Many Middles-of-Nowhere: A Conversation with Robin McLean

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Nobody should ever try to write like Robin McLean. I had this idea last year after reading her epic western, Pity The Beast. The vigorous critical reaction to that book, plus her history of accolades with Reptile House, bolstered my feeling that McLean’s prose is virtually unimprovable. What I love most about her writing is the challenge it poses to the Western ideology (what she calls the Western Myth), the American notion that a flawed and needy land could find salvation in a single human representative, like The Cowboy, or The Author. McLean’s sentences explode that myth by retooling its dictionary of symbols into something organic and inescapable. Her viewpoint is from the ground, from the plants, mules, lichens, lizards, ancestors, stars, and living people, too.

Her new collection of ten short stories, Get ‘Em Young, Treat ‘Em Tough, Tell ‘Em Nothing, similarly dissects the everyday motives of Americans today. These stories are set in Alaska, on vacation in Europe, clinging to the face of a cliff, swimming in a radioactive pond, and stumbling through a dying military base. Situations many authors would treat as absurd, McLean sculpts as too real. Her characters find themselves comically, pitiably American. They resort to tactics of violence and fantasy simply to cope with each other, and then they have to cope with every other living thing in the universe. The book uses history, both long and short, as a thorn to meddle with the scruples of the American mind. I was left with the scary sense that, although this country is mapped by satellites and striated by democracy, it remains as wild as the time before the meteor, as wild as a future we’d prefer not to speculate.

I met Robin at Skylight Books during a reading for Pity The Beast. Last spring I visited her in the High Desert and saw firsthand how she lives with these stories as if they were real beings sharing her environment. I try it myself now: try to let stories actually live, try to let thoughts fill silence like voices, but the only way to really get there, I think, is to read McLean’s books. She’s figured it out, and she’s giving that gift, in her words, to everyone.

We caught up recently to discuss this country’s myths and monsters.

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The Rumpus: You told me you wanted this book to read like a road trip. Can you elaborate on that?

Robin McLean: I think of it as a road trip through America. Not just any old road trip. I have traveled a lot by car. I’d been to all fifty states by the time I was in my early twenties. I’m in love with America and I also have big problems with America. I think there’s something beautiful about moving through this big nation, camping out, staying in weird hotels, seeing all the weird road art. A lot of people haven’t road tripped like that in the US, haven’t driven up the Alcan to Alaska. So maybe the book will inspire that sense of wildness. I think it’s a wild country, wild in every way. Hopefully the collection, and hopefully all of my writing, articulates that. When I travel, I always keep a notebook. You see these road signs for these oddly named towns, or these oddly name creeks. I got to put a bunch of crazy names into this book, especially into that story, “True Carnivores.”

Rumpus: You do have a way with names, but not all of these characters have them. Some only go by their roles. For instance, The Old Farmer. Many of the names you do use are unsettling, or at least curious. How do you choose names? Who gets them and who doesn’t?

McLean: Noy Holland, a wonderful mentor of mine, does name some characters (Bird), but often names none. I think that’s an interesting mode, but for my stories, names are too important. They guide me, as titles do. Maybe it’s because I’m interested in myths (and the absence of myths) in our culture, and names can instantly broadcast mythical material. So when the names Prince and Mimi, for example—characters from the story “House Full of Feasting”—popped into mind in the first paragraph written, I trusted the names immediately and gained the funny and rich implications that arrived with them, even from the sound of them. Same with the crazy (and favorite) name in the story “Cliff Ordeal”—June Allison. I’d never met anyone named June Allison, probably never will, but when the name arrived from my fingers, I just started laughing. What would a June Allison be like? I didn’t know, but was fun, mysterious, useful to accept the name and follow it. Jeremy Davies, my editor at And Other Stories is this brilliant writer as well as an editor. He says if he’s not having fun while he’s writing, he should just stop for a while. I agree. So yes, I follow the names, the way a child would if they were telling a story.

Rumpus: I found the ending of the story “House Full of Feasting” genuinely shocking. Many of your plots strain convention. The book is surprising on the level of narrative, character, and sentence. Like, “Pete filled the tank with his credit card,” or “…two ropes for hands.” You know, double-meanings. How do you embrace these ambiguities, both in grammar and in narrative?

McLean: So with “Pete fills his tank with his credit card,” that’s something people really say and understand. One might think, “Oh, I have to fix it, make it literally or grammatically ‘correct.’” But there’s the literal, grammatical truth, and then there are the ambiguities that actually exist in our lives. For me, those slippages are where we actually live, but how do you allow them to come across in a system of grammar that is so tyrannical? You have to use objects, like the rope, and the hands. Objects are not “literal.” They are not representations. They are things actually in the world. So I stick to objects. Maybe if you’re writing a standard murder mystery, the editors wouldn’t tolerate sentences like those you point out. But if you’re writing about mystery, as in what the hell this world really is, then there should be linguistic slippages. It’s exciting when I read something I know is a little wrong, but I understand it anyway. That’s a bond that forms between writer and reader. I mean, poets do it all the time. You know what they’re talking about, even if the lines are kind of tippy, kind of at an angle. I think if you can get away with it, you should.

