John McNally: Renewed Interest in the Magic of Short Stories

John McNally, the author or editor of 18 books, including his most recent short story collection, The Fear of Everything, discusses what renewed his interest in the short story, what his goals in writing are, and more.
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John McNally is the author of The Fear of Everything: Stories (University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press) and the author or editor of 17 previous books, including The Book of Ralph: A Novel and The Boy Who Really, Really Wanted to Have Sex: The Memoir of a Fat Kid, as well as several books about the craft and business aspects of writing. 

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(21 authors share one piece of advice for writers.)

A graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, John is Writer-in-Residence and the Dr. Doris Meriwether/BORSF Professor in English at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

In this post, McNally shares what his goals in writing are, what renewed his interest in the short story (and sparked his collection), and more!

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Name: John McNally
Title: The Fear of Everything: Stories
Publisher: University of Louisiana Press
Release date: September 1, 2020
Genre: Literary/Short Stories
Previous titles: The Book of Ralph: A Novel; After the Workshop: A Novel; The Boy Who Really, Really Wanted to Have Sex: The Memoir of a Fat Kid; The Promise of Failure: One Writer's Perspective on Not Succeeding

Elevator pitch for the book: In the tradition of Ray Bradbury, Margaret Atwood, and T.C. Boyle, these nine tales feature shady magicians, dubious sleep study assistants, missing cats, demonic attorneys, and lonely latchkey kids.

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What prompted you to write this book?

I've been writing short stories consistently since 1984, and this is my third collection. After my second collection, I was burnt out writing short stories, but then I was given an assignment to write a story for a Ray Bradbury tribute anthology. The story I wrote, "The Phone Call," was my first attempt, since high school, at writing something that had a fantastical element in it, and like that, my interest in writing short stories was renewed. 

(21 Ray Bradbury quotes for writers.)

Bradbury was someone I had read when I was a kid and one of the reasons I started writing in the first place, so the assignment tapped into that initial urge to put pen to paper, the desire to do something fun. In that regard, this collection is me drawing from those writers I most admired when I was younger, channeling their work. And it's also me having fun.

How long did it take to go from idea to publication?

This book took about 10 years to write. I began writing the oldest story in this book around 2008, and I finished that same story in 2018. I put it away for probably eight years. I always put my stories away and then come back to them, but usually not for eight years! But 10 years is how long each of my other collections took to write. 

From the time I finished the collection until its publication? Two more years. So we're looking at 12 years total. Fortunately, I wrote other books and screenplays during that time.

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Were there any surprises in the publishing process for this title?

After the book was accepted, I was lucky enough to have been awarded a professorship, which comes with a budget, so I wanted to contribute to the cost of the book's production in exchange for the ability to make decisions, in consultation with the press, about design. This is my 18th book, but it's the first where I took a hands-on approach on the production side, and I loved it.

Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?

As a writer of primarily realistic or comic fiction, I was surprised by the weirdness of this book—the fantastical stuff—as well as the more sinister moments. Where I might normally have taken a right turn, I took a left.

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

I saw Isaac Bashevis Singer give a reading late in his life, and when a grad student asked him what the point of literature was, he responded, "To entertain and to educate." It’s a simple thing, really, but that’s all I aspire for. 

(How to broaden your short story's scope.)

"Entertain" is self-explanatory, but for me "to educate" means showing the world to the reader in a particular way that maybe they haven't seen before, giving them that shock of recognition. If I can achieve that, I'm happy.

If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?

Keep your overhead down.