An Interview with John McNally

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John McNally is the rare nationally known  author who still seems like he never left Chicago. Now a professor at Wake Forest University, McNally’s authored numerous books: The Book of Ralph, America’s Report Card, Troublemakers, Ghosts of Chicago, and After the Workshop. He’s also edited or been part of numerous anthologies including the recent Bradbury tribute Shadow Show. If the 10,000-hour theory is correct, this guy should know something about writing, and thus, McNally’s put together a new writing guide.

Literally taking a line from mentor John Gardner’s book, Vivid and Continuous: Essays and Exercises for Writing Fiction is chock-full of practical, even sentence-level direction. Cut those adjectives! Don’t have unattached body parts! But anyone could do that, though perhaps not as succinctly as McNally. What sets Vivid and Continuous apart is the writer’s willingness to explore his own process and thus, create a larger conversation. You’ve got to admire a man who uses his own unfortunate third-grade vomit trauma to illustrate a point about minor characters. Vivid and Continuous comes pre-coffee stained, and if my opinion is any guide, it’s going to accumulate more in the coming years.

After someone publishes a writing guide chock-full of tell-all stories in his signature droll style, it’s pretty hard to interview them. Most of your questions can be answered by flipping to a page and pointing. Thankfully, John McNally was gracious enough to respond to my questions via email in the midst of both a family crisis and AWP. His apparent talent for the personal and punchy metaphors is just a taste of what fills Vivid and Continuous.

What was your attraction to writing?

When I was in the fourth grade, our teacher asked us to write a play. I was overweight, so I wrote a play about an overweight superhero,who goes into a phone booth to change into his costume and gets stuck. We also had to perform our play in front of the class. I was a shy kid, but once I started getting laughs, and once I saw that the teacher was laughing at this thing I’d created, I was hooked.

Whenever I read your work, I always feel like a lot of the humor comes from surprises. How important is the element of surprise in your work?

I don’t plot what’s going to happen, so if you’re surprised, I was probably surprised while I was writing it. Flannery O’Connor talks about this in an essay in her book Mystery and Manners, how she didn’t know that the woman in “Good Country People” was going to get her wooden leg stolen by the Bible salesman until a few paragraphs before she wrote it. That’s an excellent rule of thumb: surprise yourself!

You talked in Vivid and Continuous about the importance of neighborhoods, and making them, well, vivid, and your work is peppered with places you’ve lived in.  What would be an advantage or disadvantage to writing a place you didn’t know intimately or totally made up?

Even if you’re making up a place, you can still imbue it with all the things you know about neighborhoods.  I just wrote a novel set in the 19th century, but I felt that there were some fundamental truths about neighbors that are timeless, for instance – the neighbors you don’t like, the ones who are nosy, the ones who remain mysteries to us even after we’ve lived near them for years. I’m always writing about characters who aren’t me, and yet there’s a part of me inside each character that I create. The same is true for neighborhoods, whether you’ve based it on one you know or one made it up.

Many of your novels take place around schools--high school, grade school, college, now even a writing guide. Why does education seem to be such an important theme of yours?

I’ve spent almost my entire life in school as a student or a teacher, so I guess it’s a case of writing what you know. Schools are microcosms of society inside of a bio-dome, and when you think of it that way, how could things not go wrong? Think: The Breakfast Club. Think: Donna Tartt’s novel The Secret History. It’s rich material. I have at least one more “school” novel in me. I’ve been thinking about it for years.

How do you have fun when you write? (Hopefully you do.) Has that reason changed overtime?

Writing is like exercise: the more you do it, the more you want to do it. And when you hit that point where you crave getting back to the desk to work on your story, you know you’re in the groove. My problem is that the laws of diminishing returns will kick in, but if I’m in that groove, I have a hard time seeing that I’ve reached the point that what I’m writing is absolute crap. In those cases, I’m having way too much fun. It’s like the person who goes to the gym twice a day and blows out his knee. Everything in moderation.

Vivid and Continuous is full of writing advice from the global variety to the nuts and bolts. If you could only pick one chapter/piece of advice to bestow, which one would it be?

You need to burrow inside the consciousness of your narrator, and see the world both honestly and faithfully through his or her eyes. As soon as you start to drift outside that consciousness, the reader will start to drift, too. This is what separates a well-written story from a story with a distinct worldview. There are thousands upon thousands of forgettable narrators, and then there’s Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield.

Name some of your favorite writers. What do they do for you?

I’ll read anything Dan Chaon writes. His stories are both entertaining and illuminating, and as a writer I love to marvel at the magic tricks he pulls off in story after story, novel after novel.

You have one day in Chicago. Where do you go?

I go to Joe’s Italian Villa Pizza in Bridgeview, and I eat like a pig.

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John McNally is the author of three novels: After the Workshop, The Book of Ralph and America’s Report Card; and two story collections, Troublemakers and Ghosts of Chicago.  He is also author of two nonfiction books: The Creative Writer’s Survival Guide: Advice from an Unrepentant Novelist and Vivid and Continuous: Essays and Exercises for Writing Fiction, both published the University of Iowa Press. He has edited, coedited, or guest edited seven anthologies. John’s work has appeared in over a hundred publications, including the Washington Post, The Sun, San Francisco Chronicle, and Virginia Quarterly Review. As a screenwriter, he has a script in development with the producer of Winter’s Bone. He’s an Associate Professor of English at Wake Forest University and on the Core Faculty of Pacific University’s low-residency MFA program.

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