I first interviewed writer John McNally some 15 years ago, upon the publication of The Book of Ralph. It’s the only novel I’ve read set on the southwest side of Chicago, and quite possibly the only novel, ever, that mentions the band Styx.
Back then, when bookstores weren’t so rare, I was out visiting family in the San Francisco Bay Area and spotted John’s oft-hilarious Ralph novel while killing time in a shop not far from whatever it is they now call the park where the Giants play baseball.
How cool, I thought. A book written by someone I know is available in a store so far away from Chicago. How great it is that someone might wander the aisle, find this book, take it home and get a taste of what it was like to grow up in a place I know, to learn a little of a bit of my world and a larger part of John McNally’s, as he is a native of the southwest side.
I sigh now, romanticizing the random find and/or seeking out in real life something read about somewhere.
Sure it’s great, during a pandemic especially, that we don’t even have to leave the sofa to buy a novel, that so much information of all sorts is literally at our fingertips. However, a good many of us logon and passively let the algorithm pick out that information for us.
Anyway, John McNally and I have kept in touch over the years. His writing career has taken him to teaching posts across the country, including a current gig at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
So I’m doing my part here, interviewing John McNally for this blog about the new book. I hope this helps John McNally break through the algorithm. I’m even referring to John McNally by his full name a lot to please the SEO gods that rule the internet.
ME: The title of your short story collection, The Fear of Everything, seems particularly apt for these times. It’s also the title of one of the stories in the book. How did that title come about?
JOHN MCNALLY: I chose The Fear of Everything as the title of the book about two or three years ago, so it’s serendipitous that the book’s title aligns with what the collective state that we’re going through right now. In the title story there’s a woman with pantophobia, which is the fear of everything. I was fascinated by that idea. I think we’re living through forced pantophobia right now.
ME: What’s your take on all the fear floating about right now?
JOHN MCNALLY: I certainly think there’s legitimate reason to be fearful right now, but I also think it’s misdirected.
I live in Louisiana, and for years whenever I’ve told someone that I’m from Chicago, they’ll say, “You’re probably happy not to be living there anymore.”
When I ask them why, they start talking about all the murders and the gangs. Then I have to explain to them that the entire city isn’t a war zone – that any description of it as a war zone is for political advancement.
If you watch the news right now, you might think that Portland looks like the fall of Baghdad. But I have dozens of friends who live in Portland, and most of what you’re looking at is happening within a very small space. A few blocks maybe.
So, my own fear has more to do with how heightened everyone else’s fear is, how it distracts us from things like post office sorting machines being carted away in the night, and such. How it distracts us from the catastrophic fires that are happening all across the west right now.
I would just say, beware the manipulation of fear.
ME: You grew up on the southwest side of Chicago in the 1970s. You revisit that time and place in a fair amount of your work. Aside from the old adage “write what you know,” what draws you back to that setting?
JOHN MCNALLY: I may have purged myself of writing about that time and place after my memoir a few years ago, The Boy Who Really, Really Wanted to Have Sex: The Memoir of a Fat Kid. If you’ve read my book The Book of Ralph and then read the memoir, you’ll see some crossover in how bits and pieces of my real life served as inspiration for my fiction.
Fiction writers are amateur anthropologists, so my interest wasn’t so much nostalgia – although I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t in some part nostalgia – as it was thinking about the kinds of people I grew up around (mostly blue-collar) in this very specific time and place (southwest side in the 1970s).
I don’t meet people like them anymore, so writing about them conjures them back up and gives me a chance to think more deeply about them, both the good and the bad.
ME: How did growing up where and when you did shape your writing?
JOHN MCNALLY: Growing in a working class family in a working class neighborhood shaped me in a practical way in that I treat writing like a job.
I don’t believe in sitting around waiting for inspiration. Inspired moments arise out of the work you put in. I have a lot of theories about the craft of writing that might be useful for aspiring writers, but at the end of the day, you just have to sit your ass in a chair and write. And that’s certainly a byproduct of growing up where I did.
ME: Your career path has taken you to Carbondale (SIU), Iowa, Nebraska, North Carolina, Louisiana and Hollywood, among other places. Are there still regional differences in culture and people?
JOHN MCNALLY: For all the homogenization of America that’s occurred over the last 40 years, each place I’ve lived has been distinctly different from any other place I’ve lived.
Where I live now in Louisiana, there’s a distinct difference between north of I-10 and south of I-10. North of the highway is considered the Bible Belt, while south of I-10 is more the Catholic Cajun bayou part of Louisiana.
It’s getting harder and harder to find authenticity. I frequently drive across the country, and every exit is exactly the same: McDonald’s, a Love’s gas station, Arby’s and a Subway. It’s depressing.
I’m hoping to move to Thailand in five years, even though they have McDonald’s and KFC, too. Part of the draw is to go someplace that can inspire that visceral feeling of being someplace completely different, which is something I experienced as a child but less so as an adult.
ME: As this is for an Irish publication, are there any Irish or Irish-American writers who have been an influence or who have shaped your own writing?
JOHN MCNALLY: My influences are more Chicago-related than Irish-related. Stuart Dybek, who grew up in Pilsen, is an influence. And to be perfectly honest, my biggest influences were probably working-class writers, having grown up in a working class family.
Many years ago, I did sit back-to-back with Seamus Heaney in our respective booths in a bar, if that counts.
ME: Just for kicks, have you tried to write anything about wizards, magical quests, superheroes and/or time travel?
