We Might As Well Light Something on Fire, Ron MacLean’s collection, immediately interested me because, in a time when everything must connect (podcast and TV show episodes, movie series, etc.) so it all can be binged more easily, in a time when all narratives must be doggedly followed to their conclusions (leaving the reader or viewer with no questions at all), MacLean is willing to explore characters, situations, and styles that amaze, that challenge, and that present mystery in all of its sublime beauty.
This summer, I was lucky enough to talk to Ron about his love of fragments, about alienation and togetherness, about dogma and skepticism, and about intentionality in writing.
Andrew Farkas: Reading We Might As Well Light Something on Fire, I was struck by how different each story is because it seems that collections, more and more, are homogenous. You even say in the acknowledgements that you knew this book was going to be difficult to place because of your “goal to explore the broad spectrum of what story can be.” Why do you think it’s become generally accepted that collections shouldn’t be made up of disparate pieces? What are we losing by demanding this homogeneity?
Ron MacLean: I’m not sure how or why it became generally accepted that story collections shouldn’t be made up of disparate pieces, but it’s true. Everything is either a novel-in-stories (so a novel) or closely aligned around a theme, or sometimes—the outlier—a mix of story subjects all written in very similar style. The sameness of this depresses me.
I think it might be the triumph of marketing folks in publishing, or the narrow focus on the bottom line rather than trusting an editor to shape taste rather than merely reflect what readers have already liked and bought. You’ll still see some risk with novels, but story collections don’t sell well, which reinforces the risk aversion.
What we lose by demanding such homogeneity is an expansiveness of mind and of feeling. Everything, even the delightful things, become narrow and constrained. I’m pretty much always working against that. My mind and my heart are restless, and there is so much to be explored.
As I was starting to shop this collection I struggled to find a way to describe it that talked about what it was rather than what it wasn’t. I thought of the cabinet of curiosities. I liked that. So I pitched it as a set of stories that maps the author’s current curiosities, and the parameters of one writer’s imagination. That’s what I set out to do in writing it, and it feels accurate to the results. I’m grateful that it found a home with a press I admire, where folks loved the collection for what it is.
AF: In “See the Moon?” Donald Barthelme says, “Fragments are the only form I trust.” Throughout We Might As Well Light Something on Fire, you often focus on fragments, on parts (rather than wholes)—I’m thinking of the pixelated pictures in “Toilet,” the broken lines in “River Song,” the extreme fragmentation in “Caution, the Moving Walkway is About to End,” the scraps of memory in “It Must Be Beautiful in Berlin This Time of Year,” and, of course, the severed feet in “Unfound.” So, can you talk about your interest in fragments, pieces, parts?
RM: I knew that we would be friends, Andy. That Barthelme quote has been a cornerstone for me for years. Because it reflects my experience of the world, and what I observe in the people I know. We all only get snippets of insight. Whether because of the pace of 21st-century life, or the deluge of the information age, or just the accepted reality of a quantum universe, everyone I know recognizes that we don’t have the full story on anything, and is skeptical that there even is a single, unified story. So what we do is grasp at what fragments we can, and piece them together as best we can, and try to make sense of the world that way.
I feel a deep connection and empathy with fellow humans about that, as we each carry around our broken mirrors, trying to see a picture that feels whole. Moments of insight, glimpses into something larger than what we can usually see, are often communal and much to be treasured. Exploring those is my project in fiction, and that’s all about fragments, pieces, parts, and our efforts to find others to connect (them) with.
I think of “River Song” as probably the most fragmented story in the collection, as a series of efforts to piece together a coherent narrative of the murder of a young girl whose body was found beside a river. And I think, if you work at the seven sections of that narrative, you can piece together a mostly coherent and consistent thread about what happened. But even then, there are bits that don’t fit, or that contradict each other, or that aren’t accounted for. Even in many court cases, the two sides deny each other’s versions, and we’re left with a judge or jury that needs to decide which version of the “truth” is more likely. It’s not fully satisfying: it’s not even knowledge, or closure, but it’s what we’ve got. It’s the human condition, and I’m endlessly interested in what we all do with that.
AF: The characters in this collection feel like they’re drifting through their lives, alienated from most of the people who surround them (Ashley and the narrator in “Quinceañera” who have been ostracized by their friends, the narrator in “Night Bus” who feels less and less a part of the tour he’s on, even the butcher who no longer believes in string theory in “Lesser Escape Artists”). Perhaps this connects to why you’re interested in fragments, but why do your characters have trouble making connections? As a follow up, do you think we place too much importance on “togetherness,” meaning it’s actually perfectly fine to have that alienated feeling?
RM: That’s a great question. I tend to think of myself as pretty connected, and would say that my experience of the world is not defined by alienation, and yet these qualities keep showing up in my stories. I guess I think of it a little differently: that people are mostly looking for wholeness—complete connectedness (perfect harmony) with another human, or a belief system that explains the world—and that the world resists such efforts. We’re all left to make the best of imperfect connection and partial truth. You might call that alienation, and in a sense it is, but you might also call it vulnerability, or seeking. Which to me implies both the desire and possibility of connection. It’s that search that interests me. And the loneliness, or alienation, that can accompany it is just part of the package.
AF: In an attempt to make connections, your characters try to go out into nature (especially in “Caution, the Moving Walkway is About to End” and “Night Bus”), but nature is not especially kind to them. Since I am an Indoorsman, I am unsurprised, but other people seem to go to the out-of-doors in order to feel one with nature. Do you make your characters’ forays into nature unfulfilling because you’re skeptical of the power of the outdoors, or because your characters are merely unsuited or unprepared for outdoorsy pursuits? Is there perhaps the idea here that these characters expect epiphanic experiences to be easy?
