John McNally’s most recent book is The Promise of Failure: One Writer’s Perspective on Not Succeeding, published by the University of Iowa Press. He is also author of three novels, The Book of Ralph, America’s Report Card, and After the Workshop; two story collections, Troublemakers and Ghosts of Chicago; two books on writing, Vivid and Continuous: Essays and Exercises for Writing Fiction and The Creative Writer’s Survival Guide: Advice from an Unrepentant Novelist; a young adult novel, Lord of the Ralphs; and a memoir, The Boy Who Really, Really Wanted to Have Sex: The Memoir of a Fat Kid. He has also edited, co-edited or guest edited seven anthologies. His work has appeared in over a hundred publications including The Washington Post, One Teen Story, New England Review, The Sun, and Virginia Quarterly Review. He is a member of the low-residency MFA faculty at Pacific University in Oregon and Professor of English at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
Curtis Smith: Congratulations on the Promise of Failure. I really enjoyed it. Let’s start with the basics. Why a craft book? And how was the process of writing it? Did the months you spent on it have a different flow and pace than a novel?
John McNally: I teach in a low-residency program, and most terms I’m asked to give a craft talk. Instead of giving a nuts-and-bolts talk, I decided to start writing essays that fused memoir with discussions of craft. Horace—is it too pretentious to quote Horace?—is attributed with the idea that the purpose of literature is to entertain as well as instruct, so instead of simply making a point, I had hoped to tell a story, too. By the second essay, I saw that there was a theme running through them, and I became more conscious of these talks I was giving possibly becoming a book on the subject of failure and art, both the positive and the negative aspects of it.
CS: You write about the usefulness of rejection. I’ve always contended that every time I sit at my desk and put ink on paper, it’s victory. But is that easier for folks like us, who’ve had good fortune in the field, to say? There are a few places in the book where you hit on the idea of what is success—how we often view it through external measures rather than internal. Let’s say your publishing career wasn’t as successful—what benefits would you still have received from the practice?
JM: At the most basic level, if it gives you pleasure and it’s not hurting anyone, that’s a huge benefit right there. I’m not a great singer, but I enjoy singing, so I go to karaoke every now and again, and I have a good time. It would become a problem if I began thinking that I should quit my job to pursue singing, which I’m only mediocre (on a good day) at doing. What I say in the book is that as soon as we begin attaching to our writing markers of success like publication, an advanced degree, awards, etc., the writing becomes about what it can yield rather than what it is. But if you can strip away all of those things, then the act of writing itself becomes its own reward. I’m not naïve, though. I realized that we want to publish our writing; we want to earn degrees; we want awards. What I’m saying, though, is that the motivation for writing shouldn’t be about those things. It corrupts the process, and we begin setting ourselves up for disappointment for things that are pretty much out of our control.
CS: Another habit we share is the juggling of projects. How does having a few projects in play, especially ones that cross genres, help? What advice would you offer new—and seasoned—writers who’re contemplating that initial move outside their comfort zone?
JM: Working outside my primary genre keeps the writing that I do within my genre fresh. It also keeps me humble. In the last few years, I’ve been co-writing TV pilots, and my writing partner and I have had success getting projects attached to good people. I’ve been teaching fiction writing for almost thirty years now, and I’ve been writing fiction longer than that, but writing for TV is a new world to me, and the notes I get back from seasoned TV writers are revelations to me. I’m still a novice. And it’s clear to me that I’m a novice. But that’s exciting to me. If you’re starting out, it’s good to hone your primary genre, but it’s beneficial to try your hand at other kinds of writing. I’m a terrible poet, but writing poetry certainly made me listen to the language in my fiction differently. I tried my hand at journalism to make a little money. I learned that writing a good book review is a hell of a lot harder than it looks. Whether or not I was good at any of it, it was all useful.
CS: You point out that many of your novels didn’t start as novels. Rather, they emerged from other projects and then morphed and evolved. Can you go back to those tipping points and share what transpired in those pivotal moments? Was there a common thread to those times where you experienced that shift in perspective and suddenly knew you had a novel?
