The Only Girl: A Conversation with Robin Green
The following is an interview with Robin Green by Fools writer Grace Oeth. Her words have not been edited. Enjoy.
Excerpt feat. in Fools Vol. 5
When reading Robin Green’s memoir, I was transported. I was with her when she was victorious, happy, and full of light. I was with her when she was low, depressed, and mourning. I was fascinated with the woman on the page, and wanted desperately to meet her and talk to her. In her book, “The Only Girl: My Life and Times on the Masthead of Rolling Stone,” Green describes her entire life, but through a non-linear timeline. She described her childhood, the time in her life living in California and writing for Rolling Stone, her experiences of finding herself again in Iowa, and her twenty-five year career in television writing. Fascination overcame me, and through more research I did on her life, I discovered she was teaching at the University of Iowa for a semester. I contacted Green, and she delightfully agreed to meet with me at our local, independent bookstore. I was nervous to be meeting someone so intimidating, and has gone on to accomplish amazing things, but the moment we started talking, she became the voice I was so comfortable with while reading her book. Green was humorous, tangential, and honest.
Something I really appreciated [in your book]was your open tone and humor.
I just feel like so many times when reading memoir women want to hear what it was like, I want to hear more. I just didn’t want to hold back. I feel like there’s not enough sexually explicit descriptions. I know I should probably save it for fiction, because my husband was like “Umm,” when he first read the book.
How was publishing your memoir different than other projects that you’ve written? You mention in your acknowledgements that you pitched this book, and you also said you were well-versed in the art of pitching, so what made this different?
For one thing, this was my first book, so I had to write a 60 page document as a sales tool. It wasn’t like going to pitch to a network in two minutes, it was a really thorough exercise. Not selling a bill of goods, but kind of trying to tell them what you intend to do. You had to really think about it and write it in advance—this was before it was sold or anything. So that was different. Also, the length of it and depth of it. It wasn’t like a proposal, because it was four times or five times as long. Sixty times as long! I had never done anything of such a sustained nature. [Writing the book] took nine months, which I hear is short? I was like, really?Anyway, I just felt like it took a long to time to write the proposal, then to sell it. So in all, it was around three years for one project. And I think you have to be independently wealthy to do that—as I now am, thanks to television! I don’t know how people do it, really. I guess if you really got it going you could make it. I have friends who do this for a living, this sort of writing. I don’t know how fiction writers do it, it’s a different thing entirely.
What do you think is the biggest change in the publishing industry from when you worked for “Rolling Stone,” until now?
You know, I can’t speak to publishing, because [“Rolling Stone”] was a magazine. Magazines are in trouble now, aren’t they?
I think so. I believe their main problem is related to print versus media.
There you go, that’s what I mean. There a lot of stuff online, but there’s nothing print, and so I ask where’s the print? It’s all about social media now, in terms of sales. For book sales, social media gets the word out much more effectively than print. I don’t really know the magazine business anymore but I went to the “Rolling Stone” offices for a final tour, because they’re not [where they used to be] anymore. I think they were bought. I think “Rolling Stone” has entered a new phase And you know, I’ve also outgrown it. I used to love it. What magazines do you read? Or consume?
I read “The Iowa Review,” because it’s local and I know some people who work on it. And I also read “Poetry Magazine.” I enjoy the emphasis that can be put onto words and the saturation of meaning—how someone can put so much into so little. It’s really fascinating.
Wow. Makes me want to read poetry. I went to my first poetry slam the other night at The Mill [in Iowa City]. It was really good. There was one woman and one man, and it was awesome.
Speaking of Iowa, you earned your MFA here. What made you decide to come here? And what prompted you to come back?