RM: Interesting. I think of those stories as case-specific. I’m skeptical of dogma, so I’m skeptical of those who tout the absolute healing power of nature, but I’m also skeptical of those, like my friend Don, who believe that nature is our enemy.
In “Caution, the Moving Walkway …” I think of those two men as unprepared for anything life may throw their way; it’s as much their inability to open a can of stew as it is the relentless rain that’s their problem, and my interest there is the central character’s conviction that he can rationalize his way through all kinds of storms.
In “Night Bus,’ I definitely see the environment as more of a threat to that narrator, but in his world at that moment, everything in the experience is a threat. It’s the fact of his outsideness, from the landscape, from the culture, and from himself, that interests me. “Night Bus” started as a story about exposure. Physical exposure to frigid, life-threatening cold in northern Finland, emotional exposure of seeking connection in a situation where you don’t know the language, the people, or the customs. I feel tender toward that narrator, because I think we all find ourselves in situations where we are similarly, if less dramatically, exposed, and I admire his willingness to seek connection, however imperfectly, rather than shutting down and shutting people out for fear of being hurt. There’s great courage in the effort to touch and be touched.
AF: There are three stories in this collection that connect: “Prostate Frank Finds True Love,” “Bounce Goes Kissy-Kissy,” and “The Hemorrhoid Holds Court.” Contrary to the fragmentation and alienation I’ve been asking about, all three of these pieces are about friends meeting at the same coffee shop and talking. At first, I admit, I wasn’t sure how these stories fit with the others in the book. But then, especially with their various nicknames (Prostate, Bounce, Question Mark, Altar Boy, etc.), I started to think that they’re not as well connected as they might first appear (each character only listening for when it’s his turn to talk). So, are these stories examples of characters who aren’t alienated, who are deluding themselves into thinking they’re connected to the Java Joint crowd, or are these stories explorations of how we try to feel togetherness with others even if it doesn’t always work?
RM: Bingo. The latter. I see these guys as friends, good friends even, but they are also guys who talk over each other, are sometimes oblivious to life-changing moments happening right before them, who walk in to the coffee shop on any given Friday with their own agenda and preoccupations. Just like the rest of us. We all do our best to be available to each other, and often can think we’re pretty great at it. And sometimes that’s true. But other times, I might be patting myself on the back while a friend sits across from me wondering how I could be so unaware of their anguish.
There’s a moment, for instance, in “The Hemorrhoid Holds Court,” where the conversation among the men at the table is bouncing all over the place, while the Hemorrhoid is trying to talk through an emotional crisis moment, and Altar Boy is on the phone, at that same table, getting news that the Hemorrhoid’s career is essentially over. Life is messy in exactly that way. We rarely get the chance to just focus on one thing and be fully available to someone under optimal conditions. And again, I’m interested in—and tender toward—all the ways we succeed, and fail, at that.
AF: The last story, “What Remains,” feels like an attempt to move past the problems various characters have in the collection. Yes, Martha La Follette has lost her father, is being kept from his ashes (except for visitation privileges) by the criminal justice system, has quit her job (in turn, leaving her mentor behind), but the Roberts Senior and Junior absolutely represent hope. However, you use magical realism here to usher in hope, since the Roberts have both been dead for quite a while. Why did you decide to use magical realism to represent hope in this story? And why does it appear that Martha is more likely to deal with her problems successfully than the other characters in the collection?
RM: I’m flattered by your reading of the story, and by the intentionality you ascribe to me. The truth is, I’m a pretty intuitive writer. It takes me several drafts to have any sense of what I’ve got, or what I’m doing with it. So I never decided to use magical realism to represent hope in “What Remains.” In fact, for me, I see Martha more as a figure of hope than the Roberts—they are, after all, dead, having been unable to affect lasting change.
Where I started with “What Remains” was with a failed prosecutor, defeated from her efforts to hold accountable the criminals who created the financial crisis of 2007-8, and her father’s ashes being dug up, and these two spirits from the past who come to haunt, help, and hound her. There’s deep interest for me in the notion of what it takes to bring change, of whether societal change is ever really possible, and of the toll it takes on an individual to fight for it. To me, there is a crucible of hope, cynicism, and despair at work in that situation with those characters. I know a lot of people (including myself) who have been in a version of that crucible for the last few years, and I wanted to inhabit that in a story.
I do see the story as hopeful, but I’m not sure I could identify a single, specific source of that hope. Maybe the human capacity to press on, which Martha, Robert Senior and Robert Junior each do, in their way. When it comes to magic realism, or hyperrealism, or anything else that might be an extension of narrow “realism,” I’m with Flannery O’Connor. She talked about how all writers are realists, that it’s just a question of what reality they are looking to represent. I didn’t—and don’t—think of the story as magic realism. To me, the presence of Robert Senior and Junior were simply a fact that Martha had to deal with. And I like that such is the way she treats them. They are part of her reality at that time in her life.
AF: What are you working on next?
RM: Depending on the day, either a series of psychological horror novellas, in the vein of Daphne Du Maurier or Shirley Jackson, or poking at an idea for an existentialist detective novel about a missing persons case involving dissociative fugue, where one detective knows early on that it’s a case he and his partner will never solve, but has to work at it anyway, and decide whether to hold or tell the secret of how he knows.
Andrew Farkas is the author of Self-Titled Debut, Sunsphere, and the forthcoming novel, The Big Red Herring.