Q&A (& Giveaway) with Author Patricia Ann McNair,
And These Are The Good Times (Side Street Press)

“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.

Here. Now.

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!

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Cover Reveal & Excerpts: Broad Knowledge,
a new anthology from Upper Rubber Boot Books

Whether you’re a writer or a reader, you know the power of a good book cover.

Authors will spend hours agonizing over the slant of the title’s font or two images almost exactly the same, all in an effort to choose the cover that best sells a story. Readers, in turn, skim the shelves, stopping at the first one that catches their eye.

So, the key? Design a book cover that will, according to Seth Godin, “tee up the reader so the book has maximum impact.” Especially from across the store, or in the mix of twenty others in a row.

The cover of a new anthology on the horizon, Broad Knowledge (Upper Rubber Boot Books), does exactly that: catches the eye, raises the eyebrows, and pretty much demands you fan the pages. I’m partnering with Upper Rubber Boot Books today in hosting the cover reveal for Broad Knowledge. And, you also get the feel of standing in the bookstore with a sneak peek at two excerpts from the 35 collected stories.

Now, for the cover.

(I wish I was tech-savvy enough so I could say, Click and Watch the image turn.

Instead, I make you scroll…)

…. (!)

About the book: Edited by Joanne Merriam, Broad Knowledge: 35 Women Up To No Good is a feminist anthology featuring “35 stories of ‘bad’ women, and ‘good’ women who just haven’t been caught yet.” Thirty-five tales of strange, dark, a hint of horror. But the best part? This isn’t just a collection of stories about women, it’s a collection of stories by women–all taking a bold stance in literature.

Read the excerpts below, then check out the Table of Contents for the entire list of stories and authors. You can also follow publication news of Broad Knowledge at Upper Rubber Boot Books’ website or on Twitter (@upperrubberboot).


EXCERPTS

From “Mary In the Looking Glass” by Laura E. Price

Clara doesn’t remember not knowing about the lady in the mirror. Mary with the bloody eyes. Mary with the long, sharp fingernails. Mary with the pointed teeth. She died in an accident. Her husband killed her. She killed her baby. She’ll tell you your sins, she’ll scratch you, she’ll haunt your house, she’ll kill you if you call her. Why does anyone call her? I’m not scared, I’m sooo drunk, I’ll do it.

I’ll do it. Clara always did it.

Because sometimes the Mary who came was young and bleeding from a cut on her head. Or her eyes were all blood, her hands reaching out to rip and tear. Once she held her head in her own hands. Clara’s breath always caught at the sight of her, even when all she saw was her own face reflected over Mary’s, deep down in the mirror. She was beautiful, bloody and rageful and sad and so, so tempting for it.

The first time Clara touched her, Mary shuddered hard and looked at her from empty, bloody sockets. The other girls crouched, whimpering in the corner of the dormitory bathroom, screams still in the air, as Clara touched Mary’s arm, then gently, carefully, so slowly, put a hand to her face.

Her flesh was cool. The blood was sticky and stayed on Clara’s hand after Mary fled back into the mirror; Clara hated that the girls made her wash it off. None of them talked to her after that, but she didn’t care because now and then, at night, as she walked down the hall, she could see Mary’s translucent face watching her from the window glass.

She left flowers at the windows. Daffodils and Queen Anne’s lace. She left candy near the mirrors; she left poems on pastel paper; soft, rose-scented sachets. And during a school break, her roommate away on a trip and the dorm practically empty, Clara saw Mary in the mirror above her dresser, watching. Smiling. Eyes in sockets but blood on her cheeks nonetheless.

Clara pulled everything off the dresser top and whispered, over and over, I believe in Mary Whales. Mary came closer and closer; Clara’s breath sped up, her belly warmed, and when Mary broke through her mirror and climbed over the dresser, she could barely think for wanting to put her hands and mouth on that cool, sticky skin.

Mary tasted of blood, but just at first, then she tasted of sweat and a little of dirt. She moved uncertainly, but Clara was bold and soon Mary was, too. At the end of the week, everything was back on the dresser, and Clara’s skin was covered in thin red scratches.

From “The Ladies in the Moon” by Xin Niu Zhang

“You know,” Paul begins at length, after I politely refuse a blunt, “before we were born, folks were freaked out about the Earth dying. Overpopulation. Global warming. Planet getting scorched.”

“Yeah, yeah.” I exhale, wishing I had another drink instead of the stench of weed. “But then! The Initiative. Growth. Space colonies. Hallelujah.”

“Hallelujah,” he repeats, wry. “Except not. You know what I think? I think this shithole of a planet is still dying, and all of us with it.”

“Not the biggest news to me, Paul.”

“Well, maybe someone can save it.” He shrugs, ignoring my laugh. “One thing I know, though—I sure as hell am not sticking around to see if this place survives.”

That shocks me out of my bout of cynicism. I meet his gaze, disbelieving. “You’re getting away? To one of the colonies?”

“Boss got his name on the list,” Paul says, maddeningly calm. “Moon. Sector 8. Procured some spots for his family. Me. Roy and the boys.” He directs a smoke ring politely away from my face. “We’re up and ditching this whole city in just two days. Going straight to the Capital HQ, preparing for the summer expedition. None of the other Solars know. Not even Steve and his pop.”

Translation: they’re abandoning us to scramble in their absence. Rival gangs would overtake our turf in days. “Why are you telling me this?”

