John McNally: Who’s on First?

John McNally is the author of three novels: After the Workshop, The Book of Ralph and America’s Report Card; and two story collections, Troublemakers and Ghosts of Chicago.  He is also author of two nonfiction books: The Creative Writer’s Survival Guide: Advice from an Unrepentant Novelist and Vivid and Continuous: Essays and Exercises for Writing Fiction, both published the University of Iowa Press. He has edited, coedited, or guest edited seven anthologies. John’s work has appeared in over a hundred publications, including the Washington Post, The Sun, San Francisco Chronicle, and Virginia Quarterly Review. As a screenwriter, he has a script in development with the producer of Winter’s Bone. He’s an Associate Professor of English at Wake Forest University and on the Core Faculty of Pacific University’s low-residency MFA program.

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John was interviewed by Fabienne Sylvia Josaphat for Sliver of Stone Magazine.

Fabienne Sylvia Josaphat: I’d like to start with humor, as it seems to be the connective thread in your novels. Did you start writing with humor in mind? Or did that inject itself in the writing process after you started?

John McNally: I never write with humor in mind. If a story or novel ends up being funny, my hope is that it’s an organic part of the work. I tend to think that humor is part of a person’s worldview. In my case, I grew up watching and listening to anything and everything that was comic – Charlie Chaplin movies, Abbott and Costello movies, George Carlin and Steve Martin albums, cassette tapes with old vaudeville routines on them…you name it. I even owned a Bloopers album! I memorized the famous routine “Who’s on First?” I was serious about my comedy. When I started writing, it was only natural that it would seep into my work. I’d internalized that for years, but I’d internalized it because, even as a kid, I saw something in a comic’s worldview, a kind of absurdity, that matched my own.

FJ: What I also find interesting is how popular culture seems to find its way organically in your writing. You’ve said the first word you’ve ever spoken was “Batman.” How has popular culture (television especially) influenced you along the way? How do you see pop culture influencing contemporary fiction?

JM: I have a chapter about pop culture in my new book, Vivid and Continuous: Essays and Exercises for Writing Fiction. In it, I admit that I’m a hypocrite. On the one hand, I warn my students about saturating their work with it; on the other hand, I acknowledge that you’ll find in my novels and stories Peter Frampton, Planet of the Apes, Cheap Trick, Yes’s “Roundabout,” Farrah Fawcett-Majors, and hundreds more. I grew up absorbing pop culture, but I do think it’s a tightrope walk using it in fiction. For myself, I have three criteria: 1) Does it make sense in the context of the moment, which would be a good thing, or is it there simply for the sake of being clever? 2) Where is the reference coming from – the consciousness of the character, as it should, or the author? 3) Is the reference appropriate to the tone of the story? The fear, of course, is that your story will be dated in a year or two, and I’ve seen this happen with some of my students’ work, which is why I think it’s good to choose references that have already stood the test of time.

FJ: “After the Workshop” puts your character Jack Hercules Sheahan in a string of hilarious predicaments. How did this character come to you?  How much of this is personal experience? How much is your experience as a writer with a media escort?

JM: Many of the situations grew out of actual incidents, but then I would let the scenes veer away from autobiography once I had set it in motion. The characters, in some instances, were composites of writers I’ve known, or they were inspired by individuals with strong personalities. My friends who studied with the late Frank Conroy, as I did, will recognize characteristics of him in Gordon Grimes. And yet Gordon Grimes isn’t Frank Conroy. It’s tricky, though, because I wanted those characters who were inspired by actual people to be charming and sympathetic, if flawed. As for the parallels between the book’s narrator and myself, well, he had a kind of early success that I didn’t, but twelve years after the workshop, I certainly had all kinds of doubts about what I’d chosen to do, and there were times I considered hanging it all up. The reason I didn’t was because I’d get some small sign of encouragement – a publication, an award – that would keep me in the game. Unlike the narrator of the book, I never quit writing altogether. In order for the book to work, my narrator’s situation had to be more precarious.

