Monday, January 11, 2016

rob mclennan - poet, publisher, critic

interview with rob mclennan, by Finn Harvor
Conducted over email from September 27 to October 1, 2012

(Note: My personal URL website is no more, and therefore I'm re-posting the interviews that I had up at that site. These are older pieces -- for example, this one with rob took place in fall summer 2012. However, with that context in mind, I think they remain interesting reading.)

Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of more than twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2011, and his most recent titles are the poetry collections Songs for little sleep, (Obvious Epiphanies, 2012), grief notes: (BlazeVOX [books], 2012), A (short) history of l. (BuschekBooks, 2011), Glengarry (Talonbooks, 2011) and kate street (Moira, 2011), and a second novel, missing persons (2009). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Jennifer Mulligan), The Garneau Review (, seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics ( and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater ( A member of the dusie kollectiv, he spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at

Finn Harvor: V. S. Naipaul has declared there are not any important writers anymore, Philip Roth has predicted the novel will become a cult activity, Peter Stothard has asked if fiction writing simply used to be better, Cullen Murphy, David Shields, Lee Seigel, and Geoff Dyer have all stated that non-fiction is superior to fiction. The list of people of letters who apparently have lost faith in literary fiction goes on and on; it is clear that an elementary questioning of the novel is not a passing cultural phase. Furthermore, the short story seems to be under siege as well: many agents and multinational publishers do not handle/publish story collections, small magazines seem perpetually underfunded, and a YouTube-ification of text and image seems to be taking short narrative in new directions. What is your opinion? Do the novel
and short story have a future? If so, what kind? And will e-technology alter the very forms of them? If so, how?

rob mclennan: That’s a good question: where is the novel going? I don’t really believe stories of ‘the death of the novel’ any more now than folk did, say, fifty years ago. The argument that non-fiction will end the novel is akin to suggesting the novel’s demise over the years due to the internet, television, movies or the telephone-machine. There will always be a place for stories to be told. There will be always a place and always a driving need for stories.

Short fiction has shifted enormously over the past few years, thanks to writers such as Pasha Malla, Sheila Heti, Lydia Davis and Sarah Manguso, all of whom I highly recommend. Honestly, writing has a responsibility to respond to the way we live, both immediately and anticipatory. Have you read the short stories Montreal writer Arjun Basu posts on Twitter? They’re incredible.

That being said, most of the fiction I see being published isn’t terribly interesting or challenging, and the shifts in the industry over the past decade or two mean that the really challenging works aren’t seeing print in the same way. There are the exceptions, of course, with magnificent works being produced by Sheila Heti, Lynn Crosbie, Michael Turner, Gail Scott, Ken Sparling, Marianne Apostolides, Margaret Christakos, Martha Baillie and the late John Lavery. Anansi is publishing some worthy fiction, as is BookThug, and Pedlar Press, but very few else really strikes me. Why is so much recent fiction so damned straight?

The rise of creative non-fiction is something I’ve been paying more attention to over the past half-decade, and I’m fascinated by it. The variation on the theme – great writing telling stories – certainly opens up the form more than some of the limitations presented in fiction, and certainly doesn’t threaten the novel in any way. But it certainly calls for fiction to up its game, and that can only be good.

Lack of funding is frustrating, but there will always be certain writers who produce no matter what. Money or not, reviews or not, publishing or not.

And e-publishing is simply another tool.

FH: Are the very significant structural changes taking place in the publishing industry having an effect on novel or short story writing? If so, how?

rm: As you stated above in your question, certainly! If publishers are refusing the short story as a form, it alters how certain writers produce, whether writing fewer stories, or pushing belligerently harder to write them, with certain smaller publishers doing exactly the same, publishing against the curve. Toronto’s Michael Bryson, for example, has been a champion of the short story as both writer and publisher (of the online The Danforth Review) for years. Ottawa’s Matthew Firth, writer and publisher of Black Bile Press, has done the same. Both have railed hard for the sake of the form, against much opposition, and should be regularly commended for their advocacies. The Puritan was founded purely to respond to the lack of forums for a particular flavour of short fiction. There are many more.

FH: Is the cutting back of mid-lists and a general cautiousness about taking risks on new or relatively unknown writers affecting the caliber of writing that does manage to get into print?

rm: I’ve heard that concern as well, that Canadian writing suffers for the sake of the “disappearing mid-list,” something Stephen Henighan talked about a few years ago during a panel at the ottawa international writers festival (I haven’t the knowledge or experience to discuss the same question in regards to literature from other countries). It was something I hadn’t heard articulated previously, and completely made sense. I know more than a few writers, for example, who each published a big novel with Knopf, and were immediately dropped as authors because their one title didn’t have massive pre-publication orders. This is completely shameful. Whatever happened to the long game, of supporting a writer over an extended period for a different kind of reward, not just financial, but artistic?

Small presses understand this, and there is something great about seeing, say, a fourth or fifth fiction title by Stan Rogal produced by Insomniac Press. It means that they support his work generally, and aren’t just banking on a single title to make or break their interest in him.

Russell Smith wrote a column recently in the Globe and Mail about how the internet had proven itself the complete opposite of the death of contemporary poetry, and I would say it has done the same for literature generally. If the trade publishers aren’t producing the exciting new works, they will be made available in other forms, including online, or through a wider access to self-publication. Compared to the publishing industry even a decade or two back, smaller presses now have their works available to a far larger potential readerships due to online sales. If the big guys won’t help, there are enough other options out there to simply leave them behind.

