Interview with Robin Mclean

By Aspen Pattinson 

Shortly before Christmas, I sat down with the acclaimed short story writer and novelist Robin McLean in Edinburgh’s West End. As well as her latest collection, Get ’Em Young, Treat ’Em Tough, Tell ’Em Nothing, we talked about everything from writing craft and how Robin found her voice to the American Dream, the messiness of life, and aspen trees.

After the publication of your novel, Pity the Beast, what has brought you back to the medium of short stories? 

I thought of myself as only a short story writer and what became my novel was originally a short story. Short fiction is a very specific form, like an object or little sculpture – it’s always about compression. Every sentence in a short story should be doing many things. I think of these stories as quite devilish and funny, and I was reminded of how much you can have going on in a short space. I think there’s something visceral about a short story. It cannot just be a straight narrative, it’s got to have subtext. It’s not about getting from Point A to Point B – to me, good short fiction is never like that. You have to pay attention to every mood and read slowly. There should be a sticker on my covers that says ‘read this slowly’.

Your prose style is uncanny, moody, surreal and even nightmarish at times while also being darkly comic – how have you developed that style through your writing?

When I was in grad school in Alaska, it seemed like I was writing the stories I wanted to write, but there was something wrong with them and I wasn’t sure why. Then, I encountered writers and professors who focused on the sentence not the subject matter and I had never heard of this before – it has everything to do with method. But how do you play with your method? Poets and painters know how to do this – they experiment with brush strokes, canvas sizes, materials. Writers think about story, narrative, character – these things are craft. So I enrolled at the art department and worked with clay. I did all kinds of sleep deprivation experiments on myself, accessing my unconscious mind. I believe that everything exciting in writing comes from the unconscious. That’s how I started, but always, when in doubt, return to the sentence. Try to forget what is going on in the story – if you knock the sentences into shape, the story will be knocked into shape. Then, at the end, go to each page and take out ten percent of the words. By doing this, you’ll find what’s most important and this creates the energy of the lines. It seems as though it wouldn’t work but it does for me. 

The characters in this collection are capable of extreme and despicable acts, but many of them are also desperate and pitiable. Do you have a moral judgement of your characters or is that something you try to avoid?

In some ways, the only challenge for me as a writer is to understand things that I don’t understand. I’m interested in why humans do bad things and how that works – that’s why I write. I feel that I work out my own questions about myself. Also, the reader does a lot of work for me. People say I’m a descriptive writer but I’m not. I put things in that are evocative for the reader. If the reader isn’t going to put the work in, they’re not the reader for me. But in terms of judgements, I don’t explore the morals of my characters. I set them up and I put them in trouble. It’s through that combination of things, with the reader filling in details, that the reader gets to explore the characters. That is what writing is for. It should be the most exciting thing you ever do, very quietly. From a craft perspective, if you’re going to write a character who is bad, that is dull, and if you’re going to write a character who is good, that is also dull. There’s got to be some oddity or strangeness. From a writing perspective, you want to have a challenge. Take Eric in the first story – he loves his wife but ends up hating her because she’s sick. That’s messed up, but also possible. Or ‘True Carnivores’ – is it possible for me to complicate things so that the reader might have sympathy for a person who is doing absolutely reprehensible things? That’s very exciting. Can you mess with the reader enough that it gets really messy? Because life is messy. If somebody really hates what you write then you’re probably doing something right. I don’t believe in the idea that ‘this is right’ and ‘this is wrong’, but that’s where we’re at now. If I could change the whole world, I would want people to watch what is going on more carefully. That, to me, is what you get to practise as a reader – seeing the world and coming to your own conclusions.

Landscape plays a huge role in this collection. How did you choose the locations for these stories? And do you look to make your locations characters in their own right?

As my process is intentionally unconscious, I don’t intend the landscape to be a character. But, I’ve lived a life where the natural world is central to me – I have lived in very remote places my whole adult life. The natural world can end us all at any time, but we create these warm spaces that make us forget about it. I’ve lived in places where you can’t forget about it. I think of the natural world that way, so that is what filters through me into my writing. In a short story, you’re applying pressure to your characters to make them crack and then something pops out through the centre. The natural world has all sorts of conditions that make things crack – heat, cold, distance, rain, snow, animals. These are aspects that intensify conflict. For me, I had been to all fifty states by the time I was 23 – I love travelling in North America. This collection is, in some ways, a tribute to my love for travelling this crazy country. I think the US is fascinating and bizarre and wild. I think about the name Aspen – I lived in a quaking aspen forest when I was in Alaska. I could not see a lot of light or hear a car for a big portion of my life. I believe my mind was altered by being in that aspen forest with those big mountains. To me, there isn’t any state that isn’t beautiful. I used to say that Alaska ruins you for other places. It makes you feel tiny and a lot of people say that’s a bad thing but I liked it. You feel like a mammal. Someone asked me recently if I’ve ever written a story just about mammals and I say I only write about mammals. Humans are just mammals that have forgotten they’re mammals. I’m not trying to make the natural world a character, I’m letting it be seen by the reader as I see it.

Class is also a big theme in the collection. What do you think defines the class system in America?

How I approach the idea of class in my writing relates to the American dream – what runs American thought in my opinion. The idea that you are in control of your own destiny. If you can pull yourself up by the bootstraps and are clever enough and work hard enough, you can rise up. But it’s not an even playing field. It’s not the same for women as men. It’s not the same for an indigenous person as a white person. It’s not the same for a black man as a white man. It’s a mind game, and it doesn’t work. My stories contend with that – not in a didactic way but because that’s what I believe. Take Mimi and Price [in ‘House Full of Feasting’]. The story is about the trickster, the conman – take whatever you want if you can get away with it. It’s different here in the UK where certain people get to wear crowns, live in palaces, have land and people accept that. I think that’s dealt with in ‘Judas Cradle’ – the idea of the coloniser. It’s living in our psyche somewhere and it’s the same idea – to do whatever you can in order to get what you want. The Great Gatsby is, of course, the most quintessential idea of it – he becomes a bootlegger and does everything within his power to achieve the wealth he needs to get into Daisy’s view. But of course it isn’t possible. The dream is not real.

Last but not least, while writing, are you trying to create a portrait of a greater American life or are you focused solely on the characters of individual stories?

I believe that in order to write well you cannot be thinking about the bigger ideas, like trying to represent America. You have to work on the object and make it shapely and readable and captivating for this honoured guest – you should honour your reader. If while I’m writing I think, ‘I’m frustrated by, in love with, and repulsed by my nation’, which I am, it’s too heavy-handed. I don’t like being pushed when I’m reading – I like to feel invited and challenged. You might see something in a collection of ten stories when you look back over them, but that isn’t in your mind while you write. It’s about what the reader brings to it and that’s what I’m writing for. The fact that it meant something to you means a lot to me.

Robin McLean’s latest collection, Get ’Em Young, Treat ’Em Tough, Tell ’Em Nothing is out now from And Other Stories.