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Novelist Robb Forman Dew

I call Robb Oct. 25, 2006, the day before her 60th birthday.

Robb: "How did you find my books?"

Luke: "I heard about you from Caroline Leavitt."

Robb: "She should run my life.

"Are you over your flu?"

Luke: "I'm recovering. Three weeks now. I've had a cough for a week."

Robb: "Our whole family last year got whooping cough. I didn't know it still existed. Nobody diagnosed us until my oldest son [the gay one] quit his job because he couldn't stop coughing. It lasted six months. Nothing touches that cough, not even codeine. It was an exotic way not to have to go to a lot of parties I didn't want to go to. When you tell people you have whooping cough, they don't push you to come anyway.

"I was looking at your website and thinking, 'This is the most interesting person I've ever read about.'

"What kind of interview are you looking for? I'm not clear."

Luke: "I've read three of your books -- the one about your son coming out, Dale Loves Sophie To Death, and The Evidence Against Her.

Robb: "Wow. I think that's more than my family has read."

"I have no education. I graduated from highschool by taking a correspondence course in volleyball. I went to LSU for a while, but I have no sense of direction and I couldn't find any of my classes, so I just quit.

"After I was invited to teach at the Iowa Writer's Workshop, I thought I better do that in case anything happens to my husband and I need to support my family.

"It was terrifying because I have never taught anything. I grew up in a family of writers. My grandfather was a poet. I read all the time but I didn't know anything. The first class I conducted, they started arguing about POV. I thought, 'I wonder what that is.'"

"Writing is almost a genetic imperative. If I don't do it, I get manic and start shopping on EBay. I have a terrific collection of samplers."

Luke: "How did you get your name?"

Robb: "I'm named for my grandmother Robb Reavill. The reason I use the three names ['Forman' is her maiden name] is that I wanted the people I went to highschool with to recognize that I wrote a book and I didn't think they'd recognize 'Robb Dew.'

"It never occurred to me to keep my own name. I got married in 1969 in Louisiana."

"I once got a review: 'This man writes wonderfully well about women.' I'll take whatever I can get. I just hope he hadn't seen the picture and still thought I was a man.

"When I change doctors, inevitably the nurse will look into the waiting room and disappear. Then she'll look again and finally she'll say, 'Robb Dew?'

"I've started putting 'Robin.'

"My husband and I answered the phone for P-FLAG (parents and friends of lesbians and gays). I can't do it now because I get so impatient with people. The first year you're figuring stuff out you're good at giving advice to other people.

"I answered the phone one day and this clearly teenage boy asked for P-FLAG. He said, 'It says Rob and Charles.' I said, 'I'm Rob.' He said, 'You sound like a woman.'

"I changed the listing to Robin.

"That poor kid. He never called again."

"My godfather is Robert Penn Warren. Growing up around writers, I didn't understand that other people did not want to be writers.

"If I'm not writing, I'm not stable. I'm manic and depressive.

"When my children were a certain age (five to seven), I wasn't able to write. I was too interested in their lives. I did things like spend three months wrapping little squares of Styrofoam to decorate a wreath."

"Two things broke my family apart -- religion and [the nuclear bombs dropped on] Hiroshima and Nagasaki. My father [a neurosurgeon] and his brother Brent (20 months older and a devout Episcopalian) never agreed. I remember my father saying he could not talk to Brent because he was not open to any other opinion."

"My father and my uncle lived essentially the same life."

"My father spent the Second World War on Staten Island training doctors. Everybody wanted to go to that war. Brent was an airplane navigator in the Pacific.

"My father thought there was no excuse for dropping a bomb like that on a civilian population. That the government should've dropped it on an unpopulated island and said, 'This is what will happen.'

"My uncle thought that was a romantic idea."

I cough.

Robb: "You do..."

Luke: "Sound bad."

Robb: "I would love to believe in something but you just can't make yourself."

We agree that a predisposition to religious belief is probably, in part, genetic.

