Who would have thought that when one works with a small, conscientious, and very professional independent press on a book release that there would be so much for a writer to be part of along the way? I am stunned by how much it takes to make a book, and even more stunned by how much my publisher and editor and book designer, et al, continue to do to make this debut come to life. Each day something new has to be undertaken, accomplished, sent off, put to bed, etc. And I am lucky to be able to be part of so many of the decisions. I can’t help but think of those authors I know who talk about how they weren’t happy with this decision their publishers made, or that image on the cover, or how they weren’t consulted along the way. Not so in the case of The Temple of Air. I can’t tell you how fortunate I am to be working with Elephant Rock Books under the thoughtful direction of Jotham Burrello.
For instance, Dan Prazer, book editor for ERB, came to my office (HE came to MY office!) and spent a good long time asking questions and follow-up questions about the book, my process, etc. This he did for the Reader’s Guide included in the collection. Below is a small sampling of what we talked about:
Q: What was your starting point for The Temple of Air?
A: I wanted to write about this place, a place that became New Hope. It’s a loose composite of Mount Vernon, Iowa, where I went to school, and Solon, Iowa, where I lived for a while, and Mount Carroll, Illinois, which is a small town where I have a house now, and upper northern Michigan. All of these places, to me, are very much Midwestern, but at the same time, very rolling and very woody. A lot of people think of the Midwest as Nebraska, flat plains, and I wanted to challenge that perception somewhat.
I also very much wanted to write about faith, religion, magic, superstition. What can we believe? What matters to us? What is at the helm? I mean for a number of these stories to be, for lack of a better word, spiritual, full of faith, but not blinded by it.
The story “The Temple of Air” came to me when I was watching a bad cable show about magicians and this one guy, this hip new magician actually floated. He lifted himself up a few feet in the air on a New York city street. There was a girl in the show who was watching him, and she totally freaked out. She started shaking and squealing and said something like, “It’s my birthday, and I saw a man float.” Something about that combination of words stuck with me. I also happen to be a bit of a birthday baby, so these things, observation and emotion, came together for me. In the story there’s a girl who sees something (or perhaps doesn’t see something) similar on her own birthday.
There’s a relationship mentioned between a couple of characters, Michael and Sky, toward the end of that story. As I was writing that story, I knew—in that way writers seem to know things about their characters—that they’d been friends a long time ago, but aren’t friends anymore. It took me about a year to figure out what their friendship was a long time ago and how they had separated. And that’s when the first story, “Something Like Faith,” came to me.
“Something Like Faith” was inspired from something I witnessed while riding on the big Navy Pier Ferris Wheel in Chicago. These parents were just letting their kid run around the gondola as we were going in this huge circle high above Lake Michigan and Navy Pier. It made me queasy to even watch. It made the ride so incredibly unpleasant for me, and I couldn’t get the idea out of my head — what would happen if this kid fell? I had to write it out to find out what would happen, and how this tragic event might affect its witnesses.
Once I finished SLF, I had the first story and the last of the collection.
Q: Is that useful to you as a writer, to know the bookends in order to fill in the middle?
A: I think once I figured out that this was the inciting chapter, for lack of a better word, and that the other was the ending chapter, then the rest began to fall into place. So it became useful to me the more I wrote and explored. Only it took me a while; I didn’t immediately recognize it as a place to start putting together the collection. I am not certain I knew I was working on a collection in the beginning. I was just writing stories that pulled at me.
I think we write a lot of things by accident. In the story “The Way It Really Went,” there is a section where the couple is in bed and the husband starts to have these dreams and the wife cuddles up to him. That was just an exploration in a journal, and I was sitting in on a class with (Fiction Writing Department Chair) Randy Albers just to keep the writing going in my first semester of teaching full-time at Columbia College Chicago. And I read the journal entry out loud but said, “This is just an exploration. This isn’t going to be part of the piece,” and somebody in that class, who is now also a faculty member, said, “What the hell are you talking about? It’s got to be in the piece.” I don’t know that I would have figured that out without somebody telling me. Maybe I would have, but it probably would have taken me longer.
I use my journal a lot to discover various parts of story, and it has happened more than once that I’ve written something then forgotten about it, only to fine it later and put it to good use. Sort of like when you drop your jigsaw puzzle pieces on the floor, and try to put it all together but there’s still this hole. In frustration you start searching, turning over cushions and looking under things. Then you move the couch, and there it is, the piece that had gone missing. And now you can fill the hole. (from “Interview with Patricia Ann McNair,” by Dan Prazer, Reader’s Guide, The Temple of Air)
—I’ll add more interviews and the like as we move forward with this project, but just wanted to take a minute to marvel over—and express gratitude for—what we have accomplished so far.
Thanks Dan. Thanks ERB.