Iowa Writers' Workshop Graduate Spills It All: Interview with John McNally, Author of "After the Workshop"

I thought McNally, because he has experienced the Iowa Writers' Workshop firsthand--and lived to tell the funniest tale ever written about it--would be an ideal subject to interview about a lot of concerns in the writing and publishing industries.
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John McNally's novel After the Workshop (Counterpoint, 2010) describes a hectic few days in the life of Jack Hercules Sheahan, a media escort in Iowa City, Iowa, forced to take care of preening writers and their unreasonable expectations. Time was, Sheahan was a bit of a star in the Iowa Writers' Workshop himself, having published a well-received story in The New Yorker. But those years are long past. Now Sheahan is derided by the current Workshop instructors, when his presence on the periphery of the action is even recognized. Enter Vanessa Roberts, a memoirist of incest, and also Tate Reinhart, the reigning East Coast literary star, both pressing Sheahan into service. While Sheahan escorts these writers around, at every turn he confronts reminders of his own failed promise. In Tate Reinhart's backward-written words--he takes notes about Sheahan's miserable life for a potential story--"Himself killing from him keeps what?" Jack, of course, discovers this coded message, and wonders what exactly is keeping him from killing himself. A novelist from Sheahan's past, S. S. Pitzer--a "real writer," we are led to believe--also arrives on the scene, wanting Sheahan to resume writing his masterpiece, which he abandoned years ago; Pitzer is so eager to see this novel finished that he'll undertake the task of completion himself, whether or not Sheahan permits it. It is appropriate that Sheahan eventually gets unblocked due to the helpful ministrations of one Lucy Rogan, a romance novelist he had once escorted and had a crush on. All in all, this is one of the most outrageously funny books I've read in recent years, and the very best novel I have ever read about writing culture. But its appeal goes well beyond writers and would-be writers; its satire is broad enough to take in nearly all of our intellectual and social pretensions in these waning days of empire.

I thought McNally, because he has experienced the Iowa Writers' Workshop firsthand--and lived to tell the funniest tale ever written about it--would be an ideal subject to interview about a lot of concerns in the writing and publishing industries, such as the incorporation of writing into the academy, the relevance of MFA programs, the transition from short story writing to novels, the general political economy of writing--and, of course, the inside scoop on the Iowa Writers' Workshop.

Anis Shivani: When did the idea for a satirical novel about the Iowa Writers' Workshop occur to you? I imagine it must have had a long gestational period.

John McNally: About two seconds after graduating from Iowa, back in 1989, I began working on a novel titled Murder at the Writers' Workshop, which I stuck in a folder after twenty pages and never looked at again, but the idea of writing about that world stayed with me. So, the gestation period was almost twenty years. And I guess you could say that I had some issues to work out. I wrote a short story titled "Contributor's Notes" about a writer living in Iowa City. That story, which is included in my collection Ghosts of Chicago, took about six years to get right. Fortunately, I work on a lot of things at the same time, or else I'd be the least prolific writer alive.

A few years ago, I was talking to my then-agent about my days of working as a media escort after I had moved back to Iowa City in the mid-1990s, and she said, "You should write that novel." That's when the idea of actually writing a full-length novel took root again. Originally, the Writers' Workshop wasn't going to be a part of the book, but once I set the novel in Iowa City and made the narrator a writer with a horrible case of writer's block, I decided to tackle every aspect of the writing and publishing world, including the Workshop. Suddenly, no one and nothing were immune. And that's when I really started having fun writing it.

Shivani: Do you feel purged, having written this novel?

McNally: I do! I don't feel purged when it comes to the absurdities of academia, but as far as the writing world goes...yes, I'm purged. For now. My fear of writing a satire about academia is that I wouldn't be able to stop. It would quickly turn into a multi-volume novel that Time-Life would have to sell on an installment plan.

Shivani: Satirical fiction doesn't seem to get as much recognition or as many awards as the more typical narcissistic fiction. Is it because the reigning aesthetic value is for the reader to be able to identify with characters (mostly grief-stricken), which is harder to do with the unlikeable characters that often populate satire?

