“Art is supposed to rattle us.” In conversation with Robin McLean
By nature a bus is a vehicle with an amiable face. It belched blue and the haze flew up bluer between soaring glass, steel, brick. The city was sticky and hard. For example, if a guy didn’t notice the white ground or the winter-bare trees in the median islands or the manhole covers rusted and steaming over the city’s seal, or pedestrians’ purple mouths steaming and chattering at the stop for the 41 or the 56 across town, or the taxis’ smoking tailpipes, or people smoking in doorways, arms crossed against the bitter cold, everything cold, or if a guy weren’t able to fly up over the city, for example, to reconnoiter the world from above, to examine the icy tangled streets, how they grabbed and held together, how they webbed out, out into frozen gray highways in the country, gaffing the towns and cities and tethering them together into one great raft, he might think he were alone on a hot day in the Sahara.
–Excerpt from “The True End to All Sad Times,” from Reptile House (BOA Editions)
ANNE RASMUSSEN: Several of the stories in REPTILE HOUSE give the reader a very close-in POV of a marginalized character whose feelings of marginalization lead them to commit violent and/or illegal acts in a misguided attempt to be “seen” or to exert some sort of control over a situation in which they feel ignored. I feel a lot of empathy towards these characters, and a certain amount of discomfort when a character acts out destructively in response to his pain. In “The True End to All Sad Times,” Marlon’s feelings of not belonging are so extreme that he finds the present, in this case his bus ride to work, almost intolerable. I think many of us can relate to this on some level. But Marlon feels so erased by those around him that he fantasizes about “retaliatory deletion.” A friendly interaction with his seatmate on the bus is only made possible by his mistaken perception that the man is blind — a fellow outsider — and when he finds out the truth (to his very public embarrassment) he acts out violently. We see unexplained acts of seemingly random violence on the news every day, and the motives, what pushes a person to act out at a particular moment and place and time, are often hard to unpack. In telling a story where a character’s mindset is so critical to the dramatic event that results, do you typically begin with the character or the event as the seed?
ROBIN MCLEAN: The seed, for me, is almost always the event. From there, my stories move to character. For example in “The True End to All Sad Times,” it started after I had been on a bus with my mother and a bunch of blind people who were very rude to each other, screaming and yelling, pushing past each other when getting off the bus. I took that scenario and combined it with a seemingly unrelated second idea — a poem I had written about weird tornado warnings from a mid-western weather report. Marlon and the bus driver both arose out of that. I did not know what Marlon was going to do when he got on the bus. But given his lonely, frustrating life, his obsession/hostility/hatred toward the bus driver, the enclosed space on the bus, and a time pressure (he’s late for work), it is natural that the situation could escalate. I am interested in escalation and fantasies of escalation, which Marlon experiences. As you point out, many of us can understand Marlon’s mundane pressures. And many of us have had a person in our lives who we wish would just disappear, or a person who, for whatever reason, triggers us. We keep in under control. We keep it to ourselves. And though we hate to admit it, most of us also snap on a small scale sometimes, pop off at our spouse or kids, throw a dish rag, a glass on the kitchen floor maybe. We feel bad, but no one blames us for long. Then some of us follow the path of this kid in Charleston, South Carolina. And I’m interested in the mechanics of sudden bad acts. When and how do a destructive thoughts shift to action? As a writer, I’ve found that I have most success exploring these questions via everyday situational pressures that we all can relate to and by making the character a regular guy rather than an extreme, a white supremacist for example, who we could easily dismiss and distance ourselves from.
AR: I was impressed by the dialogue in so many of these stories, especially in scenes where multiple characters talk “past” rather than “to” each other. The banter between Mike and Mel and their poor, doomed cabbie in “Carlsbad Caverns” is at turns funny and increasingly menacing, ratcheting up the tension. And in “Take the Car, Take the Girl” a party of four in an upscale restaurant who cannot agree on their dessert order practically come to blows in an escalating (and hilarious) display of condescension and mannered one-upsmanship. The dialogue felt so spot-on that I could easily imagine these scenes being performed onstage. But, as strong as the dialogue is you don’t rely on it too much in these stories, many of which also have that very close-in internal point of view—a protagonist who is both shut in his or her head and hyperconscious (sometimes delusionally so) of their surrounding world. The rhythms of the conversations, whether characters are speaking to or past each other, felt very natural and added a lot of humor to the stories. Many writers struggle with dialogue—it can end up feeling forced—or simply avoid spoken dialogue in favor of summarizing it in the exposition. Where and how did you develop your ear for dialogue, and what role do you feel it plays in your work?
