"Literary Journals Have Always Been the Place Where Editors Can Take Chances."
A Chat With Author John McNally
In an ideal world, everyone would be reading John McNally. In novels like The Book of Ralph, After the Workshop, and America’s Report Card, McNally mixes vivid characterization with closely-observed settings to create sparkling comic narratives that linger in the reader’s mind. In McNally’s latest work, The Boy Who Really, Really Wanted to Have Sex – The Memoir of a Fat Kid (Elephant Rocks Books), he steps away from fiction for his first memoir—an engaging collection of essays about growing up in the 1970s.
Interview by Chuck Augello
You’re known mainly as a fiction writer. The experiences and memories shared in the book are rich material for a writer to shape into fiction. Why did you choose to tell these stories in essay form rather than as short stories or a novel?
About five years ago, I burned out writing fiction. In less than a year, three major things happened: I got divorced, my father died, and I took a job that was 900 miles away. So, I took a break from writing. Or so I thought. I got asked to write a short autobiographical piece for a magazine—it was very short—so I agreed. That short assignment jarred certain memories loose, as well as autobiographical moments that I could never figure out how to work into fiction. I wrote the book pretty much for myself, and though I don’t write for catharsis, it became cathartic. I think I needed time to process a lot of what I was going through, and narrative was my way to process it.
Several of the stories occur when you are quite young, with some reaching back to your pre-school years. How did you handle the potential unreliability of childhood memories? Were there temptations to embellish or take fictional license with the past?
Part of the process of writing creative nonfiction is re-creation, and I’m sure someone else’s memory of the same event will be different from mine. But, no, there was no temptation to embellish. In many ways, the audience for this book is me. And I wanted to be as faithful to what happened as much as possible. Before my father died, I interviewed him about some episodes that appear in the book (I had been thinking about writing a different book when I interviewed), but I went into it knowing that he had a terrible problem with embellishment. Still, he brought up things I’d forgotten about until he mentioned them. In other instances, he corroborated some of my memories. I also studied personal photos from the periods that I cover in the book.
Many of your school photos from childhood are displayed throughout the book. How do those photos add to the story?
In addition to my full-time position at the University of Louisiana, I teach in Pacific University’s low-residency program. Each residency, while I was working on the book, I would read chapters-in-progress to students and faculty, and the very first time I read one to them, I had one of my school photos illuminated behind me. In addition to it being a good sight gag—I embodied every bad thing about the ’70s when I was in grade school—it provided a context for the chapter that I was reading. It’s a different experience when you hear an adult reading about himself as a child having a crush on all the girls in his kindergarten class than when you hear the adult reading the same essay while his goofy kindergarten photo is illuminated behind him. And I liked that context. So when the book was accepted, I brought up the idea of including the photos throughout, including on the cover, and the publisher was all for it. The cover is one of my favorite things about the book.
Throughout the book you identify as a “fat kid,” yet many of the stories have little to do with your size. How did your “fat kid” self-image influence how you experienced your childhood?
Once I gained that weight, it influenced everything I did and said. And it still does. But there’s also a before and after: before I was fat, after I was fat. I’m not explicit about it in the book, but I think if you look at the before chapters compared to the after chapters, you see a change in my personality. So, even if it’s not mentioned, my hope is that it’s working at the level of subtext. It’s the Loch Ness Monster in the story. Occasionally, it rises up out of the water to take a look around, but its shadow is there if you look closely. Its influence on my real life is that I’ve never been able to shake my self-consciousness. As an adult, my weight will go way up and then back down. Even when my weight is down, I’m always tugging at my shirt and uncomfortable in whatever I’m wearing. As a fat kid, both kids and adult were often pretty cruel. I suspect that’s why my humor often has a sharp edge. Humor is both a defense mechanism and subterfuge to bring you to a darker place.
In writing about your childhood from an adult perspective, were you surprised by any of the memories or feelings summonsed by the experience? Did it change your view of your early life?
