Monday, February 20, 2006

Conversations With: Molly McNett

This week I'm proud to present an interview with Molly McNett. Molly is a former teacher of mine from Iowa, and she was very supprotive and encouraging to me way back in my tadpole days. She teaches at Northern Illinois, and she's a graduate of the University of Iowa's Writer's Workshop. She was a finalist for the Glimmer Train Very Short Fiction Award, and her story "Catalogue Sales" appears in the 2005 editon of The Best American Non-Required Reading.

Q: What was your first literary crush?

A: I'll answer this literally- my husband. Because he was much better read than I was--still is--and writing seriously already when I met him. I hadn't read anything to speak of. And my husband's family was a wonderful thing to me, because they are all readers, and my mother in law is a writer.

But to answer the real question: Mary Gaitskill. I still have a literary
crush on Mary Gaitskill. Part of it is her language. She has such style
and control. And I remember Two Girls Fat and Thin was one I read with the dictionary at hand, looking up every big word and memorizing some of the phrases. (I still like that simple pleasure of a writer who uses a word I don't know, or complicated syntax, though I can't pull off anything close to those styles I admire the most.) And then of course there is the darkness and eroticism, especially of the stories in Bad Behavior, etc. There was an ugliness in those stories like nothing I'd ever read before them, and yet when I would finish reading them, I'd always feel uplifted, strangely. Well, they're beautifully rendered. Maybe that transcends whatever is ugly about them.

Q: What was the inspiration behind your story 'Catalogue Sales'?

A: Let's just say that I don't have a very good imagination. I believe in wholesale invention, but I haven't ever practiced it.

Q: You graduated from the Writer's Workshop at Iowa. What advice and perspective would you offer writers wanting to pursue their MFA?

A: I have two thoughts on this, and they contradict each other. First, go to an MFA program and try to go to the very best ones, not because there is any true difference, exactly, in what you'll be taught, but because you don't want to be the best writer there. It's like playing tennis with someone who's worse than you are- there's not as much incentive to improve. (I don't participate in sports of any kind and can only imagine this, but that's what I've heard.) Raising the bar- is this some kind of track and field metaphor? Well, those are some well worn cliches I've given you there, but it's a fact that there's some kind of group momentum that occurs when a great piece is turned in for workshop. The next people who write respond to that, and it's like a great, heady conversation. And you have to read a lot when you're in MFA programs, so you don't want to have to read crap. There's probably a lower crap factor the more selective you are, but of course, crap can be found anywhere. But there is the other thing I wanted to say, and I think it's more important: stay away from anyone or anything that discourages you. My hero is this regard is Lily Briscoe, the painter in To the Lighthouse. Somewhere in the book she says she doesn't go to museums because there is too much great art there. "One might never paint again," she thinks, or something like that. In other words you have to know yourself and protect yourself and don't go too early or when you're too fragile. Or if you go anyway be vigilant and stick with yourself. It's the impulse to write that's the most important and its worth a lot more than the trappings of being a writer...even more important than being well-read, or being published, for example. Or going to Iowa.

Q: Is there a book or a story you really want to write but haven't yet?

A: Yes. I'd like to write a 3,000 page, six volume, first person critique of capitalist culture. It would deal with the nature of time, memory and its reliance on the senses, travel, jealousy, snobbism, and the way technology (telephone vs pneumatic tube, etc.) has changed the nauture of human interaction. Has anyone covered that yet?


Anonymous said...

I love Molly! Fun conversation.

Anonymous said...

She's now MY teacher at NIU. =D
(yes, I'm a creeper that googles his profs. haha)