The Fantastic Failing of Words
Undergrad Julia Plale reports from the Summer in Prague Program
I haven't been posting nearly as much as I wanted to on this trip and it irks my brain meats, but I think I figured out why: Prague is a difficult city to commit to paper. There's a bouquet of adjectives I could throw around to describe the architecture and the river and the parks, but nothing lines up properly when I try to get it down.
I could tell you Letna Park is a huge wooded hill that overlooks the Vltava River and Old Town sections of the city, with a spiderweb of trails that'll lead you to the Castle if you follow them far enough; or paint a word picture of Lookout Point, where a mammoth monument of Stalin was erected and then blown up a decade later, how it frames a perfect view of the Baroque layer-cake stucco manors under Spanish tile roofs—but does that honestly capture this place? The cobblestones in the sidewalks are uneven and smooth under the rubber soles of my boots, as if they've been eroded by the wind—does that say enough for you to feel them they way I do?
I come to Prague to write, and instead I discover the fantastic failing of words.
I don't mean this to be negative in any way. How I feel right now is the exact opposite. This place has aged so gracefully that an iridescent veil of medieval alchemy still clings to her hair.
Our trip coordinator says Prague is a dream city; I say it's a fairy tale—tomato/tomahto, really.
Maybe that's the problem. I can't capture this city because it doesn't exist. It's a folktale, a legend, a wink. It only stands because we need to believe a hilltop kingdom in a river valley can thrive outside of a Disney cartoon.
An Interview with Nami Mun
by Greg Baldino
The Fiction Writing Department is proud to announce that full-time faculty member Nami Mun has been chosen to receive a 21st Century Award from the Chicago Public Library in honor of her achievements as a Chicago-area writer. The author of Miles from Nowhere sat down with the department's own Greg Baldino to talk about writing, the unique structure of her book, and more.
Baldino: The Chicago Public Library's 21st Century Award is one of a number of accolades and awards that you've received for your work. What's your usual response when you find out you've been nominated for or won an award?
Mun: My initial thought: that somebody's pulling a prank on me. (I have many prankster friends.) After disbelief comes elation—the kind that makes you feel you're on a mountaintop where the air is thinner. That lasts about three minutes. After that, it's back to work.
Baldino: Your novel, Miles from Nowhere, has been published in the UK and translated into French, Spanish, and German (forthcoming). How has your book, which is in many ways a very American novel, been received by other cultural audiences?
Mun: The book has been received well by other countries, even though their take on Miles differs from my own. For example, some French critics see Miles as being about capitalism and the bastardization of The American Dream story. I love this perspective. I had not intended these themes but I love the French for being able to see the larger, universal elements working within the singular.
Baldino: Can you read any of the languages you've been translated into? And if so, how close are the translations to what you originally intended?
Mun: I can order food, ask for directions, and find the nearest bathroom in a few languages, including French, Spanish, and German. The French version of Miles seemed rhythmically and tonally close to what I had intended, but really, I couldn't be sure of it until a bilingual French interviewer confirmed what I had suspected. I have not yet cracked the spine of the other versions.
Baldino: One of the unique things about Miles from Nowhere is its structure; episodic chapters that seem almost like a sequence of short stories. How did you come to write a novel in this way?
Mun: The initial surge to write Miles began with Joon, the narrator of my book. When I first landed on her voice, she sounded both naïve and wise, as well as vulnerable and strong, and I suppose I liked the tension these dichotomies created on the page. So I wrote several short stories about her, and perhaps a year or two later, I began to notice how all of the stories were about Joon trying to work some job to make money, to survive. (For example, she works as a dance hostess in one story, sells Avon in another, sells newspaper on subways, etc.) That's when I realized that these stories, while self-contained, could also be cogs working toward a larger narrative arc.
I made a crucial decision right then—to keep the novel-in-stories structure, primarily because I felt it gave a truer, more visceral reflection of Joon's fractured mindset.
Baldino: How did that structure impact the writing of the novel, then?
Mun: Well, for one thing, the writing of it took probably twice as long, though I have no way of proving this. And I wrote with the larger novel arc in mind, which meant that certain story/chapters came with a "to-do" list of sorts. Not very different from the writing of a conventional novel, if you think about it, except my goal was to make each chapter a self-contained unit.
