Monday, April 25, 2011

'After the Workshop' and Iowa Cities of fact, fiction

John McNally just keeps coming back to Iowa City.

The lived city

He first came to town in the late 1980s for his two years of study in the Iowa Writers' Workshop. During a phone interview Monday, he said although he had "mixed feelings" about his time in the workshop -- especially because he viewed himself as being on the bottom rungs of the Workshop hierarchy -- he "really liked the town." In fact, McNally said he considered Iowa City in the 1980s to be the "perfect size" for a town.

After graduation came Ph.D. studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and marriage. But then in the mid-1990s, McNally decided to move back to Iowa City for "sentimental reasons." After persuading his wife to make the move, he re-entered Iowa City's creative economy as yet one more well-degreed writer who couldn't find job that paid well enough that it didn't require finding a second, third -- sometimes fourth -- job to make ends meet.

"I wanted to move back, but it was a different experience," McNally said. I didn't have a purpose there."

And to add insult to financial injury, one of the many jobs McNally had during the 1990s was as a media escort -- the local contact who works with publishing houses to make all the arrangements for shuttling authors from the Cedar Rapids airport to their readings at Prairie Lights.

Most of the authors were fine, McNally said. They were happy for the ride and for the conversation. But McNally said the publicists -- especially those from New York -- seemed to take joy in reminding him that his time, his schedule and his needs were utterly unimportant.

"They had this sense that, because they were sending these authors to me in Iowa, that I was some hayseed," McNally said. "There was a lot of condescension."

The remembered city

McNally eventually moved on from Iowa City and established himself as an author who sometimes needs his own media escort. He has published short story collections ("Troublemakers" and "Ghosts of Chicago"), a collection of interconnected stories that got marketed as a novel ("The Book of Ralph") and a novel pulling from his experiences scoring standardized tests in Iowa City ("America's Report Card"). He also has co-edited a number of short-story anthologies on topics that range from super heroes, to high school, to baseball, to humor writing, to college, to infidelity.

After moving from Iowa City a decade ago, McNally is returning again for his new novel, "After the Workshop," which provides a satiric take on his experiences as a media escort. The novel's narrator, Jack Hercules Sheahan, is a workshop graduate who showed early promise (published in the New Yorker and in a "best of" anthology) but who never makes it out of Iowa City. Instead, he stays in town and lets his unfinished manuscript gather dust in a basket in his apartment.

McNally said he places "After the Workshop" in the "dark night of the soul" genre, in which a protagonist undergoes a life changing experience in the space of a very short amount of time. In this case, Sheahan finally comes to terms with his writer's block, but only after he loses track of one visiting author, steals property from another author, is robbed by yet another author, reconnects with his ex-fiancée and has his neighbor decide to come out as a nudist in the middle of an Iowa City winter.

"I've been writing a lot of screenplays lately," McNally said, "which involves just throwing characters together and hoping that it all comes together in the end. ... I recently read a review that listed all the characters in the novel, and even I was amazed at how many were in there."

The result is a romp through the overlapping Iowa Cities of McNally's memory -- both the purposeless city of the 1990s and the perfectly sized city of the 1980s.

The fictional city

Rather than fictionalize his Iowa City as "Athens. "State City" or some variation on "River City," McNally considered the real names and places "so iconic" in their connection to the workshop that he couldn't change them.

"I just remember how I felt reading books like John Irving's 'The Water Method Man' or (W.P.) Kinsella's 'The Iowa Baseball Confederacy' when I'd recognize a specific street name ... or an actual address," McNally said. "I wanted that same experience for people who know Iowa City. To have that physical sense of where the characters are walking to and from. ... That sense of place becomes another layer of the novel."

McNally succeeds in capturing Iowa City as a big small town full of aspiring writers. His city is small enough that every trip downtown -- or to the bar -- involves Sheahan seeing many people that he knows. But the city also is large enough that former friends and lovers, if their schedules are slightly off, can go years without bumping into one another.

The comedy of "After the Workshop" might lead readers to wonder which real-life writers and publicists McNally has been caricaturing.

"I really stick it to the publicists," McNally said.

But the author denies that he has written a "roman à clef" in which tries to disguise fact as fiction. Instead, McNally said his characters are based more on types of writers that people may know than on composites of the real writers he's been in contact with.

That answer not only seems a little disingenuous, it's begging to be challenged. Luckily, Iowa City residents can share their own ideas about where fact and fiction intersect in "After the Workshop" when McNally reads in Prairie Lights at 7 p.m. Tuesday.

Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at jcharisc@press-citizen or 319-887-5435.

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