A Conversation with Robin McLean
Robin McLean is one of the coolest people I know. Not only a smart, sharp writer, she has also, as her official bio says, "worked as a lawyer and then a potter in the woods of Alaska before turning to writing". She has lived in all sorts of places, done all sorts of things. And somehow she managed to get no less than J.M. Coetzee — J.M. COETZEE — to blurb her first novel. Not just blurb it, not just say "Robin McLean is a writer to watch" or something like that, but to say, "Not since Faulkner have I read American prose so bristling with life and particularity."
(If I were Robin, I would have a hard time not wandering around town saying, "Hi. J.M. Coetzee compared me to Faulkner.")
Coetzee isn't the only one who has noticed her. Of Pity the Beast, Karen Russell said, "Robin McLean writes scenes that feel as vibrant, terrifying, and wondrous as your most adrenalized memories. Her country is never merely the backdrop for human dramas but a living, breathing entity, alive with the poetry of mules and skittering stone." Of Get 'Em Young..., Aimee Bender wrote in a New York Times review: "In all these settings, whether we’re touring Niagara or building a home in Alaska, nature is ever-present, but it won’t redeem us either ... That said, there is a curious solace in settling into a worldview by a writer who so refuses to unsharpen her vision, whose investment is in the clarity and freshness of the imagery and an honest portrayal of our craven impulses. McLean keeps us guessing about whom to root for and when, swerving her stories and reshaping our sympathies in a paragraph."
I met Robin when our first collections came out within about a year of each other. She was living near me at the time and gave a reading at the local public library. Not a lot of short story writers live up here, so it was nice to have somebody for shoptalk. Soon enough, though, Robin moved out west. I loved her novel Pity the Beast, but didn't get a chance to write up anything about it, and though I intended to interview her, things at work got too busy and the moment passed. When her second collection, Get 'Em Young, Treat 'Em Tough, Tell 'Em Nothing, was announced, I was excited to have a new excuse to talk with Robin about writing, reading, violence, life, etc. And so here we are.
Matthew Cheney: Since you’ve had an interestingly varied life, you must get asked about your background a lot. I’m curious, though, about the continuities. Does anything link, for instance, figure skating, law, pottery, teaching, and writing? Do you feel yourself on a continuum of experience?
Robin McLean: I was a very spoiled child, or perhaps the correct word is indulged. I grew up in a time when freedom for kids was in vogue, and with a mom and dad who were not helicopter parents at all – it was way before that trend. Yeah, we had to eat all the food off our plates, of course, got our mouths washed out with soap, and were spanked. But they believed in allowing us kids to do as we wished, and with their endless help, to expand as potent humans through our fascinations. Go skate! Go ride horses! Run! Play! Write poems! With my best friend and sisters, I explored the woods until dinner time, wandered unsupervised into my interests, obsessions and fantasies. My parents had many, many interests themselves, modeled that. Both were kind of clean-cut eccentrics, very artsy, political, weird in their own incognito ways, driven. And I guess my choices–what I call “my crazy resume”– are just a map of my own compelling obsessions over time, patterned after theirs. They never asked me to be practical, as someone who grew up on a farm or ranch would be by parents. Not that I’m not practical or that my choices have all worked out. I was “wrong” about the law, for example. My understanding of law school was faulty with regards to me and the world. I was a supremely stupid kid still. I thought “Oh, I like to read! I like to argue about political things!” I loathed law school. I had never loathed anything like that before and it shocked the hell out of me. It shattered my little spoiled heart to find myself loathing any form of “education.” But it was oppressive to me, the proscribed thought systems of the American legal system as I perceived them then, and loathing is a good teacher. I bounced off—way off the other way, to pottery, first. I’ve been shifting toward what fascinates ever since.
Some kind of heightened (ecstatic) experience is probably the common denominator. Skating was the first ecstatic experience for me. Flying. Spinning. Becoming a planet subject to and in concert with the forces of physics. It made me know about the potential for private ecstatic experience from a very young age, no drugs needed. Once you know about that, you keep looking for it if no one stops you. No one stopped me. Alaska. Stupendous. The desert. Magnificent. The books that transport you to and through other minds and worlds. Glorious. One gets a taste for wonder. Pottery was more spinning, an intoxicating trance, an extension of skating. Teaching came from writing and writing is an extension of skating—a direct link. Though writing is harder. So yes, there is, for me, an absolute continuum of experience, and I trust it deep down more than anything else. I’m still on the arc now, blind, but less so with years, following instinct, honing instinct still, for good or bad. Crossing fingers.
