The Rumpus Interview with Robin MacArthur
Robin MacArthur’s debut story collection Half Wild hadn’t even hit the shelves and it already was a New England Book Award Finalist, a Barnes & Noble Discover Selection, and an Independent Bookseller’s pick. Before it began wracking up accolades, I read her work at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where we were classmates. She fast became a writer I admire and a friend, the very sort of friend with whom you’d be wise to talk through the night about art or religion or failing at love until the wine bottle is empty and your head is buzzing and your heart is full, because her conversations, like her stories, are lush, gritty, intelligent, and filled with grace.
Half Wild contains eleven stories that loosely link a Southern Vermont community over forty years. MacArthur’s characters—tattooed, dreamy, sometimes drunk, and sometimes “pocked with failure,”—live among creeks and woods and crickets and cougars. And if they’ve left these places, the places never leave them. Whether the mothers, daughters, sons, and lovers stay or flee, the hills are equal parts anchor/entrapment/ love song—to the their histories, their ghosts, and each other.
“What is it about fields?” one of her characters asks. “The way they make all directions viable. The way they give houses, porches, voices, perspective. The way the word itself—field—makes you feel both domesticated and wild, both wolf and human, capable of heading toward that porch with its smoke and laughter, or toward the woods, where you quietly, and without a sound, start walking.”
Like a proper introvert, MacArthur has an aversion to the telephone. Our interview took place electronically beginning a hot summer morning, the first day of the Democratic National Convention, and continued throughout the week. It’s fitting that we circled around narrative, politics, and strong women the same week the US nominated its first female presidential candidate. We talked a ton. I edited for clarity.
The Rumpus: It feels right that we start with a literal orientation to place. Where did you write the stories in Half Wild?
Robin MacArthur: Yes, place is an appropriate place to start. I wrote them here on this hillside in southern Vermont where I live. It’s the hillside where I was born (on the living room couch), and where I grew up, and where my dad grew up; three hundred acres of farmland, woods, swamps, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, coyotes, fisher cats, bears. In our mid-twenties my husband and I built a cabin on this land and I began writing these stories during the long winter when I was pregnant with my first child. I’d sit by the wood stove and imagine all of the lives I could have lived, here in this place, while gestating yet another life within me. The cabin has since grown into a house, and it’s still where I write–with these woods and these creeks and fields around me.
Rumpus: For some reason I thought you cabin-hopped up and down MacArthur Road. Your grandmother’s, your teenage cabin, your now cabin.
MacArthur: Oh yes, those rooms too! I’m addicted to old houses and to cabins and love an opportunity to feel out the ghosts of a new one. Once my daughter was born, I had to occasionally get out of the house in order to write, and so I would steal off up the road to my grandmother’s farmhouse at the top of the hill. I wrote “The Women Where I’m From” at my grandmother’s desk in the room where she had died a few years earlier (I was beside her as she took her last breath). The JFK quote from the story: “I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace or beauty,” is pinned to the wall above her desk. My grandmother’s ghost, eccentric and big-hearted, was definitely on my shoulder as I wrote that story. Her death, too. In warm weather I would also write in a cabin that I built when I was sixteen. It has a wall of salvaged windows and contains the ghost of my sixteen-year-old self with all of its loneliness and yearning to be both here and elsewhere. That ghost entered many stories as well.
Rumpus: There’s a passage in the story, “Love Birds,” “He took some of the skinny back roads we like going on; Turnpike, Old Farm, Fox. They’re roads we’d known our whole lives. Roads we’d seen change like our own faces. You could map our whole lives on these little two-bit dirt roads and not have to go father than forty square miles. I don’t say that like I’m missing something.” In all your stories there’s both tension and longing, between the lives characters are living, and those they’ll never live.
MacArthur: Yes, that’s definitely fed by my own personal journey/struggle/path. Always a longing to live (at least) two lives at once. I love cities. I love the desert. And yet I live here. My dad (married, in love with my mother) once said to me, “I love all women and want them all to be mine.” He said it after spending the evening sitting on a porch rocker in Kentucky with his arm around a woman who was dying of cancer. I was twenty at the time and thought he was being an asshole. But now I understand it fully. How could we not pine for all our lives not lived? How can we not love and want it all? And so I write fiction.
