Who Doesn’t Want To Hear Great Stories? Find Some In McNair’s Temple Of Air.

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Christine Rice:  In the opening story, a baby falls out of a carnival ride.  That’s about as horrible an event as I can imagine.  Other than that, there are no car chases or exploding buildings or boy wizards in this book.  Why not?

PM: Well, I tried to have an exploding building, but all I have are little houses in a small town and a couple of storefront businesses, and the ruckus would have been relatively small. And a car chase—considering the size of New Hope, the fictional Midwestern town in which The Temple of Air is set—would have been over in a paragraph, a sentence maybe. I still had a lot of pages to fill. And no boy wizard, you’re right, but a little magic hidden here and there.

What I decided to do was to make the horrors more internal, you know? Like loneliness and crises of faith and grief. To me, those personal devastations and quiet desperations are more interesting than blowing up buildings and things. And an exploding building, in my opinion, is sort of like what they say about eating a Chinese meal: in an hour you’re still hungry.  I wanted the feeling a reader might carry away from my stories—the loss she might feel from what happens in the first story; the sadness instilled on a small town in a time of war; the disappointment a teenager feels when betrayed by the adults around her; those sorts of things—I wanted those emotions to stick with a reader past the fortune cookie. If you get my slippery and slightly politically incorrect metaphor…

CM:  That’s so true about Chinese.

Your writing is lush.  Can I use that word?  You have anything against lush?

PM: No. If you mean lush like thick and fertile and dense and green. If you mean drunken, well…But maybe that’s okay, too. Sort of swirling and rambling. I think the writing swirls and rambles, too. But—I hope—in a good way.

CM:  Not drunken, Patty.  That would be weird.  Regardless, the language is gorgeous.  Even dickhead and motherfucker sound amazing wrapped in your prose.   It all seems to work together.  How is that possible?

PM: Wow. That’s about the nicest thing anyone has ever said about my writing. I’m gonna take this question seriously, because I think you mean it seriously. Those places where words like “dickhead” and “motherfucker” hit the page are entirely in a character’s voice, and I like to think that maybe readers have developed some sort of affinity for the character, even if she isn’t all that likable at first. So if there’s compassion, there can be acceptance—or tolerance, at least. Beyond that, though, I am really interested in the rhythms of language, and I think that helps those words fit, too. Are you a fan at all of David Mamet? I am, and I think his dialogue is very poetic. Complete with all the bad language. It’s a rhythm thing there, too, partly. That, and there are some who think “creative cursing” is more cerebral, more artful. I don’t agree. Mark Twain said something like “never say ‘constable’ when ‘cop’ will do.” I’ll say: “Never say ‘fornication’ when ‘fuck’ will do.”

And I’ll go back to the swirling, rambling thing I said before. I love to let sentences wind out and out; love to catch the precise metaphors, too. So maybe that is part of what you are referring to when you say such nice things about the language.

CM:  I really fell into reading The Temple Of Air.  I mean, just fell into it and felt really sad when it was over (you know that hollowness when you have to let the characters go?).  You mentioned that these stories were written over a decade.  How did it feel to let the stories go and publish them?  No problem?  Mixed feelings?  What did the actual book feel like the first time you held it?

PM: Again, Chris, thank you so much for such kind words.

I think one reason why these stories took so long was because I kept revisiting the characters: Nova and Sky, Michael and Annie, Hoof, Christie, and some of the others. Once they appeared in a couple of the stories, I wanted to learn more about them, write them out. In some cases the stories weren’t originally meant to be recurring characters, but it started to become clear to me that they had to be—the man in Running was too similar to the man in The Things That’ll Keep You Alive to not be the same guy. They even looked the same to me when I imagined them. The same with Sky. I kept creating this type of character, a sort of dangerously charming, long-haired blond guy with green-blue eyes that my girl and women characters were attracted to. So of course he had to be just one guy: Sky.

But you asked something else—about how it felt to let go of the characters. Frankly, I haven’t entirely. There are stories I wrote about them that didn’t make it into the collection. I may still try to get those up to snuff. And I’m working on a novel that is set in the same fictional town a couple of decades later. There will be some cameos of characters from The Temple of Air in that.

