The art of writing #12 : rob mclennan

How did you first come to writing flash fiction? What is it about the form that resonates?

I’m really taken with the density and the quickness. The very short story, as I tend to call it, contains an incredible amount of malleability. In my mind, it lives up against a fine line with the prose poem, although the border between them remains fluid (and might not actually exist).

I first became hooked after being gifted a copy of Sarah Manguso’s Hard to Admit and Harder to Escape (McSweeney’s, 2007). It was around that time that I began by simply writing a piece that made no sense in the context of anything else I’d done up to that point (an odd little story referencing the 1980’s movie The Last Boys), but I persevered, and eventually spent much of the next six or seven years shaping a collection of very short stories around it.

I’d already admired the work of Ken Sparling, but I think my understanding and appreciation of his work began to also deepen, around that time. From Manguso, I slowly moved into Lydia Davis, Lorrie Moore and Kathy Fish. Given how many work the form poorly, I am always amazed by those who do it well.

How does a short story begin?

Sometimes with a phrase, or an idea. Sometimes with an action, that evolves into the formation of my main character. Sometimes it is as simple as a single word.

How did publishing your first book change your writing?

Publishing my first full-length poetry collection, way back in spring 1998, taught me how much it means, and how little it means. There were some hard lessons.

You’ve published work in multiple genres. Do you see your writing as a single, extended project, or a series of disconnected threads? How do you keep the genres straight?

A good question. Usually, both. The short short stories might occupy one thread, while my longer short stories (some three or four manuscript pages each, as opposed to a single paragraph or even a single sentence) might occupy another. And then there are the multiple threads of poetry manuscripts, the novel manuscript, the literary essays and the creative non-fiction works.

Have you a daily schedule by which you work, or are you working to fit this in between other activities?

Before the birth of our two wee girls, I wrote full-time, and work began each day soon after I woke. Now I manage most mornings at my desk only once the young ladies are deposited at school and preschool. I have two-plus hours before I head off to collect our smallest from preschool (although I do get a full school day with both, now, on Thursdays and Fridays). Once we collect her sister from school, I can often manage another hour or so at the computer before I begin preparing dinner.

I discovered pretty early on that the only way I get anything done is through a routine, and a routine is like a muscle, one I worked very hard to develop throughout my twenties and into my thirties. Now I don’t think too much about needing to force that routine. Even if some days are more fallow than others, I daily sit at my desk and attempt to work.

What are your favourite print or online literary journals?

I’m very taken with Fence magazine, Train :a poetry journal, The Capilano Review, Brick : A Literary Journal, The Believer, Ploughshares, Canthius, Tripwire, In/Words and filling Station magazine. At least, those are some of the journals I attempt to follow regularly. There are others, of course.

Who are some of the writers you are reading lately that most excite you?

I’ve been rereading Kathleen Fraser, but have also been enjoying new collections by Paige Ackerson-Kiely, Nikki Reimer, Fatimah Asghar and Christine Stewart. I really can’t put down any of those Best American Experimental Poetry volumes; those are incredible.  Thanks to editor Kathy Fish, a story of mine was was also a finalist for The Best Small Fictions 2017 (Braddock PA: Braddock Avenue Books), which introduced me to her work as well as the anthology series The Best Small Fictions, both of which I highly recommend.

Much of the joy of editing/publishing is that it allows me to not only engage with some of the writing and writers that excite me, but it allows me to broadcast their work (and my love of it) to others, and some I’ve been excited about lately, through Touch the Donkey [a small poetry journal], for example, would include Bronwen Tate, Emilia Nielsen, Hailey Higdon, Trish Salah, Julia Drescher, Biswamit Dwibedy, Aja Couchois Duncan, José Felipe Alvergue, Roxanna Bennett, Amanda Earl, Conyer Clayton, Emily Izsak and Lydia Unsworth, among so many, many, many more.

Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa, where he is home full-time with the two wee girls he shares with Christine McNair. The author of more than thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, the Council for the Arts in Ottawa Mid-Career Award in 2014, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012 and 2017. In March, 2016, he was inducted into the VERSe Ottawa Hall of Honour. He is the author of three books of fiction, including two novels, and the more recent The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014). His poetry title A halt, which is empty (Mansfield Press, 2019) is out very soon, as is Household items (Salmon Poetry, 2019). He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at

A selection of his flash fictions appeared in the first issue.