This Month’s Canadian Affair, pt.1 — The World According to … Rebecca Rosenblum

On the 1st and 15th of Every Month, Salty Ink Takes a Look at What’s Going on up in Canada, Profiling Some of Our Notable Canadian Counterparts and/or Books I’ve Deemed Worth Cheating on Salty Ink’s Mandate for …

Canadian Short Fiction Champ, Rebecca Rosenblum. (c) Dave Kemp

 Rebecca Rosenblum …

Those of you familiar with Newfoundland audio book publisher, Rattling Books, and their ultra hip anthology series, Ear Lits, will have heard Rosenblum’s stellar stories, “Christmas with My Mother” and “The Weatherboy.” Or … you’ve seen her work in the million other places its found itself.

Rebecca’s an exclusive writer of the short story, who’s been compared to Alice Munro by critic Steven Beattie. Her short fiction has been shortlisted for all three of the country’s major short story gold detectors: the Journey Prize, the National Magazine Award, and the Danuta Gleed Award. (She was herself a juror for the Journey Prize 21.) And her work has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including the honourable Coming Attractions and Best Canadian Stories.

How does she accomplish this? Take the above photo as proof she ” works in publishing during the day and writes short stories evenings and weekends, and…that’s pretty much it. I spend my remaining time on the bus or asleep or both.”

Her debut, Once, won the Metcalf-Rooke Award and was one of Quill and Quire’s 15 Books That Mattered in 2008. It featured 16 stories that set Rosenblum apart as a distinct voice in Canadian short fiction. Her latest collection, The Big Dream, is brand new on the shelves, and her publisher sent me a copy the very day I read and fell in love with  “How to Keep Your Dayjob” on The Afterword, so I dove right in to it. Like most of her writing, it depicts the monstrously large role our dayjobs play in our lives.

A Quick Review of The Big Dream

The stories in The Big Dream act like 13 sneak-peek snapshots of the staff at a magazine, Dream Inc., as they struggle to keep their jobs and dreams alive. Where most books act like a character’s job is secondary to who they are, The Big Dream focuses on the truth of the matter: we are never separate from what we do to pay the bills. And she best shows this in the stories that aren’t even set within the office: we don’t have to be physically there for our mind to be on the job, or on someone at work, or on something that happened at work, or, conversely, how our personal lives aren’t on pause when we’re there. In “Complimentary Yoga,” a man is in love with his boss, who certainly doesn’t care for the guy she’s bound to fire. But he fabricates an entirely believable and creepy delusion that speaks to the reality of the inter-office romances, uneven personal bonds, and real-life emotional connections we form with the people we see 40 hours a week (i.e more than we see our partners). Sometimes it shows another reality: work bonds us to people we wouldn’t normally associate with, were we not co-workers. This is shown caustically in “After the Meeting.”  The book also marks Rosenblum as an original, dialogue-strong stylist among Canadian short story writers.

The World According to Rebecca Rosenblum …

2 great songs …

How about 2 great writing songs?

“Rewrite” by Paul Simon

and “Rattled by Failure” by the Paperbacks

2 great books …

… about writers and the writing life: Bech: A Book by John Updike and Forde Abroad by John Metcalf

2 great authors …

… that have inspired me lately: Mavis Gallant and Joshua Ferris

I’ve been calling Biblioasis the country’s metal detector for short fiction gold. Is there a Biblioasis-published collection you’ve recently read and loved?

Well, there’s Clark Blaise and then there’s the rest of us. The Meagre Tarmac is very different from the work of his I’ve read previously. Though I haven’t read everything he’s done, it’s the first time I’ve gotten this sense of communal life, of characters knowing each other and affecting each other’s lives across stories, drawing the reader into a world bigger than the pages of the book. It’s engaging and, in some small ways, very warm—which cushions some of the harsher realities that Blaise always has in his stories. It’s a very hard collection to describe, but a very very good one—generous to the readers and to the characters.

Dan Wells at Biblioasis is among my most respected figures in Canadian publishing. Is he a big reason you’ve continued publishing with Biblioasis?

