When I read John McNally's short story collection, The Fear of Everything, I did so in one sitting. On the day I read it, I knew I had to interview John McNally, a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Writer-in-Residence and the Dr. Doris Meriwether/BORSF Professor in English at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette -- and that the interview would have to be introduced by this true story of mine: Until recently, I had never eaten pimento cheese. I had always considered pimento cheese sandwiches to be old people's food. The idea of actually making a pimento cheese sandwich, and putting it in my mouth, seemed like an act of surrender. Who has time to make cheese sandwiches? If that were to happen -- and I swore it never would -- it would be a clear sign that I had given up. A few years ago, I was at a funeral and there was a green room set up where the family had brought a variety of hot dishes and finger foods for the attendees. One woman -- someone's rail-thin, white-haired grandmother -- brought a giant platter of pimento cheese sandwiches, on slices of white bread, cut into triangular quarters. About three hours into this day-long event, I realized all the foods had been sampled or devoured, with the exception of the old lady's pimento cheese mini-sandwiches. She was still there, and looked crestfallen every time someone made a plate, passing by her platter. From time-to-time, in a polite whisper, she would lobby for her sandwiches inclusion on a funeral-goer's plate. Her efforts were unsuccessful. I couldn't take it anymore. I felt bad for her. I grabbed a paper plate, and six of her triangles. I took acting as an undergrad in college. I even got an A. Sitting across the room from me, with her hands folded in her lap, she was going to know that these were going to be the best dang pimento cheese sandwiches I had ever eaten in my entire life. They were. They really were. No acting was necessary. Her eyes had lit up when she saw me load up my plate with them. She sat straight up and watched me, as I stood against the wall and enjoyed the sandwiches. I looked up at her and smiled. "Excuse me, Ma'am, do you happen to know who made these marvelous sandwiches?" "I did," she replied. The white-haired grandmother had time to make cheese sandwiches, "They are amazing." "Thank you. I was starting to think--" "You were starting to think you were going to give me the recipe to the best sandwiches I've ever tasted in my entire life," I interrupted. She laughed. I had made her day. She made me a "to go" bag filled with the leftovers. Since that funeral, I can count on one hand the number of pimento cheese sandwiches I've eaten. Even those, someone made for me. I love pimento cheese sandwiches now, but I'm a busy man. Who has time to make cheese sandwiches? I told you that story, because the day I read John McNally's The Fear of Everything, I had made a couple of pimento cheese sandwiches, for the first time in probably a year, I wanted to eat something enjoyable while I was enjoying the book -- a rare treat to consume while consuming a rare treat. Yet, I was the one who became consumed. Swallowed whole by McNally's stories, I had almost finished the book when I realized I hadn't yet touched my sandwiches. Not once. As I took my first bite, mid-chew, I read these sentences: "He enjoyed repeating the word pimento over and over until it sounded like the strangest word that had ever existed. The more he said it, the more devoid of meaning the word became. "Pimento!" he would say. "Pimento! Pimento!" The strangest word that ever existed? Try reading it, probably for the first time ever in a work of fiction, while you have it in your mouth, probably for the first in a year. John McNally has a way of doing that to you. He reads your mail. Author/Screenwriter Richard Russo wrote, "John McNally is an electrifying writer whose stories burrow under the skin. His world becomes our world, his way of seeing, ours." I didn't share the pimento story with McNally when I interviewed him. I figured he already knew it.
JON MEYERS: Hi John. Thank you for agreeing to this interview about The Fear of Everything. I appreciate you taking the time.
JOHN McNALLY: Thanks, Jon. I really appreciate it.
MEYERS: The nine stories in The Fear of Everything are filled with characters who are described in such vivid detail that they seem comfortably familiar despite the uncomfortable darkness surrounding — or sometimes within — them. A difficult balance to achieve, you nevertheless managed to pull it off. What were some of the details you excised during the revisions. Was there anything too dark or too unpleasant that you had to get rid of to maintain the balance?
McNALLY: Many of my stories begin autobiographically. I don’t think of myself as an autobiographical writer – a writer whose stories are thinly veiled stories from his or her life – but I can turn to almost any page of any of my books, point randomly, and tell you where in my life a particular detail came from.
