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Interview with writer Patricia Ann McNair

The subject of this interview is my wife, Patricia Ann McNair. We met at an artists' and writers' retreat in Vermont in 2000, and it was partly hearing her read her fiction before an audience that led me to fall in love with her, and with the idea of perhaps moving to the USA. The story that I heard her read that night, in a converted church on a balmy late summer evening, was "The Temple of Air." Now that story and ten other interconnected stories have been published in a collection of the same name, available from the publisher, Elephant Rock Media (click here for link), and a certain online outlet I would encourage you only to use as a last resort. In the week of the official book-launch and amid a flood of interview requests, I used my insider influence to ask Patty to answer a few questions about her book, her writing, and even her creative explorations in other media.
Philip: On the surface, the stories in ‘The Temple of Air’ deal with average people in an average US town. But the language of the stories constantly arrives at these extraordinary moments of revelation, whether through violence, illness, love, or the longing for faith. Were you aware of this as you wrote them?
Patricia Ann McNair: Well, thanks for that take on the work. It is interesting to consider what I was really aware of while writing and what I discovered after much of the writing happened.
I have always been—what, attracted? compelled? lured?—by and to moments that might be considered both brutal and beautiful in literature. The work of Hubert Selby, Jr, comes to mind. Raymond Carver. Most of us are average people in average lives in average towns, and so I knew that it was these stories, our stories, I wanted to write and I have always been drawn to. But in those average lives we are often struck by some very hard or violent moments, or find ourselves longing and yearning. When you run these things next to one another (average lives, violence or pain, yearning and longing,) when you braid them together, they become beautiful, don’t they? They evoke a complex emotional response that is something other than simple boredom or shock or desire on their own. Perhaps it is like using primary colors that are on opposite sides of the color wheel or something, when you put them together they create something extraordinary, arresting.
I, like everyone, have had to face some rather painful things in my life—death, prolonged illness, various devastations—and while these moments happened, during them, I felt mostly the hurt. But afterwards, with some distance on the situation, I look back at those moments as extraordinary and important experiences that actually held beauty in them. I won’t go into detail here, but I am certain that this response is not unusual. And so it is those things I hope to capture in the “extraordinary moments” of the story (as you so kindly refer to them.) And yes, I think much of this does have to do with language, with image, with rhythm and metaphor. The rush of words in these moments is something that is both unintentional and completely intentional on my part. It usually starts with the impulse of telling such a moment—say, when a baby is accidentally dropped from the top of carnival ride or a woman strikes a deer with her car in the middle of the night—but once I recognize that that sort of telling has taken over the writing, I try to make the most of it that I can. I try to capture the breathlessness, the curious thing that happens with time in a moment of tragedy or fear, the relief that comes with a kind of release these moments often create.
Philip: Most of these stories were written over a long period of time and published separately. At what point did you realize that they could form a linked collection?
Patricia Ann McNair: I have long been interested in the linked collection and the novel in stories as a structure. I admire it in books like Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, Pam Houston’s Cowboys Are my Weakness, Olive Kitteridge, Winesburg Ohio, Dubliners. Mostly it is the emphasis on place that I find compelling in these sorts of collections. In some ways, the stories that I wrote were always set in one place—a sort of composite Midwestern landscape where I’ve lived at various points in my life. And when the place became clearly the same to me, the other connections started to emerge. In some cases it was the recurrence of characters that started a story going for me, in other times it was a similar emotional response. In an earlier draft, this book was supposed to be a novel-in-stories, but I found myself trying to work the overall plot too hard and not spending enough time with the individual episodes. So it shifted. I suppose I knew for certain that it would be a linked collection was when I found the character of Sky in four of the stories I’d written (sometimes masquerading under a different name, but clearly the same guy) and found Michael in two. The rest was sort of mathematical—finding the “x” in each story problem, maybe. 