FJ: I usually don’t tend to ask writers about their process, but I’m very curious about your construction of this story. How was the process of plotting this story? Did you have a clear vision of how one scene would lead to the other? Or did everything happen organically?

JM: After the Workshop evolved organically. Once I had put the narrator in the situation he finds himself in, I let the story carry itself forward, day by day. At a certain point – maybe three-quarters of the way into writing it – I started to see how it might end, but until then I had no idea how it would all pull together.

FJ: What I admired about “After the Workshop” was your ability to infuse back-story into your chapters so the reader really gets to know the character. How did you manage to do this? This is another “process” related question, but is this planned out in your mind? On paper? How do you decide when and where back-story comes in?

JM: I didn’t plan any of it, and the first draft of this particular novel is pretty close to the final draft. I cut a few of the back-story scenes in the final revision because I was still introducing the narrator’s past in the last third of the book at a time when the narrative really just needed to move forward and not backward. By and large, the scenes appeared in my head when I sat down to write. The few times I’ve tried to plan a book or outline, I’ve failed miserably.

FJ: Another relationship in the book that I was drawn to was that triangle between Tate, Vince and Jack. It was authentic, real, and at times uncomfortable for readers rooting for Jack. What did you want to convey there?

JM: Jack is a deeply flawed character, but when you put him alongside Tate and Vince, you can’t help but feel bad for him. I never have an agenda. I just let the characters be. Some readers find Jack to be a “loser,” but that’s definitely not how I thought of him. I saw him as someone who didn’t come from a background of privilege, and at the point that we meet him, he’s had a twelve year streak of bad luck. But he’s trying to dig himself out of the pit that he finds himself in, and I see that as an act of courage. But that’s my own interpretation of who Jack is.

FJ: How does place affect your writing? “After the Workshop” is set in Iowa, but your other pieces take place in cities like Chicago. Do you find it challenging at all to tackle a new place with all its authenticities?

JM: Once I discovered the importance of place, other things began to click in my work, most notably voice and vision. I’m referring specifically to the stories that make up my first novel-in-stories, The Book of Ralph (a few of which appeared in my first book, Troublemakers). Place and character are inextricable because characters are products of place. And so place – very specific places, in fact – became the tunnel I crawled through in order to enter my narrator’s consciousness. What a revelation! And yet it’s so obvious. Faulkner’s novels couldn’t take place in Alaska. Louise Erdrich’s novels couldn’t take place in Manhattan. I’m always urging my students to think about place – or, more specifically, to think about neighborhoods, since there’s always a place within a place that’s even more specific, more defining. There are tens of thousands of different Chicagos, but there is only one corner of 79th and Cicero, and I know that corner well.

FJ: One theme I notice in “After the Workshop” is that of fear, and self-doubt. Are those normal for a writer, you think? What are your fears as a writer? What is your way of tackling those emotions that keep writers from writing?

JM: I think self-doubt is healthy as long as it’s not crippling. When I work, I keep next to me John Steinbeck’s book Working Days: The Journals of “The Grapes of Wrath.” His journals weren’t written to be published, so they’re brutally honest. One week before finishing The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck wrote this: “I only hope it is some good. I have very grave doubts sometimes. I don’t want it to seem hurried. It must be slow and measured as the rest but I am sure of one thing – it isn’t the great book I had hoped it would be. It’s just a run-of-the-mill book. And the awful thing is that it is absolutely the best I can do.” If John Steinbeck felt that way about The Grapes of Wrath, one of the greatest American novels ever written, I think we can all, each and every one of us, afford to be more humble.

FJ: What’s next for John McNally? Are we expecting more fiction? Novels? Memoir?

JM: I just finished a long historical novel, which was the most challenging thing I’ve ever written. What’s next? Good question. I don’t know. A YA novel, maybe? New stories? Another satire? So much to choose from, it’s hard to say. Maybe I’ll spend some time catching up on TV. I’ve never seen The West Wing. I can’t tell you how appealing that sounds.

Read a deleted chapter from John’s novel here.

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