Screen Porch

Books and Shadow Books: A Chat with Novelist Molly McGhee

By

Susannah Felts

On Nov. 20, The Porch is thrilled to welcome hometown hero Molly McGhee back to Nashville for an event at The Bookshop in East Nashville. Molly grew up in the Gallatin area, and we met her just before she left these parts to pursue her MFA at Columbia in NYC. It's a bit of an understatement to say she impressed us back then with her gumption and wit, and we're not at all surprised, but also deeply pleased, to see her publishing her first novel this fall. Publishers Weekly called Jonathan Abernathy You Are Kind a "darkly comic fantastical debut," and Kelly Link calls it "a deeply humane novel that perfectly marries the strangeness and terror of everything we can't explain about ourselves, to ourselves, and the everyday horrors of contemporary workplace culture. Molly McGhee knows the stuff our dreams are made of—she's a marvelous chronicler of the fantastic, the perverse, and the sublime.".

Molly was generous enough to first answer some questions for Porch codirector Susannah Felts's FIELD TRIP Substack. We've woven some of those questions in here with a few more about the new book, the publishing industry, and book tour. Susannah and Molly hope to see you on Nov. 20!

How does the South inform your artwork?

Our childhoods are the cornerstone of our existence. How we begin is the foundation which we build our lives upon. All my work comes out of the core of my being. In my core I am Southern, so I think it is fair to say that my relationship with the South is fundamental to the way I create. 

Tell me about a Southern artist you identify with or admire, and why. 

When I first started writing, I really admired Karen Russell. Especially her novel, Swamplandia!, whose brutal ending felt very true to my lived experience. Her stories, too, are masterworks of surprise, suspense, and tenderness. She lives in Portland now.

Here’s a list of southern women writers who have shaped the way I think of fiction: 

Bobbie Ann Mason 

Zora Neale Hurston 

Toni Cade Bambara 

Flannery O’Connor 

Eudora Welty

Jesmyn Ward

Tiana Clark 

bell hooks 

Harper Lee 

Dorothy Allison 

Kate Chopin

Alice Walker 

Maya Angelou 

Karen Russell 

Catherine Lacey 

Tell me about a Southern expression that 
a.          You dislike
b.         You love, or
c.          That you’ve used in your work 

“Now you’re just being ugly,” is one I used recently that was misunderstood. Usually used as a response when gossip has gone too far and curdled into judgment, this one can get you into a lot of trouble if the receiver has never heard it said. I’m also fond of the phrase “She fancies herself judge, jury, and executioner. . .” which is used when describing someone who thinks they are the ultimate authority on all things, usually someone who has become so blinded by the performance of religion they believe only they know God’s will. The one I use the most often is “put up,” as in “I don’t know why you put up with that,” or “I’m gonna go put up the dishes.” 

Let’s talk about your debut novel, Jonathan Abernathy You Are Kind. You wrote this book pretty quickly, no? If I understand correctly, it wasn’t your first completed novel; the first you deemed too personal to go out with. Does speculative fiction feel safer, in a way? 

I seem to have a pattern. I write one deeply personal thing, feel viscerally and unbearably exposed, and then I try again. The first book is like a shadow book of the second. This project is me trying again to create art that I can talk about without becoming overwhelmed by the vulnerability of the process. 

Writing speculative fiction does give me a remove from the work that allows me to talk about it with readers, booksellers, publishers, etc. I am very easily embarrassed by myself, and have not yet conquered my own imposter syndrome, so the distance that speculative fiction provides feels really integral to my process at this time.

This is kind of funny to me, because I’ve always thought of my work as “emotional realism.” But what they don’t tell you when you’re writing a book is that a huge part of publication is talking about it with folks. Talking about a book you wrote and writing the book are two totally different skill sets. I’m still working on the former. 

I would say more than “speculative fiction” I look for parables or allegories that feel true to our world, and then attempt to explore that concept honestly without taking any shortcuts. Hopefully as I move forward, get older, wiser, etc, I am able to accept who I am and carry less shame around my feelings/my existence. I would like to develop the skills to talk about the process without feeling like I am dying. I suppose the goal is to reach a level of zen acceptance where talking to Jeanette from Montana, say, about the darkest moments of my life feel less all-consumingly anxiety inducing. I’m not there yet, but I’m practicing.   

You’ve worked in publishing for years. Give us one piece of insider intel about the current publishing climate, no holds barred. Ok, maybe two pieces. Or three. 

We writers are shown the very tip of the iceberg. We are told to get an agent, then an editor. I am going to tailor my advice to your audience, Susannah, because I was also once a young southern writer completely removed from the coastal systems of business and publication. 

First, you must understand that writing and publishing are two different phenomena and they have almost nothing to do with one another. Publishing a book is like a special little hell designed just for you. It is a torture chambers of Kafkaesque misery and hoops to jump through. Almost none of it makes logical sense. I got really lucky with my publishers, Astra House, and my editors, but it’s because I did my research and worked with my agent to understand the landscape of the business before making informed decisions around my needs as a writer. For example: I don’t like to show my work before it’s done, I can be very protective and deliberate in my choices around the text, I care a lot about artistic integrity, and I prefer transparency/honesty in business even when the news is brutal. One of the reasons I have succeeded is because my agent levels with me.Your needs are going to be different than mine. I like a challenge, and I like to know what I’m up against. Maybe you need someone who can show you the ropes without getting you too involved with the nitty gritty. The process is Sisyphean in nature, which can be demoralizing for some folks. