MARLBORO—“I’ve always written,” Robin MacArthur said, over a cup of tea on a recent morning.
“I remember writing a story when I was around eight. I have a mountain of journals in my old bedroom in my parents’ house. My parents’ old cowshed was my playhouse, and I was home all the time,” she said. “I’d make pretend tea out of mud and sticks and I’d write.”
She paused, then said, “That’s what I’m still doing.”
“Half Wild,” MacArthur’s first book, a collection of short stories set in a fictional Vermont town, was released by Ecco in early August. It was chosen as a Barnes & Noble Discover Pick, an Indies Introduce Pick, and an Indie Next Pick for August.
The writing is crisp and engaging, inviting the reader into the vignettes MacArthur — who is also a painter, musician, and documentary filmmaker — creates in each story.
‘The rougher edges of Vermont’
Those who grew up here will likely relate to many of the characters, and some may see a little bit of themselves in “Half Wild.” Transplants who successfully navigated their way into the local scene will recognize some of their native neighbors.
MacArthur’s stories will trigger the senses of nearly anyone who has spent time in southeastern Vermont: the pull of a cool swimming hole at dusk on an insufferably hot day, a person whose perfume is hemlock and chain oil.
Her stories are filled with characters who live on the edge of the woods. Few live wealthy lives. This book is not about weekend homes or gut-renovated 18th-century farmhouses with solar panels on the roof. It is not about beautiful fields and rolling hills.
“What I’m responding to [in “Half Wild"] is this bucolic version of Vermont: pristine, pastoral, Ben & Jerry’s,” MacArthur said. “I’m going into the deeper models, the cabins at the end of the road,” she added.
“I’m fighting against [a] stereotype,” she said. “I’m drawn to the rougher edges of Vermont, the border between wildness and domesticity. My characters are choosing to seek wildness outside and inside of themselves,” she said.
“My stories are very much about class” and its divisions between “the haves” and “the have-nots,” MacArthur said. “The class divide is very present but skewed by the national reputation of this pristine place."
None of her characters have ski homes, MacArthur noted.
“Many characters in my book grew up here and want to leave, or return,” MacArthur said, noting this is the experience of many of her childhood friends. She said most of her children’s classmates’ parents were her classmates. Some stayed here since childhood, but many have returned, one by one.
“They struggle with feeling at home elsewhere, but they feel the limits of living here. Many are people who are here not by choice; they both hate and love it here,” she said.
“You have to confront the past on a day-to-day basis when you move back to the place where you grew up,” MacArthur said.
A personal connection
This is not just a narrative device to drive her stories.
MacArthur lives on the same road she grew up on. It’s named for her family.
As a young adult, she left town on extended road trips, to attend school, and simply to be somewhere else. Before returning to her hometown, she lived in Providence, New York City, and Mexico, among other places.
A graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, MacArthur received her MFA seven years ago and, since then, has published stories and essays.
Caring for her and husband Ty Gibbons’ two children as a stay-at-home mom, though, MacArthur could write only “in little bits."
“This past year, both of my kids are in school, so I could write four hours a day, four days a week,” she said. “I take that very seriously. I don’t do anything else while my kids are in school,” she added.
“Writing is my job now,” she said.
Before this past year, MacArthur had many jobs, sometimes all at once.
“I was a part-time teacher, a freelance editor, I worked on my mom’s farm,” she said. “Ty is freelance, too, so we’ve gotten by with about 10 freelance jobs, like most people do in Vermont,” she said.
Writing, MacArthur said, “was my inner world, but I was terrified to show others. I’m intensely private. It was something I didn’t want to do."
Why was she so scared to let others read her writing for so long?
“I’ve always held writers in the highest esteem. I didn’t think I was worthy,” MacArthur said. “My parents are farmers and carpenters. The ‘literati exclusive club’ was not me,” she added.
“It’s ironic for a fiction writer to bare their soul in a very small town for everyone to see,” MacArthur said.
“Half Wild” is an “ode to the eccentric, eclectic women I know here in Vermont,” MacArthur said. “They are choosing to live very closely to the land. They are stoic and lonely in their houses on the edge of the field,” she said.
This group includes MacArthur’s mother. “She would much rather go into the woods with her dog than socialize in town. I know so many women around here who are drawn to that — being alone in the woods. People like that are not normally found in fiction,” especially women, she said.
MacArthur confidently assures the reader her stories pass the Bechdel-Wallace test, named after cartoonist Alison Bechdel and her friend, Liz Wallace, who inspired the artist to create the test. First appearing in 1985 in Bechdel’s comic strip, “Dykes to Watch Out For,” the test analyzes fictional works to see if two or more women talk to each other about something other than a man.
“People like Annie Proulx and Pam Houston write about male cowboys on the frontier, but where are the women?” MacArthur asks.
“Maybe in order to be taken seriously they have to write about men,” MacArthur said. She mentioned the Claire Vaye Watkins essay, “On Pandering,” which examines misogyny and writing to impress the white male. [bit.ly/1MNnb6q]
“We have to stop that right now,” she said.
“Will men read books about women, their desires, their sexuality?” asks MacArthur. “Or will those books get labeled ‘chick lit’?” she asks.
“I’m happy to push against that,” she said.