Interview with Rebecca Rosenblum, Author of Once

Following up the recent review of Once, Sheila Lamb interviews the author, Rebecca Rosenblum. Once, a collection of sixteen short stories, is the winner of the Metcalf-Rooke Award and published by Biblioasis.

When did you begin writing? Has writing been consistent throughout your life?

I wrote some small things–mainly poems, bad ones–in my journal starting around age 11-12, but I don’t think it was with a thought of “literature” or anything. I just thought I had so many feelings that they needed to be expressed in poetry. In high-school, I started writing humour bits for the yearbook and the school newspaper and pretty much anyone who asked. I also did some short stories in high school–even some that didn’t suck–but I was pretty inconstant. Stories and I had a long engagement. I flirted with the form all through university without ever really committing. I was always struggling to paste them together into something longer, or to break down the story form into something else–I tried writing a fugal story, a stochastic story, etc. For years after that, I tried to write a novel, and it was only grad school that I realize that short stories and I *clicked*, and maybe I should make the most of that.

Tell us about your graduate program at Toronto. How did the program impact your writing?

The impact was huge, and hugely positive–I was extremely lucky. I am always able to shut down mean-spirited “can anyone really *learn* creative writing in school?” conversations by saying, “I did.” I don’t mean that I don’t think I had any natural talent, or that I didn’t work hard on my own, but I’m not a natural loner, and I found writing on my own very hard. I’d go off in a million directions, lose interest in projects, lose motivation, and I just didn’t know what writing seriously *looked* like. Before grad school, I had a lot of people in my life who thought it was great that I wrote, I had a lot of support, but no one who could actually *help* me. To go to UofT and talk about writing every day, to hang out with people who wanted to do what I wanted to do, to have to be disciplined and meet deadlines and think of writing as a job rather than a lark was also very useful to me. I love to workshop–I know it’s not for everyone, but I love to get a million different opinions and sift through them until I know the right answer. And at UofT, I got to workshop with great writers, and hang out with them a lot besides. And Leon Rooke was my mentor and thesis advisor for my second year–you see what I mean about good luck. The best creative writing teachers are the ones who take the time and care to figure out what the student is actually *trying to do*, and then help that student get there. Leon helped me so much–with listening, with writing exercises, with loaned and gifted books and reading lists, with coffee, with tough criticism delivered kindly, and genuine celebration when I managed what I was striving for. There was also a lot of hand-holding–mainly metaphorical, occasionally literal. Leon was (and is) a brilliant teacher and a tonne of fun. Yes, lucky indeed.

How did you gather the stories for Once into a collection?

I didn’t quite do that, actually. I really just took the best things I’d written over 3-4 years and put them in a pile, then let my editor pick the ones that fit into a book. It hurt to let some of them go, but I knew it had to happen–no one is going to buy a 400 page short-story collection from a first-time author–so it was best to let an expert do the choosing. Some of the stories are linked in Once, but that happened really naturally. I’d write one story as a stand-alone, and then someone would say, “What ever happened with this character that only has two paragraphs?” And at first I’d think “I have no idea,” but then I’d realize I did now and I could write about it. So we did try to keep all the linked stories in the collection and kind of spaced throughout, but that wasn’t necessarily the plan at the beginning. Well, there wasn’t any plan, really, at the beginning or ever.

Where do you find your characters  – or do they find you?

They find me, I guess. As I was saying in the last question, sometimes I’ll just sort of wonder about a what a person would be like if he or she had certain characteristics, certain problems, this sort of car, etc. Not knowing anything definite about this person in reality–since he or she *isn’t* in reality–forces me to create a fictional character that I can know in a satisfying, thorough way. I try to just really think about who this person is and what he/she would care about, and who would be the major players in his/her life and how would they interact, and how would they all react if, say, one of them got fired or they got a new puppy, or anything that seems to make sense in the context. And then that’s, somehow, a story.

Where do you think the short story fits in modern publishing?

It’s a beautiful genre to read, and a challenging one to write…but so are all the others. I think modern publishing needs to do as many different things as possible–neo-formalism and po-mo, comic and tragic, epic and short–in order to keep us on our toes as readers. And despite all the Chicken Little headlines about how short stories are hard to publish, we still see a new crop of brilliant collections every fall and spring. It’s a tough economy: everything’s hard to publish! Great TV shows don’t obviate our desire to watch movies. Though an individual might prefer one or the other, the best bet for a well-tuned brain is to sample everything.

We’re looking forward to The Big Dream. What’s next?

Thanks! It’s too soon to tell what spaghetti strand is actually going to stick to the wall–my pattern has seemed to go: failure, finished book, failure, finished book…so I definitely don’t want to make any promises! I am thinking in terms of a book, though–I like the scope of 200ish pages, though I don’t necessarily feel a need to sustain one single thing throughout it. That sounds a bit opaque: I mean I want to see what I can do with a book-length narrative that’s not a novel. I did a bit of that with The Big Dream — the stories are all linked by place and shared circumstances (all the characters work for or are somehow involved in the fortunes of a magazine company called Dream Inc.), and there’s a bit of a longer plot arc through the book. But I’d like to do more with the form of the linked short-story–I  feel like there’s a lot of possibilities I haven’t fully considered yet. But this is all pie-in-the-sky: I’ve been writing mainly non-fiction since I finished The Big Dream, which was only a couple months ago, anyway. Right now, I’m ok with not knowing what comes next!

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