Q&A with Robin McLean: ‘Pity the Beast’ and Living in Wild Places

Peter Schlachte

Robin McLean’s first novel Pity the Beast (384 pages; And Other Stories), has all the trappings of a traditional Western—the grime and the guts, the hard people amid an austere, extraordinary landscape—but McLean isn’t satisfied with the traditional. The novel revolves around Ginny, a rancher in the American west who cheats on her husband Dan and is gang-raped in a flurry of vengeance and violence. Ginny, left for dead, escapes into the mountains and is pursued by a posse of five townsfolk: her husband, her sister Ella and Ella’s husband Saul, a tracker named Bowman, and a mule-driver named Maul. This pursuit is the essence of the novel, but interspersed with the central narrative are philosophical mules, ancient myths, futuristic scientists conducting an arboreal census, and radio-style narration of a character known only as the Rodeo Kid as he chases both Ginny and her pursuers deep into the mountains. It’s an indefinable novel, as concerned with the depth of time and the scale of humanity as it is with the everyday actions of its characters.

McLean is the founder of Ike’s Canyon Ranch Writers Retreat, and the winner of the 2013 BOA Editions Fiction Prize. She has an eclectic background, working as a lawyer and a potter before turning to writing. She spoke to us about Pity the Beast via Zoom.

ZYZZYVA: You use a quote from the Book of Ruth as your epigraph for Pity the Beast: “Entreat me not to leave you,/Or to turn back from following after you;/For wherever you go, I will go;/And where you lodge, I will lodge;/Your people shall be my people,/And your God, my God./Where you die, I will die,/And there will I be buried./The Lord do so to me, and more also,/If anything but death parts you and me.”

Why did you choose a Biblical reference for the epigraph, and how did the Biblical relationship between Ruth and Naomi influence the literary relationship between Ella and Ginny?

ROBIN MCLEAN: I don’t really know why I’m doing a lot of the stuff that I’m doing when I’m writing. One of the things I do when I write, and when I wrote this book, is follow beacons. I use titles that way. I use objects that way. The quote from the Book of Ruth was not the first quote at the beginning of the book—I had others. But that quote helped me when I got to the end of the book and needed to somehow resolve the situation between Ella and Ginny. It’s not really that what happens in the book is aligned with that quote, but it’s an aspirational quote. It’s a beautiful idea that doesn’t work out in life all the time.

I also liked the fact that it’s a woman’s part of the Bible, and that the Bible is a book of stories from which a lot of our beliefs rest on. Many of the characters in Pity the Beast are trying to articulate their beliefs, and they articulate them through stories. So that’s why it’s there.

Z: Do you remember any other epigraphs you considered using?

RM: I had a Nick Flynn poem there for a long time. I like to try on a title or a poem and then write toward that title or write toward that poem. Then something else will supplant whatever was there before. It’s a cool way to write if you can tolerate extreme frustration and delay. You think, “Okay, this is where I’m going with this,” and then you lose interest in that direction. Really, I think that’s how life is, and writing is an imitation of life.

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Z: It sounds like the book went through a lot of iterations from what you initially conceived. How did you start thinking of the idea and how did it change from conception to finished product?

RM: I, for most of my writing life, thought of myself as strictly a short fiction writer. I started this story as a short story, and the first section was just a really long short story. It was too long for publication, and too short to be a novella. Instead, I set it aside and wrote more short fiction. But I wanted to do this novel workshop with Karen Shepard, and she told me to work with that story. I didn’t have any idea what to do because the trajectory of the story goes like this [Robin raises her arm to indicate a steep slope], and I couldn’t keep going like that. Eventually, I resurrected Ginny and sent her to the mountains. It’s really quite a simple story. It’s a Western—everyone rides off into the mountains and rides around. I just had to figure out what was happening to those people, and that took me a really long time.

Z: You say it’s a simple story, but there’s so many moving parts that are going on behind the narrative of Ginny rising from the pit and the posse chasing her through the mountains. There’s the arboreal census, the mule thoughts, the Rodeo Kid serial series—all of these are going on in the background of the main narrative arc. Where did those additional elements come from and how do you see them building onto the main narrative of the book?

