An Interview with Robin Epstein: Author of ‘God is in the Pancakes’
When I was assigned to read God is in the Pancakes by Robin Epstein during my spring break, I have to admit I was a bit annoyed. I didn’t want to spend my spring break reading a required book. However, when I started reading it, I found that I couldn’t put it down.
Teenage girls can relate so much to the main character, Grace Manning. The novel is about a 15-year-old Grace, who is a candy striper in a nursing home, and Mr. Sands is the one patient that makes the job bearable. He keeps up with her sarcasm, teaches her to play poker… and one day cheerfully asks her to help him die. At first Grace says no way, but as Mr. Sands’ disease progresses, she’s not so sure. Grace tries to avoid the wrenching decision by praying for a miracle, stuffing herself with pancakes, dealing with the fact that her father has left her family and with new feelings, including the ones she has felt for her best friend Eric.
When my English teacher announced that the author was going to come to our school, I was excited to meet her. Robin is also a sitcom writer and comedian that lives in New York, a professor at NYU and the author of God is in the Pancakes.
What inspired you to write your first book?
My first book was a novel called Shaking Her Assets and I actually co-wrote it with a dear friend of mine from college, Renee Kaplan. Renee and I happened to be at a boring Christmas party one night, and neither one of us knew a lot of people. So we started playing a game we did a lot when we went out together–we’d create stories about the lives of the people standing around us. Based on their hand gestures, haircuts, smells and the snippets of conversation we’d overhear, we’d invent professions for them, determine the types of people they dated, their favorite foods, catch phrases, etc. In essence, we were turning them into characters in a New York story, and that night it occurred to me that what we were creating a fictional universe. It dawned on me that if we could just come up with a good heroine to lead us through it, we could write a great book together. I’d like to believe we did just that.
Do you have a specific writing style?
I don’t know if I’d call it a style specifically, but I do try to inject humor into whatever I’m writing, regardless of the subject matter. In fact, the publisher of my novel, God Is In The Pancakes, originally wanted to put a line on the cover calling it, “A surprisingly funny book about euthanasia.” That struck me as kind of hilarious because I thought to myself: “A ‘surprisingly‘ funny book? I’m not surprised, that’s exactly how I intended it to be!”
How do you compare writing for television and books?
Writing for TV and writing books turn out to be very different animals for several reasons. First, when you’re on a TV writing staff, you’re usually working on someone else’s show, meaning you write dialogue to fit the characters another person created. And even if the script has your name on the “written by” credit, all of the other show writers add lines, jokes and plot points as well. Also because actors add character and personality to their roles, the writing process is a ‘living collaboration’ that changes on a daily basis when you’re in production. With books, you, the author, are the sole and ultimate authority, so the work lives and dies by your hand alone.
Interestingly enough, I’ve found having a background in TV writing though has been incredibly helpful to me while writing books because it taught me the importance of pacing, dramatic action and outline writing. In television, you have to write really economically to tell the whole story in 22 minutes; keeping the action rolling from scene to scene is essential. These I’ve found to be great tools and a great discipline for a novelist to possess!
Are experiences in God is in the Pancakes based on someone you know, or events in your own life?
No, God Is In the Pancakes was a true work of imagination that started with just the idea of the first scene: a teenage girl is asked to help her elderly friend die. That scenario just popped into my head one day, and I thought, “Whoa, what would I do in that situation?” so that was my jumping off point. But my first book, Shaking Her Assets, drew fairly heavily from experiences Renee and I had shared as young women in New York together.
Which books have most influenced your life?
My favorite author is Philip Roth and he’s written several books that I just find mind-blowingly terrific. But I think my favorite of his works is American Pastoral, because it’s beautifully written, funny, sad, moving and full of rage and empathy. It’s basically an emotional thunderstorm in a book jacket, and I try to keep this example in mind when I’m writing.
Because I read a lot and for different reasons — sometimes it’s for pure pleasure, sometimes for research, sometimes for escape, the way a book influences me can be different. If I’m feeling depressed for whatever reason, I look for books about people who have triumphed over their own difficult circumstances like What Is the What? by Dave Eggers, a novelization of the story of the lost boys in the Sudan, and Irene Némirovsky’s Suite Francaise, about the Holocaust. Those books gave me a really good perspective check and reminded me that whatever I was going through at the time, I was neither being chased by lions nor facing extermination camps, so I should really stop feeling sorry for myself!
If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?
Since I’ve never met her, I don’t know if I can count her as a mentor, but I have enormous respect for Joan Didion. She wrote a book of essays called “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” that I read when I was in high school and they had a huge impact on me. There’s one particular piece in the collection called, “On Self Respect,” lines of which I can still recite by heart. One of the best quotes goes like this: “…Self respect has nothing to do with the approval of others– who are, after all, deceived easily enough; has nothing to do with reputation, which, as Rhett Butler told Scarlett O’Hara, is something people with courage can do without.” Didion writes beautifully about things I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about myself, and her words really resonate for me.
Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest?
Recently I’ve been doing a lot of research reading for my new book, so I don’t have a great answer for this question, sadly. But if you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear who you think I should add to my “must read soon” list!
What are your current projects?
Good question! I’m just finishing up a draft of a new book, tentatively titled, E.S.P.U., which I hope is book one of a trilogy!
Well, I’m very excited to read her new book! Look out for God is in the Pancakes in bookstores near you.
I’m so excited for Robin’s new book, it will be huge! I want to thank Robin for doing an interview with me, it meant a lot!