Monday, February 23, 2009
Tuesday, February 17, 2009
Here's the conclusion to my interview with David McGlynn, author of The End of the Straight and Narrow.
For Part I, click here.
For Part II, click here.
To buy David's book (and you should!), click here.
Joseph: Are there stories you ended up not including in the book? How did you decide what to include and what to leave out?
McGlynn: I submitted the manuscript with one story that didn’t make it into the final printed version. It was an ill-fit story for the collection and one of the reviewers suggested I take it out. All I needed was that little nudge and I took it out. The other stories were consciously written to go together, so I didn’t have to wrangle over that question too much. It’s a very connected book, even between the two parts, and the central questions helped me decide which stories belonged and which didn’t. I had one very early story that fit thematically, but when I went back to try to work on it, I couldn’t stand the sight of it. So I bailed and stuck with the work I had before me, the nine stories that made it into the collection.
Joseph: How did you decide on an order for the stories?
McGlynn: In some ways, the order was determined pragmatically. I had a five-story cycle of stories and four more unconnected, but thematically related stories. The linked stories seemed to belong at the end of the book; had they come first, the other stories would have felt like a trailing hodgepodge. “Seventeen One-Hundredths of a Second” was so long it had to go at the end of Part I; had it come first, no one would ever read the rest of the book. “Moonland on Fire” and “Landslide” are both set in California and so belonged together and seemed to fit at the beginning. After that, all that remained was “Deep in the Heart” and there was only one spot left.
But I’m being a little sheepish. The order wasn’t purely pragmatic. When all the stories were written, I spent a while thinking about the larger narrative trajectory. I wanted the book to have a pseudo-novel arch. And, there is a subtle chronological progression to the characters: Nolan, in “Moonland on Fire” is seventeen; the narrator of “Landslide” is a senior in college; Jonah in “Seventeen One-Hundredths of a Second” is in his early thirties; and Rowdy, the narrator of Part II, though a young boy in the stories is, like Jonah, also in his thirties. He often speaks in the present tense, but thinks about the past. Moreover, at the end of the final story in the book, Rowdy declares himself “the keeper” of his family’s stories. Storytelling permeates throughout the collection; if you look closely, people are always telling, and keeping, stories. Gary tell his daughters about the fire when they come to visit at the end of “Moonland on Fire,” the narrator of “Landslide” has built a career around a single story, and Jonah’s sexual life turns on the telling of a closely guarded story in “Seventeen One-Hundredths of a Second.” When Rowdy declares himself the keeper of his family’s stories, he’s mostly speaking about the five stories in Part II, all of which he tells in one imaginative form or another. But I also wanted the phrase to echo across the entire book—I, the author, am a story-keeper, too. Like Rowdy, I decide what stays in and what gets cut, how people are rendered and how they are remembered. Rowdy’s final declaration is meant to bring the entire book to a close, and I think it does.
Joseph: What are you working on next?
McGlynn: I’m working on a collection of creative nonfiction essays titled Rough Water. Some days I call it a memoir-in-essays, but I’ve never particularly liked the word memoir, so most of the time I call it a collection. A number of the essays are about swimming, which is one of my lifelong passions. I was a competitive swimmer throughout high school and college, and remain somewhat competitive today (I race a few times a year), and each essay in the collection wends it way toward water in one way or another. In one essay, I tell about getting lost in the Utah desert, and finding water becomes an important focus. In another, I tell about worrying about the plumbing in my house—convinced the pipes are leaking inside the walls—while my wife and I worry over the results of an amniocentesis, which will determine whether or not our second child will have a very grave genetic disease. The essays aren’t just about swimming, though. They’re also about my family, growing up in the suburbanized American West, money, hunger, sex, and religion. The first few essays were written during the writing of The End of the Straight and Narrow, so, again, my obsessions and fascinations with religion jumped the fireline between my fiction and my nonfiction.
Monday, February 16, 2009
Here's the second part of my interview with David McGlynn, author of the excellent story collection The End of The Straight and Narrow.
For Part One, click here.
Joseph: Did you write stories around certain themes? Or was discovering your themes part of the process?
