Meet the Lit Fest Faculty: Thomas McNeely and Finding Our Religion

by Andrea Dupree

[caption id="attachment_5909" align="alignleft" width="199"]Tom McNeely Tom McNeely on writing: "[It] is my way of accessing the world, and communicating with it. In a very real sense it saved my life, when I was going to those fern bars."[/caption] 

He may have been the first, perhaps the only, person I've ever had a casual conversation with who found cause to use the word tautology. The context isn't that important, but he used it with confidence, and he used it correctly. (I know because I looked the word up shortly afterward.) We met in Boston at Emerson College, our very first graduate class, the one in which the instructor ordered us pizza each week and sometimes came out to the bar with us afterwards.  Tom and I shared a tendency to overthink things, to write from the head, not the heart, a rookie tendency that, perhaps combined with our similar status as disoriented Westerners in an eastern city, set us on course to become the best of friends.

Incidentally, this was an era in which our group of friends knew several Toms, so he gained the epithet "butle" (pronounced boot-lay) Tom because he had a deliberate, Texas way about him. It was my brother, recently back from living in Lesotho, who granted him the honorific (in Sesotho) for slow.  I say honorific because we didn't mean it in the mean way. No, the first two things you learn about Tom McNeely: (1) intellectually speaking, there's nothing slow about him--he's always thinking, and he's thinking complex thoughts, and (2) perhaps because of this, he would pause before speaking rather than blather on and on and on, nervously, like some of us (who shall remain nameless) do.

Tom made his mark by selling his first story shortly after he earned his MFA, and not, like some of us, to someplace you've never heard of. No, he sold it to The Atlantic, and although we all grew impatient, waiting for months if not years before it finally came out, "Sheep" became the stuff of legends. He won a coveted Stegner Fellowship at Stanford, where he worked with Tobias Wolff and others, and then an NEA Fellowship, a MacDowell Fellowship, and affirmations rained down on him during some challenging times in his life.

Back in Boston, in what I believe was our final (definitely The Ultimate) workshop in grad school, the eminent James Carroll held up Tom's story, looked at us all somberly, and declared, "This is going to be an important story, a timeless story. You'll see."

He wasn't known as "JC" for nothing.

On the eve of Lit Fest, I talked to Tom about old times, keeping the faith, and the exciting news of his forthcoming novel, Ghost Horse, coming out in October.

AD:  I seem to remember wandering around the streets of Boston at night, you in a trench coat, me a little stumbly, and once ending up at a fern bar.  Did we ever write?

TM:  There were so many fern bars, so many stumbly evenings.  I remember very bad writing by both of us, which I still have filed away somewhere--obscure pseudo-Joycean psychobabble and the obligatory homeless person story.  I won't say whose was whose.  Congratulations on the Ploughshares publication, by the way!

AD: Thanks, T!  I’m only like 13 years behind you, getting in that journal!

Those nights of the fern bars, there was also a lot of smoking. We were bad.

[caption id="attachment_5910" align="alignright" width="300"]The spooky illustration that accompanied Tom's first published story--in The Atlantic The spooky illustration that accompanied Tom's first published story, in The Atlantic[/caption]

I think, and I’ll try also not to give up whose was whose (to protect the guilty), but I think I remember a guy waking up with a hangover and the urgent need to pee (“your character has to want something and want intensely, even if it’s only to void his bladder”) and a man in “Any City” who was convinced the birds were speaking to him—the entire trajectory of the story followed him balancing on a rock and then falling. We were young.  But we all have our consolations, and your learning curve was sick. Let’s talk about the story you sold to the Atlantic, “Sheep.” I was there in the beginning, so I feel like I can take partial credit for it. How much did that story change your life?

TM:  I had a lot of experience waking up with hangovers!  I was writing what I knew.  Which didn't really get me that far.  "Sheep" didn't happen until I was able to write what I didn't know (the topic, by the way, of my one-weekend class at the Lit Fest, Losing Yourself, Finding Your Voice).  Being That Guy, however, wasn't the best thing for my work.  As fond as I am of "Sheep," and as many doors as it has opened (Tobias Wolff once advised me to "ride that sheep as far as it will go"), it also gave me license to think that I could spend 13 years working on a novel, and that would be okay.  What I'm trying to say is, it's good to get out there and try and fail and try and fail some more.