JM: That’s tough to answer because it was different for each book. One novel grew out of an essay I was writing, an exposé of the standardized testing industry. I knew there was good material there, but my attempts to write it as an essay fell flat. Several years later, I tried working on it as a novel, and it stuck. I guess what I can say is that each project has a gestation period—it may be a few years or it may be a dozen years—but if I keep thinking about the idea, even if it failed in one form, that’s usually a good sign that I’ll eventually come back to it, likely in another form. This is why I don’t think of any writing as work that has failed. Everything I write is part of a life-long continuum of work that informs each other, and if I look at something I’m working now, I’ll see its origin in something I was thinking about maybe twenty or thirty years ago. But you have to be patient. And forgiving. Very forgiving.
CS: You talk about the value of everyday writing—yet you also wrote about the benefits of taking a year off in your mid-40s. Can you address both of these stances and share how they help(ed) you get to the relatively content place you’re in now?
JM: Writing day in and day out allows me to get to the deeper depths of a project, to burrow into it in a way that writing piecemeal doesn’t. It also takes on its own momentum, like going to the gym. The more you go to the gym, the more you want to go to the gym. The less you go to the gym, the less you want to go. With both writing and exercise, the more you do it, the more easily you can tap into your unconscious mind, which improves your instinct. If I’m going to the gym consistently, I’m attuned to my body in such a way that I know exactly what I need to do when I show up at the gym. If I’m not going to the gym consistently, I’ll show up, stare at the machines for ten minutes, do a half-hearted workout on an elliptical, and then work out with weights in what ultimately seems a random and unsatisfying way. The same is true for me with writing.
CS: I enjoyed your take on looking at a story and not just thinking about what was at stake for the character but what was at stake for you, the writer. I hadn’t really thought about this much before, but I found it very interesting. Can you elaborate a bit on that?
JM: For me, if you’re digging into the consciousness of your POV character in such a way that it feels like method acting, you’re likely also fusing your own consciousness with that of the character’s consciousness, and when you’re doing that, you’re probably risking something of yourself, possibly even in a way that you’re not aware of; but if you’re standing outside, manipulating the character, you’re likely not risking anything. It took Stephen King years before he realized that The Shining was really about himself and his substance abuse. So, it’s possible to risk something of yourself and not be aware of it in the moment, but I do believe that you can feel that risk by your own connection to the work, even if it takes you ten years to understand why you feel that way. Whenever I start working on a novel, I almost always feel distant from it, but I eventually have to find a wormhole through which I feel close to it. And that’s when I become comfortable that I’m probably risking something of myself or making myself vulnerable in a way that will be beneficial to the work.
CS: I also enjoyed your thoughts on revision—and your assertion that it’s a time for finding the subtext in a piece. Can you take a moment and be more specific on the idea of subtext? Are there any general areas of subtext you discover—depth of character or the relationships between characters, for example?
JM: Subtext is connected to some of my previous answers. Gestation, for instance. The reason a story takes so long to gestate is often because I’m trying to figure out what the story is really about. And, as I wrote about risks, if you’re writing from your unconscious mind, you may not understand why things are happening in your story because they may be surprising you as you write them, which, for me, is the ideal place to be. But then how do you get to the place where the story has a cumulative effect by the story’s end? For me, it’s allowing the story to gestate until I understand the story better, and understanding the story better is about understanding the subtext better.
CS: As much as the book addresses craft, it also conveys the story of your journey as a writer. You’re very open and honest—was this aspect of the book difficult? Was it a struggle to find the balance between these two threads—or did you find that they organically grew together and supported each other?
JM: They organically grew together, but it’s a struggle because I didn’t want to come across as whiny or self-pitying. What I want is for the reader to come away from the book thinking, hey, we’re all in this together, no matter what stage we’re at in our journey as writers. That’s my hope, at least.
CS: What’s next?
JM: I’m working on a new novel. I’m a good way into it, but…who knows what’ll happen with it. I also just finished a new short story collection and am hoping to find a good home for it. In other words: the usual. But both projects are unlike my previous projects. I really don’t want to write the same book over and over. I want someone who’s read, say, The Book of Ralph to pick up one of these books and say, “Okay, I didn’t see that coming.” That would make me happy.
Curtis Smith has published more than 100 stories and essays, and his work has appeared in or been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, The Best American Spiritual Writing, The Best Short Fictions, and Norton Anthology New Microfictions. He’s worked with independent publishers to put out two chapbooks of flash fiction, three story collections, two essay collections, four novels, and a work of creative nonfiction. His latest books are Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Bookmarked (Ig Publishing) and the novel Lovepain (Braddock Avenue Books).