ON FRIDAY, the most famous Philadelphia author that you've never heard of will be the toast of bookish New York when she promenades in to a "literary debutante ball" at a factory loft building deep in hipster Brooklyn.
Writer Robin Black will be one of five literary debs in the limelight that night celebrating the publication of their first books. Hers is a collection of short stories, 2010's If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This.
She'll also be a duck out of water.
Just shy of 50, Black is a lot of things: a serious new voice in fiction with a big contract at Random House and a national book tour next month, the recipient of rave reviews from TV talk-show host Oprah Winfrey's O magazine and NPR, a former Penn law student (briefly) and longtime stay-at-home Main Line mom with serious chops as a cookie baker and Halloween costume-maker, the Dharma wife to Greg-ish husband Richard Goldberg, who's a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney's office.
Next Wednesday, just five days after debuting as a Brooklyn deb, Black will be the belle of the lectern at the Athenaeum of Philadelphia, which is awarding her its annual literary prize for local authors. (Call 215-925-2688 to reserve a seat at the free event, which will also honor journalist Stephen Fried.)
But a Brooklyn hipster Black is not. "I'm very aware of not being hip," she said. "When I'm in Brooklyn, you know, I feel a little bit in danger of being everybody's mother." (Full disclosure: Your duck-out-of-Philly Daily News correspondent can relate. Her hip and much younger sister, Maribeth Batcha, is the publisher of One Story, the literary magazine that sponsors the Brooklyn literati ball.)
The "debutante" label also feels awkward, considering that Black's oldest child has graduated from college and is recently engaged.
"I have this image of myself, at 49, in some ridiculous Betty Sue prom gown and everybody sort of looking embarrassed for me," she said. "There's something very odd about shopping for a debutante dress and a mother-of-the-bride dress at the same time."
Like Junot Diaz and Lorrie Moore before her, Black has rocketed to a certain type of literary fame on the strength of her one dazzling book of short stories, which is being released by Random House in paperback today. In hardcover, the story collection was one of Winfrey's summer reading picks last year. It's been published in the U.K., Holland, France and Australia and is due out soon in Italy and Germany. She's got a novel in the works for Random House.
What's peculiar about her particular flavor of celebrity is that while serious, book-groupish readers have begun to swoon over her, she's otherwise a complete unknown.
Daniel Torday, a friend who directs the creative-writing program at Bryn Mawr College, recalled that when his book-groupie parents visited here from Los Angeles "they were shy of her in a way that they might have been of Brad Pitt or someone like that."
At a barbecue in Torday's yard, they sheepishly approached the author for autographs while she was flipping burgers on the grill.
But outside of book groups, book blogs, creative writing programs and literate backyard picnics, "I'm still kind of under the radar," Black said. "I've never had anybody recognize my name, at a bookstore even."
Let's do fiction
If you want to think of the New York affair and the upcoming book tour as Black's version of a Susan Boyle moment, go ahead. Black herself has drawn the connection between the two late bloomers in an essay on her blog at robinblack.net.
When the Daily News interviewed her at home in Lower Merion, she laughed, remembering the Boyle debut as a "lost weekend," when along with the rest of womankind she couldn't resist replaying the frumpy singer's triumphant video clip incessantly. "It got to the point where I would think, you know, OK, do I want to cry again? Yeah. Yeah. I do. I want to cry again."
But you'd be wrong to imagine this "longtime stay-at-home Main Line mom" as a stereotype of that midlife ilk. Raising her three children, now 23, 20 and 15, "she wasn't one of those women who plays tennis or has lunch," said her friend Fay Trachtenberg, a lawyer at Temple University who met Black when their kids were in nursery school. "She was working."
Instead, think of Black as an embedded correspondent in the trenches of domestic life, watching life's bombs drop and tapping out clear-eyed dispatches from the front.
'Tales of loss
Many of the characters in Black's story collection are facing some devastating loss, including blindness, cancer and young widowhood. Vogue called them "exquisitely distilled tales of loss and reckoning." If you're reading the paperback poolside this summer, a shot of whiskey might be a better accompaniment than an Appletini.
Even as a child, Black said, "the world felt like a very painful place to me and a place in which people were making decisions all the time about how to move on from something bad that's happened, which is really what my stories are about - not so much about the tragic event as about how it is that people have the creativity to go forward."
It was the loss of a late-term pregnancy in 1997 that compelled her, after dabbling as a writer on and off since college in the 1980s, to take the leap of faith and become one. "When that happened, I really thought," she said. "I was so devastated. And I thought, 'I want to be a writer.' And it still took a few years for me to get there."
The stories started flowing in 2001, following the death of her father, and in 2003 - at age 41 - she enrolled in graduate school at the Warren Wilson Writing Program in North Carolina (under a family-friendly "low-residency" option). Influential literary magazines such as the Indiana Review began to publish her work almost instantly.
In reviews, her unvarnished writing has been compared to that of short-story virtuoso Alice Munro. While it's a comparison that reviewers trot out too predictably to anoint any hot new writer, "in this case it's absolutely true," said her New York agent, Henry Dunow, whose literary agency represents big-name authors such as Alice Sebold and Patti Smith. "I think she's going to have a very important career."
Philly as fodder
Another longtime local friend, psychotherapist Eleanor Bloch, remembers when Black first came out to her as an aspiring writer, sharing an early story over coffee at the Commissary restaurant near Rittenhouse Square 20 years ago when both were living downtown. "Oh, it was fabulous!" Bloch said.
At the time, the women's children were in preschool together, and the handoff came during "that two-hour turnaround" between drop off and pick up when mothers catch a breather, she said. "I remember that moment now because it was, like, astonishing. When someone you know very well suddenly comes up with something brilliant is one of those moments - very poignant.
"It's in the middle of the everyday wear and tear with the kids and everything else that she found time to write this," Bloch said, still marveling. "This is on a different level."
Note the Rittenhouse Square location. Although Black wasn't born in Philly, she's lived in the area for almost 23 years. "It's definitely the place I've lived longest in my life," she said. While she doesn't see herself as a writer whose work is strongly defined by place, some people and landmarks from around here "slip in."
Yo, Philly: It turns out that from under her cloak of relative obscurity, Black has been watching us.
We're real characters,
A certain Lower Merion soccer mom was the (unsuspecting) inspiration for a complicated, quietly noble character named Heidi in a story called "Pine" from If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This. A massive stockade fence erected to Black's dismay by an unyielding Montco neighbor plays a central role in the book's title story. Rittenhouse Square and its denizens make a couple of appearances.
Friends Central was an influence behind a short story where kids at an earnest Quaker school circle their Friend-wagons to ostracize a new girl. Black wrote the story, "Harriet Elliot," after she'd moved to the suburbs and enrolled her children in the Wynnewood institution, "and it must have been a very bad month," she said, "because there's some serious lampooning that goes on." A round of show-and-tell is billed, self-importantly, as Self Expression Day.
Then she bores deeper:
"On the day Harriet Elliot joined our ranks, we set out, as if on the kind of formal assignment that we never were assigned, to make her defend her difference from us. . . .
Ben Granger began, asking her where she was from, as if the answer might be Oz. She told us that she was from New York. "Manhattan," she said, hardening the t's in that, as well. Harriet Elliot, from Manhattan. She clicked when she spoke. And she wore a white, furry coat, though the rest of us wore only long-sleeved shirts."
" 'Philadelphia's better,' Peter Walker said. 'New York's full of murderers.' We all nodded. We all believed the same things."
As far as Black knows, "nobody who inspired a character knows they did," she said. "Even my neighbor - maybe until he reads the Daily News."