There’s so much within these forty square miles—a lifetime worth. When I was a kid I used to go driving around back roads a fair amount with my dad on our way to one place or another, and he, who grew up in this town as well, would narrate the history of the houses and fields we passed. Who used to own what, when it got sold, and why.
Rumpus: An intimacy with every inch of the place. That comes through in your stories.
MacArthur: Yes, that reverberant sense of the past is one the things this book is *about*—the ways in which the forty square miles of a town contains so much social history, so much tragedy, so much misunderstanding and beauty and, well, pretty much all the rest that goes on anywhere. Except that in one town you can gain a strange kind of historical understanding of human nature and how it relates to time in a way that may be harder in a larger town/city where there’s so much more to see/hold/contain. Does that make any sense?
Rumpus: It does. Maybe the roots are more visible in a small town. Harder to disregard? There’s something compelling, maybe a little exhilarating, about being untethered from roots, too, right?
MacArthur: So many of my characters are trying to figure that out for themselves—whether they want to be wedded to this place and the ghosts and the layers of the past that exist here, or start anew somewhere else. Which is definitely my journey—I left home at eighteen for college, and then lived for spells in Tucson and New York and Philadelphia, and travelled a fair amount—but I had this cabin on my parents’ land that I kept returning to, and, eventually, realized I didn’t want to live away from.
MacArthur: It’s hard to let go of that vertical way of knowing the world. I want my children to know this sense of interconnection with community and landscape and wildlife. I want them to know where their food comes from. It’s also easy to redefine yourself in a new city or a new town, but much harder to do so in your hometown, where everyone (literally) knows you. I like that challenge. My town has a population of 800. It, in some ways, seems braver—not escaping the past but facing it, creating my own wings here amidst this place that could be stifling.
Rumpus: Your characters are connected to community, but the small town doesn’t inhibit them.
MacArthur: I have a (secret) aversion to small-town fiction, which feels too tame. I don’t like portrayals of rural life where characters gossip, or seem stifled by inhibition, perhaps because that hasn’t been my experience here. I grew up in the woods with a mother who is/was very much not tame, and a grandmother up the hill who was also not tame. The women in my family, and so many of the women I know who have settled these hillsides before me, have lived pretty brazen lives, connected to the woods and the land and art and have not given much of a fuck what anyone thinks of them. I wanted to write that type of woman into fiction—give their expansiveness and their wildness space on the page.
Rumpus: How do you mean?
MacArthur: Well, my mother, from the suburbs of Chicago, followed my dad here in 1968 and pretty much never left. She works fourteen hour days as a berry farmer and sugarmaker. She drove the town school bus for thirty-five years. She knows how to wield a shotgun (when protecting her chickens) and in the winter will go out cross-country skiing with her dog for hours at a time. She’s gorgeous but doesn’t know it, or care. How often to do we get to see that kind of woman—fierce, badass, happily solitary—depicted in fiction?
Rumpus: Not often! You built a cabin for yourself when you were sixteen. Which is kind of badass, too.
MacArthur: Yes, I built a cabin in the woods when I was sixteen, made of salvaged wood and salvaged windows. It’s hard to have a mother like mine and not be a little badass. But I’m also a tamer version. I’m a writer! I like to sit back and watch it all unfold. I’m not much of a farmer. I once shot a gone-bad rooster with my mother’s shotgun, while my mother stood at my side, calmly giving instructions. But I screamed and dropped the gun after it went off, to my mother’s horror. Not badass. And I couldn’t sleep for a week. I think my daughter, now seven, might have inherited more of my mother’s fearless genes.
Rumpus: All my roosters have been perfect gentlemen. What’s a gone-bad rooster do?
MacArthur: *My* gone-bad rooster started attacking me anytime I went in the coop. So I let him out of the coop, at which point he began attacking us all. Especially my then two-year-old daughter.
