Satisfaction From a Story Well Written...And a Few Severed Feet
Ron MacLean is author of the story collection Why the Long Face? and the novel Blue Winnetka Skies. His novel Headlong, a literary mystery novel, will be out from Last Light Studios in 2013. His fiction has appeared in GQ, Greensboro Review, Prism International, Night Train, Other Voices and many more publications. He is a recipient of the Frederick Exley Award for Short Fiction and a multiple Pushcart Prize nominee. He holds a Doctor of Arts from the University at Albany, SUNY, and is a former executive director at Grub Street, Boston’s independent creative writing center, where he still teaches.
Interview by Katherine Hunt
When last we met, you said you had recently returned from Canada, where you were researching something about severed feet for a story you're working on. Please tell me more about this research trip, and the story that occasioned it. And the severed feet in question.
Once you utter the phrase "severed feet," you've got people's attention, for better or for worse. This is something I've learned in the last 2 years. It all started with a phone call from a friend tipping me off to a report he heard on NPR. Over the period of a few months, five human feet in sneakers had washed ashore on islands off the coast of British Columbia; a year later, police had no explanation. I was hooked immediately, as my friend David knew I would be. What surprised me was the nature of my interest in the events, and the core of the story I've ended up writing. I had thought I'd be writing a mystery, most likely a creepy, gruesome murder mystery. Instead, I've ended up writing a meditation on how a community deals with loss; how we humans come to terms with what we don't – cannot – know.
The research trip really grew out of a failure of imagination. I had a very rough first draft of the feet story. I knew something deeply resonant in the material for me. I'd never been to British Columbia, and I couldn't envision setting the story anywhere else. To me, there was something uniquely Canadian in the response I saw to those events. In the States, there'd be a callousness and circus aspect to it that didn't seem as present in Canada. I needed to find out if i was right. I needed to get a sense of that landscape and of the people. It was an amazing trip. I probably interviewed a hundred people on ferries, in pubs, on beaches. Got my own private tour of uninhabited ValdesIsland. And learned a ton.
What sorts of reactions did you get when you asked your interviewees about that story? I love the thought of a writer running around BC asking strangers about this bizarre news item.
I have to admit, I loved the thought of it, too. And loved doing it. Reactions ranged tremendously, from people who thought I was crazy to travel all that way “to learn about a few feet,” to people who were indignant that I would “keep dragging that up,” to amusement and/or intense interest. Three favorites:
1. As I checked into my motel (chosen simply for location and good Yelp reviews), the woman at the desk kept asking me questions about what I was doing there. So finally I fessed up that I was writing a story about the feet, and she immediately called out to her husband. Turns out the two of them are hobbyists on the subject, complete with scrapbooks. They hooked me up with half a dozen people, including the local newspaper reporter who’d been on the case for more than two years.
2. The owner of an island pub (one of the people the motel folks hooked me up with) bought me a beer, introduced me to Brian, “the unofficial mayor of Gabriola Island,” and they told me stories of folks they knew who’d encountered the feet, including a friend of theirs who’d found one of the feet; the pub owner also found me a boat captain who snuck me out to Valdes Island, a key location for the story and someplace you’re not legally allowed to visit.
3. A woman I tried to interview on one of the ferries, who looked interested in the attention until she heard what I was asking about. After cozying over and horning in on someone else I was talking to, as soon as she heard me mention the feet, she said dramatically, “I do NOT have time to talk to YOU about THAT.” And literally turned her back to me. It was all fascinating.
In my limited exposure to the working habits of professional writers, not a lot of writers would necessarily take a research trip for a short story—that seems more like the kind of thing a writer would do for a novel. Do you always research your stories so extensively? Why? And if not, why this time?
I hadn't really thought about it that way, but I guess I don't usually travel to research short stories. What I was aware of at the time was this was a piece of writing I was doing. It was a piece I was deeply invested in. And it required a trip to British Columbia to get it right. Okay, I also really liked the idea of visiting those islands and asking people, "So, what's your take on the severed feet?"
Are you at work on a collection of stories right now? I thought your last collection, Why the Long Face, was delightfully diverse in subject matter and tone. Do you imagine that your next collection will be the same way? Or do you feel like you'll have more focused preoccupations, subject matter, etc.? Is that even something you can answer when you're in the working stages?
It probably isn't something I can answer very well right now. What I know (from putting together fellowship applications) is this: I've got about a dozen new stories that will eventually be keepers, and they all seem to deal, in one way or another, with danger, loss, and fear. Within that, I suspect they still vary pretty wildly – maybe more than ever – in subject matter and tone. One, for instance, is a novella about a US Attorney who has walked away after failed prosecutions of corrupt Wall Street execs, who is visited by radical ghosts of the historical past: Emma Goldman and Robert La Follette. But told very realistically. Another is an extremely compressed meditation in the mind of a mad dentist. Oh, and then there's the story from the point of view of a blind rabbit trying to escape the cleaver in a butcher shop.
You have written on the Grub Street blog that you are "primarily a short-story guy." Please elaborate. What makes short stories your preferred form?
Two factors I can think of. One is I'm restless, and short stories allow me to do a lot of exploring in a lot of different ways at the same time. This year, for instance, my reading and writing have taken me into 1920s progressive politics in the US, string theory, Isaac Newton's interest in alchemy, nonviolent anarchism, and northern lights bus tours in Finland. The second factor is that I'm fascinated by narrative structure, and the relatively compressed form of the short story allows me to explore structure differently with every piece I do. To really seek an organic form for each individual story. That's probably one of the biggest things that drives my work, beyond the ideas that originate the narratives.
How do you seek something that must, in some way, come naturally? How do you know when you've found the right form for a story?