FH: Do you have an author’s website? Does it help you sell books?

rm: Well, I guess I do have an author’s website, but my web designer hasn’t updated it in about a decade or so. I focus instead on the blog at, which has a sidebar list of links to all of my trade books through each of their publisher’s websites. Does it sell books? I always wonder about that. I suspect it does.

FH: How do you feel about running an author’s website? Do you feel its a labour of love or an annoying imposition? Or something else altogether?

rm: As far as the website goes, I’m frustrated I don’t know how to do web design, and should really take the damned thing down. But the blog is remarkably easy, and I really hope everyone knows to go there instead. How could it be an imposition? If I want to make my living as a writer, it has to be through selling books, so I work to sell my books. I’ve always considered it a part of the business of writing and publishing.

FH: Is the selection system for novel and short story manuscripts fair? Should it be made blind?

rm: Well, it would only work blind if every other issue was on completely equal terms: if all authors were equally easy to work with, to edit/copy-edit, had the same personalities, were all equally able/willing to do tours and readings and were equally capable at public performance, and were seen completely equal by readers, bookstores, publicists, book editors, etcetera. That isn’t remotely possible, so other factors need to be considered. Is this fair? Probably not. But art is not a democracy, and neither is business. If Michael Ondaatje and I each submitted a book to the same publisher today, they would not be given equal weight. And why should they? Purely in the business sense alone, mine would be a risk, and his would be a grand-slam.

FH: According to media reports, e-book sales now represent a significant percentage of overall sales. But small bookstores see them as more a threat to their survival than anything else, and a lot of book people remain print people. Are you enthusiastic about e-books? Do they hold the potential for a renaissance in literary publishing? Or are they over-rated and too susceptible to piracy?

rm: I know many literary people who read work on various devices, many of whom do so for the sake of travel, which makes complete sense. My lovely wife has one as well, utilized predominantly during lengthy plane rides, and she is not only a writer herself, but a printer (we have various printing devices in our home, including a letterpress in the basement). Does this mean she’s betrayed print as a medium? Hardly. Again, this is simply a matter of utilizing different tools. We want folk to read and support literature. Does it matter if they read paper or electronic version? Not really.

I haven’t the technical knowledge to respond at all about piracy.

It means that the model has shifted, and bookstores and publishers are forced to adapt or die. And not everyone wants to read the same way. Nothing wrong with that. But whatever damage Chapters has done to the book industry (and it has been considerable), they have helped broaden the culture of books and reading. They just lowered the bar, in my mind, as far as quality, and all on the backs of publishers and writers. They appear more concerned with sales, no matter where and how they happen.

We just have to make sure better books are being read, and that those who produce them are allowed some kind of living wage. A part of the pie.

In the end, I myself favour the printed word, and feel no need to read an electronic device. But I understand those that do.

FH: What do you think of literary prizes? As Jason Cowley has commented, they reduce our culture’s ability to think in a critically complex fashion? Do they suggest, this book is worth reading and all these others aren't?

rm: Well, that is probably true. There are folk who most likely ignore everything except prize-winning books, as though that by itself is a mark of quality. I’ve seen highly intelligent people act as though a particular book can’t be worth anything because it didn’t win anything and/or wasn’t on a shortlist.

About a decade ago, a particular writer with a first book received a good amount of hype that everyone else repeated, which turned me off completely. I had the impression that the hype became self-generating, so book editors then didn’t have to actually read or think for themselves. There were plenty of other interesting books that came out that season that didn’t have a fraction of the same attentions. What does it mean?

FH: The website of Chaudiere Books describes it as a new press. Would you tell us a bit about how it got started and how things have gone for it so far?

rm: My friend Jennifer Mulligan got tired of hearing me complain that there were so few publishing options for Ottawa writers, despite the enormous wealth of writers and writing here. I was getting really frustrated, knowing how much is lost without something in town to really help with infrastructure, and it meant that a lot of great work was getting completely ignored. So we decided to become one of those options.

A community of writers requires an infrastructure of support. We wanted to become part of the solution.

So far, we’ve been pretty successful with the books we’ve produced, but the business end of it is still pretty confusing and overwhelming. We’re currently in a transitional mode, spending the past two years working to restructure the press, and get a strong foundation in place to continue. Hopefully by next year we can get back on track, and start producing books again.

FH: As a poet, you do a lot of crossover work, and seem active in spoken word: is this the wave of the future (i.e., do you think poetry moving in an increasingly interdisciplinary direction), or is simply a result of your own temperamental preferences? Or both?

rm: I wouldn’t call what I do spoken word. That’s an entirely different creature. I’m a print person who gives quality readings. I see it as much the difference between “garage” in the 1960s and “grunge” in the 1990s: a matter of naming.

FH: What are you working on now that you’re excited about?

rm: Most of my projects through Chaudiere Books are a bit early to talk about, but 2013 makes the 20th anniversary of above/ground press, so I’ve been scheming some projects there, including one or two that involve Chaudiere.

Otherwise, in terms of my own writing practice, I’m currently putting together a fourth novel, a collection of short stories and a few poetry manuscripts that I’m pretty excited about. I’m also two years into a creative non-fiction work about my mother, who died in August 2010, that I’ve been getting very close to completing.

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