A conversation with John McNally
What books and/or authors have had the most influence on your writing?
As a child, the novels and short stories of Ray Bradbury and Ursula K. Leguin introduced me to fiction’s possibilities. In college, John Irving’s The World According to Garp made me push in all the chips and say, “This is what I’m going to do.” I still love that novel. In graduate school, it was Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, a novel I re-read every other year and am blown away by each time. Other writers? Dickens, Flannery O’Connor, Garcia Marquez, Kafka. “Where are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates is still a perfect story for me, beautiful and horrifying.
How do you decide when a piece you’ve written is “finished” enough to publish?
Raymond Carver continued revising his work after he published it, so you’ll find a story in one version in a magazine and then another version in one of his books and then a revised version of the revised version in a “best of” volume, etc. It’s a little maddening from a reader’s perspective, although I understand the impulse. For me, the answer to your question would be this: when I don’t know what else to do with it, and when no one else does, either. That’s not to say that I won’t have better ideas about what to do with it a year or two later, after it’s been published and I’m reading from it at a bookstore. I’ll often read with a pen in my hand and revise the published work while I’m reading it. All of the copies of my books that I’ve used for readings are edited with my pen, sometimes rather dramatically. And the edited version is always better. Always. Oh well. Too late.
What would you consider to be a productive day of work, and do you have a writing routine?
I used to be a manic writer, shoving in as much writing time into a day as I could. These days, I’m happy if I do anything – anything at all – having to do with what I’m working on. That’s a productive day. The dirty little secret is that it adds up. If you do just a little bit each day, you’ll accumulate a whole lot of material by the end of the year. I learned the hard way that this was better than marathon writing sessions that left me burnt out and miserable. My routine, when I’m not in the middle of moving (as I am now) or a crisis, is to write shortly after I wake up. I don’t feel compelled to put in eight hours a day. Once I’m done for the day, I may read or listen to music, during which time I’ll think about what I’m working on, and I may take notes or tinker with the print-out of what I’ve written, but once I’m done for the day, I rarely sit back down and work on it in earnest.
What part of your writing process do you most enjoy?
Coming up with ideas. The moment I put pen to paper, the idea instantly vanishes or morphs into something else, and then it becomes difficult trying to find out what the story is about. It’s gratifying trying to figure that out, but I’m not sure I enjoy it, if that makes sense. I do love when an ending comes together. You can feel it when it’s about to happen, and when it does happen, it’s extremely satisfying. But that’s such a mysterious part of the process, I’m not sure “enjoy” is the correct word for that, either. I always enjoy printing up the final draft and setting aside, forcing myself not to look at it again, fearful I’ll find a typo or something else I want to change. I take great pleasure in finishing something.
Your work takes shape across multiple forms, including short fiction, novels, nonfiction, essays, and anthologies. When you first begin a project, do you know exactly which form it will take?
Usually but not always. America’s Report Card began as an essay. My novella “Limbs” from my first book began as a short-short. I just couldn’t stop writing! But more often than not I have a sense of what it’s supposed to be.
Do you have a favorite piece you’ve written? If so, what is it and why?
God, I sort of hate looking at my stuff after I’ve written it. There are books I’m close to, like The Book of Ralph, because so much of it grew out of my own childhood, and then there are stories that I know work better than others, like “I See Johnny.” That’s a story that intuitively fell together, and it’s a more complicated story that some of my previous ones. The truth is, I’m more inclined to say that I have favorite moments in my books rather than favorite entire novels or stories. Also, I prefer to look ahead than behind me, so I have future projects that seem promising to me. When I think about what’s already been written, I tend to remember the shortcomings. It’s like opening the fridge and seeing last week’s leftovers.
What else are you working on, and where can readers go to find more of your work?
I’m working on several new projects, but the one that’s taking most of attention is a new short story collection. After writing two short story collections, each of which took ten years to write, in addition to numerous stories that didn’t make it into those book, I was frankly a little burnt out on short stories. But then a few years ago I was solicited to write a story for an anthology of short stories inspired by Ray Bradbury (Shadow Show), and it reminded me why I wrote fiction in the first place. To have fun. To be inventive. To entertain myself. To learn something new. The story had a fantastical element, which was new to me, and I allowed myself to take chances I hadn’t taken before. Before I knew it, I’d begun several more stories in a similar vein, along with a list of ideas for more than two collections. Right now, I’m trying to determine which of those ideas are worth pursuing.
I’m also working on more personal essays, a genre I haven’t until now done much with. A short essay appeared this past summer in The Common.
On your website, you have a page dedicated to advice for aspiring writers. You also have an advice book, The Creative Writer’s Survival Guide. What advice would you give yourself when you first started writing?
Don’t put yourself in debt. This may not sound like writing advice, but I can’t stress how important this advice is. Time is a writer’s most valuable commodity, and if you saddle yourself with enormous debt (as I did), you find yourself having to take jobs during periods in your life when you’d rather have more time writing. At one point in the 1990s, I was working four jobs and selling plasma. I wrote very little during those years, and what I did write wasn’t very good. It’s a stressful way to live. People will say, “Oh, but I bet you got some great material out of it!” That’s true. I did. But I’d rather have traded in that material for the time to write. I already had enough material to last me a few lifetimes.