Friday, September 2, 2011
Literary Fiction Author Patricia Ann McNair
Her honors include a number of Illinois Arts Council Awards and Pushcart Prize nominations in fiction and creative nonfiction, a Writer's Grant and residency at the Vermont Studio Center, a residency at the Glen Arbor Arts Association and Writer in Residence at Interlochen Arts Academy. She was also awarded Columbia College Chicago's Excellence in Teaching Award and was nominated for the Carnegie Foundation's US Professor of the Year. McNair was a visiting lecturer in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University in the UK and is a professor in the graduate and undergraduate programs of the Fiction Writing Department at Columbia College Chicago.
That's the "official" background. Patricia also quietly encourages and promotes new literary talent and takes a break from her busy Chicago life by escaping with her visual artist husband to the quiet community of Mt. Carroll, IL, a small town with a few remaining brick streets that I'm very familiar with as the paternal side of my family originated there.
Now Patricia has published a collection of short stories, each of which centers on the author's love of life, humanity, and the delicate balance each of us must find deep within ourselves in order to persevere over adversity and the challenges life places in our path. The stories within "The Temple of Air" are indeed thought provoking. But what the reader will truly discover are people whose tales will touch a heart, tear an eye, and warm a smile.
Q) The stories in "The Temple of Air" take place in fictional New Hope, a rural setting. What inspired you to choose rural over the urban lifestyle you are so familiar with?
A) A good question, David. Though I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, and live in the city a good part of the year now, I come from good, small town stock. My grandparents on my dad’s side were farmers in a tiny town in Southern Illinois; my mother’s parents lived (during my childhood) in a small Ohio town. I spent a lot of time on the farm as a kid, and also wandering around that small town in Ohio. In some ways, these towns were exotic to me then: people walked places instead of using their cars to get everywhere; kids cruised the main streets for entertainment instead of hanging out at the shopping center; people said hello to one another even if they didn’t know each other. I also was drawn to the architecture of such places, although I didn’t know that then. What I loved were the turn-of-the-century rambling houses with lots of rooms and creepy basements and musty attics and wide, front porches with swings.
Since then, I went to school for a bit in small town Iowa, and lived there for some years. That’s where I sold pots and pans and worked at a gas station. I love the small town taverns, the way the town newspapers would publish bowling league scores and how I’d know at least a few of the names on each page of the paper. As you said, we have a home in Mount Carroll, IL, and I have met some of the kindest people there. And the quiet! I am the kind of writer who can work best without a lot of noise and bustle, so I really appreciate that sort of peace.
And yet, there can be a certain melancholy in rural places, particularly as our economy shifts away from what they have to offer. The way young people—all people, really—can feel trapped and bored in small towns sometimes seems more complicated than the anxiousness of emotion folks might feel in a the busy-ness of a city or a suburb. The Temple of Air is as much about place as it is about people. In New Hope, the fictional small town of the book, as in a lot of small towns, a person is likely to be more on display because everyone is visible, and that visibility can create a dramatic tension that I find interesting to explore in my writing.
Q) How exactly did you travel from breading mushrooms, to the Mercantile Exchange floor, to teaching in Chicago, and end up writing about life in a small town?
A) Now that you ask this question, it occurs to me that it may have been a more direct route than it appears to be. The mushroom breading was a typical suburban summer job in the back of a non-chain sandwich shop, at a time when fast food was made fresh. But here’s the thing: it was a great job for a potential writer because it took very little brain power and was very methodical. Wash the mushrooms, dip them in the batter, dip them in the breadcrumbs, let them dry a bit then dip them in the batter again, dip them in the breadcrumbs...lather, rinse, repeat. I could let my mind go other places, tell itself stories.
It wasn’t long after I came back to live in Chicago that I started working at the Merc, a job a friend found for me. And there is a lot of mindless, downtime there, too, between the crazy bursts of activity on the trading floor. I had gone back to college by then to finally, after a long break, finish my degree. And I was taking a writing class. I was able to do a lot of my homework during the slow parts of the day, and a number of the stories from The Temple of Air were explored there. And maybe it was because some part of my creative mind was still processing my six or so years living in Iowa that these stories I wrote were set in a place like the small town I’d lived in, the one surrounded by cornfields and near a couple of lakes and a river. Didn’t Sherwood Anderson write a good deal of Winesburg, Ohio (based on his hometown of Clyde, Ohio) when he lived in Chicago? And James Joyce composed Dubliners primarily when he lived somewhere other than Dublin. I think there is something to be said about being away from a place that allows you a better vantage point from which to see it and write about it.
