The Sentence Must Sound Right

Robin McLean grew up in Peoria, Illinois, and graduated from Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. Interested in both writing and law, she chose the wrong door first, but it led to the right one. From law school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, she moved to Alaska to practice law. After two years, she left her job and for thirteen years made a living through her home business, Little Granite Creek Pottery, while exploring some of the 800 miles of wilderness in her backyard. She then returned to Massachusetts to earn an MFA at UMass Amherst. She teaches writing at Clark University and lives and writes by Newfound Lake in New Hampshire, close enough to Vermont that she has been persuaded to lead workshops for the Burlington Writers Workshop.

I discovered Robin McLean and her short stories through a New Hampshire Public Radio interview with Peter Biello on The Bookshelf, which she alludes to below. In that interview she talks about her two previous careers—the law and pottery—and how they have contributed to her writing. From law it’s the precision of language that stayed with her: “What courts argue about a lot of the time is the meaning of a line, the meaning of a sentence, the meaning of a clause. I’m sure that it made me very aware of ambiguity in language, and I really love to play with ambiguity.” And from pottery—as from her childhood years figure skating, she has said elsewhere—she discovered how to learn from failure, and how to recognize when she has gotten something right.

Her story “The True End to All Sad Times,” included in this issue, is part of her debut story collection, Reptile House, which won the 2015 BOA Short Fiction Prize and was named as one of the best books of 2015 in The Paris Review. Her stories have appeared widely in The Cincinnati Review, The Common, Copper Nickel, Carve, Green Mountains Review and many other journals.

Lived, seen, felt, true—a short story should be these four things, a professor once told her. And should aim for wisdom, McLean adds. She says she knows she’s gotten the ending to a story right when she is able to stop thinking about it. For the reader, from my own experience reading her work, I suspect the opposite is true.

—Rebecca Starks, editor-in-chief

 

It’s not often that I read something that makes me want to go back to my academic training and try to write an essay on it, but I feel that way reading your book Reptile House. At the same time, I find certain deadpan moments so deeply funny that I want to put them in front of whoever is nearby—“Read this!”—even as I’m sure I won’t be able to convey why it’s so perfectly funny. Do you like to think—and laugh—over your own writing, afterwards? Do you learn something from it?

Thanks for all that. I love that the stories hit you that way. I feel quite sure that my stories crack me up more than anyone else. I’m very shocked if people tell me they don’t get the humor. Do I learn something from that laughter? I’m not sure. I feel I learn a lot from the stories. People write for lots of good reasons, but I write to understand things that perplex me, some feeling or memory that has stuck in my mind and has been bugging me for a long time. So in the end, if I finish a story, it clears something up for me that needs clearing, or makes a step in that direction. But also, we writers want to go down as deep as we can with subject matter, and these explorations are often sad or scary in murky places. Maybe humor makes it easier to go there, like taking an oxygen tank or rope from the surface.

Someone told me once that she wanted to be able to laugh five minutes after any sad thing. (I think I put that in a story somewhere.) It is probably impossible to laugh within five minutes most of the time but also good to aspire to. Sadness and laughter are somehow attached to each other — comedians know this. I read this somewhere: think of a scene in a movie of a bear climbing on the roof of a car. From one hundred feet away the scene of the bear on the car is comic. From inside the car, the scene is not comic at all, rather it is terrifying. So what is funny ranges legitimately by distance and perspective.

 

Do you have any penchant for stand-up comedy?

No, not at all. I have (had) terrible public speaking phobia that I am working on. But most girls thirteen and under, especially my nieces, think I am hilarious.

 

I am fascinated by the way you have the narration walk the line of perception so that we don’t know if the world is out of joint or the character we are focused on is. I think of Lilibeth in “Cold Snap,” when she comes into town and makes observations like “The town’s sudden holiday must have been extended.” (This is also one of those darkly, even inappropriately, hilarious lines.) This doesn’t feel like unreliable narration, or science fiction, or like we can ultimately ascribe the strangeness to a character’s mental illness, but instead like it’s proposing a worldview. Could you comment on that?

A “proposed worldview.” Yes, this is what I try to do. We each have a worldview, whether we could articulate that worldview or not. It is a filter, I think, through which information comes into our psyche and goes out again, and explains the mysteries of the world for us, the pain, the confusion, the rip-offs. If we are not aware of our own worldview, our interpretations of events can feel like Fact or Truth, rather than individual as the clothes we wear. In that line of “Cold Snap” you’ve chosen, only a person with Lilibeth’s worldview would interpret what is going on in her town that way. There are so many other possibilities that she does not even consider. Readers can see her mistake so clearly, dread the ramifications. Perhaps start examining their own wild viewpoints.