MC: Picking up on that continuum of experience, how about the continuum of writing experience? There is some time between your first collection and your new one. As you think about the books together, do you see changes in your approach to fiction, or to the short story form?
RM: This new collection was actually written second. My novel, that came out last year, was written third, but published second. So the two collections published in 2015 and now in 2022 were actually written much closer in time than it appears.
That said, I do think there’s big movement between the two. I hope so, anyway. Why write if there’s no shift? I’ve told people that I think of Get’em Young, the second collection, as wilder in subject matter than Reptile House, the first collection, but more tame in form. Others might dispute me.
MC: Wilder material?
RM: Writing takes courage. I was writing Get’em Young in a swell of confidence, the jet fuel pumped into your system when your first book is accepted for publication – that lightning bolt of joy and permission the world gives you on rare occasions. Get’em Young was also written when I was newly free. I was out of school and looking around me at the world. Chris Bachelder, a wonderful mentor of mine, had said once, “Don’t be afraid to let your beliefs about the world enter your stories.” He noted that Chekhov shows his beliefs in every story, and I found that to be true. I got thinking of this while I was writing the collection. How could I do that? Could I?
I had come from rural Alaska, then rural Montana, and was living in rural New Hampshire and pretty, orderly Western Mass. I was thinking a lot about America. I was worried and frustrated about political America, about climate, about the fate of the planet, of non-human beings, about blind America, about the blind world (my opinions are not subtle here), also right vs left America, Red vs Blue, about what I was seeing in the rural places I chose to live in. I wrote these ten stories during Obama’s America, trying to let my beliefs live in them. One weird thing about the collection, at least to me, is that, thematically, these stories seem to connect more closely to what we are all facing now in Trump’s America than what was commonly visible in the Obama years. It was what I was picking up at the time, I guess, but the stories might resonate more with people now than when I wrote them. This is very interesting to me.
MC: Since you mention Chekhov, who is a particular obsession of mine, I have to ask: Do you have a favorite Chekhov story (or stories)?
RM: Well, now that I know you’re a fanatic, I’m afraid my choice will be very pedestrian, but here goes. The most earth-shaking Chekhov story for me was “Gusev.” The first time I read it, the thing that got me was the ending, when the body of Gusev is floating down toward the ocean floor past the school of fish to the shark. It shocked me. Why? My first guess was that it was simply shocking to spend so much time with this character, Gusev—and with Pavel Ivanich too—just to have them die in this undramatic, seemingly anti-climactic way, only then to have it re-made as climatic and dramatic by the trip after death into the sea to the shark. Yeah, that was part of it. It seemed like a weird plot choice—which is what a writer does, selecting this over that, that over this, arranging it all for a particular effect, usually designed to simulate “real life”— ordinary thought processes recognizable to us. But this was real life, the shark’s, wasn’t it? Just a different way of seeing a different “real.” Was that allowed? But what really rattled me too, I realized/guessed, was Chekhov’s way of dealing with Gusev as an object suddenly. I had not thought of Gusev as an object before and now I did. How was this done? Chekhov does not choose words that treat dead Gusev as a sudden dead thing, (as I just did in the sentence above, as “the body of Gusev.’”) He chooses words to treat Gusev exactly the same before and after death. The shark “swam under Gusev with dignity and no show of interest, as though it did not notice him, and sank down on its back, then turned it belly upward, basking in the warm, transparent water and languidly open its jaws with two rows of teeth.” But, just like that, the shark has taken over the story. Gusev is transformed into a mere object, mostly of interest to the shark. This blew my mind. We care more about the shark than Gusev now! How did he do that??? I asked again! The ship above is gone for me! Of little interest (a mere object). The people on the ship (more objects)—who cares! Chekhov deploys grammar, word choice and POV – rather than subject matter—to radically alter the meaning of the story. The way I saw the world, saw all, just got bigger. That knocked me out. This “move” seemed the most radical trick I’d ever seen in books or stories. It’s about positioning, a relation of see-er to things (human and non-human, time, space), a move possibly only possible with words (literature, as opposed to other kinds of art), maybe the best reason to write or read. Then I reread the story and many of its aspects seemed radical the second time around. Rather than just the ranting of a crotchety, dying man, Pavel’s world view, for example, now seemed to be a very important repositioning, similar in mode and gravity to the “shark-shift” coming at the end. Then, on the next readings, all seemed radical in “Gusev.” Every word of the story seemed crafty and important, set there for me to see or not – Chekhov doesn’t care if I do, just like the shark! ! It excited me so much. That a story that seemed so simple at first (wherein almost nothing seems to happen, all is pedestrian, predictable, especially death, all except for a wonderful—unsayable—sky at the end) could feel wild, radical, revolutionary. And then I wanted to do that too. This is kind of a rant, I guess. I hope it makes everyone go (re)read that story.
