Rebecca Rosenblum and Mark Sampson on loving an author, and the momentous highs (and moronic lows) of the writer's life.

Rebecca Rosenblum and Mark Sampson, writer couple.

Writers can be dissatisfied, wistful, complex. Manic, gleeful, hyperbolic. Imagine then two writers living together, day in and out. What is it like to work and live beside someone who shares your professional aspirations? What is like to love that person? I chat with Rebecca Rosenblum and Mark Sampson, writers and romantic partners, about how they make room in their household for evolving stories and stringent writing schedules.

If you're in Toronto, please join us at the launch of Rebecca's latest short story collection, The Big Dream, published by Biblioasis. Interviewed by Canadian Bookshelf's own Kerry Clare, you'll also get to catch a glimpse of two longtime friends on stage.

When: TONIGHT. Tuesday, September, 20, 7 p.m.
Where: Dora Keogh, 141 Danforth Avenue

Julie Wilson: As partners, how does your support of one another's career manifest itself? Time? Space? Personal sacrifice? First reads?

Rebecca Rosenblum: Well, whatever it takes, I guess. It's good to be able to bring a dysfunctional story, or an impersonal rejection, or whatever writing blow I've received to Mark and know I don't have to explain why it sucks. We do first read for each other sometimes--it's a little fraught, because obviously his opinion matters a lot to me and I'm more emotional reacting to his criticism than, say, an editor's. But also it's really wonderful because Mark has had to listen to so much of my chatter about the work, he is very aware of what I'm trying to accomplish. To live with a writer is to live with the writing, so he knows the work quite well even before he's read it. That's really nice, because writing is normally so solitary.

I think the downside to us both being writers is that I don't really know how writers operate, I only know how I operate--and extrapolating that to Mark, or anyone, doesn't work too well. I think if I were an electrical engineer or whatever, and Mark said, “I can only write in complete silence,” I think I'd be more generous about it. But because I write too, and I don't need silence, I can be a bit narrow-minded—“Just tune out the rap music from downstairs” is not the most empathy possible. But I'm working on it—more empathy is definitely better, as a partner, a writer, or a human.

Mark Sampson: All of the above, actually. For us at least, time and personal sacrifice are closely related, since Rebecca and I write at opposite ends of the diurnal spectrum. (She slips off to her desk sometime after dinner to write for a few hours in the evening, whereas I answer the call of a merciless alarm clock and write for a few hours in the early-early morning.) This means we don't have as much access to each other on a day-to-day basis as other couples, and being okay with that is a kind of support we provide to each other.

We also share early drafts now, although it took us a while to get into that groove. (It's level of intimacy we had to grow into, perhaps—like doing laundry together.) Rebecca has a wonderful story in the most recent issue of The Fiddlehead, which I had the privilege of reading in draft and making suggestions on. Meanwhile, I handed her the 107,000-word manuscript of my new novel back in February, and she went above and beyond in providing detailed feedback on it.

But mostly, the biggest way we support each other's careers is by providing perspective on them. As any writer will tell you, the literary life is full of stupendous highs and moronic lows, and so it's great having a partner who understands that and can offer up a quick reality check when things get crazy. Rebecca has this great line about how we weren't conscripted into this lifestyle, that we chose to dedicate our lives to literature. That alone has been a great support to me as I try to handle both my successes and my failures with grace.

JW: You both acknowledge that you chose to dedicate your lives to literature. When I was a youth, I had a chance to take my squash hobby to a professional level, and the choice not to came down to what, at the time, I thought was a lack of ambition. I didn't want to spend 5-6 days of every week on the court. Would you say that part of your success as a couple is that you've both committed—not only to one another—but the professional pursuit of a career author?

RR: There's a level of professionalism that we both have that demands respect—which is why I try to limit bursting into his office to talk about the cat, and that sort of thing. But that would apply if he were a lawyer or an artist or whatever. You care about people, you care about their work, and want them to be able to do it to the best of their ability. You support it however you can.

A shared love of reading, words, and the act of writing, however, is completely non-professional but I think more central to our relationship. It's certainly a large percentage of what we talk about.

MS: The passion for reading and for writing plays a big part in what makes us compatible with one another, but the careerist aspect is something completely different. We both are very committed to treating writing as a career, because that's the only way you can ever hope to succeed at it; don't let anyone tell you differently. But in the end I wouldn't say that the ambition is a cornerstone of our relationship. The pure love and passion for literature is for sure, but not the careerism. I mean, we're the kind of couple who passes the time on long road trips by having the passenger read out loud stories from literary journals and then we critique them together. Nerdy I know, but hey, that's love for you.