I think this is when we humans start getting into trouble — when our worldview blocks us from seeing other worldviews that might help us live our lives better. (I think Donald Trump is a person who does not know much about alternative worldviews.) I am very interested in this kind of blindness. The world is flat is an old one. We know now that our ancestors had it wrong, but nearly everyone in that time believed in the Flat World. Women have smaller brains so they must be dumber and can’t be president or own property, that kind of thing. I like to think about which of our ideas of Truth are totally wrong, will be totally disproven by our grandchildren, who will shake their heads at us. And back to the previous question: I think these errors are often very funny, also dangerous, created by pain and the need to protect ourselves from pain.

 

It seems to me you must have made a conscious decision never to say of characters “they felt” or “it seemed to them,” but instead to present the world with what feels like straightforward ambiguity. As in “Reptile House,” we can’t be sure if it’s a pigeon viewing the world or a character imagining the pigeon viewing the world. You’ve noted Chekhov and Woolf as influences on these types of shifts. I see Leopold Bloom as a model for both the style of conveying characters’ thoughts and preoccupations, and as a model for compassion despite deep flaws. Was Joyce also an influence?

I think writers like Chekhov, Woolf and Joyce are all trying to find language to describe human consciousness. Their approximations of consciousness are what attracts me most to all of them and is the conversation that I too (humbly) seek to participate in. How to do it? To me, human experience is better understood if it is felt. So my job as a writer is very weird — to use words (symbols) to trigger actual feeling, rather than the idea of feeling. And I wonder if telling readers “they felt” or “it seemed to him,” might actually block them from feeling. Leaving those phrases out and just trying to put readers in the feeling might make them work harder, but they might feel more in the end, I hope. Leopold Bloom showed us how wide-ranging and unstable consciousness can be. He is probably very much connected to the pigeon, etc, etc. I hope so. I actually think everyone writing these days is a stylistic descendent of these three.

 

You don’t shy away from violence, but you also describe it such that the reader can’t be sure it happened. Do you think that is true to the experience of violence, that the perpetrator of violence does not experience it? 

That is a great question, and I’m not sure I know the answer. I guess I have a few thoughts about that. First, I think we are animals, as in members of the animal kingdom, and we kill and eat other creatures as a matter of course, like many other animals. But we (most people) do not view killing a cow for meat as “violent,” though it is of course, especially to the cow. What we categorize as violent is not the cow we kill to eat, but rather the acts of destruction to other beings that transgress rules of good behavior in our particular time slot in history. We should not kill our neighbor, etc. (These rules change, depending on the time and place. Think of all the examples of humans being very okay with killing other humans, virgins into volcanoes, slaves in the Coliseum, modern warfare, self-defense).

I think the interesting slippage comes in with what we think is acceptable violence and what is not, and this, going back to worldview, relates to the individual’s context. The soldier may or may not think of himself as a perpetrator if he shoots someone in the line of duty. (The person shot most likely would view him as a perpetrator.) So the soldier might or might not experience the killing as violent. If killing is viewed as duty, how does a writer depict this? Maybe in the same way we kill a cow—the way all the big Hollywood movies kill of lots of people—without care or compassion. We can see a plane crash movie, and two hundred people die but we don’t shed a tear for them. They are unimportant to the viewer. They are killed like cows. It is an “unreal” depiction of killing two hundred people. If it were depicted in a real way, as in documentary style, for example, maybe we would not be so entertained.

So it kind of depends on who the viewer/reader understands the victims and the perpetrator to be. If the soldier doing the killing is a U.S. Marine in battle, we view the violence in a totally different way than if the soldier doing the killing is an ISIS fighter with a sword at some reporter’s neck. We, the watchers, categorize the ISIS fight as violent immediately, although but he might think of himself as doing his duty just as the U.S. soldier does. So the experience of violence, or any experience for that matter (love, trust, devotion), might be depicted as either unreal or real depending on which side of the knife you are on, which side of good behavior you think you are on. Maybe I try to describe violence against humans with some slippage to examine the violence against the cow, against all other “lower” creatures, a category humans love to bestow on other humans, too.

 

I’ve begun to feel that the violence enters your stories conceptually, before it occurs, as a threat looming over whatever is (irrationally) loved. That is the violence I experience as a reader. When it actually occurs, it is almost cathartic. What is your experience writing the violence like?

