Jamie Cox Robertson is the author of two books: A Literary Paris: Hemingway, Colette, Sedaris, and Others on the Uncommon Lure of the City of Light and An Uncommon Heroine: Scarlett, Edna, Sula–and More Than 20 Other of the Most Remarkable Women in Literatur. She holds a graduate degree in literature and teaches writing and literature at The University of Arizona in Tucson. Jamie has taught at Suffolk University in Boston, Webster University in St. Louis, the Chautauqua Institute in New York, and the Cambridge Center for Adult Education in Cambridge, Massachusetts as well. She lives with her husband and daughter in Tucson, Arizona.
SLR: How did you come up with the idea for An Uncommon Heroine?
ROBERTSON: Two separate ideas came together to create this book. One, I spontaneously decided to read Breakfast at Tiffany’s for the first time in a long time. It’s a very short book, you know. While reading it I was struck by how differently I viewed Holly Golightly now, as an older woman, a wife, a mother etc…compared to the way I viewed her when I read her in my early twenties. That got me thinking about other books with great women characters. I wondered how I might view them now compared to the younger version of myself. The other factor involved was a thought I had while looking at the well known billboard for Gone With the Wind. My first thought was how beautiful Vivian Leigh was, my next thought was how much her face is now the face of Scarlett O’Hara, and then I thought of the first line in Mitchell’s novel—the very first line clearly states that Scarlett is not pretty, she is, instead charming. It was so important to this fabulous writer to make Scarlet something more than a pretty face and while I’m a fan of the movie, it is a shame that that aspect of Scarlett O’Hara was lost in Hollywood and therefore on society in general. I got to thinking about other women in fiction who I may have misunderstood as a young woman, and I thought about women who were unforgettable for unusual reasons, like Scarlett O’Hara. I went back and read a lot of books and started taking notes about what it was that made these women resonate with us generation after generation.
SLR: And what did you find?
ROBERTSON: I found that these women were often unpredictable, usually independent and resourceful and always and I mean always stubborn.
SLR: I noticed you had a few southern women characters in this book, was there any one southern character that you absolutely had to have for this book?
ROBERTSON: Yes. Scarlett O’Hara. Which by the way, An Uncommon Heroine is the first book the Mitchell Family Estate has ever granted permission to use an excerpt from the novel. Scarlett is so strong, so fearless and yet so very flawed. It’s those flaws in contrast to such stubborn fearlessness and of course her relationship with Rhett Butler, that makes us root for her or at the very least, makes us want to know what she’s going to do next. But really, all these women are unforgettable. That’s what the book is all about. It was essential for me, to me, to include Anna Karenina and Holly Golightly and Janie Crawford, from Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. I wouldn’t have felt right about the book without those characters.
SLR: Holly Golightly and Jane Eyre seem to have nothing in common, but you indicate that in a way all these women share a certain unforgettable quality. Can you elaborate on that considering the two characters I mentioned are so drastically different?
ROBERTSON: On the surface those two characters do indeed seem to have nothing in common, you’re right. Holly Golightly was loose with men, drank hard liquor and loved to shop while Jane Erye grew up in a strict all girls school, studied and was plain and quiet, but both women were orphaned early on in life, but women are stubborn as I mentioned was a common trait among these memorable women. Most of all, both Holly and Jane lived by their own rules. They didn’t let other people decide what they should do or want from their lives. They had their own ideas and they trusted their instincts and that requires strength and guts. It’s something all of us should do.
SLR: Which one is your favorite?
ROBERTSON: I couldn’t possibly choose. I don’t like all of them, but it’s not about the most likable women—it’s about the most striking, memorable, authentic women—women who resonate with us and stay in our minds for years after we read their stories. I wish I could read more stories involving these fictitious women characters.
SLR: The fact that these women resonate with women generation after generation must say something about real women. I’m curious as to what you think it says about society?
ROBERTSON: That’s a good question. I think it says that people appreciate and admire women who are unpredictable, bold, stubborn, wildly passionate about things and I think the fact that these women have resonated with us for so long also means that we want to have a lot of the qualities we see in these characters. We admire them, or envy them. Anna Karenina may be the only character I choose who doesn’t strike people as independent, but she did leave her husband and she did try to live her life her way. It was a tough thing to do int hat time in Russia. Very tough. Also, you couldn’t find a more stubborn woman in fiction and Tolstoy wanted her to be remembered. He titled the book after her even though there are several other characters as central to the story as her and best of all he introduced her in the novel through a painting of her first. Her beauty was too beautiful to be real. Tess Durbeyfield of Tess of the d’Ubervilles, is another reminder of how hard it was for a woman to live her own life and choose a man for love.
SLR: Which author do you feel understood women the best? Why?
ROBERTSON: All of these authors understand women. I’m always amazed by men writers who are so talented that they seamlessly write about women’s feelings. Amy Tan does a beautiful job in all her books of writing about mother and daughter relationships. That’s why I’m such a big fan of her work. I love that topic. I dedicated An Uncommon Heroine to both my mother and my daughter. I thought Taylor Greer in Barbara Kingsolver’s Bean Trees was so likable and relatable, but perhaps that’s because of my own upbringing which is beginning to seem so long ago, but Kingsolver quickly and so eloquently gets to the heart of the matter and I love that.
SLR: Which fictitious woman character caused you to think most deeply? By that I mean, made you rethink things. Or was there anyone like that?
ROBERTSON: That’s an excellent question. There was as a matter of fact, one character in this collection that completely turned right and wrong on its head for me and that’s Sula Peace, in Toni Morrison’s book, Sula. She was easy to dislike—at first. It was hard to see her qualities for the longest time, and then suddenly there they were right in front of me. I simply had to look at her from a new angle. I had to forget about society’s rules and see Sula for Sula and then I began to understand her. I couldn’t dismiss all the things she’d done. I don’t mean that, but it goes deeper, to use your word, and forced me to think about my own harsh reactions toward her. Morrison is a genius. That’s all there is too it.
There’s also the element of two girls growing up together, best friends, and then one leaving while the other stays back, and while that is done well and with its own high drama, but it’s Sula and her way of seeing the world that forced me to think about good and bad, right and wrong things like that. I love that book!
SLR: If someone told you they could only buy one book, which book would you suggest?
ROBERTSON: Oh, that’s easy, I’d suggest An Uncommon Heroine! That way they could read a little bit of a lot of great novels. Seriously, I enjoy talking to people and guiding them toward books that it seems they would enjoy. Books are such a personal thing. I would recommend different books for different people. All the novels represented in An Uncommon Heroine are skillfully done, but no one is likely to enjoy all of them. That’s why I wanted to do this book. Give readers a flavor for a lot of different, but fantastic books about women, and let them decide which one to invest their time in because one thing is certain, no one seems to have too much time on their hands these days.
SLR: Well, An Uncommon Heroine is a fantastic book, Jamie. I’ve enjoyed it, my mother is enjoying it and I appreciate you taking the time to talk with me about it today.
ROBERTSON: My pleasure and happy holidays.
An Uncommon Heroine: Scarlett, Edna, Sula–and More Than 20 Other of the Most Remarkable Women in Literature is available in major bookstores nationwide. Learn more about Jamie and her books at jamiecoxrobertson.com.