McNally: I once taught a course on the history of humor in American literature, and the thing I realized pretty fast was that some people just aren't wired to get humor. We're all wired to recognize moments of grief, but the ability to recognize humor must be housed in a different part of the brain. Or, some people appreciate one kind of humor but fail to find humor in a different kind. Whenever I teach Denis Johnson's story "Emergency" to a class of sixteen students, I'm lucky if two see the humor in it. But the humor in it is dark, and since we're a sentimental culture, we don't want to think that a story in which a character has a knife stuck all the way into his eye can be funny.

I've had students tell me that Flannery O'Connor is dark and depressing, populated with unlikeable characters, and I suppose if you can't see the humor in it, it would be dark and depressing. But here's the thing. She's funny as hell! That's what makes her work transcend the abyss. And here's the other thing. It's not her fault if you don't find her funny.

Shivani: On the other hand, there seems to have been an upsurge lately in works of effective satire. Would you agree with that assessment, and could you point to specific examples that have struck you as accurately reading the cultural moment?

McNally: The 1930s saw the rise, and quick decline, of the protest novel, but those novels, which protested some sort of injustice, weren't funny novels. No one talks about the hilarious, laugh-out-loud adventures of the Joads, for instance. Recently, Jess Walters' The Financial Lives of Poets, a hilarious novel, nails problems with the financial crisis as well as the imminent death of print newspapers. A forthcoming novel by Maya Sloan titled High Before Homeroom does a superb comic job of dealing with, among other things, hero worship. Satire is an excellent vehicle for making the political palatable--and I mean "political" in the broadest sense of the word. Since we're living in deeply divided times, the rise of satire seems inevitable.

Shivani: There has been a lot written in the campus novel genre, both in America and Britain. Many writers continue to try to their hand at the genre, with various degrees of success. This is less true when it comes to taking on writing departments. Is it because it would be too much a case of biting the hand that feeds the writer?

McNally: I'm sure that's true. And I'll confess, I had moments of concern each time I decided to satirize yet another segment of the writing world in my novel, but I'm good at sabotaging myself, so I figured, What the hell...fuck 'em if they can't take a joke.

It's also possible that the books are getting written but not published. One recurring reason why my book was rejected, even when it was being championed by editors at various publishing houses, was that it was too insider-ey. Who, except other writers, would want to read the book? Ironically, the only people who've posed that question to me have been other writers and editors. I've gotten plenty of emails from people who aren't writers or editors who've read the book and responded positively to it. After all, the book is really about a guy with a shitty job who's come to a critical point in his life. To my mind, that's universal. If I'd written about a postman at the crossroads of his life, would only postal workers have been interested in it?

Shivani: How do you feel about your writing training on the whole? What are the worst things that stand out for you now? And the best parts of the experience?

McNally: The worst part of my MFA experience was the way that a hierarchy was put into place. I don't know if it's still like that at Iowa, but in the late 1980s, funding was doled out so that there was a clear hierarchy: the Teaching-Writing fellows who taught creative writing on top, those who taught literature just below, those who taught Composition even lower, those who were Research Assistants barely hovering above the bottom, and those without funding--well, they were shit. The hierarchy was reinforced by which students were selected to meet with writers passing through town, who got to eat with them, etc., etc. I didn't have funding my first year, and initially I was one of three who didn't get funding my second and final year. It was only after a visiting editor, who was teaching a summer school course, spoke up on my behalf that I was given a Research Assistantship. I was angry then, but I'm not now, because I started working twice as hard, and it eventually paid off. It motivated me. I still think the hierarchical way things were done was shitty, but I'm the sort of person who, instead of crouching in a corner and feeling sorry for myself, will say, "Fuck you. I'll show you." The best part of getting an MFA was that I did have good teachers who taught me useful things. My writing improved significantly after two years.

Shivani: Are you more angry or less angry toward writing programs than when you were in the throes of it?

McNally: Less angry. Definitely less angry.

Shivani: Were you ever a media escort yourself?

