Rebecca Rosenblum was already acclaimed for her short fiction when she released her debut novel, So Much Love (McClelland & Stewart) this past spring. So Much Love has shown that Rosenblum is just as adept with long-form fiction as she is with the short story, drawing comparisons to modern classics like Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge and Emma Donoghue's Room.
The novel tells the story of Catherine, who mysteriously disappears from outside the restaurant where she works. The disappearance effects everyone who knew Catherine, either intimately or in passing, but it's Catherine's own story that forms the heart of So Much Love.
We're pleased to welcome Rebecca to Open Book as part of our Lucky Seven interview series. She tells us about why she wasn't quite ready to write the book when the ideas first came to her back in 2000, the long editorial path to the final draft (including 32,000 new words), and why being in a two-writer marriage is helpful.
Tell us about your new book and how it came to be.
So Much Love’s main thread concerns a young woman named Catherine Reindeer who goes missing from a small city in northern Ontario. There’s another story that runs in a bit of parallel about a poet from the same place who was murdered some years earlier; this was a poet whose work Catherine related to and was interested in, and there are some intersections between how they lived their lives. And there are chapters from the points of view of many of the people who miss Catherine or are simply affected by her absence, and eventually, affected by her return.
It’s a complex book to describe—and certainly challenging to write—but I think offering all these perspectives and layers offers a nuanced experience. The multiplicity of perspectives lets the reader situate him or herself in the community, as someone who has emotions and reactions to Catherine’s situation, too.
Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?
The inciting idea for the novel was definitely around where life and art separate and intermingle but it took me over a decade and a half to even somewhat grapple with that, if indeed I have. I was studying Gwendolyn MacEwen, and I felt like the way we discussed her life was too similar to how we discussed her poetry—different from how we talked about the work of male poets. But I also knew that life does influence art, maybe in ways you can’t really untangle.
I was only twenty when I started working on these ideas and not really equipped to deal with them, but I kept trying and gradually got smarter, got better at writing my way through the questions, found more insight. What is writing practice for if not teaching us more about what we are writing about? The other, more central storyline, about Catherine’s disappearance, was one that I often saw in the background of Canadian fiction, which is realistic and tragic because it is often in the background of Canadian lives—it is all too common to be hearing these stories on the news, to feel sad and concerned, but eventually turn the news off and go back to whatever one’s own central plotline is. That’s reality for a lot of us, but what about those who live those news stories, who don’t have the privilege of turning it off? I wondered why fiction writers weren’t taking that greater empathic leap; I wondered if I could do it. So I tried.
Did this project change significantly from when you first starting working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?
I started working on this probably early in the year in 2000, and I finished in fall 2016, to publish in spring 2017—so, a while. I tried to write it twice as a linear novel, with just one or two perspectives and it came apart pretty quickly both times. There were gaps between those two attempts and then a long break after the second. Then after writing two collections of short stories, I still couldn’t shake Catherine and Julianna, so in 2011 I started fresh with the book as a collection of linked short stories, which I managed to finish in a way I was proud of in 2014. McClelland & Stewart bought the book, and editor Anita Chong wanted to work with me, on the condition that we make it into a true novel. I don’t think I fully knew what that would entail but I knew I thought of it as a novel already, and that if Anita knew a path I wanted to try to follow her. Two and a half intense years of editing and adding 32,000 new words(!) and I do think So Much Love is a truly novelistic novel, and also the book it needed to be. It was a long path.
What do you need in order to write – in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?
I need to feel basically comfortable and ok. I have an office at home with a nice desk that is a hand-me-down from a friend and proper desk chair that was a gift. That’s where I do most of my writing but my living room is fine too, as is my dining room, my parents’ house, most coffee shops that aren’t extremely noisy, the airport, most libraries, etc. I can’t get much work done when I’m stressed about what has to happen next, either immediately (like, I’m waiting for my number to be called at the passport office or the people next to me in the coffee shop are fighting) or in the general future (I don’t know how I’ll make rent) but otherwise I’m pretty easygoing about writing time and space.
What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?
I’m a talker, and conveniently married to a fellow writer (the author Mark Sampson) so I can often discuss specific problems with the work with him and get some good advice, or just whinge and get some pity, both of which are useful at different points. I have a good community of writers that are my friends as well, for that sort of support and constructive discussions. Or sometimes I just go to bed; sleep solves a lot of things, and even if it doesn’t, at least I’m well rested to go on trying to figure things out the next day.
What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.
Doing more than one thing well—ideally everything: the rhythm of story, vibrancy of characters, vivid and precise language, moving people and things elegantly through space and time, setting scenes, dialogue that is quick and interesting and real, making the unexpected feel natural after it happens, making the everyday feel magical. Most competent writers can do a few of these things but I want the whole package—it’s so exciting to find a writer who keeps it all together, page after page, leaving the reader with nothing to do but be immersed in the story. I was really startled by the Sex and Death anthology from Anansi this year (eds Sarah Hall and Peter Hobbs) because so many of the pieces achieved that all-the-balls-in-the-air magic. I was spellbound.
What are you working on now?
Honestly, a lot of interview pieces like this one and preparing for readings, both of which I enjoy doing! I had started a new project, another multi-perspective novel, when I finished So Much Love, but I always knew I was going to have to put it down for a while when SML actually came out if I was lucky enough to get any attention for the book. I like doing interviews and readings to promote a book I love and am proud of, but since I also have a full-time job (and love to sleep, as mentioned above) it doesn’t leave a lot of time in the day for new creative work. That will keep. The new book is about a father and daughter and their struggles together. I like to think it will be a bit simpler in construction than SML but I can’t promise.
Rebecca Rosenblum is the author of two acclaimed short story collections, The Big Dream and Once, winner of the Metcalf-Rooke Award and named one of Quill & Quire’s “15 Books That Mattered in 2008.” Her fiction has been shortlisted for the Journey Prize, the National Magazine Awards, and the Danuta Gleed Literary Award. She lives in Toronto. So Much Love is her first novel.