Not A Nature Writer ~ An Update on John McNally’s View From the Keyboard

John McNally, the very fine writer of After The Workshop, The Creative Writer’s Survival Guide, Troublemakers (one of my favorite short story collections) and lots of other books, shared his View From the Keyboard with us quite a while ago. Since then, a number of things have changed in John’s life, among them his View. Generously, John has agreed to let me share this brief glimpse into his new space with you all.

John: The view from my new work place at home: a big-ass tree. (This is why I’m not a nature writer.)

→Thanks again, John, for letting us in. -PMc←

A Place on the Shelf ~ On Personal Libraries and a Civil Union

We were at a party on Saturday, celebrating the civil union of two friends, Kathie and Nikki, (congratulations, you two!) and wandering around their lovely condo, checking things out. As you do. These women are well-educated, highly accomplished, world-loving, and talented, so you can imagine the cool things they had in their pad. Real art. A classy pot rack hovering over their kitchen island. Two offices with good computers and comfortable chairs. Cat toys. A huge map of Paris over their guest futon. And books. No surprise here. I know Kathie better than I do Nikki, and I know she is a writer herself (Windy City Queer: LGBTQ Dispatches from the Third Coast, ed. Kathie Bergquist) and teaches writing and does publicity for the very wonderful Women and Children First, and I know she loves to cook. So a bookcase in the dining room stuffed with luscious-looking cookbooks. Shelves everywhere else stuffed with everything else. And I don’t know if it is Kathie or Nikki who is the conscientious one, the organized one (can there be two of these in any relationship?) but the books on the shelves are alphabetized by author. Probably Kathie, come to think of it, all of that early bookstore training.

I have always admired folks who keep their books in such good order. It is beyond me. I pull my books out of their spots, put new ones in there, stack them perilously on the bedside table, shove extras on top of the not-quite-neat rows. Okay, there is some organization among our books. The small Shakespeare Penguin Classics all on the same shelf. The travel books are all on the same bookcase—except for the overflow and the ones I have yanked out recently in order to consider our upcoming trip to Utah, our plans for Philip’s birthday-of-significance trip (any suggestions? We’re thinking Spain, maybe, where we went for his 40th, my 50th. Or maybe somewhere closer and warm. South Beach? Key West? Kathie’s map of Paris made us yearn for that city.) The cookbooks are in the kitchen (although we rarely use these anymore. Note to self: have more dinner parties.) I can’t tell you the wasted minutes I spend hunting for the book I thought I was looking for: My Brother Running, American Salvage, American Skin, Tender is the Night, Symptoms and Early Warning Signs (I’m a bit of a hypochondriac.) But the upside of this is all of the titles I find that I’d forgotten about. The happy discoveries. A script from high school: How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. A pocket-sized Spanish dictionary. A Kenyon Review from 1988. Hard Candy.

But this isn’t about my books. It is about my book. Singular. The forthcoming collection The Temple of Air. My debut. If you have read this website at all (and pardon my arrogance for assuming you might have) you know that I have my first book of short stories coming out in September. And this post is really about that. The book. And finding the book on Kathie’s shelf. Among all those others.

Okay, this is no real surprise. I gave Kathie an advance readers’ copy when we began sharing ideas about my having the book launch at Women and Children First. So unless she threw it away (and I can’t imagine Kathie being the sort of person who would do such a blasphemous thing to a book) The Temple of Air would, in all likelihood, be on her shelf. Still. This is the first time that I have come across my book on someone else’s bookshelf. In its rightful alphabetic place, shelved next to John McNally’s Troublemakers. (Sorry I can’t recall now who was to my left; I was very pleased to be rubbing covers with Mr. McNally.)

And this caused me great joy. Delight. I felt like a real writer, my book in the library of a pair of real readers. I can only imagine how very good it will feel when I see my book on the shelves of bookstores! But perhaps this is better. Someone owns this book. It is not waiting to be bought or returned. It has found a home. Among its kind. Books someone cares about.

And speaking of this caring about thing—I think this discovery of my book in the home of Kathie and Nikki was made all the more special because I found it on a day of celebration. A day when there was a whole lot of love in their condo, all directed at the happy couple. And what better place for my book to be than in a home filled with love, good food, smart conversation, dreams and stories, and words that matter. Words like “Civil Union.” Like “I do.” Like “Once Upon a Time,” and like “Happily Ever After.”

Happy new home, Book. Happy new life, Kathie and Nikki.

John McNally and the 3 Stooges ~ View From the Keyboard

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!←