RM: Each one of those arose in their own ways. My thesis advisor from UMass Amherst said that writing a novel is problem solving—you solve one problem, you create another problem, you solve that one, you create another one, and you keep doing that until the novel is done. The mule thoughts, the cedar census, and the Rodeo Kid were all products of desperation where I was stuck and didn’t know how to do something. Each one was getting at some affect that I wanted to achieve but maybe didn’t even have the words for. The mule thoughts and the arboreal census were related to scope, to the size of the book. I didn’t want readers to have all their attention on these characters just riding around. I wanted it to be bigger than that. I’m always struggling to find methods to get the reader to think about the things I want to think about. They want to know what’s going on with Ginny and Ella, whereas I wanted to achieve some kind of feeling that I hoped I could get away with. All of those parts were situations that I wasn’t sure people would tolerate, but you’ve got to do what you want to do, and whether people will tolerate it is a separate question.

Z: Do you think you can define the feeling that you were going for?

RM: The cedar census is about time. It’s about the future. I feel like if people fail to tolerate something about the book, it’ll be the cedar census. When you’ve got this traditional narrative of the Western and then you put something like the cedar census in it, people will wonder why. The cedar census seems like a breach to me, and I like breaches. I like breaking the rules. So the cedar census is about time, and about being bigger than people. It leaves the characters back on the trail with their little camp stove.

With the mules, in a traditional Western, there are all these beings that are in the background and we just accept that they’re background. I live in that Western landscape, and those beings are not background. The mule thoughts are an attempt to shift the human eye to everything that has been ignored. They’re very beloved to me.

As for the Rodeo Kid, Jim Shepard says that everything you need to evolve your story is already there. When the characters went off into the mountains, the Rodeo Kid was just this guy who was back at the party from the beginning of the book, but I needed a way to look at Ginny without Ginny narrating everything about herself. I was able to look back in a Jim Shepard-esque style and ask who I was ignoring. That was the Rodeo Kid.

Z: You mention that living in Nevada was the impetus for the mule thoughts. You also lived in Alaska, a place where the natural beauty is immense. How has living in these places influenced your writing?

RM: I grew up in Peoria, Illinois, on an old street in the middle of America, and ever since I got out of school, I’ve been living in pretty wild places. I lived in Alaska in the woods for seventeen years working as a potter, surrounded by aspen forests. You couldn’t hear a road. You couldn’t see a light. It does something to your brain. I say that Alaska ruins you for everywhere else. The vastness of it is beautiful, and it feels like the correct place to be if you possibly can be, which is obviously very fortunate and privileged. In these places where the bears, wolves, and moose are running things, you feel the correct size. I do feel that humans have gotten really mixed up about our size. I enjoy the people who live in these places because of their enthusiasm, and devotion, and intense knowledge about a place. I hope that at least some of my writing interacts with the characters and the landscape in that way.

Z: I read an interview where you discuss wanting to write more like your craft of making pottery. Do you think you achieved that with Pity the Beast?

RM: I was a production potter for a long time, which means that I made things like dinnerware—mugs and bowls and mugs and bowls and mugs and bowls. I made a living off that for seventeen years, which is hard to do. It’s also super repetitious. Yet, it’s still a craft. If your pot collapses, it’s your fault. You did it wrong, and you have to understand why because no one else is responsible for that pot. Things fail all the time. Before throwing pots, I was a figure skater, where you fall on your ass, you fall on your ass, you fall on your ass. All this means that I have an extremely high tolerance for failure. I’ve become cutthroat about my screw-ups and believe that I’ll survive. This book was very hard for me to write. I felt lost most of the time, but because I was a potter and a skater, I was able to keep going. If you’ve been through some craft experience that takes a lot of repetition and patience—or, similarly, climbing up a mountain without a trail and trusting that you’re going the right way—you’ll be able to make it through.

