Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions, with Rebecca Rosenblum

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Rebecca Rosenblum

Rebecca Rosenblum is the award winning author of two collections of short stories and a chapbook. Her short fiction has been nominated for the Journey Prize and the Danuta Gleed Award. Rosenblum's first collection, Once, won the Metcalf-Rooke Award. Rosenblum has also participated as a juror for the Journey Prize in 2009. Her latest collection of short fiction, entitled The Big Dream (Biblioasis), was released this fall.

Open Book:

Tell us about your latest book, The Big Dream.

Rebecca Rosenblum:

The Big Dream is a collection of interweaving short stories about life at the offices of Dream Inc., a lifestyle-magazine publisher. In these stories, the Dream staff struggle to do — and keep — their jobs in a tough market, but they’re also trying to have friends, to be good parents and good children, to answer the phone and be happy. The Big Dream is a book about how life doesn’t stop on company time. Sometimes the “dream job” and dream life that's supposed to come with it don't pan out, but in The Big Dream the joys and sorrows and sandwiches of waking life are more than enough to sustain us. This is a book not about jobs, but about the people who do them.

OB:

What were some of the challenges and opportunities of writing in an office setting?

RR:

I think both the challenge and the opportunity was that I was writing about something that a lot of readers would already know a lot about. If the book were about pearl-diving or thoracic surgery, I could get close to how it feels or looks or whatever, and what percentage of readers could call me on it, really? Whereas, with something so much of the population lives every day, you can’t stray too far, but you also walk a fine line trying to avoid people being bored.

A negative blog review of Once (my first book) said something along the lines of “this book is too much like my actual life to be interesting”, which I actually found a really cool thing to hear, but I get that it’s important to know the difference between being accurate and too-accurate.

OB:

How did you decide on the order and organization of stories in the collection?

RR:

This was really hard, and it actually changed at the last minute. This is a linked collection, in that all the stories take place within the same setting and approximately the same time-frame, and some characters appear in more than one story. But a few of the stories are actually more or less simultaneous—a meanwhile in another part of the forest sort of thing. Because of that, the collection couldn’t be chronological, so I didn’t even try on that front—I just ordered the stories on an emotional arc. But then Dan Wells (the publisher at Biblioasis) pointed out that certain small details in the stories, out of time sequence, seemed contradictory, or else baffling. He was totally right, I had just been too close in to see it. So I reordered the stories, hoping to retain my emotional arc while not, you know, driving readers crazy. I think I succeeded, but I guess I’ll know for sure once people start reading it.

OB:

Is there a character from the collection with whom you particularly identify? If so, why?

RR:

It’s a cornball answer, but I have to do it — All of them! I have a really hard time writing about characters that I can’t relate to at all. I need to find a point of correspondence, of empathy, or they wind up reading really false and lame. Not to say that I am in agreement with everyone I write about—a few of the characters in this book are pretty awful — but just that I get where they’re coming from, and why they feel they need to do what they do.

That said, I do have my own little cameo in the book. It’s very much an Alfred Hitchhock-inspired move — someone who looks like me, doing something I would do, just slips by in the background and is forgotten. It was self-indulgent, yes, but I don’t think distracting to the reader. And it makes me happy — I’m in a book!

OB:

What was the most challenging part of writing this book?

RR:

Maybe just declaring it done? I don’t mean to downplay the work on the writing; any work that strives to be excellent is challenging. But I did really enjoy writing this book, about the sorts of issues and people I really care about, and the sort of humour that makes me laugh. But you get an image in your head — or at least I do — about this Platonic ideal of a story, and then what you actually get on the page falls short. Sometimes it’s not even my failure to be brilliant, it’s just that the story went in a different direction than I anticipated. It’s hard to let go and admit you don’t actually need to rewrite it again—what you need is to let go.

OB:

This is your second full-length collection. How did the writing experience differ from your first book?

RR:

The most obvious way would be in terms of confidence and support. I felt very good about the way Once was received by both critics and readers — not everyone loved it, but most people at least seemed to get what I was trying to do, and many did in fact like it. So that brought a lot of hope that I could speak to readers in this collection, too.

But another big difference was that Once is a mainly unlinked collection, and those stories that have connections were written by chance — I simply collected the best stories I had at that time and some of them happened to have overlapping characters and settings. Whereas with The Big Dream, I always knew that I was writing a linked collection, and I had some basic parameters for the larger story before I had gone very far. So I wrote each story with some context already set in my mind. Though I also worked hard to make the stories stand alone as complete pieces, it was very interesting to work on something that was explicitly a book-length project. There was momentum and some safety in knowing basically where I had to go and what I had to work with, but it was also kind of exciting to be able to tell a bit of a longer story, but not have to commit to a single point-of-view or timeline. I sort of think that linked collections are an underused form — I think there’s a lot to be done with it.

OB:

What book or books would you recommend for a great office lunch break read?

RR:

Well, short stories of course — I’m biased towards the form, but it’s also very satisfying to read a complete one in less than half an hour, with time left over to go for a walk or talk to a colleague, even eat something. I suggest web stories — saves you lugging the book to work, plus if you’re looking at your screen, colleagues won’t know you’re on break so they won’t ask you to do anything. Joyland’s got so many great stories it could keep you going for years of lunch hours, and Found Press is putting out a lot of cool stuff too. And I hear Danforth Review is coming back in the fall — very exciting.
 

OB:

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received as a writer?

RR:

Well, it wasn’t given specifically to me, but Conor Oberst said (sang), “Into the caverns of tomorrow with just our flashlights and our love / We must plunge, we must plunge, we must plunge.” That seems like good advice for a writer.

OB:

What would you say to readers who are reluctant to try short fiction?

RR:

Not sure if this is about those reluctant to read short fiction or to write it. If it’s to read it, me advice is to be to read a story. Just one—not a book of them. I think people get nervous when they read a story in twenty minutes and there’s a whole cast of characters and emotions to absorb, and then it’s like, more? I think it was Mavis Gallant who said short stories were for reading and then shutting the book — you can just shoot through a whole raft of them, but it’s better to pace yourself.

If you’re reluctant to try to writing short stories, maybe try reading a bunch of them (one at a time, of course) and see if it’s anything you want to try doing. If it’s not, maybe you’re a novelist or a poet or a playwright at heart. I’m not a short-story exclusivist — you’ve got to work in the medium that speaks to you.

OB:

What is your next project?

RR:

Like I said previously, I’m really excited about linked collections these days. I’m trying to see what I can do with the form without making the book about the form. It’s still the early days with the project, so maybe I’ll make more sense of it later on in the process.

Rebecca Rosenblum’s fiction has been short-listed for the Journey Prize, the National Magazine Award, and the Danuta Gleed Award, and she was herself a juror for the Journey Prize in 2009. Her first collection of short stories, Once, won the Metcalf-Rooke Award and was one of Quill and Quire’s 15 Books That Mattered in 2008. A chapbook, Road Trips, was published by Frog Hollow Press in 2010, and her second collection, The Big Dream, was released by Biblioasis in the fall of 2011. Rebecca is from a small town near Hamilton, Ontario, and now lives, works, and writes in Toronto.

For more information about The Big Dream please visit the Biblioasis website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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