The Greatest Show ~ A National Short Story Month Recommendation

Did you know that May is National Short Story Month? Did you? Well, it is. And despite what publishers say about these things, there are many, many readers of the short story out there, and many, many fine writers and collections of short stories. Lately, a number of short story collections have gotten the recognition they deserve by making the short list and winning some pretty important awards. Olive Kitteridge, for example–Pulitzer Prize winner (when they actually awarded fiction writers with Pulitzers. Remember?) American Salvage short-listed for the National Book Award. My own collection, The Temple of Air, just won a finalist award from the Society of Midland Authors (more on this soon.)

Like I said, there are some damn fine collections out there.

In honor of this month, every few days I am going to give you a title of a recent short story collection that you really must read. And for those of you who don’t think you like short stories (come on, that’s like saying you don’t like ice cream; who doesn’t like ice cream?) I will ease you into this practice of reading story collections by suggesting some collections that are linked (recurring characters, places, themes) and some that are considered–ahem–♥a novel-in-stories♥…that category created by publishers, probably, in order to trick folks into buying story collections.

Today’s title? THE GREATEST SHOW by Michael Downs. You may remember Michael from his recent contribution for this site’s View From the Keyboard, where he actually allowed us a small glimpse into his writing space and his brand new book. Well, I have the book now, and I cannot tell you how wonderful it is. Downs has turned a broken and burned world into something beautiful, a place full of longing and love, of grief and grace.

Two boys take a pair of motorcycles out for a joyride in “Son of Captain America.” Tearing through the streets of late-night Hartford, they run from what they can see, and toward what they cannot. Read this: “Then they ran easy through the city, the night air cold, the engines hot, and Franco imagined the envy of people stuck in clumsy cars or forced to walk–so slow–while the lights of storefronts and crosswalks flashed in his peripheral vision, fleeting constellations, and Franco riding the rocket.”


Please read this book.

And as always, thanks for reading. -PMc

On Politeness (and its Absence) In A Writing Life

Years ago, when I was a recent graduate from the MFA program in Fiction Writing at Columbia College Chicago, I sent my newly minted thesis out to a small (but not tiny) press. I’d met the managing editor at a conference, and shared a nice conversation with him about books, writers, and the nightlife of Chicago (where the conference was being held.) He encouraged me to send him my manuscript.

♦Sidebar: I was in my twenties and taught aerobics as an avocation. I was wearing a short black skirt, smoky tights, and high heels. Perhaps this combination of things is what really compelled him to invite me to keep in touch.♦

I sent the manuscript with all the high hopes of a new writer. I will be discovered; I will be reviewed well; I will win prizes; I will beat the odds and even make some money here. Someone will buy the rights for the book and make it into a smart, poignant, slightly edgy independent film. The film will be reviewed well, win prizes, etc., etc., etc.

You know what happens next. Months pass without a word. Finally, though, a fat packet of manuscript pages comes back in the mail stuffed in an envelope addressed by my own hand. The dreaded SASE of days gone by: the one we had to pay the extra postage for so our manuscripts could be returned (no electronic submissions in those days, no discs or easy, cheap printing and photocopying. Each manuscript was precious, costly, and re-sent.) In the pages of the manuscript was also this note—not, by the way, written by the publisher who kept glancing at my legs when we met, and held my hand a little longer than was necessary when we shook hands goodbye—“Blah, blah, blah, no thanks, blah blah blah.” (Okay, those quoted words aren’t accurate. The message is, but the words are paraphrased.) What was really said, though, in the note written by someone I am rather certain was a summer intern, a slush pile reader (judging from the snarkiness and odd formatting of the typewritten page) was this: “While it is clear that you care deeply for your character, your audience cares less.”



At a party (no, make that many parties, conferences, literary gatherings) and I am excited about the upcoming (or recent) release of my short story collection, The Temple of Air. I tell friends and anyone who might be interested, and many other folks who probably will not give—as they say—a shit. Still. It is a big deal. These stories have been published in various journals and anthologies, have garnered nominations and won awards and have been collected, sifted, re-sorted, reworked, and rearranged, inserted, excerpted, tweaked, covered in coffee stains and ink, been made into a nest by the cats to sleep on in the sun. A whole lot of work went into this book. And my publisher, Elephant Rock Books, is a new kid on this block, just starting out, trying to take its place and make its mark.

All very exciting stuff, yes?

So when I tell folks, I do get the wide smile, the hearty congratulations. And then I get this:

“Who’s doing it?”

In literary-circle talk, that means “Who is the publisher?”

