When Robin McLean’s first short story collection won the BOA Short Fiction Prize shortly after she earned her MFA at UMass — the prize being that BOA would publish the collection in May 2015 — she wasn’t going to deprive herself of celebrating with a cross-country book tour simply because her publishers weren’t organizing one.
“Publishers do not schedule book tours for most writers anymore, except for the really big-name people. They do not sell enough books to justify the expense in the current book climate,” McLean said during a recent interview at Panera Bread in Manchester. “The publishers sort of leave that to the author now, even bigger publishers.”
So she put one together herself. Her Reptile House tour started at Boston’s South Station in early May during a program called Literary Lunch Break. (“They set me up by the destination board. … I basically yelled the stories out while people were sitting there, eating their lunch, no place to go, waiting for a train,” she laughed.) The next day, she’d be attending her book launch at Amherst Books in Mass. Now she’s coming to an event at Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord on May 22 before making her way out to the West Coast.
Though now in her mid-40s, McLean has, in a way, been preparing her whole life to become a fiction writer. She grew up figure skating and competed seriously through high school, which sort of prepped her for the “unbelievably frustrating” career path she’d eventually pursue.
“You have to fall and fall and fall, and you keep messing up until it just becomes acceptable,” she said. “Writing fiction is really hard!”
So hard, she stumbled into two other careers before she fully gave in to writing. After undergrad school, she applied to MFA programs and law schools at the same time. She didn’t get into an MFA program, but she did get into law school, from which she graduated in 1990, hoping for a steady paycheck.
She worked as a clerk for two years in Alaska before she decided she hated it and become a ceramic artist instead. She sculpted but mostly was a production potter, making mugs, bowls, plates and dishes while listening to books on tape and writing stories in her free time in the Alaska wilderness for 15 years. The repetition became boring. Something was missing.
“Art, to me, is more individual. It’s supposed to shake somebody up a little bit, and your bowls aren’t supposed to do that, necessarily,” she said.
So she applied to MFA programs again. This time she was accepted at UMass.
Nearly all the short stories in Reptile House were written during her studies there, and many were created while she was on her family’s land at Pikes Point in Bristol, located just off Newfound Lake. It’s been in her family since 1908, and she used to visit every summer growing up.
Writing in her family’s tiny cabin was a way to transition into the mindset to write fiction. It was quiet, like she was used to in Alaska, but still just a drive away from her sister, boyfriend and school in Mass. Still, it was sometimes hard to tap into the required mindset.
“I would not sleep for two or three nights and write in this state of fatigue so my editor mind was too tired to change anything,” she said. “I mean it was awful! But the stories started changing. And that part of my mind that could produce those things started being more available to me on a regular basis.”
Potting helped too; at UMass, she was required to take classes outside the department, so naturally, she chose the art department. She used to make these gigantic pots and carve a story on the outer edge from the bottom up in a stream of consciousness. It was a perfect way to let loose. On clay, you couldn’t edit. You couldn’t delete. And best of all, the stories were unreadable because they were written backward, safe from scrutiny.
“What you’re trying to do when you write fiction, in my opinion, is you’re trying to let loose your unconscious mind and silence your conscious mind — your editor — while you’re drafting. Which is very hard to do as you get older,” she said.
Bits of Newfound Lake made their way into the book, including her grandfather’s old sign with swimming advice and a closet in the camp house she writes in, filled with fishing poles, bobbers, maps and gear. The themes and topics in the rest of the stories range drastically. They feature killers, thieves, astronauts, moose hunters, country club ladies, love affairs and assassinations.
Though McLean grew up in Illinois, she looks back at her time in Bristol more fondly. She’s made a home here in New England.
“I was and am still smitten with Alaska, but New Hampshire was sort of my home since I was a little kid,” she said. “Not technically, but in my heart.”
As seen in the May 14, 2015 issue of the Hippo.