Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

In Conversation with Rebecca Rosenblum, Author of Once

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photo credit: Dave Starrett

Rebecca Rosenblum is the author of “Once” (Biblioasis), a Quill and Quire Top 15 Book of 2008 and Winner of the Metcalf-Rooke Award. Her forthcoming book is “The Big Dream” (Biblioasis, Fall 2011).

Check out her website at:

AH: Chilly Girl has a Cinderella- element to it. The suitor has to be found that fits the socks and no one at the condo-warming (/ "ball" in this reading) knows who he is. While she doesn't actively go from door to door looking for him, by story's end their paths cross again, and again with waltz music and the promise of a warming experience. Her constant chilliness also has an element of the fairy tale, being that it is an exaggerated characteristic, like Rapunzel's very long hair or Cinderella's long suffering good naturedness. Were you consciously aware of fairy tale like elements as you were writing or while you were editing Chilly Girl in terms of either wanting to heighten or mediate them? Do these types of categorizing behaviors tend to be more useful for you in the editing phase?

RR: I definitely intended "Chilly Girl" as a fairy tale--what I wanted was to do one without archetypes. I wanted to have those exaggerated characteristics you mention, which are indeed so common in fairy tales, but mingled in with everyday life. People not being limited to a single characteristic--Cinderella's beauty=her purity=her goodness--makes the story a lot more interesting, in my opinion. I love that instead of evil stepsisters, Chilly Girl just has a slightly snarky roommate and, instead of a spell ending, the couple is separated because his friends want to go to a club.

I actually wrote about half a dozen of these tales. I had originally intended to populate "Once" much more heavily with them. That didn't quite work out, though I did publish them elsewhere. What surprised me is that I found the Grimms' stories had become so much a part of my concsciousness. The rhythms were always there for me, even when I started to diverge from the original story line (it's the prince that leaves the ball, not the girl). In fact, in some of my later work on this project, the stories didn't even correspond to a specific fairy tale; just had the flavour of them in general. So I was just kind of flowing along with the *thought* of that tale. It was actually a lot of fun to have this very vague yet very familiar inciting idea and go from there.

AH "Route 99's" main characters, Ella and Carmen attempt to figure the relationship between what they order at the Pho-Mi 99 Restaurant across the street from their (Route 99) bus stop and their bus actually coming and the driver actually letting them board. They inhabit an unpleasant world, it is bitingly cold, there is no bus shelter, they live far from their jobs, Ella's boss is unkind, their finances are unstable, It was like they were attempting chaos theory: trying to figure the relationship between two seemingly unrelated things. That they were using the Pho Menu to improve their chances with the bus (subtracting #2 from #101 to get 99, to encourage their #99 bus to come) and not, say, to hope for better jobs, nicer landlords, more sympathetic bosses, seems indicative of realistic goals as well as hopelessness at changing bigger problems in their lives. What drew you to these characters and the odds stacked against them?

RR: I take the bus a lot, and have for many years. Often the bus doesn't come when it's supposed to, and I get upset, and sometimes the irony is that I don't even *want* to go wherever the bus is supposed to take me, anyway. But what drives me crazy is the logic of the system makes you impotent--you can't yell at the bus driver who isn't there, and once a bus *does* show up, it's not *that* driver's fault--s/he is on time, and the previous bus just didn't show up. It's like fighting with air, you're completely at the mercy of the system.

You're also at the mercy of the elements when you take the bus, in a way even more so than as a pedestrian, because if it's cold you can't move around much to warm up--you are stuck standing where you can see the bus, and bus can see you. And bus-drivers' sightlines can be a strange strange thing.

In a situation where you have no control, what you fantasize about is ways to seize control. And I've had LOTS of time to think about, as you say, how to draw order out of chaos. This story is, in part, the result of those fantasies.

AH: A second aspect to "Route 99" is that the bus drivers' lives and decisions are also subject to chaos or chance. When Ella and Carmen order 4 orders of #9, two Route 99 buses go racing past them, racing against one another, oblivious to their job of picking up passengers. It is also a bit fairy tale like. The short story is such a tight form, with little left to chance; could you talk about the appeal of using chance as a theme in "Once"?

RR: It is such a fine line, using chance in fiction. It's so easy to make it a plot contrivance or a crutch--people running into each other on the street or happening to pick up a book in the library and--bam—the whole plot cracks wide open. Unlikely. But I sometimes get so scared of making chance things seem contrived that I forget to include the realistic randomness of the world that we all experience. Sometimes the librarian compliments you on your scarf and it turns out she bought one just like it in the same little shop with the vicious cat under the counter, and you talk about that and laugh, then go on your way, and it has no influence on the plot that is your life. Chance, randomness is wonderful if it is what it is--circumstances you can't predict, working in ways you can't imagine.

I wanted to reflect this in my story, in that I wanted some of the magic not to matter. Randomness usually fires off into space anyway; think about how many people with the same middle name as you you've met and not even known it. So many interesting things happen in a day--they don't all have to "matter" in a big way to be fascinating.

