AUTHOR TO AUTHOR: Alexander MacLeod and Elaine McCluskey
Elaine McCluskey and Alexander MacLeod discuss writing processes, the sonic quality of prose, and subversive and dark themes in their short fiction
Rafael Has Pretty Eyes
Goose Lane Editions
McLelland & Stewart
Elaine McCluskey is the author of three previous acclaimed short-story collections and two novels. Rafael Has Pretty Eyes is a provocative and compassionate collection featuring characters living on the margins.
Alexander MacLeod’s first short-story collection, Light Lifting, was shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor Award, the Giller Prize and the Commonwealth Prize, and won the Margaret and John Savage First Book Award. His latest, Animal Person, masterfully explores tensions brewing just below the visible surface. The two master crafters of short fiction discussed their latest work.
Elaine: First, I would like to say how much I loved this book. The stories are all haunting, complex and gloriously written. To help me understand how you create such magic, I ask: When you are writing a story, do you start with a character, a setting or a dilemma: internal or external? Why?
Alex: Thanks so much for the kind words, Elaine. I feel the same way about your book and I’m very happy to get to do this with you. Rafael Has Pretty Eyes is one of the best collections I’ve read in a decade, so glorious and furious, and I love the raw energy that surges through every story. Reading it is like sticking your tongue into the outlet of another person’s life and feeling the pure current that runs there.
For me, I start most of my stories with images. These are sometimes whole scenes or sometimes just little freeze-frame moments that get stuck in my head. The rabbit story, for example, started just the way it starts in the book, with that image of the narrator being caught in a staring contest with an animal, and wondering what the rabbit is thinking about. Another one began with the image of two bodies floating in the water, close to each other, but distant, and then the last one, “The Closing Date,” started by focusing in tight on that secret locked door you sometimes see in side-by-side motel rooms.
Is it okay if I rebound that same question back to you? I deeply appreciate the way your stories sound: all the different voices and the quick back-and-forth dialogue, the perfect internal rhythms, the pacing, and then–there’ s no avoiding i–the final knock-out punch you often save for the end. How important is that to you, the sonic quality of the prose? Do you start with a voice, or a special kind of narrative point-of-view decision?
Elaine: I am so glad that you revealed how the rabbit story began. For anyone who does not know, that story, “Lagomorph,” was internationally celebrated, a master class in short story writing.
In Rafael Has Pretty Eyes, I started with setting and character. I was so intrigued by the dark world of payday loan companies that I set “It’s Your Money” there, then created a character to work within it. In “Skunk Boy” I worked differently. I set out to explore a character who was inherently unlikable, and it did not matter where he worked. I placed him in a seniors’ home on PEI and made the narrator a comfort dog only because I wanted to. Then I gave the dog a voice.
But to answer your question, yes, the sonic quality of the prose is paramount. I hum as I write. It helps with the rhythm, and nothing works for me without the rhythm. The dialogue does not work, the narrative does not work, the knock-out punch misses. There is no impact. Sometimes, I will read a section out loud and change an errant word.
When I read your stories, I cannot find not a single wrong note. Not in the dialogue—“I promise I will not kill Gunther.” —-not in the descriptions. I am also uneasy in a good way. I am waiting to be disturbed and/or enlightened, probably both. Is it safe to say that most of your stories appear to be about one thing—let’s say a rabbit— but are often explorations of larger truths? If so, why?
Alex: It’s so nice to imagine you like that, Elaine, humming to yourself as you type, staying on the beat, reading out loud. I do that, too, when I’m trying to figure out “how it goes.” Sometimes I think that if it can’t go through the air clearly, then it’s not going to sit on the page very well either.
And you’re right: the stories in Animal Person are all trying, in one way or another, to grapple with different “truths” as best they can. But it’s tricky business. Maybe “Lagomorph” is interested in something as large or small as “intimacy,” and “Once Removed” is trying to think about the flow of time, and how people at different stages of life interpret significance in different ways. “The Ninth Concession” was trying to work through the local cost of a “global trade,” and maybe a couple of the others are wondering in different ways about notions of “privacy,” or “desire.”
In your stories, I like all the people who are jammed in there, so many sharply drawn individuals, but all together in these perfectly condensed worlds. “Is That All You Got?,” one of my faves, has 29 people in it! (I counted.) But it never once feels crowded. It’s just life, a beautiful and complex social portrait, nearly Dickensian, if Dickens was hilarious and lived precisely at the intersection of scuzzy and gentrified in contemporary Charlottetown. Can I ask you about how you understand your characters? Are they always revealed through their actions and/or their relationships to each other?
Elaine: I love how you just explained words getting stuck in the air. And thank you for sharing some of your literary issues. I think those explorations are what make your writing both of this time and timeless.
I am happy you liked “Is That All You Got?” And yes, I read a lot of Dickens after I got my first adult library card.
My story was inspired by an event. I went to an apartment showing and six strangers were waiting outside for the same appointment. It was awkward, and I like awkward almost as much as I like scuzzy.
The narrator developed as I wrote the story. Her grandfather I already had in my head. He was based on an old boxer within my family, someone hard and soft at the same time. I revealed him through his interactions with others.
When I create characters, I borrow from people I have met, and I transfer feelings I had in different circumstances. I transfer my sadness, my elation, my disappointment to them.
Your stories appear effortless, but I will be crushed if you tell me they were all easy to write. “What exactly do you think you are looking at?” was a favourite of mine because you so completely inhabited the narrator, who is brilliantly original. How do you get that inside your characters? And is it ever a chance to do bad things you would like to do but can’t? That last part may be me projecting.
Alex: That grandfather is one of my favourite people in your book, hard and soft, as you say, and he has one of the best lines: “They don’t have time for that foolishness, Girlie.”
I’m glad you think the stories look or sound smooth, but I’m afraid the construction process is the exact opposite of effortless. In the end, most of them were just deep blackholes where my time went to die. There’s one, in fact, that I worked on for two years, but it still didn’t make the cut. I look at the book and all I see is what isn’t there. So it goes.
The piece you mention here, though, “What exactly…” was a different experience. It was inspired by two photographs by Henry Wessel: “Pasadena, California, 1974” and “Pasadena, California, 1975.” An Art Gallery gave me an assignment and I just dove into the empty narrative space between those shots and the story spilled out.
The narrator does have a unique take on things, but I don’t think of him as a “bad guy” in the traditional sense. On the other hand, I do have another person in the book called “the murderer,” and he is, for sure, deeply committed to his horrible craft.
I’m interested in the “Bad Things” in your stories, too, and I appreciate the way these elements are always there, not really lurking, just present, and often hinted at early in the story before they are revealed or changed or more fully explored later on. The journalist in you is probably fatigued by the worn-out axiom, “If it bleeds, it leads,” but that’s not what you’re doing here at all. Can you talk a little bit about the way darkness functions in your stories?
Elaine: In one of my previous books, a character said: “I nod, knowing that we all go through life with a great ticking time bomb of tragedy strapped to our chests.” And I suppose that philosophy infiltrates all of my stories. I have come to realize, as I age, that bad things happen to good people. And karma “is a concept created to keep people in their place, from seeking retribution. A panacea.”
In my stories, I try to blunt the pain of bad things with humour. I try not to be defeated by it.
I am happy that we had a chance to have this conversation. I look forward to seeing Animal Person everywhere.
Alex: Right back at you, Elaine! This has been great. Good luck with everything. I know that readers are going to love Rafael.