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An Interview with John McNally

PUBLISHED: March 16, 2004

John McNally is author of The Book of Ralph, published in March of 2004 by Free Press, a division of Simon and Schuster. His previous collection, Troublemakers (Iowa, 2000), won the John Simmons Short Fiction Award (2000) and the Nebraska Book Award (2001), and was a Book Sense selection. He’s held Michener (U. of Iowa), Djerassi (U. of Wisconsin), and Jenny McKean Moore (George Washington University) fellowships, all for fiction writing. He’s currently the recipient of a Chesterfield Writer’s Film Project fellowship, sponsored by Paramount Pictures, for screenwriting.

McNally has also edited several anthologies: Bottom of the Ninth: 24 Great Short Stories about Baseball (Southern Illinois, 2003); Humor Me: An Anthology of Humor by Writers of Color (Iowa, 2002); The Student Body: Short Stories about College Students and Professors (Wisconsin, 2001); and High Infidelity: 24 Great Short Stories about Adultery (Morrow, 1997).

Presently, McNally divides his time between Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where he’s an assistant professor at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, and Los Angeles, where he is writing screenplays. He is also under contract with Free Press for another novel. His story, “The Immortals,” appears in the Spring 2004 issue, and another, “Contributor’s Notes,” will appear in the Summer special issue of Fiction’s New Luminaries. He is a contributing editor to VQR.

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Kuehnert: When did you start writing? And when did you write the first story that you really felt was a keeper?

McNally: I started writing in the fourth grade. I was an overweight kid who watched a lot of television. We had to write a play and perform it, so I wrote about a overweight superhero who’d go into a phone booth to change his clothes but couldn’t get out again because it was too tight of a fit. I remember the teacher and the students laughing. The play was a hit! Sad to say, but I suppose ego is what kept me writing. I wrote a nonfiction book about film comedians when I was in the eighth grade, typed it all out on a manual cast-iron typewriter, and tried to find a publisher, but only one publisher would even look at it. I tried writing a science fiction novel. When I first started college, before I took my first creative writing course, I was writing some sentimental crap about a high school romance. The first story that I wrote that was a keeper was “The Greatest Goddamn Thing,” which I wrote the summer after I finished my MFA. It was the first story that seemed organic from the get-go; it seemed to have taken on a life of its own, even as I was writing it. Before that, everything was mechanical. I tell my students that you have to learn about craft, but it’s like learning to play pool: you work on, say, a bank shot or on slicing the ball off the rail and into a corner pocket, and you keep doing that over and over and over, but then one night, it all comes together, it becomes second-nature, and you don’t have to think about it anymore, you don’t have to line up the shot, you just hit the cue ball and everything falls into place: You run the table. “The Greatest Goddamn Thing” was the first story that felt like everything I’d learned was second-nature. I wish I could say that every story that followed has felt that way, but it hasn’t. Only occasionally—and rarely—does that happen.

How long did it take for Troublemakers to come together as a collection? Which story did you write first? Which one did you write last?

It took eleven years, but I wrote and published some other stories during those years that aren’t in the book. I also wrote two unpublished novels. The oldest is “The Greatest Goddamn Thing” (1989) and the most recent is “The First of Your Last Chances” (2000). Most of the stories were written between 1993 and 1997, which is when I was in a Ph.D. program. I went back to school so that I would have the time to write. When I was working on my MFA (1987–89), I hadn’t realized what a gift of time I was given. By 1993, I understood. The Ph.D. program afforded me the time to write most of Troublemakers.

Were you always a big reader?

No, I didn’t start reading until I was a sophomore in college when my first creative writing teacher began giving me lists of books to read. I’d read a few books before then—biographies of comedians, a novel or two—but not much. I always bought books, though. When I was little, I was fascinated with books. Even now, I spend more time turning books over, looking at them but not reading them. The difference is that now I eventually read them—not all, of course. I buy book I’ll never get around to reading. I wish I could say that I’d read all of Dickens and Dostoyevski by the time I was twelve. The truth is, I read Mad Magazine and had seen each episode of Gilligan’s Island about a half-dozen times—kid’s stuff.

How does what you read influence what you write? What were you reading when you wrote Troublemakers?

