Conversations Between Friends: Sadie Hoagland and John McNally
Sadie Hoagland and John McNally are colleagues at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Here, they talk craft in their latest books, McNally’s fiction collection The Fear of Everything (September 2020; University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press), and Hoagland’s novel Strange Children (forthcoming May 2021; Red Hen Press).
SADIE HOAGLAND: John, I so enjoyed reading The Fear of Everything. Each story balances humor and darkness so well, and each piece held the sort of “good surprises” I love in fiction—the unexpected turns. I think one of my favorite moments in the book is in “The Blueprint of Your Brain,” when you are describing why/how Jimmy burned down his parents’ garage. Initially we learn of this event—the garage burning—from an external standpoint, and connect it with Jimmy’s boredom as a “latchkey” kid. But then we learn that Jimmy felt such intense shame at being mocked by his father while listening to old records that he was trying to burn the phonograph. This is so succinct and subtle in the story—but it’s gut-wrenching too. The father seems at fault, in the end, for the garage.
It seems like this idea of a chain of consequences, perhaps a redemptive cycle, or just the future being determined by a seed planted in the past in an almost Faulknerian way, comes up in a lot of these stories. Another example that comes to mind is Mary’s imagining herself as a future Phineas in “The Devil in the Details.” And, of course, “The Phone Call” does this to the extent that time becomes magical (I do want to talk about magic at one point, too). Or even the return of June and of the missing girl—Lori Jenkins—in “Maria.”
Did you imagine these returns/loops of time in your characters’ lives as redemption? As hauntings? Or is the book a larger argument for the power of karma or some kind of predetermination?
Do you feel like events from your childhood/life haunt you in the way that these characters are haunted? (I’m thinking about how one might substitute “haunt” with “form” in the previous sentence).
(This also seems like a point of connection between our work—for most of my characters, things are already over before they begin.)
JOHN MCNALLY: Thanks for the kind words. Even after all these years, I worry about the opinions of people I know personally reading my work, especially people whose work I admire…and especially someone I work with! So, thank you.
To answer your question, I don’t sit down to write my stories as ghost stories, but once I gather them together in a book, I realize that my characters are more often than not haunted by something in their past, and the thing that they’re haunted by usually sets them on a path where they are in the story’s present time frame. In “The Devil in the Details,” which is a historical story, the narrator gets a reputation for being an evil little girl for gathering up town folks, at the behest of her father (the town sheriff), to witness public hangings. Every bad thing that happens in her life afterward can somehow be attributed to this thing she had done, even though she was too young to realize the import of what she was doing.
I’m an instinctual writer, so I rarely know what’s going to happen in a scene, and I don’t puzzle out a character’s backstory beforehand, so when a character’s past presents itself, it’s usually a surprise to me. But I’m also aware that I often draw on details from my own life, especially for those pivotal backstory moments. Sometimes it’s almost straight autobiography, as in the scene you mentioned in “The Blueprint of Your Brain.” I remember my father telling me to stop doing something innocuous because it was embarrassing, and I remember the humiliation I felt, followed almost immediately by my anger toward him. I didn’t set anything on fire afterward, but it’s one of a handful of moments in my childhood where I can recall, even now, the rage I felt at my father’s obliviousness—not just his obliviousness at his own cruelty but at my anger. But I didn’t know why Jimmy set the garage on fire until I came to that scene.
I don’t know if it’s still the case, but when I was growing up in the ’70s, your fate was often considered a foregone conclusion. For instance, there was tracking in school—classes were divided between the supposed “smart” kids and continued down to the kids who supposedly weren’t smart, and everyone knew who was in which class. And then there was your socioeconomic fate. I grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood, and I remember my guidance counselor assuming I would go to trade school. And so probably on some psychological level, I’m just working through some really screwed-up notions that were drilled into me as a kid—namely, that one’s destiny was sealed pretty early on.