McNally: Yes, in the mid-1990s, in Iowa City. You wouldn't know it if you've read After the Workshop, but it was a pretty good job. The pay was good. Most of the authors were decent people. A few publicists pissed me off, and I know I pissed off at least one. I tacked on a late fee when one publicist's employer, one of the behemoth publishers, didn't pay me in a timely manner, so the publicist wrote me a personal check and told me my services weren't needed anymore. In my novel, the publicist is gored by a bull in Pamplona.

Shivani: The academy is by nature conservative. It seems impossible when nearly all our writers are affiliated with the academy that their writing won't also become conservative. Do you agree with that?

McNally: Since there are scores of writers affiliated with universities whose work I admire, I have a difficult time making a generalization, but I will say this: To remain at a university, you have to publish; and to get published by a press that your colleagues recognize, you probably have to play it safe, to some extent. But I'm not even sure if that's true. Is George Saunders, who teaches at Syracuse, a conservative writer? Is T. C. Boyle, who teaches at University of Southern California, a conservative writer? I don't think so, but maybe they are in the eyes of someone else. And I suppose if you're comparing them to an avant-garde writer, like Richard Kostelanetz, they are conventional. The answer to your question really depends upon who you ask and what their aesthetic sensibility is.

Shivani: Is there any alternative to writers joining the academy en masse? Have you thought of any alternatives for yourself? Do you know of writers who have successfully taken the plunge for themselves?

McNally: I wish I knew of an alternative! In the 1990s, I spent a number of years earning less than fifteen thousand dollars. I couldn't get a decent job to save my life. And I was finishing up a PhD at the time. I was overqualified for janitorial work, which I applied for. But since I hadn't yet published a book, I couldn't land a tenure-track teaching position. So, I did shitty paying adjunct work at the community college, scored standardized tests part-time for about eight bucks an hour, and signed up with a temp agency. When I think back to those days, as well as other, earlier times, like when I was living in a camping trailer in Southern Illinois and collecting an unemployment check, it's hard for me to thumb my nose at my job now. I have tenure; I make a decent salary; I have health benefits. Even so, I still feel ill-suited for academia. I was a first-generation college student, which immediately puts me at odds with most, if not all, of my colleagues, and I attended a third- or fourth-tier state school for my undergrad, which further puts me at odds. So, when I watch colleagues dismiss state-school grads out-of-hand who've applied for teaching positions in our department, even when those grads have more teaching experience and more publications than the Ivy League grads, I want to scream at them. It's the sort of elitism, not to mention logical fallacy, that drives me absolutely mad. Whatever hierarchy I had thought was in place at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, it's ten-fold in the academy once you start teaching. So when you ask me if I've thought of any alternatives, the answer is that I'm always thinking about it, all the time, but I haven't come up with any good answers. I still have student loan payments to make, and I at least have time to write. Also, I think I'm a pretty good teacher. The writers I've known who've successfully taken the plunge--and I know a few--did so because they landed film deals for their books. They could afford to take the plunge. My father was a roofer, and my mother was an assembly-line worker in a factory that made cardboard boxes, and I know for a fact that I have a hell of a lot better job (and a better quality of life) than either of them, so it's hard for me to bellyache all that much. Furthermore, I know people who'd kill to have my job. I'd have killed to have my job before I had it. I think it's okay for me to say, regarding my life in academia, that I'm often-irritated, lucky, ill-suited, and grateful all at the same time. The day I find a job that pays me good money to read true crime books and watch the Three Stooges with my dogs, however, I'll be in heaven.

Shivani: I feel that regularly reading and critiquing apprentice writing is enormously destructive to the quality of writing one is capable of producing. What do you think?

McNally: Since I've been teaching, off and on, since 1989, I hope to God you're wrong! In all seriousness, the first several years of teaching helped my writing. Here's why. There's a kind of "default writing" that all writers slip into--it's just easy, lazy writing--but it's difficult to know what default writing is unless you've read thousands of pages of apprentice writing, at which point you begin seeing the repetitions, the patterns, and then you can work on purging it from your own work. Or maybe it purges itself. But I do suppose the law of diminishing returns eventually kicks in. I don't believe it's destructive to my writing so much as it is to my soul. Well, okay, maybe not my soul. Maybe it's just my general well-being. If I see one more story about a dead grandmother, for instance, who knows what I'll do? (And why are all dead grandparent stories about dead grandmothers? I don't remember ever reading a dead grandfather story. A dead grandfather story might just change my opinion on the whole genre.)

