We had this conversation on Thursday the 11th of September at a Toronto coffee shop, and, as ever, I was impressed by her outfit.
I: What do you see as the links between the stories in Once? Tell us about your book.
RR: Some connections are obvious- characters reoccur, come into each others' stories, and also some locations reoccur. A lot of people moving through the same neighbourhoods, and in my mind passing each other on the street, being in each others' worlds, and I think those are connections that a reader doesn't necessarily need to get. I feel the stories are united by that, and by characters being in the same sorts of worlds. Some are in Toronto, in Montreal, some are in a place that doesn't really exist. But they're also kind of in the same places emotionally. It's a book about younger people and people who aren't fitting quite as well-- and it's not clear if that's "yet", if they're going to get it together. There are a lot of possibilities inherent.
I: Judging from these stories, what are your fixations as a writer?
RR: I've had some time to think about this and my first thing is people and that I'm a character-driven writer but more than that I'm interested in how people move into each other, pass each other. Incidental people who aren't the great loves of your life, or you mother, daughter-- [these people who] don't have a fixed place but still matter. And because of that I'm interested in the places where we're most open to [these connections]. I'm interested in writing stories in public places, like transit, which packs people in together. I'm interested in that.
I: What is it about transit?
RR: I love it so much. I'm from the country, as a kid I couldn't go anywhere, was always failing my drivers test. If I got out on the lawn, there was only cornfields. So the freedom to go anywhere, to see strangers, which also doesn't happen in the country. If there is a stranger, there is a reason for them to be there-- they're plumber, or the superintendent of the school. With transit there is a combination of freedom and the human aspect. And also the logic of necessity-- I'm certainly not getting a car.
I: You write a lot about workplaces too. What about work do you find interesting?
RR: I've always found work a very challenging environment. As a teenager it was my first interaction with random people and it was really hard to have to do something you're bad at, to have to do something you don't like, and to have to turn off the rest of your life for eight hours. And I feel like that's really often not acknowledged. A lot of novels take place between 6:30 and midnight, and it's not really clear what goes on the rest of the day.
I: But then we want stories that are profound and wonderful, and the rest of the day can be so banal.
RR: Even if it is banal, it's still creating a sense of self for the worker. "This is who I am" or, in reaction, "this is who I'm not". Ideally, there are relationships- colleagues, competition, contact, you can't escape that. I had a job once where I could and that was terrible. Doing freelance. Alone in my living room with no one to tell me what to do.
I: How do you see your title as relating to the whole collection?
RR: The title came about for a much earlier draft of the book, which was focused on the more magical stories. And I was trying to work against the idea of a fairy tale as being out of time and out of place and about people who aren't really people but just archetypes. I wanted my more magical stories to be grounded in time, place, character. I wanted them to be about real people with extra stuff, like the ability to fly, but they weren't lacking in character, history, or minimum wage jobs. "Once" was an answer to "Once Upon A Time", putting time in a position that is specific and concrete.
I: I was also thinking "once" in terms of progress, transition. Once something happens, then something follows.
RR: I hope the characters are people in their lives, people moving, acting in their lives, and that something is going to come next. That they're characters who've been somewhere before the first page of the story and they're going somewhere after the last.
I: You once got annoyed by reading the following by Eudora Welty: "In a story you don't go into character in order to develop him. He was born full grown, and he's present there to perform his part in the story. He's subservient to his function, and he doesn't exist outside it." Why do you disagree with this? But why do you think that Welty feels the way she does?
RR: I'm not that familiar with Eudora Welty, or her work. Of course there are writers who use story differently than I do, develop a theme, tight plot line-- like Guy de Maupassant-- not using fully developed characters, but a lot happens. These characters are a few strokes and you don't need anything more to feel the poignancy of what happens. But I like stories where characters are more than the sum of their events. That's the kind of story I want to read and the kind of story I want to write, and I guess it seemed like Welty thought that there was only one kind of story.
I: There are many overlaps between your stories-- recurring characters and places. In your book you've created a miniature world with life going on, and I want to know, how does the imaginary world you've created differ from the actual one? What rules are different? What are the same?
RR: It's really on a case-by-case basis. And the things that will work for one character won't work for another.
I: Would Chilly Girl go to Pho-Mi 99?
RR: I wanted it to be clear that magic could exist in the world as we recognize it, but that it just might not have come up yet. So Chilly Girl's condo party, and the view of the harbour- they're all things that I've experienced. Or "Route 99" and "Linh Lai" and "Kids These Days" all overlap, "Route 99" and "Linh Lai" have incidents of magic but "Kids These Days" does not, and that's the different way the lives of these characters are going.
I: But the end of "Kids These Days" was magical.
RR: That's a story that went back and forth, and all over the place, and was terrible for a while. Some drafts had magic and some didn't and those were the drafts that worked better.