Rumpus: I’m thinking about your insistence that landscape defines our character.
MacArthur: Barry Lopez once said we’re shaped by the landscapes we encounter at an early age, and I think about that often in terms of my own psychological shaping. The ways in which this wooded and low-hilled landscape of Vermont has made me focus on the small-view, on the shadowy particulars of a creek valley, on the small community that lives here, on deep entwinement and interconnection with the past, with family, with the natural world. Had I been born in Montana or New York City I have no doubt both my aesthetic sense and my spiritual sense would be very different.
Rumpus: How so?
MacArthur: Well, instead of looking upward and outward at big sky, or into a sea of people, I’m always headed down to the brook below my house, a place shadowed by hemlock and balsam and spruce and pine, for my sense of peace and belonging. My characters are often doing the same—deep water springs as a place of rejuvenation, a place where the blood quickens. And my characters might be solitary, but there’s no individualism. They exist and understand themselves only in relation to their neighbors, their families, the landscape and wild creatures—ever-present in flickers—that surround them. And yet my characters also wonder what those cities and those bigger-skied places might be like.
Rumpus: One of the things I love about your stories is the interiority. The isolation feels real and full of tension. I also can’t help but notice all the windows, the looking out.
MacArthur: I hadn’t thought about all the literal windows. In “Wings” and in “The Long Road,” and others, I’m sure. In part it’s a facet of living in a rural, isolated place—there is so much interiority, during the dark and long cold months of winter that we seek windows anywhere we can find them. Views into other ways of living. My personal windows are movies and books, both of which transport me to the landscapes I long for but rarely get to see now that I am settled with two kids.
Rumpus: A writer I worked with once told me—as I believe someone told him—we only get to inhabit two to three landscapes as writers. And I always felt annoyed, even a little cheated by that because, as a nomad, I don’t have a “home” landscape. What if I need more than three? But the older I get the more I think he’s right. Maybe we can only render the ones that are deep in our bones. This makes me wonder about you and your other landscapes. Do you ever write about Philadelphia? Arizona?
MacArthur: I love that concept—two or three landscapes. I just finished a first draft of a novel also set here in Vermont and I’ll admit to wondering—could my next book possibly be set somewhere else? Selfishly I’d love for it to be—say, Paris or Taos, NM—so that I have an excuse to go and live in those places for months at a time and absorb the landscape around me. But I don’t honestly know if I could do it well. That’s not to say that others can’t, but so much of what I feel I have to offer as a writer is my nuanced sense of landscape. The layers. The ghosts. The textures. My stories are, in many ways, less about character and more about place, and so I don’t know how I could write something good without that understory.
Rumpus: Your characters suffer when they’re not physically home or when their lives straddle two places. I’m thinking of, “Where Fields Try to Lie,” and “The Women Where I’m From.” It reminds me of the story you’ve told about your first months of college in that weird brick building.
MacArthur: Yes, living in a brick dorm building in an unfamiliar city, was so disorienting to me. On a deep and visceral and physical level. I grew up in a house that my parents had built, inch by inch, with their own two hands. Our heat came from wood that we spent all summer and fall cutting and splitting and stacking. Our water came from a deep water spring down the hill. Our electricity came from solar panels. We had an outhouse and grew much of our own food. That’s a way of living and being in the world that I didn’t realize had a spiritual dimension until I left it all, and suddenly felt utterly unrooted by city water and city plumbing and oil heat. I felt I had been torn away not only from my home but from the land. I’m now quite comfortable in cities—I’ve acclimated—but I’ll never forget the shock of that first uprooting.
Rumpus: Some of the reviews of Half Wild use the word feral.
MacArthur: Ha. Fittingly, I just stepped outside to pee in the backyard while you were articulating that question.
Rumpus: Ha. Great. Glad you didn’t hold it on my account.
