Robin McLean was a lawyer and then a potter in the woods of Alaska before returning to story writing. Her first short story collection Reptile House won the 2013 BOA Editions Short Fiction Prize and will be published in May 2015. The collection was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Short Story Prize in 2011 and 2012. Nashville Review published her first short story, “Reptile House.” She has also published in The Cincinnati Review, The Common, Green Mountains Review, Copper Nickel and others.
Besides writing, her careers and interests have been diverse: pushcart hotdog sales, lawyer and mediator, tile maker, political activist, union grievance coordinator, sculptor, haunted corn maze manager as well as zombie trainer. She teaches writing at Clark University and divides her time between Newfound Lake in New Hampshire and a 200-year-old farm in Sunderland, Massachusetts, where this interview took place.
Interviewer: Where do your stories come from?
Robin McLean: I’m interested in memories and stories that stick for years. Of all the things that happen each day, each week, each month, we forget almost all of it. But my dad remembers a broken-winged bird he saw as a boy, seven decades ago. Why? The injured bird must connect to a very deep emotional place in my dad. I often start my stories with a tiny mysterious seeds like that. Sometimes I combine two seeds to make a hybrid.
Language choice seem very important to you. How has your voice developed?
Each story presents its own technical challenges that are often solved by language. For example, in “The Amazing Discovery and Natural History of Carlsbad Caverns” I am exploring an hour of a man’s life when he is pretty sure he is about to be killed. How to do this? First, the character might think of a lot of diverse, unconnected thoughts in that situation. Maybe his kids, his wife, his boyhood. And he might have trouble concentrating under such pressure. I needed a language that could hold lots of emotional complexity, that could break, overlap and bend with the character’s hope, fear and confusion. Other stories have different requirements. I wanted “Cold Snap'” to sound breezy, inappropriately so, given what is going on. I wanted “Reptile House” to feel jagged. To me the language and tone are the keys to how far you can go with a story.
How do you classify your work? Realism? Magical realism? Something else?
I’m interested in going as far as I can with the real, where the average human mind can go. But I don’t believe “the real” can be known only through the rational, because, whether we like it or not, irrationality is our other half. When my niece was a baby, she had colic. She cried for days, and my sister, at her wits end, while bouncing her bundle of joy, said, “I want to throw this baby out the window.” I’m interested in that verbalization. Then I like to amplify it by 100 times. Very few mothers have thrown their baby out the window. But someone has, I bet, and I’d like to write about her, to examine our real, and uncomfortable, kinship with her.
Your stories are satirical and ironic, hilarious even. There’s a sarcastic subtext of who we are and how we are choosing to live. I think of Donald Barthelme and George Saunders with the punchiness of Lydia Davis. Tell me about that.
I don’t know about being compared to those writers but I think some of what I write is really funny. Look, we walk around, most of us, me included, and I think we’re each “normal” and also “weirdoes.” We love stories and murder-ridden TV shows. We are bullied by bosses at the office, then turn around and bully the principle at the PTA meeting. Humans have range. Devils and angels. I think no one is innocent, that life is messy, that perfection is overrated, and that imperfection is often amusing. I’ve heard this quote that a writer’s job is to “Comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” This is really what I’m after.
There’s the real and the unreal in your stories. The mystery of, say, the ending of “The Amazing Discovery and Natural History of Carlsbad Caverns.” There is at the same time a journalistic precision. Did you feel pulled one way or the other?
I do think that people want to be able to understand everything in a story. Like they are always asking, am I reading this right? I feel that you have to do enough explaining so that people don’t throw the story aside, give up. But I have faith that reader can handle quite a bit of the “unknowable.” Think of religion, for example, the mysterious stuff people accept every weekend. Do people really understand what Communion is? I mean it’s the body of Christ. You drink the “blood of Christ.” That’s just accepted irrationality. What does that mean? Well, most people would say, “I don’t know.” We accept irrationality all the time. I feel like a writer needs enough “order” in her work so that somebody can say, “oh, I get that, but I cannot explain it necessarily.” But I struggle with that—supplying enough of the mundane and/or precise so that it’s satisfying to the reader, while also leaving enough out that it feels mysterious.
In several stories in your collection, there are these switch ups into a kind of omniscience about the future mixed with these elegiac, stream of consciousness passages about the past. Tell us about that.