Cathy Stonehouse, Laura Boudreau, and Rebecca Rosenblum, with Biblioasis publisher Dan Wells, on their Women of the Short Sory (WOSS) Tour

Absolutely. I’m sure he would be deeply alarmed by your “most respected figures” comment, but I’m also sure it’s true for a lot of people, myself included. There’s something to be said for not listening to the hype, just doing the work, and the work will speak. In 7 years, Dan (and a host of wonderful others) have created a publishing company that you can’t dismiss with words like small or independent. The books on their list are always worth reading—you might not like every one, but they repay the time spent. The covers and pages are also lovely, and they promote and support their authors as well as any publisher in Canada, I think.

You can’t ignore that Dan chose to launch our “Women and the Short Story” tour on his birthday, his whole family came to the reading, and Biblioasis’s publicity assistant/superwoman Tara Murphy made us all cake. Stuff like that makes it fun, and warm, and cushions the blows when literary life doesn’t run smooth, as it often doesn’t. The respect is on a professional level and on a personal one as well—you can’t work that hard without a considerable amount of love for what you do.

So, Steven Beattie, a critic best known for his harsh (mostly valid) opinions, dubbed your debut, Once, “The most exciting first book of short stories by a Canadian writer since Munro’s Dance of the Happy Shades.” Are you a Munro fan? Have a favourite collection or short?

I admire Steven and appreciate his assessment, but that’s a terrifying comparison to live up to—I don’t know that I ever will. That’s ok—Munro is a worthwhile summit to shoot for. The best thing about her? In my opinion, it’s that she keeps getting better, getting weirder, challenging what it is we think of her—yeah, she’s that northern Ontario mid-twentieth century childhood/underappreciated and overeducated young girl/unhappy marriages writer, but lately she’s been doing all this other stuff. Like the totally bizarre piece, “Some Women” (I don’t know if it’s in a collection; I read it in the New Yorker a few years back)—you think it’s just what she’s always done, but it is, but it isn’t.

What about the ultimate collection or short story, one of your very favourites?

Once you know a lot about any given genre, or form, or school of cooking for that matter, it’s very hard to have favourites. The best surreal stories are in a completely different category from the best modernist stories, and it’s so hard to compare Mansfield to Atwood, or Proulx to Cheever, or Barthelme to anyone. That said, one story-writer I return to again and again is John Updike. His stories are so quiet and lovely, emotional and yet funny, and his voice is so purely his. Sometimes I hate the people he writes about, but I always love them too. My favourite collection of his is Too Far to Go — I love the Maples. But any of his stories have that tone, that warmth, that strange little spark.

You’ve been acknowledged by all three if the country’s major short fiction awards – The Journey Prize, The Danuta Gleed Award, and the National Magazine Award. What’s been a serious career highlight so far?

I think the highlights are not the nominations themselves, but the praise implied by the company you’re put in. When I was up for those prizes, it was beside a short story by Craig Boyko and The Withdrawal Method by Pasha Malla. Their books are an honour to have mine compared with. Seriously, read them immediately. I’ve also read with the best—Elizabeth Hay, David Bergen, Kathleen Winter, tonnes of others. To be put on a bill with someone I really admire is a huge compliment—I always try to live up to it.

In your acknowledgments, you thank one of my favourite short story writers, Jessica Grant, “for whom ‘How to Keep Your Dayjob’ was originally written as a performance piece.” What’s the story there?

(This One?)                  (… no, this one.)

It’s actually a different story than you’re thinking, because it’s a different Jess Grant! The one I’m talking about is a Toronto improviser who has performed with a couple different groups, including the theatre group Free Biscuit, which I was also briefly a part of (FB is no more, sadly). We were doing a night of short monologues and were each assigned a performer to write for, and Jessica was mine. She spent a lot of time performing all the various drafts for me, which was really generous. I had never written for the stage before, and she really helped me see what worked and what didn’t. It was a big relief to rewrite the piece, after the performance, as a story, but a lot from the stage version stayed in.

You also thank Kerry Clare, of Pickle me This and Canadian Bookshelf, who introduced you at your launch. How did you two meet?