Since I was working on my Ph.D. when I wrote Troublemakers and taking academic course, I was reading Shakespeare—the Arden editions, which is, for me, the only way to read them, with all the footnotes; it’s like reading a novel. Anyway, Othello played a big role in my story “The End of Romance”; reading Othello and listening to a discussion of it helped that story come together, giving it the sort of momentum that I was looking for. I’ll confess, I wouldn’t have sought out Othello on my own. So it was nice being in an academic environment where the occasional fortuitous connection presents itself. Usually, what I’m reading doesn’t have much direct—or obvious—influence. It may help me with a transition between scenes, or a strategy for starting a new scene, solving some little technical glitch that had started to grow stale in my own writing.

What is your writing routine? Do you write in the morning, afternoon, night? Do you have a regular schedule for your writing? How do you get started writing when you sit down or do you only sit down if you are ready to write? Basically describe your writing process.

When I’m writing regularly, which is most of the time, I try to write seven days a week, and I start writing shortly after I wake up. I wake up around 6 a.m., feed and walk the dogs, drink a frappuccino, and start writing. I set goals for myself. If I’m writing a short story, I’ll be happy with a page or two a day; if I’m working on novel, between two and four pages per day. If I write it in an hour, then I’m done for the day; if it takes me eight hours, well, then I sit there for eight hours—or I pace around a lot but try not to quit until I’m done. I should say that I when I was younger I would write from midnight until six in the morning, but having a job has made me shift my schedule around in a way that I never thought I’d be able to do.

How do you use other readers for feedback? How many people read your stuff before you send it out? And who are they, friends that write or friends that don’t?

I rarely show my work to anyone. I’ll show a story to my wife, Amy, only after I’m about ready to send it out. I’ve got a pretty good bullshit detector, to use Hemingway’s phrase. I also don’t like to embarrass myself by showing things too soon. I’ll occasionally read something aloud but then stop because I realize it’s not ready.

How would you describe your rewriting process? Has it changed over the years? I know I used to hate rewriting, think things should just be done, but now I’ve come to accept and utilize it. How many drafts of a story do you usually go through? And, here’s the big one, how do you know when it is done?

Every story has a gestation period, and I never know what it is until I start working on it—or, rather, until it’s done. Some stories take me a year to write. Most take me two to three years. One took me six years to write. I work on so many things at once, I don’t mind putting something aside for a long time. For me, the story starts becoming something real when it moves from being a premise or a skeleton to a seemingly organic whole where everything is in the story for a reason, and when the most unlikeliest of details start fitting together in unexpected ways. I can’t plan that or force it; it just has to happen. When it happens, you feel it. You know it’s right. Sometimes it never comes, and you have to accept the story for what it is, but when it does come, you feel a shock of recognition with your own work. It’s as if someone else has written it for you.

Getting specific, what was your writing/rewriting process like with “The Vomitorium”? Can you compare/contrast it to what you went through with other stories?

I wrote the first draft long-hand over a series of days while sitting up in bed at night. “The Vomitorium” came together relatively fast for me. The Roman theme didn’t come into play in the first draft until about a third of the way through the story. Ralph was originally going to be dressed as something other than an Etruscan. While I was writing that story, my wife was taking Latin, and her professor was telling her things about the Etruscans. She would tell me these things as I was literally writing the story, and on the third day or so of writing, I realized that Ralph would be the perfect Etruscan. After that, the Roman stuff threaded its way into the story and ended up playing a large part. It’s what one of my professors, Allan Gurganus, called the story’s “third element”—that is, the sort of detail that can be removed from a story, but with it in the story, you end up with something richer, more three-dimensional (hence, “3rd element”). I can’t imagine the story without the Roman details. It, of course, affects how the story ends.

Where did the idea for “The Vomitorium” come from? And how did you start with it—in a class, in your journal, or did it just come to you one day?

“The Vomitorium” is one of three stories in Troublemakers that are connected by the same narrator, Hank. “Smoke” was the first one that I wrote. A few years later, I wanted to return to those characters. I wasn’t taking a workshop. I just wanted to write another story with Hank and Ralph, and my first impulse, as I remember it, was to set the story during Halloween. From there, I really didn’t know where the story was headed. I usually start with more than a holiday or a season! Although, for my new book—The Book of Ralph—I set out to write a Christmas story, and, naturally, it became more twisted and dark than celebratory. So maybe I write about holidays more than I initially thought.

In general, where do you get your ideas for your stories? Do you think of character, place or theme first? How much of your own life do you bring into your fiction? If you bring our own life into it, how do you go about changing it into fiction?

