On March 8, 2016, I answered some interview questions posed to me by one of Natalee Caple’s students over there at Brock University. This is actually the second interview posed by one of her students [see the link to the previous interview here; see the link to an ongoing list of all my interviews online here], with both interviews centred around my collection of short stories, The Uncertainty Principle (Chaudiere Books, 2014), as part of an ongoing series of interviews focusing on short fiction. I was extremely impressed with the questions posed by this student, far sharper than questions sent by those who supposedly consider themselves critics and/or interviewers, so I’m eager to see where she might end up...
Professor Natalee Caple – ENCW 3P06
An Interview with rob mclennan on The Uncertainty Principle
rob mclennan is a prolific writer of prose, poetry, and non-fiction as well as critical works including interviews, reviews, and essays. Living in the vibrant city of Ottawa, he is the author of over thirty trade books and is the editor and founder of the above/ground press, Chaudiere Books, and the poetry journal Touch the Donkey (mclennan’s blog). He won the John Newlove Poetry award in 2010, the Council for the Arts in Ottawa Mid-Career Award in 2014, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012 (Canadian Literature 1). Recently, in 2014, rob mclennan had his collection of short, short stories The Uncertainty Principle published by Chaudiere Books. He lives in Ottawa and continues to promote the craft of writing and publishing.
Q: The cover art is intriguing, mostly I think because of the whiteness and space on the cover allows the image of the wasp to appear more striking. Did you take part in the cover art design and what are your thoughts on the connection between the image and the content within the book?
A: I’ve known Ottawa artist Danny Hussey for nearly twenty years, and have long admired the dense minimalism of his work, which I think fits completely with the pieces in the collection. He loaned me a small mound of prints in the late 1990s for the sake of a collaboration that never really saw fruition. Our move in September, 2013 provided the opportunity to dig out the pieces, and even remind myself that they were still sitting somewhere in my vast array of papers. The image comes from that small mound of prints.
Given my wife and co-publisher Christine McNair designed the book, I’d say I had a good amount of input into the design of the cover. It was she who initially suggested the size and the use of white space on the cover, which is absolutely superb, and fits entirely, I’d think, with the book as a whole.
Q: The Small Press Book Review gave this collection its first review and that review examines the connection between the title of your work, The Uncertainty Principle, and the quantum mechanics concept of that principle. The review suggests that your “tiny prose” is comparable to the position of a particle, wherein both cannot be precisely determined. Can you elaborate on this connection and perhaps tell me what your own understanding and purpose was with this title, and how it has altered since its publication and reviews? What was your process in coming up with a title for this collection of short stories?
A: Part of the challenge of these pieces was in their density, and their precision. There isn’t a wasted word, and yet, not everything is explained. I like leaving a certain amount of space for the reader to take the story slightly beyond the borders of what I have decided to include (and, thusly, not include). If I give everything away, there remains little or nothing for an attentive reader to do.
Q: Did these short shorts from The Uncertainty Principle, which are all individual accounts that seem to intertwine, come from other unfinished works or did some of these stories begin and remain short and self-contained. Moreover, what was the process you went through to compile these stories in this particular order?
A: All but one of these pieces were composed entirely for this collection. Really, the first piece was the one referencing The Lost Boys (1987). I liked the piece very much for the fact that it was an odd blend of fiction and short essay. The piece confused me at first, as I asked myself “what the hell do I do with this?” given the fact that it certainly didn’t fit with anything I’d done before. It took a bit of time to consider that perhaps I needed to compose a mound of such odd, short, untitled pieces for the sake of something book-length. It was quite a challenge, and the process of beginning to end took roughly five years.
The singular story that fell into the collection from a further work-in-progress was the story referencing cities requiring a memory (“Every city is constructed out of a series of markers,”): I often work on multiple projects simultaneously, and this fragment was originally composed for my as-yet-unfinished novel, “Don Quixote.” I liked the self-contained aspect of the short paragraph, and decided that it could be included in both manuscripts. Given that it lives in a different context, depending upon which book you might encounter it in, I like the way it shifts a bit. It might be the same paragraph with the same words in the same order, but, living in two entirely different projects, it can’t remain the same at all.
