Emery Robin is the author of “The Stars Undying,” which publisher Orbit calls a “spectacular queer space opera tale of empire and betrayal inspired by the lives and loves of Cleopatra and the rise and fall of ancient Rome and Egypt.” Self-described as a recovering Californian, Robin is a paralegal who now lives in New York City. This is Robin’s debut novel.
Q. Is there a book or books you always recommend to other readers?
Every sentence Patricia Lockwood writes is some of the best writing that’s come out of this century, but her memoir “Priestdaddy” is a standout. That book, which is one of the funniest and truest books I know, is my go-to piece of proof. I have actually only recommended this book to people who are special to me, and none of them so far have read it—because I’m a martyr—so perhaps by recommending it to all of you I will finally break the pattern.
Q. What are you reading now?
I have a terrible relationship with my attention span. At the moment: “Coyote America: a Natural and Supernatural History,” by Dan Flores; “Slippery Creatures,” by K.J. Charles; “The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain,” by María Rosa Menocal; “Bad Gays: A Homosexual History,” by Ben Miller and Huw Lemmey; “The Last Trojan Hero: A Cultural History of Virgil’s Aeneid,” by Philip Hardie; “Siren Queen,” by Nghi Vo; Ray Bradbury’s “Classic Stories 1”; and “Dealing with Dragons,” by Patricia C. Wrede, which I always re-read on airplanes (where I am currently writing this paragraph)!
Q. What’s something – a fact, a bit of dialogue or something else – that has stayed with you from a recent reading?
I’ve recently been reading a lot of books about Henry Ford, which is a pastime I recommend for anyone who wants to whisper “What?” aloud to themselves for several hours, or who wants to learn an unpleasant amount about American bigotry. The strangest non-depressing fact I learned is that Ford despised cows, and made it a lifelong side project to make them obsolete! He thought infants should be fed soy milk in nurseries.
Q. Which books do you plan, or hope, to read next?
I’m saving “The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man” by David W. Maurer, a book about the slang of swindlers and confidence artists from 1940, as a reward for when I’ve accomplished something worthwhile (20 or 30 thousand words on my current novel draft, maybe). No character type rates higher in my estimation than the trickster — “The Sting,” which this book inspired, is my favorite movie.
Q. What do you find the most appealing in a book: the plot, the language, the cover, a recommendation? Do you have any examples?
Always the language. Reading a very good sentence feels like the author is taking your hand and saying to you personally, Hey, you can trust me with your time.
When I started Tamsyn Muir’s “Gideon the Ninth,” I was very burnt-out on Gothics — not a knock on the genre, just that I myself had recently come to this place emotionally and aesthetically of, “Yeah, yeah, bones, we’ve all got some”—which I think is a really important place to visit for anyone who loves a genre. It’s good to sometimes have moments where we ask of the things we love best, “Well, why should I still care about this?”
I’ve loved high fantasy since I began to read, and every couple of years or so I have to say, “Well, why the hell should I care about a king character? How can a jumped-up warlord covered in tacky jewelry possibly still be interesting?” And then some wonderful rush of phrasing comes along like “Necromancer Divine,” “King of the Nine Renewals,” “Our Resurrector, the Necrolord Prime, The Emperor,” and reminds me that what is so unique and so necessary about genre stories is that they are a marriage of function to form, in a way no other prose is, and that what the mind thrills to about genre stories is rhythm, discipline, confidence, allusion, surprise, all pressed into service on a sentence-by-sentence level.
Q. Do you remember the first book that made an impact on you?
For a long time I was voracious and indiscriminate — the most important thing about a book to me was that it have words, preferably lots of them — and then someone gave me a book of folktales from around the world called “Not One Damsel in Distress” by Jane Yolen.
It also had a fabulous introduction where Yolen talked about how when she was growing up, the kids on the block would play Robin Hood or King Arthur, and she was always stuck playing Maid Marian and Guinevere, and she grew sick of it and wanted stories about girl heroes—not a special category of female protagonist whose stories were different or whose standards for heroism were different, but old heroes, fairy-tale heroes, simple girl heroes.
I was hugely thrilled by this, and I went to my school library and started looking around for more books about girl heroes — and 20 minutes later the librarian had to collect me from where I was crying in a heap on the floor, because it turned out I’d already read every single book about girls that the little library had. That was the first time I remember understanding that stories were something you could make demands of — that you could think about stories’ patterns, their bad habits and good ones, that the library was finite but the imagination was not.
Later on, I became passionate about representation on axes besides that of gender, and that introduction still shapes how I think about representation in a more general sense. There’s a real sense of respect and humility in that book’s approach—not, I’m going to invent a brand-new type of character that I’m the only person smart enough to invent, but how often have stories about this type of character been told before, and buried or lost? Who else in human history has wanted exactly what I want now? What can I learn from my ancestors on this topic, and what can I learn from other people?
Writers can fall into a bad habit of thinking of their type of work as individual, because scribbling in a notebook doesn’t appear on its surface to be a group activity, but of course there is nothing new under the sun, and every storyteller is continuing a conversation that began long before we were born and will continue long after we have stopped speaking for good.
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