And to hold the book in my hands—well, I can’t even describe how great it felt. It is a really, really beautiful book. Jotham Burrello from Elephant Rock Books worked really hard on directing its production, and Melissa Lucar, the designer, absolutely understood what I wrote; she made the book a piece of art, in my opinion. And it literally feels good to hold. Tactilely. It is smooth to the touch. Sort of lotion soft. I’m not kidding.

CM:  Jergens, maybe? In Something Like Faith, Michael says, “So I just turned my head.  I ignored it.”  But these stories never turn away from the moment of real dramatic tension — no matter now difficult.  No cliché endings here.  Were you ever tempted to let your characters have a Disney ending?

PM: I am not sure I could do that even if I wanted to. Why is that, do you suppose? I am not an unkind person; I like folks to be happy. But I am drawn to stories that are bittersweet at best, or the ones that make you ache. I remember reading Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love when I was an undergraduate, and it blew my mind. Not so much the minimalism—exaggerated by his editor at the time—but by the fact these stories did not end happily. I don’t think I fully understood that was possible before that. And while I have had a happy, lucky life for the most part, the moments that probably shape me most as a writer are the small heartbreaks: my brother’s face when we were told my dad died; being picked on by the neighborhood bully; being lonely in a relationship. And I don’t know if this is going to make any sense, but when I remember those experiences I feel honored to have witnessed them. As a reader, I feel some of the same privilege to be trusted with these moments and to be able to read them on the page.

CM:  The Temple Of Air by Patty McNair.  Temple of Air.    McN-air.  Any connection?

PM: Yes. The connection is this: A. And I. And R.

CM:  Thanks for clearing that up.

There are a few motifs running through the book:  hands, air, faith.  Those things that can slip and morph.  How do those themes connect the stories?  How did you keep exploring and resurrecting the themes?

PM: Some of those motifs are part of my own everyday makeup. For some reason I am fascinated by hands. I still remember what my dad’s hands looked like, what they felt like. He had these sort of paws. He patted us like we were his cubs. My mom was a fidgeter. Her hands were like mine. Sort of bony and veiny and always moving. We had a baby-sitter when I was a little girl who had the softest hands in the world. I can still feel what her fingers felt like on the back of my neck when she put my hair in a ponytail. So hands are a detail I notice, make note of, often put in my writing.  In this case, they became even more important, what we hold onto, what we drop, etc.

Faith—the religious kind—is the same for me. I don’t understand it in any way. I come from a very non-faith based upbringing, despite my parents having been the children of churchgoers, my mom a missionaries’ kid. So why we believe what we believe or don’t is fascinating to me. It all became a big puzzle for me when I was the age of some of my characters and when my father—an atheist—died.

So air turned out to be a good connection to faith for me here. What we need, what moves things, what we can’t see around us, what howls, what caresses.

This answer so far makes my choices sound far more deliberate than they actually were. I think the writer’s mind does a lot of this work on its own, in the subconscious. And eventually, if we work at it enough, listen to what the story is saying, the words might mean, we can start to see the connections, the repetitions, the patterns of meaning and motif and discovery. I wrote some stories that had similar things I attended to—hands, air, faith, my own current concerns and obsessions—and the patterns presented themselves after a while, and then I pushed the patterns.

If I had started to push before the patterns revealed themselves, had a plan for the connections I wanted to exploit, it would have been a disaster. So intentional. So manipulated. I am not smart or talented enough to execute such a deliberate plan.

CM: The Way It Really Went got me all choked up.  Real blubbery and sloppy so that I couldn’t read the words until I calmed down.   For me, it’s how we think we know what’s going on with another person but, most of the time, we’re just completely off and how people grow distant right under the same roof.  And forgiveness.  It’s mostly first person from the wife but, for some reason, I think of the narrative coming right from Jim.  How did you get that sense of Jim so strongly on the page in a first-person telling from Annie’s POV?

PM: Thanks for crying, Chris. My goal is to make everyone cry at some point. It is a very cathartic thing, crying.

