I first heard of John McNally when his collection Troublemakers was published a few years back. I was particularly intrigued with the way his narrators and main characters look at the world, how they navigate all those things they think they know, those things they want to believe, and those many, many things they may never entirely understand. John has a solid, no-nonsense voice, influenced by his Chicagoland youth and his love of movies, music, and humor. One of his stories, “The Vomitorium,” is essential reading in most fiction classes I teach, and has been chosen by at least a couple of this blog’s readers as one of their favorite short stories.
John McNally is author of three novels and two story collections, including Troublemakers, The Book of Ralph, and After the Workshop. His first nonfiction book, The Creative Writer’s Survival Guide: Advice from an Unrepentant Novelist, was published by University of Iowa Press, in 2010. But beyond these accomplishments, John is just a really, really good guy. We were lucky enough to have him here at Columbia College Chicago as a writer-in-residence in the Fiction Writing Department, and the students felt honored, challenged, and befriended by him.
John: This is where I wrote most of The Book of Ralph and pretty much every book after that. I wish my writing space was clean, but I’ll be the first to admit it’s a fucking disaster. Apparently, I need to surround myself with all kinds of junk. At present, you’d find (inexplicably) a 30 foot tape measure; the soundtracks for Psycho, North by Northwest, and Vertigo; the three remaining pills of my z-pak; a copy of Moe Howard and the 3 Stooges by Moe Howard; two caps for Frappuccino bottles, and a cornucopia of other crap. I write on an IBM ThinkPad and an IBM Selectric II (circa 1972). My wall is covered with autographed, personalized photos from stars I wrote to in grade school (Jimmy Stewart, Bob Hope, Margaret Hamilton, and Jerry Lewis), lots of movie memorabilia (you may be able to see my Bonzo Goes to College lobby card hanging up next to my diplomas), an illustration from The Book of Ralph done by my grade school art teacher, Mrs. Richards, who was in her eighties when she drew it. Lots of Sharpies. Lots of printer ink. Lots of music within reach. I clean it up a few times a year, but it’s futile. In a week, it’s a wreck again.
This [below] is an excerpt from my essay “The Ideal Reader” from my collection of essays on the craft of fiction writing titled Vivid and Continuous. The book will be published by the University of Iowa Press in 2012.
“The Ideal Reader”
I have never sat down to write a story or novel and thought, “Okay, so who’s my audience going to be?” When asked by others who my audience is, I’ll sometimes say, “Writers don’t choose their audience; their audience chooses them,” which sounds good and which, to a certain point, I believe to be true but which ultimately is a copout. The truth is that we do, consciously or unconsciously, hone our stories and novels in such a way that we can’t help making certain readers more receptive to our work while excluding or distancing other readers.
When you’re in a creative writing workshop, especially an MFA program, it’s almost impossible not to write with your immediate audience in mind. Even if you tell yourself that you’re not going to write for that particular audience, the very fact that you’re conscious of who you’re not writing for is evidence of the role which that particular audience is still having on your work. To be conscious of not writing for an audience is, to my mind, an act of writing with that particular audience still in mind.
→Thanks, John. Looking forward to reading the rest of this book!←