Mother Heart — An interview with Patricia Ann McNair

Patricia Ann McNair, author of the recently released story collection Responsible Adults, the acclaimed essay collection And These Are the Good Times, and the award-winning story collection The Temple of Air, is an old soul, having lived many lives (gas station manager, medical volunteer in Honduras, bartender, mushroom breeder, Chicago Mercantile Exchange trading floor worker, and aerobic teacher) on her way to writer. Her stories breathe fresh life into familiar terrain, rendering place into character, vacillating between bountiful and severe. Characters in this poignant collection simultaneously twin their adult and child selves as they live in the liminal space of adolescence, repeating the mistakes of their parents as they try not to. As I read this masterful collection, I felt a kinship to all women who know the “sharp, dark injury” of being a mother or a daughter or a daughterless daughter. Sitting with a character in snow-cocooned, log cabin quiet, I felt understood because McNair’s heart beats within her characters, and that heart is full with all the lives McNair has lived.

Two of the stories in Responsible Adults were originally published in Solstice, including “My Mother’s Daughter,” a Solstice fiction award winner in 2014. McNair teaches creative writing at Columbia College Chicago.

 

AP: “What was to Come,” the first story in the collection, is a gut punch, Hemingway-style. It is 101 words and opens with the zinging line, “Dorothy lost her mother.” How did this story come into being?

PAM: Thanks, Alex, for your kind words about the story. I’ll admit I started with the challenge of writing a 101-word story for a submission call that I found for my students in a publishing class. They complained about not being able to tell something with so few words, so I decided to try it myself. I often start with an image when I get going on a story, and for some reason I was thinking about my back yard when I was a kid. We had some woods behind us, even though it was a suburb where I grew up, and we would sit out there sometimes on kitchen chairs, between the house and the woods. So that is the setting I was beginning to imagine with the story. I knew, too, that I wanted to write a story of an adult child; you probably noticed that I write about young characters a lot—I wanted to do something different. The line, like so many of my first lines, whispered itself to me. Confession, though. The story was originally about a man and his aging mother. The line originally was “He lost his mother.” I knew a reader’s first thought would be that she was lost in death, and I wanted to challenge that a little. It wasn’t until I was putting the collection together that the man became a woman, and later still, Dorothy.

 

AP: I read that you wrote these stories over time. When did you know that the first story would connect to the collection’s final story? How did you come up with the idea to end the collection with the characters who started it, especially as the mother and daughter’s interior monologues contrast sharply in tone?

PAM: So, yeah, the first story wasn’t about the same characters as the last originally. The last story, “At the Corner of Cole and Porter,” is one of my favorite recent stories. (“What Was to Come” was written three or four years ago.) I really dug exploring the internal point of view of the aging mother as her memory was slipping, and as these moments of her life began to flutter into her awareness, I was also interested in how an adult daughter would try to handle a mother who was slipping like that. Those characters, Dorothy and her mother, were present to me on the pages of “Cole and Porter” from the start. I realized that “What Was to Come” had a similar parent/child dynamic, so I made the characters in that first story the same ones as the “Cole and Porter” characters. I always knew what I wanted the first story to be; I wanted it short and painful and to hold a promise for the rest of the stories. “Cole and Porter” kept moving around inside the book, and when I finally slotted it into the last place, the anchor story, it seemed like the obvious choice. Bookends, sort of, but flipping the point of view from daughter to mother. To my mind, though, the event of the first story happens later than the last story, after the mother and daughter have come to some shifting peace.

 

AP: I want to applaud your killer title, Responsible Adults. For me, writing titles is more difficult than writing a book or story. How do you arrive at your titles?

PAM: I have a love/hate relationship with titles; maybe most writers do. If they are good, you know it right away—but then sometimes your editor might not agree. That hurts. I like to write titles down, titles I imagine, lines I hear that would make good ones. You know how it is, writers sit around talking with one another and someone says something: “Men eat cheese.” Someone else always says: “That would make a good title.” I do that. Funny, though, those overheard titles I scribble down rarely go anywhere for me. Instead, I usually mine my title out of the text. I listen for the heartbeat of the story, I use that. This time, though, for this book, I did think of the title first, and then I looked at my unfinished drafts of stories for a place to slip the words into the text. I love the play of those words. No one hears the phrase “responsible adults” without doubting its accuracy. And that works in the favor of my stories, of the collection.

 

AP: Many of these stories feature adolescent narrators. How did you craft their voices?

PAM: I am a 60-plus-year-old adolescent. Seriously. I am enamored of the perspective of young women, teenagers. I am stuck in that time of life myself because it was the time when my father died. I was fifteen. So, I live in my fifteen-year-old head a lot—still. I knew so much then, and so little. Just as teenagers do. They are fully formed unformed adults, and their point of view is incredibly complex because of this. They say things in ways we responsible adults would rarely allow ourselves to; they are openly curious; often self-protective to the point of a fragile toughness; open because they have not become too jaded or cagey yet. And they want to be older, to sound older. My crafting of their voices comes from these things. Especially since I am stuck at fifteen, probably.