Rumpus: That’s exactly what I thought when I read “House Full of Feasting.” I thought, “She got away with that ending!”

McLean: Well, some people might not think I did. I mean, you have to work your way into something like that. And some people might reject it. I guess the editors at Cincinnati Review thought that I got away with it too.

Rumpus: Without ever traveling to space or going back in time, this collection deals with an enormous scope of existence. How do you imbue these stories with the impression that they are part of a much larger world?

McLean: I think a lot about history, also the natural world, also (big and small) time passing. And so far, I’ve managed to navigate myself to vast, open, wild, and ancient-feeling places that magnify and encourage these particular obsessions. My various home bases have also offered the benefit of huge (American) mythical potency. Old New England. The American West. The Last Frontier. The Heartland. Many Middles-of-Nowhere. I’ve noticed the pattern in retrospect. Currently, my night skies are very dark and provocative. My most common neighbors are non-human and wonderfully unimpressed by me and my species. I’ve been very lucky, and I hope very much the stories reflect the beauty and interest of these geographic and psychic ranges, the possibilities presented to the imagination. I think a writer’s job is to articulate what they see, experience, and dream. The writer as filter. So the locations chosen (geographical, cultural, mythical, personal) are very important.

Rumpus: There’s one contemporary myth you highlight prominently. Actually, I don’t want to go on record calling it a “myth,” but it functions in the way you’re describing. Evolution. The cover image depicts these fossils, and the word itself appears in almost every piece. Can you speak to how that happened? Was it an intentional throughline from the start?

McLean: It wasn’t an organizing principle. How I approach all of my writing is to solve a problem on a technical level. Subject matter is not my main interest. But there are certain ideas that everyone seems to use for their own weird, different belief systems. I mean, Queen Elizabeth just died. At some point people actually believed the Queen was better than everyone else. Like this person gets to live in Buckingham Palace, and I live on the street. You’ve got to have some theory, or myth, behind that thinking. Even if you don’t know it’s there, you’ve got to have it, or else you’d just go after the Queen with a pitchfork. There’s got to be some reason why, in the human mind, this stuff is okay. The evolution and Darwin stuff is one of the big ones that’s used in the United States. Well, it’s probably used everywhere, but here, evolution gets used on both sides of these debates to answer questions like, “Why does that person have this?” or “Why do I have that?” or “What am I entitled to?” My understanding is that one of the most radical things about Darwin’s theory was that evolution is not always good. You don’t get better species. You get different species. But I’m interested in the theory used as a tool for opposite arguments.

Rumpus: On the topic of inequity and power, some of the stories in in Get ‘em Young hinge on gender inequity, or power imbalances in relationships. Much of that work gets handled through dialogue. How do you use dialogue as a representation of character and of gender?

McLean: The first and last stories in this collection are set in Alaska and both those stories also deal with acute marital problems. Alaska has a very masculine culture to start with, at least the white culture is very celebrated for its masculinity. So in keeping with white Alaskan “reality,” the backdrops of both stories are rendered with basic power imbalances tipped toward the male characters. Given this, the dialogue is a place where the women can maybe fight back a little bit, an equalizing opportunity. (Or other beings can, as in my novel, Pity the Beast.) In American culture, you’re not supposed to whine. You are to fight your way within it, and I think dialogue can be a kind of sparring. Maybe it’s also a place for me (via my characters) to work out my own ambivalence, both admiring the toughness of American culture while also being irritated and frustrated by some having to struggle way more than others. I don’t feel the female characters in these stories are victimized. They’re very tough and finding their way within the American problem, the culture of the celebrated Individualist, the Frontier Person, the Cowboy or Cowgirl, pulling up by bootstraps. How do you live on in this space?

Rumpus: You used to be a lawyer, right?

McLean: Once a lawyer, always a lawyer.

Rumpus: There are a few trials in this book, both of which have stuck with me. One was fantastical and grotesque. The other was grounded in everyday reality, and even more grotesque. How has your experience practicing law influenced your writing about the justice system?

McLean: I have a legal background, but I’ve also been a political activist, trying to change the rules of the game, much of my adult life. People revere the law, and that’s good, but it’s also good to remember that the law is just a thing that people (with power) in the past have agreed to. This nation, the United States of America, is based on those agreements written down on paper. But hey, every culture that’s ever been, and ever will be, has had, or will have, other laws too. There’s an arbitrariness to it and lots of people and beings left out of the processes.

We agree on laws, basically, to prevent wars, big and small. Under the law, for example, you don’t get to kill or punish your neighbor who encroaches on your land, steals your cow, or even kills you mother (though the state can). In the case of the title story, “Get ’em Young, Treat ’em Tough, Tell ’em Nothing,” Private Martin follows the rules, keeps order, even when deeply wronged, and to his great detriment. Should he have?

