Rebecca Rosenblum is author of Once, which won the Metcalf-Rooke Award and was one of Quill and Quire’s 15 Books That Mattered in 2008. Her second collection, The Big Dream, is forthcoming from Biblioasis in September 2011.
My book, The Big Dream, is about people who work…among other things. I’m interested in putting work in its proper place as a big part of the lives of many of the characters I write about. I have read too many novels and stories where the main character is a freelance something or other, and never does any work at all, or where the narrative cuts from 8:30 am to 6pm as if the characters had just been asleep in a closet during that period.
However, I wasn’t interested in writing a book where all the characters live their lives mainly at the office. There are certainly people whose main emotional life is on the job, and actually I enjoy writing about them. But I also enjoy writing about people who have jobs and parents and children and lovers and ex-lovers and problems and angst and great senses of humour. I think work is very closely woven into the fabric of our lives, and that our lives are generally more complex than genre designations like “office novels,” “domestic fiction,” “romance,” etc. Though my writing is not autobiographical, I know from my own experiences as a person with a job that I do not leave my heart or my intellect or my sense of humour at the bus stop when I get to work. I’ve been a cubicle dweller for years and I actually kind of like it, but even back in the dark days when I hated my job, I still had both good and bad experiences every day, and was always still involved with friends and family and partners, always interested in clothes and books and trees and art, even while I was facing down a recalcitrant fax machine or an angry customer. I felt like my real life continued even while I got the work done, went to meetings, made coffee, tried not to piss anybody off, and get out the door by 5. Or 5:30. Or 6.
I know a lot of people like me. Most people I know have jobs, though in many different areas, at many different levels of interest. At work, we might have to do some things we don’t particularly want to do, in order to have the money to do the things we do want to—like eat food and sleep indoors. Or we might be totally inspired by our work. But it is really rarely that simple. On the spectrum from “love my job” to “hate my job,” most people fall around “it’s complicated.” Wherever people are on that spectrum, it doesn’t them from being weird, complex, fascinating people—at work.
I wanted to write the stories in The Big Dream because I find people in their working lives so worth thinking and writing about. I often think that literature is missing that—missing that emotional and intellectual life continues at work, and that boring work does not necessarily equal a boring person. Actually, not only literature but lots of real people miss that jobs are a part of life, not a distraction from it. I conducted a series of interviews for my blog called The Professional Interviews—in-depth interviews with people about their jobs, from their big-picture job descriptions to the nitty-gritty filing systems, from lunch-breaks to dress-codes. Most jobs, even the ones we think laypeople can understand, have a lot of details we have no idea about. And I find that people who are good at their work can describe it in an interesting way. When you care about your work, even if it’s despite some serious reservations, you know the nuances, the quirks, the excitements of getting the job done.
It sounds really pretentious to say that I don’t want to keep any of the human experience out of my writing, but I do want to write about people in all their natural and unnatural habitats, including the cubicle. I just don’t think you can really know a person—real or fictional—if you have no understanding of what that person is up to for 40 hours a week. The Big Dream became a collection of linked short stories about characters who all work in the same office building—the tech support team, the HR department, the cafeteria staff, everybody I could get onto the page. I love writing short stories because they give an opportunity for a character or characters to walk across the spotlight—to have a brief, intense moment of illumination, and allow the reader to imagine what came before and what will come after. And yet the linked collection allows a larger arc of emotion, for those who care to pursue it.
I’m hoping that The Big Dream will resonate with different people in different ways—some people will have had similar jobs or jobs with similar details. I think even in careers completely unrelated to the work at Dream Inc., many people have to perform similar balancing acts between the personal and the professional, or have had similar relationships with their colleagues, or some of the same doubts and fears. I have no doubt that some people won’t have had any of these experiences at all, but I still hope the characters who live them will seem like real, relatable humans. This is a book not about jobs but about the people who do them.
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