Weird and interesting and funny and emotional stuff: a Q&A with Rebecca Rosenblum

TRB: Where do stories start, for you?

RR: Anywhere, really. I don’t exactly “use” or replicate real-life events in my stories, but real life is certainly the mulch from which stories grow. Things that have happened to me and my friends, or things I’ve overheard on the bus get woven into a story that’s largely imaginary. Similarly, news items never seem like direct influences as I’m writing back but, looking at finished stories, I see that I was subtly affected by what was going on in the big world at the time. I’m writing to understand–I write the story in order to know how I feel about something, or to know what it really means to me. Hopefully I can bring the insights in the stories to readers too, but my first audience is always my own constantly baffled self.

TRB: The stories in your most recent short story collection, The Big Dream, are linked by their setting – everyone in the book has a link to Dream, Inc., a magazine publisher. Where did Dream, Inc. come from? Why did you want to explore it so fully?

RR: The decision to write a book set in the workplace really came out of my first book, Once. When it was published, people kept commenting that it was interesting that I chose to anchor characters so firmly in their workplaces, whether or not the story itself was actually work-focussed. I was surprised that they were surprised. It seemed to me that many people spend so many hours at their jobs that you can’t really edit it out, even if what you want to look seriously at is something else. So I decide to write a book consciously in the workplace, and see how that panned out.

I chose the linked story format because stories are my true love/the only thing I know how to do, but it adds depth  (sometimes) if multiple stories illuminate the same events, characters, or settings. It was a way of going deeper as a writer–it was an interesting process for me–without insisting the reader follow me through it. If readers want to read the stories out of order, or just read a few of them, or whatever–they stand alone, so that’s fine. But if you want to read the book as I envisioned it, I think that might be cool for you–it is for me.

Rebecca Rosenblum, photographed by Dave Kemp.
TRB: A lot of the moments in The Big Dream feel to me like the moments in between; just before something big happens, or just after – what draws you to those spaces?

RR: I think a lot of life is like that–today is important because I’m thinking about things that are important, I’m talking to people I care about, there are transitions and upsets in progress in my life today. But the sky isn’t falling, because most days the sky doesn’t fall. I worry about it sometimes, but mainly it doesn’t actually happen. So I wanted to write about life is I perceive it–some big stuff, but the rest of it too–what most of us are dealing with most days. A lot of very weird and interesting and funny and emotional stuff happens in those in-between times.

TRB: Names, or sometimes a lack thereof, seem important in the stories. Can you tell me a bit about this?

RR: I am quite fatalistic about character names. Whatever name comes to me as I start writing or even thinking about a character, that’s what it is–even if it’s a strange or made-up name, or the decision for a character not to be named. I can count on one hand the times I’ve changed a character’s name once I’d started using it, and it’s always been because it sounded funny to other people–in my head, I keep referring to them by their “real” names.

TRB: The stories are set in Toronto; what kind of influence has this city had on your writing?

RR: Toronto has been a big influence on my in my writing–this city has its own pace, it’s own geography beyond what the map says, its own class structure and subtle little bits of etiquette that I’ve never seen anywhere else. I’m sure any city has these same things, but Toronto is what I know, and I do love it here. Even when I’m a little hard on certain Torontonian social mores, I do it with love. As I said, I write to explore and understand–among other things, the city and the people who live in it.

TRB: One of the stories in The Big Dream (“How To Keep Your Day Job”) was recently made into a short film. What was that like for you?

RR: Pretty awesome. It was just so stunning to see other people take this thing that I imagined and re-imagine it their own way. I guess it also helps that the film-makers and performers are all really really talented–I’d probably feel less good about a re-imagining that I didn’t think worked well. But the movie is so true to my feelings about the story, even if it’s not exactly how it was on the page. There’s this dramatic moment towards the end, and they made it…beautiful. Stunning. I was on the edge of my seat, clutching my fiance’s arm, because I knew what was going to happen but I’d never seen it before. Incredible. The protagonist is played by the actress Georgina Reilly, and she is so perfect for the role. She really lets emotions play on her face, and I could tell she was living the story as I felt it. I can’t tell you how thrilling that is as an author.

TRB: You’re appearing as a part of this year’s Toronto Public Library eh List series – what do you think (and how do you feel) about libraries?

RR: Libraries are excellent, of course–have you ever met a writer who felt otherwise? I love the vast TPL system–so easy to get whatever I want/need. And I love being in libraries, too–they are usually such positive spaces. My home branch (St. James Town) is bright, social and busy–it’s the best-used library I’ve ever seen. It’s nice to write in because all the talk blends into a low-level background blur and I’m able to concentrate without getting lonely. I also like the wireless! It’s neat to have an upcoming reading at the library because sometimes I walk into a branch and see posters with my own bookcover–I try to restrain myself from pointing them out to the librarians and other patrons. And it’s on the TPL website, too, as my heavy-library-user friends keep telling me. Makes me feel famous!

TRB: What kind of reader are you?

RR: Hmm, method-wise? I still read on paper whenever possible. I’m not against electronic reading–I’ve read hundreds of books on-screen as part of various jobs–but I prefer a book when the option is presented. When paper books become expensive and hard-to-find, I’ll get an e-reader too, and probably like it–until then, not.

If you meant genre, I read mainly fiction, poetry, a little bit of narrative non-fiction and criticism. The occasional how-to book. I’m basically obsessed with Canadian short stories and try to be current on new collections. I don’t always succeed, but the effort largely assures that I’m never current on what’s going on in other genres or other countries. I do try to read widely–I’m reading a British anthology right now–but there are too many books! Ack!

TRB: How does your reading life influence your writing life?

RR: I read for pleasure, first and foremost, but also to see how everybody else does it. Even if I’m not consciously noting lessons (I never do that), I feel like I can absorb good writing osmotically–the more good stories I read, the more I’m able to write them.

Very occasionally, I read for research, which I actually often dislike–I find the style of informational non-fiction very dry a lot of the time. But I’m just not an expert in most subjects, so I have to research–gotta get it right!

Rebecca Rosenblum is, as previously mentioned, appearing as a part of Toronto Public Library’s eh List series. Go see her tonight at the S. Walter Stewart branch, at 7 pm.