I initially came because I had sort of run my string out there in the Bay Area, and I did my “Rolling Stone” thing. I was still freelancing all over the place, but I was just lost, psychologically. I was alone, alienated. I didn’t belong. Someone had visited my house, and I just left the house, I had to get out of there. So, I moved to Iowa! I heard about the writers’ workshop, and I thought, “Ooh! A writers’ workshop, that sound kushy!” I wanted to go to a safe place where I could start my life again. I was thirty years old when I came here, and I had already had the life that I talked about in the book—and I talk about Iowa, too. But I did start my life again, and the poor man I met didn’t know how old I was—He was twenty-four and I was thirty. It was a bit of a surprise to him.
But yeah, I started my life again, and met [my husband] and so we’ve had a whole life together, knowing each other, being together. Then when we finished working, after we had done all this television together for 25 years—I did 25 years with him, and 25 years before that by myself. Because of that, we’re big supporters of the University [of Iowa]. I really think this is a good place. I went to Brown [University] for undergrad, and it was great, and I found myself as the literary magazine editor, but they would never really need me.
I just felt real gratitude here, for what we could do for the writers’ workshop—we have a little fellowship there. It really just helps the writers, gives them a little money to live off of. Then we started contributing to the University as a whole. When I first got here I was really surprised, because when you’re from the coast—both coasts—you just don’t understand what it’s like here. When I got here, I remember being in a phone booth, sweating in August, and I was saying to my mother, “It’s really beautiful here. It’s just like the east coast, with all its trees and hills. And there’s a river running through the city!” But more than that, when you come here there’s just a certain feeling that’s different than being on the coast. You feel the world as a whole here—there’s a global consciousness you can see. When you see the earth here, it’s so rich. You just understand that there are different worlds and there are different realities. This one is very grounded, and non-bullshit. It’s relaxing in a way. It’s a good place to start your life again! And maybe we’re starting again a little now.
Mitch [my husband] pointed out that we had never been in a place for more than twenty years. Even when we worked for television in LA, after 20-25 years, we moved to New York, and had the two houses. It’s time for us to do something else. There wasn’t another project calling to us to television anymore. We still look at projects, but it would have to be something special, or something that we thought of to do. But we’re not in that space right now. It’s funny! I mean, you think you’re all done, but you’re not! I thought that when I wrote the book, I was sure of so much, but I still had to think over things. I thought I was done, that I had put everything away. My husband likes this Romanian saying—even though he’s not Romanian—about when you put something together from a kit, there’s always a piece left over. And they say, that’s what you use to start the next project.
I love that! That’s a great saying.
Yeah! I feel that way about the book, that’s there still some stuff left over. But I don’t know what to do next, I’ll be honest. I think I’m lost again. Isn’t that reassuring?
Maybe you’ll find yourself again in Iowa!
Maybe…or maybe Portugal?
Our next question is about your book and how it’s a documentation about your life and career in writing and publishing. What advice would you give to a young person, especially young women, who wanted to pursue a career in journalism, or television writing?
Oh, boy. There’s so many different ways in. For me, I just sort of tripped in to everything. One reviewer even called me loopy! And I couldn’t say that it wasn’t true!
I wasn’t focused, and I didn’t go for it. People do, and I’ve hired those people, I admire them. You can do that—it’s probably best! Ultimately I say, quit a job if you don’t like it. But always have another job lined up. You could go back to waitressing—for me, I did have to go back to waitressing. Just be sure you can support yourself, that’s number one. There more jobs you have, the better. The more you’re out there, the better. You never know when you’re break’s going to come—that’s how it worked for me. I had two jobs and it was the second job—the little job, the night job, the fun job—that got me the attention, that got me into television. You know?
I published whatever I could, wherever I could. It’s healthy to write if you’re a writer, I think I’ve discovered. It’s a curse, in a way. You can never stop. Or else, I’ll feel bad. For me, it’s like exercising! I have to make myself go to the gym because it’s good for me. Writing is good for me. That’s the way it is, that’s what motivates me. I’m never like, “Woo-hoo! I’m going to write!” But when I sit down, hours will go by and I’m not bored, I’m happy.
That perfectly alludes to another question I had! Is there a writing routine that you have? Do you have the same cup of coffee, or sit in the same chair every time that you write?
