John McNally is the closest thing to a writing teacher I’ve had. (No, I don’t blame him and neither should you.) We met when I was accepted into the Jenny Moore McKean workshop at George Washington University while I was working on the book that would become A Small Sacrifice, which was eventually nominated for a Shamus Award, so thank you for that, John.
John has written and edited short story collections (of which my favorite is Troublemakers), written novels (of which my favorites are The Book of Ralph and After the Workshop), and a couple of writing instruction books I think fill unique niches. The Creative Writer's Survival Guide: Advice from an Unrepentant Novelist fills a vital need: advice less on how to write but on how to be a writer, with all the challenges that career choice places on one’s life. His more traditional how-to, Vivid and Continuous, is a book I return to every couple of years as a touchstone. Both stress practical advice; neither messes with metaphysicality. Both should be on every writer’s shelf.
John is currently Professor of English and Writer in Residence at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette. His newest book, The Boy Who Really, Really Wanted to Have Sex: The Memoir of a Fat Kid dropped December 1 from Elephant Rock Productions.
One Bite at a Time: Let’s get right to it. You’ve written fiction, books on various aspects of writing (more on those later), and edited anthologies. What was it that got you to thinking about writing a memoir?
John McNally: In a concentrated period of time, three things happened in my life: I got divorced, my father died, and I took a new job that was 900 miles away. For the first time in almost twenty years, I decided to take a break from writing. I was burnt out writing fiction. I was burnt out doing pretty much anything, truth be told. But during that break, a friend asked me to write a short personal essay, no longer than 750 words, for a column he was editing, and I thought, okay, sure. I can do 750 words. What I realize now -- but didn't then -- was that once I start writing about myself, a small detail will unlock another memory that I had shoved aside, and the more I wrote, the more that those things I had forgotten about came back to me. And so I kept writing. My father looms over this book in ways that I hadn't anticipated, but it's because my father had always been -- and still is -- an enigma to me. I didn't cry when he died, and it bothered me that I didn't. And I still haven't. But this book is, in part, my attempt to understand our relationship better, even if I didn't realize that when I was writing it.
OBAAT: I have small autobiographical elements in my writing, but they’re things like time spent with my daughter or my parents. I can’t imagine opening a vein like you did. Was it intimidating once you realized you’d made a commitment to yourself to release it to the public?
JM: Very intimidating. But then I think, okay, so...how much longer do I have to live if this doesn't go over well? It's the same mindset as when I started getting tattoos at fifty. I'm actually a pretty private person. People will sometimes compliment me for how open I am about things on Facebook, so I guess I give the illusion of not being private, but what I reveal about myself on social media is probably one percent of my life. There are all kinds of things I don't talk about. I don't talk about my ex-wives or current relationships; I don't talk about teaching; I will talk about depression but not when I'm in the throes of it; I don't talk much about books or writing; and for as much as I bash Trump I never mentioned who I supported even if it's obvious. So, it does make me nervous to be so open in the new book. My forthcoming book on failure also has a lot of personal stuff in it, but in that book I talk about the importance of risking something of yourself when you write, and I certainly tried to do that in The Boy Who Really, Really Wanted to Have Sex. I had a teacher who once posed this question to the class: "What's at stake for you in this?" That's probably become the single most important piece of writing advice I've received. Not what's at stake for the character but what's at stake for you?
OBAAT: I’ve noticed that about you on Facebook, how open and entertaining you are about some things—tacos, cats, and vinyl, for example—but say little or nothing about the rest of your life. Has writing the memoir led you to feel more or less open in general? We all re-evaluate some things about our lives as we age. Are there things you now look at differently than you might have if you hadn’t written The Boy Who?
JM: I'm definitely not more open now. Maybe less open. As for looking at things differently...yes, definitely. It's difficult not to spend a few years writing about your childhood without coming to some realizations about why you are the way you are now. I've become more aware over the years that I have a compulsive personality, but writing the book illuminated for me the ways in which my compulsive behavior began at a very young age, and how the compulsiveness was often self-destructive or self-defeating. And then I saw how my father also had a compulsive streak that was also self-defeating. The patterns in my life became more obvious while writing the book. But I also become more aware -- and I'm not saying this to pat myself on the back -- of how much I had to overcome to get to where I am today. I'm sure compulsiveness explains how I overcame overwhelming odds to get to this point. So it's not all bad.
OBAAT: I think one of the things that attracts me to your writing is the similarities of background we share. You’re from outside Chicago and I’m from a semi-rural area near Pittsburgh, but we both have working class backgrounds and understand a person does what needs to be done to get by. I see that in everything you’ve written. Even the books about writing have a well-grounded, “it’s a job before it’s anything else” feel to them. Is this something you’re conscious about, or does it just come when you write?
JM: When I write fiction, my blue-collar upbringing influences nearly every story I write because employment and money (or lack thereof) are usually at the core of the story in a meaningful way. When I first began writing, however, I had moved those working class issues to the forefront of my stories, but the stories never worked. They came across as maudlin or didactic, but once I simply put an interesting character into motion in a particular situation that happens, they can't help but to be influenced by their background. As for my own process, I believe in work. My father was a roofer; my mother, who had grown up in a sharecropping family, worked in a factory. I've spent most of my life teaching, but I've been working since the first grade, hustling to make a buck doing any number of things. And so as a writer I don't sit around waiting for the muse. The muse is a myth, in my opinion. Times when I'm inspired are times when I'm working hard and I'm holding several disparate parts of a story or novel in my head at once, and then something clicks that pulls it all together; that's the result of working consistently so that my brain can begin functioning like the flawed computer that it is, not because I was visited by a muse. If you want a hole in the ground, you have to dig the hole. The hole doesn't simply appear one morning.