I: Your work isn't magical realism though. (Which I think is a funny term, because doesn't all fiction require a suspension of disbelief?) Your stories have the effect of magic alongside realism. How does each inform the other?
RR: Yeah, with characters in any story, readers have to be able to believe in them from scratch. We've never seen them, but we have to buy in to enjoy it, so to go one further and say they'll do things we've never seen before-- I don't know if it's so different.
I: But some readers have a problem with it. Personally I prefer your subtler magic, which sits alongside the realism.
RR: And I think that's the way I'm growing up as a writer. I wrote this book over a long time and I had a lot of help and I think a lot of that learning was to reign the wilder points of fancy in and make them more meaningful.
I: I want to ask you about names-- nicknames, unusual names. Names establish parametres in your stories. How do you name your characters? Do you ever change their names midway, and what effect does this have?
RR: I often will name the character the first thing that comes to me when think about them and assume this holds some organic truth. Often it doesn't, but I feel really strongly about names, about my own name, and so it seems disrespectful towards characters to change theirs. Though sometimes it's got to be done. It is great to be able to use all the names I want to use too-- so many names it would be unfortunate to name your dog or your baby, but characters in a story are different.
I: What would you really like to say to the next person who asks when you're going to try to write novels?
RR: I find it a very mean question-- "when are you going to quit your job and do something else?" "When are you going to divorce that guy and marry something better?" When you've obviously made a choice or are in a position and you think its all right. It's a very strange question to be asked. I think I would say, "That's mean, leave it." I think, "What's wrong with what the stories, why do I have to do something else?" It's not like I'd never like to write a novel, but it seems strange.
I: Amy King writes in her introduction to your work in the latest The New Quarterly that she was "astonished to learn that the life of the protagonist of [your story] "Fruit Factory" was perhaps not the life of Rebecca Rosenblum." The story, she says, "is so evocative" that she feels "like she had snooped into [your diary]." Which made me feel better, that I'm not the only one. Because I usually know to observe (which might be to ignore?) the line between fact and fiction, but I remember sitting down with you a few years into our friendship, after thinking about this for about a year, and saying, "Listen, Rebecca. I don't want to pry. Um, but did you lose somebody close to you?" And I was all set to hear about your tragedy. Because I'd read your epic-ish poem "Dead Boyfriend Disco" of course, and I was convinced that you'd been tap-dancing in your tub.
RR: That's such high praise, what I aspire to. To make everything as real as real. So when you can convince somebody, that is a huge compliment. I try to be with the characters as much as possible, to be in their heads for weeks, months, years. To think out how their lives work. I don't usually do research beyond thinking (which is easy to do on the bus) but sometimes I will try to track down things I'm not sure of. And I do use clothes, sandwiches and stray lines from my own life, if I've feel that connection. I don't mean to say that I never write autobiographically, but I don't like to .
I: But you do get asked about the role autobiography plays in your fiction. What do you think of these questions?
RR: I don't think it's helpful, or relevant, and yet when I read a book, I want to know too. When I read something and author bio is close to that, I want to know more about the connection. I don't know why I want to know, but ideally I would like to think it's because we care about the characters, about the stories, and we hope for more story. If it's real, the story will keep going. That is the most positive spin I can put on it.
I: In your own life, what circumstances entirely unrelated to writing have made you a better writer?
RR: I think having a job helps so much. Just to be in the world for me is really important, which is what I didn't like about freelancing.
I: I usually ask about influences in a general sense, but I've got a general sense of yours already. So I want to know more about what you learned about literature from Francesca Lia Block.
RR: Abundance, I think. And joy in words and the abundance of words. Just keep going, keep describing and if one adjective is okay, then maybe four would be amazing. And don't just say they had dinner, but describe every condiment, and what they felt, and how it tasted as they kissed after. Certainly she's not anyone people are talking about as a serious writer, but she has the energy that you don't see very often, and maybe a kind of freedom to do whatever she wants because people are just going say "Oh she's YA" and keep walking.
I: What are you reading right now? What's up next?`
RR: I'm reading Red Calvary by Isaac Babel and I'm having a hard time. The violence is extraordinary, and the point of view is not what I'm familiar with. But I'm reading it because the descriptions are incredible, the one that everyone quotes is the guy whose legs look like young girls up to their necks in boots. It's so weird and perfect. I'm also reading Annie Dillard's The Writing Life.
I: I love that book!
RR: You're the reason I bought it. It's validation for what I'm doing,--the doubts, that Annie Dillard has felt it too.
I: What upcoming book in your own reading stack are you looking forward to?
RR: Claudia's Dey's Stunt, which I know is amazing because I've heard her read from it twice, and I want to read the whole of it.
(Once is out September 15th.)