A Romance of the Dour:
An interview with the novelist Todd McEwen

Interview conducted during UK lockdown, April 2020. The website for the editorial service offered by Todd McEwen and Lucy Ellmann can be accessed via this link (and biographies on the site's "About" page): FictionAtelier

In 2014, we conducted an interview with Alan Warner for the second issue of thi wurd fiction magazine, a publication I co-edited at that time. When asked for some of his personal favourite writers and books, Alan said in response:

“Todd McEwen. Try his novels McX, or Arithmetic, or the classic, Fisher’s Hornpipe. Todd is American and has lived in Scotland for years, but he’s quite retiring and nobody seems to know he’s here! Frankly, the guy is a genius: a beautiful stylist, wise, wry, clever and always so very funny. McX should be considered an important Scottish novel, but of course it isn’t. While some shite is.”

I was one of those people who didn’t know he was here. I got a copy of ‘McX: A Romance of the Dour’ not long after this, and after about eighty pages or so, something in that region, I wasn’t sure I was seeing what Alan could see. I was a bit confused, a bit flummoxed. I kept reading. Very soon, I started to see and appreciate the great humour and warmth of the characters and their situations, and the very subtle and beautiful phraseology of the text. There aren’t many writers with McEwen’s multifaceted sense of humour or his ability to evoke beautiful moments and images with just a short line or two. It is my pleasure to ask him the following questions about his writing craft and career.


Life Questions
TCB: A major part of your life and career has been the teaching of creative writing, having held positions in the subject in North Carolina, Kent, Aberdeen, Orkney, and Glasgow. What drew you to the teaching of writing, and what do you enjoy most about this form of work? What in your experience is more important to the budding writer: a natural talent or a serious work ethic?

McE: First of all, thank you for reciting that Litany of Horror. I don’t mean it that way, of course, but most writers would rather just write. I actually like teaching, but it’s important to teach people who really want to learn, not just the zhlubs who are in the English department because they can’t think what they want out of life. Or, let me put it another way: what I like and enjoy is literature. I decided not to become an academic, but that doesn’t mean that writers can’t talk about literature with people. They often make quite a bit of sense when they do. However, to be allowed ‘officially’ to talk about literature in a university, you have to have a PhD, and I don’t enjoy talking about fiction in that airless way. Many academics seem to have no idea how fiction is written.

What I am very strongly against is the workshop, the primary method by which your money is stolen and your time wasted as a student in a creative writing program. See the remarks of August Kleinzahler on ‘professionalized’ creative writing programs — he said ‘It’s a terrible thing to lie to young people, and that’s what it’s all about’. A colleague of mine at Kent always referred to us writers as the ‘grey squirrels’ in English departments. He was right, in more ways than one. They paid us in monkey nuts.

Talent and a work ethic are both important. I have certainly seen people with a minimum of talent and a monstrous work ethic succeed as writers (although whether it counts as ‘real’ writing is debatable), but it’s much more satisfying when the opposite occurs.

Whenever anyone asks me where to study writing, I tell them to find a program where there’s a writer that they admire and who they really want to study with. Find out if that writer is capable of teaching. Then try to ensure that the student can work with the writer more or less individually, as their editor. With regard to this intractable position of mine, see Billy Collins’s poem ‘Workshop’.

Or you could just approach a writer you like and ask him or her to help you. For money.

TCB: Currently you run an editing service called Fictionatelier along with your wife Lucy Ellmann, the author of Ducks, Newburyport and six previous novels. Can you tell us a little about this service, how it works, and what your experience of it has been so far?

McE: We have offered ourselves up, may the gods help us, as editors, in which we have much experience. (I should say here that we have suspended this service for the duration of the pandemic, in order to concentrate on our own work.) We both believe that one-to-one editing is the only way to seriously help a writer. People will send us a sample of their work, and if we think we can help them, we line-edit and write extensive commentary. Over the past ten years or so we have worked with a good mix of writers, some of whom have gone on to be well published. I’m not bragging about this — we’re not agents, not at all. But sometimes it happens and it’s a great feeling. And of course there are some writers I’ve tried very hard to promote and show around, and it just doesn’t happen. I’m of two minds about this: deep down I used to believe that valuable work will always find a place in the world; but after what’s happened to book publishing, and the depredations of Brexit (a catastrophe for the book business) and the current pandemic, I’m not so sure.

