The Book of Ralph

By John McNally

Free Press, 304 pp., $24.00

John McNally is author of a new collection of interconnected short stories called The Book of Ralph, which chronicles the antics of two unlikely friends coming of age in southwest Chicago in 1978. His first book of short fiction, Troublemakers, was widely heralded and McNally has also edited four anthologies.

McNally lives with his wife and their several dogs and cats in Winston-Salem, N.C., where he is assistant professor of English at Wake Forest University. At the time of the interview, however, he had just left for Los Angeles to begin a screenwriting fellowship from the Chesterfield Writer’s Film Project, sponsored by Paramount Pictures.

The Independent Weekly: Which authors have taught you most about how to be an effective writer?

McNally: That’s a tough question, but if you held a gun to my head I’d say: Raymond Carver for economy, Richard Yates for vision, and Flannery O’Connor for her dark humor.

These were major influences early on. Certainly John Gardner’s two wonderful books, The Art of Fiction and On Becoming a Novelist, were important to me. I carried these books with me everywhere.

But I was lucky to have had good creative writing teachers. My first teacher who was a working fiction writer was Richard Russo. His first novel, Mohawk, had just come out and I had a chance to study with him. Later, when I was in grad school, I studied with Allan Gurganus before Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All was released, and he was great at pointing out all kinds of technical things going on with my language. Of course, Gurganus was a student of John Cheever’s, who was no slouch as a writer.

Because it often seems like your stories are meant to be told out loud, you’ve been compared to a barroom storyteller. Do you consider that true?

The barroom part, sure. I used to think that my books could be marketed in bars, maybe even sold alongside the pickled eggs and Slim Jims. I’m not kidding. I don’t have an elitist sense of literature. I want both the scholar and the factory worker to like my work, but given a choice, I’ll take the factory worker every time. My mother was a factory worker, and she told great stories, but she had an eighth-grade education and didn’t see herself as a smart person, even though her insights on human behavior surpass any number of PhDs I’ve known. But she was the first to expose me to the oral tradition of storytelling, and even though my stories aren’t in the voice of a campfire storyteller–that is, you don’t get the sense in my stories of someone standing outside the events and telling you about the characters and what they’re doing–I do like for my stories to work both read aloud as well as on the page.

I enjoy giving readings, and one criterion I try to hold myself to is this: Can I hold a stranger’s attention for 30 or 40 minutes if I’m merely reading this story aloud to him or her? I’ve written stories where I couldn’t hold a reader’s attention for that long, and it’s a painful situation for both of us. It’s a very tough thing to do, so I think it’s a good thing to strive for. I hope I’m successful, but I never know until I’ve read the story aloud.

Having grown up in the same blue-collar neighborhood that serves as setting for The Book of Ralph, how do you like being an academic as an adult?

I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I could never move back to my old neighborhood and be happy. My life, my interests, my pursuits would all be at odds with what that particular place has to offer. On the other hand, academia is chock-full of all kinds of elitism that gets under my skin. All of my education has been at the state school level and I truly believe that academics with state school credentials aren’t taken as seriously as those with Ivy-league degrees. The one thing that I’ve learned is that money does make a difference in one’s career, even in a field that prides itself on championing the oppressed.

When you were 13 years old, what kind of job did you want to have as an adult?

I wanted to be a fiction writer, but I wasn’t sure that it was feasible, so I had other professions in mind: photographer, veterinarian, journalist. But deep-down I clung to the notion of making it as a writer. But I already had a number of jobs back then, too. I sold knives to my classmates and on the weekends I sold concert T-shirts. Black Sabbath, Rush, Journey–you name it. I was quite the entrepreneur. I probably made more money doing that than teaching.

If it hasn’t made you rich, how has 14 years of teaching composition and creative writing informed your writing?

You think about language in ways that you would never think about if you weren’t teaching. After reading literally thousands of pages of writing from beginning writers, you see all sorts of patterns and repetitions, and you begin to identify what those common denominator problems are. Before teaching, I wouldn’t have had any idea what those problems were or even why they were problems. But it would be nearly impossible not to pick up on these things after reading thousands of pages over several years. The other thing teaching does for me is it gives me an opportunity to articulate craft issues in such a way that helps me to see it in a new light.

Do you think most good stories center around crime of one sort or another?

Not crime, no, though I’m certainly drawn to crime. I do think most good stories are about morality. I’m not sure if I agree with all of John Gardner’s theories in his controversial book On Moral Fiction, but the stories I like best explore the ambiguities of morality. A good recent example is Andre Dubus III’s House of Sand and Fog. Readers who had problems with that book objected to the morals of the characters, but the point of literature isn’t to find books with characters whose morals you agree with. The best literature says, “Step into these shoes, and then tell me what you would do.” Unfortunately, many people are comfortable with their own beliefs, and they don’t want to question themselves or their positions, especially in fiction.

What challenges, if any, do you foresee in adapting from literary fiction to screenwriting?

The fellowship program that I’m in is geared toward commercial Hollywood movies, so the sensibilities of the content will be different. Instead of Ralph the delinquent, Ralph would probably be a serial killer in my screenplay. Of course, I’m not adapting The Book of Ralph. I’m starting from scratch, which is for the best. But the entire process of creation is different. In fiction, I often write to find out what’s going to happen, and every screenwriter who visits our group tells us, “Know what’s going to happen before you write it. Outline, outline, outline!” This is the most difficult challenge for those of us who work from the inside out. I’m starting to understand the logic of it, but it requires a part of my brain I normally don’t use, the part that’s more logical and organized.

Aside from the fact that it can pay pretty well, what makes you want to write for film?

I love movies. Movies have probably been a bigger influence on my work than books insofar as movies helped shape my sensibilities when I was a kid. I loved Abbott and Costello movies, and in The Book of Ralph, Hank and Ralph have a straight man/comic relationship. I wasn’t aware of that until someone asked me which writers influenced my writing of some of the earlier Hank and Ralph stories, and after I thought about it, I realized that my influences were primarily from movies.

I was a film major as an undergrad but couldn’t afford my senior project, which was to make a 16 mm movie. So I’ve always had at the back of my mind the notion of doing something in the film industry, and suddenly that opportunity has come up. But let’s not down-play how much it pays!