MacArthur: You can take a girl out of the country, but you can’t take country out of the girl. And yes, feral. I remember driving home from college one weekend, sleeping in the loft of my cabin in the woods. I had an old broken chunk of mirror leaning against a tree and in the morning I took a self-portrait of myself in that mirror, and brought the photo back to college with me, and pinned it to the wall. It represented so much, and reminded me, throughout those years, of the place where I felt most truly myself. I chose to go to a low-residency MFA so that I could write from this place where I felt my voice ring most authentically—the place where I’d taken that photo years ago—that wilder, less hindered version of myself.
Rumpus: Your characters are sexual beings in the world in a way that so many collections don’t attempt or sustain. By this I mean their sexuality isn’t a one-off plot point, it’s a part of their daily existence.
MacArthur: I haven’t had anyone point that out before, but I’m glad you did. I realized a number of years ago that, if I were honest with myself, there are two things I crave in every book or story. One is a landscape that feels fully inhabited, and the other is some kind of sexuality. It doesn’t need to be front and center, but I think it’s a part of the wildness, just like the creeks and the mountain lions in the stories, that we, as contemporary Americans, have lost touch with and are always trying to return to. I also hadn’t thought about this before, but there’s an inherent feminine sexiness, for me, in creeks, which, if you’ve read the book, you’ll see feature prominently.
Rumpus: Yeah, I love that eighty-something Cora, reminisces about a past love and in a way that shows she’s still attracted to men, memories. And yes, there’s a creek and some slick, wet skin, if I recall, in Cora’s rememberings. What did you mean earlier when you said, “If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll admit these things?”
MacArthur: Ha. Funny the insecurities we live with, no? I suppose it’s because I fear my books being pegged as either “regional” or “chick-lit.” Isn’t that tragic? That to explore either the complexity and nuance of place or the complexity and nuance of female sexuality is to run the risk of boxing your fiction in. Lessening its audience. Losing your chances of winning the critical hearts of white men. I love Claire Vaye Watkin’s essay, “On Pandering,” in which she describes how she trained herself to “write like a man” so that men would say she “can write.” Why on earth wouldn’t we write about sexuality? This thing our bodies crave. Feel. Flicker with. Hunger for. Wrestle with. Abandon. Writing about the landscape feels very feminine to me as well (though of course many men have done it well). The earth’s body, with all of its own valleys and flickering lights.
Rumpus: I hate to steer from sex to politics, but I want to ask you about the Washington Post essay you wrote about Bernie Sanders. It was personal, but also explicitly political, which is something you don’t normally do. How was that?
MacArthur: I hated it! I’d never been so terrified to publish a piece in my life. Who am I to speak on behalf of Bernie, or Vermonters? Who am I going to alienate? And yet it felt like something I had to do, as well. I have a knack for stringing words together in ways that sometimes move people—how can I not use that to try and see the change I’d like to see? I also feel extraordinarily proud of Bernie. Don’t get me wrong—I will vote for Hillary, come November. And I’ll encourage everyone I know to do the same. But Bernie is one of the most authentic and integrity-filled politicians I’ve ever known, and the fact that he changed the political landscape as much as he did this year brings me chills. It also makes me extraordinarily proud of what Vermont is—a breeding ground for visionary idealists like Sanders and Bill McKibben, who are doing more to change the world for the better than anyone else I know. I feel very strongly that it’s because of Vermont’s values, its strong democracy and integrity, that those visionaries were able to keep their own flames alive.
Rumpus: It’s almost a little subversive in its form—a kind of lyric essay/love song/political bio.
I believe forever and always in the power of narrative. We’ll never change minds by telling people how to vote. But by painting pictures and telling stories? That’s the only hope we have. I wanted to paint a picture of Bernie as the humble, beloved working class hero that he is here in his home state. A belief in the political power of narrative is also why I wrote the story “God’s Country,” which feels more relevant than ever.
Rumpus: Yeah, I was thinking of that when I re-read it. Relevant still, unfortunately.
MacArthur: I wanted to illuminate what racism looks like here in Vermont—both explicit racism and racism in the mind of someone who doesn’t think of themselves as racist but is. Vermont is such a despairingly white state, and, like many rural places, we have a thrumming understory of xenophobia and white supremacy and white silence. This story was based on real incidents, sadly.