JOHN MCNALLY: I edited the superhero anthology Who Can Save Us Now? some years ago, and I contributed a story to it, for which I posed the question, “What would a superhero from a southwest suburb, where I grew up, look like?” Turns out, he’s a disgusting Silverfish that frightens people he’s trying to save.
My new collection has a time-travel story titled “The Phone Call.” It first appeared in Shadow Show, a Ray Bradbury tribute anthology. So, I occasionally dip my toes into other genres.
ME: I’m using that question as a lousy segue into what I’ve heard about The Fear of Everything, that you stretch a bit stylistically. Without getting too inside baseball here, how so?
This new book has fantastical elements, historical fiction, and other genres I hadn’t really tried before. But stylistically, I wrote in points-of-view that I hadn’t written in before (the “we” POV), and forms I haven’t previously tried (a triptych, for instance).
Nothing groundbreaking in the history of writing…but new to me. Most of all, I had fun. I wrote stories that were inspired, in part, by the kinds of writers I was reading when I first became interested in writing, like Bradbury.
ME: I read a playlist available online that you put together for your book. Do you listen to music when you write or read? Why or why not?
JOHN MCNALLY: I can’t listen to music when I write or read, so those are the only times music isn’t playing in my house when I’m awake. I can’t concentrate. I’m easily distracted. A barking dog, a table saw, a leaf blower – all of these noises distract me.
I keep a lot of white noise machines around me to drown those out. But when I’m not writing or reading, I put on an album and crank up the volume.
ME: Are you still collecting records? As this is for Free Craic, have you found anything Irish lately?
JOHN MCNALLY: I occasionally buy albums, but I’ve cut way back since I plan on moving to Thailand in five years. I have probably 6,000 albums. Vinyl. Not counting CDs, 45s, or other formats and mediums. That’s a lot of vinyl to unload.
I can’t think of anything Irish that I’ve bought recently.
I had tickets to see Sinead O’Connor in Nashville, but it got bumped to next year. Does that count? Probably not.
ME: I see that Jason Isbell is one of your favorite musical performers. What draws you to his music?
JOHN MCNALLY: I think he’s the smartest lyricist to come along in years. He’s in the same lineage as Dylan and Springsteen, and when I go to see him in concert, as I’ve done probably 13 times now, I feel like I’m in the presence of one of those greats back when they were at the height of their power.
Oh, and I was supposed to see Isbell in Dublin at the Olympia Theatre in November. It was going to be my first trip to Ireland, but it’s been bumped to next November.
I’m hoping it’ll happen. The Olympia looks amazing. The Rails is opening, if that means anything to your readers.
ME: What have you been doing during the pandemic?
JOHN MCNALLY: Writing. It’ll be my most productive year in a long, long time.
ME: Do you find it harder or easier to write these days when the world itself is being so hyper strange? What do you find oddest about right now?
JOHN MCNALLY: I was freaked out by the virus when lockdown first started, mostly because I was reading a lot of hardcore science articles by leading epidemiologists explaining what a coronavirus is. And it’s scary as hell.
But then I got into a work rhythm where I would write most of the day, and eventually I just tuned out the reality of what was happening outside my house – except for when I would go grocery shopping.
The oddest thing right now is socializing. On a few occasions, I’ve had people over, but we sit outside, far apart, and I have a communal table and a cooler set up between us for drinks or food or whatever.
But I miss being able to wander across the street to my neighborhood bar. I have friends who are socializing more than I am, but I’m not there yet. I’m not in bad health, but I have a few risk factors, so I’m trying to remain cautious.
ME: Since writing is solitary, any suggestions for those not used to having so much alone time during this mess?
I have a compulsive personality, and as long as I can channel that compulsiveness into something positive, like writing, I’m fine.
I think the danger is when you sit around all day with nothing to do or watch too much TV or spend too much time on social media.
So my advice is to do something productive, something you love. Go for walks. Exercise. Keep the mind active.
ME: What’s it been like putting together this collection and trying to promote it during the pandemic?
I had to cancel a book tour, which means losing out on local promotional opportunities. Usually, when I’m in Chicago, I do a few radio interviews and can get some sort of print publicity. If I’m not there, there won’t be any promotion.
On the other hand, I don’t have to leave my kitchen to do a Zoom event. The event I did for my book launch has almost 1,000 views, which is about 990 more people than who would show up for an in-store event.
I do miss meeting people, signing books, hanging out after a reading with friends. My sense of things is this – that it’s easier, during the pandemic, to get the support of people who were already inclined to buy your book, but it’s much more difficult to get word out to people who have never heard of you.
ME: Are you teaching classes this semester? How is that going?
I teach in the spring, so this past spring we switched to Zoom, and it was fine. Not ideal but okay. We’d already developed an in-person rapport.
Next spring, I’ll likely teach the entire semester via Zoom, so that’ll probably be stranger. But I’m lucky. I have a light teaching schedule and few students. I can’t imagine teaching large courses, several classes, and juggling the in-person activities with the Zoom activities, which is what some people are doing.
All of my teacher friends are doing way more work than when the classes were in-person.
ME: Finally, Facebook. Friend or foe? Pandora’s Box? Addictive drug or soothing tonic? How does social media impact being a writer?
I have a love-hate relationship with it. Since the pandemic, my time on social media has increased, and I don’t like that. I like getting my news quickly, finding out what the big stories of the day are…but whenever I’m spending too much time on Facebook or Instagram, self-loathing kicks in.
One day, I’d like to sign off for good, just disappear, and eventually fade from everyone’s memory. Ten years from now, someone will think: Who was that guy who posted all those cat and record photos? And before they remember, they see something else in their feed and follow that trail instead.