I have a really awesome interview for you today. I love each and every Woman Who Rocks that I bring you, but Patricia Ann McNair--or simply Patty as I've known her for the past eleven years or so--is extra special because she is one of those women that would go in my list of inspirations and people I wouldn't be a writer without. When I went back to college at 21, pursuing my BA (and eventually my MFA) at Columbia College Chicago, she was one of my professors in my very first semester. She taught a class called Fiction Writers & Censorship, which totally set me free. I wouldn't be able to write what I do without her. She was also there toward the very end of my time at Columbia and taught my thesis development class when I was putting finishing touches on the first draft (or maybe it was second... my drafts blur) of the book that would become I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE. Again, I wouldn't be the writer I am without her input and guidance. And she wouldn't be a stellar writing teacher if she wasn't a stellar writer, so I am extremely excited about the release of her book THE TEMPLE OF AIR. It is my honor to bring her here today to talk about it, so let's meet Ms. Patty McNair, shall we?
Q: Tell us about your new collection of short stories, THE TEMPLE OF AIR. How long did it take for this collection to come together and what are some of the common themes? Also tell us about some of your favorite characters and what inspired you to write them.
Patty: THE TEMPLE OF AIR was a long time in the making, Stephanie. The first story that was published was “The Joke,” and that was in the 1990s. Now, I didn’t know that it was part of a collection, but as happens, you start to write a few stories here and there, and then things start to surface: similar characters, a familiar place—in this case a fictional Midwestern small town called New Hope. What started to emerge for me first, probably, were these voices of young girls and women. A number of the stories feature teen-aged girls who find themselves caught in situations beyond their control—witness to an accident, part of a broken family, facing—literally—a coming storm. While these stories are set mostly in the seventies, many of the situations the girls (and boys and men) encounter are important now. The devastation of war, parents looking for work, encountering the homeless.
I am drawn to writing about young women of a certain age: fifteen or thereabouts. Perhaps because my own father died when I was just fifteen, and it had a lasting effect on who I became as a woman. That age is so precarious and important. Young women know so much then, but also have so much ahead of themselves to experience and learn. They are discovering or rejecting or experimenting with everything out there—religion, sex, drugs. Life. Some of my favorite characters here are Nova—the girl in the very first story who is shaken and shaped by an accident that starts the book off (she appears later in the collection as well); Rennie, a girl whose mother has an eating disorder and a weird religious belief; Christie who gets stuck baby-sitting a girl with special needs over the course of a summer; and a high school senior who doesn’t tell us her name and who is helpless when her best guy friend is drafted into the army. There are adults here, too, and men of course. A young man who is caught in a bizarre way when he tries to rob an ice cream parlor; the twins who own the ice cream parlor and are on the run for their own crimes; a gorgeous blond boy named Sky who is more bad than good, a father who loses his daughter.
Q. I also love place as a character and I know that you are a travel writer in addition to writing short stories, so can you talk a bit about the use of place in your work? The small town in THE TEMPLE OF AIR is called New Hope. Is it based on a real place? Tell us about how you developed it.
Patty: I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, but since I was a kid, my folks took us on some pretty great trips: Jamaica, Spain, Portugal, a long camping trip throughout the American West. I guess that started my affinity for place. I love maps and travel books and I love to travel. To me, being somewhere else is the best way to figure out where I come from. Does that make sense?
Anyway, my grandparents lived in small towns and farming communities, so we also spent a lot of time in rural areas. I really loved those places. The way everyone knew each other, how everyone walked everywhere, said hello to each other. And later, I went to school in Iowa and stayed there for some years after. I’ve also spent some time in other small, Midwestern places: Interlochen, Michigan; Siren, Wisconsin; Mount Carroll, Illinois. So New Hope is a sort of composite of these towns in the middle of America. A little bit of the plains, a little of the rolling river towns, some of the small lakes, a tornado alley. Like you in your first book, Stephanie, I wanted to use a place where it would be hard to go entirely unnoticed, a place where people knew your business at least a little. New Hope isn’t a tiny town, but small enough that the people who live there might get antsy within its limits, and also a place they might come to if they were trying to escape the life of a city.
Q: If THE TEMPLE OF AIR had a soundtrack, what are five of the songs that would be on it and why?
Patty: What an interesting question. Hmmm. There are probably lots of ways to answer this, but here goes:
1. Jimi Hendrix: “All Along the Watchtower”
2. Cat Stevens: “Wild World”
These first two because they evoke a feeling from the time the book starts (late sixties, early seventies.) The Vietnam war was going on, and the people in the stories who were growing up in New Hope would probably listen to something intense like Jimi Hendrix (psychedelic, sophisticated in its riffs) when they were
home or in small groups. And Cat Stevens’ sentiment about the wild world pretty much sums up what was going on for these young people.
3. Steve Miller: “The Joker”
I just heard this song on the radio the other day and thought it had to be on this list. It’s a song I remember so vividly from my own life at the time of when the book is set. We’d sing it at the top of our lungs, thinking we were getting away with something yelling out “I’m a joker, I’m a smoker, I’m a midnight toker” and “really love your peaches, want to shake your tree.” Pretty tame stuff compared with lyrics today, but we thought we were clever and subversive then, speaking a language our parents weren’t supposed to understand. And I think my characters would feel that way, too.
