In the mind of Rob McClure Smith, a kiss and a punch may be one in the same, and either may suffice in tying the stories in his upcoming collection, The Violence, together.
The working title for the collection is The Violence. There are reasons for that, presumably.
I don’t think I have a particular style as a writer. Some of the stories are set in Europe, others in the United States; some are contemporary, others historical; some are realistic, others tinctured by magical-realism. I’m all over the shop. But there’s one thing I’ve been confident of: that my stories don’t have much at all to do with me. I’m an aficionado of Keats’ negative capability. I might be found nodding approvingly over T.S. Eliot’s musings about masks and impersonality. Yes, I’m that type of writer.
It’s safer so.
Arranging these stories into a group, I had to think about what made them cohere, and it was then someone pointed out how often my fiction is striated with violence. They didn’t say ‘Dude, you’re obsessed with violence, what’s with that? What’s the matter with you at all? Aren’t you quite the sick bastard?’
But I did detect a certain undertone.
Which makes me uneasy. I am not a violent person. Not really.
Now, it’s pretty to think that this predilection for violence is a result of Freytag’s triangle: isn’t the climax to a rising action predisposed to be of a violent nature? The gloriously vicious Flannery O’Connor observed that violence was “strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace.” I like that too. It suggests I am merely crafting little epiphanies of savage grace to represent another world’s blade-like intrusion into this one. See, I’m a religious writer and didn’t even notice. I was too busy bludgeoning my characters to death.
But such explanations are patently bullshit. And the truth is more uncomfortable.
(Which is the way with truth).
I was brought up in a council housing scheme in the West of Scotland where violence was as much part of the landscape as gray cement blocks of flats and Orange Walks and Buckfast wine bottles and Rangers versus Celtic. I remember being spat on by many Catholic kids on my way to school because my blazer was the wrong color for that part of town. I remember spitting on many Catholic kids for the same reason. On reflection, I’d have spat on Flannery O’Connor. That’s Glasgow for you: city of great expectorations. A river ran through it: an endless stream of whisky and lager and cheap wine. To grow up a schemie in the West of Scotland is to get your first whiff of alcohol leaving the womb. You breathe in violence from the cradle. It’s an atmosphere. It’s the atmosphere. It’s all that and more.
And to be a child living there is to be afraid so often of so many things.
So I must admit: my fiction is autobiographical, no matter where it takes place, no matter the gender of the characters, no matter how much their creator lives in a state of denial. There’s a reason narratives linger on the instant before violence erupts, on tension strung like burning cordite. There’s a reason the violence comes finally as release, as necessary relief. I remember that tension and how silence fed upon it, how it cut you to the bone while time flowed on treacle-slow and heavy.
And so, I suppose, The Violence. Well, at least for now. Who knows, maybe I’ll slash that apart later. I’ve already torn out some of my best stories because they didn’t gel. The one in Gettysburg Review I liked? Rip. Those drunken ladettes in Hawaii from Barcelona Review? Cut. The goofy one that got the Scotsman award? Slash (and burn).
I still see the scars in the corpus from the excision. Putting together a collection of stories is an act of violence too, a task Dr. Frankenstein would envy.
I do believe I even began writing fiction, seriously, as an act of violence. It began with an argument in a corridor. The kind of argument that happens in corridors, people on their way other places. Our dispute was about something academic and inconsequential and petty and trivial, and the other party said dismissively, with a weary sigh, ‘Well, you don’t understand, Rob, because you’re just not a creative person.’
It was quite the kiss-off.
I wrote the draft of my first story that night to prove a point: Look, here is evidence that I am a creative person and how very wrong you were: Look on my works, you flighty, and despair, and consider in detail all the other things you are wrong about.
It was such a Scottish thing to do. Subtext: Ah’m gonnae stick it tae you, hen.
But when I began publishing the stories a few years later, that person was long gone, to a better place (Pittsburgh, not heaven), and I was left with a pile of angry stories and a smoldering heap of self-righteousness. (Sheryl, it’s true I swear, and if you ever read this know you were violent inspiration to me, a Beatrice from Louisiana).
The Violence? I’m having second thoughts now. I’m not sure about that title at all. It’s too in the face. Ideally, a title should be inviting, a welcoming peck on the cheek, and this is a Glasgow kiss, a right smacker.
But it’s not like I can keep beating myself up about it.