Shivani: In After the Workshop, you're commenting on the narrow confines of not just writing culture, or literature and humanities departments, but our intellectual life as a whole. We seem to be in a very advanced state of intellectual paralysis, something we might expect at the twilight of empire. Where are the fresh ideas, if any, coming from?

McNally: I'm not concerned about fresh ideas. I think there are plenty of those. I'm more concerned about whether those fresh ideas will have a chance to live, given the state of publishing, the rise of Kindle, the amount of time the Internet cuts into the time we might have read a book in pre-Internet days, etc. And I'm guilty of it, too. I've Googled away a good part of the last ten years. It's depressing, really.

Shivani: What has been the response of your former writing teachers and colleagues toward After the Workshop?

McNally: I'm not sure if any former writing teachers have read it yet. Colleagues? A few have read it. One colleague cut out a paragraph that he assumed was about another colleague of ours and anonymously posted it on the departmental bulletin board so as to stir up some shit. So, there you have it. Academia in a nutshell.

Shivani: If you don't get an MFA, you have to be almost superhumanly talented and persistent and lucky to make up for the lack of connections and the bias of publishers at all levels toward MFA graduates. This seems to be the criterion publishers are most interested in, as a shortcut to judgment, rather than the quality of the writing. In poetry, the only route to publication is through a small press contest, and try doing that without an MFA credential. Do you agree with this assessment?

McNally: I'm probably the wrong person to ask since I have an MFA and a PhD. (I applied to PhD programs when I was living in a camping trailer and unemployed. Going back to school seemed a better option.) What I can tell you is that no agent I've ever had--and I've had five--has asked me what degrees I have, and I don't remember ever telling an agent where I had gone to school when I first approached them. After they took me on, they knew I had gone to Iowa, but I quit mentioning it in my cover letters years and years ago. Furthermore, even with my Iowa degree, I've had four completed novels roundly rejected by publishers--two of them after I'd already published books--so, again, I don't think having an MFA means much of anything. For an agent, I think the primary criterion is "Can I sell this book?" (Most agents will tell you that the primary criterion is "Do I love this book?" and I don't doubt that that's one of their questions, but I tend to think "Can I sell it?" has veto power over "Do I love it?") I think the same criterion is true for publishers, but I would add this: If you already have a sales track-record, your past sales (if they weren't good) could come back to haunt you. I think it's a ridiculous way of running a business, because there's no correlation between past sales and future sales. The sales of John Irving's first three novels were terrible, by today's standards. By today's criterion of looking at past sales to determine future sales, it's likely that The World According to Garp, his fourth novel, wouldn't have been published, at least not by a commercial press. This is where the publishing industry and, in turn, the chain bookstores that order the books and, in turn, dictate print-runs, shoot themselves in the foot, in my opinion. It's not good for anyone--the writer, the publisher, or the bookstore. It's not good for the culture, either. And yet it's the business model that's in place. Does anyone, in this scenario, care really whether I have an MFA or not? I honestly don't think so. But, again, I'm probably the wrong person to answer this question.

Shivani: What would be your advice to someone thinking about joining an MFA program?

McNally: I've spent my entire adult life trying to figure out how to buy time. Time is the writer's most valuable commodity. There aren't many opportunities that allow you to take a few years off to spend it writing, but an MFA is one of those. I wouldn't recommend going into debt to do it. And I wouldn't necessarily have any other expectations, either. It won't get you a teaching job, unless you publish a book. As I said before, my MFA experience helped speed up my development because I had writing professors who pointed out things that might have taken me years to figure out on my own. The downside is that it's easy to get sucked into all the bullshit that accompanies an MFA program--bitter jealousies, competition, writing to that particular audience, etc. If you can somehow shield yourself from all of that crap and write every day, it's not a bad way to spend two years. And who knows? You may decide, at the end of it, that you'd rather do something else with your life instead of spending it writing.