McGlynn: Discovering my themes is always part of the process, but when working on a book of stories, themes tend to drift across the synapses between one story and another. I didn’t, for example, set out to write anything about faith in the long story, “Seventeen One-Hundredths of a Second.” I simply set out to write about a man who dies swimming and leaves behind a pregnant wife. I had a close friend die of a heart attack while swimming, and at the time he and his wife were trying to get pregnant. I was sad and confused and wanted to write about it. Once I got thinking about Jonah, the drowned man’s closest friend, I felt I needed something more to his character than just “best friend.” The story felt a little too much like Ghost otherwise. I’d been thinking and tussling over religion in my other stories, and the themes just seemed to worry their way into this story, too. Jonah emerged as an evangelical with a serious hang-up about sex, and a serious attraction to his dead friend’s widow.
Another example: During the writing of the stories, I was also reading things like Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, Stanley Elkin’s The Living End, Jim Crace’s Quarantine, all the Andre Dubus I could find, as well as a number of philosophers—Feuerbach, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Durkheim, William James, and so on. I was excited by the work, by the ideas they contained, and I couldn’t get enough. When I was working on “Testimony,” one of the last stories in the book, I came to a point in which I understood that Lee, the story’s central character, felt overwhelmed with remorse about his infidelity. I thought: what would this guy do to show his wife he’s sorry? Loaded with all these big religious ideas, it didn’t take me long for me to envision Lee undergoing a religious conversion as a response to his guilt. So, it might seem a little backward, but despite my incessant obsession with religion, I had to discover religion, as a theme, in each story in which it appears. Along the way, a number of other themes found their way in, too—divorce, sex, blindness, youth, swimming—all of which are important to me, and all of which feed the stories. I like to believe my stories are “full” for precisely this reason: I don’t know what I’m doing with a given story until I’m almost finished, and by that time there are so many things at work in the story that it can’t be reduced to any one issue or topic.
Joseph: What literary tradition do you see your work fitting into?
McGlynn: I’m not sure which literary tradition I’m a part of. It’s fair to say I’m a realist, though every now and then I’ll drizzle in a little magical realism. I wouldn’t call myself a postmodernist, at least not in the sense of Don DeLillo or Tim O’Brien or Thomas Pynchon, but I’ve been influenced by all three. Perhaps one way to situate myself is by the writers I read. I do my best to read as widely as possible; I love discovering new books by authors I’ve never read before. The more I read, the more I learn about how to write, and I try to incorporate those lessons, large and small, into my own work. Nevertheless, there are a few writers I study harder than others, writers who have been my guides through the long, dark valley of trying to understand my own material. First and foremost is Andre Dubus. More than any other writer, I look to him for guidance. He’s the most spiritually and linguistically intense writer I have ever read, and he can write a paragraph that simply thunders with truth and beauty. I look up from his work gasping for breath, and if someone were to ask me which writer I most wanted to resemble, I would say Dubus. He’s not my only one, though. I love Flannery O’Connor and Marilynne Robinson, for the same reasons I love Dubus, and I also spend a lot of time reading Ron Carlson. Since I went to graduate school in Salt Lake City, where Carlson is from and visits fairly often, I got to know him a little. He’s one of the best living story writers in America—when he writes long, no one compares. His long stories, such as “Blazo,” “Plan B for the Middle Class,” and “Oxygen” have helped me to find the courage to write my own long stories. I also love his work because he writes about the West, where I’m from. The West, at least as it’s depicted in his shorter fiction, most closely resembles the West I lived in: burgeoning Sun Belt cities, suburban sprawl, traffic jams, supermarkets, and backyard swimming pools.
Sunday, February 15, 2009
Here's the publisher's description:
The stories in The End of the Straight and Narrow take on the inner lives of the zealous, their passions and desires, and the ways religious faith is both the compass for navigating daily life and the force that makes ordinary life impossible.
In “Landslide,” an aspiring evangelist witnesses the miraculous event that launches his career, but fails to notice the mental decline of his college roommate. In “Moonland on Fire,” a divorced, born-again father, his new wife, and his estranged teenage son battle to save their dilapidated home from a massive fire. In “Seventeen One-Hundredths of a Second” an aging virgin is drawn into a precarious friendship with a violent boy and a seductive relationship with the widow of his oldest friend. The five linked stories that comprise the collection’s latter half focus on a woman blinded suddenly while giving birth, who years later begins a process of disappearing that confuses her family and leads to ultimately violent and disintegrating ends.