“You’ve always been a good kid, Fletch.” He smiles wearily at me. “You keep your head down, do good work. Boss thinks you got merit. Could be a great soldier someday. Maybe engineer. Like one of the original smart guys who got us to Mars.”

Merit. All I did today was hassle a stupid kid and collect a paycheck. I don’t see a lot of skill in that, but I sure as hell am not going to correct him.

Paul seems to read my mind. “You don’t understand it, Fletcher, but you got potential. You have a cool head, steady hands. That matters. So… boss thinks he can get you in.”

My heart stops.

I was expecting him to pass me the torch of leading the Solars, a consolation prize. Not this. A ticket off the scorched, dying, cigarette-smoking planet. Cretins like us, Anna had said. Raj, I thought. That boy’s eyes full of stupid hope.

Distantly, I hear Paul saying, “But you gotta decide now. Boss has one spot. You don’t want it, someone else is gonna get it. I told you when we’re leaving.”

I let loose a long, shaky breath. Wait for my heartbeat to come back. “What?” My lips twitch. “The boss won’t reserve the vacancy for me? Thought I was his favorite.”

“You’re his favorite.” Paul grins. “But the moon waits for no one.”


The second in the Women Up To No Good series, Broad Knowledge is forthcoming in spring 2018.

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On #Writing Prompts: Guest post by Maura Fitzgerald

For the last several years, I’ve been the sole teacher for a group of senior citizens in a Creative Writing Class at Harwood Place Retirement Living Center. This year, I invited a fellow writer, Maura Fitzgerald, to join me as co-teacher. She’s taken on the role with enthusiasm and dedication. (It’s tough to get up early on a Saturday morning to talk essays and poetry and “homework for next month.” Ask the seniors, they just requested to push the start time to a half an hour later!). Today, Maura shares a bit about teaching, about students young and old, and about the power and mystery in prompts. And yes, she leaves you with an assignment.


In Praise of Prompts

by Maura Fitzgerald

I once gave a group of 8th graders the prompt, When I am hungry…, and said “No rules. Just write.” Surely this exercise for kids who are almost always hungry would unleash their creative wild child to roam free across the blank page and leave a trail of original thoughts and insights. Instead, hands shot up. “Do you mean what do I eat when I’m hungry?” or “When I’m hungry for what?” and “I’m never hungry.”

Several students responded to the ‘hungry’ prompt by simply writing “I eat,” or they listed favorite foods. (Okay, prompts don’t always work.) But others were surprising and fresh on the page: A brief conversation between a girl and her empty, gurgling stomach; A boy who stuffed himself with fortune cookies for nutrition and wisdom.  Same prompt, very different treks across the vacant space.

Recently, I gave our group of writers at Harwood Place the essay, “The Potato Harvest,” by April Monroe, in which she describes how easily her garden surrenders to the approaching autumn.  After reading the essay, the group’s prompt was “Surrender.” Around the edges of the silence that followed, I sensed discomfort with the prompt. But I let it be. Prompts don’t come with comfort scores. In fact, discomfort can sometimes butt-kick a pen like nothing else. (Try it sometime with a prompt that chafes or confounds and confuses.)

The students—young and old—reacted like many writers do when facing a prompt. We crave directions for traversing the wide-open landscape of empty paper. Give me a destination and show me the landmarks along the way. Please. A compass might help, too.

The thing is, prompts come without instructions. On purpose. That’s why they work. Creativity holes up in unexpected places, so a writer must put pen to paper and follow the prompt to the unexpected.

While many writers don’t use written prompts, we encounter them daily.

A  waitress’s hairy arms or the brick-solid nurse whose name tag says Taffy. Sunday voices spreading salvation through open church doors. Sounds and sights and smells to catalogue for future use. Details that say, “follow me.”

Used items from MECCA, a clearinghouse in Eugene, Oregon that’s filled with scraps and discards for creative use—a clearinghouse of prompts. Newspapers and magazines from the 50s, family photo albums, previously sent greeting cards and letters, unusual postage stamps. I don’t need any of it. And I’m no hoarder. But there are countless items that prey on my curiosity. Who wrote this 1942 letter and what’s with the photo of the man and goat on the porch? I always leave with a bag of treasures competing for Prompt of the Day.

Even the local crime report: “Mints, a phone charger, and a softball were taken from a locked car…”  Who takes mints and a softball? Write about it.

Or park yourself in any airport or Laundromat and scribble away.

Go ahead, grab hold of a prompt and let it pull you in. Relax and enjoy the ride.

I’ll leave you with this prompt, a few lines from Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “I am a Town.”

I’m the language of the natives, I’m a cadence and a drawl
I’m the pines behind the graveyard, and the cool beneath their shade….

Read the full lyrics to the song here. Then, write details of a town from the viewpoint of the town.


Maura Fitzgerald has written nonprofit grant, marketing and communications, annual reports, and campaign appeals. Her nonfiction has appeared in Milwaukee Magazine and her fiction in Pank. Her writing has been featured on Milwaukee Public Radio, and she has done public readings at Fixx Coffee Shop and Woodland Pattern Book Center. She has taught creative writing to 8th and 9th grade students through Pathways Milwaukee, and presently co-leads the Harwood Place Writers Group with Christi.

Posted in Craft, Guest Post, life, writing, writing classes, Writing Prompts | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment