Interview with Janet McNally

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Janet McNally is the author of the novels The Looking Glass and Girls in the Moon, as well as a prizewinning collection of poems, Some Girls. She has an MFA from the University of Notre Dame, and her stories and poems have been published widely in magazines. She has twice been a fiction fellow with the New York Foundation for the Arts. Janet lives in Buffalo, New York, with her husband and three little girls, in a house full of records and books, and teaches creative writing at Canisius College. (Source)


You incorporated a number of fairy tales into this book. Are these stories ones that were important to you as a child, and/or now?

They’re very important to me now, certainly. I think that I was always drawn to fairy tales, but I can’t tell you when I first read the true fairy tales. I’ve taken courses in fairy tales and now I teach courses in fairy tales, mostly in modern retellings, but we have to revisit the actual fairy tales too. My re-obsession with fairy tales happened when I found out I was pregnant with my first daughter. I have an older daughter who is seven and I have five-year-old twin daughters. When I found out that I was having a girl, I was thinking about the fact that all these stories, or many of the stories, that we tell over and over about girls and women are often about girls who are in trouble or need some kind of saving. I wanted to play with that, so I did that in poems and now I’ve done that in here, too. And, I don’t necessarily want to play with it and make every single one of [the girls] a badass who wins all the time, that’s not it, but I just wanted to give them more of a voice. It’s astounding in some of the original fairy tales how little of a voice they have. You know, I often think about Snow White who literally wakes up and the prince is like, “Gonna marry you!” and she’s like, “Okaay.” Because, you know, she really has no agency at all and that is indicative of how women were treated. They often had no agency as to whom they were going to marry or really in any other way, like the path their life would take.

When it came to writing about a ballerina did you have to do much research? Or did you write through experience? 

I was a dancer when I was younger. I didn’t dance on point because I tried it and didn’t really like it. I preferred more lyrical ballet and then also modern and hip hop and tap and all these other things. I mean, I did everything. But here I felt, I love ballet. I love watching it and I felt that I needed something that would sort of reflect the fairy tale world. The way that ballet is all about illusion and you’re supposed to believe that it’s very easy and effortless. They’re just flying around there, but Sylvie says in the book, have you ever heard what it sounds like? Just knowing what dancers feet look like, what dancing does to your body, that seemed very related to fairy tales. The harm that is done to women’s bodies in them, perhaps.

I did some research because there is no National Ballet Theater, so it’s kind of modeled on American Ballet Theater. I didn’t want it to be the exact same thing, where people would be like that’s not how it ABT works, so I wanted to have it be my own, but it has that model of school into the company, where not every kid in the school is going to go into the company. But, there’s this expectation that Sylvie will because Julia did. There’s precedent for what Julia’s doing but she’s very young to have these chances to dance these principal roles, but there are definitely dancers who have done that.

Sylvie’s relationship to ballet is not dissimilar to Julia’s initial relationship to drugs. What inspired you to draw this parallel? (There is an amount of dedication you need to have to dance and it can sometimes be a toxic relationship. Sylvie is expected to go into this and once she’s in level seven and up she can’t really find her way out. So, it’s kind of like that addiction as it takes you)

I think that that also explains why Julia’s so driven not to lose that, right? Because, at that point, that’s all she has. I think [Julia] talks about going to college or she’s thinking about going to college. But, I know that Julia is doing that in whatever world I’ve created here, so she is trying to take a different path because the original path she thought her life would take has been closed to her by her injury. But it is something, you’re right. You get into [dance] and it can be hard to see a way out and part of that is the expectation that other people have. Even Sylvie and Julia’s mother, who is a pretty decent mom in a lot of ways, she also is just kind of expecting that since it didn’t work out with Julia, it’ll be Sylvie who’s going to be able to do this. I think it’s pretty clear that Sylvie is not so sure that she wants to do that. That makes a lot of sense, that connection.

Fleetwood Mac was a major theme in the second part of the novel. How did you choose the playlist specifically for that part? 

I had this idea that Jack would have this annoying habit of listening to only one band at a time. I mean, I love music and I know a lot of music obsessives and I’m married to one, and he’s never done that, but I could see somebody doing that and just as a way to really get to know someone’s cannon, right? So, I was thinking it needed to be somebody who it would be a little playful. It couldn’t be somebody who was just strictly cool, like the example in the book where she asks about Bowie and he says “I already did that” and she’s like “Err.” It couldn’t be somebody that was that uncomplicated. I wanted it to be something that was playful and kind of funny where she can be like, “Oh, god, Fleetwood Mac,” and then actually end up really liking it.

