“I know what you are thinking…What does one thing have to do
with the other? I know what I am thinking: everything.”
~ from “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out”
(And These Are the Good Times, by Patricia Ann McNair)
There’s a beautiful article up on Literary Hub by Sarah Minor, about quilting and embroidery and the structure of story. Near the beginning, she says, “the narratives we live inside are never linear from the start. Our stories are patterns of experiences, a few knit together and the vast remainder discarded as scrap.” Those patterns, those scraps, shape us. But only after careful consideration are we able to see the effects. In the late-night hour, in the reordering of things, the narrative becomes clear. “We see best, perhaps, from some distance,” as Patricia Ann McNair says in one of the essays from her new book, And These Are The Good Times.
A collection that explores and observes her past and her present, And These Are The Good Times (Side Street Press, September 2017) illustrates exactly what Sarah Minor speaks of. McNair begins and ends her book with a study of her father, his identity and his influence, and the stories in between unfold in the way that memory unfurls: in a cluster of images, through a series of sounds and smells, by way of a familiar place.
And These Are The Good Times is a book for readers and writers alike. As a reader, you cannot walk away from these essays without reflecting on your own joy, sorrow, or mystery; as a writer, you cannot help but return to page after page to underline and asterisk the reminders of why we write. Because every experience–good, bad, strange–becomes a piece to the puzzle of who we are, how we are in relation, and why those questions matter.
This Q&A with Patricia Ann McNair is one I’ve been eagerly waiting to share. In her interview, McNair talks about the writing and the stories and the gift in putting our thoughts on the page. Plus (as is my custom), there’s a giveaway! Enter HERE for a chance to win a copy of And These Are The Good Times (deadline: Tuesday, October 3).
Now welcome Patricia Ann McNair!
Christi Craig (CC): Your first book, Temple of Air (Elephant Rock Books), is a collection of short stories; This book, And These Are The Good Times (Side Street Press) pulls together an amazing collection of essays. How did moving from fiction to nonfiction stretch you as a writer or buoy you as a person…or, vice versa?
Patricia Ann McNair (PM): I am often moving back and forth between fiction and nonfiction, grappling with a lot of the same concerns and questions. You are such a good reader, Christi, and a supporter of my work; I imagine you see a number of the same themes and situations in The Temple of Air and in And These Are the Good Times. Loss. Loneliness. Desire. Wonder. You know, those things that all of us carry with us into our days. And while the focus of my stories and of my essays are not all that different from one another, it is how I shape them that is.
I don’t know if I believe this absolutely, but I think I do, and I often say it to my students, to myself: in order to be complete, fiction (short story, novel) needs to have some sort of change. Sometimes that change is in the character, sometimes it is in the situation. Sometimes it is in the reader. As a reader, you understand or see things just a little differently than you did when you started the story. That change is what makes fiction feel done—even when the ending is ambiguous or open.
Nonfiction, particularly the essay or the brief memoir, to my mind, does not have to present that same sort of change. The sort of nonfiction I am interested in, the sort of essays, at their heart tell stories—like my fiction does. But what I am drawn to is not just the story, but what I make of it. Or perhaps more accurately, what questions these stories lead me to. In many of the essays in Good Times, I tell the story of my father dying when I was fifteen. In one, though, this story leads me to wonder about why I am drawn to jukeboxes and taverns and charming drunk guys. In another, my father’s death sparks my curiosity about virginity, about the connections between sex and grief. In another, I am drawn to the role of coffee in my life. In nonfiction, what matters to me are the questions, what the recounted events make me wonder about, consider, reflect on. I don’t come up with answers in the same way I often do in my short story. I come up with more questions. Nonfiction, like real life, does not provide easy answers.
Fiction says: This happened. Nonfiction—well, the personal essay at least—asks: Why did this happen? How do I respond?
To the last part of your question, Christi—how does this stretch me as a writer or buoy me as a person? When I first started to write fiction, I was on the lookout for story. What happened here? What might happen if this happened? As I write more nonfiction, I find that I am curious in a slightly different way. What happened yes, but also why did it happen? And why does it matter that this happened? I am drawn to story still and always, in real life and on the page, but I am also so very interested in what is underneath, behind, and inside of the story and the storyteller. I love to wonder. We are in a strange time right now, when a lack of curiosity seems to be held in the highest regard in the highest office of our country. Now, more than ever maybe, I think it is important to wonder, to question. Why did this happen? How do I respond?
CC: “Nourishment” and “The Storied Life” are two of my favorites in this collection, and they pair well together: the first focusing on living in the moment and the second turning that gaze inward, gathering these moments, “never quite sure when they will present themselves…unbidden at times…dragged out from the murky shadows of memory.” Living, gathering, reflecting–the life of a writer but also the key to experiencing our days in full. What are some other ways, besides writing, in which you reflect on “ordinary moments” or everyday nourishment?