I was more forgiving of my younger self. I had more sympathy for him. I’ve always been pretty self-critical, so it’s hard for me to look back without seeing the flaws, but writing the book forced me to pause and go back there, and I realized how internal my world was. I kept to myself a lot. I still do. I spent most of my time exercising my imagination. I don’t say this to pat myself on the back, but it’s also stunning that the kid riding his Batmobile around the trailer park made it to where he is today. By that, I mean that there were so many socioeconomic hurdles. There are still socioeconomic hurdles in my life! But I’m a long way away from that trailer park.
Comedy played a big role in your childhood. You memorized Steve Martin routines, performed stand-up at a school talent show, and worked on a book about screen legends like Abbott and Costello. What did you learn that helped shape your tendency toward comic writing?
Timing. I read my work aloud, over and over and over. The one thing I internalized was a good sense of timing. I didn’t realize this until after I had written several books but many of my stories and novels have characters who play a modified version of the straight man and comic. I can credit years of memorizing vaudeville routings, like “Who’s on First?” for that.
Several of the essays in the book were previously published in literary journals. What role do you see these smaller journals playing in the literary landscape?
Literary journals have always been the place where editors can take chances, whether on younger writers, formal innovations, underrepresented voices, and so on. There’s no market consideration for a literary magazine. Other than a few established ones, the circulation for the literary magazine is anywhere from 250 to 2000. When I first began writing in the 1980s, I would go to the library and pile stacks of magazines in front of me, and begin reading them. It was in them that I read Charles Bukowski poems. Or the first short stories of writers who would go on to have success. These magazines are goldmines. I’m always disheartened when a student asks me where to submit a story. One of my fondest memories was sitting in that library and discovering something amazing, and then wanting to send my work to that magazine because I loved what they were doing. I started reading River Styx in the 1980s, and I just had a long personal essay accepted by them. I couldn’t be happier.
In your book The Creative Writer’s Survival Guide, published in 2010, you expressed some concerns about the publishing world, especially the rise of e-readers, the disappearance of book stores, and the use of an author’s prior sales record to determine what gets published. How have things changed since then?
I honestly don’t know how much influence e-readers have had on publishing. Right now, the biggest enemy to the book is social media. We spend time we could be reading updating our statuses on Facebook. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. I’ve read articles about how we’re retooling our brains so that it’s more difficult now for us to read anything that’s very long. All of this is worrisome. As for book sales, I still think that’s true for commercial publishing houses, but there are many, many new smaller presses. It’s easier to start one now than it was even ten years ago. But what I’ve found – having published with a few smaller presses – is that review space still (mostly) goes to the commercial houses, and trying to get media for a small press book (especially something that’s not topical) is extraordinarily difficult. Your book sale track-record determines how many copies of your book a bookstore will order – or if they’ll order at all.
If you were given the front page of The New York Times Book Review to champion a neglected author or book, who would you pick?
So many of my favorite writers have been “rediscovered” —Richard Yates and Charles Portis, in particular—so as of this minute? Rick DeMarinis. Read the first page of his novel The Burning Women of Far Cry and try to put it down. He wrote some of the finest short stories of the 1980s in books like The Voice of America and The Coming Triumph of the Free World. Very funny, very smart stories. But when I mention his name to anyone under 40, they don’t know him.
Finally, what’s next for John McNally?
I have a book coming out next spring: The Promise of Failure: One Writer’s Perspective on Not Succeeding. This will be my third book on writing for the University of Iowa Press. It’s part memoir, part craft book. I’m nearing completion of a new short story collection. And I’m in the very early stages of a new novel. But mostly I sit around and listen to albums these days. Writing is a lot of work! Listening to albums is much, much easier.
Chuck Augello lives in New Jersey with his wife, dog, three cats, and several unnamed squirrels who live in the back yard. His work has appeared in One Story, Smokelong Quarterly, Word Riot, Juked, A Lonely Riot, and other fine places. A contributing editor for Cease, Cows, he publishes The Daily Vonnegut, featuring interviews, essays, and trivia about the work of Kurt Vonnegut.