I bring my own obsessions and/or quirks into my stories. That’s why, say, Planet of the Apes references might show up in my fiction. I was huge Planet of the Apes fan when I was a kid, and you can’t shake that sort of thing. As an adult, people give you odd looks when you reference a movie like that; but in a short story, it’s funny and weird and maybe a little obsessive on the narrator’s part, but it’s okay. My own life works its way into my stories more and more these days, but in quirky details, rarely in obvious, autobiographical ways.

As for where I get my ideas for stories, each story presents itself to me differently. Sometimes it’s an image or a moment, and I have to figure out how that’s going to come into play in the story. Often, someone will tell me a brief anecdote, and I find myself haunted by it for days. About a year ago, someone told me the story of a woman on a train who was sitting across from her ex-husband but didn’t recognize him until the last few minutes. I love that idea. So, I wrote a story titled “The Immortals” about a man who sees his ex-wife on the train, and it’s only after she gets off the train and the doors have suctioned shut that they recognize each other. A year later, he hears that she’s been decapitated in a boating accident. The story took me two years to write because the structure of the story didn’t immediately present itself to me. I could have pounded it into shape, but I don’t like doing that.

Would you say you had an intended audience for Troublemakers or for any of your other stories? How do you imagine audience as you are writing?

My intended audience is everyone—readers, non-readers, academics, non-academics. And I suppose I cater to all of them when I think about audience. So, I try not to think about audience too much, only insofar as keeping a story accessible but not dumb. I believe in the entertainment value of fiction, and so I’m not interested in writing sophisticated games for academics; and yet I believe in fiction’s power to transcend the ordinary and to give readers that jolt of recognition—or whatever the hell it is. Basically, I just want to tell a good story that anyone, except perhaps some fundamentalist, could enjoy.

What effect has being published had on your writing? What is your relationship with editors been like?

The only effect that I can think of is that it gives me the strength to keep writing. After my first two story acceptances (1988?), I felt on top of the world; but then I went two more years without an acceptance. You start thinking, “Okay, it’s over. That was it.” But then another two acceptances came in. And then I think I went another two years after that. I get acceptances more frequently now, but I still get rejections, sometimes standard rejections. You just have to remind yourself how whimsical the whole process is. And having edited several anthologies, I’m guilty of being a whimsical editor myself. I think it’s a good idea to work on a magazine or to judge a contest where you get 1,000 or more submissions. You learn quickly how overburdened editors are.

You’ve edited a few anthologies. What effect has that had on your own writing?

Editing anthologies means that I read many, many stories on a single subject or theme before choosing the ones that I do. It effects my own writing by reminding me of what, I believe, Henry James said: “A writer’s obligation is to be interesting.” I read so many stories that aren’t interesting that I’d hate to bore some poor editor who opens my envelope and pulls out my story. Of course, I’m sure I do bore some editors, but at least I’m consciously trying not to.

What do you struggle with in the writing? For example, some people have trouble writing dialogue. Do you have any specific trouble spots?

I struggle with moving people around in stories. I hate having a character get out of a car and walk to a house, for instance. I find myself writing, “She pulled the handle that opened the car door, and she pivoted her body so that she could step, one foot at a time, onto the grass. Having done that, she began walking toward the house, but not without first shutting the car door.” Who cares? And yet, story after story, I find myself writing that kind of crap.

As for the dreaded writing block, have you run into it? How did you conquer it?

I write my way out of writer’s block. I think that when you establish a habit of writing, a routine, a pattern, it’s harder to get writer’s block, because you’re always wanting to return to what you’ve written, to keep writing on it. Writer’s block hits me only when I’ve taken some time off. Writer’s block is like sobriety in that regard: what the alcoholic on the wagon needs is one drink to get going again. The writer with writer’s block needs to write a few pages to get it out of his or her system.

For Troublemakers, how did you chose “The Vomitorium” as the first story and “Limbs” as the last? Basically did you think a lot about the order of the stories in that book and if so what made you decide to organize them the way you did?

There’s a theory that you begin a story with your strongest story and end it with your second strongest, and then put your third strongest as your third story, and so on. But you also have to factor in subject matter, point-of-view, length of story, so that you don’t clump all the like-minded stories together or so you don’t put all the really long stories together, etc. So, yes, I did tinker with it quite a bit. In some ways, I think “Limbs” is a stronger story than “The Vomitorium,” but I didn’t want to begin the collection with a novella. I think you have to build toward that, earn the reader’s trust so that they’re looking forward to reading forty, fifty, or sixty pages.