Shivani: We don't have great critics like Malcolm Cowley, Edmund Wilson, Alfred Kazin, or John Aldridge anymore. Why have we lost the great critics?

McNally: The first reason is academia. Critics like Cowley, Wilson, Kazin, and Aldridge are mocked these days. Academic scholars continually have to reinvent the wheel to make themselves necessary or relevant, which is why there are so many generational turf wars within English Departments. But here's the big difference to me. Cowley, Wilson, Kazin, Aldridge--these guys loved literature. I don't see many academic critics these days who actually, honest-to-God love literature, and, in fact, I see critics making entire careers on the backs of writers they don't even like. What's the point, I wonder. My cynical take is that if you still have an old-fashioned love of literature, you're doomed as a "scholar" in an English Department. Or you're seen as a lightweight. Or you're mocked. Novels are no longer novels; they're texts. They're fodder for sociological analyses, as though the novel were an elaborate paint-by-numbers exercise--a giant puzzle that only scholars can decode. How utterly depressing, if that were really the case.

I also blame the culture. Amazon reviews, Facebook, Goodreads. Everyone's a critic. Who needs Cowley, etc., to give us thoughtful observations? Hell, I'll just log onto Goodreads to take the pulse of contemporary literature. Who's to say that if Edmund Wilson were alive today, he wouldn't have a thumbnail photo of his dog to identify himself and use a frowny-face emoticon to express his displeasure with a novel? What does Edmund Wilson think of Proust? The answer is: :(

I should note that I recently shut down my Facebook page and bought a refurbished IBM Selectric, and I am infinitely happier. The onslaught of public opinion, including my own, depresses me to no end.

Shivani: Does training in writing short stories--the staple of MFA programs--interfere with later development as a novelist? The same question applies to the major first route of publication, the literary journals, which promote short stories at the expense of longer fiction.

McNally: I tend to believe that it does interfere. For me, it's as though I'm using a different side of my brain writing a novel than when I write a short story. While there are a handful of writers who are wonderful in both genres, it seems to me that most writers fall into only one category: they are either good short story writers or they are good novelists. So, it does seem to be a disservice to treat the writing of short stories as the beginning of an arc that will eventually lead to the writing of successful novels.

When it comes to finding an agent, you may find yourself in a Catch-22. It's easier to catch the eye of an agent if you've published short stories in literary magazines, and yet no agent wants to see your story collection. And what if you're really a novelist and not a short story writer? My first novel--The Book of Ralph--is really a collection of linked short stories. I wrote the chapters as short stories, and I gave it to my agent as a collection of short stories. When the novel was published, it didn't say "short stories" on the cover. It said, at my suggestion, "fiction." The book was reviewed mostly as a novel, so when the paperback came out, "fiction" was replaced by "novel." I now write novel-novels instead of novels-in-stories, but I don't think I hit my stride until I wrote After the Workshop. A previous novel of mine (America's Report Card), along with four failed and unpublished novels, were clunky attempts at the form, in large part because I had spent the first fifteen years of my writing life writing mostly short stories.

Shivani: Have you read David Shields's Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, and what is your opinion of it?

McNally: I haven't read it yet. I've spent the past year reading a lot of true crime and watching the Three Stooges with my dogs. I've been meaning to read it, though.

Shivani: You must have encountered many real-life models for prima donnas like Vanessa Roberts, Tate Reinhart, and Vince Belechek?

McNally: Yes. Absolutely. They all have real-life counterparts. I just can't say who they are.

Shivani: Which is worse, being a media escort or being a publicist?

McNally: As much as the publicist in After the Workshop is a villain, I would have to say that the publicist has the worse job. I actually enjoyed being a media escort. The authors' only expectation for me was to be at the airport to pick them up. The authors' expectations for their publicists? Whew. As a writer, I try to be nice to publicists. I send cookies. That's the key to my success, such as it is. Cookies. Lots and lots of cookies.

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