Trading Places: Columbia prof Patricia Ann McNair on Faith, Bartending and Longing for the Midwest

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By Mike Gillis

The stories in Patricia Ann McNair’s debut collection “The Temple of Air” are steeped in a particular brand of hospitality and violence. They are definitively Midwestern, navigating deftly between the everyday and the disturbing, the prosaic and the poetic. Perhaps part of this is inspired by McNair’s biography. Though currently a creative writing professor at Columbia College, she has spent much of her life steeped in Midwestern small towns, soaking in the meter and rhythm of daily life there. The author talked with us about faith, taking inspiration from past jobs and how the Midwestern locales she features differ from Faulkner’s Mississippi.

Your author’s blurb portrays you as a jack-of-all-trades, to some extent, going from bartending to working on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Was writing always something you were developing during this time?
Primarily yes, a little no. I was one of those kids who always liked to write stories when they were young. But I come from a family of many writers, and so for a while I tried to avoid that because I didn’t want to be part of the crowd. I spent a lot of time doing plays and theater and that sort of thing for a while, but I did find myself starting to write stories on the side and collecting stories—when you’re bartending you tend to find yourself collecting stories and making up stories and you share stories that you want to tell somebody else. So yes, on the trading floor as well as the bartending part of my life.

Did those stories factor into any fiction that you wrote?
In “The Temple of Air” there are a couple of stories that refer to the markets in Chicago. There’s one story called “The Twin,” where it’s two gentlemen who worked in the back office of a trading firm for the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Another one of the stories, “The Things That Will Keep You Alive,” the woman in that piece used to be a trader on the floor. In terms of bartending in this collection, there’s some time spent in bars, so yes. [She laughs.] When I was bartending, I was actually bartending in small-town bars first, because I was living in Iowa. That’s where a lot of the feel of this book came from, spending time in those small-town bars and talking to those people who lived in those small towns.

The town of New Hope in the book is a composite of Midwestern small towns. Do you consider the Midwest or a Midwestern sensibility an important facet of your fiction?
I think that it is. That’s a really good question. I’ve lived in the Midwest most of my life. I’ve had some really great opportunities to teach in other parts of the world, so I’ve been there as well. But I always come back to the Midwest, whether intentionally or by necessity—family here and jobs here. But there are parts of the Midwest that just fascinate me, and I feel very comfortable in them. Some people get turned off by the flatness of the Midwest, but oftentimes when I find myself in a place with just fields and fields of corn, it’s comforting to me. I think it might be because my ancestral family were farmers here in the Midwest, so it’s probably part of my blood. Also, the openness of small towns in the Midwest is slightly different from the experience of small towns elsewhere, I think. The way they welcome each other, even as you might feel as an outsider, there’s still a kind of politeness, I think, that small town people give you. There’s a real comfort in small towns of the Midwest.

Do you feel there’s a split between what you’re writing about when you’re doing a more urban versus a more rural process of writing? It seems like in your own life you divide your time between the city and a small town.
Sometimes it seems as though I can write more effectively about Chicago when I’m not in Chicago. I suppose that’s kind of an age-old thing. Writers go away from a place in order to write about it. I feel I can write more effectively about Chicago when I’m not here and sometimes I can write more effectively about the Midwest’s small towns when I’m in Chicago. I suppose it’s a kind of longing for one place when you’re in the other place that draws you to telling those stories. Perhaps in the stuff that’s more urban, it might be a bit less meandering on the page, a little sharper, a little more click in the writing. I don’t know if that’s true, but I like to think it is.

This is a collection where the stories are all linked geographically. They also have interweaving threads of recurring characters and storefronts. But I found myself seeing a reused character or storefront, and sort of fleetingly acknowledging them, without seeing a deeper depth—maybe because I’m lazy and didn’t feel like turning back the page. Was there an underlying significance to these links or did you try to just build a sense of ambiance to New Hope?
I think as I was starting to write these stories I didn’t know right away that they were supposed to be linked. But as I looked a little more closely, I saw where they could be linked, and to some extent where they should be linked, if I wanted to put extra effort into it. I would hope that like you, when people read it, they don’t feel the need to put the pieces together, that each of these stories can be taken on their own and you don’t necessarily need to know about the rest of the stories to enjoy or experience any of the single stories. I tried not to work it too hard. In an earlier draft I worked it too hard. [She laughs.] It got in the way. It was more about putting the pieces together. This time, when I was finally putting it together I thought, if someone is really paying attention, they can see this is Annie here, this is Nova and Sky here. But do they need to know that? Not necessarily. I think I want them to know the two boys in the first story are the two men in the last story. But even then, if they don’t get that, that’s okay.