The collage-accumulation of the collection required a very precise and particular order. For about four years, I simply wrote and wrote and wrote without any sense of order at all, attempting to simply compose short pieces that worked both as self-contained units and pieces that connected through the accumulated whole. I carved, carved, carved and carved. At one point, I’d one hundred and forty pieces, boiling down to about seventy or so. Through her own edits, Christine helped me salvage three or four of the pieces just before the book went to press.
The final six months of putting the manuscript together was when I started thinking seriously about the order. Up to that point, I was focusing on the stories individual, deliberately without any thought to order, attempting to carve lines so tight one could bounce a quarter off any of them (so to speak). I wanted the various threads through the collection to intertwine the length and breadth of the collection, without putting stories that sounded too similar in tone or subject side-by-side. Part of that process also included seeing the work as a whole unit, which also allowed for the realization of whatever gaps there might have been, and attempting to fill them.
Q: I enjoyed The Uncertainty Principle because the writing style engaged with humour and relatable momentary experiences, where writing is able to dust off trite instances and make them new again. What kind of questions did you ask yourself while writing some of the more poignant passages, for example when the father and the daughter look at shooting stars (32), and the passage on childhood and the mother (40)?
A: I don’t think the questions I asked myself were entirely overt. I wrote. Part of the appeal of composition included the realization that I could include wee stories around odd jokes or strange thoughts I’d had over the years, little fragments of thinking that had never really entered my writing before. I had that initial consideration about The Lost Boys that I’d been told hadn’t come up before even by vampire literature scholars, so I wondered, how do I get to keep this? How can I use this? And of course, one thought leads directly and immediately to another, such as my thoughts upon SpongeBob SquarePants, or seeing a plush rocket with an animal inside, meant somehow for newborns. Sometimes it was as simple as a stray line or a thought I caught from another source that I wanted to explore, or play with. I like discovering those ideas or thoughts that might entirely change the way we think about something that otherwise might seem entirely familiar, and thus, render it entirely new and unknown. I am attempting to question, I suppose.
I wanted to take a series of very small moments and simply hold on to them, over the space of a couple of sentences. A few years ago, I discovered that Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk’s writing studio, for the longest time, sat on a street that translated into English as “Sesame Street.” I mean, how could one not want to use that? I’ve been three years carving and carving a story barely four lines long that I haven’t quite managed to get exactly right. At least, not yet.
Q: It seems a lot of the projects you’ve initiated such as literary journals and press revolve around the city of Ottawa. How has living in Ottawa shaped your writing, as well as your dedication to the craft? And what are ways you represent this identity in your work as a writer, reviewer and editor?
A: A good question. By the mid-1990s, I’d been here for a bit more than half a decade, and had been active for nearly that long as a writer, editor and organizer. Given my ex-partner and I shared a preschooler, I was very aware that none of us, by choice, were going anywhere, so I deliberately worked to make the city liveable for myself as a working writer. Around the same period, I was seeing a number of poets leave town – Rob Manery, Louis Cabri, Warren Dean Fulton, Tamara Fairchild – something that occurred again by the end of the 1990s, as Stephanie Bolster left town for Montreal. It was extremely difficult to be a working writer in Ottawa, given our repeated lacks: proper arts funding (the worst per capita arts funding in Canada), media, publishing and employment (we haven’t any creative writing program at either university, for example, which often helps writers remain employed). It meant that writers were either swallowed up by government work, or left town for new opportunities.
It really meant that, by the mid-1990s, despite already having founded above/ground press, The Factory Reading Series (at that point, as-yet-unnamed) and the semi-annual ottawa small press book fair (all of which I still run), I was becoming very aware of the lack of infrastructure required to support and encourage a larger literary culture. Predominantly, Ottawa books weren’t being discussed in the media in favour of works by out-of-towners, as though somehow remaining in the city meant we could only be “farm-team” for larger centres such as Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver. To remain here meant that your work became suspect, which was absolutely ridiculous. It helped enormously when Sean and Neil Wilson founded the Ottawa International Writers Festival in 1997, showcasing local writers on the same footing as nationally or internationally-renowned writers. Somehow, we needed to remind ourselves that we were capable of supporting and producing writers such as John Newlove, Elizabeth Hay, John Metcalf, Diana Brebner, Mark Frutkin, William Hawkins and dozens upon dozens of others.