In literary-circle talk, that means “Did you (will you) make any money?”

In literary-circle talk, that might mean “Is this somewhere I can send my work?”

In literary-circle talk, that means “Is this a big deal?”

In literary-circle talk, that means “Have you broken through?”

In literary-circle talk, that means “Is this an important book published by an important press?”

The question is the literary equivalent of turning a plate over to look at the hallmark, of checking the label in a fancy dress, of glancing at the price tag inadvertently left on a gift.

The question—“Who’s doing it?”—is, in my opinion, rude. Especially in this day and age when publishers can be found in the most inauspicious places, when book lovers are doing all they can to make books live, when little known presses are making big, important or highly-desired and widely-read books like The Lord of the Misrule, American Salvage, Go the Fuck to Sleep, The Time Traveler’s Wife and so many more titles. Rude especially in this day and age when big publishers—the ones who can make those folks who ask the “Who’s doing it?” question draw breath, smack their lips, bat their eyes and follow you around once they know you have an “important book” coming out from an “important press”—when these big publishers are spending thousands (millions?) of dollars of their acquisitions budgets on books by celebrity darlings and abstinence ex-witches and governors going anything but rogue.

What matters—what must matter if we who love and write and read books get to be part of the equation, the occupation—is the publication, not the publisher, yes?


A reader who asked me if she could read one of my published stories, and more recently, another reader of my book (which, by the way, she did not pay for but won in a readers’ website giveaway—clearly she had not read the description of the book or perhaps she would not have entered the contest, would have cleared the way for someone who did want this sort of book to win it) told me (and others) what they didn’t like about the work. One told me directly, as in: “I really didn’t like the magic at the end of the story. It isn’t the kind of thing I go for.” Another wrote a review (if you follow me on Facebook, you probably have seen my comments on this) for the readers’ website about the overuse of cuss words and drug use. She gave it two stars.

She is, of course, entitled to her opinion. (As is the woman who said what she said about magic in the story.) Some might say that this is merely honesty. I would posit that it is in fact, rude. If a person baked a cake and you asked for a slice would you tell that person that you thought it was too rich? That it was not to your liking? If you answer yes to this question, let me break it to you—you are not being helpful or constructive, you are being rude.

You say: “Thank you.”

You say: “I don’t usually eat pistachio,” if you must.

You say: “Wow. There is a lot here. I’ll save the rest for later.”


That’s all I’m saying. I’ll save the rest for later.


As always, thanks for reading. -PMc←

The Week that Was

A quick glimpse back at the week just passed: 






Interview by Alison Cuddy on Chicago’s NPR station WBEZ for the morning news and culture show 848.

Tuesday Funk at Hopleaf, with fellow readers Emile Ferris, John Klima, Hanna Martine, Jody Lynn Nye, and Bill Shunn.






Indie Pulp publishes my “1X1 One Writer, One Question” essay “The Heartbeat of Your Story.”

Opening of the Christmas Book Giveaway of THE TEMPLE OF AIR on Goodreads.



Shelli Johnson, author of Small as a Mustard Seed, recommends the THE TEMPLE OF AIR and calls it a “beautifully-written collection of linked stories” in her interview with Lissette E. Manning.


→Thanks for reading! -PMc.←



On Being a Colum Alum

Today starts Columbia College Chicago’s Alumni Weekend, and I am delighted to be part of the event. Tomorrow, Saturday, September 24, artist and adjunct faculty member Philip Hartigan and I will be teaching a workshop (Story and Sketchbook) based on a class we teach in the Fiction Writing Department, Journal and Sketchbook.

But that’s not what this post is about.

This post is about my thoughts on being an alumnus of CCC. Do you know this school, Columbia College Chicago? You should. It is a vibrant arts and communication school (with a solid liberal arts foundation) in Chicago’s ever-changing south loop. I won’t give you the statistics of how many buildings we have (around twenty) or how many students we serve (somewhere near 12,000) or what programs of ours are among the biggest and best in the country (film and video, art and design, fiction writing, arts & entertainment media management.) Let me just say that we are a place that is part of the world’s vital discourse about art and culture and creative industry, and that we have Oscar winners, national book prize winners, Emmy winners, NEA awardees, etc etc etc among our alumni, faculty, and staff. Wow.

But what is most important, is the student body. I know. I count myself among them. Because even though I graduated from Columbia in 1988 (and again in 1995,) I still spend an awful lot of time at Columbia learning.

