On an afternoon late last summer, Punctuate sat down with fiction writer Patricia Ann McNair to talk to her about her new collection of essays, And These Are the Good Times (Side Street Press) and to talk about fiction, nonfiction, and their respective realities.
Punctuate: Your title, And These are the Good Times, is a kind of leitmotif that pops up from time to time in the book. How would you like readers to read that clause?
McNair: Well that’s an interesting question. I think I mean, “and these are the good times.” That there’s a lot of good times in a life. But there are also other layers to the meaning of the title. Some of these times, when you read them you might think, “okay so she’s talking about when her brother died . . . That’s not such a good time.” But at the same time, to me, those are part of the good times of my life. Even those moments where things were uncomfortable, things were unhappy. They created some sort of an emotional response that’s good to have; whether or not it feels good. So I want people to be lured in; I want them to feel that all of this will be fun and a good time! But to also know that I mean “good time,” in a much broader way.
Punctuate: The essay “I’m Not Afraid” is a kind of occasional piece written after the presidential election of 2016. Can you describe your impulse, and the experience of writing that piece, and the emotions of the moment?
McNair: Sure. I actually wrote the original version of this before the election, when I was sure we were going to end up with Hilary Clinton as the president. So the last line wasn’t the last line as it stands now. It was something like, “I’m not afraid. And I vote.” But by the time this went into publication, it was clear my vote didn’t matter in the way that I hoped it would. The original emotional response was to write this immediately after all of the “Billy-Bushy” stuff. And we already knew that this presidential candidate was a sexist pig, but then we were once again taken into this dark, dark place of his. You know, total disrespect. All of it. And I started to see a bunch of things coming up online about people being afraid of his coming to office. That they were even afraid to walk down the street if he were to be there. And I think, “How horrible would that be to live your life afraid to walk down the street simply because you’re a woman, or a transgender person, or a person of color?” And even though I have some of these things that I carry with me, I mean, I’m a woman, and I might put myself in situations that are not necessarily safe, I cannot live afraid. I can’t be that person. I can’t live like that. So when I say “I’m not afraid,” I really mean it. Yet there are still things to be afraid of.
Around the time of the “Billy-Bushy” tape, I told my husband one of my stories. I think I told him the story about when I was working in the bars on Division Street and I was being groped. I told him that one and he asked, “Well have you ever had these situations? Another ‘grab you by the pussy’?” And I said, “Oh you mean this time?” And then I started to think about it. “Or did you mean this time? Or do you mean this time? Or do you mean this time when I was nine?” And it really started to kind of rack up. Things I haven’t really thought about over the years. But they make me who I am, right? They hadn’t paralyzed me, but, I think they’re important to acknowledge that they actually happened. And maybe for a time, I wasn’t acknowledging that they happened. But being put in this place in our life now, and the place of the world, I think we have to acknowledge that these things happen. We survive them, and that’s great. But they still happen, and that’s not great.
Punctuate: So was this a personal affirmation, or was it a message telling your audience not to be afraid? How would you characterize it?
McNair: Yes, and yes! I would say it’s a personal affirmation. You guys have tried to make me afraid, but I am not. I am a warrior. But also we can’t be afraid all the time. You know? You shouldn’t be stupid, but you can’t be afraid all the time. They—these sexist situations—may feel like they happen all the time, but they can’t be the only things that shape us. Let’s acknowledge that it happens. And perhaps acknowledging that it happens will help us move to change. But we can’t let it stop us from being who we are.
Punctuate: You described an epiphany you had upon opening a collection of Raymond Carver short stories in a bookstore. And people who read your work certainly see Carver’s influence in it. Can you talk about other influences you have?