Art Questions
TCB: You came to Scotland in 1981, and your novel McX (1991) was set in Scotland and was concerned with, amongst many other things of course, Scottishness and Scottish people and characteristics. This is a quote from the book: “Scotland’s history is washing, washing her sheets, pressing them, and lying down in bed. As despair grows the sheets are washed ever furiouser, but now the sleeper is dead; there is not even a stain from her leakings. What choice does McX have but to dream his nation?” Were you trying to discuss a particular view of Scotland in McX? And have your feelings on the nation and its situation changed at all since the book’s publication?

McE: My second novel, McX, and my third, Arithmetic, are kind of similar, I see now, in that I had conceived of them of course as dynamite sweeping magisterial masterworks that would illuminate every corner of their subjects, Scotland and California.

In McX I did attempt some perhaps overly-vast generalizations about Scotland, from what I knew of its history and also from my experience of living here, and some of these may be entertaining and truthful. But, again, it really is a short observational novel about the tedium of life in a Scottish county town (Perth, as it happens) during the 1980s. I wrote it in New York during a very hot summer, with a manual typewriter and no air conditioning. There was Pepsi. There was a bar on the corner with beer and a big fan. Whenever I’m away from Scotland I tell myself that I miss it. I keep coming back. I used to think that it provides certain answers that I need, but I felt that more when I was not here. Edinburgh is such a goddamn mess now. I used to love it.

TCB: Humour is such an important part of all of your books. Did the fact that your novel Arithmetic (1998) was focalized through the eyes & mind of a young boy make it more challenging/problematic to work with humour in your customary way? If so, how did you manage to overcome this?

McE: For Arithmetic I did a huge amount of reading, much more research than I normally do. Kevin Starr’s history of California, Carey McWilliams’s excellent book on L.A., tons on the Owens Valley and all that water-crisis legacy. Film, cartoons, comic books. And what I ended up writing was a very short novel about one day in primary school in 1959. So you can’t always predict what’s going to happen, but that’s OK. In the first draft I was bouncing back and forth between the kid’s voice and the father’s. The father is a worrier. California and society are changing around him and affecting the family. Astronauts, assassinations, revolting new snack foods. But gradually the subject became more the kid worrying about the father, so I gave up on the 50/50 idea. It is hard to write fluently in a child’s voice, and obviously you have to give a ten year old kid some extra vocabulary and grammatical chops at times if you want the observational jokes to work.

Guest Questions - contributed by Alan Warner
AW: Can you describe your idea of the comic sentence in Fisher’s Hornpipe? I always feel a comic sentence is also a philosophical sentence – it reveals a worldview.

McE: Mr Warner, thank you for this question. I’m not sure I can answer it, but here is an example which may illustrate what you’re talking about. Fisher and Alison Mapes are in an art-house cinema, watching a typical French bourgeois comedy. Fisher doesn’t like this kind of thing at all (he’s a prude who thinks he’s a party guy), and the raffish sexology of the thing has him boiling mad almost immediately. So here I say:

As an added plus, extra hilarity was included in the form of an old French rubbish collector creeping through the bushes taking snapshots of the lovers.

That phrase in italics is meant to do several things: it shows how Fisher drives himself crazy, all the time, by torturing himself with ideas and language that annoy him, it’s a criticism of the basic hopelessness of the film and its audience, and it’s a general comment on silly advertising language.

AW: Is there such a thing as ‘Boston Humour’?

McE: ‘Boston Humour’? Don’t make me — Well, here are three thoughts. The first is from ee cummings, who once said that ‘Boston is a city without springboards for people who cannot dive.’ You have to think about it.