SH: That’s one of the beautiful things about these stories and that I think makes the stories kind of speak this emotional truth that sometimes, even often, an event or moment is seared into our memory and is really formative to us. This moment you talk about with your father, or Jimmy’s moment with his father, becomes this way we sort of reactively define ourselves. I think readers can definitely relate to that; I know I can. This collection condenses these moments and their chain of effects really nicely. Again, I’m so fascinated with the way they are both chronological and yet almost circular. Especially “The Phone Call,” did that story have that same effect of discovering it as you wrote it? At one point did you feel/know that it wasn’t going to be strictly realism?
JM: I wrote a draft of “The Phone Call” in 1990—a complete draft, straight through, in the middle of the night. And the fantastical element came into it early. My mother had died in 1988 at fifty-four, and so the story was more catharsis for me: an older son trying to warn his younger mother about her pending death. A few days after I wrote it, I wanted to look at it to see if it was worth revising. I liked the premise, but I knew that I had written it more for myself. I had printed it out that night, but I couldn’t find the printout. And I hadn’t saved it. I searched for months and couldn’t find it. Over the next almost-twenty years, I considered returning to it but never did—until my friend Sam Weller, who was Ray Bradbury’s official biographer, asked me to contribute to a Bradbury tribute anthology. I read Bradbury when I was a kid—one of the very few writers I read—and he was one of the writers who made me want to write fiction. And so, I wrote the story again but this time having thought about it for twenty years. Ray was dying as the book was being assembled, so my friend Sam would read the stories to him as they came in. Sam told me that Ray approved of the story. Everything about the writing of that story is fantastical to me—from bringing closure to the grief I had felt losing my mother to losing it knowing that my story was being read to Bradbury on his deathbed. Oh, and when I moved to Louisiana, I found the original version in a box. The ink had faded so much from the old dot-matrix printer, I had to squint to read it.
Your novel, Sadie, is a powerhouse. Strange Children is one of those books that I find utterly absorbing while also having to pause frequently in admiration for what you’re pulling off by having eight narrators, eight voices. And the world you give us, this polygamist commune, is so compelling and well-wrought and authentic, I kept trying to imagine the level of research and/or deep knowledge necessary to bring it to the page in full bloom. So good!
You had mentioned “form” earlier. When I think about both of your books—your story collection and now your novel—I think about how compellingly you use form. I’ve only recently begun to use form more consciously, but when I read your work, I think of the power form gives you as an organizing force, like William Gass’s “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” or Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Can you talk about at what point form comes into play as you’re drafting? Are there other writers’ books or stories you look at as templates for what you set out to do with form? In what ways did (or didn’t) form evolve as you were writing your novel?
SH: It’s so funny you mention As I Lay Dying, as that is definitely a formative book for me, and one I looked at as I was revising Strange Children to see how Faulkner managed the multivocal point of view without losing us at the beginning. He uses only two narrators at the beginning, before bringing in the others, and grounds us this way; I tried to do that with my characters Emma and Annalue. But to answer your broader question about form, I think for me it comes with the content in that I’ve always been interested in literary outsiders and outsiderness. So, I think the stories I try to write, and certainly Strange Children, are predicated on this idea that somehow they need to be outside form, or coming to form from the outside-in, which may or may not make sense. A simpler way to put it would be that my characters all feel so singular in their experiences, that they feel they need new forms to tell their stories. While in American Grief in Four Stages, grief or trauma is what makes them feel this way, in Strange Children, it’s faith or kind of a collective madness that makes them feel this way. More specifically, it’s their community’s belief in revelation as a secular, everyday experience that allows them all to speak their version of the story as their absolute truth. I knew from the beginning of this project that those truths would need to be right up against each other, both contradicting and coalescing into each other. That being said, other elements, like a ghost narrator, and one character, Jeremiah, written in third person came in later and much more consciously in a second draft. I wanted Jeremiah to be the character with the least agency, and since his narrative takes place in our world, and not the world of the commune, I wanted it to feel more familiar to us.
