By Daniel DeWolf
David McGlynn, author of the short story collection, “The End of the Straight and Narrow,” worries about being labeled a Christian writer when he incorporates religion into his stories.
His characters grapple with the decisions they make and the consequences of their actions when it conflicts with their beliefs. The intention, he explains, is to create complex and dynamic characters on the page.
“Religion is the lens through which I strive to see my characters, and to get my characters to see the world,” he says.
A professor of English at Lawrence University, McGlynn doesn’t confine himself to a single category. In addition to work and family life in Appleton, Wis., he’s an avid swimmer and spends time exploring relationships people have between each other and with their faith. These subjects become focal points for a considerable amount of his work.
No matter what his schedule might look like, McGlynn carves out time in his day to write. “I live my life by my routines,” he says. “Routines give order to the world, and they provide comfort.”
McGlynn will be in Mankato Thursday for the next installment of Minnesota State University’s Good Thunder Reading Series.
Here’s more from the author on writing:
Free Press: Disaster, whether natural or biological, appears frequently in your stories, in conjunction with themes of faith, guilt, regret, redemption and desire. When drafting a story, do you develop themes from the subject matter, or do you have a theme in mind and try to find a premise that works to enhance it?
David McGlynn: Always the former, always from the subject matter. In fact, in a number of cases, the disasters got the stories off the ground. I’m connected, in one way or another, to almost all of the disasters in the book.
My father and stepmother nearly lost their house during the 1993 Laguna Beach fires, which later inspired “Moonland on Fire”; I was coaching a swimming workout in 2001 when a close friend had a heart attack in the water and could not be revived; my mother temporarily lost her eyesight just before going into labor with me; and, as a Texan, I’ve weathered my share of hurricanes.
My mother used to take my sister and I into the laundry room to ride out the storms, much like Cordelia takes Rowdy and Jill into the laundry room in the final story, “The End of the Straight and Narrow.”
Some things I witnessed — like my friend’s heart attack — but most I didn’t. I heard about them later and my imagination was seized by the story. In each case, a single, strange image emerged that sparked my interest: a boy watching his father pray over his house while a massive fire rages in the background, a lonely woman talking to the baby she gave up years ago, and so on. The image, the possibility of a scene, got me going and I went from there.
FP: Do you consider audience when writing stories?
DM: I don’t write with a specific audience in mind, and I don’t think most writers of literary fiction do, either. I’m not, for example, writing specifically to men or women or college students or working professionals. I hope that people from each of those groups will find something interesting in my work.
One of the dangers I face is being branded — given my interest in evangelicals — as a “Christian Writer,” the kind of writer you find in a Christian bookstore or in the “Inspirational” section at Barnes and Noble.
Anyone who reads my stories will see that though many of my characters are tussling with the vicissitudes of Christian faith, they’re complicated and conflicted human beings. They have passions, and quite often make impulsive, irrevocably consequential decisions on the basis of those passions. For me, religion is the lens through which I strive to see my characters, and to get my characters to see the world.
Every character has a lens through which she sees and is seen, be it her gender or ethnicity or geography or cultural assumptions. Religion is just one of the clubs in the bag. Though, in my bag, it’s a big one. It’s a 1-wood driver.
FP: How important is place in your stories?
DM: Place is crucial to my stories, but so is the entire physical universe. I firmly believe that we apprehend both meaning and metaphor by our engagement with the physical world — by interacting with other bodies, by standing in the weather, by touching the objects on a table. A chair is meaningless until we sit in it. A story, too, must bring us into the fullness of its settings and places, regardless of whether those places are real, in order for a reader to fully engage it.
FP: Does your approach to writing fiction differ from your approach to writing nonfiction?
DM: To be honest, not really. Fiction and nonfiction require the same attention to scene and detail and dialogue. I like narrative nonfiction, just as I tend to favor meditative fiction. Both have the potential to investigate the secret corners of human life, and both genres must involve the reader in similar ways. The difference for me occurs at the source: If a story comes first to my imagination, it’s fiction. If it comes from my real life, it’s nonfiction. The work that happens after that is really about the same.
FP: What role does research play in your writing, regardless of genre?
DM: I love to research, largely because it helps to reassure me that I’m on the right track. The hardest thing about research is that I often go into it with a hunter’s mind: I want to shoot the one animal I’m after and then get out of the woods. I am, by nature, an intensely impatient person. But, more often, research often has its own story to tell. Once I allow myself to slow down and pay closer attention, the research often leads my work in new and interesting directions.
Here is more from author David McGlynn on the craft of writing and teaching. For the rest of the interview with McGlynn, please click on the corresponding story under the Currents header at www.mankatofreepress.com, or pick up today’s print edition.
FP: Do you focus on any particular areas of craft when teaching creative writing?
DM: It depends. I mostly try to follow the stories my students are trying to tell, and then do my best to nudge it along. I tell them that writing is always an idiosyncratic business; as Ron Carlson says, it’s not a single thing done a single way. It’s messy and writers usually have to be willing to make a mess before they can sort out the logic. That said, I do try to push my students to consider their stories’ dramatic ingredients. Drama is most often results from the crash of danger and desire, and drama can be produced by very small dangers and desires. I find myself asking, again and again, “What does your character want? What’s standing in her way?”
FP: What's the most important idea you try to convey to your writing students?
DM: Be specific. No matter what, be specific. Good writing is simply specific writing, and the challenge to any writer, young or old, is to take the kernel of an idea and stick with it until it’s absolutely clear, absolutely specific. The dogged pursuit of specificity often requires the writer to work hard over a long period of time, and it’s helps to have a routine in order to stay on the trail. But hard work, persistence, mulish determination, and a steady routine are all tools for pursing specificity.
(Regarding David McGlynn’s interest in writing about religious people — a continuation of his answer in the print edition)
DM: ... I got interested in writing about religious people in part because religious folks — especially evangelicals — are often mischaracterized or lampooned. They’re often shown in gigantic stadium-like churches filled with rock bands and strobe lights and people swooning in the aisles. Or, they’re shown demonstrating outside courthouses, seemingly in lock-step with Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Such depictions aren’t totally unwarranted, but the picture of all those people swaying en masse seems to suggest that these people simplistic and homogenous, that they lack inner lives, or that their inner lives are constituted entirely by doctrinal maxims. Like all people, evangelicals are in possession of a complex psychology. They have reasons for their beliefs, and those reasons are deeply rooted in their personal experiences and traumas. Despite all their rhetoric promoting chastity and conservative gender relationships, they, too, have fervent sexual desires. It’s probably a topic for another time, but I believe evangelicalism is a highly eroticized religious world; it practically oozes with sexual desire and innuendo, it’s just that it gets wrapped up in a spiritual package that makes it look like something different. But again, you can see the contradiction at work—people who spend a good deal of time simultaneously talking about and abstaining from sex. They’re often lampooned for this, but lampoons rely, for the most part, on superficialities. I felt these people needed a more complex voice. Ultimately, though, I hope readers will find their way to my work because I’m telling good stories; the fact that I’m telling stories about the crazy religious people down the street who often go to church twice on Sundays, as well as on Wednesday nights, only adds to the mystery and to the appeal.
If You Go
The Good Thunder Reading Series presents David McGlynn
Talk on craft: 3 p.m. Thursday in Ostrander Auditorium, Centennial Student Union, Minnesota State University.
Reading (along with MFA candidate and winner of the 2009 Robert C. Wright Award, Amanda Schumacher): 7:30 p.m. Thursday in Room 284, Student Union
Free and open to the public.