Erin McGraw is the author of five books, most recently the novel The Seamstress of Hollywood Boulevard. Her stories and articles have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, STORY, The Southern Review, Allure, The Georgia Review, and many other journals and magazines. Married to the poet Andrew Hudgins, she teaches at Ohio State University
Fiction Editor Sarah Dillard said this of her interview with Erin McGraw: "I was first introduced to Erin McGraw through managing editor, Patricia Murphy. The Baby Tree was the first novel I read by her, and I was immediately drawn in. Her ability to create a vivid scene through descriptive narrative was intriguing. Sitting down to write interview questions was a nerve-racking experience for me because I respected Ms. McGraw as an author who I admired and was inspired by. Once I got past the point of feeling this way, I was able to give 100% to this experience and jump in with my questions. In fiction, I feel that the best characters are those we can relate to and learn from, so I was interested in finding out how she makes the characters in her stories relatable to the reader. I was also wanted to find out how her process of preparation of the characters in her story because they are so humanistic. My hopes are that the online interview I did with Erin McGraw will make readers aware of her capabilities in fiction writing and the way she helps a reader connect to the story."
Superstition Review: What literary icons have influenced you as a writer and how?
Erin McGraw: "Icons" is an interesting word, and punts me into considering the great writers whom I might otherwise shy away from naming—such as T.S. Eliot, who has been a huge influence. Even for a prose writer, his rhythms are irresistible, and his manner of giving body to abstract ideas is something I carry as a model for nearly everything I write. Another influence is the Book of Job. No joke. If part of our job is to give voice to the unnamable, I can't think of any better model than the voice of the whirlwind, which both does not answer Job's righteous question and answers it more wholly than he could have expected or desired.
SR You have earned a Masters Degree at Indiana University and now teach at the Ohio State. Describe how you incorporate the approaches that you were taught into your own teaching and explain your own teaching style. What approaches do you use when helping students create a piece of writing?
EM: It's true that I got my MFA at Indiana, and I received a first-rate education there from wonderful people and writers, particularly Scott Russell Sanders, who directed my thesis. But my truest mentor is John L'Heureux, whom I studied with while I was on a fellowship at Stanford University. John is an exacting man of unparalleled standards who understood better than I did what I was trying to accomplish in my stories, and he taught me with heroic patience. I still have my notes from his classes, and I still refer to them, and I still learn from them.
The piece of John's advice that I keep front and center originated, I believe, with playwrights: "Complicate the motive. Simplify the action." John urged this on his students again and again, as I do now with my students. I've never heard a more succinct, precise, or correct piece of advice for writing narrative prose.
Now that I'm the one behind the big desk, I do my best in the classroom to understand what a student is trying to reach. The way I see it, my task is to help each student reach his or her goal, not to install my goal in its place. How well I achieve that is an open question, but I read with an open mind. Every day my students teach me things I didn't know about how fiction can work, which is just one of the pleasures of teaching.
SR: You were born and raised in Redondo Beach, California before you relocated to the Mid-West. There are two very different and distinctive lifestyles. How does living in the Mid-West affect your writing style?
EM: People in New York and California love to grin at me slyly and say, "So, how's life in Ohio?", as if we're all in on some big joke. If there's a joke, this is it: I love the Midwest. I have lived in Indiana and Ohio since 1982, and if I have my way, I'll live out my days here. I appreciate the simplicity of living in a city that is easy to get around, affordable, and pretty safe. Flaubert was right on the money when he suggested that writers should live like middle-class burghers in order to be able to write like archangels; an awful lot of creative brain gets freed up when life's daily needs are simple.
SR: Have you ever found yourself returning to the same theme/issue in your writing? If so, what were they?
EM: I suppose that any writer's work, across a number of years, will return to certain issues, because people are usually preoccupied by a handful of big and persistent questions. For me, those would include what constitutes ethically and morally upright behavior and its subsidiary question: who gets to claim moral high ground. I'm interested in marriage, one of the more interesting inventions humans have made, and in our attempts at self-reinvention. And I'm especially interested in our relationships with different kinds of faith systems, some of which elevate us and some of which deform us terribly. One of the interesting things about that subject is that people will not necessarily agree about what is elevation and what is deformity.