I’ve also taught the story “Sleepy” many times – offered end-of-semester (sleepy) students to put their sleepy heads down on sleepy desks, to just listen (or sleep) while I read “Sleepy” out loud to them, reading out to them that litany of rhythmic, repeated, sleepy objects, those sleepy peasant murmurings in the next room in the story, me peeping up from the pages from time to time (at snores), and especially to see what happened to those heads when I got to the end. That was fun.
MC: Another interviewer described Pity the Beast as “acrobatic” and I love that word for it. It’s so true — the novel has a remarkable breadth and range without feeling diffuse. When you began work on the book, did you know it was going to be as wild as it is, or did it find its way there in the writing? How did you keep yourself from shutting it down and trying to make it behave more like a “normal” novel as you were writing?
RM: I didn’t know how that book would go. I thought of myself as short fiction-only before I wrote it, and didn’t know if I could even write a novel. That scale was not my scale. (I was told once that I definitely could write a novel if I “just wrote a longer story!” Thanks. Very helpful.)
I think it happened that way, the “acrobatics,” for a couple of reasons. First, the central story in Pity the Beast is very simple. The thru-line. And as you know well, lots of writers, poets especially, use very restrictive or simple forms and patterns as a structure in which to allow wild content to emerge. In keeping with this idea (not exactly planning anything), while writing the book, I hung on as tight as possible to the main narrative (“Luke, Stay on target!”), steering through on the power of the super-simple storyline–a community eruption, a bad act, an escape, a chase. The wild stuff appeared, I believe, on the strength of that simplicity. Also, I did want the novel to feel “big,” whatever that meant. But as with my short fiction, I was open to and very interested in the wild arriving. (This is probably why I write at all, the ecstatic again, that jolt of electricity.) I called the wild stuff that arrived “thought islands.” They thrilled me and worried me and annoyed me and they persisted in showing up again and again, even when evicted to elsewhere on the hard drive. Yeah, I saw the problems with them. “They don’t fit!” “Get out!” But I respect persistence perhaps above all things. In the end, I tried to understand them. How might they fit? I looked and looked, even as I shuddered at how they would not fit in the known world of publishing today. Friends asked me “What if an editor demands you cut the Rodeo Kid?” What would I do? I took parts out for months (and years), put them back in new places, took them out again. The main character, Ginny, actually got evicted for some months from the last 300 pages. It was truly a war. That’s what I learned from writing that book, about a battlefield in me, and how to resolve it. That might be, unfortunately, how the process works for me. I don’t know for sure. I hope not. I’ll tell you after the next book. So, no. “Normal” didn’t win. Some lovers of old-fashioned westerns may wish it had won. I’m not one of them.
MC: Let’s talk about violence. It’s one of the subjects I obsess over, and one of the reasons I am so drawn to your own work, because more than a little of what you write really faces the violence of living and yet also finds a way not to glory in it. Are there particular things you try to think about when working on a violent scene? I think about this a lot now when working with students who are drawn to writing violence, because I think it’s important to write about the US as a fundamentally violent place, but it can be tough to not exploit or seem to condone or revel in that violence, but I’m also wary of the desire for the text to Make The Point Very Clear So Nobody Will Get Confused That Violence Is Wrong. I suppose my question, then, is how do you communicate with readers and students about the unpleasant stuff in fiction?
RM: Your college writers, I’m guessing based on personal experience, are probably writing lots of war and violence, lots of sword fights that end bloody and badly, with lots of limbs and heads lopped off. But my next bet would be that some of these same young writers would be appalled by what my friend (and audiobook narrator) Dion Graham calls the “black mischief” of my stories. I believe I deal with violence very simply: as realism, in close, close, close-up. As in, Don’t look away. Because we care about the broken bodies. As in, you don’t get to blow up the plane full of people and then cut to the next scene. Since maybe we will care more if we do look. As in, don’t free the writer (or reader) to avoid the questions that the pervasive, fundamental, and casual violence of our culture and stories could/ should provoke.