Does that make sense? I’m curious about what comes to you in the revision process? Hearing you talk earlier about your process, and how you sort of discover as you write, made me wonder how many of these stories come out pretty near done in a first draft? What parts come out in revision? Which story needed the most revision?
JM: My process is messy. As I said above, “The Phone Call” took almost twenty years. I wrote half of “Catch and Release” around 2009 and then came back to it ten years later to finish. “The Creeping End” was three failed stories that I came to realize worked together in a weird way. A former student of mine had told me about a program in his hometown for latchkey kids where they could call a number and speak to an elderly nursing home resident, and I thought about how horribly wrong that could go; ten years later, I sat down and wrote “The Blueprint of Your Brain.” “The Devil in the Details” is a stitched together backstory from a 600-page failed novel I wrote. Stories that came quickly were “The Magician,” “The Fear of Everything,” and “The Lawyer” (although the lawyer’s monologue is an almost verbatim monologue from a lawyer I had met with ten years before I wrote the story).
I’ve learned to be patient. I let stories gestate, and each gestation period is different. I have probably another ten to twenty stories on my computer, some completely drafted but missing something, others just a series of scenes, and still others a few images that have stuck with me, in one case something I saw thirty-one years ago and haven’t yet been able to form it into a story. The same with novels. I’m always stunned when I run across a hundred pages of something I wrote and had completely forgotten about. I tend to go back only to those things that keep nagging at me. If I’ve forgotten about a hundred pages, there’s probably a good reason.
A question for you, Sadie: I love reading books that I know I would never be able to write, and while reading Strange Children I was deeply engaged in whichever perspective I was reading while marveling the whole time about how much you know about Mormon life and how it doesn’t feel researched at all; it feels lived. It sounds like you grew up around Mormon families. Would you talk about the research you had to do? But also, could you talk about any fears you had/have writing this book? Writing a book set in a Mormon community still seems (weirdly) taboo in the twenty-first century. As a reader, the taboo aspect only enhances that vicarious thrill of reading it, but writing it must have felt at times like a tightrope walk.
SH: I understand the slow gestation completely: Strange Children started as a story that I wrote more than ten years ago, and then it was four linked stories, and then a novella, before I finally admitted to myself I was writing a novel. So, I didn’t start out thinking about research, rather I thought about the way polygamy existed in both our cultural imagination but also in two memories: one of sitting with my friend on our bikes and watching a polygamist family’s children doing farm labor in their yard, dressed like it was one hundred years earlier. The second is family stories my grandmother used to tell; her own great grandmother had been a Mormon pioneer and a reluctant polygamist, a first wife, who left the Mormon church because of polygamy.
As the project grew, so did my sense I needed real research. I read nonfiction books on current polygamist culture, firsthand accounts of both men and women who had left or been kicked out of polygamy, news articles and sermons, and I watched a great documentary called Sons of Perdition. Finally, I found a former member on Facebook, a young man who was living in an abandoned motel outside of Colorado City. He agreed to drive around the town with me and tell me about his experiences growing up there. What he told me didn’t change my narrative much, I already knew my fictional town and landscape well, but it was how he told it. The way he spoke, and how positive he felt about growing up there, and how lost he was without the community. In this way, research made the book much richer.
I think my biggest fear with writing about polygamists, not being one myself, is that readers will confuse my fictional world for a real one. Or assume that my book seeks to represent survivors of polygamy in ways it does not presume to. As an outsider, I feel I’m telling this story in a way no insider would, as I mentioned earlier my obsession with the outside-in. I know my position as an outsider to this world, the world of both Mormonism and polygamy, really well. I know it from the position of exclusion, and a pretty raw place in my memory of being excluded by Mormon children at my school and in my neighborhood (we were one of a very few families that were not Mormon). In its essence this book is about that exclusion—the exile of a main character.
