The Temple of Air, Patricia Ann McNair's extraordinary new book, arrived in the mail and I began to leaf through it, and in one page, was hooked. Of course, I had to track her down and get her to come on my blog and talk about it. And I'm stealing her own author bio because anyone who has breaded mushrooms for a living is immediately interesting, right?
Patricia Ann McNair has lived 98 percent of her life in the Midwestern United States. 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 Fiction Writing Department of Columbia College Chicago, where she received a nomination for the Carnegie Foundation’s US Professor of the Year. McNair’s collection of short stories, The Temple of Air, was called "a beautiful book, intense and original," by Audrey Niffenegger, and has received a number of honors, among them the winner of Southern Illinois University’s Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award and the Society of Midland Authors Finalist Award.
Thank you so, so much, Patricia.
The Temple of Air is racking up all sorts of prizes, including a Finalist in the Society of Midland authors. How discombobulated and amazed are you--and does it make it more difficult to go on to your new work? (And what IS the new work?)
These honors have left me—as my British husband says—gobsmacked. Meaning, I am stunned and overjoyed by all of this. So many first books come out and just quietly sell (or don’t) without receiving the attention they often deserve. The Temple of Air was the first fiction title by a single author published by Elephant Rock Books; this makes it particularly gratifying to get noticed among so many new titles by long established presses and authors. The top Society of Midland Authors Award and the other finalist award went to big best sellers by major publishers. So I really couldn’t be happier or more excited and honored by their putting me on the list, and by the other positive attention, like being named the winner of the Devil’s Kitchen Readers Award by Southern Illinois University.
Recently so much of my time has been spent working on promotions, traveling, doing readings, workshops, bookclubs, and the like, that it has been a bit difficult to get deeply entrenched in the work of the novel-in-progress, Climbing the House of God Hill.You know how it is; even the most dedicated writer needs to be able to lose herself in the trajectory of a longer piece, and stealing moments here and there is not the most conducive to finding the breadth and depth of a story. What I have been doing a lot of—what I also consider essential to the writing process—is reading, reading, reading. Everything. And rereading. (I just finished rereading two of your earlier books, Caroline. So interesting and educational to take a couple of books written over a period of years and read them back to back to see the evolution of a writer’s work.)
The projects on my desk right: doing my final passes over a “finished” novel a publisher has expressed interest in, doing publicity for an upcoming creative nonfiction anthology I am part of called Briefly Knocked Unconscious by a Low-Flying Duck, working on an essay on place I was invited to do for a composition text book, a travel article assignment for a magazine, a chapter for a textbook on the short story, and a short story idea. These smaller projects are a good way to keep the writing going in doses until I can really dig into the novel-in-progress again. And they are relatively easy to manage with my current promotional schedule and the upcoming semester in the Fiction Writing Department of Columbia College Chicago where I teach.
What is about the midwest that makes it so this novel could not have happened anywhere else?
I set The Temple of Air in New Hope, a fictional small town in the Midwest, perhaps because this is the place I know best. I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, but have spent all sorts of time in small towns around the Midwest. One set of grandparents were farmers in Southern Illinois, the other set were a retired preacher and ex-missionaries settled in Ohio; I first went away to school in a tiny town in Iowa; I lived in a small Midwestern city when I dropped out of college; I bartended in small town taverns and pumped gas at small town service stations; I taught in an arts boarding school in a little Michigan town; I have a house in a small town in Northwestern Illinois. And what I have discovered about this region, what I hoped to capture in this book, has some to do with the topography of this place, the gentleness of it, the variety of the landscape. There are hills and lakes and rivers and marshes and towns and cities and farms and cabins in the woods. This is the backdrop I wanted for my stories, this pretty, gentle one I found in the Midwest.
Perhaps, though, there is a Midwestern mindset, a way of being that is essential to the book. Midwesterners are friendly—they reach out to you without your asking them to. For instance, in the story “The Things That’ll Keep You Alive,” a contractor working on a home remodel job for a woman recovering from breast cancer surgery brings her a briefcase full of home grown tomatoes one evening. In “The Twin,” a man who owns an ice cream parlor feeds another man who got stuck in a complicated situation while trying to rob the ice cream parlor. In the opening story, “Something Like Faith,” a teenage boy comforts grieving parents after an accident, even though he doesn’t know them.
Is this particular to the Midwest? Perhaps not, but it is intrinsic to it, and it is what I know from living most of my life here. We smile at folks on the street. We say hello when we pass on a small town sidewalk, whether we know one another or not. We know each other’s business, but we try to stay out of it as much as we can. And on every corner there is either a church or a tavern. These places of faith and diversion are very much a part of The Temple of Air.
There's such a strong current of time and place running through the book, which creates what I (okay, I stole the term from John Truby and his story structure) call storyworld. Do you design this all out before you start, or did this surprise you?
