in seminars, conferences, and workshops at the University, including an International Dalit Literature Conference and a translation workshop of the short story writer Premchand.  Jamia, as an institution dedicated to minority education, was a fascinating place to work, and I particularly enjoyed interacting with students from all across India (and abroad too: from Iran, Yemen, and Syria!) 

Ms. Nikita: What difficulties did you face as a writer when it came to publication?

Really, the most difficult part is the writing itself.  It can never be good enough.  You can always go back and further polish language, further deepens character, further streamline plot.  Nothing is as difficult as that.  I worked for over a decade on my second novel, on that level. 

It’s true that publication can be a difficult process for early career authors.  I’ve just always had faith that if the writing is good enough, the publication process will happen.  Someone will take notice – someone will like the work enough to want to publish it.  Sometimes that takes time.  For Isles of the Blind it meant going back to the work over and over again, and not taking “no” for an answer.  I sent it out over and over again until a wonderful publisher – a small independent literary press – finally said yes.  But you hear a similar story for even very famous authors.  (You know what happened with JK Rowling’s first Harry Potter book, for example, right?  Dozens of rejections, but she never gave up.  It takes that kind of grit.)

Ms. Nikita: In today’s world do you feel people encourage young authors/poets?

Yes, I think they do, absolutely.  The vast community of writing groups, writing workshops, both within universities and outside of academia, is something completely new in literary history.  There are just so many outlets available to young writers.  Online writing groups.  Summer writing workshops.  Courses you can take in just about any large city in the U.S. and in many cities around the world.  I think what we’re seeing in the U.S., in this regard, is only going to further spread around the world, over time.  I mean, at University in the early 90’s I never even took a creative writing course – but now they’re offered at just about every American institution.  Here students commonly take creative writing courses even in high school. 

And for beginning writers, the opportunity to self-publish high-quality books, both old-fashioned paper books, but also digital books, is unlike anything we’ve ever seen.  Many of these books find audiences.  Last year even my twelve-year-old daughter was reading a number of digital books written on an app by like-minded young writers in the UK.  When, in history, has this ever been possible before?  It has to be exciting for young authors. 

Ms. Nikita: What is the one thing you’d want to tell your younger self?

I’d tell my younger self: “Get to work!”  It took me many years to understand how much can be accomplished through even the smallest daily habit.  Thirty minutes.  A page a day.  That’s all it takes.  Do that, and you could draft a book every year.  Get to work.  And don’t worry about the quality of that daily effort.  There will always be something worthwhile, even on off days.  Just make it a habit. 

Ms. Nikita: Do you believe in the term ‘Writers Block’?

Not really.  I think from my own experience that ‘Writer’s Block’ is just an excuse for procrastination.  It’s a kind of stage fright – and you’re the only one watching.  Just show up and get the words down, and don’t be so self-conscious!  I’ve also found it’s true that even if the writing seems impossible for the first few minutes if you stick at it for long enough after a few pages it comes more easily.  The words and ideas begin to flow.  You’ve got to work through the so-called ‘writer’s block’ to reach that ease of composition.  And if you do that often enough, you begin to trust the process.  You just write through that feeling, write past it. 

Ms. Nikita: What’s your mantra for tough times?

The thing I probably tell myself most often is, “This will pass.”  I like to take the broad view of things.  I often think about time – what my future self will think about any earth-shaking (but probably, in the grand scheme of things, trivial) difficulty I’m encountering. 

Ms. Nikita: What genres do you prefer writing and why?

For whatever reason, I’m a writer driven by place.  I need the excitement and discovery of travel to set off that creative spark.  Once it’s lit, I enjoy writing anything – fiction, non-fiction, a lyrical essay, a book review.  Mystery, political thriller, travel writing – anything driven by an encounter with the unfamiliar. 

Ms. Nikita: Are you planning any future publications?

I lived in Las Vegas a few years ago, and casually wrote a few short stories set there.  Despite it’s reputation, I found it a surprisingly multicultural and cosmopolitan city.  A few of those stories have been published, and someone suggested if I write a couple more, I can make a book of short stories out of it.  So I returned this spring to freshen my memory, and I’m attempting a few more Las Vegas stories.  The idea is that each story will be set in a different Las Vegas casino. 

Ms. Nikita: Do you read much and who’s your favorite author/poet? (if any)

You can’t be a writer if you’re not a reader.  Reading for me is like breathing.  But I always go back to the Russians – Tolstoy especially, but also Chekhov.  I reread War and Peace this winter, and couldn’t believe how good it was.  I’ve been recommending it as if no one’s ever heard of it before.  Like, here’s this under-the-radar book that’s just come out.  Ha!  It’s so accessible, but you don’t just read it – you live through it.  You live in it.  (For me it also made a worthwhile escape from the trauma and disgust I felt after the American election.) 

Ms. Nikita: You traveled to India a few years back, will we be reading any stories about your stay here, in the future?

I’ve written a few travel essays about India.  And I’ve attempted to get a novel started, set in New Delhi.  It’s centered on the construction of the Delhi Metro, which I found fascinating.  But it’s been slow going for a few reasons:  India is so vast – Delhi itself is so vast!  It’s intimidating.  And the country is changing so quickly, it’s difficult to grasp a single moment before it feels like it’s slipped through your fingers and you need to refocus.  Plus there’s just so much impressive literature being written by Indian authors about the city.  I think I’ve been intimidated by that tidal wave of creativity pouring out of the country in this direction! 

Ms. Nikita: You are also a creative writing professor at Bucknell University, we would love to hear your take on teaching creative writing.

I grew up playing sports – soccer, baseball, tennis, wrestling, rugby.  So it might be ingrained, but I approach teaching creative writing the way a coach teaches a sport.  That is the building and mastery of basic skills.  Repetition.  Fluency.  Deliberate practice.  I hope to give my writing students the chance to figure out what their strengths are.  (Is it their forehand?  Their backhand?  Their net game?)  But I encourage them to be well-rounded writers, to strengthen skills that don’t come naturally.  For instance, if I have a student who seems to avoid writing dialogue, who claims not to be able to do dialogue well, I’ll offer her all of the skills I know, all of the practice and techniques and ways of thinking about writing dialogue, that will allow her to get a bit better at it.  And to keep at it with practice, until she’s confident.

I also encourage constant revision – and across a semester my students write draft after draft of their fiction, the way I do, to allow a story to reach its full potential. 

In the end, I don’t know that writing (the writing of real literature, with its implication of genius) can be taught.  Did anyone “teach” Lionel Messi to be the greatest soccer player of our time?  But certainly, coaches around the world teach beginning soccer players skills that raise their games.  I try to do the same for young writers of fiction.

Ms. Nikita: Which famous person, living or dead would you like to meet and why?

Dead:  Tolstoy, of course, for whatever inspiration or strength of character I might gain by breathing the air around him.  I’d like to shake the hand that wrote those stories.  Living:  the Dalai Lama.  I often think of his smile.  My guess is being in his presence, even for a moment, would be the closest thing to a blessing one might actually experience.  

Ms. Nikita: Would you like to convey a message to all the budding/aspiring writers out there?

The world needs to hear your stories, imagined and true.  Stories are what we live for, what connects us.  It’s not your smartphone or your bank account or your grade point average that will be your legacy.  It’s the stories you leave behind.  Get to work! 

Ms. Nikita: Thank you for your valuable time Professor.

My pleasure!

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Interviewed by Nikita D’Monte



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