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Former Alaskan Robin McLean wins national writing award and praise for 'Reptile House'

  • Author: Mike Dunham
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published July 23, 2015

Winning the BOA Short Fiction Prize didn't exactly come out of the blue for Robin McLean. "I had been a finalist for the Flannery O'Connor Award twice, so I knew I had something."

That doesn't mean it was easy. McLean, 49, had pretty well cut herself off from the writing life for a decade or so while living in the woods near Sutton.

"I thought writing was in the past," she said.

When she took up the pen again in 2001, it took her 22 months to write a nine-page story. "My inner workings were rusty," she said.

Ten years later, now living in New England where she moved to pursue a degree in creative writing, she completed the collection of short stories that received the award in 2013, putting McLean in the company of prominent winners of the prestigious national prize like Lee Upton and Dinah Cox.

Published this year, "Reptile House" has drawn praise from literati like Jodi Angel, who called it "electric."

Author Chris Batchelder expressed amazement at the originality of the work. "Tonally and structurally, these marvelous stories have no discernible influence," he wrote. He applauded McLean as "a writer with singular voice and vision."

Potter by necessity

McLean is back in Alaska this week as part of a national book tour and will meet readers in her old Mat-Su neighborhood this weekend.

Born in Chicago, McLean's childhood passions included figure skating and words. "I started writing stories and poems as a child," she said. "I read the dictionary every night."

She attended Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, as did her mother and three sisters, and then went to law school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

"I hated it," she said. Nonetheless she passed the bar exam in Illinois and was accepted for a clerkship in Alaska, a place she'd long yearned to visit. In Anchorage she started taking pottery lessons, in part to dull the drudgery of her job.

It didn't work. "They put me in a room with no windows and no clocks," she said. It wasn't the Alaska she'd imagined. So "I quit and moved to Sutton."

Pottery became her bread and butter. "I mostly taught myself," she said. "I became a professional probably before I should have -- out of necessity."

Her functional work was a commercial success. She estimates that she sold thousands of pieces at galleries all over Alaska and at the State Fair between 1991 and 2005. At one time Vagabond Blues coffee shop in Palmer was using her bowls.

"I was addicted to pottery," she says. "I'm not a multitasker. When I started making pots, I couldn't concentrate on the law."

'Sly wit' and darkness

As she worked in the home she shared with her then-husband, she listened to books on tape. "So I was always immersed in stories." But she held off putting down her own stories until, for reasons she can't explain, she started writing again.

Just as her "addiction" to pottery had previously squeezed out the practice of law, so the reborn passion for writing now squeezed out pottery.

"My pottery was always functional," she said. "And very repetitious. Writing, on the other hand, is always different, story to story."

She shared what she was doing with a sister on the East Coast, who encouraged her to pursue studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She went back to school and received her MFA.

"Reptile House" is essentially her thesis collection, she said. "Two years after I graduated, I fussed with it," getting pieces published in various journals, picking up assorted awards and asking advice from people whose own writing she respected.

One mentor was Frank Soos, now Alaska state writer laureate. "He had previously won the O'Connor Award," she said, "so I really pestered him with questions. Should I retitle the book? Should I rearrange the order of the stories?"

In a blurb for the book, Soos praised McLean's "wonderful cascades of language" and spoke of her "sly wit and humor" that lures readers "into deeper questions."

"The stories go to a dark place," McLean said, "but I think it's really funny. I write about regular people in regular situations that get strange."

How strange? End-of-the-world strange in "Cold Snap," written when she was going through winter in New England and had the urge "to write about what a real winter is like."

Another story had its roots in the tale of a friend whose cab driver father was murdered when she was 3. "It got into my brain. I tried to imagine the story with the story of the guy who found Carlsbad Caverns. I know. It's a strange convergence. But I tend to write about things that I don't understand."

McLean said her stories have a line, an arc and narrative. But they're not the literary version of a selfie, autobiographical or focused on the author's feelings. "I like Chekhov, Cheever, writing that says something about the world."

Her plots and characters may disturb some readers, she said. "But you can't be concerned about likability if you're making art."

Selling herself

McLean's day job, teaching writing at Clark University in Worchester, Massachusetts, is not particularly arty. "Essentially, I teach remedial writing, mainly to foreign students," she said. "It's writing boot camp. I tell my students that I'm more like a soccer coach than a professor."

Enough years have passed since she worked up the "Reptile House" stories for her master's thesis that she's had time to work up enough new stories for a second collection, which she characterized as "ready." She's also making moves to produce a novel.

In a curious way, there's a connection between pottery and what she hopes to accomplish in her writing. "I'm trying to cut off the editor mind," she said. "Do more of stream-of-consciousness. You can't read a pot. And you can't edit it."

The Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction may be the best-known award for short-story writing in America. But the Short Fiction Prize from the not-for-profit fine arts publisher BOA Editions also has a distinguished pedigree. The press has gained recognition for taking risks with authors who have been overlooked. It sprang to national attention when it published Carolyn Kizer's "Yin" in 1984, a collection of poems with a trail of rejection letters from major publishers around the country. "Yin" won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry the following year. Connoisseurs pay close attention to the winners of BOA's long-established A. Poulin Jr. Poetry Prize.

The biennial short story prize is more recent. McLean was the third writer to receive it.

Winning the prize was "a life-changing experience," she said. "Writing life is very introverted. Then, suddenly, you get all these opportunities. People share the stories and respond to them.

"But there's no party. No big book tour. These small presses don't have any money. That was pretty depressing -- at first."

Then came a "Shazzam!" moment when she realized that promotion and marketing were job skills she already had. After all, she'd spent years traveling around Alaska getting her pottery on shelves, talking to shop owners, meeting customers and making a living at it.

"I decided that I was going to sell myself," she said. It took months to plan and coordinate appearances at bookstores and travel, and line up friends willing to let her crash on their couches.

The tour is modeled after how a startup band or folk musician might arrange a multistate slate of gigs, and it seems to be working. "I can thank my pottery life for that," she said.

So far she's hit Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Boston, Dallas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle. She spoke in Anchorage along with Soos on July 15 and in Fairbanks three days later. Chicago and New York are on the schedule when she leaves Alaska.

On Friday, July 24, she will give a reading at the library in her old hometown, Sutton. Then she'll head to Palmer, where she'll be the guest at the next dinner-with-an-author event sponsored by Fireside Books at Turkey Red. She'll sign copies of the book at Fireside on Saturday.

The stories in the book aren't always specifically Alaskan, though one about moose hunters "with guns and trucks" could hardly happen anywhere else. However, in a broader sense, the stories, the book, the prize and the tour all reflect life on the Last Frontier, a life of hard realism that occasional swerves into the surreal.

"It's all Alaskan," she said, "in that you do what you have to do to achieve your goal."

ROBIN MCLEAN will read at 5 p.m. Friday, July 24, at the Sutton Library. She will attend the writer's dinner at 6:30 p.m. Friday at Turkey Red, 550 S. Alaska St. in Palmer; tickets, $24.27, are available at www.goodbooksbadcoffee.com. She will sign books at 11 a.m. Saturday, July 25, at Fireside Books.

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