The wholeness of the storyworld (great word, no matter where it comes from!) was something that I discovered along the way, so it did surprise me. The Temple of Air started its life in a couple of short stories that were the earliest things I got published, and as I continued to write more stories, the world began to show itself to me. And after a number of the stories were done, I realized there might be a book here.
The timeline very closely mirrors my own (childhood and young adulthood in the 60s, the 70s, during the Vietnam war; adulthood in the 80s, 90s, beginning of this century during a particular time of greed, I think, and the myth of easy access to the American Dream.) But setting these times in a small town like the fictional one I’ve created called New Hope made it easier for me to access the despair, joy, faith, longing and so on behind the ordinary moments my characters experience. What am I trying to say, here, really? I guess that for me, the small town storyworld cleared a lot of the distractions out of the way you might find in a big city storyworld, and that helped me to put more focus on the ordinary moments, and to let these become more vivid in the stories I wrote. And then it began to have a snowball effect: once I started to see certain things in the storyworld (recurring locations, overlapping characters, similar current concerns, landscapes) I tried to use them more to create cohesion, to structure a wholeness.
Can you talk about your writing process a bit? Do you have rituals, like having to drink 18 thousand cups of coffee?
Oh, man, I worship the Goddess of Coffee. But 18,000 would probably be too many. I do start just about every project with a cup of the good strong stuff (coffee, not whiskey) by my side, and as I get the motor going (it runs pretty rough for a while) I sip and write and read back and get up and fill another cup and write again, and eventually (on the good days) the writing starts to take over and the coffee goes cold in the cup.
I’ve been using other art forms to help broaden my creative process. I’ve taken a number of printmaking classes, a ceramics class. And I co-teach a class called Journal and Sketchbook with my husband, the artist Philip Hartigan, and do quite a bit of sketching to loosen things up and to see my written work more fully, or to figure things out in the revision process. (I am a crazy rewriter; I do dozens of drafts of things.)
· A journal to sketch in and to sort out my thoughts—those directly related to the story as well as those that distract me from the story. “The Joke,” one of the shorter pieces in The Temple of Air, started out as a journal entry I was writing in bed before I turned the light out. But the writing took over and pulled me out of bed; I had to go sit in the den until I finished the first draft.
· A comfortable place. I love rituals and working habits, so it helps me to set up a place that puts me at ease. I even do this on the road if I am intending to get any work done. Here, let me move this chair over near the window, put this light close by. Here, let me go out and find a new mug to put all of my pens and pencils in. Here, let me put up this chapter list on the wall so I can see where I am in the book. Here, let me line my books up on top of the dresser so I can find what I need easily. It drives my husband a little nuts, I think. He is the sort of artist who can draw anywhere on anything with anything, and I admire that skill.
· A running habit. I learn a lot about my work while I am running, talking in my head to the slow rhythm of my steps.
· Significant chunks of time. I am not a slow writer, particularly, but I take a while to warm up and dive in. It is frustrating if I have to stop as soon as I finally get started.
What's obsessing you now and why?
I am a little obsessed (can you be just a little obsessed?) with politics, it being an election year and all. The wide divide between the haves and the have nots that continues to grow; the confusion of religion and government; healthcare (particularly, but not limited to, women’s healthcare); marriage equality; equality in general. I try not to overtly write about this in my fiction, but all of these things will find their way into what I write, no doubt. The work in progress deals with issues of homeschooling, economics, immigration, racism, depression, but all in service to the story (I hope.) I don’t want to be preachy, but I do want to tell stories in which people are affected by the culture and times they live in; isn’t that the way it is in real life? I think it was George Bernard Shaw who said "The man who writes about himself and his own time is the only man who writes about all people and all time." The Temple of Air is about so many things I think about a lot: war, grief, false gods, love, faith, family—things that will probably be in every story I write, things we all grapple with daily.
What question didn't I ask that I should have?
If you asked me what my new favorite part of all of this is, I would tell you that it is meeting new people along the way. I do a lot of readings and have met with a lot of bookclubs, and I so enjoy coming face to face with folks to whom reading matters. I really love talking with bookclubs about my work and the other things they are reading—I get a lot of good suggestions from them.
There is a lot of talk about how we are becoming a society that reads less all the time, but I don’t think I buy that. We read differently perhaps, fitting it in the small spaces around our busy lives (on the bus, in line while waiting for coffee, in the Laundromat while the clothes dry, before we turn off the light at night, from hardcovers and paperbacks, on our phones and tablets and computers) but we read a lot, and we read what we want to. Publishers will tell us that folks don’t read short stories, they (we) don’t want dark characters (particularly dark women characters), they (we) don’t like to be too challenged, they (we) read just for entertainment. Hooey. I have met readers all over the country who cannot be lumped into any one category, and I find that exhilarating and inspiring. I have read at bookstores here and in England and I can tell you that there are readers out there choosing a wide variety of titles. And while some of the larger, chain bookstores have not survived, the local, independent ones are picking up the slack. They are developing and supporting vast communities of readers and writers, and that should hearten all of us.