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When I ask Patty McNair how long she’s been teaching writing, she reluctantly admits it’s been 23 years, her first class convening in 1988. The Columbia College fiction-writing professor says it can be hard to write and teach, given the sheer volume of student work a teacher must read and evaluate every week. But, on the eve of publication of her first book, McNair credits her students with helping polish the finished product.
“I find that when I work with really engaged students, it really makes me want to write,” she says, speaking on the phone from her Columbia office. “And when you’re raising questions about someone else’s work, it makes you think, Am I doing that? Being in the business of solving problems in fiction keeps a certain muscle well-oiled.”
McNair began working on the linked stories contained in her debut, The Temple of Air (Elephant Rock Books, $16), ten years ago. Set in the fictional Midwest town of New Hope, the stories tell of working-class lives divided and united by tragedy and faith. In the book’s opener, “Something Like Faith,” a girl named Nova, her brother Sky and friend Michael are riding a Ferris wheel at a fair. In the same car, a man plays with his baby by tossing her into the air. The three friends tensely watch until the man loses his grip and the baby falls to the ground. The resultant fear, shame and disgust leads to a violent conclusion.
McNair says she got the idea for the story when she and her husband were on an amusement ride in which children were running around unsupervised.
“I’m not the kind of person who sees something and thinks, That would make a cool story,” she says. “I become interested in why something happens one way, or asking what might be behind it? What would happenafter it?”
She admits that some of the events in the stories are taken from her life, but the book doesn’t read as autobiographical fiction. In fact, what makes The Temple of Air such an immersive read is the depth McNair brings to a variety of characters, whether they be cynical teenagers or Bible-thumping adults. It feels personal but not particular. The book doesn’t possess the narrative arc of a novel or the tight connective tissue of a novel-in-stories, so it’s the setting of New Hope that weaves the stories and characters together. And it’s the characters’ struggles with religion that often provide thematic affinity.
“I think I’m drawn to writing about religion right now because of where our country is politically,” she says. “But also, my grandfather was a missionary in Korea, and we’ve saved all of his letters. When I read them, there is an awful lot about who he thought he was as a man of God and what he doubted. I found that fascinating, especially because I was raised by an agnostic and an atheist, and it’s interesting to have those sorts of feelings at odds in one family.”
In a sense, McNair says she writes about these themes from her life—but not the events, necessarily—as a way of making sense of them, another trick she picked up from teaching.
“One thing you know from working with students, if something in a story doesn’t work, that’s because it really happened,” she laughs. “The reader has to be supported and cajoled into believing something. You have to build that reality.”
McNair celebrates the release of The Temple of Air Friday 9 at Women and Children First.