Q and A with Patricia Ann McNair about her new essay collection, And These Are the Good Times
Updated: Nov 6, 2018
Tell us a little about your new book.
And These Are the Good Times is a collection of essays and brief memoir pieces; riffs, I like to think of them as. Dancing to the jukebox in dark taverns; saying goodbye to my father on the last morning of his life; having sex in the backseat of a car at a drive-in movie; drinking scotch in a nightclub in Havana and coffee at my kitchen table in Paris; making up stories on the run; flirting with boys on summer nights on a Chicago beach; finding the perfect sentence; gathering the entirety of my recently deceased brother's things in two plastic garbage bags—these are some of the moments I consider in these pages. Perhaps the subtitle sums it up best: “A Chicago gal riffs on death, sex, life, dancing, writing, wonder, loneliness, place, family, faith, coffee, and the FBI (among other things).”
1. In these essays, which are masterworks of voice and tone, you write about family, travels, sex, coming of age in the Midwest--when did you begin them? And did you see these essays from the start as distinct parts that would form the whole of a book?
First, can I say thank you so much for your kind words? I am so pleased that you find the voice and tone affective for these pieces. So many of them started in my journal, where I have a practice of sort of talking to myself; I guess that is where the voice evolves from. The first piece that I finished of these is actually the title essay, “And These Are the Good Times.” I started that piece in the late nineties, putting words on the page while I was listening to Michael Steinberg, one of the founders of the journal Fourth Genre. Michael is a sort of godfather of the type of creative narrative nonfiction I am fond of, and I was lucky to have him come and speak to a class of mine at Columbia College Chicago once. I don’t remember exactly what he was saying or reading, but it sparked this line in my head: “My father didn’t believe in jukeboxes.” And I had to write it down in that moment so I wouldn’t forget it (I forget much more than I commit to the page, I think.) And then the next line and the next led me to an exploration of the days from my childhood when I would meet my dad at the tavern around the corner from our house. And from that, how neighborhood bars always felt comfortable to me.
I did not know then that I would write a full collection. I wasn’t even that drawn to writing creative nonfiction; fiction has always been my favorite genre to write. I am a devotee of journal keeping, though, and sometimes—as I’ve alluded to—the things I start in my journal become these nonfiction pieces, these riffs. I would finish one or another and find a home for it, or I would get an invitation from someone to contribute an essay here or there. This collection is the work of about twenty years. But I don’t want to say it took me twenty years to write this book, because that isn’t exactly the way it happened. I’m not that slow.
But you know how it goes, Christine, as an industrious and prolific short story writer yourself. You look up from the desk one day and you realize that you have enough pieces to make a collection. And once you figure that out, you look at how you might revise them, rework them, gather and arrange them in order to make something that might read like a real book. The next step for me after I’d arranged and rearranged the ones I wanted to use was finding the holes in the narrative and in the content. What hadn’t I told yet? What wasn’t yet in these pages? And then I had to write those pieces.
2. Kind of a silly question but still one that I'm very curious to hear you reply to--how is writing nonfiction different for you than writing fiction? (I loved the short stories in your first book, The Temple of Air, and see And These Are the Good Times as a natural successor--both topically and craftwise.)
Thank you again, Christine. I so love your short stories, it is a real honor to hear you like mine, too! And I don’t think this is a silly question; I often wonder the same things when I read fiction and nonfiction from the same writer. What do they do the same? What is different? Do I recognize them in each of these genres? For me, I think, in nonfiction I am almost always writing in such a way that I keep finding new questions, even as I discover answers along the way. This sounds really airy-fairy, like creative hooha, doesn’t it? Let me start again.
The impetus for my nonfiction often comes from a memory that I carry around with me for a long time, even if it is a small, apparently ordinary moment. And then what can happen is that I observe something in the present, or read something, or hear something on the radio or eavesdropping on the train, and it brings me back to that memory. A pattern starts to evolve—and it is the gathering of patterns that leads me to an essay. What do these things say about one another? What are these moments about (to me), as opposed to what exactly happened? These things—like this memory of how my 90-year-old uncle would tell me the same story over and over again, and how that came to mind when an old man told me a story in Czech (which I do not speak) in line at a grocery store in Prague one afternoon when I had been feeling particularly lonely, and then I thought about how my mother started to speak to me in a secret language of her own in the last days of her life. And I listened to each of these people in order not to understand or even hear what they were saying, but to connect with them—these kinds of moments and things work together to lead me to both new understandings and to new questions, and that is where I find the heart of my nonfiction.
I think you are right to notice that my two books are similar. Topically, sometimes, I think I only have a few concerns: grief, loneliness, abandonment, sex, want. Is that it? And I find it intriguing how we can come at the same ideas from so many different angles. Fiction for me almost always starts with image. It might be an observation or memory like in my nonfiction, or it could be something wholly imagined. In any case, it is almost always something very visual. And in the images comes place and people and situation, and then, if I am patient and willing to write my way through false starts and real ones, a sort of momentum builds in the story. If this happens, and this happens, and this happens, then this. I write very scene-based fiction, and while there is a certain psychology that will emerge as my characters develop, I don’t think of my fiction as particularly psychological or driven by emotion. I think my nonfiction is more so, even though I use devices of scene to get to the psychology. The fiction tells what happened, and from that, a reader can discover what it is about. The nonfiction is almost always concerned with the “aboutness” of the piece in some way.