PM: I would like to say that I am one of those writers who wanders the streets of her ordinary life reflecting, weighing, mulling over. You know, the stereotype of a writer who shuffles through her days in a fog of reflection and creation, stopping to smell the flowers, to consider the rise and fall of that butterfly’s flight. Unfortunately, I have to push myself to get to that place. I am a planner and a worrier by nature, and it isn’t unusual for me to be in a moment—say walking on the beach path that hugs Lake Michigan across from my city apartment—and to start to think about a vacation I want to plan when I can walk by the ocean! I could be totally digging a fabulous meal, and instead of totally digging the fabulous meal, I will be thinking about this other, future fabulous meal I can imagine somewhere else! And wait, did I remember to lock the door? Do I have enough toilet paper? Will I catch the bus in time to get downtown for class?
What I am saying is that it takes practice and patience for me to settle in to life’s ordinary moments. I am a journal writer; I have been since I was nine. And this (almost) daily practice allows me to do at least two things that are good for my writing and for my attempting to—as you say—experience my days in full. I can write my way through my worries, my distractions, as I put them on the page. And once I have done that (figured my budgets, made my lists for the day) I can begin to turn my observation outward, away from the cramped spaces of my worried mind.
Look out the window: what does the sky look like today? Catch a glimpse of a family photo on the wall: when was that? What mattered to me then? And if I can write my way to this point of observing, remembering, imagining, I sometimes can carry that with me into my day, too. Let go of the worry and the plan.
Being quiet helps. Terry Tempest Williams said “Silence is where we locate our voice.” Yes. So I turn everything off. Sit, watch, look up and out.
CC: You’ve lived many places but have returned to your home town of Chicago. What do you love most about the city?
PM: Oh man, you have picked the right time to ask me this question. We have just moved to a high-rise apartment that overlooks the lake and is just a little over a mile from the hospital where I was born. I can see the beach where I used to go as a girl to meet boys. And it is summer, but not a brutal, hot, humid one. The lake breezes are fresh, and the city is out there, people riding bikes and swimming and partying on the lakefront. The other day my husband and I went out for a walk and it was about 8 AM on a Sunday morning. We passed a group of people who were of African descent, and they were dancing and singing, and shaking rhythm instruments. Nearby were folks in white, gathered close to the water, and some were in robes, gowns. It looked as though they were about to engage in a baptism. A little ways further on, people were getting ready for a family reunion, handmade signs told us so: “_______ Familia. Aqui.” And they had set up a complete sitting room under a canopy. Luxurious couches and armchairs and cocktail tables you would see on some rich guy’s deck. A circle of older Asian people were doing Tai Chi, reaching for the sky and toward one another and moving over the grass. There is this couple we pass regularly, a man in off white linen and a colorful vest and fez, his wife in a bright red or blue sari. There is so much diversity here, so many people doing so many different and interesting things. The many different languages you hear on the subway, the temples and churches and ethic markets and restaurants. Why wouldn’t someone love this place?
I am particularly aware of how this enriches my life right now, after the recent brutalities and ugly intolerance in Charlottesville. At a time when too many people voted for someone who promised to keep out “the other,” who will not call racism and xenophobia and small-minded bigotry what they are, worthless and evil and dangerous, I am thrilled to be in a place where others—where we all—can thrive.
CC: What are you reading these days?
PM: I am in the last pages of Megan Stielstra’s The Wrong Way to Save Your Life. You know Megan. In fact, it was Megan who connected us some time ago, right? It is a collection of essays, with a few recurring themes and motifs, but primarily it is about fear and overcoming fear. It is exuberant and optimistic and I am reminded of what I always knew about Megan (she was a student of mine some years ago, a friend now) she has an unlimited capacity for joy. Joy is all over these pages. Love. Hope.
Right under that book on my nightstand is Identity Unknown: Rediscovering Seven American Women Artists, by Donna Seaman, Booklist’s Adult Books Editor. Donna has such a curious and thoughtful mind, it is a pleasure to hang out with her in these pages.
Next up will be Code of the West, by Sahar Mustafah, a fabulously talented writer who I had the honor of advising on her thesis (this collection of stories comes from that project.) She is a writer to watch.
CC: Most days, you wake up, and your first thought is _____________?
PM: A year ago, most days: Is that coffee I smell? Most days since last November: Please. Make him stop.
Patricia Ann McNair has lived 98 percent of her life in the Midwest. She’s managed a gas station, sold pots and pans door to door, tended bar and breaded mushrooms, worked on the trading floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and taught aerobics. Today she is an Associate Professor in the Department of Creative Writing of Columbia College Chicago, where she received the Excellence in Teaching Award as well as a nomination for the Carnegie Foundation’s US Professor of the Year. McNair’s The Temple of Air received the Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year Award, Southern Illinois University’s Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award, and the Society of Midland Authors (US) Finalist Award. And These are The Good Times: A Chicago gal riffs on death, sex, life, dancing, writing, wonder, loneliness, place, family, faith, coffee, and the FBI (among other things), from Side Street Press, is on bookshelves today.
McNair lives in Chicago with her husband, the visual artist Philip Hartigan (www.philiphartigan.com), and their cat Pablo.
Check out her Events page to see when she’s reading near you.
And Don’t forget: ENTER the GIVEAWAY for a chance to win
a copy of And These Are The Good Times!