Grad school. I had an amazing class in the University of Toronto Creative Writing Masters, but Kerry Clare is the one I had and have the most in common with, personally and creatively. I think we both want a lot of the same things from fiction, written and read, and we have a good time talking about it. And everything else, too—she is a very easy person to talk to, so I was really grateful that she agreed to conduct the stage interview at The Big Dream’s book launch. She always asks very insightful questions, but she’s also a lot of fun, so I was able to escape nervousness…well, mainly.

The Big Dream is very much a collection about co-worker relations — fabricated and factual — and how, to quote from a story, “Our jobs are our reality.” The job-life connection has played a role in your previous writing as well. What draws you to this concept? And what do you do by day to pay the bills?

Jobs are a part of life—quite often up to 50% of our waking lives. I find a lot of fiction disingenuous in pretending everything important in our emotional lives happens after hours or on the weekends. We continue to be thinking, feeling, weird, emotional people even while we’re working on spreadsheets in a grey baffle-cloth cubicle. I’ve been working in publishing on and off for—oh god—almost 10 years now, and most of that has been in large office buildings in small cubicles. I have met some fascinating people in that time, learned a lot, and done some good work. Sometimes I’ve been ignored or pushed around, sometimes things have been very boring indeed, but I never stopped growing and evolving as a human being, even on the clock. I feel that sort of life—the one I and most people I know live—is not represented enough on the Canadian page. I wanted to do that.

Another line from the book, “He was wasting a perfectly good girlfriend.” To what degree do you think the necessary evil of work gets in the way of who we are, and, our connections with others?

It depends on how you interpret that line and that relationship in the book. I was writing about someone who pretty literally needs to work to survive—he has a lot of debt and little else—dating someone who didn’t really get that concept, someone who thinks if you don’t like your job you don’t need to stay. That’s a really hard bridge to cross; for a lot of people it’s the bridge between childhood and adulthood. I think whether work unites or divides people is as individual a question as each relationship. It’s how you deal that matters, not what you do.

What’s been the worst or most awkward moment in your writing career, or something you dislike about the industry?

Oh, man, I need to stop telling this story, but I love it. Very early on in the writing thing, before I’d done anything or knew anyone, I wound up getting invited to a very fancy, very exclusive, very huge arts-industry party. The invitation explicitly said I was not to bring a guest. “Ah, they want us to mingle and meet new people,” I thought sagely. So I got very dressed up and went all the way across town to this enormous event that actually had velvet ropes and searchlights outside. The thing that makes this sound like a morality tale is that I ran into friends sitting on a patio drinking beer on my way to the party. They wanted me to come sit with them but then they saw how dressed up I was and said, “Oh, you need to go to your fancy party.” So I get there and present my invitation and go in, and there might literally have been a thousand people. I knew no one, and of course no one was mingling with strangers; sane people who attended this party did so in posses, or at least somehow arranged to meet up with folks there. No one talked to me except waiters and bartenders. I did a couple circuits of the room, had two drinks and assorted very elaborate hors d’oerves (cream soup in shot glasses!) and then went home in dismay. I was there less than 20 minutes, but by the time I got all the way back to my neighbourhood, my friends had left the patio and I had no choice but to go home in my finery. See? Total morality tale.

What’s been the best or funniest moment in your writing career, or something you love about the industry?

Oh, it’s too hard to pick—there’s been so many good times. Yesterday was pretty fun—how about that? I was a part of a roundtable on the short story for Quill & Quire with all these amazing people, and then they decided to do a photo shoot of us, so we got to meet and hang out in person for a couple hours. It was so nice to do that, but at the same time, it’s very hard to be photographed, period, let alone with a bunch of other people you’ve not met before. It was Michael Christie, Jessica Westhead, D.W. Wilson, and me (Alexander MacLeod was also in the roundtable, but too far away for the photo shoot, sadly), and none of us knew what to do with our hands, or where to put our gazes, and we all had these lame ideas for how to pose. If they weren’t such funny, kind people, and the photographer weren’t so patient and generous, it could’ve been a disaster; instead, it was a kind of brilliant way to spend a rainy Wednesday morning.

What’s the worst thing you’ve done so far this year?

I got stuck in the lineup at Gatwich airport right before the border patrol strike—3 hours in a barely ventilated hallway. Ugh.

What’s the best?

Get engaged. I’ve swapped the order so we can end on a positive note.

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