3. What/who are some of your primary influences as a writer?
I am constantly influenced and creatively propelled by new writers, people I discover along the way. You would be among these, Christine. Your work makes me wonder about the lives and choices of others, and that is delicious to me. Other contemporary Midwestern writers whose work makes me want to write: Christine Rice, Jack Driscoll, Eula Biss, Anne-Marie Oomen, Dinty W. Moore. So many. The books I read as an adult when I first started to take writing classes, the ones changed everything for me: The Bluest Eye, Last Exit to Brooklyn, Black Boy. Everything by Raymond Carver. Mary Gaitskill. These writers taught me not to strive for beauty in happiness and happy endings, but to find it in the ache, the disappointment, the yearning, the loss. This was a revelation to me. Flannery O’Connor. James Baldwin.
The book I carry with me when I travel is the small pocketbook-sized paperback The Best Short Stories of the Modern Age. Faulkner, Woolf, Lawrence Sargent Hall, Katherine Mansfield, Kafka. I mean, come on! Who wouldn’t want to write stories like these writers did?
And because to me influence and inspiration are closely linked, I’ll also say that I find inspiration in silence—long walks, sitting still, driving without the radio on. And from my students at Columbia College Chicago. Both from their work ethic (I cannot even imagine taking so many classes and doing all that homework anymore), and now more than ever--their willingness to experiment. Maybe this has to do with the rather disheartening realities we are all faced with these days, but my students have a deep trust in the possibilities of their stories and imagination that is exhilarating to me.
4. What was a surprising thing (either a factual or emotional discovery) that occurred as you wrote the essays in And These Are the Good Times?
I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, and have lived in the city for more than thirty years now. I have lived other places—sometimes for months like when I taught at Bath Spa University in the UK, other times for years like when I stayed in Iowa after I dropped out of a small liberal arts college there. But Chicago has been home for a huge majority of my life. Now I live in Edgewater, and I was born in Edgewater hospital, maybe a mile away from my apartment. I work just about half a mile from where my father had his office, the place I would work during the summers when I was an early teenager. I can see Foster Beach from my apartment windows, and that is where I used to hang out when I was in high school and wanted to meet cool city boys.
And despite how little I have physically moved from where I was “formed,” let’s say, I was totally surprised to realize how essential my Chicago-ness is to the nonfiction I write, in what I observe, in the way I consider the world. I always thought of myself as a Midwesterner, you know, sort of polite and openly friendly and a bit puritanical in my work ethic, unwavering in my wanting to please people, to make everyone comfortable. I always make too much food for parties—I am that kind of Midwesterner. My short stories usually take place in fictional small midwestern towns like those places I have lived for short periods of time, and that makes sense to me; the drama could shine vividly against the muted background of these small towns. But when the call came from Side Street Press (my publisher) for Chicago-centric fiction or nonfiction manuscripts, I looked through what I had been writing, and there Chicago was. There and there and there and there. Even in the pieces that are situated in other places, sometimes in other countries, what I saw and considered and experienced and wrote about were all deeply affected by my Chicago point of view. Two pieces come to mind that illustrate this: “What You’ll Remember,” about my first trip to Cuba and how that trip would look when I returned home to a Chicago apartment and life that had lost its color to me, and “Coffee At the Kitchen Table,” about living in Paris for a few weeks playing housewife while my husband taught a class there; I was reminded of all the women I had known when I was a kid who lived similar experiences in the Chicago suburbs. Make breakfast, kiss hubby at the door, do the dishes, drink coffee at the kitchen table.
5. What are you working on now?
I am working on a novel, and am hoping to finish this draft by the end of January. (I keep telling people this so I can have some accountability.) Its working title is Climbing the House of God Hill, and it is set in the fictional small town of New Hope, where The Temple of Air was set. There are a couple of recurring characters and crossed storylines from that collection of stories that come up in the novel as well. It is about the possibility of a scandal between a fifteen-year-old girl and a number of men—a local pastor, her father’s best friend, an immigrant newly arrived in town, a fatherless boy. The story takes place shortly after September 11, 2001, when tensions and fear and distrust were all quite high. When I started the book a few years ago, we were in a different place as a country; there was a certain optimism for so many people, so I had to rely on imagination and memory to create this disturbing backdrop for the story. Now I can’t help but be aware of how many things I wrote and am writing that seem quite current and topical. What will this book look like in the glaring light of Trump and deregulation and hyper-evangelicalism and anti-immigration and #MeToo? I have to finish it to find out.
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 English and Creative Writing of Columbia College Chicago. McNair’s fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in various anthologies, magazines, and journals including American Fiction: Best Unpublished Short Stories by Emerging Writers, Superstition Review, Word Riot, Hypertext, Prime Number, River Teeth, Fourth Genre, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, and others. Her short story collection, 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 Finalist Award.