Philip: What is it about the American Midwest that attracts you for story material? And how does a story get started? 
Patricia Ann McNair: I am a Midwesterner born and bred. I live—as you know—just a few blocks from the hospital where I was born, and have lived in Illinois, Iowa, and Michigan at various times in my life. I find comfort in the Midwestern landscape, its gentleness, its green, its familiarity and also its surprises (hills, yes hills!, creeks in the center of a field, wildlife in your backyard.) It is what I know, and I am one of those writers who starts at least somewhat from something I know. An image I have seen, an emotion I have felt, a situation I have been part of, a story I’ve been told. It is important to me, at least in part from my training as a student and now teacher in the Fiction Writing Department of Columbia College Chicago, to fully see the moments of story I write. So it is from seeing something—literally or in my mind’s eye—that story is most often born for me.
Philip: Your parents were both journalists, and one of your brothers is the poet laureate of Maine. Was it inevitable that you would become a writer?
Patricia Ann McNair: Perhaps so; even though I was unwilling at first. I wanted to be an actor. Then I wanted to be in broadcasting. But the thing is, in both of these early pursuits—more like dabblings, really—I ended up leaning on writing. I liked to write monologues and tried my hand at plays when I first went to college. And I loved to write good, strong pieces for my radio classes. And when I had the chance to take a very strong, process-based fiction writing class at Columbia College, I felt as though I had been waiting for this sort of thing all my life. The writing won out.
Philip: You have been a teacher of creative writing for almost as long as you have been a published writer. It’s a common question, but it needs to be asked: does the teaching help or hinder your creative process?
Patricia Ann McNair: Yes. The answer is yes. Teaching helps my writing. Teaching hinders my writing. Mostly the hindrance is a time thing—effective teaching takes much more time than simply reading a manuscript and writing comments on it—and I always write much less when I am teaching than when I am not. But when I am lucky enough to have incredibly talented and diligent students in my classes, it makes me want to write more. It is like when I read a book I love; I want to share in the delight of its creation. And this, having strong students, happens far more frequently than not. I feel lucky that way. 
Philip: The Fiction Writing department of Columbia College Chicago, where you teach, has a very specific pedagogy called the Story Workshop approach to the teaching of writing. Can you point to elements in your own writing, or your creative process, that come out of the Story Workshop approach?
Patricia Ann McNair: I talked a little about seeing in a previous answer, and that is essential to the Story Workshop approach. There is also a very strong emphasis on voice. Now I know a lot of folks talk about voice in writing, usually in different ways from one another. But it is my own voice—my voice as a writer that is similar to my personal voice, my storytelling voice—that I try to connect to when I write. It comes from my background, my education, my experiences, my reading, my daily practice of communicating effectively. And it also comes from the stories I have to tell and the willingness to tell them.
The Story Workshop approach to the teaching of writing relies on the premise that we all have stories to tell, and that we all have some facility at the telling of them. And the workshops are process based, generative more than critique based. There is also a strong emphasis on audience (another widely used word—meaning various things to different people) in these workshops. Meaning not so much “who are you writing this for?” as “Is your story coming through? Have you engaged the audience?,” and the like. Very connected to the authenticity of oral tellings, but heightened by using written language and its intricacies. The best way to understand this process, really, is to take a workshop through the Fiction Writing Department of Columbia College Chicago.
Pages from Patricia Ann McNair's journal/sketchbook
Philip: Have you ever used visual art (drawing, painting, other media) as an extension of your writing? As a break from your writing? If so, what do you notice about your process in each activity? What do you notice about your writing after you return to it immediately after drawing?
Patricia Ann McNair: I have always been a doodler. Scribbling in the margins of my journals, drawing little drawings in my correspondence. I suppose I first really started to think of the connection between drawing and writing when I was teaching writing to little kids, working in Chicago Public Schools as a writing consultant. Children are fabulous storytellers, totally innovative and uncensored. But until they develop the skills to get their actual word and language writing up to the sophisticate level of their oral storytelling, they are limited in what they can get on the page. Not so, really, in drawing. They can draw a moment of story in very, very complex ways. I began to draw my own story moments with the kids, and still do that when I need to figure out something in my writing—or to get something started.
So drawing as a means to create story has become be part of how I think about writing. You call it “expressive mark-making,” Philip. A phrase I think is perfect. This interplay became even more interesting to me as I started to do research on writers who drew, and visual artists who used text. This led to Journal and Sketchbook: Ways of Seeing—the class that you and I teach together at Columbia College Chicago and at various adult workshops and art centers. We use drawing as a way to unlock things, further visualize them, understand them in ways that sort of transcend language. Color, gesture, spatial relationships. All things that find their way into good writing, but by exploring them through visual art making, I have come to consider them more fully and also on a more intuitive, instinctual way—all part of the creative process.
And as part of this exploration I have begun to take some art classes. Printmaking, ceramics. I don’t yet know for certain what the ultimate effect of this will be on my writing, but the deep creative consciousness I find doing these practices has to be good for something, don’t you think?
Philip: Finally: are you working on a novel? 
Patricia Ann McNair: “Finally” as in “Has she finally stopped talking”? or “The last question, finally”? Either way, the answer is yes. Most of my work right now is this sort of thing, though. Work on the newly released book. Talking about it, writing about it, that sort of thing. But in the meantime, my story wheels are turning on their own back there, running over the ground I’ve already planted: another story set in New Hope, the Midwestern small town of The Temple of Air. A story about a conflict that arises between an evangelical, home-schooling family and their across-the-street neighbors who happen to have an immigrant father. It is about rumor and accusation, about fear and faith, about guilt and grace. Or at least I think it is about those things.  Talk to me again in a few months.
Read excerpts from "The Temple of Air" here.

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