4. Donna Summer: “Bad Girls”
The stories move into the disco era, and some of the women in the stories take on a certain reckless pursuit of good times.
5. The Wallflowers: “One Headlight”
This song falls out of the time span of the novel, but it is one I played a lot while I was writing some of the stories. It has a sweet, rural feel to it, a lush sound that makes me think of what the stories’ landscape is like. A loneliness, a quiet, rich darkness.
Q: Who are some of the people that inspired you to become a writer or keep writing? Since it is Women Who Rock Wednesday, we particularly love to hear about the women, but feel free to include men too.
A: I loved books by Madeline L’Engle (A Wrinkle in Time) and S. E. Hinton (The Outsiders, etc.) when I was a kid. Women writers, both. Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Allison, Bonnie Jo Campbell, all women whose work makes me want to write. And I hope you don’t mind my saying this, Stephanie, but women like you, who have been my students and who show me how they had the strength and tenacity it takes to keep the writing going despite other obligations, have been such an inspiration. You guys (gals) make me take the work seriously. And lucky me, my husband, the artist Philip Hartigan, gives me such inspiration and support. He works so hard at his own craft, I have to work at mine in order to keep up.
But the most important person is my mom, who died a few years ago. She was a travel writer herself and got me writing gigs early on. On summer days when I was a little kid, she used to give me writing prompts and would expect me to have a story written by the time she got home from work. I loved that. And she told me that she chose my name—Patricia Ann McNair—by imagining what it would look like on the cover a book. I mean, come on! How could I not be a writer with that sort of juju?
Q: What's next for you? What are you working on now?
Patty: What’s on my desk at the moment is a novel-in-progress that also takes place in New Hope. It has a working title that shifts now and again, but today it is called “Climbing the House of God Hill.” It’s a story about a fifteen-year-old girl (huh, imagine that!) who is homeschooled and who gets mixed up in a scandal in town that involves an older man (who also happens to be an immigrant and a father of seven kids), and a friend of her own father who is a member of the church, and her stepmother. It’s a complicated plot right now, but I am hopeful that it will begin to both untangle and deepen the more I write.
Q: I have two standard questions for my women who rock. The first is a two-parter. What was the first album you bought and the first concert you attended? Be honest, we don't judge :)
Patty: My first album Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5. (Okay, now you know how old I am.) I remember it cost 3.99 (or was it 2.99?) at KMart. I came home and played it over and over and over again. I had such a huge crush on Michael Jackson who was just my age. We had this big picture window that was like a mirror when the sun went down, and I would dance in front of it to the album and pretend I was the sixth Jackson, a token white girl.
My first concert was Chicago, with the Pointer Sisters opening. No one knew who they were (The Pointer Sisters) at the time, and so they were practically booed off the stage. I was there for Chicago like everyone else, but I remember thinking that the women were pretty good, and we’d hear from them again. I was too young to get there on my own; my brother had to take me and some girlfriends. We tried to lose him at the concert, though, so we could meet guys.
Q: Tell us about your biggest rock star moment, perhaps it's a moment of real success in your career, a time when you met someone super cool and had that Wayne's World "I'm not worthy" moment, or just a time where you felt like you got the rock star treatment. I get a huge variety of answers for the questions, so it's pretty much whatever "rock star moment" means to you!
Patty: It’s gotta be the launch party for my book just this past Friday. I read at Women and Children First, a bookstore I have always hoped to see my book in some day, and it was so great.
I got there a little early, and at the time, there were only about eight people there, two of them friends of my mom’s, one my own brother, a couple of colleagues, some random shoppers. I knew that the bookstore had ordered a load of books, upping their order a couple of times because they were expecting a lot of people. I was worried that it would be a total flop, that they’d hardly sell anything, that no one would come. Do you ever get over this feeling.
Well, little by little the place started to fill up. Soon it was standing room only, folks in all the chairs and stuffed in all the way to the front windows of the store. And the door kept opening. I could see faces of people I knew were there to support me all the way in the back of the crowd. And when Kathie Bergquist, a Woman Who Most Definitely Rocks, introduced me, the crowd actually cheered! Holy shit!
And no one left in the middle of things, and the book-signing line went on forever it seemed, past closing time for the bookstore. And they sold pretty much every book of mine in the store, even pulling the display one out of the window.
I think that must be what it feels like to be a rock star. Excited, listened to, enjoyed, humbled. And lucky. So very, very lucky.
Thanks for doing this, Patty. I am honored to have you and thanks for the shout-out. I'm glad I can be an inspiration to you too, since you have been such a big one to me.
After hearing more about it, I'm guessing you want THE TEMPLE OF AIR and you are in luck! Patty is offering up a a signed copy of it!
To enter all you have to do is leave a comment. However you can gain additional entries:
+1 for tweeting or posting on facebook about this interview
+1 for tweeting or posting about THE TEMPLE OF AIR
+5 for blogging about THE TEMPLE OF AIR
Note your additional entries in your comment as well as giving me an email address or some way to contact you if you win.
Please note that due to shipping expenses this prize can ONLY be shipped to US/Canada addresses.
I will be drawing the winner on September 28 during my next Women Who Rock Wednesday interview!