INTERVIEW: Robert McKean of Issue 5 1


Update! Issue 5 now available in our online store here.

Next up in our “get to know our Issue 5 authors” blog spree–okay, maybe it’s not a spree yet, but it *will* be–is Robert McKean! His short story, “That’s All That Matters,” can be found beginning on page nine of Issue 5–don’t worry, we’ll let you know as soon as we have issues ready for purchase (SOON!)–and starts with the word “mice.”

"A novel I wrote featured a chocolate shop. Not knowing a thing about making chocolate, I persuaded my wife to accompany me on a week-long intensive course in chocolate-making. I’m the worried one in the green hat laboring over my misshapen chocolate mice, she’s the one with a big silly grin under the red hat."

“A novel I wrote featured a chocolate shop. Not knowing a thing about making chocolate, I persuaded my wife to accompany me on a week-long intensive course in chocolate-making. I’m the worried one in the green hat laboring over my misshapen chocolate mice, she’s the one with a big silly grin under the red hat.”

Who is your favorite character in literature and why?
In another interview recently I talked about having dinner with Falstaff. I don’t believe I’m rated for another carouse with Sir John, so I am going to choose Aeneas. Virgil may have composed his epic poem two millennia ago, but Aeneas could easily walk into our 21st Century. A reluctant, deferential, questioning, and often, frankly, baffled hero, Aeneas is constantly asking why he, so unworthy, has been tasked with such an oppressive destiny that should blow him willy-nilly across most of the known world. Probably the most heart-wrenching scene in literature takes place when that same destiny pulls him away from Dido, whom he achingly loves, and she in despair immolates herself, a burning pyre he can see from his ship.  (I recommend Robert Fitzgerald’s translation of The Aeneid; I have been trying the poem in Latin, but the seas are heavy.)

What are you reading now?
Glad you asked:

John Donne’s Selected Sermons on the Psalms and Gospels.  JD didn’t succeed in converting the nonbeliever in me, but his prose is gorgeous. Now I am happily over my head in his poems.

James Wood’s How Fiction Works. I have written third-person fiction for decades. It is the most subtle, slippery, beguiling, and sophisticated  art form I know. For years I have been saying I have to write a book on the third-person. Well, Wood has written a book a hundred times better than I would have. (I heard him speak at Boston’s Grub Street Muse & and the Marketplace a couple of years ago, truly a stirring, impassioned talk.)

Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Mort d’Arthur. Malory wrote the same Middle English as Chaucer, but having lived a generation later his Middle English is far easier to negotiate. Here’s a quote, the virtuous Sir Alysaundir le Orpheline reacting to an immodest proposal from the sinister, debauched Morgan le Fey: “A, Jesu defende me frome suche pleasure—for I had levir kut away my hangers than I wolde do her ony suche pleasure!”

Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island. Creepy, impossibly implausible, but gripping.

What is one book you’ve always wanted to read but haven’t quite managed somehow?
Three, actually:

Finnegans Wake — I have spent much time reading and studying Joyce, he is one of the captains of my ship, but I fear I will never make it through FW alive.

Gravity’s Rainbow — No excuse for this, I like Pynchon quite a lot; just seems never to make the book cut.

Infinite Jest — a new addition to the unread list; it’s still beside the bed, I haven’t given up, but it is struggle. The last time I picked it up I was suffering a very poisonous bout of insomnia — David Foster Wallace did not help.

Can often be found…
Evenings, dinners with my wife in warm months outside on a screened porch; in cold months, the same, before a fire in the living room. Along with writing, I play the piano (poorly) and bake whole grain sourdough artisan bread. The piano is probably hopeless, but the bread is getting damned good.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever heard about writing?
Two pieces:

Write the book that is missing in the library.

Don’t quit your day job.

Anything else random or weird or delightful or exciting you want Armchair/Shotgun readers to know?
Music. Play it if you are blessed with that gift, listen to it, try to hear it in your prose. All language, if well balanced, sings. I woke this morning at four recalling a line I thoughtlessly typed above yesterday. Speak this line aloud, listen for the lilt of the first three lovely two-syllable words, followed by the three short, staccato, one-syllable words: Da-vid | Fos-ter | Wal-lace || did | not | help. A throwaway line, yes, sure, but still: If one wished, one could set that to music.

ROBERT MCKEAN lives in Newton, Massachusetts, with his wife and Cosmo the Cat. McKean’s work has appeared in The Kenyon Review, The Chicago Review, Dublin Quarterly, The MacGuffin, Ruminate, The Bacon Review, Front Range Review and elsewhere. The setting for his fiction is Ganaego, Pennsylvania, a steel-mill company town. Over the decades that his fiction spans, the characters form a diverse ethnic, racial, and generational stew of lives and passions. His collection of short stories was a finalist in the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction, and the Sewanee Writers’ Series. He is currently working on a novel based on the Little Steel Strike of 1937.

Just a friendly reminder: Armchair/Shotgun is open for submissions through March 31st!