Baldino: Which do you prefer more: the short story or the novel?
Mun: I prefer to write short stories the way I prefer to eat small dishes of food (like tapas or panchan and rice) instead of, say, a tuna casserole. I get easily bored so I need variety. I also revise obsessively, and the story form forgives that obsession. As a reader, I of course enjoy both novels and stories, but the experiences are different. With a novel, I read what is given. With a short story, I read what's given, as well as all things not written, not shown, not said, not done. I read for the negatives. I read the gaps between lines, between paragraphs, and in that empty space I participate. Suddenly the story is not a thing that happens in front of me, but a thing that happens to me.
Baldino: What is your one best piece of advice for aspiring writers?
Mun: Write with your pants down.
Women Who Rock Wednesday: Patricia Ann McNair
The following interview with Patricia Ann McNair was originally posted on Stephanie Kuehnert's blog: http://stephaniekuehnert.blogspot.com/2011/09/women-who-rock-wednesday-patricia-ann.html
Kuehnert: Tell us about your new collection of short stories, The Temple of Air. How long did it take for this collection to come together and what are some of the common themes? Also tell us about some of your favorite characters and what inspired you to write them.
McNair: The Temple of Air was a long time in the making, Stephanie. The first story that was published was "The Joke," and that was in the 1990s. Now, I didn't know that it was part of a collection, but as happens, you start to write a few stories here and there, and then things start to surface: similar characters, a familiar place—in this case a fictional Midwestern small town called New Hope. What started to emerge for me first, probably, were these voices of young girls and women. A number of the stories feature teen-aged girls who find themselves caught in situations beyond their control—witness to an accident, part of a broken family, facing—literally—a coming storm. While these stories are set mostly in the seventies, many of the situations the girls (and boys and men) encounter are important now. The devastation of war, parents looking for work, encountering the homeless.
I am drawn to writing about young women of a certain age: fifteen or thereabouts. Perhaps because my own father died when I was just fifteen, and it had a lasting effect on who I became as a woman. That age is so precarious and important. Young women know so much then, but also have so much ahead of themselves to experience and learn. They are discovering or rejecting or experimenting with everything out there—religion, sex, drugs. Life. Some of my favorite characters here are Nova—the girl in the very first story who is shaken and shaped by an accident that starts the book off (she appears later in the collection as well); Rennie, a girl whose mother has an eating disorder and a weird religious belief; Christie who gets stuck baby-sitting a girl with special needs over the course of a summer; and a high school senior who doesn't tell us her name and who is helpless when her best guy friend is drafted into the army. There are adults here, too, and men of course. A young man who is caught in a bizarre way when he tries to rob an ice cream parlor; the twins who own the ice cream parlor and are on the run for their own crimes; a gorgeous blond boy named Sky who is more bad than good, a father who loses his daughter.
Kuehnert: I also love place as a character and I know that you are a travel writer in addition to writing short stories, so can you talk a bit about the use of place in your work? The small town in The Temple of Air is called New Hope. Is it based on a real place? Tell us about how you developed it.
McNair: I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, but since I was a kid, my folks took us on some pretty great trips: Jamaica, Spain, Portugal, a long camping trip throughout the American West. I guess that started my affinity for place. I love maps and travel books and I love to travel. To me, being somewhere else is the best way to figure out where I come from. Does that make sense?
Anyway, my grandparents lived in small towns and farming communities, so we also spent a lot of time in rural areas. I really loved those places. The way everyone knew each other, how everyone walked everywhere, said hello to each other. And later, I went to school in Iowa and stayed there for some years after. I've also spent some time in other small, Midwestern places: Interlochen, Michigan; Siren, Wisconsin; Mount Carroll, Illinois. So New Hope is a sort of composite of these towns in the middle of America. A little bit of the plains, a little of the rolling river towns, some of the small lakes, a tornado alley. Like you in your first book, Stephanie, I wanted to use a place where it would be hard to go entirely unnoticed, a place where people knew your business at least a little. New Hope isn't a tiny town, but small enough that the people who live there might get antsy within its limits, and also a place they might come to if they were trying to escape the life of a city.
