Some collections carve out a single space and mine that territory. This is not one of those collections. Fifteen stories that come at narrative from several angles. Some traditionally realistic. Others less so. How’s that for a sexy description?
Okay, specifics. In one story, Gertrude Stein and Buffy the Vampire Slayer team up to save a Las Vegas wedding. In another, a five-year-old girl grieves her mother’s death – and terrifies her father – by becoming an aerialist.
My favorite description of the book came from Ralph Lombreglia, one of my writer heroes. Here’s what he wrote as a blurb: “You’ve never seen stories quite like Ron MacLean’s, yet they enter your mind with an eerie familiarity, like thoughts or dreams you now realize you’ve been having for some time. His work is smart and elegant and spooky, and it pushes the boundaries of what a short story can be.” If that’s true, I’m a very happy guy.
What I’m aware of is writing stories about the struggle we humans face to connect with one another. To understand some of who we are and what we’re doing here. We look to be loved or understood, to win some prize, avoid or escape trouble. Survive. The moments I find most interesting are the ones where people realize that no matter what they want, they are both conflicted in their desires and dependent on some force or forces outside themselves. What peace we make with that, or fail to, is always somewhere in my stories. It’s what Flannery O’Connor described as a moment of grace.
You are winner of the Frederick Exley Award. Mr. Exley was an American novelist best known as the author of A Fan's Notes, but I haven't heard of his name sake award. Please educate us.
The Frederick Exley Award for Short Fiction was an annual prize given for several years by GQ magazine to a writer who, in their estimation, had not achieved the recognition his/her work deserved. The award was meant to encourage writers early in their careers, who hadn’t had much (or any) publications in commercial, national magazines. In my case, the award-winning story, “South of Why,” was my first such publication.
I also learned a lot about working with an editor to make a story better. Their fiction editor at the time, Ilena Silverman, was fantastic. Very respectful of my work, and really pushing at details to make the story better. I’ll always be grateful both to GQ and to Ilena.
The award was a huge boost. GQ was very generous. They had a policy of either throwing the winner a big party, or inviting the winner down for a series of meetings they’d set up with agents. I opted for the latter, and got my first agent through them.
How did you get your start in writing professionally?
How difficult is it to get bylines in national magazines such as Esquire?
Hell, I’d love to get a byline in Esquire. Closest I’ve come is when a former literary editor there asked me for a short story for her debut issue with the magazine. I didn’t have anything finished at the time that hadn’t been published, so I sent her a draft of something that she and I worked on together. Anyway, I ended up taking it in a direction that wasn’t what she wanted. There was no short story in the magazine that month, and that absence was, I tell people, my only mark on Esquire to date.
Why did you choose to go with an independent press with both your short story collection and previous novel?
Also, I love that Swank is a home for independent fiction – and its writers – in an era where literature is driven by marketing (what’s the sales angle?) rather than by vision and discovery (what can writers, the culture’s advance scouts, reveal to us about who we are as humans, and where we’re headed?). By independent fiction, I mean fiction that continues to stretch the boundaries of the form, to make the short story and the novel relevant to our time, not just a series of lovely museum objects. As novelist Jeanette Winterson has said, “the job of the artist in any medium is to make it new.” Through that, I’ve come to recognize that I’m a small press guy, because the fact is that no matter where the boundaries are drawn, I’m drawn to the perimeter to push them.
Finally, while I had another press offer to publish Why the Long Face?, Swank makes beautiful books and I have an editor who understands my work and pushes me to make it great. In the end, what more can a writer ask for?
You are part of an innovative effort to foster writing in your community. Tell us about Grub Street and how you got involved.
I got involved kind of backwards. I knew almost nothing about Grub Street until I was asked by the outgoing executive director to apply for his job. I got hired, and learned to love Grub from the inside.
What writing advice do you find yourself giving young would be authors most?
To me there’s nothing emptier than a calculated book. It takes too much time and too much lifeblood to write a book that’s worth reading to have it be anything other than something you care deeply about. And the odds are so stacked against it ever being published, let alone published profitably, that if you’re in it for the money alone, you’re better off playing the lottery. Or becoming a cyberthief.
To me, the real test of any book idea is not how much money you might make fromWhat do you wish you would have known earlier in your writing career that might have saved you some aggravation?
it, but whether you are willing to devote a few years of your one wild, precious
life to write and publish it.
Wow. So many things. Trusting my own vision, but that’s not something I could have learned earlier, and my vision then wasn’t worth trusting. The fact that life as a fiction writer is not the attainment of a certain stature, but a lifelong apprenticeship to a craft. But really, the one thing I wish I’d known earlier was that the model I had in my head of a writing career, which was the romanticized world of the New Yorker circa 1930-1960 maybe, in which a talented writer who persevered would find an editor/mentor and shape a career with some modest income from fiction.
When and where do you find time to write creatively?
How and when did you realize that you wanted to become a writer?
What is one dream you have for your writing career?
Oh, and to be interviewed by Melissa Block on All Things Considered.
“One cannot discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.”For me, that’s what it’s all about. In that statement for me is both the attraction of writing and the truth of the sobering, but satisfying, lifelong apprenticeship.