McNair: I kind of find myself more in line with people I consider the modernist. Even though the grittiness and the compression of Carver’s work, and people like Carver I admire. I find it takes me awhile to get to that distilled point in my work. That my inclination is much more to ramble, and much more to fall into these sort of whirling summaries. So influences like Virginia Woolf. And I would probably say Hubert Selby, who I’d bet was influenced by Virginia Woolf in some ways. You know. The parenthetical within the parenthetical within the parenthetical. Faulkner. So many chapters in As I Lay Dying, and so many of the voices just ripple through me all the time. And more recently I’ve been reading Eula Biss. And the fearlessness and unsentimental traits in her work are things you cannot say about my work, yet her greater vision of the world, whether I get there or not, I feel inspired by it if not influenced by it. And one of my favorite fiction collections is The Best Short Stories of the Modern Age. So things like Lawrence Sargent Hall, The Ledge, and Bliss, the way Mansfield handles emotional response in the physical day to day stuff . . . So a lot of my influences are actually fiction writers.
In regards to the earliest nonfiction writers I was exposed to, I’ve read a lot of Royko when I was a kid, some Mark Twain. But mostly my desire to tell the nonfiction actually comes from wanting to tell stories, which comes from my fiction background.
Punctuate: That actually leads up to my follow-up question. One of the most compelling aspects about this collection is the way that the details of your family history gradually reveal themselves. Your mother and father were both strong, complicated people. What was it like treating the reality of your family life in a memoir, as opposed to your more accustomed mode of fiction?
McNair: Well I carry a lot of worry about this. There aren’t a lot of people left from my immediate family. But the people that are left, my two closet brothers, are two very different people. And I do worry about how one will react. He’s very, very private. And so, I am a little worried about how he’s going to react. He was really proud of my fiction and really proud of my stories. He didn’t necessarily understand them, but the fact that I did it, he feels it’s a wonderful thing. But there are a couple of secrets in there that may cause him to question why I told them. Now, my other brother always tells stories about himself. So he will be fine with it. My characters often in my fiction are young women. Many of them are either fifteen-year-old girls or close to that. And so I was able to kind of tap into my fiction memories of that for this collection, in a way that I wouldn’t necessarily do in nonfiction where I have to stay closer to what actually happened.
My family were really good archivists. There’s so much that I have of my mother’s journals, my mother’s letters, photos, stories, stories told by my brother—you know, all those sorts of things, that made me stay a little closer to my truth. And that’s another thing. My truth, being a nonfiction writer, is not their truth necessarily. So there were somethings I had to tell that were much easier to tell in fiction. It’s much easier to have parents who would have drunken fights in fictional stories, or a mother who does something slightly illegal, as in “Saturday Shopping.”
Punctuate: But for an example the emotional strength of that incident is the sense that the mother was doing something out of character. That it caused disruption which is the source for the rest of the discomfort in the essay. Is that correct?
McNair: Yes. And that’s the thing. When you sort of recognize these things about the people you write about, you become honest and tell yourself, “this doesn’t seem like anything they would do, but they did it.” And when you’re writing nonfiction you have to at least approach that.
Punctuate: Speaking more on your family. Your father had been a union organizer. The work he was doing later, was it a placement agency?
McNair: Yeah. Employment agency. That’s what he came to eventually.
Punctuate: Right. So you also explained the drinking on his end, as well as your mother’s. And, of course, this can be common with the pressure and anxieties of life. My question is, would you say your parents were a happy couple at this time?
McNair: Mostly. There’s a lot of mental illness in my family. If I were to look at this honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if my father was bipolar, or doing some type of self-medicating. And, of course, that would lead to trouble. But my mom used to tell this story, which I will probably get in trouble for telling, but my mom used to tell this story about how once they went to a marriage counselor, and they got into an argument. And the marriage counselor said, “Even when you guys fight it’s sexy.” And my mom was so proud of that. And I thought, “What a weird thing to be proud of.” She always said there was no one she would have rather spent her life with than with him. She always said that. And I feel that my dad probably felt the same way as well. But they didn’t have an easy marriage. Mostly happy, I would say. And the things that made them unhappy weren’t each other so much as it was not having much money when my brothers and I were kids. They carried other guilts with them. My father abandoning his first family. I feel that my mother probably felt guilty about leaving behind her very religious family, and whatever other guilts they brought along. And they couldn’t save the world. But they wanted to. So those things made them unhappy. But they were happy with each other ultimately, even though they weren’t easy with each other. And they may not have stayed together, had my dad lived longer than fifty-five. But not because they didn’t love each other.
