There was a time in the 1970s when getting The New Yorker magazine delivered to my house was something of an event. (I don’t feel that way now and it sometimes makes me sad.) In those days the magazine was posted with a brown paper covering. I tore off the brown paper, checked out the cover art, then turned to the Table of Contents looking for Ann Beattie’s name. When she was listed there (48 times now, and counting), I was happy. When she wasn’t, I made do.

In 2004 I sat on someone’s couch, listening to a writing group take turns demolishing one of my short stories. The final critique, delivered by a woman in pointy architect’s glasses, concluded by saying “It’s so Sam Lipsyte.” I had no idea what that meant. A few days later I picked up a copy of Home Land, dreading the worst. Instead, I found it to be hilariously unhinged, a string of baroque epistolary riffs wound around the neck of its reliability-challenged narrator. Exactly the palate cleanser I needed at a time when spending a Tuesday With Morrie seemed desirable to large swaths of the populace. The Architect had done me a real favor.


JC: Yesterday, I wrote about John McNally’s fun new novel After The Workshop. Here he is again, talking about the books that made him reader and a writer.

When We Fell In Love – John McNally

I wish I could cop to being the sort of kid who spent summers reading Dickens novels, one after the other, but I wasn’t. I loved books, and I loved the idea of writing a book, but what I read tended to be Mad Magazine paperbacks (collections of “Spy vs. Spy” cartoons, for instance); movie trivia books (if there was a monster on the cover, all the better); Bud and Lou (a biography of Abbott and Costello); a book about daredevils (I was a huge Evel Knievel fan); a book about the Loch Ness monster (Is it real?!); and anything having to do with Houdini. The two highlights of the school year were filling out the Scholastic book order form and then receiving the books rubberbanded together or, as was often the case for me, in a box.

There was one book of fiction that I do remember reading in grade school – The Loner by Ester Wier. I discovered it in the third grade, only because there were a few dozen library-bound editions at the back of the classroom where I sat, and when I was bored, I would pull one from the shelf and start reading it. Here is the publisher’s description of the book: “The boy with no name doesn’t remember his past; all he knows is that he has to survive, and that means picking fruit on various farms across the southwest. Staying with anyone who’ll take him, he gives up all his wages for food and a place to sleep. Then he finds a loving home and realizes he is no longer a loner. A 1964 Newbery Honor book.”

This book appealed to me because, as a kid who had attended four different grade schools by third grade (I would eventually attend five), I felt like a loner. The other reason? My mother’s family had been sharecroppers in the Tennessee, Mississippi, and Missouri when she was growing up, and much of what I was reading in the book mirrored stories my mother had told me about frequently moving around, picking cotton, and not having any spare money. The book stuck with me all these years, I suppose, because it was the first time I recognized something of myself and my family’s life in writing, and for a budding writer (I didn’t know I was a budding writer, of course), these are pretty good lessons.

I was a first-generation college student, so it really wasn’t until I had gone away to Southern Illinois University and was taking my first creative writing class with poet Rodney Jones that I began reading literature in earnest. He gave me lists of writers he thought I should be reading – Barth, Barthelme, Beattie, Kosinski, Carver, Tobias Wolff – and I devoured it all. But it was reading John Irving’s The World According to Garp that made me decide that this was what I wanted to do. The novel was like picking up a globe, already inhabited and brimming with life, death, sex, jealousy, love, and pain. I had been dabbling with fiction writing up until that point, but Garp inspired me to push all chips in: This was what I was going to do, come hell or high water. (It didn’t hurt that Garp was a writer.)

I didn’t read Garp again for over twenty years, afraid that I would read it and think, “Oh, Christ, this is what inspired me to be a writer?” What a terrible thing to learn that the foundation of what you do was built upon something you now loathe. Fortunately, this wasn’t the case. I loved the book as much, if not more, when I returned to it, and re-reading it reminded me why I chose this crazy path in the first place – to tell a good story. That’s all, really. To tell a good story. And since it’s easy to get sidetracked by all of writing’s sideshows (publicity; blogging; minutia about the publishing world; debates over eBooks and what it all means for the writer), I keep a copy of Garp within reach to remind me what it was like to be a sophomore in college again with nothing more than a legal pad, a pen, and an idea.