The story “The Next Morning” started from more of an autobiographical place than I should probably admit. Let’s just say that I came home from a bar one night with a woman who had never been to my house, and once we were inside my house I realized just how much drunker she was than me. Almost immediately upon arriving, she picked up my very old, blind cat – a cat that was incredibly frail – and seconds after she picked up the cat, she tripped and fell while still clutching the poor animal. I mean, she fell like a tree. I’d never seen anything like it. My blind cat, unaware what the hell had just happened, panicked and started running. Of course, I had to catch her before she ran into something. But the cat’s instinct was: I need to get the hell away from this person who almost killed me. In the first draft of the story based loosely on that night, the woman picks up the cat, falls, and kills the cat. I had thought, now that would be a hell of a way to start a story about a one-night stand. But, if you’ve read the story, you’ll see that I actually went darker than that. The cat survives, but…well…other things happen.
I spend years revising stories, so situations evolve once I have enough distance from them, and this was a case where killing the cat went nowhere. And I prefer situations that reverberate, like skipping a stone in a pond. I want it to ripple out until the story’s end. So the issue for me isn’t so much about darkness but rather what’s its impact. If it’s there just for darkness’s sake, I’ll reel it back.
MEYERS: That’s fascinating, John. It explains why these surreal stories seem so grounded — because they actually are, in a way. Interestingly enough, skipping a stone (in my case across a river) plays an interesting role in two of my screenplays I’ve written. [EDITOR’S NOTE: See? He’s reading my mail again.]
Getting back to that autobiographical diving board… The impetus for novelist David Bell‘s LAYOVER was a real life airport bar conversation he saw happen between two strangers. I’ll ask you the same question I asked him about these real life humans who morphed into fictional characters. Assuming there are other real life events populated with real humans who sparked the other stories… If you ran into these humans again (in his case, the odds are slim-to-none) would you view them differently now that your story is written? Does fiction alter how we view real life?
MCNALLY: Actually, I usually forget that I’ve based a character on someone real. By the time the story’s published, the character rarely resembles the person who inspired it. A few times, while promoting a book, I’ve looked up and seen the real-life person who inspired a character, and I have to quickly run through my memory to determine if they’re going to recognize themselves – but until I’ve seen that person in the audience, I’ve usually forgotten that there’s a real-life counterpart out there.
I do hope fiction alters how we view real life. I think the basic tenet of fiction is, “Here, walk in these shoes for a while.” If you read Toni Morrison, Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, or John Irving, you’ve walked in shoes other than your own, and hopefully you come out the other side changed in some way. I remember reading Ray Bradbury and Ursula K. LeGuin when I was a kid and feeling changed afterward – like “Oh, okay, I wasn’t expecting to feel this way.” Before reading them, I read only Mad Magazine and biographies of comedians.
MEYERS: I love this answer. Also, funny that you mention John Irving. Growing up, the only fiction I read was Vonnegut, Brautigan, and Irving. [EDITOR’S NOTE: See? He keeps doing it.]
Following up on fiction altering our worldview… I’m in the midst of writing my novel write now, and I sometimes think to myself, “Well, this scene is going to drive some readers batty…” then write it anyway. I do consider the reader while I’m writing — but I’m not aware of that consideration changing what I actually write. Your quote earlier, “Oh, okay, I wasn’t expecting to feel that way” after finishing reading something, leads to: Do you think that feeling at the end is usually just an unknowable by-product? Or have you ever set out to write a story with the deliberate intention of eliciting a specific feeling from the reader by the end?
McNALLY: Most of the time I have no idea where the story is going until I start getting close to the story’s end. On a rare occasion, I’ll have an ending image in mind from the get-go, but that’s usually not the case. But once I do know how a story is going to end or have even a vague idea of where it’s going, I do have a feeling that I want to evoke, and my goal is for every reader to feel the same thing.
Obviously, readers bring their own baggage to a story based on any number of things – their personal connection to the subject, their reading experience, etc. – but my hope is that what they bring to the story influences their interpretation, not what they feel. And I also hope the feeling is complicated. Chekhov’s “Lady with the Pet Dog” may be the quintessential modern ending in that just as we’re about to get closure, new complications open up, and the reader is left with a mixed-bag of feelings because of the ambiguity (not to be confused with vagueness: ambiguity suggesting complexity while vagueness suggesting the author didn’t imagine the story vividly enough). So that’s my lofty goal. Achieving that goal is another matter.
MEYERS: Your book’s closing story, “Catch and Release” overwhelmed me. I’ve dated too many Maries to even name them all, and yet each “spooky weirdo” is different in her own right. They control all the world’s secrets, and yet demand of us “Tell me your secrets,” as if they don’t already possess all the secrets — as if it is their job to contain any that may have escaped (or were intentionally released) to be temporarily glimpsed by the rest of us. The story has so many layers: the traps… the ferals gone missing, the missing dog, slipping out in the middle of the night… intentionally not telling, not speaking, not asking… academia’s scale of measurement… photographing roadkill, tears at first sight, intellect vs. instinct, so many fliers… notes under rocks… “Well, hel-looooo, Professor!” More real than a live video. Masterfully overwhelming emotionally. Which came first: the theme or the details? Was there first a skeleton which was then fleshed out with all the details, or was there a collection of details which began to suggest the themes? How many revisions did this story have?