Punctuate: When did your mom stop travel writing? When she got married to your dad?
McNair: No, she didn’t really stop. Actually, she didn’t really start travel writing until after my dad died. She worked for Rand McNally, editing jobs like that. But actually being a freelance writer, and travel writer, and doing that full-time, she started that in her fifties. That’s when she had fully committed to being a freelance writer.
She even wrote when she was ill. One of her last articles, we cowrote together. She was lying on the futon in her office giving me things to read and write. And I would read to her about things, like a trip we took together to Saint Augustine. And that was the last travel article I think she worked on, a year before she died. And I think she died with very few regrets. And that she did, ultimately, everything thing that she wanted to. She didn’t want to be a widow at fifty. But everything else, I’m certain she wanted to do.
Punctuate: Though your mother encouraged your writing, you came to it as vocation through a series of jobs and occupations. Can you describe your journey from a convenience store in Iowa, to your current role as a writer and professor of creative writing at Columbia College Chicago?
McNair: My dad believed entirely in education. But he was one of those men who never finished college himself. And so all of his clients were college graduates. But I think he always felt as smart, if not smarter, than all of them. And because he never finished college, he sort of had this love/hate thing with the idea of it. My mother, on the other hand, was absolutely an education person. She believed that you must finish college. I had a brother who dropped out of high school, and two of my brothers graduated college later in life. And I, even though I was the baby of the family, was the first to graduate college—even though I was nearly thirty years old by then. So we all had this weird thing about school. We all thought about whether or not it was important to get a higher education. But maybe because of my parents’ two different views, we felt that yes it was important, but maybe also not important.
I went to school, didn’t love it, quit. Went to school didn’t love it, quit. Liked some things about it, quit. I was living in Iowa, had to earn my own keep to live. So I ended up getting a cashier job at a gas station. And they promoted me because I had some education, and all that stuff. I did that for a while, and then I started going back to school again. The reason being I was really interested in learning stuff. I don’t even really know why. I took a lot of different courses, including a creative writing class at the community college there. I was always writing in my journal. Always making up little stories. I was doing a lot of community theater. So I was engaged in story making. And then when I came back to Chicago, I was in a stage in my life when what I wanted to do was more than manage and work at bars as I was. So I told myself I was going to go back to school and see what happens. I thought I wanted to be a radio personality, so I came here to Columbia. I studied radio. Had to take a writing class, and I absolutely loved it. And I thought, “Why am I kidding myself? This is what I want to do!”
Everybody is a writer in my family. So I figured, at first, that I didn’t want to be like everyone else. But I did. So I started to take these writing classes, and I was one of those lucky people who got to teach when I entered grad school. And I thought, “I really like this.” So I quit everything I was doing at that point to solely focus on teaching and writing. But it was always about making stories for me. I always loved to be a part of the narrative impulses of the things that surrounded me. So I believe that’s what got me to where I am now.
Punctuate: So did you have a sense that your life experience was an asset to you when you started to write seriously?
McNair: I think it was. I graduated from undergrad at twenty-nine. Went back to grad school at thirty. I thought I had things to tell, you know? I thought that I had experiences to share. And I don’t necessarily think everybody has to do it that way. But I’ve been gathering stories for a while. So I had them to tell. I used to write stories when I was a kid. My mom would give me these writing prompts before going to work. And it was so much fun for me. But I really didn’t pursue it until I felt that I had accumulated enough to write all of this stuff down, instead of just scribbling in my journal. I would say just gathering these experiences finally brought me to the place where I felt I had to just do it; I had to share them in stories.
Punctuate: The last essay is organized under your father’s FBI file. He had been a communist and union organizer. As you were growing up he worked in an employment agency. How has your understanding of your father evolved in the process of writing about him? And why did you choose to end on this note?
