Thursday, March 24, 2011
Interview with Andrew McNabb
Andrew McNabb is the thirteenth interview at The Fine Delight. This interview was conducted through e-mail. A bio note, as well as relevant links, follow the interview. Thanks for your responses, Andrew!
1. The Missouri Review is a very respected, and--I would argue--very 'mainstream' literary magazine. They were the first to publish "Their Bodies, Their Selves." I consider the story Catholic in the Flannery O'Connor sense rather than the devotional; have you experienced any hesitation on the part of magazine editors to publish works that intersect with the Catholic experience?
Tough question. I have my suspicions, but when it comes down to it, story rules. A superior story is going to find a home. You mentioned Flannery O’Connor. Her work was transcendent. Even if people found the Catholicity of her stories unappealing, you couldn’t keep those stories down. As far as stories that intersect with the Catholic faith, there are two distinct categories. One in which the characters are Catholic and the action happens, at least in part, in the context of the characters’ faith. If the story is well-done, few editors would object. The other category is one in which a more overt attempt is made to impart some specific Catholic ideal. I might be guilty of attempting a few of those. No apologies here. Those stories have to be expertly crafted, too, to make it past the gatekeepers. If they’re not well-done, they can be painful to read.
2. The Missouri Review tends to publish longer fiction ("Bearskin" by James McLaughlin was one of my favorites), although have recently begun including briefer pieces (see RT Smith's "First Meeting"). "Their Bodies, Their Selves" is a relatively short story, yet retains the power of a longer work. How did you approach the structuring and pacing of this story (and your other works of short fiction)?
I write short. I’m not a natural-born story-teller. I write, mostly, because I feel like I have something to say. Brevity and quickness are a by-product of having some place to go and wanting to get there before I go and mess something up.
3. "Their Bodies, Their Selves" begins with the line "They had lived a clothed life" and soon includes the sentence: "And speaking of physics, here the two of them sat, Drayton and Sarah Maguire, naked, wilted." Even the title alludes to "bodies." How did you approach the description and presentation of physical forms in the story?
It has been pointed out that I write about old folks a lot. It might be because I think a lot about what comes next. Diminishing physical capabilities and being forced to deal with an impending end (and new beginning!) are powerful topics. When writing about these topics, I simply try to imagine the depth of feeling and emotion and reflection those experiences must evoke. That’s what happened when I wrote “Their Bodies, Their Selves.” It worked. There have been very few stories that have naturally poured out of me and that was one. It’s probably my best.
4. The Body of This is your debut short story collection. Could you discuss the genesis of the book (did you publish all the individual stories, how did you make decisions about order, did you revise the story during the book process, etc.)?
About a dozen of the stories were published previously, mostly in good to very good “secular” literary journals, but also in a few Christian/Catholic outlets, most notably, “Not Safe, But Good,” (Best Christian Short Stories, 2007.) I first attempted to shop the collection to agents as part of a two book deal. The collection was really just an aside to a more saleable (if it was any good) memoir. The memoir was not, in fact, good (I can say, now, in hindsight.) Though the collection was well-received, few agents would take it on because few publishers want a stand-alone story collection from a little-known author. Story collections don’t sell. I was advised to seek out a small regional publisher or university press. I did and Warren Machine Books were excited about the book and agreed to take it on. With a small publisher there seems to be a lot more willingness to accept the author’s input. So I did have a say in the order of the stories, and in other editorial decisions. Having the book published was great fun and exciting and I learned a lot that will be helpful as future books come out.
5. What has been the reaction to The Body of This from Catholic-geared readers and audiences?
This has been the most interesting part of this whole process. Most Catholic readers warmly embraced the book, and a few outspoken Catholic readers have strenuously objected. As you mentioned, the body is a prominent theme in the book. In my mind, you can’t discuss the body at any great length without somehow hitting smack-dab into sexuality. There is a frankness and an honesty in the stories with regard to our sexuality and our bodies that has elicited strong reactions. Eliciting strong reactions has been gratifying, but one never likes to have one’s work compared to the awful and dissonant architecture of some of our modern churches. But ultimately, the controversy was good and led to great discussions; and it also helped to sell some books.
6. Graham Greene sometimes embraced, but more often lamented, the title of "Catholic" writer. How do you feel about the term? Is it useful or provincial?
I embrace it. It is an honor. Any time someone wants to refer to me as Catholic, I’ll take it. It can be useful, too. It’s hard to tell with any certainty, but by my estimation at least 50% of the sales of my book were to a “devout” Catholic audience. These folks bought the book because there was some part of it that was heralded, justifiably, as “Catholic.” As I mentioned above, short story collections don’t sell very well. That I had this additional audience to sell to was the envy of many purely literary writers.
7. Any Catholic literary influences (I get a hint of Ron Hansen's Mariette in Ecstasy in your palpable sense of description, but I might be wrong)?
Ron Hansen’s Mariette in Ectsasy is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read. I would put it in my top five favorites, and I think it probably did influence me. When I was just starting out though, Flannery O’Connor was an overt influence. I even wrote a story about a good-for-nothin’ southern preacher. The story got published on-line but has disappeared, mercifully, into the ether. WAIT, WAIT, no it hasn’t. I just googled it and here it is. Eesh, awkward, but not quite as bad as I remember. It is always surreal going back and reading early work.
Anyway, I think most young writers are heavily influenced by one or a few writers and as you are trying to find your voice you sort of borrow someone else’s for a while. But write long enough and you will become your own writer.
8. What are you currently writing/reading?
I have been reading mostly theology, papal encyclicals, classical devotional literature. I have also been re-reading spiritual books that I plowed through a decade or more ago and, unsurprisingly, the experience this time around is a lot different.
As for writing, in an unexpected departure from fiction, I am currently working on a book about virtue. You heard it here first! Prayers appreciated.
Andrew McNabb lives in Portland, Maine with his wife and four children. He is a full-time writer and full-time husband and dad. More about Andrew can be seen at http://www.andrew-mcnabb.com/
Posted by Nick Ripatrazone at 12:00 AM