By Robin Lippincott
Spalding MFA Faculty Fiction
Up until now I have made it a point not to write about myself or my work in these blogs. However, my new book, Blue Territory: A Mediation on the Life and Art of Joan Mitchell, will be published soon and I’m excited and want to share the news. But so what, right? Doesn’t every writer with a new book feel the same way? Well, my thinking is that by writing about the journey that brought me to this moment, I might also be able to help and/or inspire others. The subtext of this blog is—Be yourself (no matter how eccentric); Follow your dream (no matter how unusual); Don’t give up (no matter what).
No doubt, Blue Territory is an unusual book. As Kirby Gann wrote in the blurb he composed: “Robin Lippincott has created a genre of his own in this revelation of Joan Mitchell and her world.”
Who is Joan Mitchell? No, not Joni (whom I also admire). Joan Mitchell was one of the post-WWII American abstract expressionist painters, a contemporary of the far better known Jackson Pollock and Willem De Kooning. Why is she less well known? Because she was a woman, and because she spent most of her working life in France—she moved there in the early 1960s and remained until her death in 1992.
Why did I write this book? Because I love and admire Joan Mitchell’s paintings, because the fact that she and her work aren’t better known* (and the reasons for that—sexism, nationalism) pisses me off, and because as I began to research Mitchell, the woman I met was so fascinating and complex that I kind of fell in love: she was a great reader of poetry, among the most poetic of painters, and is often cited as one of the most intelligent of modern artists (she was a synesthete, and she had an eidetic memory). Over time, this project became something of an obsession, which I believe is always a positive thing for an artist, regardless of medium. Susan Sontag said, “The writer must be four people: 1. The nut, the obsédé, 2. The moron, 3. The stylist, 4. The critic.”
As often happens when I start writing a book, searching to find the right form for it, I worry that what comes out sounds crazy. These are the first words I wrote of Blue Territory:
“JOAN, JOAN—the name alone as fully resonant as the sound inside of a drum (under the skin), or in the inner ear; bone deep (deep as the ocean and as wide and vast as a windblown Midwestern sky); a tone poem or a koan; room to roam, and yet also contained (within the frame of J and N)—not unlike her paintings.” This passage continues for another 120 words: you get the gist.
After being reassured by a few trusted readers that the work did not, in fact, sound crazy, I kept going. But in retrospect I believe writing that passage early on helped me realize that I wanted to employ different, ever-changing narrative strategies throughout, even to write in different genres: some of the book is creative nonfiction, some straight biography, there’s a dash of fiction, and even a smidgen of poetry, too…. I see the text as a vast field, much like the oversized canvases Joan Mitchell painted, with different and passages and styles of or approaches to painting….
I started writing the book in 2006, though in hindsight I realize that it had been percolating since at least 2002, if not before; that’s nine long years from first writing to publication. Now let me provide an idea of just some of the things that happened along the way: I finished the writing in 2009. My agent loved the book but deemed it uncommercial, thought it best we focus on small presses. Subsequently, publishers of numerous small presses also said that they loved the book, but that they didn’t (and wouldn’t) know what to do with it, how to market it; it didn’t fit into a prescribed box.
In 2013, roughly four years later after I had finished the writing, I found a nice small press, a letterpress, signed a contract, and the book was scheduled to be published in the spring of 2014: I was over the moon! Everything was going well until—after the editing process, after the publisher and I had had dinner and discussed, among many other things, the cover, just a few months before the scheduled publication date—the publisher stopped communicating with me: nothing had happened, we hadn’t disagreed, about anything: it was pure and simple (and unethical) radio silence, despite my repeated attempts at communication, and despite my pleas. This went on and on (I still to this day don’t know or understand what happened). I was devastated, fell into a deep depression, felt betrayed, and heartbroken; I wasn’t sure that I would be able to go through the process of submitting the work for publication ever again (talk about blue territory). But then in March of this year I found another publisher. And here, at long last, after a lot of blood, and sweat, and tears (you see how hard I had to fight for it?), is the book:
*Fortunately, Joan Mitchell’s reputation and renown is growing: in 2013, Bloomsburg Business listed her as the bestselling female artist of all time.
Robin Lippincott is also the author of the novels In the Meantime, Our Arcadia, and Mr. Dalloway, as well as the short story collection, The ‘I’ Rejected. Robin’s fiction has received nominations for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the Pushcart Prize, the American Library Association Roundtable Award, the Independent Book Award, and the Lambda Literary Award. For ten years he reviewed mostly art and photography books for The New York Times Book Review. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in over thirty journals, including The Paris Review, Fence, Bloom, American Short Fiction, Memorious, The Literary Review, Provincetown Arts, The Louisville Review, and The Bloomsbury Review, and his fiction has been anthologized in M2M: New Literary Fiction, Rebel Yell, and Rebel Yell 2. He has held many fellowships at Yaddo, as well as a fellowship at the MacDowell Colony. Though born and raised in the south, he has lived in the Boston area for many years. His collaboration with Spalding MFA graduate Julia Watts, Rufus + Syd, a novel for young adults, will be published in spring 2016.