The author of a novel
The Catalog of Crooked Thoughts
Robert McKean’s novel The Catalog of Crooked Thoughts was the first-prize winner of the Methodist University Longleaf Press Novel Contest and was published January 2017. A Pushcart Prize Nominee, he has had work appear in The Kenyon Review, The Chicago Review, Dublin Quarterly, Armchair/Shotgun, The MacGuffin, Front Range Review, 34thParallel, Crack the Spine, and elsewhere. His collection of stories was a Finalist in the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. A novel he is working on was a Semi-Finalist in the Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel. McKean has been awarded a Massachusetts Artist’s Grant for his fiction.ALM: Tell us about yourself and how many books you have written.
—I have been writing since I left graduate school many years ago, often writing full time, sometimes part time, quitting once for a few years when finance (poverty) and discouragement set in. I have published some 15+ stories and one novel, with many stories and two complete novels unpublished and awaiting their day in print. I am long married to the most important person on the planet. We live outside Boston and have always at least one cat, this version: Cosmo Kitty Qu’est-ce Que C’est.
ALM: What is the title of your latest book and what inspired it?
—The Catalog of Crooked Thoughts. The novel grew out of a short story that went on writing itself in my head. I think the gripping factor was when two characters deeply and compassionately in love, Franz and Ellen Stahrenberger, walked into my imagination and announced: We need a story.
ALM: How long did it take you to write your latest book and how fast do you write?
—Crooked Thoughts has probably consumed ten years of my life. Franz and Ellen tried out one story that took a couple of years to compose and turned out not to be worth writing, then a second story that also took years and also came a cropper, before arriving at their real story, which was the most difficult iteration and required revision after revision. I am a very slow writer who does not like to surrender his manuscripts: They have to pry the pen out of my hands.
ALM: You are the winner of the Longleaf Press Novel Contest and the Pushcart Prize nominee. Do literary awards change an author’s attitude towards his work? What do these achievements mean to you?
—I have long had a personal metaphor. When you begin writing, you yourself have to supply the fuel (I think of it as coal) for your life’s work. You cannot expect the world to make your early fires for you and to feed them. Receiving positive feedback is somebody giving you coal, and it helps, it helps so much. I think of awards as pretty ephemeral highs, all things considered, but the confidence boost, the free coal, that makes a jolly fine fire and lasts a good long time.
ALM: Do you have any unusual writing habits?
—I think of myself as pretty standard issue writer. I guess I do stand at the window of my study daydreaming too much.
ALM: What authors or books have influenced you?
—There are hundreds I could cite. Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Austen, Fielding, Sterne, Melville, Dickens, Thackeray, Flaubert, Tolstoy, George Eliot, James, Lowery, Joyce, Proust, Woolf, Mann, Grass, Mahfouz, Nabokov, Faulkner, Cheever, Knowles, Talese, Mantel, etc., etc.
ALM: What are you working on now?
—Historical novel, Someone to Watch Over Me, 1937. Deals with the Little Steel strikes of that year. Nine POVs, heaven help me.
ALM: What is the best method when it comes to promoting new books?
—Wish I knew.
ALM: Do you have any advice for new authors?
—Read, but read actively, analytically, peskily. Don’t worry so much about your contemporary fellow writers. What they’re doing is pretty similar to what you’re doing and you won’t learn much. Instead, take the masters apart, pry them apart, study them. Then read yourself just as intently: Find out what your subconscious already knows.
ALM: What is the best advice you have ever heard?
—Write the book that isn’t in the library yet.
ALM: What are you reading now?
Two things: Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Herodotus, The Histories. Disturbingly, in their treatment of man’s eternal mistreatment of man they align in far too many ways.
ALM: Who are your favorite authors and what are your favorite books ever?
—See the list of authors above.
ALM: What’s next for you as a writer?
—Finish this historical novel, write more stories, perhaps do a fictional memoir, get it right before I die.
ALM: What do you deem the most relevant about your writing?
—I write about one small corner of the universe exclusively and compulsively, Western Pennsylvania. I would like to believe in my petition to eternity that I have brought a little more of world’s attention to that knobby-hilled landscape with its tea-colored hollows and abandoned mills and garages carved into the earth.
To learn more about Robert McKean, you may visit his website: http://www.robmckean.com.