We forget sometimes that the law is human-made, therefore mobile, shifting, shiftable in all directions. It was legal to get an abortion in every state just a couple months ago, and now it’s not legal to get an abortion in every state. The law is only a collective psychic edifice (a kind of myth?). In Alaska, in some of the community struggles I got involved with, when people would say, “Well, it’s a law, we can’t do anything about it,” I’d argue back, “But we are the law. We made it up. We can change it.” What do we want altered for our next collective psychic edifice? I think it’s worth exploring this question constantly. The second trial you refer to, in a story called “Big Black Man,” is an example of a terrible legal travesty not uncommon in the system we currently live in and tolerate.

Rumpus: Your treatment of place is a unique, strange reflection of our real world. Who are some other authors who’ve inspired your writing about setting?

McLean: Well, I love Joy Williams. I’m a big fan of her kind of mangy, kooky characters, dealing with bizarre situations, and animals, and belief systems. She’s a bit of a goddess. I’m interested in the Western myth, which I think is distinct from Frontier myth, so I’m big fan of Annie Proulx. She’s the master of depicting that sort of down-and-out difficulty, and the toughness at the root of the Western myth. And then I’m a huge fan of J.M. Coetzee. I’m interested in his work related to colonial psychology, how people come and take over a place to the great disadvantage of the people who lived there before, and how that works in the mind. I’ve always been fascinated by his work related to empire and empire taking. And I love Han Kang. In The Vegetarian, she sneaks in psychic questions through the normal. And then of course, Kafka. Crazy, crazy, wild man. Kafka, and Chekhov, who were changing short fiction one story at a time.

Rumpus: Do you think short fiction is changing now?

McLean: I hope so. I hope it’s always changing. I think of a story as a thought, a book as a thought. If the writers are not writing thoughts that are new, relating to what is coming at us in the world, then who is going to think in new ways? You know, science fiction? Writers have to come up with those ideas of spaceships before the scientists are going build one. And I think short fiction is so powerful, a very special form that deserves a lot of attention. I think it’s how you learn how to write a novel too. I wrote my novel after I wrote this collection, and I don’t think I could have written the novel without having had the gauntlet of these stories first.

Rumpus: Many of these stories have monsters, both named and implicit. Where do you get your monster inspiration?

McLean: I’m not a big monster movie watcher, but I am interested in how monsters are taking up a lot of psychic space in our culture. So I think monsters need a lot of attention. Grendel is a book that was important to me. Beowulf—you read it in college and you’re like, “Whatever, Beowulf!” Whereas, when I read that John Gardner book, it was so powerful for me that the monster should get such sympathy despite all his bad behavior! I taught a class at Clark University called Monsters, Tales, and Going to the Dark Side. We read fairy tales and monster stories, tried to figure out how Grendel works in Beowulf differently from the John Gardner novel. In Beowulf, the harpist tells the story about who is good (the king, the knights, etc.) and who is bad (the “monsters”). The harpist is the storyteller, the instigator, the constructor of ethics and morals of the world, the chooser of the hero. And that makes Grendel mad, and then Grendel bites everybody’s head off. In Grendel, the monster is a representation of an alternative to that harpist’s singular worldview, or the unconscious flipside. I say, if monsters are bubbling up in everybody’s psyche right now, pay attention to them on a symbolic level. Don’t run away from them. Try to relate to them, because if something is bubbling up in your mind, that’s you.

Rumpus: And you chose a selection from Grendel for the book’s epigraph. It’s a moment of monstrous self-awareness, where Grendel is frightened by something inside them, and they scream.

McLean: Yes, he howls. “I shake my two hairy fists at the sky and let out a howl so unspeakable that the water at my feet turns sudden ice and even I myself am left uneasy.” I love it. It’s brilliant.

Rumpus: I just want to ask, then, in writing these monsters, do you scare yourself?

McLean: If you’re not scaring yourself while you’re writing, then you should find a way to scare yourself. It’s not fun, but this existence that we have, how do you want to spend it? This is a real question. As in, some people just want to have fun, and some people want to climb up the face of El Capitan in Yosemite with no ropes (see Free Solo if you have not). For me, I am quite befuddled by the world. It’s upsetting to me. If I don’t try to figure some of that stuff out, scare myself a little bit, I should just start over. I don’t want to scare myself, but I do want to live. I want to experience what this human existence is for this moment in time. As one of my mentors, Jim Shepherd, says, “Writing is exploration.” For me, these stories are exploring what I don’t understand. Most of us are frightened by what we don’t understand. If you write a story about something you don’t understand, it probably will scare you. The deeper you go, the more it will scare you. I just want to keep going deeper. It’s a sign I’m doing something that represents living.

 

 

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Author photo by Melissa Guerra


Nick Barner is an MFA Candidate at the California Institute of the Arts. He works as a professional vegetable gardener in Los Angeles. His stories have appeared in Ergot, the Santa Barbara Literary Journal, and Molotov Cocktail. More info at nicholasbarner.com. More from this author →