Z: As I was reading Pity the Beast, I felt a strong kinship between Bowman and the character of Judge Holden from Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian—both are intelligent, brutal, inhumanly intense characters. How did the traditional American Western canon influence Pity the Beast, and how did you subvert that canon as you wrote the novel?

RM:  The American Western canon is embedded in American myth and is arguably embedded in everyone wearing Levi’s all over the planet, whether they know it or not. You can see the Western in TV commercials, in political campaigns, in everything. Blood Meridian is a very different book than the traditional Western. A lot of Westerns are very jokey and follow a specific formula. I’m not interested in those at all. I am interested in Blood Meridian. Also, as a person who has lived in the West, I gravitate to these places where my characters reflect people who actually exist. In some ways, that gave me both permission and responsibility to put a Bowman in. He was one of the easiest characters for me to work out because he represents a very important and powerful strain of thought in our country. It’s a very confident thought, a very impenetrable thought. In some ways, it’s an absolutely correct thought. I don’t agree with it, but you can’t dismiss it—it demands attention.

Z: There’s also a very rich and tense family dynamic going on between Ginny, Ella, and their Grannie. In particular, the grannie is knowledgeable and frightening. How did you conceive of Grannie and develop that family dynamic throughout the novel?

RM: Grannie was easy for me because we all know super badass grannies and women. One of the things that is really false about Westerns is that they’re all about these little damsels who are crying when their boots get dirty. The women—whether they were here already before white people showed up, or the white women who arrived later—they are tough. Tough. Smart. Determined. Powerful. If I talked to my grandmother and said, “I’m a feminist,” she’d say, “No you’re not.” She didn’t want that word, but as far as power, authority, and responsibility goes, she was a feminist. There are so many women who’ve chosen to live in remote places who would never call themselves feminists, but they are running things. So, Grannie is a familiar person to me. She’s a badass, and when you have a lot of badasses in one place, there’s going to be trouble. If there are a lot of powerful women in a setting that’s very masculine, there’s going to be trouble.

Z: The way that you talk about Grannie makes her seem very fun to write. As intense and dark as Pity the Beast is, there’s also some parts that are very funny. What were some of the parts that you enjoyed writing the most?

RM: I definitely enjoyed Grannie. I also like writing dialogue. It’s something that I slave over and edit like crazy, so there’s some dialogue that I love. I was listening to a section of the audiobook that was just recorded, and the audiobook reader gets the tone exactly right. It makes me laugh at my own stuff. That’s so cool to me. I think all of my good work is very funny, and people will read it and say, “There was nothing funny in that story, Robin.” It’s a total thing. I also loved the deputy section where he’s riding around and getting very confused, and the Rodeo Kid too. The hardest parts for me are just getting from Point A to Point B—it’s boring.

Z: You’re the co-founder of Ike’s Canyon Ranch, a remote writing retreat in Nevada. How has teaching the craft of writing influenced your process?

RM: I used to adjunct at Clark University. There, I taught a lot of composition and some creative writing. People think composition is the worst job on campus, but I found it to be a wonderful thing. You’re helping another person to take their ideas and make them clearer. You’re helping them shape their ideas into something they can give another person, which enables them to assert themselves in the world. We need that. We need young people to be clear, to be assertive. That’s where I started out and I don’t regret it. It goes back to the pottery—the laborious, seemingly miserable practice that bears fruit. I’ve also taught women over sixty-five how to figure skate. I said to these women, “I want you to be beautiful. I want you to glide and jump, and I want you to be beautiful.” When I’m teaching, I want to give people freedom—freedom via clarity and freedom to express their thoughts. Writing is exploration and freedom. I’m way more interested in the very mysterious creative process than I am with the idea of narrative. Yes, you need narrative, but there might be deeper ideas that you want to get at. I’m interested in helping people figure that out. Whether teaching skating, or pottery, or writing, I don’t put too much attention on the outcome, even though we want the outcome. The outcome will come if we invest in freedom, fun, liberty, and adventure. Crazy things will happen.

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