But that gets into emotional truth, which of course is quite different from the literal truth. I feel like you play with what is literal vs. metaphorical in your collection so well, almost upsetting any neat delineation between the two categories. For example, the “disappearing act” of a magic show becomes an actual real disappearance. Or the way the cats, and the two main characters, are both lost and found on different levels ranging from literal to emotional in “Catch and Release.” Another repeated theme seems to be the distance between fantasy and reality, in particular in regards to the idolized girls and women in the book, from Katy Muldoon, to Lisa Muldoon, to Lori Jenkins. Were these themes that just naturally emerged through your writing style, or were they consciously cultivated? Another way to ask this question might be: when in the writing process did you know that the collection would be called The Fear of Everything, and that all the stories would start with “The”? I’m always curious to hear from other writers how collections came to be, how you decided to order the stories, etc.
JM: I usually don’t start thinking about the cohesiveness (or lack thereof) of a story collection until I’m at least halfway through writing it. And it’s probably not until even closer to the end of the process that I start realizing that there’s some kind of collective energy toward a feeling or mood or subject. For my first collection, I had a number of different working titles, but it wasn’t until I came up with the title Troublemakers, which isn’t the name of any of the stories, that the book felt cohesive to me. And then, weirdly, the book had a reason for being: this is what it’s about! For this collection, I realized that anxiety was the overarching emotion. A very early working title for the collection was I Thought You Were Dead, which is a line from “The Fear of Everything,” but it didn’t hit the right note tonally for me. While writing “The Fear of Everything,” the story, I researched the phobia (the fear of everything), and I was fascinated by the idea of it, and eventually I began to see the book as a collection of fears.
Can you say something about your next project? Is there any kind of conversation that happens between the book you’ve finished and the book you’re working on? For instance, will there be younger protagonists in it, or after writing a book dominated by younger characters, are you inclined to work against that?
SH: Strange Children feels pretty singular in some ways, though my next project (also a novel) does have two different points of view, a mother’s and daughter’s, and there is groupthink involved as well—though this time in the California counterculture of the 1960s to ’70s. I’m also working on a collection of fragmented essays about the body, and Louisiana.
I’d also love to hear about either what you are working on now or what readers will see from you next? (I’ve learned these are often two different projects.)
JM: During the weird blackhole of 2020, I wrote drafts of two thrillers, and now I’m focused on revising the one that’s bigger in scope, more complicated, more thriller-ey. At this late date, I’m trying to push myself to do things I haven’t done before, like write thrillers. I also just signed a contract to write a feature film, so I’m still keeping my toes in those waters. I love writing screenplays, and I feel like I’m just hitting my stride in that form. My only self-imposed rule is not to become complacent. And I try to remind myself why I started doing this in the fourth grade. I wrote because it was fun. If I stop having fun, I’ll take up darts.
SH: I love that—we too often forget the “fun” element and its importance to creativity. I always say if I need more fun in my writing, I’ll either apply to write for the Peking Fortune company, or name crayons for Crayola.
SADIE HOAGLAND is the author of the novel Strange Children (May 18, 2021; Red Hen Press) and the Kirkus Reviews–starred short fiction collection American Grief in Four Stages (2019). She is an associate professor of English at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and directs the creative writing program there. The former editor of Quarterly West, her work has appeared in and been discussed in many prestigious journals. She is the recipient of several fellowships and her work has earned extensive recognition, including four Pushcart Prize nominations from 2015–2018.
JOHN MCNALLY is the author of the fiction collection The Fear of Everything (September, 2020; University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press), and the author or editor of seventeen previous books, including The Book of Ralph: A Novel and The Boy Who Really, Really Wanted to Have Sex: The Memoir of a Fat Kid, as well as several books about the craft and business aspects of writing. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, John is Writer-in-Residence and the Dr. Doris Meriwether/BORSF Professor in English at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.