If I could purchase a lifetime subscription to a living author’s work, I’d subscribe to John McNally. His fiction is engaging and funny, his books on craft are illuminating, and his recent memoir—The Boy Who Really, Really Wanted to Have Sex—is “imbued with bald pain, pleasure, humor, and grace.” All those qualities are present in his answers in this interview, which was conducted over email in the last couple of months.
In a 2004 interview with VQR, you said that your "own life works its way into [your] stories more and more these days, but in quirky details, rarely in obvious, autobiographical ways." How did your turn toward memoir happen (and did it surprise you)?
About five years ago, three things happened in quick succession: I got divorced, my father died, and I accepted a new job that was 900 miles away. At that point, the thought of writing anything at all exhausted me. I had written a very long novel that didn't find a home, and my short stories were starting to feel stale. So, I decided to take a year off from writing anything, period. But then—as always happens when I'm consciously deciding not to write—I was asked to contribute a very short autobiographical piece to a magazine. It was so short that I thought, okay, why not. Well, that short piece prompted me to write about another part of my life, which, in turn, got me thinking about yet another part, and so on. The cumulative effect was that I realized—after the fact—that I was dealing with some things that I had pushed aside, primarily my relationship with my father. I hadn't had much of an emotional reaction to his death, which had bothered me, and I’m sure that’s why he appears so often in the book. I didn't write this book for therapy, but I think all writing, if you can appropriately tap into your unconscious mind, becomes a form of therapy.
That's so interesting because some writers look down on the idea of writing as therapy. Writing shouldn't be for the writer, they might say. It should be for the reader. But all of your writing clearly considers the reader's needs and pleasures, so what you seem to be saying here is that writing can be for the writer and the reader at the same time.
Here's what I’ve come to believe: that putting yourself at risk, putting something of yourself on the line in your writing, may not even be a conscious act, but the reader knows (and often the writer does too, after the fact) that the risk is there because it gives the book/story/whatever an urgency that otherwise would be missing. In the autobiographical section of his book On Writing, Stephen King writes about his own alcohol and drug abuse. About his own epiphany, he writes, “Holy shit, I’m an alcoholic, I thought, and there was no dissenting opinion from inside my head—I was, after all, the guy who had written The Shining without even realizing (at least not until that night) that I was writing about myself." In this regard—if you're a writer who's tapping into your own unconscious mind when you write, as I believe most writers do—the story that you're writing is always going to be smarter than you. It's always several steps ahead. Because of that, you're not consciously writing your story as therapy, but how could it ultimately not be a form of therapy if during the creative process you're mining the dark recesses of your brain? The story is a kind of Ouija board. What the hell's it spelling out? Revision is the process of seeing what gifts (or horrors) your unconscious mind has come bearing.
In that VQR interview, you mentioned that "writing is its own reward. I wrote my last book, The Book of Ralph, not giving a shit if it was ever going to get published. I just wrote on it every day, and that was enough. I was having fun." In a later interview with Necessary Fiction, you said that it's "gratifying trying to [figure out a story], but I'm not sure I enjoy it, if that makes sense. I do love when an ending comes together . . . 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." Your newest book is so funny, though I know that doesn't mean it was a ball to write, especially because, as you say, you were dealing with some heavy things. I guess what I want to ask here is where your writing is at on the pleasure-meter these days.