Luke: "I grew up with religion and God. Even when I was an atheist, I knew what I was leaving behind."

Robb: "My father was trying to integrate the hospitals in Baton Rouge (around 1960). At least so black doctors could operate.

"Somebody shot at my father and hit the windshield.

"Race is a passionate interest of mine but not one I can deal with in fiction.

"I remember my father liked Artie Shaw and my uncle preferred Benny Goodman. The whole room started taking sides. My father said, 'If you really like Benny Goodman over Artie Shaw, then you would like Dostoevsky over Tolstoy.'

"I was about ten. I didn't know who these people were."

"The publishing industry is determined to define me as sweet. Little Brown keeps saying, 'One of our most beloved authors.' I'm not beloved. I'm not even known. I hate that idea. I've always wanted to be terrifying and I've never frightened anybody."

Luke: "What was the practical effect of this feud? That people stopped talking to each other?"

Robb: "No. It was very tense. There was no way my father could win this competition. He died when he was 48. It broke his heart to realize that the person he was competing against was somebody he didn't admire. My father is a strange man. My mother is a strange woman. They were alcoholics. They were the first hippies."

Luke: "Do you have any friends who are conservative Republicans?"

Robb, quickly: "No. I don't think I could. Are you?"

Luke: "Yes."

Robb: "You are? You really are? Oh no. You can't be.

"Here we are in Williamstown, Massachusetts. What do you think? Of course not.

"How do you feel about gay marriage?"

Luke: "I am supposed to be a blank slate when I do an interview.

"I have no problem with partnerships. I have a problem with calling it marriage."

Robb: "A friend of mine and I had a conversation for about two hours on whether or not Hitler was evil. Of course we both think he was horrible, but as a little kid, he didn't think, 'I'm going to grow up to be evil.' Nobody does that. Everybody believes they're doing the best they can.

"Do you have friends who are liberal?"

Luke: "Yes."

Robb: "You don't think they're evil and trying to support terrorism?"

Luke: "No."

"You're secular and liberal. How difficult could your son's coming out have been?"

Robb: "It made me feel so stupid. The people who have the most trouble with a child coming out are the people who think they wouldn't have any problem at all. They can't forgive themselves. I talked a good game but I didn't even know that my own son was gay. You feel like you betrayed somebody you loved."

"My husband's brother John is a charismatic Episcopalian. It parallels the break between my father and my uncle. Since Steve came out, we just don't see John and his family. John is always very careful to ask how Steve is. John's wife tries to convince us to urge Steve to be cured.

"There's no point [in seeing each other]. They can't change my mind and I can't change theirs. Steve is uninterested in the whole thing."

Luke: "In the nature vs. nurture debate, where do you stand?"

Robb: "On the side of nature. Steve says he knew when he was three. I believe him because he went into a clinical depression at six. We took him to psychiatrists and he kept telling me that it doesn't help. We didn't know why he was so sad."

"You have the misfortune of being the first adult I've talked to today. I've just talked to my two dogs and cat. I like a solitary life, though not without my husband and dogs and cat, and, occasionally, my kids. But it's exhausting to be polite."

Luke: "When you were a child, what did you want for your life?"

Robb: "I wanted to become a writer. I remember having a boyfriend at age 20 and thinking, 'I'm not going to let him come between me and my writing.' I hadn't even published anything. It was so grandiose. I didn't think that when I met my husband."

Luke: "What crowd did you hang out with in highschool?"

Robb: "That's such a wise question. That will tell you more about people than almost anything.

"I alternated between two crowds [at Baton Rouge High School in Ohio] -- the Debuettes and the Spinsterettes. The debuettes were good citizens. Pretty. Sweet. The spinsterettes were pretty and wild. I was always a little nervous when I was with the spinsterettes, and I was always a little bored when I was with the debuettes.

