An Interview with John McNally

By Sana Rafi


Tell me how you began writing.

In the fourth grade, every student had to write a play and perform it, so I wrote one about a fat superhero who gets stuck in a phone booth while changing into his costume. (I was a fat kid, so it was an empathetic portrayal.) The play was a hit! The students in my class laughed and enjoyed it, but it was the approval of the teacher that I was looking for, and she loved it, too. So, it’s entirely possible that the reason I began writing had more to do with my need for approval than some deep desire to produce art. In the seventh and eighth grades, I wrote a nonfiction book about old-time comedians (Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, etc.). I wrote to actors and actresses who were in those movies, and I wrote to directors. Amazingly, some of these people wrote back to me. I also wrote to movie studios to ask about permission to use photographs; I wrote to other authors to ask technical questions about writing; and I! wrote to every publisher in New York, asking for their guidelines. When I finished the book, I wrote to all the publishers asking if they wanted to see it. No one did. But it was probably the best education on the profession of writing I could have given myself. By the time that I was fourteen, I’d been rejected by every major publisher. What I learned was that this wasn’t going to be an easy career path. It wasn’t until my sophomore year of college, when I took a creative writing class with the poet Rodney Jones at Southern Illinois University, that I began writing and reading literary fiction and poetry, and I fell in love with it and decided that this was what I was going to do. That was 1984. I’ve been writing steadily ever since.

Your short fiction is superbly interesting, full of sad conflicts like in the piece,”The Something Something” and “At the Chateau Marramont, Bungalow 5.” Talk to me about that.

Those stories became part of my collection GHOSTS OF CHICAGO. In that book, I alternate between longer short stories that have some connection to Chicago and short-shorts that feature real-life (but dead) Chicagoans. Those two stories in particular feature Gene Siskel and John Belushi. What I wanted to do in those stories that feature real people was to honor who those people were, to capture the spirit of them, while at the same time putting them into a fictional context. What I didn’t want to do was hover above and poke fun at them. I didn’t want them to become easy jokes. My hope is that my empathy for these people comes through, whether the story is comic, as in “The Something Something,” or more melancholy, like “At the Chateau Maramont, Bungalow 5.”

You know, they say that writers write for a reason, that they have a calling for it because of something. And it’s interesting to see you note the need of approval as one of the reasons you continued to write. I think, for me, writing began because I was an introvert. This leads me to ask you about your writing process. Does your investment in your fiction range only during the actual writing period or do you sleep and wake up with your characters, for example?

The longer the project, the more the characters stay with me. I write in the morning, but when I’m deep into working a novel, I’ll walk around all day in a daze, thinking about what characters should be saying and doing. I’ll take notes while I’m driving. I tend to think that when the writing is going really well, you’re tapping into the murky parts of your subconscious, so it makes sense that when you’re working especially hard on a longer piece, you linger in that unconscious state of mind when you probably should be conscious.

Another question about your short fiction that has previously appeared in MAKE: your pieces flow smoothly and at a fast speed. How much editing goes into it? As a writer, are you able to write in a certain fixed word amount or do you write as you go? Often magazine submissions have a word limit and that makes me anxious because I can’t write in a given, fixed size. How is it for you?

With Ghosts of Chicago, I wrote the shorter pieces (the pieces that appeared in MAKE) with the hope that they would end up no longer than five or six pages each, but a few of them defied me. The first one I wrote in that series — a short story featuring the writer Nelson Algren — turned into a monster of a story. It was maybe 32 pages or so in manuscript by the time I was done, which isn’t terribly long, but I threw myself into that story in a way that I hadn’t planned to. I did all kinds of research on D-Day, junkies in the ’40s and ’50s, mythology, Nelson Algren’s affair with Simone de Beauvoir, and a bunch of other stuff, and when I finally sat down to write it, there were all of these things percolating that I hadn’t anticipated would be there. It’s one of the few stories I wrote where I don’t actually remember the writing of it. Originally, I had thought it would be a simple five page story. Ten pages max. To answer your question, even when I do happen to have a page length in mind, I don’t always hold to it. The story should be however long the story needs to be. For me, trying to find a magazine that will publish it comes later.

Your beginnings are very gripping. The reader sinks right in. I was especially intrigued by “At the Chateau Marramont, Bungalow 5.” What importance do you give to beginnings of novels, short stories and writing in general?

A strong opening is extremely important. I know this from when I used to read submissions for a magazine. If I wasn’t pulled into the story by the first page, I likely wasn’t going to be pulled in on page two or three. I wasn’t looking for a “hook” or anything like that. What I wanted was for the story to not seem like words on a page. There needed to be a voice or a world-view or a sensibility. Think about the first page of Catcher in the Rye. It’s Holden Caulfield’s world-view and his voice that hook you and make you want to keep reading. Same is true for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Or A Confederacy of Dunces. When I write a short story, I sometimes work on getting the opening right before I forge ahead. That way, I’m tapping into the voice (or something) that will hopefully carry me through to the end. For me, a lot of it has to do with finding the right rhythm, the right cadence. ! When I write a novel, I don’t worry so much about the beginning until later, because I’ve come to learn that what you think is the beginning is never the beginning, and that the shape of the book is going to evolve over the however-many-years it’s going to take to finish it. If I worry too much over the beginning of a novel, I’ll never finish writing the book, so I will come back to the beginning later.


JOHN McNALLY is author of two novels, America’s Report Card and The Book of Ralph, both published by Free Press, a division of Simon and Schuster.  His previous collection Troublemakers (Iowa, 2000) won the John Simmons Short Fiction Award (2000) and the Nebraska Book Award (2001), and was a Book Sense 76 selection.  John’s fiction has appeared in over thirty journals and magazines, including Virginia Quarterly Review,  Idaho Review, Florida Review, MAKE, New England Review, Punk Planet, The Sun, Columbia, Colorado Review, Natural Bridge, and Crab Orchard Review.  His short story “The Immortals” was a 2005 National Magazine Award Finalist.  He frequently reviews books for Washington Post and other newspapers.

SANA RAFI is working toward an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University, New York and on a collection of short stories based in Pakistan. She is a contributing editor for MAKE Online.

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