David McGlynn's The End of the Straight and Narrow is the best story collection I've read in years. I am crazy about this book. It's got it all: gripping plots, complex characters, gorgeous prose. McGlynn reminds me of Andre Dubus, McGlynn reminds me of Alice Monroe, McGlynn reminds me of no one but himself.
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.