That’s sort of my relationship with Fleetwood Mac whereas I thought they were just over the top and cheesy and just songs that I barely knew. Then when I had music fan friends who were like, “No, no really listen to this” and I was like “Okay actually, you know, they’re great.” Stevie and Christine are just very cool and the guys are fine, too, I guess  *laughs*. It just made sense because they’re over the top and kind of ridiculous, but also serious music makers and they have their own fairy tale stories within that. [Fleetwood Mac] has done a lot of talking about what it was like when they were at the height of their fame and [Stevie Nicks] has expressed regret for never having children. She’s just a really interesting, open person and so all that was sort of around the edges for me. But mostly, they also have a lot of songs that people know and it was really fun.

I had so much fun with the chapter titles in this book. My last book has numbered titles and I don’t know when’s the next time I’ll do this again, but I had a really fun time pulling out phrases that were the titles of the different chapters. And then the songs, it was fun too to think of what song could fit what chapter.

Sylvie’s subconscious thoughts sometimes appear in parenthesis, what made you choose this format? Why did you utilized it and what can it inform us about Sylvie? 

I think it was just fun for me. It’s something that just happened with her voice. Now, obviously, when you’re writing first person, it’s all internal. They’re telling the story, so this is almost like the internal of internal. I also think that Sylvie has a hard time thinking about and talking about dealing with things that happen, traumatic things that happened, especially the actual overdose or what happened afterward. So that’s a way for her to kind of put it there, but not have to touch it too closely. I think she says at some point that she’s barely told this story even to herself, what it was like that night when they found her on the couch. So, for me, it sort of evolved organically and became a thing. I do believe that characters have to become real in some way and then they kind of tell you what they want to do. So, that was something that she seemed to just want to do and I let her.

Do you consciously write for a young audience? If so, how do you tap into a younger mindset when writing a younger character? 

It’s no trouble for me to tap into a younger mindset because I feel like a perpetual teenager in some ways. And I always say “I’m a grown up?” I think most grown-ups probably feel that way: a lot of my friends seem to. I still feel very connected to my teen years. They were messy and chaotic. In some ways I enjoyed them, so it’s not an upsetting mental space for me to inhabit. I think sometimes people may want to rewrite their teen years the way they wanted it to be. For me it’s not quite like that. It’s kind of like revisiting the feelings that I had at that time, and it’s really fun.

I don’t think there’s a huge difference between writing for teens and writing for grown-ups because I think teenagers are really smart, and I’m not writing down to them, changing my vocabulary. It allows me some things like super-short chapters. It’s something you could do in adult fiction, but it’s not done as much. It’s very common in YA and I like working that way. YA also has those… you want each chapter to have an arc, to end in a place where you really want to turn that page. It’s sort of a thing that happens in YA. And it’s fun to write that way. I have students now — I teach a YA workshop — and right now they’re writing… supposedly they’re beginning novels, so we’re writing two chapters that we’re workshopping throughout the semester. It’s interesting to see them try to do that. Up to this point most of them have only written short stories, and it’s a totally different way of structuring something. But you still have that little teeny climax. YA novels are certainly shorter. And there are certainly other differences, but it’s not a dumbing down or anything along those lines.

You also write poetry. What do you see is the relationship between your poetry and your fiction? Do you have a preference? 

If I had to choose one I would choose fiction because that is the one that is most important to me. But I really love being able to write poems because it feels like play because you can do whatever you want. In fiction you do have to follow some sort of narrative quality. There’s a lot more freedom in poetry, at least for me. I don’t know if every poet feels this way. And it [poetry] is a great way of using my brain in a different way.

Also, I love, with poems, that you can leave so many holes. With fiction you do have to fill in a lot of blanks. And poetry, which I do still use to tell stories, you can do it in a way that’s more loose, which appeals to me very much after having to fill in things when I’m writing a novel. It’s okay if people don’t exactly know what you’re talking about. They come to it and they can bring themselves. I mean, that happens in fiction, too where the reader is really involved in the story, where it’s going to be a different experience for every single reader of the book because you’re going to bring who you are to it and meet me halfway.  But I love both, and I feel really lucky to be able to do both because it’s nice, when I feel I’ve hit a wall in one genre, how I can hop over for a while into the other.

How did the process of writing this book differ from your first novel? 

It differed a lot because I was under contract and I had to write it faster and I had other people’s expectations, and my experiences with the first book… other people’s voices in my head. When you write your first book… Lydia Netzer, she wrote a book that was called Shine, Shine, Shine. That was her first book, which I like, and she said your first novel, it’s like your whole life up to that point you’ve been writing that book. And then your second one you’re supposed to do in a year or two and it’s much harder. So the second book was a lot harder, and there was a time when I thought there’s no way I can do this.