McNair: Without any sort of inspection of my father, or if I were to just go off the way that I felt about my father, there would be so much I never tried to understand. I was the youngest and the only girl. I was his absolute dream. And perhaps it would have been fine for me to live my life thinking, “Okay, I was a daddy’s girl. I was his best thing. It’s broken my heart that he’s gone.” I would only just think about how delightful he was and how delightful our relationship was. However, I don’t think he was very well when he died. He had a bunch of health scares. He didn’t treat his health very well. He was getting drunk a little bit more. And my mom was dissatisfied with a lot of stuff in that moment, you know? But I remember as soon as he died, that, all of a sudden he was like, “Saint Dad.” And it surprised me that my mom didn’t look back and think about the troubles he’d had in the past.
So I had already started looking at him through a different lens than I had when I was a kid. I took a class in my early twenties on death and dying. I began looking at his death, and his life, through that scope. I wrote an essay on it when I went back to school. I was particularly interested in how we change the way we think about people once they’re gone. There are certain things that we choose to look at, and things that we don’t choose to look at. And that sort of affects our understanding of the world. And I know a lot of people have a lot of unresolved issues, and I suppose I have unresolved issues too. But I really didn’t want them to be unresolved just because I really hadn’t tried to think about them, or to understand them.
And so there are a lot of ways that I know about my father. There’s my own memories, there are the conversations I had with my brothers, the conversations I had with my half-brothers (which are very, very different), the conversations I had with my mom before she died ten years ago. But none of those things squared with who I understood of him; who I understood he was. And so it was kind of important for me to look at these other things. You know, to look at the FBI files. To know some of the missing pieces that I really hadn’t thought about. My poet half-brother wrote a memoir, some of it about my father. He came to do a lot of research with me, and to read through some of the papers that I had. He definitely was the abandoned child, and so there were always complications there. It was clear to me that what he was trying to understand about my dad, and what he wanted to understand about my dad, were different things from what I understood about him and what I wanted to understand about him. And by that I mean my half-brother might have thought “How could you leave a family behind? What would bring a person to do that?” But that was not my experience of my dad. He didn’t leave me. So what I wanted to understand about him was, “Who was he?” Because I only got to know him for a short time. If I had known him until I was fifty-eight years old, like I am right now, what would I know about him now? And how close can I come to understanding that by doing this research? You know, it’s a way of me coming to know him.
Ending on this note, with this essay, “Finding my Father and the FBI, ”well, this had been a piece that was buried deeply inside me. And I thought ending with this piece was good symmetry to the way the book started, with the first essay I ever wrote about my dad, “And These Are the Good Times.” But also, I wanted to end with a piece in which I finally start to understand that he is me and I am him. That even though we were very different, we were still very much the same. And by writing these things, I started to understand that a lot of this is kind of beyond my control: who I am, the things that I want to explore. I can still make choices, but yet there’s the stuff in me that comes from him; it’s there and it’s always going to be there.
Punctuate: Yeah. There’s a wrinkle in that essay that you don’t know where the file is. Was that just the way it was? Or did you sense that there was a metaphorical meaning behind it?
McNair: It’s absolutely art born out of reality. I think there were a few essays I wanted to write, but hadn’t gotten around to writing for some reason. I knew I wanted to write this one about my father’s FBI file. And I tried to do that, but I was writing in my journal like, “Where the fuck is that?” Because I had lost the file. And I looked everywhere for it. And I kept asking myself, “Why am I really looking for it?” And the answer was that I wasn’t looking for it because I wanted to look at it and read it again. I was looking for it because there is still more I’m trying to figure out about him.
Patricia Ann McNair is an associate professor of Fiction and Nonfiction as well as the Director of Creative Writing undergraduate program at Columbia College Chicago. McNair’s short story collection THE TEMPLE OF AIR is the winner of the Devil’s Kitchen Literary Fest Reading Award, a finalist for the Society of Midland Authors’s Award in adult fiction, and a finalist for the Chicago Writers’ Association Book of the Year Award. Her work has appeared in American Fiction: Best Unpublished Short Stories by Emerging Writers, Other Voices, F Magazine, Superstition Review, Dunes Review, River Teeth, Fourth Genre, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, and others.