It is not easy to write violence, at least for me, because I want it to feel real enough that the effort is useful. Lots of violence is used to thrill and titillate, and I want my use to do the opposite. And there is this voice inside me that asks what is wrong with me that I can write a murder. (And I’ve been accosted by a few people about it too. “Why do you write about violence?” with a finger wag and also maybe stepping back like I’m dangerous or something.)

I wrote my first murder because the father of a friend of mine had been murdered when my friend was three. She had lived her whole life without a dad. I kept thinking about this and decided to write about it. How could someone kill this man, this father, husband, and change all those lives so suddenly? So the story, the question, required murder, and it took me six months to write it. I did not want to do it. But I felt it was my responsibility to this man to do it as well as I could.

When I am writing, I do not think of subject matter nearly as much as I think of elevating tension, which is probably another name for the looming threat you mention.

 

Your writing has been compared to Flannery O’Connor’s—it was my first thought, as well—and you’ve welcomed the comparison. I’m curious about whether and where you allow what she called “divine grace” to enter into your stories. Does it belong only to the victims of violence?

I think about grace in O’Connor’s work a lot, the idea that some divine beauty, insight or compassion enters human experience at critical moments, what we pray for. I actually think I have explored it much more in my stories since Reptile House. In Reptile House I don’t think the characters really change that much, do not generally get lightning bolts of insight. I have been told the collection is “hard” and “leaves no options,” by readers, and I think this indicates a lack of grace, maybe. Grace in O’Connor’s sense seems as though it bestows options even if we don’t deserve them, an escape clause despite all our terrible human errors. I am thinking about that as I write on from here.

 

In connection with O’Connor: I recently read Bible stories to my sons, for the stories, not for the religion, but I ended up thinking a lot about belief and disbelief. They were shocked, and I was shocked again, to hear what humans can do to each other—the stoning of St. Stephen, the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter. Your stories feel religious to me in this sense, able to enter that space between the believable and the unbelievable, and find a resonance there. Would you accept that categorization?

I accept. This is a gorgeous characterization, and I hope my stories live up to this.

 

If I had to pick a word that seemed to sum up all the ambiguities and ambition in your writing, and in your various other endeavors—thinking of law, pottery, figure skating—I’d choose “true.” I’m thinking in part of the title of the story you’ve given us, “The True End to All Sad Times.” How would you respond to that—does the word hold interest for you? What makes an ending feel true to you? Or false?

I had a professor in my MFA program who said a story should be four things: lived, seen, felt, true. The first three on the list relate to depiction, use of senses to circle emotions, experience. To me, true is most important and relates to wisdom, which is the thing that I am after. So if the stories strike you that way, I am thrilled.

To me, a short story should tingle at the end. As the writer, I should have a kind of physical response. If I am able to stop thinking about the story, it usually means I’ve found the right ending.

Endings are so hard and important, probably more so in short stories than novels.

 

You grew up with three sisters, I believe, but any camaraderie—if we can call it that—I see in your stories is between men, and many of your protagonists are male. The female characters appear more isolated, and often prompt violence or vicarious violence. In “Rabbit’s Foot I wonder where Rose’s thought, “a boy is a good thing to be,” comes from. Of course this is deeply ironic in this story, but I wonder if you also agree. I think of Annie Proulx, who has said that she writes about men because they get to do more interesting things. Do you, or how do you, see the world in gendered terms?

I actually kind of think of sex as interchangeable in my characters. I don’t see that men and women operate very differently at all, at least in the type of stories I write. I can see that might not be true for other kinds of stories. Writing men might also give me some emotion insulation from the subject matter, like wearing a costume, allowing me freedom to go farther, possibly. I’ve been asked about all my male characters by readers from the women’s college I attended. “Why so many men?” they wondered. Some objected, while others said, “Men have been depicting women all these centuries. Maybe it’s our turn.” I just kind of go with what I think the story needs.

I have always felt lucky to be a girl, so I disagree with Rose, though I see her point and empathize with her. Her life and mine are so different. Being female has trapped her, whereas I have so much liberty in my life so far, so many opportunities.

I have been told that I write like a guy. I think this is really funny. I obviously write like a woman because I am a woman.

 

What took you away from writing, and what brought you back?

When I moved to Alaska I was living for the first time—out of school, into wilderness and adventure. I was transfixed by the natural world, politics, love and marriage, friends, clay, building projects — the physical world, extroversion. I forgot about writing for over a decade. Read a lot. Alaska is a fantastic place to be alive in. Then about 11 years into this, I started wanting to write again. Maybe I had needed something to write about. Now I had some stuff. I returned to the stories.