Young adult lit, they want you to produce pretty quickly. The schedule can be very difficult, especially when you’re somebody who has a job and has a family. My dad was dying when I was finishing this book, and that was also really hard — I wasn’t sure what I was doing or who I was or what was even happening, so it was a lot different in that way.

But what was funny was, you write this book, and you do your edits and whatever, and eventually you get what are called pass pages, which is like, they’re photocopied and all laid out and it looks like a book but they’re just 8 by 11 pages. And you have to read through that and make sure things are the way you want. You make manual changes if they’re not. And this is after the copy editor has asked you questions about, “Oh, her eyes are green here but they’re blue here,” and they’re amazing in that way (and you also kind of hate them). But they’re doing their job, and we’re lucky to have them. Anyway, when you get the pass pages… This time it was wild because I thought “oh wow it really is a book. It actually, I think, makes sense.” And I wasn’t sure when I finished it that it was ever going to be that. And so I was pleasantly surprised at how much I’ve enjoyed coming back to this book and reading pieces of it at readings because I had a difficult relationship with this book at one point. We were not getting along.

What was the easiest part of developing the sisters’ relationship? If you could add or take away an element what would it be? 

I don’t think I would add or take away anything. I’m happy with the way they are. I think their relationship is complicated enough for me. I don’t have a sister: I have a younger brother who I love a lot. I read a lot about sisters… I always wanted a sister and I have relationships with other women that are sisterly and especially I think I sought out in my life a lot of older sister figures, and now I’m the older sister figure two younger people which is pretty cool to see that from both sides. So… I love my brother; he’s awesome, and so I would not trade him. There’s one [brother] in here: Everett. Their relationship is really great. Everett’s not like my brother but that closeness and kindness, that comes from our relationship.

I’m interested in sister relationships because of the way that when you have children of the same gender they’re going to be compared to one another maybe more than if they’re not of the same gender. And I have three daughters who, to me, they look very different, but people often say “oh wow they look so much alike,” and “they have the same face.” (They don’t.) But there must be something about them that does look alike. I have twins so I know the way they’re going to be compared to one another, and of course we compare them too even if you try not to, so that’s really interesting to me.

This was a different relationship in some ways because there are seven years between Sylvie and Julia. My last book was also a sister story, and there were 2 years between them. That was more like my girls. The one thing I’m working on, the book for adults, [in that] there are 16 years between the sisters. That’s a whole different thing, where there is a kind of “oh we had another baby” situation.

I can’t stop writing about sisters, which might be a problem.

Is there one character you were very attached to creating? Could you see what that character was doing outside of the story? 

I usually can see what characters are doing outside. It’s hard to say just one. Obviously I’m very attached to Sylvia because she is, in many ways, the me figure.  I definitely look at writing as acting. I almost exclusively write in first person because I want to take on a persona because I have a lot of fun with that. And so my narrators, my main characters, are always different from me in all sorts of ways, but there’s an innate me-ness in them. I have a big soft spot for Sylvie, Jack — I also really love Tommy and Sadie. In this case I think I wrote friends it would have been great to have when I was a teenager. And they are… Tommy, definitely, their [Sylvie and Tommy’s] relationship is based on a friend of mine who I don’t talk to a lot anymore, but at one point we were so close. It’s funny because some of the affection you have for characters could be, in some cases, the affection you have for a real person, for pieces of that person, but they are definitely their own entities. They are separate. For example, I don’t know anyone exactly like Jack. And my friend that I’m thinking… There are elements of my friendship with him in Tommy and Sylvie’s relationship, but he’s very different from Tommy in notable ways.

And our last question: What genre would you consider this book? Is it magical realism, or a fairytale, or something else? 

That’s a good question… One thing is, I’m not super comfortable using the term “magical realism” because I have a writer friend (Anna-Marie McLemore) who has made a convincing case that “magical realism” is rooted in some kind of oppression, so I don’t feel comfortable taking that term on. But the quote on the cover from the Booklist review mentions magical realism. Many people use that term that way. Perhaps it’s just semantics, I tend to call it realism with a touch of magic. I’m most comfortable, I have the most fun, with magic that you’re not quite sure is magic, magic that can be explained away.

I think I would say this is a realistic contemporary novel with elements of possible magic, if I can create my own genre. But certainly a lot of people would call it magical realism, and that’s fine. But I’m not sure: is the magic magic? Is it Sylvia’s desire to see Magic, to have permission to go find her sister? I don’t know. Obviously, since the book was found and since Julia sent it to her, it’s a pretty big coincidence, but in life there are very big coincidences. The universe has sent some things my way that seem unbelievably coincidental, where I think “whoever is writing my story, this is not believable. I could not put this in a book.”


About the authors of this post: This interview was a collaboration between the Fall 2018 staff of 30 North.