An Interview with Ross McMeekin

Ross McMeekin's excellent story "Uncles" is taken from a collection of linked stories that center around a fitness center. To learn more about the story, his collection, and his feelings on the intimacies of fitness centers, we conducted this short interview. For even more on Ross visit rossmcmeekin.com.

[The BAR] How does this piece fit into your collection of linked stories? Is this an idea from early in its gestation – or later? Length-wise? How many of these characters are prominent throughout the collection, if any? Is this one fitness center, or encounters at many fitness centers?

Ross McMeekin:“Uncles” is a piece I’ve been working on and off now for a year or so. I’m not sure yet how all of these stories fit together, which is kind of scary. If they don’t end up fitting together I may have to burn something. I know they take place in one fitness center, and that it is one group of people, and that group of people keeps growing. But so far there hasn’t been a narrative or scene or anything that has tied them all together, except that they’re all struggling with the distance between who they want to be, who they feel they should be, and who they end up being.

When / how did you decide to pursue a collection of connected stories? Does the collection have a name? What stage of re-writing/collecting/completing are you in?

I wrote a story that took place in a fitness center and then that world kind of opened up to me. I realized that it was a place I knew well and wanted to write about. So I guess it snuck up on me, then just made sense. I’m currently calling it Fitness Center, but that could easily change, because right now I’m in the stage of re-writing and also drafting a bunch of stories, all at various levels of completeness, all at the same time. I tend to work on stories like a dog works on bones: I chew on them then leave them for another then return and love them then get frustrated with them and throw up on them and nose them under the couch or bury them in the yard then forget where I’ve stashed them then pick up their scent a few months later and dig them up and work on them again.

Is the ‘collection of linked stories’ indie-er than a novella? They seem few and far between. Winesburg, OH stands out – are there other collections of linked stories out there that you’ve read that we should be reading?

I’d say novella gets the indie award, because publishers seem to be publishing linked collections as novels, probably because they’re easier to market that way. For instance, Jennifer Egan’s Visits from the Good Squad, or Olive Kitteridge, which I think they called a “novel-in-stories.” I haven’t seen a ton of novellas out there, unless they’re sneaked into a linked collection posing as a novel.

As far as great linked collections, you mentioned Winesburg, Ohio – I love that collection, especially the story “Hands.” Stuart Dybek’s Coast of Chicago is a classic that I’ve reread a few times and keeps getting better. This summer I enjoyed Michael Czyzniewjewski’s Chicago Stories, a collection of 40 very short fictions. There’s a story in there from the perspective of David Hasselhoff and another from the Superdome.

How many stories from this collection have been published / accepted? How many are you looking to include in the collection?

Including “Uncles,” I’ve had three published. I’ve got another three I’ve been sporadically sending out to be rejected and then revised. I’ve got another dozen in various stages of being buried, vomited on, or chewed.

Do you have a group of fitness center friends? (Is ‘friends’ the appropriate term?) If yes, do they know you’re writing this? If they do – their reaction(s)? How has this project changed your fitness center experience?

There’s a group of guys I ball with a few times a week at a fitness center near my home. They know my name and I know theirs’ (or at least their nicknames), but no one ever hangs out or talks about anything else outside of basketball and professional sports and various nagging injuries. So I haven’t told them anything about the collection. They have no idea I’m a writer. They have no idea what I do. I have no idea what they do, either. They might all be writing fitness center collections. But that would be funny if I brought it up. Maybe that should be the last story of the collection, a basketball player indulging in personal matters. I don’t know how they’d respond. Even though it sounds mundane, telling them something like that feels like it would break some rule – like I was over-sharing.

Is there – in your mind – a centerpiece to the collection?

For me, the fitness center itself is the centerpiece, at least at this point in the process. I think as a cultural establishment it represents our collective identities and societal urges and neuroticisms remarkably well. People don’t come to fitness centers just to work out, any more than people go to bars just to drink. And I’m a part of that – I grew up going to fitness centers and I belong to one now. Even when I went away for the MFA residency in Vermont, I joined the local fitness center for a week-and-a-half. My money’s on the counter, and I think that shows in the writing – which sometimes is a good thing and sometimes poses challenges. Being close to the subject matter can make it difficult to get perspective.

I know some people don’t like fitness centers because they don’t like exercising in a (relatively) public space. There’s some intimacy that gets compromised at a fitness center. There’s some real vulnerability, right? And in ‘Uncles,’ there’s a tip-of-the-hat to the idea of who we open up to, how, and why. Do the other stories explore the same territory? Or, how wide are you casting your thematic net?

I think vulnerability shows in every piece of equipment and sweatband. But almost all of it is coded, almost all of it is subtext. This collection so far is all about people trying to get out and express what they have been unable to in more conventional ways. Everything feels heightened in the fitness center. Every choice you make says something about you, and everyone knows it, and everybody’s relationship with that choice is strained. At least that’s the way I perceive it.

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