Rumpus: It’s a quietly devastating story. Cora’s bewilderment and her reluctance to accept (or even fully understand) racism in herself to some extent, but certainly in her grandson. “A sweet boy, a shy boy.” That denial. All that white silence.
MacArthur: Yes, denial and white silence, which I’m no doubt guilty of as well, on some levels. And yet, again, I believe in the power of story. I wanted to bring Vermont’s quiet racism to the light, but do so with empathy. It felt important to me to show where Cora’s grandson’s disempowerment and pain comes from. If we don’t try and understand Trump supporters, and the economic disempowerment that has led to divisiveness and violence and vitriol, what hope do we have for conversation?
Rumpus: I have maybe slightly less faith in narrative than you or maybe I mean to say my faith in narrative isn’t stable. I mistrust it sometimes. But lately, yes, when I feel helpless about what we can do (outside of you know, police convictions and gun reform) to stop the deep un-seeing of others, I do find myself thinking, stories. It sure as hell couldn’t hurt to learn each other’s stories.
MacArthur: The only way through these times is empathy and understanding, no? I of course second-guess the political relevance of writing fiction all the time, but I do think narrative is key—a way to see (and maybe reach across) the great divides.
Rumpus: And there’s music, of course. You and Ty are releasing another album, which will make Red Heart the Ticker fans happy.
MacArthur: Yes, my husband Ty [Gibbons] and I [who comprise Red Heart the Ticker] have a fourth album coming out alongside the book. We’ve pretty much stopped playing shows, but we recorded these songs over the last couple years and they feel too intertwined with the stories not to release them at the same time. Because we live here in the woods, raising our kids, our creative bubble consists of just the two of us—his songs influence the stories I write, and vice versa. The album, called Tigers of the New England Forest, echoes the book’s themes of wildness and ethereal mountain lions and sonically has a similar pitch of longing.[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/273389760″ params=”auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&visual=true” width=”100%” height=”300″ iframe=”true” /]
Rumpus: I don’t know how you fit so much in. You grow a lot of things.
MacArthur: I’m a terrible gardener! Things wilt when I forget to water. They drown when I forget to weed. I also work hard, every day, on saying no to things, but I’m still terrible at it. I serve on three boards in my town, and Ty is now chair of our Select Board. I do too much, always.
Rumpus: Yeah, how?
MacArthur: There are things we don’t do that break my heart—we don’t vacation at the sea with our kids or climb mountains with them. I don’t do yoga or run or exercise really at all. (Fuck.) I’m working on all of this. Trimming. Cutting. Saying no more often, so that I can say “yes” more often to my kids.
Rumpus: Are they playing music with you as they get older?
MacArthur: My kids have always grabbed the neck of the guitar to mute the strings anytime I’ve picked it up.
MacArthur: They know that they have a mother who has an artistic life apart from them, and they are smart enough to recognize that threat for what it is. In many ways I’m like the mother in “Wings, 1989,” who is always stepping out into the dark alone, and flexing her wings there.
Rumpus: Itching to take flight?
MacArthur: Yes. Imagining what it would be like to set out into the mountains. Of course I won’t. And they know that. But they also are smart enough to feel the urge to reign me in.
Rumpus: What’s their relationship to your writing?
MacArthur: I transcribed some of my daughter’s poems when she was about three and had them published in a journal. But since then she’s recognized anytime I’m pushing my own creative agenda onto her and revolts. She wants me to follow her where she wants to go, and I understand that completely. And I try my hardest to do so, every day.
Rumpus: Ha. My kids used to be very suspicious that I was trying to rope them into writing—to trying it, collaborating, even (gasp) loving it. I’ve had to work hard to convince them that I really don’t need writing to be a part of their lives.
MacArthur: My daughter doesn’t know what she wants to be when she grows up, but she is adamant about three things: she doesn’t want to be (1) a writer (2) someone who sings on stage or (3) famous. Which is a pretty clear message. I’m phenomenally proud of her when she tells me that. Let your own soul ring true, my darling!
