How to Write a Kaleidoscopic Character
To the author Robert McGill, fiction’s job is to unsettle.
Editor’s Note: Read Robert McGill’s new short story, “Something Something Alice Munro.”
“Something Something Alice Munro” is a new short story by Robert McGill. To mark the story’s publication in The Atlantic, McGill and Oliver Munday, the design director of the magazine, discussed the story over email. Their conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
Oliver Munday: Your story “Something Something Alice Munro” brings a Harold Bloom quote to mind: “Influence is influenza.” It’s clear from the opening sentences that the famed author Alice Munro will be a prominent influence on the text, but by the end you manage to take this conceit to unexpected places. The story is a witty look at the anxiety of literary influence, to cite Bloom once more. Did the story always follow from a conceptual premise, or did the characters emerge first?
Robert McGill: I started out wanting to write about Alice Munro: in particular, about the one time I met her, 15 years ago at a literary festival. I’d grown up in a town close to hers, and I’d read all her stories. At the festival, we shared a few minutes of small talk, and I was completely tongue-tied.
Once I started writing the story, I realized that it was going to be less about meeting Munro than about having been a young person in her part of the world and wanting to tell stories of a sort that she hasn’t. From that point, I developed the story’s peculiar sentence-by-sentence constraints (each sentence begins or ends with either Alice Munro or you), which channel a certain contradictory, Bloomian impulse in me: to make the story all about Munro and, at the same time, totally not something she would write.
Munday: In Canada, where you’re from, Alice Munro, the Nobel laureate, presides as one of the country’s foremost literary celebrities. It’s interesting for an American reader to consider this type of fame, because we lack such a singular prose star in our national imagination. How much has Munro shaped Canada’s literature as a result of her status?
McGill: I think of Munro and Margaret Atwood as the big, bright binary system in the Canadian literary firmament. (Together, their initials are “AMMA.” What would Freud say?) Atwood has established one way to gain global fame and influence as a Canadian author: travel the world regularly to speak, tweet prolifically, and appear in hit TV shows based on your novels. Then there’s Munro, just writing story after story while living quietly in the backwoods. It has been good for Canadian writers to have them both as models and know both paths are viable.
There’s also the fact that neither Munro nor Atwood has shied from writing undisguisedly about Canada. That’s still a big deal in a country where generations of writers felt they had to set their stories elsewhere if they wanted to make it.
Munday: Nessa and Hadi, the two characters at the center of “Something Something Alice Munro,” are both writers. Nessa is pursuing a Ph.D. and writing a dissertation on the work of Munro, and Hadi is a poet. You describe them as best friends who sleep together. Would romantic love somehow threaten their respective intellectual pursuits, or are they simply hedging and afraid of commitment?
McGill: I don’t know if they’re afraid of commitment per se. They might just be wary of each other. They’re both still working out some fundamental things—for instance, in their relations to their parents. Maybe it’s an act of care for each other and themselves not to complicate things with one another.
I’m hedging here, aren’t I? They’re my characters, so I should know them inside out. But I sometimes feel that I’ve gotten characters down to the best of my abilities when I’ve brought them to the point where they’re intriguing puzzles to me as well as to others.
Munday: The title of the story, along with the regular invocations of Munro, act as a kind of comic diversion from the drama. The characters use Munro as a distraction from life, but also as a lens through which to interpret it. Fiction writ large functions similarly, inflecting on events, suffusing our perceptions of the world, and often providing a form of escape. In what other ways are the characters, and you as their author, using Alice Munro?
McGill: There’s a quotation from Edward Said that might apply to Nessa: “It seems a common human failing to prefer the schematic authority of a text to the disorientations of direct encounters with the human.” For all that fiction helps you to see the world in new ways, it risks constraining how you see things too. If Nessa’s outlook begins and ends with Munro’s writing, she’s hamstrung herself. One wonders: What’s she really committing herself to when she commits herself to Munro?
For Hadi, the picture of small-town Canada associated with Munro’s fiction—stultifyingly homogenous, astringently Protestant—carries its own limitations. You can see why he might chafe against requests to discuss his writing alongside hers. But then, her picture isn’t quite so reductive as I’ve just suggested. So writers like Hadi—or me—who use Munro as a foil might be not using so much as misusing her. Failing to see her work clearly.
Munday: You begin “Something Something Alice Munro” in third person, remaining close to Nessa, only to switch to the second person to inhabit Hadi’s voice and limn the emotional core of the story—Hadi’s relationship with his father. How did this form of shifting perspectives develop?
McGill: In some vital ways, I identify with Hadi and Nessa. In other ways, the two of them are much more like people of my acquaintance than like me. So writing the story, I experienced this kaleidoscopic effect: the aspects of the characters emerging from what I know of myself kept blurring into what I know and imagine of others. Shifting the perspective between Nessa and Hadi, between third person and second, was a way of acknowledging this unique experience that fiction produces, in which the writer and readers all end up asking of each other and the characters, “Where, in this story, do you end and I begin?” If you come away from a work of fiction not having been unsettled from the point of view you had going in, then somebody hasn’t done their job.
Munday: There’s a sly, meta aspect to the story, an ambiguity around the narration that causes us to wonder who’s actually writing it. The question of authorial authority arises—whether writers should draw from only their lived experience as opposed to imagining the experiences of others. How do you feel about these demarcations, which seem to be hardening in fiction?
McGill: I back the idea that the label “fiction” should never be taken as a license to write without an obligation to the real-life cultures and identities affected by your writing. I think of fiction as a unique space where authors and readers, however partially and provisionally, shed their skins to imaginatively inhabit the lives of others; to learn about the enormous diversity of life. So as a reader, if I discover that an author’s trading in caricatures and stereotypes, I feel they’ve let down the side.
One of the things I like about Alice Munro’s writing in this regard is that she isn’t precious about the status of fiction. Writers in her work are always being told that they’ve gotten things wrong or that they’re trading in cheap tricks. But she still implicitly recognizes that fiction has a unique role in our lives. Nonfiction alone isn’t enough. Maybe it would be if being a good person required only listening to what other people say publicly about their lives. But all the time, we’re called on to imagine how others are feeling and thinking, to infer what they can’t or won’t say out loud. That’s where fiction gains one of its key roles: as a comparatively safe—because veiled—space of self-articulation and as a model for carefully, sensitively imagining how it is to be someone else.