A good rule of thumb is to write a book you would want to read. I have so little time to read anymore that I’ve revised that rule to this: write a book you would want to read if you had the time to read it. If I’m perfectly honest, it’s getting harder to sustain joy in writing because life isn’t getting any easier. I had hoped by this point in my life that I wouldn’t have to worry about debt, for instance. I had hoped that the trajectory of my career as a writer would be upward. I had hoped that I wouldn’t have to worry about book sales. I’m 52, and in many ways I feel like I’m back at square one. It’s been so long since my last book of original fiction—I’m not including Lord of the Ralphs, which was a YA reimagining of an older book—that whatever momentum my career once had is over. But here are my thoughts on this: I’m lucky to have had a career at all. So many great writers can’t get books published. And so many great books that do get published go unnoticed. So, I’m grateful. Furthermore, I have an opportunity now to reinvent myself by writing something completely unexpected since there are no expectations of me. Or I don’t have to write at all. The idea of leaving it all behind is immensely appealing. None of this is coming from a place of self-pity. It’s from a place of reevaluation. It’s from a place of, “What next?” That said, I’m working on a new novel that I’m excited about because it’s unlike anything I’ve written before, but it’s closer to the kind of book I had thought I would make a career out of writing back when I first decided to push in all the chips and try to make this whole writing thing work. It’s a big book with big ideas, and it’s exciting to think that I might be able to pull off writing the kind of book I’ve been wanting to write for 35 years now.
In the spirit of bigness, let me ask a big, general question: Has the business side of writing always been this hard (or fickle, or malignant, or however you want to put it) or has it gotten harder for writers in the last few decades?
You hear about publishers back in the '60s and '70s who were willing to build a writer’s career. A publisher would stick with a writer for three, four, or five novels, waiting for that breakout book. It was a beneficial arrangement for the publisher because if the writer became a bestseller, they owned that writer's back-list, which they could then market in new paperback editions. I suspect that changed once publishers began consolidating and profits became the bottom-line. But there are always trends. There was an exciting time in the '80s when literary fiction, of all things, became the hot thing, and suddenly publishers were snapping up first books—novels and story collections—from writers right out of (or still in) MFA programs. This happened, I believe, after Vintage Contemporaries came on the scene. Vintage Contemporaries was a series of cool-looking books that made literary fiction hip. They were published in paperback originals with cover art that made you want to buy not just one book but every book in the series. The marketing was brilliant. Every publisher followed suit by starting a similar line of books. When you think about that period, books like Bright Lights, Big City and Less than Zero come to mind (although Less than Zero first appeared in hardback), but Richard Russo also got his start with Vintage Contemporaries. His first novel, Mohawk, was a paperback original. He was my teacher, and I remember him telling me how, just by being part of the series, he was able to sell thousands more copies of his books than if it had been published more traditionally. But eventually, as always happens, the market became saturated quickly, and by the early '90s, it was over. I had become friends with an editor-at-large for Scribner in the late '80s, and she had wanted to see the novel I was working on. I made the mistake of waiting until I had finished writing the entire book. By the time I sent it to her in 1991, she wrote back that she'd have been able to buy it on the basis of the first fifty pages if I'd sent it to her the previous year, but now she couldn't buy it at all, even though she had the full manuscript. In that one year, the market had changed. I'm glad the book never got published—it was a shitty book—but timing is everything. To answer your question, yes, it's harder than ever, but there are always going to be trends. One of my editors, a veteran of New York publishing, told me that every trend begins in earnest until publishers do what they always do: beat the life out of it until readers can no longer trust that a book that's part of that trend is good or not. And that's when the trend dies.
Funny you should mention Russo. In his introduction to The Collected Stories of Richard Yates, Russo tells a story about the time you gave him a copy of Yates's Liars in Love. When Russo asked how you happened to have an extra copy of such a rare book, you said that you scour used bookstores, buying up copies of Yates's books "in order to press them upon people who hadn't read him."
So evangelize us. What do you love about Yates?
