The Bookshelf: Short Story Writer Robin McLean
The Bookshelf is NHPR's series on authors and books with ties to the Granite State. All Things Considered host Peter Biello interviews authors, covers literary events and publishing trends, and gets recommendations from each guest on what books listeners might want to add to their own bookshelves.
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This week, The Bookshelf features short story writer Robin McLean from Bristol, New Hampshire. Her new short story collection, Reptile House, is the winner of the Boa Short Fiction Prize. In Reptile House, we see a woman, recently divorced, finding her world disrupted by a severe cold snap. We watch a couple of young soldiers kill a cab driver. And a man on a bus fights back against a world he thinks is trying to erase him. These stories and more come together in a collection that looks at violence, loneliness, desperation, and so much more. Take a listen to McLean's conversation with All Things Considered host Peter Biello, or scroll down to read the Q&A below her book picks.
Robin's Top 5 Book Recommendations:
1. The Book of Aron by Jim Shepard. “It’s probably on everyone’s bookshelf right now. It came out the same day mine did. It’s a holocaust novel in the voice of a little boy.”
2. You Only Get Letters from Jail by Jodi Angel.
3. A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor.
4. The Stranger by Albert Camus.
5. Unaccompanied Minors by Alden Jones. “Fantastic short story collection.”
On the back of your book, someone writes that these stories have quote “no discernible influences” but I think I see one—Flannery O’Connor. Is that a fair comparison?
I would love to have that be a fair comparison. She’s someone I’ve studied and I’ve idolized her writing—her mission and her writing—but, yeah, I’d love for that to be true. So thank you. That’s a huge compliment.
The writing style is on par with Flannery, of course, but because of the violence as well. Some of these stories have a slow build to violence, like in “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” The violence is just a second away from occurring and you kind of see it coming but you kind of don’t.
Well, Flannery O’Connor said something along the lines that an ending should be both surprising and inevitable, so you don’t see it coming, but hopefully, when it comes you say, “Oh yes, that’s what had to happen here.” Also the thing I hope is a parallel with Flannery O’Connor is that she’s really funny, and despite the fact that her work is very, very dark and deals with violence and the soul of humans and salvation and grace, they’re pretty funny, and the characters are flawed in a pretty funny way, and that’s something I strive for, too, because people don’t necessarily just want to read dark stories or violent stories, and the world is both dark and funny.
But the darkest story for me was “The Amazing Discovery and Natural History of Carlsbad Caverns.” I had to read this one twice because I just knew there was going to be so much more to discover the second time around. In this story, these two young men are about to be shipped off to the Korean War and they’re scared, but they’re also about to kill a taxi driver. So I felt some empathy because they were scared, but also some distance because they were about to commit this violent act.
That was a very hard story to write. Often when I’m writing a story, I don’t know where it’s going to go, and it appears as you go along. That story I did know where it was going, so to engineer the characters’ lives so that the reader feels some empathy for everyone in the car (because they’re all in a cab) and then have this sudden shift at the end where you could very likely lose empathy with the perpetrators—it’s an experiment in empathy in some ways. That’s what you’re doing when you’re writing a story. Can I do this to my characters and still have the reader hold on through it and not just view them as monsters? They may be monsters, but they may be frightened monsters, or creatures going off to war and maybe angry about that and maybe being prepared for violence once they get onto foreign soil…how do you expect a human being to not have that same violence before they leave in a way?
Is the success of a short story dependent on how well it can inspire the reader to empathize with the protagonist?
I think that a story can be successful without the reader feeling that way because their feeling…if they somehow believe it deep inside, it may not be conscious empathy, but if I’m doing my job, somehow there’s enough complexity in the story that you can’t just throw any of the characters away. For me, a successful story is when the reader feels some sort of anguish toward a murderer, maybe. The situation can’t be simplified too much. Chekhov talked about having compassion for your characters. I think that you do have to in your writing have compassion for your characters, but I don’t necessarily feel like the reader will feel that in the end. In the end, they may just say, “Well that was a crazy person,” or “I wouldn’t want to run into that person in the street.”
In your past life, you were a lawyer.
And you were a potter.
How do those two things factor into your writing life?
I was a lawyer first for awhile. I went to the University of Illinois, studied law. I was going to clerk, so I applied to clerkships all over the United States. I was trying to get away from law school, so I applied to places I wouldn’t have to change language or currency, so I moved to Alaska. I got a clerkship up there. And I started doing pottery.
The thing about the law is, the precision of language is very important. 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. Does it mean this, or that? If you’re doing it—if you’re playing with ambiguity by mistake, it doesn’t necessarily work, but if you’re aware of different ways a reader could understand something, it can be really fun for the reader, and in a lot of ways, that’s what’s happening when you write. It’s this interaction between the reader and the writer where it’s almost a wink. Do you get this? Or: Keep coming with me. So anyway, I do feel like the law probably made me very aware of the power of clarity in language and precision in language, which is very important to me in my writing. I like it to be as snug as possible.
And then with pottery: you have to make a pot and you repeat over and over and over again a shape. I made functional pottery—bowls, dishes, mugs. Then I started making bigger pieces. But you definitely learn through long stretches of time and enormous amounts of error and failure and success and things falling on the ground, and you just learn to keep going and keep trying and that style and technique changes with time and repetition, and that is definitely the case with writing.