I first came to Columbia in the early eighties as one of those nontraditional students who had already gone out to work in the world, was rather successful without a college degree, but who felt a distinct and aching hole in my identity without said degree. This was fueled a little bit by the knowledge that certain careers would always be closed to me without the credential, but more so by the understanding that there was more I wanted to know, to practice, to experience. So on my way toward my thirties, I stopped in at Columbia College Chicago.

I came here as a radio major. My mother always wanted me to be Barbara Walters, but I knew I was getting older, and by the time I finally got my degree (going part-time as I needed to because of my full-time gig first as a manager of a restaurant and later as a back-office manager at a commodities firm) I thought I would be too old to be the next fresh face on television. So radio. That would do. I could write stories and talk to people and be on the air; and my mother would be proud.

But then, I had to take a writing class in order to fulfill a requirement. And one summer evening, I found myself sitting in a semi-circle of strangers, undertaking word games and telling bits of stories and writing. What a complete and total joy! I had always loved writing, but having this weekly workshop (with the emphasis on “work” not “repair” as many writing classes seem inclined to do) was like a magical thing for me. My anecdotes became stories, my rants became essays, my work became publishable. Oh, and that wonderful, unparalleled feeling of first seeing my work in print! (HairTrigger 9, I think it was…an edition of CCC’s FictionWriting Department student anthology.) I cannot tell you how exciting and edifying that was. It was in these classes that I began work on what would become my newly-released story collection, The Temple of Air.

I switched majors. The Fiction Writing Department, and its Story Workshop® approach to the teaching of writing, developed by John Schultz and fostered by Betty Shiflett, did just exactly what Columbia College Chicago’s mission promised me it would do; it helped me to “author the culture of [my] times.” In fiction writing classes—and in the other classes I took to finally finish my degree (twelve years and three schools after I started) I sat side-by-side with students from all backgrounds and skills levels. There was such a diversity of voices and stories at Columbia, that every class offered each of us new ways to understand the world simply by being part of its complex vastness. One of the things I was unhappy with at my other schools was how very much like high school they felt. And not just any high school, but high school in the suburbs of the seventies. Very white and relatively privileged (I can count myself among this demographic) with a world view that was remarkably similar to my own. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against the white-kid-from-the-suburbs’ point of view, but by this time in my life I had lived in Honduras where I gave vaccinations and dental treatments; I had run a gas station in a relatively poor area in an Iowa city; I had bartended in a small town tavern near cornfields; I had sold pots and pans in trailer courts. I’d done community theater and commercials, I’d slung burgers and beers. In most of the classes I took at my other schools, my fellow students hadn’t had jobs other than at McDonalds or babysitting, and most of those were part-time; many of these students were at college because their parents said they had to be. At Columbia, I felt part of a wider world, a place where people worked to support themselves, and went to school to become what they dreamed of being. Writers. Artists. Filmmakers. Dancers.

Today Columbia’s student body has shifted somewhat. By doing what we have always done well (I say we here, because I am honored to teach at Columbia, my alma mater, and to be acting chair of the Fiction Writing Department this year,) offering students education in the creative industries and arts, we have become increasingly a college of choice for kids from the suburbs. We used to be a commuter school primarily, many of us working full-time, learning part-time, taking the CTA home late at night after class. Now we have dorms and lots of deeply engaged full-time students of traditional college age. What we have gained in numbers we have lost some in diversity, it’s true, and I am sorry for that. But what we have earned in reputation and dedication as a college is a good thing. Our students still come to Columbia to pursue those careers and educational paths that are hard to find at more traditional schools. They want to make art, many of them;they want to fill the world with music and words and images and new ways to think, to share, to be. They want to, as I do, author the culture of their times.

And I am thrilled to still be part of this. This pursuit, this education, this passion. This school: Columbia College Chicago.

Images from the internet, WBEZ and Columbia College Chicago. Thanks for reading. -PMc



The Pointer Sisters and Me ~ I’m So Excited!

Today is the day! Tonight I will read from THE TEMPLE OF AIR in front of friends and family and perhaps–if I am lucky–some new acquaintances who enjoy listening to writers read their own work. I am very, very excited about this event to be held in this lovely place, Women and Children First Bookstore in the Andersonville neighborhood of Chicago, and I feel as though I should write something here today that is deep and profound. But my body is full of butterflies, the back of my head is buzzing, and my toes are curling; there is no quiet space in me to find the deep and profound words this occasion might warrant.

I keep hearing the Pointer Sisters singing:

(sorry about the commercial; the song is really there!)

See you tonight!