I wrote most of the book in my bedroom in St. John. On my bed, there’s a window looking out to the porch, and there’s the Caribbean Sea in the distance down the hill. It’s all white, and it’s beautiful. I love a bedroom with a view. The rest of the book I wrote hunched over the coffee table in the living room in New York City, in our apartment! My husband, he took the office downstairs, but it’s dark—I don’t like it. I like the light. But when you’re writing, it really doesn’t matter where you are. I don’t think I could do it in a cafe.
I agree. It’s too noisy for me.
I would be too distracted by people. But yes, in my living room hunched over the coffee table. There’s no food involved, I can only write for four hours—and that was true in television too. You could take a break for lunch or something, but after four or five hours, you’re no good. I would write for three hours for the book, because that’s when I would get in the car and go to the beach! It’s right around 5 o’clock when you have to start drinking gin and tonics in St. John’s. I also had a friend come down and visit me, with her husband, and she’s just writing all day. So I kind of did it in a competitive spirit, like “I’ll show her.” And that turned out to be part of the reason I wrote the book. I know I’ll have to show more discipline in the future, because no one is asking me to write. Someone asked me to write this book, so now I have to write for myself. That’s a very new experience. Even now, at my age, I have to remember what it’s like to write fiction. Teaching has been an oddly theatrical experience. A lot of the students in my class, grad students mostly, are in theatre. I’ll be teaching, and living in front of them, and I’ll think, “God! I think I’m in a play. Can somebody please replace me, and take this job?” It’s because you’re very much “on.” It’s very different to be teaching something as concrete as TV writing. I don’t think the students were expecting it. When you’re in a workshop, it’s more exploratory. What we’re teaching is very concrete, and it’s a lot of work. That’s why you’re paid as much as you are. It’s really a job, and I think they’re shocked. Some people, I think, are like, “I want to write a TV show! It sounds fun!” But it’s not fun, it’s work. You have to be very focused—people are waiting.
Did you intend to write in a more feminist lens? Or was it natural to point out all the jobs where you were “the only girl”?
I don’t know if [the book] necessarily is feminist. You know, I read about this brilliant scientist who was a woman in the sixties, and invented the console computer that landed the first man on the moon. She was given the medal of freedom, and I think it was Obama who gave her the medal, which was very meaningful. He said he had asked her what it was like to be a trailblazer, and she said, “You’re so busy being a trailblazer that you don’t think of yourself being that at all.” Now, what I did was not that. I didn’t land men on the moon, but I did what I had the opportunity to do. I am a feminist, but I wasn’t a particularly conscious feminist. I was a girl, and there weren’t many other girls who were on their own in the world. I felt that very much. And you know, we were the first generation the have the pill, it was a very liberating time, so I suppose I was a female who was out doing new things for a girl, but I didn’t set out to write a feminist book—whatever that means. What does that mean? Tell me what that means.
Well, I remember in my literary criticism class in high school, books could be written in different lenses. So, you could look at “The Great Gatsby,” through a feminist lens, or a Marxist lens, or a Freudian lens.
Oh, I see what you mean. Well, you can look at them that way, but you don’t know if the writer intends that.
That goes back to my question: did you intend a feminist lens?
Even at the proposal level, there was a publishing house full of women who didn’t like it.
They thought I was bragging about myself. They thought I was too pleased with myself. Which is so untrue!
*both laugh* I’m just surprised because I didn’t get that!
Right? They felt resentful of me. It took me aback, but I guess there are different views on what I did. Yes, I’m competitive, but I had no intention of making anyone resentful, or to feel bad, or to make anyone look bad. I envied the other girls in the office. They had context, and they had each other. And I didn’t, I wasn’t in a woman’s group. They were just starting women’s groups, but I wasn’t a marcher. I wasn’t that kind of a feminist. My friends were, but I wasn’t. I was a lonely girl, I was a loner, and I think that’s what took the toll on me. That’s what sent me here [to Iowa], to start again, to find a mate. Is that feminism? I don’t know. I was reading this thing on Gloria Steinem and about whether she had a #MeToo moment. She said yes. I think she was interviewing for a job in journalism or something, with somebody in a position of power, and he tried to kiss her—and she bite him on the cheek so hard he bled. She said I hadn’t planned to do it, I just did it. So no, she didn’t really have a #MeToo moment because she lashed out. The only man who mashed on me, I pushed away, but I didn’t need a job. I was waitressing, I was doing anything to support myself. I didn’t need to demean myself. My husband gets mad when I say they “demean themselves” because it isn’t proper of a real feminist. He’s very protective of the idea of feminism. I just, never experienced it.