Richard Yates is one of the few writers who allows me, as a reader, to exist on two planes at once. For instance, I can be deeply invested and emotionally moved by his work even as I'm admiring the aesthetics of it; neither is diminished by the other. Or, I can be both inside the narrator's head and outside at once: inside a narrator's head by way of a worldview that is very much signature Yates (a hovering, limited-omniscient, ironic voice). Or, I could be laughing even as I'm crying. One of the things that I don't like about the movie adaptation of Revolutionary Road is that it loses Yates's humor. Or, he's a very conventional writer who breaks the rules. To take one example, you'll find adverbs galore in a Yates novel—adverbs are normally frowned-upon in creative writing classes—but they're perfect in Yates's hand; they're not lazy props for verbs. Or, in his best work, he's able to filter his own autobiography into his fiction without it ever becoming autobiography. This is what gives his work stakes that are personal. These are five ways that I can exist on two planes, but the bottom-line is that a novel like Revolutionary Road is simply, word for word, perfect.
Speaking of creative writing classes: you've taught writing to undergrads and MFAs, and you've written books that have taught me a lot about writing (e.g. Vivid and Continuous: Essays and Exercises for Writing Fiction). What's the most important thing a student of writing should learn? Or, to put it another way, if you only had one encounter with a student, what would you teach her?
Make writing a habit. It's possibly the most difficult task for a writer, but I think it's essential. Most writers I know who've succeeded have been hard workers. Show up to work; sit at the desk. You don't have to spend all day there. Hell, you don't even have to spend an hour there. But if you can spend time there every day, it adds up. I recently saw a Facebook post suggesting that professors who say it's important to write every day get paid to write every day. Let's put aside that that's bullshit. By and large, professors get paid to teach, not to write. Whatever. But let's go back to when my first book was accepted, before I was a professor: I was working three jobs and selling plasma, and it was wearing me down to a nub, so I began waking up at four a.m. to squeeze in some writing before my 9 to 5 job because I knew that I wouldn't have time to write between jobs (I taught Composition at the local Community College at night). And I could get some writing done on weekend mornings since I worked only one eight-hour shift. I can assure this person that no one was paying me to write back then. Writing helped dig me out of any number of depressions when everything else I was doing felt meaningless, and so it was important for me to find time to write. Even if what I wrote sucked—and that was the case more often than not—the habit of writing was good for my soul.
Last question. It's a two-parter. As you know, we've been Facebook friends for a few years. I appreciate your social media presence (gah, that's a gross term) because you're not always self-promoting, you're not trying to "build a platform," you just act like a real, full person. By which I mean that you post about records and tacos and TV as much as you post about writing stuff. But at the same time, I know that you have an ambivalent relationship with social media. In your interview with HuffPost, for example, you talked about shutting down your FB page for good. So I guess what I want to ask is: What's your advice to writers regarding social media?
Part two is a game I made for you. It's called Platter Platter Show, and it goes like this: You walk into heaven and waiting for you there is a turntable, a plate, and a TV. All are blank, empty. You turn to Peter, like What gives? Peter makes a sweeping gesture and says, "Just name what you want, man, and it'll appear." What do you order up first?
Funny you should ask since I just deactivated Facebook for a while. I'm not sure I have any good advice for writers regarding social media. I think each person has to find his or her own way. What I've discovered is that I'm a lot more productive and happier when I'm not on Facebook or spending much time online, so I'm starting to pull back from it all. There's a part of me that wants to be off the grid altogether. Right now, given the political climate, I find myself in a constant state of rage when I'm on Facebook since I'm friends with people who are like-minded, and we're all simultaneously howling at the moon. And that's fine for a moment of catharsis, but then I find myself continuing to howl for much longer, and then I hate myself. For a while, I was enjoying being in record groups on Facebook, but even that has grown stale. I'll post of photo of Led Zeppelin III, and the first comment someone leaves is "A classic." And then I think, Why am I doing this? There are writers I liked personally, but once they had a bit of success, they turn Facebook into a marketing machine, and then that depresses me. More and more, I prefer talking to a stranger in line at the grocery store. I crave actual human encounters. I've turned into the John Cusack character, Lloyd Dobler, in Say Anything: "I don't want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career."
Three seasons of Deadwood, Van Morrison's Moondance, and a large pizza with sausage from Joe's Italian Villa in Palos Heights, Illinois.