AH: Ella from "Route 99" has an amazing sense of smell. I liked how this allowed the Olfactory to play a major role in the story, whereas in general in writing, it is the least present sense. Fatigue is also a recurring sensation in stories like ContEd, Wall of Sound and Fruit Factory. To what extent is the feeling of a story, the overriding atmosphere, a starting point for you when writing?

RR: Oh, wow, the book's been out nearly three years and you're the first one to catch this. Not always, but with a lot of the stories I was writing in the "Once" period, I would get the idea for the piece and then right after, I would know what sense or perception would be at the forefront. "Wall of Sound" is a sound story, "Chilly Girl" is a touch/feeling story, "Route 99" is a smell story, etc. There are others that aren't exactly the five senses but, as you say, have an overriding feeling, which I knew about long before I knew the whole story--you bet "Fruit Factory" is exhaustion, and other stories not in the collection are things colour, weather, and time. I don't know why I was writing this way at that time; I suspect it was part of the long apprenticeship of writing, trying to learn to write sensually piece by piece. But I also think this exaggeration of senses created it's own rhythms and poetry in the pieces it worked in.

AH: Perception is one of the themes or dramatic tensions in the stories. For instance, Jamesy's grandparents do not notice the bruises around his eye early in the story and later do not see the bruises on his neck (which may or may not be entirely concealed by the shirt he wears). Were they to notice the bruising, it may lead to a line of questioning that would reveal that he is no longer in school and no longer living with his mother and is, in fact, homeless. This heightens the tension for the reader, who, in my case, was hoping he would move in with his grandparents or at least get some recognition of his predicament. The romantic interest between Chilly Girl and the sock giving man comes from him being the only one who perceives her condition (being cold) and acting on it. Could you talk a bit about how you use each character having their own limited scope of perception to create drama in your short stories and also how it creates individuality for each character? One could, for instance, delineate the difference between characters by what they know, as much as by their names or where they go to school or what they do.

RR: So much of writing is about paying attention to the stuff that, as a human being trying to work and have fun and maintain relationships and get to the bank before it closes, you can't always pay attention to. If we were constantly consciously aware of how everyone around us might be uncomfortable, afraid, or in pain, it would be impossible to get through the day--yet there is a sadness in not being able to give that awareness to our fellow humans. At least, I feel sad about it, and writing is my way of getting that awareness back.

I also think it's really interesting--and necessary--to show the ways humans fail each other without meaning or wanting to. It's too easy to think of people being negligent or cruel when you don't know what actually went on. I've tried to write in essays about this need to see all sides of the story, and been criticized for thinking "everyone is truly good" or some such rubbish. But I do believe that most people have narratives they are telling themselves in their heads, about who they are and how they have to act in the world, and what the truth is, and there's a huge variance between our individual versions of the story, even when we are all living it together.

AH: How was writing and publishing *The Big Dream* different for you than writing and publishing *Once*? Did you feel more confident having one well received book under your belt? More pressure?

RR: Since *The Big Dream* is still a stack of paper on my publisher's desk, I can't fully answer this. The writing process was a bit more focused and faster than for *Once.* I liked it that way—I felt like I lived inside the book a bit more because I was going right from one story to another. Another reason for this is that the stories in this collection are linked and there is even a small overarching narrative to the book--so I had a bit of scaffolding to fall back on when I lost track of what I wanted to do. I also really liked the feeling of working on a book as a book, as opposed to trying to write enough good stories to include. Both experiences are great, but this one was new!

I am certainly very curious as to how *The Big Dream* will be received by the wider world (wider than me, my writing group, my editor and my agent, I mean). I loved having *Once* in the world, and I feel very lucky that it was read by folks who were open to and enjoyed the things I was doing. But you are right, there is a touch of pressure that comes from having such a positive run--how to top it? What if people don't like *Dream,* or just don't like it quite as much? But in the end, it was the book that I needed to write, to move on and grow and challenge myself after *Once*, and I feel a like I became a better writer in doing it. I feel *The Big Dream* is a stronger, more complicated book than *Once.* So there really was never any other option...but I still hope people like it!!

AH: Who are some of your favourite writers?

RR: This is always so hard--whatever I've been reading recently always crowds to the front of my mind when I'm asked "favourite" questions. I read Michael Christie's *The Beggar's Garden* recently, and it was like he sat down and said, "What book would Rebecca like to read?" and then wrote that. Such tender, understated, funny descriptions of people who live on the margins of our perceptions. I felt this way, even more strongly, about Alexander MacLeod's *Light Lifting* last fall.

I love short story classics, of course of course. Munro and Updike, forever. I read novels too--the last great one was maybe Joshua Ferris's *The Unnamed.* I read an incredible collection of Dionne Brand's poetry not too long ago, and I'm halfway through Van Gogh's letters... I read a lot.

(Author Photo credit: Dave Starrett)

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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