Choosing your favourite book of the year can be pretty daunting; with so many fantastic books too look back on from the year gone by, crowning just one isn’t always easy. Not so here. Robin McLean’s brilliant debut novel, Pity the Beast, is hands down the best I’ve read this year.
The writing is lyrical, beautiful and in stark contrast to the brutal and tense tale of vengeance and retribution. Violently attacked and left for dead, Ginny rises again. Grabbing a horse and gun, she heads into the Montana wilderness before her attackers give chase. This is brilliant writing, and not for the faint-hearted.
Robin McLean has treated us to a little insight into her writing process, and I hope this helps inspire you into giving this fantastic piece of fiction a well-loved home on the top of your TBR pile.
How I Came to Write
Pity the Beast, An American Western Novel
A Photo Essay by Robin McLean
I like to make new stories by combining two seemingly unrelated stories, allowing a third story that’s new to me to rise-up between them. The technique requires that the two parent stories drop into your mind spontaneously for inter-breeding. You can’t force it or fiddle with the combo.
Or, if not a question of genealogy, think of it as a kind of puzzle?
The first story that I “found” that would become Pity the Beast came to me by way of a friend I have in Alaska, a constant fountain of crazy tales of tribulation. He told me about having to help the neighbor with a poor little mare that had been, unfortunately, impregnated by another neighbor’s Percheron, a huge breed that I’d never heard of.
The Percheron had busted through fence (much to the fence owner’s annoyance). The Percheron’s huge offspring was too big for the poor mare to bear. The foal died during labor. After the birth, the mare lay down and would not get up, which usually means a horse is done for, I’m told. My friend and his wife, being ever-handy, helpful and clever Alaskans, hurried home for their backhoe and drove it back to the mare with an idea for making it stand. They built a sling for the mare, ran rope from the sling and looped it in the teeth of the backhoe’s bucket. The idea was to lift the mare, get her circulation going. I won’t tell what happens next. I was fascinated by the story.
I conjoined this sad, tense story about the mare with a dramatic tale of human infidelity that I’d witnessed. A community sort of excommunicated a woman who’d “strayed.” The two stories felt unrelated at first but soon they blended nicely around sex, sexism, and community ideas of right and wrong.
I wrote a very long short story over about eight months. At the same time, I met and wanted to work with the fantastic American writer Karen Shepard. She was teaching a summer workshop at the Tin House Writers Conference in Portland, Oregon. I was ready to sign up but was stopped in my tracks when I learned it was a novel-only workshop. I asked Karen if I could wiggle into the class anyhow, though I wasn’t writing a novel. I begged.
Rob Service, a favorite in the American West still, made it into Pity the Beast.
Karen asked if I had anything that was arguably a novel-in-progress.
“Well,” I said. “I have this long short story that we could pretend is a novel.” Karen said, “Sure, let’s pretend!”
I sent twenty-five pages and a bad synopsis. The workshop was the only all-female group at Tin House that summer. Karen told me to keep going. Write a novel.
“Can’t I just stop here?” I said. “No,” Karen said. “You can’t.”
But, still, I didn’t know how to not stop, so I wrote a second collection of short fiction first. That collection will be published by And Other Stories after Pity the Beast. Stay tuned.
I moved to the high desert west to finish the book. Here, I did all kinds of research, though not the bookish kind. Mainly the information came straight from the wild things that live out this way, human and otherwise.
Thanks for walking down memory lane with me just as my novel comes out.