The best joke about Boston I ever heard is this: a guy gets into a cab at South Station. He tells the cabbie just to drive around for a while. Then he says, nervously, ‘Say, buddy, do you know where I can get scrod around here?’ The cabbie says, ‘Mister, I’ve been asked that question thousands of times, but you’re the first one who ever asked it in the pluperfect subjunctive.’ (Scrod is a New England word for young cod.)

Here is an historical Massachusetts witticism: it used to be said that when Endicott Peabody was Governor of Massachusetts, he was the only governor who had three places in the state named after him: Peabody, Marblehead and Athole.

AW: How does it feel to have written the world’s greatest seafood restaurant novel (Who Sleeps With Katz)? I love surf n’ turf restaurants, and have never forgotten the pin-point accuracy of atmosphere generated in that novel.

McE: Woody Allen once referred to the natural world as ‘an enormous restaurant’, and there may have been some lingering feeling like that in Who Sleeps with Katz, because, after all, what New Yorkers mostly do is eat. And argue about it. The gastronomic history of New York is fascinating. I could read about it forever. When I was a student there in the 1970s there were still some very old, amazingly long-lived holdovers from the past. Gage & Tollner in Brooklyn, Chumley’s in the Village. I once wrote a play about a New York City dairy restaurant, a kosher lunch joint called B&H. It’s still there. Happily the play no longer exists. The specific fish restaurant where I stick MacK and Isidor was Paddy’s Clam House, across the street from Madison Square Garden. Long gone. I wanted to include it because that is the place where I ate fish for the first time as an adult and liked it.

Closing Questions
TCB: I saw recently that your novel Who Sleeps With Katz (2003) is due to be re-published soon by CB Editions. If I was to reduce that novel to a simple description, I’d use a great line I came across in an online review: ‘a brilliant, convincing, human, emotionally raging portrait of a city and the people it makes’. Do you think your ‘raging portrait’ of New York in this book has a renewed relevance in some way in 2020? And does this re-publication indicate that there may be more new work to come from you in future?

McE: Your question about New York saddens me, in a way, because New York really has changed, and not for the better. Twenty years ago I would have said that it can’t change, it will never change. But it has – it’s a sickening retail playground now for a lot of slimy, stupid jerks. So. Rage alone didn’t help, did it?

I am currently writing a set of interconnected novellas, which is a description truly to make a publisher blanch, or even spit up. But that’s what I’m doing.

TCB: Our usual closing question is a request for recommendations for our readers – what are some of your own favourite fiction writers and books, the works that have inspired you during your career?

McE: Off-handedly: Samuel Beckett, Mercier and Camier. In mentioning Beckett I mean to include Joyce of course. Any book of poems by Paul Violi. Mark Twain, especially Life on the Mississippi. Thoreau’s Cape Cod. Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea and The Roads to Freedom. Ludwig Bemelmans, Hotel Splendide. Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre. Jane Austen, Emma. Dickens, Our Mutual Friend. Leila Aboulela, Lyrics Alley. Thomas Bernhard, Woodcutters. The Enthusiast Field Guide to Poetry. Günter Grass, The Tin Drum. Carlo Collodi, Pinocchio. Laurence Sterne, both Tristram Shandy and A Sentimental Journey. Xavier de Maistre’s A Voyage Around My Room. Jules Verne, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Rafael Sabatini, Scaramouche. W.H. Auden & Louis MacNeice, Letters from Iceland. Sinclair Lewis, Babbitt and now, especially, It Can’t Happen Here. Robert Irwin, The Arabian Nightmare. Sarah Orne Jewett, The Country of the Pointed Firs. The Interrogative Mood by Padgett Powell. Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint and The Plot Against America. Wordsworth, The Prelude. Lastly, Ezra Pound’s The ABC of Reading, which absolutely everybody ought to know. ●

You can order the new publication of Todd's novel 'Who Sleeps With Katz' right here on the CB Editions website: CB Editions

And you can follow Todd & Lucy on Twitter: @FictionAtelier