 

In “No Name Creek” the character Ben thinks “Poem: a set of words put together to say something that can’t be said.” How would you define “story”?

I define short stories the same way.

But stories have time, character, conflict and setting—things that poems do not have to have. Stories are bigger but the same to me. Mysterious. You can’t answer the question: What are your stories about? You just have to write them or read them.

 

Do you revise for style, or does the style drive the story? You mention squeezing your writing like clay. How does the process of revision differ between pottery and writing?

When I was making pottery, I did production work (functional dishes and bowls, etc.) and never could have survived financially if I worked on each piece as I work my stories. When I did sculpture, the process was much more analogous.

I revise for style, or probably tone is the more accurate word, which I think of as the angle at which you address the story. The sentence must sound right. Nothing else is more important. Everything else forms around that for me.

 

Given the care you take to compress your stories, I wonder: as a reader, are you impatient with verbosity? Do you read more poems than novels?

I do read more poems than novels, but part of that is that I am a very slow reader. I love a good lush story or novel. My taste is wide-ranging, style-wise. I have short hair because the guy who cuts it tell me I won’t look good with long (my sisters all have long), and I’m jealous of the lush descriptive writers in the same way I’m jealous of the long manes of hair. I just know it is not for me. I accept it!

 

What authors are your guiding lights?

I have had incredible teachers. I’m reading Chris Bachelder now, who was a guide in craft, subject matter and tone for Reptile House and every story since them. He is a virtuoso of precision and overload. I love William Trevor, George Eliot, John Cheever, Chekhov, Flannery O’Connor of course. Jim Shepard is also a real life guiding light for me. J.M. Coetzee is a super nova for me. John Gardner. Lots and lots of poets. Also musicians. Prince. Queen. Banjo players. Also David Lynch and the Coen brothers.

 

I notice numerous linkages and parallels and references among this set of stories: how did these come about, and at what point did you begin to conceive of these stories as a book?

They tell you have to write a book to get an MFA, so I started writing stories and asked Chris Bachelder, my thesis chair, to pick the ones that should go in. I think we are blind to so much in our own work that I wanted help. I did not notice any of the linkages in the stories until after BOA took the collection, two years after I graduated. Before then, I would have said there was no linkage but style in the collection. Now I see so many.

 

So many writers “progress” from short stories to novels, and the publishing world seems to encourage that, but I would hate to lose you as a short story writer. Do you feel you’ve found your form? What are you working on now?

I am editing a big pile of stories for my second collection and writing a novel. I think of myself as a short story writer. I love short stories. They are my favorite form. That won’t change.

 

Since Mud Season Review grew out of the Burlington Writers Workshop, we like to ask: do you have a best or worst workshop experience to share with us?

My story was the first workshop of our first class at graduate school, and I submitted a story that was just terrible. Did not know it was terrible when I submitted it, but the professor wanted to teach the whole class a lesson and went line by line though my story ripping the sentences apart, got though only about one and a half pages in one and a half hours, then moved on to a much better story by a whiz kid. I cried all night. I had left my glorious life in Alaska for this. I was a failure. Horrible. I left that story (did not look at it) for five years. Returned to it two years after that, then, one year later. Eight years total. After radical change, total rewriting, new titles, The Cincinnati Review took the story, and I just learned from the editors that they nominated it for a Pushcart Prize.

So that is both my best and worst workshop experience.

 

I realize I’ve followed the lead of your stories in not asking much in the way of biographical questions, but I am, if anything, more curious about your life than usual. Could you share a little of what your life is like currently?

I am writing and writing and writing. Trying to get into this novel thing. I live on an island on a lake in New Hampshire and do not see people very much, so will be very happy to make new friends with writers in Burlington! A touch of cabin fever. I live with my dog, Pearl, who is my best friend and companion, communicate all the time with important writer friends across the country and world. Some people would call it boring, but I saw an otter on the ice a month ago. I am trying to do what so many writers say they want to do. I teach in the fall only and am thinking of maybe getting pottery going again. Lots of “not sure” for me right now.

I have fun all the time, my super-power, as Peter Biello would say.

 

 

Robin McLean was a lawyer then a potter for 15 years in the woods of Alaska before receiving her MFA in fiction at UMass Amherst. Her debut story collection Reptile House won the BOA Editions Fiction Prize and was named as one of the best books of 2015 in The Paris Review. Her stories have appeared in The Cincinnati Review, The Common, Copper Nickel, Carve, Green Mountains Review, and many other journals. She teaches writing at Clark University and lives and writes by Newfound Lake in New Hampshire.

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