Ranging from the coastal highways of Southern California, to the mountains above Salt Lake City, to the swampy bayous and pine forests surrounding Houston, Texas, the stories often take place against the backdrop of disaster—a landslide, a fire, a drowning, a hurricane—as the characters question whether faith illuminates the world or leaves them isolated within it.
Here's the first part of our interview:
Diana Joseph: Your stories are richly layered. The characters are complex, the settings are detailed, and there's always an intriguing plot. I guess the obvious question is why short story? Why not novel?
David McGlynn: Because I’m a failed novelist. Okay, not exactly. But I did start out with the intention of writing the long story, “Seventeen One-Hundredths of a Second,” as well as the five stories in Part II of the collection as novels. For some reason—either I was young, or impatient, or young and impatient—I had a hard time clearly envisioning the trajectory of a novel. I had some splendid little moments and a lot of filler that I just hated. This was especially true of the stories in Part II. I’d been working on the material for three years, had done extensive research on blindness, and had more than two-hundred hand-written pages (and I write small, on unlined paper), and it all seemed to amount to garbage.
Then one day my wife came home with a pregnancy test, and I very quickly realized I either needed to make something out of my material or else scrap it and go out and get a job. (I did, in fact, inquire about a job at a Christmas-tree lot, though it was after Christmas, so I don’t know what kind of job I was hoping to get. Maybe I thought I’d get to use the chainsaw.) I went back to my two-hundred pages of un-formed novel and told myself I needed to make a story. Just one story from all those pages. I extracted a 25-page section, almost at random, and got to work. I added a few pages, took out a few, paid close attention to the language. It became the story, “Consequences of Knowledge,” and was accepted for publication about a month after my son was born. Flushed with success and fatherhood, I thought I’d try it again. I pulled out another section and it turned into “Sweet Texas Angel.” When it was accepted for publication, I thought I might be on to something. I didn’t have to wallow in the filler of the novel; I could just write the stories I wanted.
As you may have gathered, I’m a writer who cuts a lot. I cut away far, far more than I leave in. For every story, I have a shadow filed called “Cuts.” If a story is thirty pages long, the “Cuts” file is typically twice, if not three times, as long.
Joseph: Can you describe your writing process?
McGlynn: To call me a creature of habit would be an understatement. I like my routines, especially when it comes to writing. In that sense, I have a well-defined process. I begin by making notes long-hand, almost like writing in a diary. I try to resist the pressure to make the story and instead try to spend the early days (and weeks and months) thinking about the primary images and emotions. I ask myself, “Why do I want to write this story?” I don’t usually arrive at a firm answer, but interrogating my motives helps me to interrogate the motives of the people I’m trying to write about. Then, I try to write scenes, which I do longhand. Only after I have amassed a story’s worth of scenes, and can see the structure I’m after, will I go to the computer. In truth, I hate the computer and I try to stay away from it for as long as I can. The computer is a window onto the world of distraction. Inside the computer are CNN.com, and my email, and YouTube, and lost connections from high school and college, and so many great new writers and great new musicians waiting to be discovered. Even Microsoft Word seems to sit there with its big white screen, blinking with expectation. But, of course, our stories have to be typed, so I slavishly submit to its demands and type my story.
Once I have the story drafted, I print it out and take it back to the library. I like to sit by a window and look at the sky. I rewrite the lines, one at a time, in the margins of the page. It’s a habit I picked up in college and it’s never left me. Once I’ve rewritten the entire story in the margins, I go back to the computer and type in my revisions. Then I print it out and go back to the library. This viscous cycle continues for several more rounds, sometimes more than a dozen, before I finally can’t bear to look at the story any longer and move on to something else. I like to let my stories sit for a while so I can get some distance. I start work on another story, or I go back to the story that’s been sitting while I worked on the first one. After a month or so, I go back to the story and revise it a few more times. Now that a little time has passed, I’m far less wedded to all the little bejeweled lines and paragraphs that once felt so indispensible. If a sentence or a section needs to be cut, I can cut it. That final stage is important, for it is then that I’m finally able see my work as a reader—as a person who enjoys reading—and thus my last revisions work to make the story more pleasurable for a reader.
Joseph: What do you see as the important themes in your book?