SR: You have written both short stories and novels. Discuss some of the differences you have experienced between composing novels versus short stories?
EM: Novels are a ton easier. After the initial push to get a rough draft down—work that is admittedly backbreaking—I love writing a novel. It feels like going and spending time every day in a furnished room where no one else can go, a kind of ease that stories never permit. For me, a story's brevity makes its writing fraught, since every word has to do so much work, pushing ahead the plot and enhancing the characterization and being beautiful. If writing a novel is going and spending time in a private room, writing a novel is like squirming out from under a manhole cover. Flannery O'Connor said it better—she commented with typical dryness that writing a novel is like being lost in a dark wood, while writing a story is like being set upon by wolves.
SR: I've read that faith and belief are attributes that are intertwined throughout your fiction. How important are these elements to you? In what ways do you think it's important to incorporate your own thoughts and beliefs into your work and in what ways do you think it's not?
EM: I'm not sure that it makes any difference whether or not I think it's important that certain values are incorporated in my fiction. The things we care about will be borne out whether we want them there or not, woven into every word choice, shade of character, tilt of plot. We can't keep our beliefs out if we try. By this I'm not talking about "beliefs" in the sense of whom we support for president, but what we consider good behavior, or the deep debts family members owe one another. It is true that religious faith is important to me, and it's also true that I have written directly about religion, but those stories are not concerned with whether or not religion is a good idea. They are usually stories about vanity and the various ways we are blind to our own motivations. One very good way to make your fiction not be about something is to make that thing the central point of your plot.
SR: Critics claim that “McGraw is one of those writers with the rare gift of truly capturing real people in fiction.” I feel that the best characters are those who we can relate to and learn something from. How important is it to you to achieve verisimilitude within your fiction and how do you go about achieving it?
EM: You're right to link verisimilitude to the reader's ability to relate to a character, because psychological verisimilitude is what makes that kind of relationship between reader and character possible. I think any reader can name scads of characters she related to, from Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov to Denise Lambert in The Corrections, characters who may well be nothing like her. One of the glories of fiction is its ability to widen our worlds by allowing us to participate imaginatively in lives unlike our own.
As you would guess from that statement, verisimilitude is very high on my hit parade, because behind it exists an act of exploration. I spend a lot of time trying to put on other characters' skin, putting aside my own thoughts and reactions and trying to feel what my character would feel, with his or her particular history and motivation and desire. I know I'm getting somewhere when I start to think thoughts that are unfamiliar. I know I'm getting somewhere good when I start to think thoughts that would normally be genuinely alien.
SR: Kate is a pastor in The Baby Tree, a profession that is usually filled by a man. What was the motive behind making Kate the pastor in this novel instead of her husband Ned?
EM: I wanted to write a book about a woman pastor. Pastors, like politicians, live peculiarly public lives, and often find themselves forced to live out very private moments before an audience. (Think of Eliot Spitzer last year. Think of Eliot Spitzer's wife.) Females of the cloth are even more visible, simply because most congregations are unaccustomed to seeing them, and therefore hold them to a higher standard than usual. For dramatic purposes, this gave me quite a bit of fabric to play with, since Kate's behavior is sometimes well below reproach. Also, making saintly Ned a pastor lent itself too easily to stereotype. He's already so teeth-grittingly "good" that readers want to slap him. They'd want to throw fire bombs at him if he had a pulpit.
SR: You had a speaking engagement at Marion campus, in which you said, “I think physically putting yourself in the body of your character is helpful because the point of what we are doing here is not to get on the page what we think our characters might think, or even worse, what we think about our character. The point is to put all our preconceptions over here someplace to go off and get a cup of coffee, and do our level best to channel the character to become that person.” This comment can be seen as very insightful to anyone wishing to pursue writing as a career. In what ways would you describe your preparation for Kate's pastoral character in The Baby Tree? How would you discuss your preparation for other characters in your stories?
EM: There are two phases. The early one gathers information. I read about pastors and their families, and about female clergy. I learned about the Methodist church. I talked women pastors about the difficulties of their lives as well as the minutiae. One of them talked wryly about living her life surrounded by the everlasting "parsonage beige." When she retires, she plans to get a bright red couch, because she'll finally be able to. That's the kind of detail that comes from talking to people, and that makes a character vivid. Besides, it's fun to know.