All that being said: I live here. Where else am I to revolve and involve my projects? It is my job – as editor, reviewer, publisher, reading series curator, etcetera – to be attentive to the writing and writers in my immediate geographies.
I think the initial lack, in many ways, forced me very early to seek out what else existed beyond my immediate community, which, in the long term, has given me quite a broad knowledge of writing, writers and publishing far beyond the City of Ottawa. All of this, obviously, has fed into my editing, publishing and writing. I don’t feel limited in any way by where I am.
But not all of my projects are Ottawa-based. I curate the weekly “Tuesday poem” over at the Dusie blog, a press and site originally based out of Switzerland. With more than one hundred and fifty poems posted so far, I curate via a number of threads, including submissions from Canadian poets, international poets and poets in the loosely-affiliated “dusie kollecktiv.” Projects such as above/ground press or seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics or Touch the Donkey or my “12 or 20 questions” series have never been Ottawa-focused, although numerous Ottawa writers have been represented throughout. Chaudiere Books might be Ottawa-focused, but has never wished to be Ottawa-exclusive; my goals have been wanting to connect Ottawa writers and writing to the larger, broader world; we are no island, after all.
Q: Your engagement in a variety of writing platforms perhaps allows you to avoid “writer’s block” but are there other sources of inspiration you turn to in order to progress in a moment of creative writing? For example do you use music, memories, visiting a museum, or certain writing techniques to produce work?
A: All of the above. Also, really well-written film or television has often sparked my fiction. I remember being sparked by the movie Smoke (1995), as well as certain episodes of Mad Men. I have also been mighty impressed by Brian Michael Bendis’ run on The Avengers; I loved the way he wrote a lengthy, ongoing story, often writing up to a particular action or dénouement, and instead taking the story entirely sideways before presenting the reader with that expected next step: providing further background or sideways action that expanded the breadth of what he’d accomplished so far. Amazing.
And of course, Neil Gaiman, specifically via The Sandman, is easily the best storyteller I’ve read so far.
I’d think that if there is a story or poem or whatnot one is attempting to complete (we create our own problems we then have to troubleshoot, don’t we?), the problem is most likely working in the background of our thoughts at any given time (as we head to the grocery store or shower or whatever). Solutions can arise just about anywhere; the trick is in knowing how to listen to what we are attempting to tell ourselves.
And: my steady stream of reviewing can often trigger new writing. I’ve been an active reviewer for more than two decades, which means I receive new books and chapbooks in the mail every single day.
Q: I read in a few articles that you now have children and so do you notice changes in your source of inspiration when writing?
A: Well, I now have smaller children: my daughter Kate was born in January 1991, and Rose was born in November 2013. My third (and Christine’s second) is due the third week of April 2016 (we have a shortlist of names, but we’re keeping names and gender a secret for now). I might be home full-time with Rose now, since Christine returned to work after her year-long maternity leave, but I actually ran a home-daycare until Kate was about four years old. Fatherhood and childcare, for me, at least, isn’t new; renewed, I suppose.
With the emergence of our Rose, my writing has become far more focused: I now get two mornings a week when she’s at ‘school,’ and an hour or two in the afternoons when she naps. My projects are far fewer than they might have once been.
I would think my ‘inspirations’ are much the same as they ever were: the world, as I encounter it (and/or it me), from reading to living to anything else. Kate has fallen into my writing multiple times over the years, and I spent three years on the first draft of a creative non-fiction manuscript after the death of my mother. When Christine and I began, she entered the writing; when we began to cohabitate, I wrote around that. So of course, her pregnancy and the then-newborn entered into the writing as well.
Q: Your blog is updated daily and you work on multiple projects at once but do you also work on different creative projects at a time? Or do you tend to focus on a particular work that is in progress?
A: I’m able to work on multiple projects simultaneously, certainly. Since I’ve been full-time with toddler, my attention for writing has been shorter, so I’ve been deliberately working to keep to a shorter list of creative projects (everything takes so damned long).
I’ve been attempting to complete a manuscript of short stories, for example, “this year” now for at least three years. I really want to get back into a novel I’d set aside a few years ago, for the sake of my post-mother creative non-fiction project.
I can only work on one or two large prose projects at any given time, so really require to complete the stories before I can put any kind of attention into the novel, otherwise I’ve simply not got the attention span required for either (which was equally the case well before Rose was invented).