When you met with me last year about my story, the most major advice you gave me was that a story with such a dark subject matter as mine would go over better with humor, advice I have taken if not in that story then in the other ones around it. How do you use humor to leaven darker, more serious subjects?

I don’t try to be funny when I write. I think it’s just a part of the voice that I write in, and some stories are funnier than others. However, if I find myself being too maudlin or if the subject matter is too melodramatic, I will be more conscious of staying within my voice and not straying to a voice that’s going to succumb to sentimentality or melodrama. I mean, you want emotional impact in writing, but not at the expense of beating a reader to death with seriousness. But not every serious or dark story needs to have humor, either. I absolutely love Andre Dubus III’s novel House of Sand and Fog, and I don’t think there’s a funny thing in that book. It’s a gorgeously written, honest, gripping tragedy. I don’t remember Russell Banks’ novel Continental Drift being a hoot, either, and yet I loved it. So I can’t say that this is a hard-and-fast rule. But I do think that characters need the ability to make a choice, the possibility of hope—which they do in both Banks’ and Dubus’ novels—before the lights go down and the world implodes.

How do you decide what point of view a story will be in? Do you experiment a lot or just get a sense right away? Has there ever been a story you have to completely rewrite in a different point of view?

“Smoke,” which is the first Hank and Ralph story, was originally written in 3rd person from the mother’s point-of-view. Plus, Kelly (the sister in “Smoke”) was an older son in the first draft, and there was no Hank or Ralph. Tex, the dog, may have been the only character who survived in tact, and he’s, well, a dog.

I like writing in first-person, and I’m probably more naturally drawn to it, but sometimes I have to ask myself, Is there a reason for writing in first person? I mean, a book like Catcher in the Rye HAD to be a first person novel. So, these days, I like to think that there’s some necessity for it, either in terms of voice or in terms of narrative strategy.

Who is your favorite character to write about? Who is your creepiest?

Ralph has been the most fun to write about. The creepiest? Roger. I may write another Roger story one day. Roger came out of a dark period in my life, and I decided to write about a character who exponentially increased my own darkness. I like Roger; I wouldn’t want to meet him.

What are you working on now? How have you been approaching it differently or similarly than Troublemakers?

My next book is The Book of Ralph (published in March 2004 by the Free Press). It’s a novel about none other than Hank and Ralph, including a long chapter featuring the two meeting up again when they are older, in their thirties. This book was a lot different than Troublemakers in that I envisioned it as a complete book rather than a series of individual stories that may or may not be a book. But the chapters were also published as individual stories, so there are essentially two versions of each story: the self-contained story and the chapter that fits into the book. What I’m working on now is a novel, Love’s Latent Defect, and this is quite a bit different than either Troublemaker or The Book of Ralph, mostly because it’s a novel without any stand-alone chapters. I’m also going to have to educate myself on a number of things while I’m writing—real estate, realtors, riverboat casinos, the Mississippi River, etc. I’m in the early-early stages of this book, so I’m still trying to find my voice, rhythm, etc.

What is the most rewarding thing about being a writer? What advice do you have for emerging writers?

Writing is its own reward. I wrote my last book, The Book of Ralph, not giving a shit if it was ever going to get published. I just wrote on it every day, and that was enough. I was having fun. I was doing some things I’d never done before. It’s hard for me to write stories that are under thirty pages, so I wrote a bunch of short-shorts for that book. By the third one, I felt as though I was starting to understand the form, a form that never held much appeal to me before.

Advice for the emerging writer? My one piece of advice is to persevere. It takes a hell of a lot of time to grow as a writer, more time, I believe, than in any other art. And the accomplishments are often small. I may learn one small, seemingly insignificant thing about writing each year, but my hope is that it all has a cumulative effect and makes me a better writer. As for publishing, I’ve written three unpublished novels and probably fifty unpublished short stories. Charles Johnson wrote ten unpublished novels before he wrote his first published one. Failure is an important facet to being successful in writing, and until you accept failure as a positive thing, you’re always going to let that get in the way of breaking through to the good stuff, the writing that’s true and honest and worth publishing.


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