And you should totally take credit for that story!  You regularly prevented me from losing my mind.  You helped me endure our teaching freshman composition pedagogy class.  And other stuff.

AD:  You did in some  ways know about the subject matter for “Sheep,” just from a different angle, right? It always seemed to me the story came out of a magical confluence of experience (your volunteer work with death row inmates) and letting your imagination go. No?

 TM:  "Sheep" did come out of my experience at the Texas Resource Center, which represented inmates on their appeals of their capital murder cases, but also, as you say, from letting my imagination go.  Where I think my imagination went was my obsessions about our relationships with people who hold powerful places in our lives - how those relationships on the one hand warp our views of reality, and at the same time, how they are essential to us, how they are the way that we know the world.  (Sort of like your beautiful, amazing story, "Mikrokosmos."  I seem to remember spending a lot of time talking about these topics at the fern bars, while smoking.  And which, incidentally - not smoking but relationships in fiction - is the topic of my other weekend workshop, "The Art of Intimacy," based on Stacey D'Erasmo's brilliant book.)

AD: I knew the fern bars deserved credit for something--they get such a bad rap in general. Yes, we talked it over and over and over. Did anything surprise you about “Sheep,” once you finished it? Can you draw any lines between that story and Ghost Horse?

TM:  Basically, I discovered, "Sheep" is about my relationship with my father.  Ghost Horse is much more explicitly about that relationship, which perhaps was why it took so long to write.  In both cases, the main character is trapped in relationships which distort their views of themselves and the world.  The end of "Sheep" provides a pretty bleak answer to this conundrum.  Ghost Horse, I hope, is a little more hopeful.  The escape from the distorting effects of the relationship to some kind of authentic sense of reality and self is art - the lie that tells the truth.  The protagonists in Ghost Horse are boys right on the edge of adolescence, and they face that change, and the differing levels of chaos in their home lives, with imagination.  I was interested in depicting how they refracted social and emotional realities through that lens, especially how racial difference is created.  How our adult selves are created out of that traumatic, liminal space.  But I think that it ended up being an effort to understand my relationship with my father, who was mentally ill, and who took his own life during the time I was writing the book.  And to understand the way that his illness distorted reality inside the microcosm of my family.

AD:  Especially because of that, losing your dad and all the other stuff you went through while writing and rewriting, it's always impressed me that you kept the faith in your book, that you held on. How’d you do it?

TM:  What kept me going, really, was desperation. I will not go into all of the crazy near-misses, the number of times the book was turned down by agents, my own hubris.  There were many times that I did despair.  I just couldn't stay in that place.

And I am so grateful to Gival Press for taking on the book.  I'm also incredibly grateful to the Stanford Writing Program and all of the support that I received there.  I met some enormously talented people, which was both humbling and enriching.

AD:  I’m grateful, too, that we’re going to be able to read the novel this fall.  What you seemed to get from Stanford, that inspirational community of talented people, is that something you’ve been able to replicate in your life since then? Can you talk about what’s going on now with your writing?

 TM:  I'm in a writing group here that I'd been in before we went to California.  You, of course, created an ENTIRE WRITING EMPIRE, which I did not.  I have good dear friends out here who are writers, but as you know, it is hard to find the time and energy to keep writing with a family to manage.  Teaching helps--I get a lot of inspiration from my students.  I don't have as much time to write, and the time I do have is more fragmented.  Before I came to graduate school, and the fern bars, I went through many years when I hadn't written.  That is a place I do not want to go back to again.  If it's a choice between the desperation of writing and the despair of not writing, then I'll chose the desperation.  There used to be a quote from C.S. Lewis in the subway here:  "I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else."  That is sort of how I feel about writing--it is my way of accessing the world, and communicating with it.  In a very real sense it saved my life, when I was going to those fern bars.

My next project is a memoir-type thing about that time when I did not write, or rather emerging from it.  One piece from that project has appeared in Ninth Letter.  I'm also eager to round out a story collection.  I'd begun writing stories before the novel, and have been working on several about characters who do not resemble me at all.  I am looking forward to spending time with them.

AD: Speaking of spending time, the empire has asked Tom to come out and teach classes at Lit Fest. Please join us! In the interim, you can check out his website here.