I’m also about seventy pages into a poetry manuscript that began on March 1, 2015. I poke at the poems occasionally, but am deliberately not in any hurry to complete such (it would just mean I’d start something else). Every time I’ve attempted to work solely on a single thing, I’ve ended up starting a new project instead.
Q: On your blog you express your decision to remain solely a writer (and critic) rather than becoming a teacher as well. You were a writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta from 2007-2008, would you suggest an academic background for aspiring writers these days, or a creative writing degree?
A: I would recommend whatever works for the individual. I’ve never felt the need to do anything but write, so never saw the point in a degree or two that would be leading me toward teaching. I wanted to write, so I wrote. For some, degrees and teaching is the best way; for others, the best way might be a writing degree. Some prefer the non-teaching/literary employment. I, myself, never saw the point in giving my best energy to something I cared about secondary to my writing. Somewhere in my mid-20s I saw a quote by Margaret Atwood: If you want full-time out of it, you have to put full-time into it.
I would recommend anyone be honest and realistic about what it is they think they want to accomplish. Not everyone even wants to write full-time (and the financial compensations for such can be hardscrabble and, often, demoralizing).
There’s a story about Willie Nelson, two years into a degree to be a lawyer as his “back-up plan,” before realizing it had quickly become his primary plan; he immediately dropped out to focus on his music.
And: given I haven’t any post-secondary experience at all (which means I really haven’t any direct knowledge or experience with any kind of degree, whether literary or otherwise), I found the University of Alberta job very exciting, and even a bit confusing. The experience was glorious in part for the fact that I wasn’t required in any way to engage with the academic setting, i.e. some of the horror stories I’ve heard about office politics or the drudgery of marking. I could simply hang about and collect all of the benefits of academic life without any of the trappings.
I also loved having an office, which I used as my work-space. I sat seven days a week in there, furiously working, from 9:30am to 6pm. My office door was never closed.
Q: In The Uncertainty Principle you write: “You might have no choice but to be new, again” (36). Individuals are constantly striving to constitute themselves as subjects in the world, and so what are your thoughts on the cultural and ethical purpose of the craft of writing for the self and for society at large?
A: I’ve noticed that the bulk of my fiction focuses on individuals struggling to navigate themselves through the world, as I attempt to articulate the ways in which they might move from point A to point B. The craft of writing allows one to spotlight, to open up attention into the minutiae of being and interacting.
Writing can be utilized as a critical/thinking, and even meditative form, one that can help illustrate, illuminate and even educate. If one is attempting to listen and be properly aware, it can be used in multiple ways, for multiple purposes. I’ve been very interested how poets such as Fred Wah, Christine Leclerc, Marie AnnHarte Baker and Stephen Collis, for example, use literary forms for social engagement. I’ve entertained such, but haven’t yet figured out the proper form(s) in which to engage; so far, my fiction (at least) explores a far more subtle engagement with being and living.
Q: When do you know a creative work of yours is finished and ready for publication (or even to be read by someone else)?
Q: You reference pop culture (tweets and famous musicians), politics (Harper and Reagan), and literature (James Joyce) in your stories. Do you find yourself feeling any tension between external influences on your work and your own intentions and, if so, how is it that you navigate this?
A: I don’t feel any tension. I live in the world, therefore I attempt to engage with that same world, which includes art galleries, twitter, history, television, politics, pop culture, facebook, late night talk shows and comic books as well as a broad range of literary touchstones. I’ve long envied Milan Kundera’s ability to engage with the personal and the political equally throughout his fiction, and would love to be able to accomplish the same.
I would suspect that all influences on a writer’s work would be external, even if writing about the self (without distance, there can be no clarity). It is important not to live (or write) in a bubble.
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LaRue, C.A. “Review of rob mclennan’s THE UNCERTAINTY PRINCIPLE: STORIES” The
Small Press Book Review. March 2014.
http://thesmallpressbookreview.blogspot.ca/2014/03/review-of-rob-mclennans-uncertainty.html. Accessed Feb. 16th 2016. Web.
mclennan, rob. rob mclennan’s blog. https://www.patreon.com/robmclennan?ty=h
https://canlit.ca/canlit_authors/rob-mclennan-2/. Accessed Feb. 13 2016. Web.