The Temple of Air, book launch at Women and Children First (image above from Google), 5233 N. Clark St., Chicago. 7:30 PM, Friday, September 9, 2011.←

On the Shelf with THE HELP


It would be hard to express how very exciting it is to see my book, THE TEMPLE OF AIR, in the window of Women and Children First in Chicago– a bookstore I have admired and supported for many, many years. And look, it is right next to the New York Times Best Seller THE HELP. What is it the realtors say? Location, location, location.

Hope to see you at the launch on Friday, September 9, 2011, 7:30 PM. Women and Children First, 5233 N. Clark Street, Chicago. TimeOut Chicago dubbed the reading a “Critics’ Pick” event!

The Whacky World Wide Web and A Book’s Launch

So a little less than one day in advance of the book launch of your debut story collection, you find yourself trolling the internet, Googling yourself (!) and the book’s title. This is how you discover that the interview you did with that gentleman from the news service that includes 500 small papers is out, and you sound a little like you might have something interesting to say. This is how you find your interview with the big city weekly alternative paper. This is how you stumble over a review of your book by one of the jazzier on-line book sites, a review that makes you more than a little pleased.

Here, too, you find the expected: a short-short creative nonfiction piece; a reprint (with permission) of the book’s title story from some years ago; reprints (without permission) of travel articles you wrote; an interview about creative nonfiction (two, actually); information on panels, readings, presentations; an interview with that artist who is interested in text and image; mentions and plugs by friends and students and colleagues. And the not-so-expected: the title of one of your stories in a strange aggregate list likely put up by someone with more than a little OCD; a very nasty comment about your smile on one of those rate-your-teacher sites; summaries of talks you gave at a festival, a conference, a workshop; mentions in blogs by people you don’t know but should; pictures that are not all that flattering from one event or another.

Most interesting, though, are those things absolutely surprising, weird, and sometimes wonderful:

Discovering that nearly 700 people are in the drawing for your book on Goodreads, and that close to 100 have added it to their shelves.

The name of your book on the list of 52 books a young woman—whom you don’t believe you’ve ever met—plans to read before the end of this year.

Your book on the list of “Top Pre-Orders” in the category of short story collections of a book dealer in Australia.

And this, perhaps your favorite of them all so far, found on a website called Bruv World:

“I’m reading Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. I think she had some serious problems (Rand, not Atlas). Just reread The Great Gatsby by F. John Fitzgerald. It was disappointingly uneven in the writing, with bits of brilliance (Mr. Wolfsheim’s tufts of nostril hair) interspersed with sudden shifts from first the third person for the purpose of back-story dumps…Last month I read a new novel coming out by Patricia Ann McNair, Temple of Air. Stunningly good…Of course, the best places to find zombies is any discussion of American politics. I’ve heard the same suggested of Brit politics lately but who knows if that’s true or not.”


On Loneliness, Friends, Tweets, Circles, and THE BOOK

I heard on NPR the other day that you can buy yourself followers on Twitter. True story. There is speculation that some of our “popular” politicians are doing just that. Stuffing the ballot box, in a way. And you know, I’d be lying if I said I don’t look at the following/followers numbers when I hook up with a new TweetBud (I don’t know what the current, cool slang is for these people; forgive me,) as if it matters how many friends my friends have.

It is a version of the cafeteria, really. You know. You don’t want to be the only kid at one of those long tables, your tray of impossibly red spaghetti and carton of milk the only thing to keep you company. And you don’t really want to be at the table with the misfits, either: the girl who eats paste still at 14, the boy who has a patch over one of the lenses of his glasses to strengthen his lazy eye, the albino boy, the girl who wears a helmet all day long. (As an adult I’ve come to realize that these kids grow up to be the most interesting, by the way, but the stigma of being among the losers is hard to outgrow.) Where you want to sit is with the cool kids. And if you can’t get into that elite circle, then you want to at least be in a huge circle. A vivacious collection of friends and acquaintances who know things, do things, are things.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about this social media stuff lately. Especially as I have just joined Google+ (why? because I was invited) and been blogging for a few months and I tweet, for godssakes. My brother Wesley McNair (poet laureate of Maine, you know. Yes, I am bragging.) talks about the internet being anti-poetry. And I guess I believe it is as well. A distraction. A place to write without nearly as much consideration or conviction or revision as one might put into a fully-realized poem, a short story, a novel. And yet, even as I know that, here I am on the internet, on all the sites, chattering with my “friends” and my “followers” and my “circles.”