OBAAT: The writer who tends to come to mind when I read a lot of your stuff is Richard Russo. Same working-class sensibilities and similar dry senses of humor. You have some experience with him, don’t you? Did he influence the writer you’ve become?
JM: He was my undergraduate teacher my last semester of college. And then he was responsible for hiring me back, after I'd gotten my MFA, to replace him while he was on leave to write Nobody's Fool. I can't say he influenced my subject matter. But he influenced me as the kind of person I wanted to be. He's a good guy, a hard worker, and genuinely supportive of younger writers. He's not a prima donna. In many ways, the writers who've influenced me the most were because of their character. And I think that transfers into one's writing. When you read Rick's novels, you know you're in the hands of a generous writer. There's nothing precious or cloying in his books.
OBAAT: As I mentioned before, this isn’t your first departure from fiction. Vivid and Continuous is as good a book on craft as I’ve read, and I go back to it every couple of years for reminders. The Creative Writer’s Survival Guide occupies a unique niche, as far as I know: It’s a book on what writers need to do when they’re not actually writing. Tell us a little about why you wrote them.
JM: That's a high compliment, Dana. Thank you for that. The Creative Writer's Survival Guide came about because my editor at the University of Iowa Press asked me if I'd be interested in writing a book that answered common questions about writing. I said, sure, but I wanted it to be opinionated. I wanted a personality behind the writing. I didn't want to write something dry. And I wanted it to be autobiographical. I wanted it to be coming from a guy you might meet in a bar and not an expert. Iowa has been great to me. They let me write the books I want to write, and I can live or die by it. The second book, Vivid and Continuous, was written in a similar voice except that it's a craft book. I wanted to write about those issues of craft that I hammer home to my students but that seem to get ignored in textbooks. I'd already written some of those chapters for magazines or public lectures, so the idea of putting it together as a book was the next logical step. I have a third book coming out in the spring, tentatively titled The Promise of Failure, and it's the one I'm most excited by, and it's definitely the most person. It's a look at the role of failure in our work -- the positive role as well as the debilitating role. I teach part of the year in a low-residency MFA program, and several years ago I began giving lectures on failure, and they seemed to resonate, probably because it's a taboo subject. On Facebook, people like to post about their successes. Rarely do you see someone grappling with their failures. I have to say, in many ways these three books have been the hardest books to write. I had to keep going back to ask myself, “Would this make sense to someone with a basic knowledge on the subject? Would this be interesting to someone with a sophisticated knowledge of the subject?” There's a reason each book is shorter than the previous book!
OBAAT: A lot of writers have a concern that a writing teacher will try to impose his style and philosophy of writing on them. I have first-hand experience with you as a teacher, and you’re quite the opposite. I always felt you were making a conscious effort to develop me into the best writer my talents would allow. One thing that sticks in my mind was you noticing I had a little trouble getting into and out of scenes, so you recommended I look at how Ross Macdonald began and ended his chapters. Not that I do anything how—or as well—as Macdonald, but I was able to see some of his technique there and adapt the bits that suited my style. Long way around of asking what is it you look for in a student and how do you decide which things to focus on, and what to suggest?
JM: I try to follow the doctor's oath of "first, do no harm." I certainly have my own aesthetic likes and dislikes. I champion accuracy over cleverness, for instance. I see too much cleverness -- cheap cleverness -- so I've grown suspicious of it. I'm always cautioning writers to get out of the way of their own writing. That said, I try to take each piece of writing on its own terms. I certainly don't want to turn my students into me. These days I find myself asking larger questions, like, "Why this story? Tell me why you're drawn to this material?" Mostly I ask those questions so I can see better how to respond to the work. I work mostly with MFA and PhD students these days, so it's easier for me to respond once I've seen a book's worth of material. I look for patterns. I try to push them to risk more of themselves. How can you be in the work without being in the way of it?
OBAAT: That’s a great point: “Why this story?” You’ve already talked about the memoir as growing from a personal essay. In your fiction, what do you look for in a story before deciding to spend so much time on it?
JM: I tell my students that our stories are smarter than we are. By this, I mean that when you begin writing a story, you draw much of it from your unconscious mind, so it makes sense that we often don't understand, on a conscious level, why certain things creep into our work. I've learned to be patient with the stories I write. I'm patient because I'm hoping that my intellect -- that weak, lumbering tool -- will catch up to the savvier, sneakier subconscious. In other words, I put faith in the fact that every story I write is coming from some personal place, but in order for me to do it justice, I have to unlock the images and metaphors and cryptic things within it, which sometimes takes years. I have a batch of stories that I started six years ago. I'm only now figuring them out. I have to find myself in there, however obliquely I may appear. Once I find that, then the story's reason for being becomes more urgent to me. I don't write for personal therapy, but I think whenever you attempt art of any kind, the side-effect is that it's illuminating something about yourself or the world you live in. That said, I still honor story. The reader should feel that urgency of "Why this story?" but not necessarily see it. So, what do I look for? I look for something in a story that nags at me even while it's trying to elude me. I look for a mystery within the story that only I can see. And then I want to solve it.