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Interview With Elisabeth Robinson
(March, 2004)

Elisabeth Robinson is an independent producer and screenwriter whose film credits include the award-winning films Braveheart and Last Orders. This is her first novel. She lives in New York.

Elisabeth Robinson's debut novel, The True and Outstanding Adventures of the Hunt Sisters (Little, Brown), tells the heartrending and hilarious story of two sisters through a series of letters. Olivia Hunt is unemployed, living alone, and working on the fourth draft of her suicide note when she gets a phone call that lets her know what real trouble is. Madeleine Hunt is her younger sister, the annoyingly happy one who married the hometown guy while Olivia set out to conquer Hollywood. And Maddie is in trouble. Pulled home for the first time in years, Olivia gets a painful dose of real life as she tries to help her sister, keep her parents from running off the rails, and reconnect with the boyfriend who left without a word but might still be the love of her life.

In this interview, Elisabeth talks about how she wrote her debut novel and how she decided to become a producer, screenwriter and novelist.

The True and Outstanding Adventures of the Hunt Sisters by Elisabeth Robinson
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Where did the idea for the book originate?

My sister changed my life, and I felt compelled to tell the story of how she did that. When she was given a "dismal" medical prognosis, her defiant optimism was amazing to me, because I'd always been a pretty pessimistic person. Her response literally haunted me; I wanted to understand how she, how anyone, could love a world where such unfair and terrible things happen. I've always liked books and movies where a cynical character is cracked apart by a seemingly dopey idealist, so that became the structure within which I began to write.

I quickly realized I needed a comic outlet, a break from the sad story I was telling, and that the reader really would need one. My parents have a great sense of humor and showed us the importance of keeping it even in the most tragic or trying situations. My experience in the movie business was an obvious and vast resource for that comedy. I'd worked briefly on a project of Don Quixote, which was a perfect thematic link, a kind of counterpoint that would echo what the sisters were going through.

Since the novel is based on the true story of what happened to your sister, why not write a memoir?

Because for me there are two great pleasures in writing: one is inventing the story, the other is telling it. In this case, there were added reasons for fictionalizing. One was for what I hoped would one day be the reader's sake, the other my own. I wanted to entertain, and to do that I needed to make things funnier and more dramatic than they were in real life. I could make the cynical producer a truly comic mess and the world around her more antagonistic. For example, I've never been fired and my bosses have all been great, but where's the drama in that?

The chief reason for fictionalizing, though, was more emotional and personal. I was working something out. I didn't quite know what it was when I started, but I needed to confront reality in a way that would hopefully transform me. There was also some wish fulfillment, too; I could write some things I wished had happened, and if I did that well enough, there'd be some wish fulfillment for the reader too. Ultimately I hoped to find something beautiful in the inexplicable tragedy of my sister's life, and to learn how she believed that herself.

Why did you decide to write the story in letters?

It really just happened, even though I knew epistolary novels are not exactly in fashion anymore. I had planned to start with the first letter, written before Maddie is born, and end with the last one. I meant to just bookend the story with these letters, but once I found Olivia's voice, and felt the special intimacy that exists in letters, I couldn't stop. Telling the story to someone-another character-also helped me focus the narrative. When Olivia writes to her old boss, it's quite different than when she writes to her sister, and a huge amount of information could be conveyed just in the attitude in each letter. I've always been a big letter-writer, so it was a comfortable form. Letters offered a familiar modularity too-in screenwriting I think in terms of scenes, and in the novel, I thought in terms of letters, which made writing a novel seem more manageable to me.

Have you always wanted to be a writer, and what led to the publication of this book, your first novel?

I've wanted to be a lot of things-a Supreme Court justice, an actress, a stand-up, a minister-but the thing I've done longest, and the most consistently, is write. I wrote my first short story when I was eight. It was about a turkey that didn't want to be eaten for Thanksgiving. The teacher handed out copies to the class, which made me feel pretty important, but which also sealed my fate as teacher's pet that year….

I won some writing prizes in junior high and high school. In college I lost my nerve and my focus, and I became worried about making a living, which led me to study economics, and eventually to the movie business. But my heart was always in books. My first job in film was actually related to publishing-I scouted books for studios to adapt for movies-and I loved reading four or five books a week. I still prefer to read a book than go to a movie.

Throughout my film career, on vacations and weekends I was always writing something-usually bad screenplays, and some half-hearted attempts at stories. But my "day job" in film development and production was actually a great education because I was always working with writers on their scripts, trying to make them more dramatic or to clarify their themes or to better define the characters.

After the last movie I produced (Last Orders, which was based on a book) was over, I had saved enough money to live on for a year. I decided to finally put everything into this long-deferred dream of mine-to show the same grit my sister showed. I thought, if I can't sell this story in a year, at least I will have finally, really tried to write, and at least there will be this testament to her fight.

Shortly before I began writing I was in Marrakech. There is a large square where vendors come from all over to sell everything from oranges and bread to stories. Crowds gather round the storytellers. One morning, I watched a man begin his story at nine a.m., with a few people listening, and two hours later, he was still doling it out, and the crowd had grown to nearly a hundred. He was telling his tale so well, he could both hold on to the early customers and hook new ones. I suddenly saw writing in a different way, which freed me up; it's just telling a story, which is a craft like any other, and one that I hope to get better at with each book I write.

Posted with permission of the publisher.

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