 

AP: If I remember correctly, you do not have children, yet parent/child relationships are skeletal to this collection. What made you want to write about this theme? Also, many of the daughters see their mothers as beautiful and/or more beautiful than themselves, which I found intriguing. Can you comment on that?

PAM: You’re right, I don’t have kids. Never wanted them. But I have been a teacher for decades, some grammar and high school, but mostly college, grad school—some might say that is a sort of parent role. But more so, it is my own childhood awareness that inspires these stories. I told you about my dad dying, and I was the only girl in the family, the only daughter. My mother and I were very close up until her death. That closeness was complicated like most mother/daughter relationships are, and I think it’s that dynamic that intrigues me. What light do our parents shine on us, how do we compare? Admiration can overlap envy, don’t you think? What do I admire, what can I aspire to, what am I jealous of? I think the girls I write consider beauty a definitive thing, either you have it or not. To them: she has it, she has it, she has it, I don’t.

 

AP: What was the impetus to use hunger as a metaphor in several stories? Did you consciously give hunger to female characters or am I imposing on your text?

PAM: That is a really interesting question, Alex. Most of my stories are about hunger in some way, longing. But yes, in this book, there are a few that use food and its abundance or absence as a way to heighten what’s missing as well as what’s longed for. “My Mother’s Daughter,” the story that won the Solstice fiction award some years ago, is one of these. The stories where hunger is an obvious element, I imagined their happenings taking place in the seventies. You know, the time of Twiggy and Fresca and Slender (a precursor to SlimFast) and a serious diet culture. We fat girls and women of the seventies were not encouraged to be proud of our bodies. Women, girls, were especially susceptible to these skinny fads—they were expected to be. The reality of that time I am writing about in these stories influences what I tell. So maybe hunger is a metaphor more of convenience than intention.

 

AP: Is it difficult for you to write from a first-person male narrator? How do you find the voice of your first-person male narrators?

PAM: I really like this question, Alex, because I have been thinking about this a lot lately. I don’t usually write from a male point of view; I avoid it. I think I have been afraid of it because I have always thought that writing a male character would involve some sort of literary sleight of hand I was not capable of. In this collection, though, I wanted to make the leap, give it a try. And what I might have figured out, at least for me, is that there isn’t that much difference between men and women. (Frankly, I’ve always believed this. Never went in for that men are from Mars, women Venus stuff.) The way I try to write a male character is the same way I write an old woman whose mind is going or a thirteen-year-old girl whose mother doesn’t feed her enough. I listen. I try to hear their voices in my head. What would they say, how would they say it? You know this trick. In your own book, Moxie, it was your narrator’s voice that came to you first, if I remember correctly. I believe that our longings, our needs, our concerns are not all that different if we are male or female, young or old. We want love, we want comfort, we want discovery, we want not to be bored. We want ecstasy. What we ask for is universal; I just had to listen for the how of it. How does each of us ask for these things we want? If I try too hard to make him sound “male,” he just sounds fake.

 

AP: I want to ask something personal, and you can not answer if you prefer. I am haunted (in a good way) by “What Girls Want.” What emotional truth did you work from to write this story?

PAM: This story started for me when I saw a guy on the train that I had known in college. He was one of those nerd boys, like the boy in the story, who was really sensitive and a bit awkward. He didn’t have a lot of friends, but we got along, hung out sometimes. When I saw him on the train, he was a man; this was decades after we knew one another. He was clearly in a different reality, rocking, muttering. I wanted him to see me, to remember me, but if he did see me, recognize me, there was no sign. And that got me to thinking about how people change, and also how people can hurt one another, sometimes intentionally, oftentimes not. Once this train guy, the boy I used to know, got upset about something I said, I can’t recall now, and his eyes filled up. It broke my heart then. It breaks my heart now. Even as I don’t remember what upset him, I carry a sense of having betrayed him, and that flared up in me when I saw him all these years later on the train. When he looked through me. That is part of this story for me. The things we carry and that can split open at any moment, force us to look at our own ugliness and its effects on those we care about. The narrator of “What Girls Want” spews a lot of ugliness, none of it intentional, and he feels the responsibility, the guilt, and the punishment from this.

 

AP: What’s your favorite line of this book? Why?

PAM: Which is my favorite child? I want to stick with “What Girls Want” because you have me thinking about it. I hope you don’t mind if I cheat a bit and put in two lines here. This is that male narrator we were talking about; Melanie is his stepdaughter. These lines are late in the story:

“But what I really want to tell you about is this one time Melanie answered the phone when I called and we talked, kind of. She was eighteen then, and filled with some sort of big-heartedness that must have come from her being almost a woman and given, like some are, to forgiveness.”

Why am I drawn to these lines today? They touch on those things I admire about girl-women characters. Their willingness to forgive, to want things and better things, the way they often have to indulge the adults who surround them. I also am pleased that this male narrator recognizes that this is a gift, her big-heartedness, one—you see when you read the story—he does not fully deserve. Didn’t Gandhi say something like forgiveness being an attribute of the strong? If nothing else, I hope that readers see strength in my girl-women characters, and that they root for them. And that they listen to their voices.

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