Mostly because of the book. I want people to know about my collection of stories, The Temple of Air, and so I reach out this way. Yet this isn’t just about my book, it is about THE BOOK. (No, not the bible, silly.) THE BOOK. The thing that holds words and stories and lives and wisdom and dreams and fantasies. I turn to these media now to stump for THE BOOK. For writers. For publications. For the on-going struggle of sharing our work and our ideas. Yesterday The Guardian had a piece about publishing houses making record profits these days, partly due to the ease of ebooks. And we were all worried, remember? What will happen to the future of the book without Borders, without “real” books, without pages and dust jackets and paper cuts? Who would have guessed that maybe, just maybe, people are actually reading more…

Yes, all of this attention I have been paying to social media lately has much to do with THE BOOK. But here’s another thing. It is also about friendship. I am one with many friends, but rather few close ones. The closest are a couple of women in Mount Carroll where I have my house; Anne-Marie Oomen, the fabulous Michigan writer; Dennis McFadden, the wonderful upstate New York writer; Jana and Gail; my niece; my husband; a handful of colleagues at Columbia. I don’t call any of these people very often; we don’t chat on the phone like I used to with my high school girlfriends or boyfriends. Like I used to with my mother every day before she died. Like I did with my brother Roger before he did (one year ago today.) We send emails and thumbs-up over Facebook; we try to get together for dinner or drinks now and again.

And still, this matters. And so do my new “friends.” I know that I cannot consider people I only know through Facebook (Maxine Hong Kingston–who sent me a music video her son made, Alan Heathcock–who allowed me to interview him for my blog, Melissa Luznicky-Garrett–who is doing all she can to support independent publishers and authors) my true friends, but I am grateful for their Facebook friendship nonetheless. We share ideas and gripes, we share good news and political grievances. I am grateful, too, that through these social networks I am able to keep “talking” with people I’ve met for just a few days: Lucricia, Rachel, Chuck, Kathie. In the past when you met someone at a conference, say, or a reading in another state and you said “let’s keep in touch,” maybe you would. The occasional letter, perhaps; but usually these people who often meant so much for a brief period of time would just slip away, out of your life. It still happens, yes, but it doesn’t always have to, and sometimes it takes a little longer than it used to.

And maybe I am thinking about this because this is the anniversary of my brother Roger’s passing. I feel very lonely in that place I held in my heart for him and him alone. As my book launch comes up and I try on the dress I bought especially for it, I remember how he would whistle at me when he liked what I was wearing, would simply say “yeah, cool,” to let me know he didn’t without flat out insulting me. I know he would be proud of this phase in my life; that he would be passing out postcards for the book from the front seat of his cab. That he would be there to give me rides to bookstores and bars for my readings, to the airport when I was lucky enough to get gigs a flight away.

We–those of us still here–sometimes keep our loneliness at bay with these distractions, just as we can keep our real work away. But sometimes, too, these distractions–our followers, our friends, our circles–can remind us that there are still interesting, kind, people out there who are delighted and disappointed with life just as we are, who are filled with wonder and compassion and spirit and even rage when necessary. As I grow older, my closest real circle loses members now and then, and they cannot be replaced. Mom, Roger, Robyn, my Uncle Miller. But I’ve reconnected with people from my past (Gayle, Dale, Helen, my cousins) through this wide web, and I am glad for that. Things shift and tilt and there are empty spots that cannot be filled; and yet, life goes on. A cliché of the worst kind, but true, too. I am glad of the ever widening circles I find as my life goes on, and I thank you for your part.

A Small Place of Enchantment ~ Marjorie Kinnan Rawling’s View From the Keyboard

“I do not understand how anyone can live without some small place of enchantment to turn to.”  ~ Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

Today, August 8, is the anniversary of the birth of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and so it is in celebration of her life and work that I offer you this glimpse (image from the Florida Artist Hall of Fame website) into her writing space.

A small place of enchantment. I have been working in various corners and chairs in our apartment this summer, without any particular writing space. My writing room is inadequate: too hot in the summer, too cold in the winter. Is this why I’ve written little fiction this past month? No small place of enchantment to return to? Some would say that the enchanted place is the writing itself, and I’d usually agree. But I am one of those folks who likes my space to be just right…

Really, though, it is probably this business of the book that keeps me from sinking fully into my next fiction project. Blogging, tweeting, calling in markers, contacting publicity folks, inviting the world to the book launch of The Temple of Air. I’ve had other writing assignments along the way and have carried them out, but my mind, and my work at the keyboard, always goes back to the book. For now, this will have to enchant me, for this is the place I must return to.

Still accepting submissions for View From the Keyboard. Guidelines here. Thanks for reading. -PMc←