However, I have come to believe that most writers and readers want to engage with American violence only where it entertains. Maybe that’s a deep, unconscious method of coping with the horrible, with our own complicity, by making it a show. I don’t know. I think it’s weird and not so good. Yeah, I get it. Chill out! Think of it as fun! People need to relax, etc.! They have a lot of stress and just want to unwind! But it looks to me like the fun and fanfare of contemporary versions of the Roman Colosseum! Or a bull fight, or fox hunt in old jolly England. Any James Bond opening segment, any crime tv show where a murder happens at the beginning each week –it’s considered light fare. Ok. Fun is important. But I do wonder if these texts share in any way with you “the desire…to Make The Point Very Clear So Nobody Will Get Confused That Violence Is Wrong.” Violence is background in these texts, just as in most westerns, the land is background, the non-human beings are background. Why not bring the background forward, if possible?
I’m totally with you. I think of the US as a fundamentally (very) violent place and I feel anyone who is writing about America, or our planet, in a serious way now, must/ could/ might consider contending with this, which is not fun. It would be interesting to ask your students to write a story in which the violence was not background. Where the truth of the sword fight was the subject, requiring a close and sustained look at the broken bodies (as if the project is to care about the broken bodies). It might blow back on you, but it might bear fruit. Some important idea about violence and entertainment and representation and responsibility might emerge through the sharpness of the focus.
MC: I need to talk with you about pottery. I adore pottery, collect pottery, have friends who are potters. For me, the beauty of pottery is not only the form and glaze, but also its relationship to transcience: it is a rock that survived fire, but it is also fragile. What led you to it? What led you away? Do you still make it, collect it, think about it? Has pottery found its way into your writing in any way?
RM: I was obsessed with pottery the moment I got my hands in the clay the first time. It took over my brain and was the cause or vehicle by which I quit the law. I couldn’t concentrate! I was thinking about the next pot I would spin when I got back to the studio that night after work. My dad became a potter after me. I taught him how and many times he and I talked it over and guessed that we must have a potter in our family line, way back, or a bunch of them. But then we realized, too, that everyone on earth pretty much has a potter in their family line, way back somewhere. That means you, Matt!
I was led to pottery, I believe, by the innate human instinct to make things with one’s hands. We are supposed to do it, I believe now. If we don’t, we humans go a little crazy, and I blame some of our current global insanity on the fact that we buy all our stuff, rather than make our stuff, at the various global iterations of Target. I believe humans need to balance the cerebral with the tactile. Everyone should sign up for a pottery class!
I was led away from pottery by writing. It’s a simple thing for me, one thing at a time. I wish I was making pottery every day now – I would be better off. But both activities want all.
Yeah, clay is miraculous. A semi-liquid, semi-solid natural substance naturally occurring and dug from the earth. So humble. You shape it and cook like a rock is cooked in the earth’s center, or in the center of another planet, or the center of a star. So grand. The results are strong and fragile. The pot will feed you your breakfast your whole life long. It will contain your ashes when you die and return to the stars. All that cosmic stuff is fact in this context.
You don’t even need your eyes to throw a pot. Did you know? You can close your eyes and the pot comes out just about the same. Your body does the job without the eyes or much of the mind’s participation. Just so, pottery taught me the power and potential of these humble, skillful, but hidden and nameless parts inside us. Making a pot, your fingers and arms and shoulders decide and that’s kind of what you have to do in life too, stop thinking sometimes, let the power of the unheralded parts run the show.
MC: Let’s end with one of my favorite questions: What are some short story collections that deserve wider notice?
RM: Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah really knocked me out. Its range and power. I really had to study them. Same with Brian Evenson’s The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell, (anything by him). 99 Stories of God by Joy Williams (anything by her). Well, of course everyone should read Chekhov. Everyone should read Annie Proulx’s short fiction. Close Range: Wyoming Stories is a favorite of mine, oldie but goodie, topical to me. Her attention to detail is a model for me as a writer—though I will never match her. I think of these stories—her devout attention to detail—are important for more than just the technical, however. I think that the respect she shows the land, rural American culture, her often down-and-out, though never self-pitying characters—people she might or might not agree with actual-living-wise—is a good model for how we Americans might proceed to get along with each other in these days of strife.