One of the quotes on the back of the collection positions your writing as “stylistically pure as Ray Carver,” but there’s also a certain lyrical slant to some of the stories. You open the collection with the story “Something Like Faith,” which starts with one of the densest, more-difficult-to-grasp passages in the collection. Is it more difficult to integrate these more poetic elements into the more prosaic?
I think sometimes I have a tendency to want to get totally lost in the rhythms. When I write a summary sometimes it can sometimes turn into just… [she makes a monotonous rhythm]. That’s sort of my comfort zone. Particularly when I write disturbing passages, I sort of slip into that. I don’t know why it is. Sometimes on first drafts it might be a whole lot of that sort of lyrical or poetic writing. Later, I have to look again and see what I’m obscuring by that. Clarity, often, is what makes the prose come out. At some point, you have to just say, “All I need is this.” I kind of like that. Even now, when I’m talking to you, I’m going on like [another monotonous rhythm]. But then I get to the conclusion and I’m not afraid to just say, “Here’s the real truth.” It doesn’t usually happen in a first draft.

Was it an intentional choice to open with that very dense section from “Something Like Faith”? It felt like this very immediate disorientation or trial by fire for the reader.
I had moved it around a few times. It was second or third in the collection at different times. It ultimately came to be the first story because I did want to have this full sense of here’s where it starts and here’s where it ends—or here’s where the next beginning is. Meaning, life doesn’t really close in New Hope, but goes on. The idea of [the protagonists] being really high in the beginning, and there’s this weird thing that happened, and [Nova, the story’s heroine] isn’t sure if it happened or not—it needed to be sort of thick and… quick and slow at the same time. I know parents have a difficult time reading it because of the violence. But the way that it was told was pretty much the way that it came out the first time I was writing it. In terms of putting it up front, it really launches the book for me in some ways. It gives us some sense of who the people are and what the place is. Whether this is true for other people or not, I’m not sure, but for me the book is very much about faith, and crises of faith and trying to find it, so I thought it was important to have that story up first, so people could wonder, what is good? What is bad? Why does this have to happen to somebody? How do you survive this? I know in some cases you could be running a risk of alienating someone with that—and I’ve had people skip this story, but that’s okay. It’s not a big deal.

It’s interesting that you described the opening section as both slow and quick, this strange combination—and also that the collection is so much about faith—because the title embodies that so much. How do you contain air? How do you  have a tradition dedicated to something as ungraspable as air?  I just thought that was interesting. Not a question, but—
No, that was great. Write that down and send it to me.

Up next, you’re working on a novel. Can you talk more about that?
Well, I have one that I think is done. It’s at that stage where you put it aside and see if it’s really done or not. It’s called “Alice in Cuba Land,” and it’s about a woman who leaves her work on the trading floor in the Chicago Mercantile Exchange for various reasons and sets up in Havana, and is sort of spending time there to figure out her life and the people she gets connected to there. So that’s close to done. I’ve also started another novel that doesn’t really have a working title. It takes place in New Hope again and it’s about two families who get involved in a variety of uncomfortable family situations. One’s an evangelical family and the other’s an immigrant. It has to do some with faith again, and the idea of a small town and open-mindedness and closed-mindedness.

So is New Hope your Faulkneresque locale?
Yes, that’s it. I’m exactly like Faulkner. [She laughs.] No, it’s just that the name [New Hope] is such a cool name. I think it’s an interesting name for a small town. There’s a small town nearby named Glitter… but I think if you called a town Glitter in a book people would just laugh at you. New Hope has a whole lot of weight to it and airiness to it at the same time. But I’m not going to draw out maps like Faulkner did.

Patricia Ann McNair reads September 9 at the Women & Children First Bookstore, 5233 North Clark, (773)769-9299, 7:30pm and September 11 at the Chicago Way Reading Series at the Hidden Shamrock, 2723 North Halsted, 7pm.

“The Temple of Air”
By Patricia Ann McNair
Elephant Rock Books, 178 pages, $16.

One Response to “Trading Places: Columbia prof Patricia Ann McNair on Faith, Bartending and Longing for the Midwest”

  1. The Whacky World Wide Web and A Book’s Launch « Patricia Ann McNair Says:

    [...] like you might have something interesting to say. This is how you find your interview with the big city weekly alternative paper. This is how you stumble over a review of your book by one of the jazzier on-line book sites, [...]

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