RM: Thank you! I love to hear this. I work very hard on the dialogue. It’s very important to me that the dialogue has energy because these are the only places in stories where the characters truly get to speak for themselves without the apparent interference of the narrator or writer. But I know what you mean when you say that a lot of dialogue in fiction really feels forced and flat. My theory is that, in those cases, dialogue is being used for the wrong purpose. To me, since dialogue is the only spot in the story where the characters get to sort of fly on their own, the lines should be all about self-expression (the character’s) and very little about forward propulsion of plot. Look! What’s that in the sky? It’s a bird! It’s a plane! Okay, we all look up to see Superman flying over, but we learn little about the speaker. We do not really propel our lives with dialogue. We propel our lives with action. If there was no one around to talk to as in “Cold Snap” we can still see what’s going on, but dialogue fills in emotional movement, the defense of space between people. Our exchange of words, if you listen, is often very vague and fragmented. But we writers want so much to be understood. There is a powerful impulse to overdo dialogue simply because we do not want our reader to miss anything, get confused, or fall behind. We don’t trust readers to understand the dialogue that is more natural, oblique or disorderly. Some readers are going to fall behind. But some won’t. I try to push it and I find that most readers get what’s going on with no problem. In fact, as in your case, they enjoy it.
I don’t really know how I developed my ear for dialogue except that I am very attracted to really good storytellers. I try to listen hard to what people say and how they say it. When working on dialogue I try to take out anything that feels like the author trying to push the story forward, or at least try to camouflage plot advancement very well.
AR: I was fascinated by the fluidity of point-of-view in some of these stories — how you were able to keep such a tightly controlled internal view for a particular character, and then pivot to the POV of someone or something else. (At one point in the title story, Carl sees a pigeon out the window of his wife’s hospital room and we shift to a literal “bird’s eye view” of the scene from the other side of the glass!) You’ve talked about encountering some radical narrative world-shifts in Chekhov that may have influenced you as you were writing these stories. I was reminded of Virginia Woolf, both the POV shifts and the internal/external shifts within a single character as they move through their present, taking stock of details, responding to social cues and events in real-time even as they “live” in fantasy/memory. (I remember as a teenager having my mind completely blown by Mrs. Dalloway: that breathtaking first POV shift — from Clarissa’s to Septimus’s perspective and then to his wife’s — and the interplay of memory/fantasy/present for each character.) Which of course is how we operate as human beings, but which strikes me as incredibly challenging to try to reproduce on the page. How do you achieve balance in a story with all these “moving parts?”
RM: I’ve thought of Virginia Woolf quite a bit, authors like her who are trying to duplicate the working of the human mind and thereby understand how humans operate. And I agree with you. I believe we humans live our experiences in a very complex way, with the past as well as emotion, hopes and fears intruding constantly on the present. Isn’t this why people meditate? To try to silence these intruding thoughts from The Now? Most of us cannot stay in The Now for more than few seconds. Maybe the Dalai Lama or the Pope or someone. I do not meditate. I’m very interested in thought interference, the failure to stay in The Now. When I write I’ve learned to let my mind run out and out with associations, leaps from boulder to boulder of a character’s thoughts and record them. Not exactly like journaling, which I also do not do. Journaling is supposed to be an intimate conversation with yourself, very little shaping for effect. But a story has to be artfully constructed for a reader — a run of thought decipherable and compelling to a stranger. The POV movement you mention in Reptile House — I learned to do that writing this book and I find it very satisfying and interesting. I find it accurate. I also find that readers can and do follow the most disjointed passages. You have a lot of faith in readers and I do. Jim Shepard, one of my mentors, says Write for your best reader and leave the rest in the dust. Virginia Woolf does that. Faulkner does that. The hardest thing as a writer is to not to delete the revealing, embarrassing, illogical parts. Let the weird parts stay. Some people might judge the author for those things. But that’s also exciting. You are saying, Okay, go ahead and judge me. I can take it. Then the reader has to do the same thing. He is saying, Okay, I get exactly what you mean in that weird passage. What does that mean about me? It is a Meeting of the Minds — the co-conspiracy a writer and reader can achieve and it is what I seek. That wink through time, distance and anonymity.