It’s different for everyone.
Yes! It’s different for everyone. I have friends who have had terrible experiences, and I sympathize with them completely—it just wasn’t my experience. I was a tough little prick.
There’s a male image for you, but I was a…badass. One of the girls at the office at Little, Brown—one of the editorial assistants—and she called me a badass. I was thrilled by that!
Your writing style for this book is humorous and reflective, and a multitude of other adjectives. What was something you tried keeping in mind when you were forming the language of this memoir? And how was this different than your television writing or your journalistic writing?
It was my voice. [The book] was very much my voice. I was finding the right, honest tone. I’m finding my voice again. I have a voice for fiction, and it’s very similar to this voice—kind of dusty. You know, it’s full of feeling. It’s full of love, and hurt. It’s an emotional voice. I’m not much of an intellectual, and I’m ashamed! Because I’m back in academia and I’ll be at a dinner party, and it’s like “Woah! These people are really smart.” They’re really read. And I feel the lack of my own reading. I have read, but not nearly enough. Poetry? Forget it, I’m a creaton. Journalism, it involves the mind, and thinking. It’s that kind of focus—forming your thoughts, making your impressions into arguments. When I started TV writing, a whole world of feeling opened up where you could be dramatic, you can make people laugh, you could make people cry, and that was thrilling. I loved television writing for so long, and I got to do just the kind of writing I wanted to do—which is family drama, and that’s kind of where I live. Then I got fire a gun once or twice, and kill someone. But this book was different from either of those things. You know how opera is everything?
Like, “Mefistofele.” Or “Kabuki,” is everything. I don’t think my book is at that level, but it was everything. It got to be everything all at once. It was the most interesting writing experience because I would try to control it, like have a jaunty-jolly opening for a chapter but I learned patience. The beginning of the book was hard, it was rocky, but after that, it told me where I needed to be in time. I just let rip, and then when I got to the end of a chapter, they all turned out to be around the same length. It’s weird, you know? People talk about taking dictation, and it wasn’t quite like that, but sort of. It took over, this project took over for me. I can’t say that it was an unhappy experience. It was the most fun I’ve ever had writing. And... I love the book. I do! I’m sorry, but I’m just so happy—especially because I got to honor certain people that I loved, and that I’ve lost, and I got to go back and spend time with them again. I don’t think I’ve quite done them justice, but I did something. Jann, who gave me my job at “Rolling Stone,” said that it was a loving book, and it was a loving portrayal—that was so sweet of him! Because my bread and butter had always been irony—I wanted to settle some scores in there, and I’m embarrassed by the revenge factor—but most of it is done honestly. I just wanted to tell my truth. I think truth is important.
Did you have any reservations about writing this book, specifically related to the relationships that you talked about? Were you afraid of what people would say—
Or how how they would react?
Yes, of course.
Have you been contacted by any of them, at least in a negative way?
No, I have not. I’m stunned…and relieved. My agent told me that the life of a book is long. With television *snaps,* it’s gone. I don’t know what I’ll hear, but I haven’t heard anything negative. I know that there were some people that were pertained to Robert Kennedy Jr., and my having revealed the story about the uncomfortable fact of me having slept with him, and some physical details; Some people who know him, I feel didn’t want to blurb the book, and I think that was why. I think there’s two people, out of the people that I asked. That could just be my projection, though. I just really don’t know. No one has complained…although some people could. A lot of people are dead, too!