But the question is about point of view. The story sort of began as Jim’s story in early drafts. I spent most of my time close to him. It wasn’t until I wanted to see what Annie had to say for herself that it switched to first person. So maybe that is part of why Jim still seems present even when he isn’t telling the whole story.

That said, the opening is in second person, a thinly veiled first person POV of Jim. So we start the story nearest to his awareness, are lured in by his dawning awareness that his life is not what it seems, that he may be in some real trouble health-wise. And then we find out from Annie how the rest of his life has become something other than great.

If you read the book in order, starting with the first story and moving forward, you also get to know Jim’s despair in Something Like Faith. He is more actively involved in the events of the book from the beginning, so I hope readers will come to care for him, understand him. (And an aside: you don’t have to read the book in order…I mean for the stories to stand alone, too.)

CM:  These stories revisit a number of characters months and years after we’ve been introduced to them:  Sky, Nova, Derek.  Jim and Annie (the parents of the baby who died) and unconnected characters in New Hope.

In his memoirs, Sherwood Anderson wrote:

“The stories belonged together.  I felt that, taken together, they made something like a novel, a complete storey…  I have even sometimes thought that the novel form does not fit an American writer…  What is wanted is a new looseness; and in Winesburg I had made it my own form.  There were individual tales but all about lives in some way connected…  Life is a loose, flowing thing.”

This assemblage of stories in The Temple of Air seems familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.  Can you talk about the way the stories came together into a collection?

PM: It sometimes surprises me how few stories I ended up with in the book; I wrote a number of others with these characters. But those that didn’t make it in the final cut were not successful stories on their own; they did stand up.

Why is that? Perhaps because the stories—for the most part—that did survive were written as stories first, collected later. And when I first put a bunch of them together, I tried to write the missing parts, too, tried to be very chronological about it, tried to answer whatever questions folks might have from one story to the next.

I wasn’t up to that task, though. This isn’t a novel, not even a novel in stories. It is a collection of linked stories. Moments highlighted from a number of lives connected by place, mostly, but also by circumstance and history. What Sherwood Anderson says about life—calling it “loose, flowing thing”—helps me understand more about this book. These are the moments that take my attention—you know this principle, Chris, from our teaching together in Story Workshop classes; we always coach our students to look for what is taking their attention most strongly.

And still, I think I might have needed to write the other stories to know more about the ones that survived, to know more about the collection as a whole. Like starting with a huge block of granite and chipping away until the real thing, the thing I am trying to make, appears.

When I gathered the stories together, though, I still had to make choices and changes. Most of the stories were published previously, but in the book they might have changed point of view or character names here and there. I wanted to get a sense of a broader range of ways of telling and I wanted to pull some threads through from one story to the next. That was a lot of putting it all in one place, looking at the book as a single thing instead of as a bunch of parts, and working toward a certain unity of purpose.

CM:  I felt full after in the same way I might feel full from All The King’s Men or One Hundred Years of Solitude.  Anderson was roundly criticized for not having a clear plot.  Is it a comfort to know that, since then, there is an ever-expanding view of the novel?

PM: I have never really considered plot very much, and for a long time really sort of had some disdain for the idea of it. So it surprised me when Donna Seaman, in a review of the book in Booklist, said that the collection was “strongly plotted.”

It is a comfort that the novel has become so many different things, but in my mind what still makes a book successful in its creation is when it finds a certain wholeness. Sometimes that comes from plot. Sometimes that comes from a different sort of knowledge, like in Winesburg, Ohio and in the novels you mention. Life is plot-less even as it has structure: you know, beginning, middle and end. These books are very finely structured, too. And they expose things, bring the reader to a deeper awareness of what it is to be human, to be lonely, to grow, to despair, to exist. There are questions raised and one thing causes something else to happen. Is that plot? Perhaps somewhat. At the very least, these things—the questions posed, the stakes, the physics of events and actions tumbling into one another—lure the reader along from page to page.

And there is story here. Who doesn’t want to hear a story?

Want to buy the book?  Go to DIGRESSIONS and click Patty McNair’s The Temple Of Air.

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