The later phase goes deep, and that's what I was talking about at Marion. I may have certain ideas about what makes a good pastor, but a novel is not the place to showcase my opinions. It is the place to put characters together, push them into conflict, and see what they say and do. If their words or actions start to feel predictable, it's time to stop, delete, and re-think.
SR: In your collection of short stories, The Good Life, I noticed that an important aspect of your writing comes from character self examination. What impact do you hope this has on readers?
EM: Don't you examine yourself? Most people I know do, even if the examination only goes so far as "I am terrific" or "I screwed up." But most of us think about ourselves a lot, so self-examination is, as far as I'm concerned, psychologically realistic. Also, in a story it's often the quickest way to convey certain kinds of information to a reader. What's interesting about a well-drawn character is the way he or she looks at and values the world. We need to see what lessons the character derives from things, and getting a little outtake from her brain is often the most efficient way to do that.
SR: I have read that the idea behind “A Whole New Man,” from The Good Life, came from an episode of Maury Povich in which a man received a life changing make over. What other stories of yours are in some way derived from elements such as television or the media?
EM: I'm a magpie when it comes to story ideas, and I'm willing to go to just about any source. The make-over I saw that prompted "A Whole New Man" actually came from Montel Williams, but I did see a Maury Povich show that gave me another plot line. I've gotten story ideas from Dear Abby, the police log for my neighborhood, News Of The Weird, and urban myths. I've also gotten them from Butler's Lives of the Saints, family stories (a rich trove), my friends' lives (an even richer trove), twelve-step meetings, and once from a sermon. Most of the work of finding material lies in sensitizing ourselves to what we find interesting—what kind of story makes us think and think about it, turning it around and trying to understand it. The power of really good material comes not because we understand it; the power comes because we don't.
SR: One of my favorite stories from The Good Life is titled “The Best Friend,” in where the main character, Mona, is forced to examine her life when a past friend's daughter comes to stay with her. There are different themes in this story, most of which revolve around friendship and the desire to pursue something that makes a person happy, knowing that they might have to settle for less. Friendship and the pursuit of happiness are common denominators in the lives of most people. How essential do you believe it is to write about the commonalities in people? What was your goal in writing this story? What did you hope the reader would take away?
EM: While most people yearn to be happy, many of us do a stupendously bad job of finding happiness. That's good news for writers, since so many excellent stories measure the distance between our desires and our attempts at fulfillment. Certainly Mona makes more than her share of bad choices. I don't see that story, or any of my stories, centrally concerned with finding commonalities. The stories exist to explore particular situations that I hope will be interesting to readers. In the case of "The Best Friend," I was interested in writing about envy, whose half-life can linger way beyond whatever set it off in the first place. If the story succeeds, then the reader is as surprised as Mona to discover the reality of Sue's life, and experiences something like the psychological thump Mona goes through when she realizes that she has been completely wrong all these years about the woman she thought she knew best in the world.
SR: I've noticed that many of your stories or novels tie in the idea of religion and/or faith in some way, whether it's being a pastor and connected to God such as Kate in The Baby Tree, or the title of your short story collection, Lies of the Saints. How important is religion/faith in your life?
EM: It's quite important, but when I sit down to write I'm not thinking about religion or faith. I'm thinking about characters and their choices and where they will take the plot and how to balance levels of diction and the thousand things we need to pay attention to if the fiction is going to be any good. Our interests steer our choice of subject matter, but it's up to us to make that subject matter interesting to readers. My husband Andrew, who is the source of most of my good titles, came up with Lies of the Saints. I liked it not only for its light play on words, but because it nicely summarized the book's sense that often the faith systems we steer by are not trustworthy.
In the end, our only obligation is to the work, isn't it? If we make it as clear and honest and capacious as we can, if we listen to the needs of the story and not our desires to make ourselves look good (a real temptation, especially in early drafts), if we allow the characters the full reach of our intelligence, then we've got a fighting chance. That's the best we can ask for. In fact, it's pretty good.