Kuehnert: If The Temple of Air had a soundtrack, what are five of the songs that would be on it and why?
McNair: What an interesting question. Hmmm. There are probably lots of ways to answer this, but here goes:
1. Jimi Hendrix: "All Along the Watchtower"
2. Cat Stevens: "Wild World"
These first two because they evoke a feeling from the time the book starts (late sixties, early seventies.) The Vietnam war was going on, and the people in the stories who were growing up in New Hope would probably listen to something intense like Jimi Hendrix (psychedelic, sophisticated in its riffs) when they were home or in small groups. And Cat Stevens' sentiment about the wild world pretty much sums up what was going on for these young people.
3. Steve Miller: "The Joker"
I just heard this song on the radio the other day and thought it had to be on this list. It's a song I remember so vividly from my own life at the time of when the book is set. We'd sing it at the top of our lungs, thinking we were getting away with something yelling out "I'm a joker, I'm a smoker, I'm a midnight toker" and "really love your peaches, want to shake your tree." Pretty tame stuff compared with lyrics today, but we thought we were clever and subversive then, speaking a language our parents weren't supposed to understand. And I think my characters would feel that way, too.
4. Donna Summer: "Bad Girls"
The stories move into the disco era, and some of the women in the stories take on a certain reckless pursuit of good times.
5. The Wallflowers: "One Headlight"
This song falls out of the time span of the novel, but it is one I played a lot while I was writing some of the stories. It has a sweet, rural feel to it, a lush sound that makes me think of what the stories' landscape is like. A loneliness, a quiet, rich darkness.
Kuehnert: Who are some of the people that inspired you to become a writer or keep writing? Since it is Women Who Rock Wednesday, we particularly love to hear about the women, but feel free to include men too.
McNair: I loved books by Madeline L'Engle (A Wrinkle in Time) and S. E. Hinton (The Outsiders, etc.) when I was a kid. Women writers, both. Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Allison, Bonnie Jo Campbell, all women whose work makes me want to write. And I hope you don't mind my saying this, Stephanie, but women like you, who have been my students and who show me how they had the strength and tenacity it takes to keep the writing going despite other obligations, have been such an inspiration. You guys (gals) make me take the work seriously. And lucky me, my husband, the artist Philip Hartigan, gives me such inspiration and support. He works so hard at his own craft, I have to work at mine in order to keep up.
But the most important person is my mom, who died a few years ago. She was a travel writer herself and got me writing gigs early on. On summer days when I was a little kid, she used to give me writing prompts and would expect me to have a story written by the time she got home from work. I loved that. And she told me that she chose my name—Patricia Ann McNair—by imagining what it would look like on the cover a book. I mean, come on! How could I not be a writer with that sort of juju?
Kuehnert: What's next for you? What are you working on now?
McNair: What's on my desk at the moment is a novel-in-progress that also takes place in New Hope. It has a working title that shifts now and again, but today it is called "Climbing the House of God Hill." It's a story about a fifteen-year-old girl (huh, imagine that!) who is homeschooled and who gets mixed up in a scandal in town that involves an older man (who also happens to be an immigrant and a father of seven kids), and a friend of her own father who is a member of the church, and her stepmother. It's a complicated plot right now, but I am hopeful that it will begin to both untangle and deepen the more I write.
Kuehnert: I have two standard questions for my women who rock. The first is a two-parter. What was the first album you bought and the first concert you attended? Be honest, we don't judge :)
McNair: My first album Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5. (Okay, now you know how old I am.) I remember it cost 3.99 (or was it 2.99?) at KMart. I came home and played it over and over and over again. I had such a huge crush on Michael Jackson who was just my age. We had this big picture window that was like a mirror when the sun went down, and I would dance in front of it to the album and pretend I was the sixth Jackson, a token white girl.
My first concert was Chicago, with the Pointer Sisters opening. No one knew who they were (The Pointer Sisters) at the time, and so they were practically booed off the stage. I was there for Chicago like everyone else, but I remember thinking that the women were pretty good, and we'd hear from them again. I was too young to get there on my own; my brother had to take me and some girlfriends. We tried to lose him at the concert, though, so we could meet guys.
