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Interview: Author John McNally

By Kristen Romanowski in Arts & Entertainment on Apr 25, 2007 3:26PM

mcnally.jpgChicagoist will be the first to admit that, growing up, we were never cool. We know what you’re saying—Whaa? You’re so funny and smart and visually pleasing! But believe it, friends. Chicagoist was one awkward, gangly, hormonal pre-Web site back in the day. We like to think, though, that all those years of riding the bus, reading the dictionary for fun, and dreaming up awesome comebacks that always came too late were actually key years in the ongoing development of our intelligent, multilayered personality.

So, when we heard that author John McNally released an anthology in March called When I Was a Loser: True Stories of (Barely) Surviving High School, we thought this might be a good time to praise all those former so-called losers who turned out to be accomplished, funny, and just plain neat adults.

McNally, who covers his baldness that started at age 16 with a Sox cap, is one such adult. His Burbank, Ill., upbringing informed much of The Book of Ralph, the 2004 novel that propelled him into popularity. He is also the author of last year’s novel, America’s Report Card, and a short story collection, Troublemakers, and is the editor of four other anthologies. Now a visiting writer-in-residence at Columbia College, McNally will return after this semester to Wake Forest University in North Carolina, where he is an associate professor of English.

But first he will partake in the upcoming Dollar Store at the Hideout, in which participants are given dollar store items to inspire their readings or performances. On May 4, McNally will read an original story influenced by his item, “Mega Glue Stick,” which he says “looks like a stick of deodorant. Except it’s glue.”

For When I Was a Loser, which has earned favorable reviews in Elle, Paste Magazine, and Time Out Chicago, McNally solicited personal essays from the writers whose tortured but tender tales make up this collection. Before giving a reading at the Webster Place Barnes & Noble last week, McNally sat down with Chicagoist at Flounder’s Bar across the street to discuss adolescence and blogging over Van Halen and beers (after the jump).

Chicagoist: The title, When I Was a Loser, implies to me that you no longer think of yourself a loser.

John McNally: That’s probably wishful thinking. Actually, what was funny was I ran a bunch of titles past all the contributors, and one was just Loser. And [some] people kind of recoiled at that because they didn’t want to think that they were still losers in some way. I guess, for the purpose of the title, When I Was a Loser at least implies some sort of hopefulness, that maybe we’ve gotten beyond that. But I think my theory is that we just kind of accept the ways in which we’re losers, and it’s not as magnified as it was in high school.

I think of high school as being a form of insanity, because everything is so heightened, and everything is so dramatic, and you feel as though you’re under the microscope at all times. You’re your own worst critic, and, as a result, it makes you paranoid about everything else.

C: In your essay, you talk about going to see Fast Times at Ridgemont High again and again until you run out of money, literally. You were 16 at the time, and I assume you identified with the movie then?

JM: It was the perfect movie at the perfect time. My girlfriend had just broken up with me, and Fast Times at Ridgemont High had just come out. I don’t remember the movie having any buzz or hype at the time, but I used to review movies for my school newspaper, so I was going to see everything. It was just the perfect movie, in terms of capturing that whole strange transition between innocence and experience and all the screwed-up things of adolescence.

C: Do you think kids in high school are reading this book?

JM: I have a feeling right now it’s probably tapping more into the nostalgia audience—older people looking back at high school, or people my age, or a lot of readers in their twenties. I’d like for it to reach more high schoolers, if at all possible. The marketing of a book is so much out of my control, once it’s out there. I think the audience kind of finds a book as opposed to you finding an audience. It’s kind of an odd phenomenon in publishing.

C: How did you choose the 24 other writers whose essays make up this collection?

loser.jpegJM: For an anthology like this, I was looking for voice. Like, I don’t need a Joyce Carol Oates story about being a loser, but I wanted somebody with a compelling voice. So, Tod Goldberg, although he’s a fiction writer, I really kind of knew him more from his blog. Maud Newton, whose fiction I don’t know at all, she’s got a great blog. There’s a little attitude in her blog that I liked. That’s part of what I was looking for, was voice. And then, beyond that, it’s just trying to find a diversity of writers. It becomes a big jigsaw puzzle of trying to find writers that are disparate from each other but still trying to maintain a more or less consistent tone throughout. There are a few pieces that are more serious than the rest, but I think that was okay.

C: I saw you recently joined MySpace. Have you been finding old classmates who are also on the site?

JM: I’ve started looking at all the people who graduated from Reavis High School, where I went in Burbank, and I’ve begun requesting them as friends. Actually, the people from my year haven’t really gotten on Myspace that much, but there are a few people I’ve run across.

Since I’ve been back in town, I just ran into an old high school friend of mine at the White Hen over by where I’m living right now, in the South Loop, and we just got together yesterday for dinner to sort of catch up. But it’s a little strange, because when I do talk to people I went to high school with, I don’t remember that much anymore, I realized. And part of it’s probably because I’ve moved around so much. I left Burbank when I was 17, so I just kind of feel like that was a different part of my life. And so when people start trying to remind me of little odd things from drama club or something, I’m like, I have no idea what the hell you’re talking about.