No, it’s true! When you talk to lawyers—and the British, they are such sticklers, because they have much different privacy laws over there. Much more stringent libel laws—so they’ll say, “What about, Kit Carlson?”, “Nope! Dead,” And they’re like, “Great!”
“Awesome,” yes! “There are no legal issues, there!
What are you reading right now?
I have to read a book for class next week, called “Terror”—which is not the book that I normally read. The man that adapted it to television is coming to speak to the class. It’s a big, thick book. It’s not really my cup of tea, but once you get into it, it’s pretty good. It’s a sci-fi-adventure story, but that’s not really what I read. I just finished a book called “Asymmetry” [by Lisa Halliday], and there’s another woman [Beth Ann Fennelly] who wrote “Heating and Cooling [:52 Micro-Memoirs],” which is just this little book. She was the poet laureate of Mississippi. It’s a little green volume, and it’s just so elegant. If you like words, and the economy of expression…I’ve given everyone I know a copy of it and I don’t like them anymore if they don’t like it—but everyone loves it. There’s this wonderful little bookstore in New York, around the corner. It’s this independent place, and the guys at the desk recommended it. My husband brought it home and I had no interest in it, then I picked it up and fell in love with it.
Oh, I love when that happens.
Yeah, it’s really good, I really recommend that one. Then, other books like that. I tend to read fiction. When I wrote the book, I read every memoir I could get my hands on.
That was another question of mine, about what other books inspired you.
There’s this book…shit, what was the name of it. It was another Little, Brown book, and it’s… “Stop time?” “Hold frame?” or…it’s by a photographer, and I can’t think of the name of it now, but I read other biographies and autobiographies. Of course, Mary Carr. That’s how it started. I love books like that, I do. You can get lost in that genre. Then I read a whole lot of Rachel Kusk, she’s a fiction writer. She wrote a three book trilogy which is really wonderful. She also wrote three memoirs, and I bought them at my bookstore, and I can’t seem to get into them. So, it’s weird.
I used to never like reading Nonfiction, but ever since I came to college, I always wanted to know more about this person, or that person—and conveniently, they would have a memoir! It’s such an interesting genre.
You end the book with your word count.
You also had a clear indication that you’re computer counted them—despite you claiming that counting each word brings you joy. What’s the intention of this?
That’s its freed me!
*both laugh* Is this commentary on technology somehow, or how comprehensive a memoir, and in turn a life, is?
How comprehensive? I mean, it is an achievement. I guess it is that, but I didn’t mean it as that. I think you write what you write, and others will make what they want of it. People have had different responses to the book. You know, I’ve had wonderful reviews. There have been a few criticisms, and I thought I would be devastated if someone thought critically, but I don’t. I’m surprised I’m such a list-keeping, bitter person, but I could understand where they were coming from. Then, of course I thought they were stupid!
There was one man where I thought, “Well, he didn’t even understand anything.” Because he didn’t! He got the facts wrong, and that bothers me.
Really? Are you a big fact checker?
Yeah. I mean I think it’s part of honesty—you should be truthful. He just couldn’t read the book! So yeah, I got defensive about that. But I think [the last line] was a joke. I was free of having to count, and I guess the book is unconsciously saying, “No, I don’t have to count anymore. I’m done. I’m finished with whatever this was.” It’s a way of signing them off. Counting them by hand was a way of doing that too, but it was also a part of working. So now I don’t have to work. I suppose with all of that, I just liked a good joke!
Well, I liked it. I thought it was a very good ending.
I did too! I just have enjoyed the whole thing. Although it is hard to have it out in the world. I’m waiting for…those phone calls.
I’ve got nothing but friends who are happy.
That’s great! I think we talked about this earlier, but is there anything next for you?
Um, not concretely. We’ll finish teaching. We’ll go home to New York. We’ll go to St. John for the winter, and we’re there for like, three months. Then I hope that I start something else, I just don’t know what it is. I’m just…right back where I was: lost and scared again. I don’t know why I don’t stop.