McGlynn: Anyone who reads my work will see a persistent obsession with religion, particularly (but not limited to) evangelical Christians. My interest in evangelicals is motivated in part by my own life and in part by politics and American culture. I have a number of close family members who are evangelicals, and for a number of years I was, too. Evangelicals are interesting folks, for they are positioned (and they position themselves) as simultaneously a part of and apart from American culture. Christians often talk about being “in the world, but not of it,” and there’s a lot of talk among evangelicals about resisting and dissenting from the assumptions and practices of mainstream, secular culture. The problem is, it’s usually not true, at least not all the way. Evangelicals certainly repudiate certain practices (especially sexual practices) that secular, or simply less conservative, people might take for granted, but those things are just one tiny corner of American life. Evangelicals don’t seem to have as many qualms with things like cell phones and iPods; if anything, they promote an increased relationship to technology because it’s a useful tool for sharing one’s faith and drawing people to church. Nor do they seclude themselves from things like snow skiing or surfing or Sunday barbecues because those activities are considered to have an important role in the sharing of faith.
I moved away from evangelicalism a number of years ago, and found that doing so allowed me to see the culture with more clarity and sympathy. I quit feeling frustrated and started paying attention. I’d always believed evangelicals are mischaracterized and misunderstood. After President Bush took office in 2001, and again in 2004, evangelicals received a lot of public attention. They’re often shown in gigantic stadium-like churches filled with rock bands and strobe lights and people swooning in the aisles. Or, they’re shown demonstrating outside a courthouse, seemingly in lock-step with Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Such depictions aren’t totally unwarranted, but the picture of all those people swaying en masse seems to suggest that these people lack inner lives, or that their inner lives are constituted entirely by doctrinal maxims. Like the suburban communities in which they often reside, evangelicals are often portrayed as simplistic and homogenous. I know that they—like all people—are in possession of a complex psychology. They have reasons for their beliefs, and those reasons are deeply rooted in their personal experiences and traumas. And despite all their rhetoric promoting chastity and conservative gender relationships, they, too, have fervent sexual desires. They often are lampooned for this very thing, but lampoons rely, for the most part, on superficialities. I felt these people needed a more complex voice and a more honest portrayal.
I see literary stories about evangelical Christians not as tangential to larger questions of American culture, but rather as smack dab in the center of it. It’s impossible to talk about evangelicals in Orange County, California—one of the places where I grew up—without also talking about the other facets of life in Orange County: a materialistic, image-crazed culture replete with expensive cars, big homes, all the latest and greatest gadgets, and fairly conservative fiscal and social politics. Evangelicalism flourishes there precisely because it reflects and responds to its environment. Successful, high-earning people are often drawn to evangelical churches because evangelical churches don’t connote or promote poverty. Thus, stories of evangelical religious life are highly connected to larger and more pressing questions about America: questions of money, where it comes from and how it is spent, the troubles and temptations of interest-only home loans, questions of race and gender, whether or not our phones and iPods and Facebook prevent us from seeking and finding solitude, even when we’re presented with a landscape as sublime as the Pacific Ocean, whether video games induce violence in children, not to mention all the debates regarding sexuality and reproductive health that the evangelical community is already engaged in.
One of the dangers I face is being branded as a “Christian Writer,” the kind of writer you find in a Christian bookstore or in the “Inspirational” section at Barnes and Noble. I vehemently eschew such a label. Anyone who reads my stories will see that though many of my characters are tussling with the vicissitudes of Christian faith, they’re complicated and conflicted human beings. They have passions, and quite often make impulsive, irrevocably consequential decisions on the basis of those passions. For me, religion is the lens through which I strive to see my characters, and to get my characters to see the world. Every character has a lens though which she sees and is seen, be it her gender or ethnicity or geography or cultural assumptions. Religion is just one of the clubs in the bag, though in my bag, it’s a big one. It’s a 1-wood driver.
Which is a way of saying that I’m also deeply engaged in questions pertaining to money, technology, class and the performances of status, and the American West. I love contemporary Western novelists; I love Kent Haruf, Mark Spragg, Alyson Hagy, Annie Proulx, and Ron Carlson, but their novels don’t usually portray the West I lived in for most of my life. Their West is one of isolated people against dramatic backdrops. My West is suburban. Ron Carlson writes about the Sunbelt suburbs in his stories, but his most recent novel, Five Skies, is a departure from his shorter fiction.