C: You also have a blog. What do you get out of blogging?

JM: I’ve actually cut back on blogging, just because I felt like I wasn’t sure that I had that much to say. I think I was using it as a forum to experiment with a different side of my writing, because I don’t do a lot of nonfiction. Occasionally I’ll write an essay for an anthology, but I don’t write a lot of creative nonfiction. But I wanted an outlet so that if I wanted to complain about the South Loop club, for example, or if I just wanted to have some observations on music, I thought that I would use the blog.

In December, I decided that I was going to start cutting back on it for a while. I wasn’t sure if anybody was reading it, for one thing. It’s just this kind of odd experience, of writing and sending something out into cyberspace. Although, I don’t know if you followed the whole Ursula K. LeGuin saga that happened…

C: No, I don’t think so.

JM: She was somebody whose novels I’d read when I was a kid, and it really made me want to write fiction. So, when The Book of Ralph came out, I sent her a signed copy with some inscription about making me want to become a writer. A couple years later, the book ended up on a used book site for sale for, like, $50. And I just thought it was funny because, I mean, I collect books, so I didn’t take it personally. So I wrote a blog about that, but I was feigning indignation. And what happened was that a couple of other blogs picked up on it, and then several other blogs picked up on that blog. A week later, New York Magazine [dissed LeGuin in its “Approval Matrix”].

And then the London Times did something about it, and I just thought, this is insane. I’m just sitting in my house writing this stupid blog, and suddenly it spiraled out. And she found out about it and got very upset and thought that I was actually contacting people to kind of generate publicity for myself, so I had to write a letter to her explaining. It was just this ridiculous kind of pseudo-event that occurred. So that taught me to be careful what I blog about it, and also showed me the power I have blogging.

C: You’re just one man, but…

JM: I can take down a powerhouse science fiction writer with one blog.

C: Who are some of your other influences?

JM: As a kid, I didn’t read that much. I watched a lot of movies, and I was just really interested in humor, in any form. I love silent comedies, so I would watch Chaplin movies, or old silent Laurel and Hardy movies, but then I would [also] memorize George Carlin routines or Richard Pryor routines. Anything having to do with humor, I was into.

Years later, after The Book of Ralph had come out, somebody asked me what my literary influences were for those [main] characters. And when I thought about it, I realized that Ralph and Hank are really kind of a vaudeville team. I wasn’t conscious about that while I was writing it, but that’s really kind of their relationship. It’s "The Odd Couple," with their banter that has kind of a similar rhythm to it [and] to old vaudevillians. That’s actually a huge influence in my writing that I didn’t realize until later.

As far as fiction, The World According to Garp was a book that really made me want to become a writer once I was in college. And then after that, there’s just so many other books that it’s hard to even go into.

C: Chicagoist reviewed your last novel, America’s Report Card, and basically the only criticism was that you seem like too nice a guy to write about dark topics. How do you respond to that criticism?

JM: It’s funny, because I wrote three unpublished novels, and they were rejected because they were too dark. And I think there’s still a dark undercurrent to things I write. I mean, I like to think I’m a nice guy, so I don’t want to dispute that part of the critique, but I thought that there was a lot of darkness in America’s Report Card, in a lot of ways. But it’s also a political satire, so there’s humor to kind of mitigate a lot of the darkness.

C: You’re working on another novel?

JM: Two novels. I’m deciding which one I’m going to really dive into this summer. One is a prequel to The Book of Ralph. And another one is a completely different stand-alone novel.

C: A prequel?

JM: I’m moving [the main characters] back to seventh grade. I like that time frame. The late ’70s is fun for me to write about. And I’ve written some of it already. It would be just more of a traditional novel, with the possibility of having a crossover with young adults. Actually, I get a lot of emails from teenagers, and my high school wanted to adopt [The Book of Ralph in its curriculum], but, when they read it, they thought it was too adult in places. I would actually be a lot more conscious of essentially writing the same book but, like, not using the word “fuck.” Or toning down some things but not compromising anything else.

C: You grew up here. What are you going to miss about Chicago when you leave this summer?

JM: This is the one place I do feel at home. I understand the city, and I understand the people. I’ve been living in the South now for four years, and I don’t think I’ll ever connect with it. It’s just a different cultural experience. I don’t get the people, the people don’t get me, I think. So, when I come back here, I do feel comfortable, in my comfort zone. And I think it’s good, in a sense, to be away for a while, because it’s easier for me sometimes to write about a place when I’m away from it. But, on the other hand, I miss it, so it’s been nice to be able to come back here.

Photos: With permission, we lifted the middle photo, McNally at age 13, from his Web site. It was the summer of '79. McNally provided the other two photos.