Kuehnert: Tell us about your biggest rock star moment, perhaps it's a moment of real success in your career, a time when you met someone super cool and had that Wayne's World "I'm not worthy" moment, or just a time where you felt like you got the rock star treatment. I get a huge variety of answers for the questions, so it's pretty much whatever "rock star moment" means to you!
McNair: It's gotta be the launch party for my book just this past Friday. I read at Women and Children First, a bookstore I have always hoped to see my book in some day, and it was so great.
I got there a little early, and at the time, there were only about eight people there, two of them friends of my mom's, one my own brother, a couple of colleagues, some random shoppers. I knew that the bookstore had ordered a load of books, upping their order a couple of times because they were expecting a lot of people. I was worried that it would be a total flop, that they'd hardly sell anything, that no one would come. Do you ever get over this feeling.
Well, little by little the place started to fill up. Soon it was standing room only, folks in all the chairs and stuffed in all the way to the front windows of the store. And the door kept opening. I could see faces of people I knew were there to support me all the way in the back of the crowd. And when Kathie Bergquist, a Woman Who Most Definitely Rocks, introduced me, the crowd actually cheered! Holy shit!
And no one left in the middle of things, and the book-signing line went on forever it seemed, past closing time for the bookstore. And they sold pretty much every book of mine in the store, even pulling the display one out of the window.
I think that must be what it feels like to be a rock star. Excited, listened to, enjoyed, humbled. And lucky. So very, very lucky.
Constructing Memoir with Patty McNair and Philip Hartigan
Two and a half hours west and just slightly north of Columbia College, the small town of Mount Carroll, IL sits about ten miles from the Mississippi River. This county seat serves as home to brick streets and a proud heritage. It was this history that Fiction Writing faculty Patricia Ann McNair and adjunct faculty Philip Hartigan tapped into.
The two worked with the Carroll County Historical Society and local residents to complete "Illuminating the Past." This multi-part art and memoir project involved writing workshops with over three dozen participants. Men and women from the area brought in photographs which were used as inspiration during the workshops to write short instances about their past. Philip Hartigan, assisted by local craftsmen, then used the photographs and text in the construction of large art luminaries housed outside the beautiful Owen P. Miles House.
McNair and Hartigan use their combined artistic talents in the Fiction Writing Department as well when teaching the class Journal and Sketchbook: Ways of Seeing.
Writer and Teacher Joe Meno interviewed in The Writer
In "Imagining Out of the Box" in the January 2011 issue of The Writer, Fiction Writing Department Professor Joe Meno talks about his novels, book collections, his focus on adolescents, using real-life experience as inspiration and his process as a writer. Fiction Writing part-time faculty member Mort Castle leads the interview by fist running through a succinct history of Meno's published books ending with some of the awards that Meno has garnered such as a Pushcart Prize, The Society of Midland Author's Fiction Prize and a finalist for the Story Prize in 2008 among others cited.
Castle digs into the meat of Meno's craft during the interview, getting at the heart of the use of popular culture in his books as well as the treatment of serious topics through prose writing—"one of the few places left where, as an adult, it's permissible to use your imagination." Meno goes on to discuss his intention to always challenge himself to not write the same book twice, saying, "It's a goal I have, writing books with very different styles and tones."
Writers, students, and artists can find a lot of interesting and illuminating insight in the interview.
Jessie Morrison Finding Success as a Fiction Writing Graduate Student
This past September, Fiction Writing Department graduate student Jessie Morrison began broadcasting her experience as an MFA student on the Writer's Digest blog titled MFA Confidential. Two or three times a week, she gives a window into the concerns, aspirations and life of an MFA student, particularly one in Columbia College's unique program.
"The blog has helped me think about and realize how much my program has done for my writing. I feel like, in a sense, it's a way for me to give back to Columbia [College] and to spread the word about the Story Workshop®, which for me personally has been the most effective method of writing instruction I've ever had."
She has found success across the city as well, reading at Come Home Chicago, a series co-founded by Fiction Writing faculty member Don DeGrazia, and serving as a representative of the department during Creative Nonfiction Week where she read about the auctioning of a family heirloom, the gun that killed John Dillinger. Most recently, the alternative newspaper Chicago Reader chose her story "Carnival at Bray" to appear in their annual Fiction Issue.