"By the time I was 16, I was so depressed that I dropped out and went to live with my grandparents. My parents were in the middle of a divorce. My father was sick and depressed. My mother was manic depressive. She was addicted to Dexedrine, which my father provided.

"I used to be very shy. I was incapable of going to large parties or speaking to a group. I thought that was normal. Around 1985, I told my doctor that this was crippling my life not to be able to see my friends. He said, 'You may be suffering from social anxiety.' He gave me a low dose of Zoloft. Within ten minutes of swallowing that 25 mg pill, I felt I'd needed this since I was born. I had been so locked into various grudges, such as with my mother, that made no sense. I suddenly realized that she had been ill. It was the most incredible relief and it certainly made my family happy. It was this incredible disburdenment of anger. It made me understand why people say that depression is anger turned inward.

"Whenever I used to get mad and I was by myself, I would swear. I remember one day I was hanging pictures and swearing the most vile words was an incredible relief. I didn't think anyone was in the house. Then suddenly Jack looked out of the corner of his doorway. He was 10. He said, 'Mom?' He was horrified.

"I had been singing horrible curses to the tune of 'Girls just want to have fun.' It's come to be referred to as mom's swear song. But after I took Zoloft, I never did this again. Cursing is no longer a relief.

"Even my dogs like me better on Zoloft.

"I remember I was driving to a wedding with my family. I said, 'I don't remember if I took my Zoloft this morning. I wonder if I should take one just to be safe.' And Charles, Stephen and Jack said in unison, 'Take one!'

"When I was about 20, I broke up with my boyfriend. I felt incredibly depressed. I thought that if I died, nobody would care. I took a bunch of pills from my father's medical bag. I didn't want to die. I just didn't want to be awake.

"I must've been in trouble. Charles started calling me the next day. He called me at work and of course I hadn't gone to work because I was still asleep. Eventually, he drove to New Orleans, got the manager of the apartment complex I was in, and opened the door. I woke up. I don't know if I would've if he hadn't awakened me.

"We have never discussed that. It's odd that I'm telling you this and I haven't told him.

"Charles knew what he was getting into. His father was also an alcoholic.

"As we were walking into the church for our wedding, I said, 'Charles, let's not take this too seriously. We can always get a divorce.' I think he was comforted by the idea that this didn't have to be permanent."

Luke: "You guys sound a lot like Dinah and Martin in Dale Loves Sophie To Death."

Robb: "Yes, except neither of us has had an affair. Charles says he's liked the glamor he's accrued since being cast as an affair-haver.

"Charles and I are each other's favorite person. That is so unusual and lucky."

"I've never felt any desire not to be monogamous. I feel sorry for Jimmy Carter because I know just what he meant when he said he lusted in his heart. He just meant that he found other people attractive, but why would you mess up your life just for sex? Sex is nice but it is just not worth the hurt it would cause so many people.

"My father and mother both had affairs constantly.

"The parents of the so-called Greatest Generation are probably the most careless parents ever let loose on the world. They were so careless that babyboomers have gone out of their way to make the way their parents behaved against the law. My mother used to take me out of the playpen and she would get in it so she could read."

Luke: "Why are you guys monogamous if you don't believe in God?"

Robb: "Because it would be such a betrayal of the other person. I don't think anybody is monogamous because they believe in God. Look at John Updike. I have no idea if he's had affairs, but he has devoted much of his writing to exploring infidelity. He's deeply religious. He once couldn't go to something his agent was having because he was teaching Sunday school."

Luke: "What kind of church would have John Updike teaching Sunday School? That's throwing the lambs to the wolves."

Robb: "I love John Updike's writing but he's the only writer I read where I regularly skip the sex scenes. They're so clinical. If you're a woman, it makes you never want to have sex. He seems to have not advanced beyond a 10th grader's view of the amazement of having sex.

"I've met him once. He's gracious and attractive enough. But I can just imagine that anyone married to him would not want to read his books. They're unlustmaking."

Luke: "I'm gonna run now."

Robb: "I can't imagine why."