AR: In a recent interview for Fiction Writers Review you characterized yourself as a relentless reviser, making “endless” revisions to your stories, sometimes over a number of years, to get them right. I feel like we don’t really talk about revision enough as writers, and I’d love to hear more about what has worked for you, process-wise. How do you prioritize structural big-picture revisions in relation to more sentence-level changes in language and tone? Do you put a work in progress away and come back to it after a period of time? Do you work on multiple projects simultaneously? And at what point do you feel able to share work with others?
RM: Maybe we do not talk much about revision as writers because it does not seem sexy and genius-infused, as the first draft process might. Or maybe it’s just hard to discuss revision. In fact, I’m having a hard time finding words to describe my revision process right now! But for me, revision is everything.
To start, I’ve often thought that if word processors did not exist, I would not be a writer at all, since the word processor allows me to do my thing, which is to take the text and move and move and move the lines, breaking up a paragraph and waiting for some fresh information to arise from the new juxtaposition. It feels like putting a puzzle together with no picture to follow. You just try to get a few pieces that fit together to establish a pattern, anything. You move the lines, change the words in a line until there’s a click. I worked on the first page of “Carlsbad Caverns” for about a month before I hit on the necessary narrative keys –sound, tone, tempo, sentence pattern, narrational range. I can’t get beyond the first page or two until I get those things right, so I cut and paste, cut and paste until they are found. It’s a waste of time to go ahead without them.
I think I’m most concerned with sentence-level revision, but I also work very hard on structural issues and revise problem scenes many times to make them function right. In these cases, I think reconstruction is, perhaps, a better word than revision. I once (over 10 years) took a 28-page story and cut it down to 6 pages, then added 13 totally new pages, then took out 3 then added 6, fussed more here and there. Then, when I finally get to a satisfying ending, when I feel I have really hit pay dirt, then I go back and squeeze a bunch of words out. If the story is 7000 words, I squeeze it down to 6000. Can I squeeze it down to 5000? Maybe I can get it to 5300, but the last 50 words can be very slow. It’s worth the effort. I like the tight feeling the story has by then.
I don’t really work on more than one project at a time. I feel a short story as a pressurized little balloon. While writing, I go into the story and stay in and don’t like to jump over to some other project for fear of deflating the story that is trying to form itself. I don’t share my work with others until I’m very far into it and it feels done to me. Then I send the story to my most trusted readers and they usually are able to show me the huge gaping holes invisible to me. I go back and deal with gaping holes, revise heavily, repolish, resend, etc.
AR: Thank you for sharing that! I think many of us are reluctant to share writing in early stages, but it’s reassuring to get a sense of how revision works for someone else over time. Once you’ve gotten those crucial first pages of a story down enough to continue, knowing that your process might be completed over years, have you ever reached a point where you simply abandoned it? Or is everything salvageable, given that you aren’t afraid to jump in and rethink and refine a work over the long haul?
RM: I have an appalling and sad trash pile of stories. Most of them, I believe, are pathways I saw/felt, wanted to follow, but was not skillful enough to follow at the time. I was simply unable to wrangle the story into line. The story I mentioned that took 10 years was an example of a revivable story. After much time, my skill matched my ambition but I had to wait for it. “Blue Nevus” was like that in Reptile House. That story required a long break, 6 or 8 months, to be possible. Also “Carlsbad Caverns.” I had to fight my way through. Maybe I will get the chops for some of those other stories in the trash pile. Or they might become the vital missing part of some story I have not begun yet. I hope so. I believe these stories match our minds as our minds evolve with age. But I also think some stories are not tellable by me. Other writers with other skill sets are working on those. Poets too. That’s why we need poets, painters, sculptors.
AR: You’re well into your multi-month, cross country “Sidewinder book tour” (along with your dog!) by now. How has the touring experience been so far? I imagine after spending so much time deeply engrossed in the worlds of these stories it must feel both gratifying and disconcerting to suddenly be hearing from people who have just encountered your book. I’m always surprised and delighted when readers find something in my work that’s been there all along that I hadn’t been consciously aware of. Have there been surprises for you along the way in terms of how readers have reacted to the book, and what they’ve taken away from it?