McNALLY: This story took the longest to write because I wrote half of it, put it aside for about nine years, and then pulled it back out to see if it was worth pushing ahead on. When I started the story, I was married; I was tenured but extremely unhappy with my job; and I was overwhelmed by the number of feral cats in my own backyard. Like the narrator, I wanted to control the feral population. So the story began with that: my attempt to woo the cats over to me. From there, the story became a collection of ideas and images. I used to walk my dogs past a squirrel that had been run over by a car, and every day it was evolving into something else until it was just pavement with some fur sticking up out of it. I knew where I wanted the story to head, but then my own life imploded by a divorce, the death of my father, and a 900 mile move. So I set the story aside. I set about a half dozen stories aside.
As I was wrapping up this book, I needed at least one more story, so I opened that file and read through the stories I’d written – in some cases, complete drafts, but mostly partial stories or fragments. When I read “Catch and Release,” it was the story that called loudest to me. I felt I understood it better emotionally. The weirdness in it resonated with the other stories in the book. It’s a quiet weirdness compared to some of the other stories but a weirdness nonetheless.
MEYERS: Yes, much quieter, and it feels as if there’s a somewhat more positive note to end on, to end the book on, relatively speaking. As we go to land the airplane on this interview, I’d like to circle back to the darkness we spoke about when this conversation started…
Dark. Funny, but Dark. Explores a weird darkside. These are all words that have been used to describe The Fear of Everything. Is there a “too dark” for John McNally? How dark is too dark? I had the opportunity of seeing Neil Gaiman live and he said there is nothing too dark, but if he’s writing a children’s book, the dark has to be leavened with hope. Your dark is leavened with humour. Is there a story or even a scene that was just too dark for you — that you either wrote and didn’t use, or that you couldn’t even finish writing? Tell us as much as you can.
McNALLY: As a reader, I don’t like things that are gratuitously dark. Dark for dark’s sake. Dark where I can see the author really pushing it. When I was younger, I wrote a few of those stories, and they fell flat. When I write these days – or for the past twenty years, for that matter – I’m not trying to be funny or dark or sad or anything. I just write the story, and if something dark happens, it happens because it makes sense for it to happen. That said, I sometimes try to capture a mood, but mostly that’s just me trying to recreate an experience (the sleep study scene in “The Creeping End” was almost verbatim from my own sleep study experience, which was extremely eerie, so I just tried to capture it as I remembered it – the weird details like the darkened peephole or the camera moving on the ceiling each time I moved).
So maybe, to answer your question, the way each of us looks at the world is what defines our worldview. Where someone might see a dead squirrel on a road, I see a furry patch of blacktop. Where someone might see a nice sleep study assistant who took the time to learn something about his client, I see a creepy man who Googled me before I showed up. In that regard, “dark” is a sensibility. But I also see the absurdity in it. I walk through life with a slight ironic detachment. I’ve always been like that; it’s always been my worldview. Writing fiction gave me a medium to channel it.
I think that’s one of the hardest things about teaching. I can teach point-of-view. I can teach structure. I can teach characterization. I can’t teach worldview, however. And if someone’s worldview is sentimental, which is a cardinal sin, I can’t say to that student, “You need a different worldview.” The best I can do is explain the difference between sentiment (earned emotion) versus sentimentality (unearned emotion), but it’s like teaching someone why something’s funny: you can intellectually explain why A Confederacy of Dunces is funny, but if someone doesn’t find it funny, your explanation isn’t going to make them laugh the next time they read it.
MEYERS: That may be the best interview answer to a single question I’ve ever seen. It does like half a dozen things in one answer. Thanks, John! It’s also a great note on which to end this interview, how can you explain a text to someone who doesn’t get it. I just watched a clip of David Lynch’s response to how different people look at the same film differently, to how you can’t really teach someone how to feel about something, which dovetails with your answer nicely. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Drq0whygb2M
Thanks again, John McNally, for taking the time to answer so thorough and insightfully.
McNALLY: Thanks for the smart questions. It’s easy to riff off good questions.
You can follow John McNally on social media here: https://www.facebook.com/FictionWriterJohnMcNally
SAVE THE DATE: Want more of John McNally? My Intro to Lit students will be interviewing him LIVE on Zoom on April 1, 2021. I will post the interview here the following day.