JW: You had me to dinner the other night and, Mark, you said to Rebecca that you'd just read the first paragraph of Clark Blaise's The Meagre Tarmac (Biblioasis). Without missing a beat, Rebecca asked you to read it aloud. Between that and a slice of Mark's leftover birthday cake, I got to enjoy some of your affection for one another firsthand. When you read, I wonder, do you have occasion to hear the text in each other's voice?

RR: We are pro reading aloud people; I find it really falls into two camps, with not much to do with how "literary" a person is. Some people just hate having to listen to a text read aloud, others love it. It's a relief that we're both the same at our house. We read short stories aloud on long car trips and then critique them (not our own work; stuff from journals and anthologies). And definitely, if someone's reading something, fiction or not, that the other would enjoy, it gets read aloud. It's a nice way to share, plus I feel I'm aware of more books than when I just had my own reading to draw on.

MS: I totally agree with Rebecca, reading stuff aloud is HUGE around our house. I mentioned the reading-during-road-trips in an earlier response. This is especially important for me, since I tend to read my work out loud while writing it (hence, as I mentioned, my office being at the opposite end of the apartment from the bedroom) and I also LOVE reading aloud to an audience. I mean, if I could travel somewhere 15-20 times a year to read my stuff to a crowd for 20 minutes, that would be my dream. I know a lot of writers hate reading their work, but I'm definitely not one of them.

As for Rebecca's writing, I tend to hear her voice a lot when I'm reading her work. One interesting thing, though, is that she actually had an audio recording done of one of her stories for Rattling Books' EarLit Shorts a while back, and the person reading it on the recording has a really thick Newfoundland accent. Now THAT blew my mind, to hear this voice, one I'm so familiar and intimate with, rendered in a way that was in one sense very incongruous, was delightful. It totally gave me a new perspective on her work.

JW: Mark, over dinner you talked a bit about your next novel, which is set in South Korea. You'd been told two things, that to understand South Korea you had to understand Taekwondo in order to understand South Korea's relationship to its neighbours, and that to understand the women of South Korea and their relationship to one another, you had to know how to make kimchi. Rebecca, you tickled me with your tale of trying to keep a toad as a pet (because your father kept releasing them). You have very distinct ways of storytelling, yet you seem to listen in the same way. Do you find yourselves encouraging the other to take chances in narrative style (or the content itself) based on the exchanges you have at home?

RR: Maybe it's the fact that we had both been writing so long when we met, but I think I have a lot of confidence that Mark is going to make the right choices, and take the right risks for his work. When I read critically for him, it's more about seeing how successful something has been, where it could be fine-tuned and where it already sings. I have faith that he'd give me fair hearing if I wanted to suggest something, but I take that responsibility seriously, and haven't needed to suggest anything . . . yet.

MS: For me, it's more about recognizing that Rebecca's way of processing the world around her is very closely related, or even indivisible, from the way she writes, which for me is a very attractive quality in her. I consider it one of the great joys of our relationship, for me to have much more access to that incredible mind, that whimsical perception of the world, than I would if I was simply a reader of her stories. Which I was before I asked her out.

From my end, with the South Korean novel, I'm engaging in quite a bit of literary ventriloquism. Half of the book is, after all, written from the perspective of a character who is a woman, and Korean, and born in 1928. So, my own voice needed to take a back seat to a certain extent. At any rate, most of the novel's two voices were developed long before Rebecca and I met. But I think the impact she has had was pushing me with those voices, and their respective narratives, in her critiques of the manuscript when I handed it over to her back in February. Our relationship was helpful because I think she knew what I wanted to say and could provide suggestions for saying it better.

JW: Rebecca launches her latest collection of short stories, The Big Dream, tonight at Dora Keogh on Danforth Avenue at 7 pm. In light of this, I asked Mark to have the last word. It's a proud moment!

MS: I couldn't be happier to see Rebecca's book launched. I know how hard she's worked on it, and I know it's the book she wanted to write. It's especially thrilling because I know that nearly all of the stories in this collection were composed during these first two and a half years of our relationship, so I'll always look back on that fact whenever I reread it.

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Rebecca Rosenblum is a graduate of the English and Creative Writing Masters program at the University of Toronto. Her work has been published in Exile Quarterly, The Danforth Review, echolocation, The New Quarterly, Qwerty, Ars Medica, and Journey Prize Stories 19. Once, her first book, won the Metcalf-Rooke Award for fiction. Rebecca lives and writes in Toronto, Ontario.

Listen to Rebecca read from The Big Dream.

Mark Sampson was born in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. He's lived and worked in Halifax, Winnipeg, Seoul and Australia. His first novel, Off Book, was published in 2007 by Norwood Publishing. He lives and works in Toronto, Ontario.

Listen to Mark read from Off Book.

September 20, 2011
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