In this collection I was learning what effects were achievable by playing with the different dials at a writer’s disposal. Voice. Tone. I mean deeper intangible things. Things that have nothing to do with the usual—character, plot, foreshadowing or time. What can you get out of how you write sentences down? Word order, sentence length, rhythm. I played around with the question of acquiring narrative omniscience. How do you give yourself enough room to do some crazy stuff, like a being a God? How do you do it? I was trying that. How big can the story get? How big do you need the story to be to serve your goals?
You lived in Alaska for some time. How did that affect your writing?
Alaska is wild, dangerous, beautiful, and makes you feel tiny. Living there made me want to write with wild dangerous beauty, to be small, also big. I grew up in a well-behaved, don’t-ruffle-feathers family. Alaska made me think about scale, grandeur, and audacity.
So the story “Cold Snap” takes place up there, where both people and nature–the cold itself—are characters as much as your protagonist. Tell me about that.
Yes, in many ways, the community, the townspeople, the cold snap even, they are more important to me than Lilibeth (the main character). I wanted an oblivious world where big things are happening and everyone is just going around as if nothing important or big is happening. The kind of “La la la” attitude of life today.
I hear the first story, “Cold Snap” won an “apocalyptic” story prize.
I didn’t start writing it as an end of the world story. But I was living in New England and everyone was whining about the winter. I had lived in Alaska for 17 years and I was missing Alaska and I wanted to write a story about what a real winter was like. This latest winter in New England should shut me up for a while.
The story centers around one woman’s very specific personal life and her oftentimes comic attempts at survival—she is actually more equipped than those around her. Then there’s a kind of communal disintegration under this oppressive cold. Is there a comment you are making about how we live now?
One of my mentors said that as writers we shouldn’t be afraid to let our worldviews into stories and that was a turning point for me. I do believe we live in a society that simply refuses to see what’s actually going on and almost stubbornly so. For me that refusal to see, that stubbornness and denial, can be a backdrop in a story, a mindscape as important and legitimate as the snowscape or a cityscape or desert scenery. What I hoped I did in this collection is move away from simply the personal in stories. I don’t want to write stories that are just personal. Because I am so worried about the world in so many ways. I spend a lot of time worrying about the world and I do not understand why more people aren’t more worried. And so I spend time working that out in my stories. So I combined a world getting progressively colder with a personality that is super isolated. (laughs)
Several characters in this collection I would call near violent, if not murderous. Oftentimes the violence comes unexpectedly, without pre-meditation, malice or a single significant explanation. Why?
I feel like humans are so complicated, and what we try to do culturally is to simplify down our humanness into one or two or three things. The idea that you can be tender and murderous at the same time, I don’t think that’s impossible. I think that is how we are. We don’t like to think of ourselves as being violent or racist or selfish or murderous, certainly not. So if I put a character in there who you can relate to a little bit, then if they do something ugly, as most of us do from time to time, good. I want things to get a little bit uncomfortable.
I was uncomfortable because there were good characters who were also cruel people.
Yes, there’s this question of how are good people cruel. This idea we have where ‘I’m good and he’s bad’ and ‘he’s good and she’s bad’—I don’t believe that. I wonder how do you go from a kind creature into suddenly an injured creature or a violent creature? That shift. I think it’s way more interesting to explore the bad things ordinary people do. It’s way more relevant as we live in a world where there’s violence being done in our names. And in our society, it’s very very important, especially for Americans, to think of themselves as good.
Can you tell us something interesting or unusual about you as a working writer?
In graduate school, I tried sleep deprivation to shut my internal editor up. I had been a potter, my hands in clay for 20 years, so I was at the University in writing workshops on one side of campus and on the other side, I would be making pottery and sculptures in the studio arts building. I started carving stream-of-thought stories into a big clay pots from bottom to the top, around and around, to the end. This was a great exercise because you can’t delete in clay. You can’t go back and insert or clarify. Your editor can’t keep up. The surfaces look like familiar hieroglyphics. Words and phrases make no sense to a reader since the story is stacked from bottom to top, upside down. That process changed my thinking about stories a lot, showed me that I do not know at all what will come out when I don’t stop it, if I can’t stop it.
Writers always seem to get asked about the endings of their stories. In my favorite of your stories, there are seahorses. What can you tell me about this?
I don’t know exactly. I do have interest in the surreal. I think the surreal exists in all of our lives every day. If you go into nature, into the woods, for example, those are not surreal places per se, but you go there because something surreal can happen to you there, something possibly spiritual, some non-concrete, non-logical thing. I think that if and when you can write toward those unstable mindscapes, you leave it to other people, to readers. You open the possibilities to them.