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Monday, January 19, 2009

An Interview with Author, Ron MacLean

Ron MacLean is author of the story collection Why the Long Face? (2008) and the novel Blue Winnetka Skies (2004). 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.

Tell us about your short story collection, Why the Long Face?

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.

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.

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.

How did you get your start in writing professionally?

I came to fiction through journalism. My first professional writing gig was as a high school sports correspondent for my local newspaper in Newton, MA. I was a journalism major in college because that seemed the practical way to a writing career (somehow I envisioned fiction writing as something I could only do after I retired), and worked for a few newspapers in Boston, most proudly the Phoenix, before deciding that my heart was in fiction writing and I had to pursue it. Quit a managing editor job at a weekly newspaper group in LA, and became a part-time typesetter and full-time fiction writer. Thus the adventure began. I think it was five years before I placed my first story in a literary mag called Other Voices.

How difficult is it to get bylines in national magazines such as Esquire?

It’s an extremely difficult market to break into. Partly because practically every writer in the US (and most in the world) would give at least one tooth to have a byline in any of those mags (I include GQ, Vanity Fair, etc.). Partly because there’s already a core of immensely talented writers in an existing inner circle, and it can be hard to bust through that, especially when the reality of these magazines, at least with GQ and Esquire, is that many of the ideas for pieces evolve through conversation between writer and editor. Yes, they’re topical ideas, but they’re also very tied to a particular sensibility that’s the magazine’s voice. That voice is what makes them distinctive, and it’s very hard to access from the outside.

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?

I can give a few answers, each of them true. Most simply, they wanted the novel, Blue Winnetka Skies, when no one else did. They valued it for the risky, flawed creature it was. I was tired of banging my head against the wall trying to get big presses to “overlook” the book’s warts, when its warts were what made me proudest – what gave the book layers and resonances I was unwilling to lose.

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.

Grub Street is fantastic. I can’t say enough good things about it. Grub is officially a nonprofit creative writing center that offers MFA-quality writing workshops, and programs for the community such as a Memoir Project that allows Boston’s senior citizens opportunity to record their stories, and programs for area teens. But the most radically beautiful thing about Grub Street isn’t innovative at all: Grub is a thriving community of writers and readers who value one another, enjoy one another, and create opportunity for one another.

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?

Write what’s in you to write, not what you think will sell.

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 from
it, but whether you are willing to devote a few years of your one wild, precious
life to write and publish it.

What do you wish you would have known earlier in your writing career that might have saved you some aggravation?

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.
I wish I had been able to recognize sooner that the world had moved on and that model was dead, dead, dead. Or, as one of the last of such editors told me while encouraging me at an early point in my career, “good writing always finds a home.” I don’t think that’s true anymore, if it ever was. I would have saved myself some years of aggravation and embarrassment had I realized that sooner.

When and where do you find time to write creatively?

I write in the mornings. No, I’m not one of those people up at 5 am. But I do tend to devote the first 2-3 hours of my work day to fiction, before the other concerns of the day intrude and squeeze out the ability to dream and to risk. It’s taken me a long time to cultivate that practice, that discipline. ‘Cause I don’t think it matters so much when it is, as long as it’s a practice. A promise you make to yourself, and then honor. As for where, for me it’s almost anywhere as long as I can close out the rest of the world. I’m fortunate to have a nice office, one where I enjoy working, with a good view and a door I can close. But also coffee shops, parks, my car.

How and when did you realize that you wanted to become a writer?

Well, I knew since I was in kindergarten. I have no idea why. But maybe the better answer is that I left a good journalism job to write fiction because I knew it was all I had ever wanted to do, and I didn’t want to look back on my life and say I never really went after it. I haven’t regretted one second.

What is one dream you have for your writing career?

To reach more readers. Not millions. But more.

Oh, and to be interviewed by Melissa Block on All Things Considered.

Parting words?

Yes. Please. One quote I have on my wall of inspiration in my office is from the French writer André Gide:
“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.


  1. There's some really good advice and info here. Thanks Ron and Gina.

  2. Thanks for giving such thought to your answers, Ron. A good friend of mine is really enjoying Why the Long Face? Nice work!

  3. I noticed one small but significant detail in Ron's description of his office. He said it has a view. That's interesting. What part does a view play in writing? I can often write without it because the view is in my head, but when I'm wrestling with writer's block or need some kind of vision or long view for my creation, I find a view--an expansive one--helps. I sometimes drive to the top of a local mountain where I can look out over the edge of the earth when I'm lost.

    I'm going to ask my local library to order Why the Long Face.

  4. I think I've found a new quote to have above MY desk: Devote yourself to something important to you "...before the other concerns of the day intrude and squeeze out the ability to dream and to risk." Thank you for the wonderful quote, Ron and thank you for the interview, Gina. Can't wait to read "Why the Long Face?"...

  5. There's so much to love about this interview. Ron shows great humility and shares his inspirations freely, but it's also easy to see his passion for writing and trying to make the world a little better.

    I'm lucky in that I've already read Why the Long Face and love the story collection. If you like the interview at all, read the stories. MacLean's vision shines out of every one.

  6. Why the Long Face? is a terrific collection of stories, and Ron MacLean's advice here is honest and sound. Thanks for a great interview.

  7. It comes as no surprise that this interview is so generous, honest and informative. Ron is one of those rare and wonderful writers who seems to enjoy teaching and helping out fellow writers as much as he likes writing. This is one of my favorite collections of stories, and I highly recommend it!

  8. Reading this book on a night train was a truly great literary experience. Good interview! Thanks for the words from Gide and the no-nonsense Q and A.

  9. It's good. McLean's a smart guy, and he knows about the work. I always worry that somebody who talks well about writing won't pack the gear in the work itself, but I've read the novel and the stories, and, yeah, they're definitely happening.


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