Rumpus: For sure. I get that. But it still makes me laugh. Maybe she’ll till the earth, huh?
MacArthur: Yes, maybe she’ll till the earth! Two days ago she told me she doesn’t want to be fancy. She wants to be not-fancy. I asked her who she knew who was fancy and she said, without flinching, “You.” (Which is funny, if you know me. Clearly my daughter lives in a bubble.)
MacArthur: I asked her who was “not-fancy” and she said my mom, the farmer. She said she wants to be someone who doesn’t care about getting dirty all day, or about having a clean house. She’s a smart one, that girl.
Rumpus: Oh god.
MacArthur: Yes. I also love how generations flip-flop. I wanted, so badly, to be fancy when I was her age, with my farming mother and our outhouse. Foolishly I always thought my daughter would want the same thing. Of course she doesn’t! Thank goodness my intrepid mother is here on this hillside, to take off into the not-fancy woods with her.
Rumpus: Ha. I’m glad we’re talking bout this because when I read “Wings, 1989” I wondered if you were once a girl like your character, Katie. If you pined for a house with sheetrock.
MacArthur: I realized a couple days ago how much I’m playing with fire, interweaving autobiography with fiction the way I am. My poor parents. Everyone in my hometown is going to recognize the elements of the stories that are true and assume every inch of them is. Which of course, they’re not. They’re the compost of my imagination, and my experience, and what I’ve learned, all twisted and tangled and construed and misconstrued. But of course everyone will be trying to untangle that web. “Wings, 1989” is the most autobiographical—I did read a book when I was young about a girl in the suburbs who wrote stories and that book (which I can’t remember the name of) made a deep impact on me. I wanted to be her, not out splitting wood every weekend with my parents. But my father is not a drunk like the father in that story, and my mother is not sad. The sad mother, with wings, is, sadly, me, not her. As for the story “The Women Where I’m From,” my mother is definitely a tractor-driving mother, and I am not much of a tractor-driving daughter, but I do get out there occasionally and feel a deep thrill every time I do.
Rumpus: I’ve moved around so much I didn’t use to worry about people’s eyes over my shoulder when I wrote, but after being settled for about five years in one place I have a newfound, unwelcome sense of a community’s ideas and expectations. I dream of disappearing entirely. It takes courage to publish, of course, but especially just to write what you need to write about people and a place you won’t have the luxury of escaping!
MacArthur: Yes, I realized a couple days ago I just need to zip up my superhero cape and brave it. Or maybe unzip my superhero cape. Here I am: my good-intentioned beating heart, bared for all of you to see. My sexuality. My longing. My sadness. My righteous judgment. My heartbreak. Have at it, birds! And meanwhile my husband is on the Select Board, and I am on several school boards, and isn’t that actually amazing? That brave, “I don’t give a fuck what you think of me, but nor am I disappearing?” I’m telling myself it is, today, anyhow.
Rumpus: It is damn brave. But to be fair, Half Wild is also love story. To your place and the people in it. I have to think anyone who might recognize himself would also be honored as hell to be rendered with such attention and texture and nuance.
MacArthur: Our dear teacher David Jauss said to me once that I shouldn’t worry about what people think because no one I’m actually writing about will recognize themselves and everyone else will. Which has already proven true. My dear friend, who got a sneak peek at the book, said, “Oh my god! I’m the woman with the Lexus and the microwave!” Which of course she’s not. She’s not that woman in any way, shape, or form. But it goes to show how vulnerable this process is. Superhero cape, unzipped. Beating heart, bared.
Rumpus: Since you’re being brave and snapping on your superhero cape, want to say anything about your novel?
MacArthur: I don’t dare say much about it, as I don’t want to douse the flame, but it’s more political than the stories. We all have to write toward our heartbreak and our fears, and so the novel is about climate change, opioid epidemics (which are raging through Vermont now), refugees, and, of course, love.
Rumpus: Always, that.
MacArthur: Yes, love. What else is there to write about? The only thing that matters, the only redemption.
Author photograph © Tyler Gibbons.