Ah, here’s where it gets a bit abstract. I’m a pretty intuitive person—okay, very intuitive—so I’m always looking to follow some gut sense I have of something. Stories for me usually begin with some small thing—an image, an object, a scrap of dialogue, an idea—that grabs my interest. My writing process is then one of trying to find my way deeper and deeper into what interests me about that small thing. Structure—an organic form—is just part of that process. I feel my way through in the dark until the story feels more and more resonant with my deepest interest in the material.
You have a novel coming out soon, Headlong. Tell me a little bit about that book. And how did that particular project take the form of a novel, instead of a story?
Headlong is probably the most straightforward thing I've ever written, or ever will write. A once-renowned journalist is reluctantly back in Boston to care for his dying father. He ends up in the middle of a mess, trying to connect the dots between a major labor strike, an occupy-style movement gone violent, and a robbery/murder in which his best friend's son may be involved.
I've long been a fan of good crime fiction. For years, I've had a desire to write a crime novel, if I could ever come up with an idea that would hold my interest long enough, and feel manageable (complicated plotting is not one of my strengths). Then one day, a small item in the Boston Globe about a robbery caught my eye. I tacked it to my writing wall, and two weeks later, I was not only still interested in it, but it had grown more complex. Different facets attached themselves to it. The details of that robbery ended up being the germ of the idea for Headlong. Of course, it grew tremendously complex – at one point, there were five major plot strands, all of which had to come together (with the element of surprise) at a specific moment. So in the end, the joke was on me. But I'm proud that I more or less pulled it off.
What has your experience working with small presses been like?
It has been mostly fantastic. In most ways, I don't think it's any different from working with any good press: people with a passion about what they are doing, working miracles within tight (or nonexistent) budgets, looking to put out a good book. There's a scrappiness to small presses that's a good fit for me, and I've liked having a greater degree of control over the printed result than I would have otherwise – my collaboration with cover artist Laura Davidson on Why the Long Face is one of the joys of my professional life. The only real drawback is that a small press can't match the distribution reach of a bigger press. Do I wish my books would get to more people? Sure. But I've been lucky. I have no complaints.
Some of your writing embraces an experimental aesthetic. Which literary magazines have you found to be particularly receptive to this kind of work?
Many magazines have been open to that aesthetic. One I’m particularly grateful to is Drunken Boat, which is not only open to that aesthetic, but encourages it. They only started publishing fiction a couple years ago, and I love the variety of approaches they welcome. Some others that come to mind: The Normal School, Ninth Letter, Barrelhouse, Quarterly West, Chamber Four, Copper Nickel. I’ve found most lit mags are open to an individual piece, even if they aren’t a refuge for experimental work.
Are there any literary magazines you read regularly? If so, what about these literary magazines do you like?
There are a few I at least peruse every issue. The Normal School. Tin House. Drunken Boat. New Madrid is reaching that point. What I like about them is there will always be something in there that grabs me, and (equally important) something in there that surprises me. Mostly, it’s selfish. I look at them because I’ll find joy and satisfaction there.
Would you submit your work to the same lit mag more than once, or do you prefer to cover more ground with your submissions?
I’ve actually narrowed my approach greatly in the last couple of years. I’ve tried to cultivate relationships with a small number of magazines, and focus my submissions there. So I have a list of 25 that I concentrate on. That I want to work with. That I feel an affinity with. If none of them want a particular story, then I take the shotgun approach. But it was all feeling a bit impersonal and empty to me, and I wanted to recapture a human scale to it all, so I started talking to editors at AWP, finding folks whose sensibilities I liked, and sending them my work.
Have any lit mag editors helped shape your work?
Definitely. Lois Rosenthal at Story Magazine when I was just starting out. Rusty Barnes back in the early days of Night Train. Both hugely helpful with insights into what they saw I was doing, and (from both) challenges about where they thought I was being glib or taking the easy route. I’m grateful for those pushes.
You have a doctorate in creative writing. I feel like more and more MFA-grads are considering taking that path. How was the experience of the doctoral program for you? Would you recommend it to other writers?
The program I went through – a (now-defunct) Doctor of Arts program at SUNY Albany – was fantastic for me. My instructors there, in particular Gene Garber and Judy Johnson, are friends and mentors still, and many of my classmates are still an active part of my writing community. The strength of that program at the time was the sense of true community the program fostered. On the first night of my first workshop there, Judy Johnson said to us, "Look around the room. This is your tribe. Be friends to each other. Make opportunities for each other. Now and for the rest of your lives." That has shaped everything I've done since. The advantage to me of a doctoral program was the requirement to study literary theory as well as doing my creative work. It forced me to reckon with, and make some sense of, what literature was and is, how it is perceived, and the different ways it's experienced. In addition to our creative dissertations (mine was a still-unpublished story collection), we had to write a 30-page critical essay contextualizing our work in the canon of American literature. Hardest – and best – assignment I've ever been given.
I think more MFA grads are taking that path because the MFA hasn't turned out to be a reliable path to tenure-track jobs. And I think it's worth considering for that, but I think writers really need to think about what's going to enable them to devote themselves to their writing. Is the academic track the best path for that? For some, it will be.
What advice would you give writers who are just starting to send their work out to literary journals?
DON’T GET DISCOURAGED!! Write because it matters to you, take major satisfaction from a story well written (it’s a HUGE accomplishment, and a beautiful thing), and look at the publishing process as an entirely separate act. And be aggressive—I’ve sent the same story out to as many as forty or fifty places before finding a home for it. And some that many places without ever getting them published. It happens to all of us.
Katherine Hunt is a reader, writer, and editor in Somerville, Massachusetts. Her writing has appeared in Cranky, Red Mountain Review, Fringe, and Blood Lotus. A writing workshop she ran as a volunteer at 826 Boston is featured in the 2011 book Don't Forget to Write, published by 826 National.