RM: The tour is going phenomenally well far, except for one thing. I could not bring my dog. When I saw how hot it was going to be in Texas and the mid-west, I left her back on the farm. And yes, there are some strange outcomes when your dream comes true. Readers are reading the stories. And I’ve had interesting responses and questions. I’ve been asked, In story X, why didn’t you kill off _____with more blood and guts? And, Why I did you have to kill _____ at all? Questions like that really startled me, I guess, because to kill that character was hard, the work of months. Once that struggle was over, maybe I forgot that other new people might struggle with it in the same way. I’ve also been asked by a bunch of smart women from the all women’s college I attended, Why are so many of the main characters male? It produced a fantastic dinner discussion about writing different sexes, different races, and then empathy, and then how men have been writing women forever, now it’s a woman’s turn. Another thing happened recently: a revelation. I’ve been told the stories are “dark” often enough that one of my best friends asked me what I thought about it. I don’t know, I said, What do you think? He said, Maybe those people are just way more satisfied with the world than we are. I really have to think about his idea. If it’s true, it will explain things that I’ve been wondering about for a long time.
The trip was planned as a way to visit all my writer friends, the people who have been on email for years now, who share this vital artistic life with me, but through pixels rather than face-to-face. Today I went hiking with two beloved friends high above Boulder, Colorado. Tonight my teenage niece and nephew fly into Denver and we will cross the Rockies squished in a car, camping and seeing America with Aunt Robin. I just cruised Texas with my college roommate who I have not seen in about 15 years. Who gets chances like this? Once in a lifetime, they say. I hope not, but I’ve been running on that kind of urgency and excitement.
AR: I love your friend’s comment! Maybe it says something about my own dissatisfaction with the world that I really loved the darkness of these stories — I have a lot of curiosity about individuals who reach a point where their anger or alienation or loneliness might lead them to abandon the social contract — or as you so eloquently put it, “the mechanics of sudden bad acts.” I feel reassured when fiction writers “go there” and try to explore those fantasies and the movement from fantasy to action, because I’m “going there” in my head to try to understand these events in the news. But there’s this ongoing debate about characters being “likeable” (as opposed to “interesting” or “worthy of compassion/empathy”) and it feels like female authors get this expectation of likability leveled at them and their characters a great deal more than men. What are your thoughts on how a reader relates (or doesn’t) to the characters you’ve created?
RM: I am very annoyed by the “likeability debate” and just can hardly take it seriously. It’s a little scary. I think it mostly reflects the narcissistic bath our world is in right now. Please write characters that look like beautiful, sweet, awesome me. I was a potter and people used to call me an artist and I said, No I am not an artist. I am a crafts person, a noble career. My pots were pretty, everyone liked them, and I paid off my mortgage with pottery sales. Maybe wanting likable characters is sort like what I was doing with pretty pottery. Fine, people should go ahead and write and read that. But don’t exclude something more serious. Art, as opposed to craft, is supposed to rattle us. Real art has nothing at all to do with likeability. I think people are getting craft and art mixed up. Apples and oranges. I did the pottery thing. I made tens of thousands of likeable things for people’s breakfast tables, to match their tile, to enjoy in their daily lives. I’m very proud of that but I’m not doing that anymore. I’m drawing the world as I see it and looking for readers who want to go there with me.
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Robin McLean was a lawyer and then a potter for 15 years in the woods of Alaska before receiving her MFA at UMass Amherst in Massachusetts. Her first collection Reptile House won the BOA Short Fiction Prize, and was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Short Story Prize in 2011 and 2012. McLean’s stories appear widely in such places as The Nashville Review, The Malahat Review, Gargoyle, and The Common and Copper Nickel, as well as the anthology American Fiction: The Best Unpublished Short Stories by Emerging Writers. A figure skater first—having learned to skate and walk at the same time—McLean believes that crashing on ice prepared her for writing fiction. She currently teaches at Clark University, and splits her time between Newfound Lake in Bristol, New Hampshire, and a 200-year-old farm in western Massachusetts.