The teaching thing was a stroke of good luck. Just when I finished my own degree in writing, a number of new writing classes opened up at Columbia College Chicago and I was asked to teach one. I was still working at the Mercantile Exchange at the time, but I found myself more engaged with the teaching part of my life. So by taking small steps, quitting my job, downscaling my lifestyle, I was able to teach more classes until I was fortunate enough to be hired as part of Columbia’s full-time faculty.
Q) Your artistic pursuits have landed you in places such as Prague in order to hone your craft. What benefits do you believe you have derived from these odysseys?
And there is also the part of travel that makes you a little uncomfortable, a little ill at ease. These feelings are good ones to create from. You claim your space with your writing; you consider the conflicts of emotion (like the conflicts you might feel while traveling) that make good story. Not everything is happy endings and feel good stuff in fiction. I mean, yes, some of popular fiction is that, and that’s fine, but I am interested in those tales that are about a little discomfort, emotions that aren’t all good (or all bad, either.) That place in between that makes us question our feelings, our place, our response to the world.
Finally, traveling makes you look at the world more closely—I never saw that before, I must remember this, you know—and that is good writerly practice. I am of the mind that a clear sense of place is essential to good writing.
Q) As the granddaughter of Reverend Victor Hugo Wachs, credited as the first man to ride a motorcycle through the mountains in Korea, you obviously have inherited a bit of tenacity, wanderlust, and courage. How do you think that heritage comes through in your writing?
A) Wow, you do your research, David. Such an interesting question, and evocative. Pertinent to this collection. Thanks for asking.
First, to have a grandfather named after the iconic writer Victor Hugo probably sealed my destiny. Writing has always been important in my family. My grandfather’s letters are beautiful; he wrote articles and sermons. His daughter, my mother, was a travel writer. So maybe I couldn’t have run from my life as a writer if I’d tried.
But it was my grandfather’s deep faith that took him to the other side of the world, and that idea of faith has always fascinated me. What makes you believe; what makes you trust? What shakes your faith? These questions are all over The Temple of Air.
My grandfather’s traipsing was passed along to my mother, and she instilled the travel bug in me. I took my first international trip with my family when I was just three. I can still remember wandering the streets of Madrid with my father when I was seven. I lived in Honduras giving vaccinations when I was just seventeen. And my family always did a lot of car camping, road trips, visits to the grandparents. And on these trips, the family legends were told and retold. Story became important to my understanding of the world.
I don’t really consider myself a courageous person, per se; you wouldn’t catch me on the back of a 1910 motorcycle revving up the sides of mountains. But my grandfather passed his desire to change the world on to his children, and I think what I got from that lineage is part of what makes me want to teach, to do community workshops and public art projects. So he is there in what I do.
He is there, too, in what I write. His letters (and those he received from home) were very much questioning faith, questioning the world and the people in it. His work was extraordinary, but when you really look at it, he was actually working in a very ordinary place. Not ordinary to him or me or maybe anyone of us today might see it, but poor, rural villages in Korea were the norm for that time, that place. And this is something that fascinates me—the interplay between ordinary and extraordinary. It has been said that that is at the heart of good writing: finding the extraordinary in the ordinary.
Q) Having whet readers' appetites with "The Temple of Air," what can we look forward to next?
A) I have some short stories floating around, one that will be published soon in Trilling, a new on-line magazine. I’ve recently completed a novel called Alice in Cubaland, a story set in Cuba and Chicago. And I’ve begun work on a new novel that takes place again in New Hope, the small town from this collection, about a complicated situation that arises between an evangelical family, and a family whose father is an immigrant. I’ll tell you more about that book when I actually know more about it. Right now I am still trying to figure it out myself!
Q) Any parting comments for your readers?
A) For you, David, really. Thank you so much for your work with this column. People say that reading has become unimportant in our society, and it is clear from what you do and what your readers read that this is simply not true. To have a forum like this for folks to share stories and books and conversations is essential to nurturing the literary landscape, and I am honored to bring my collection The Temple of Air, into this exchange of ideas.
Oh, and if there are book clubs out there who might be interested in my joining them for a conversation about The Temple of Air and the writing life, please contact me. I would love to talk story with you all.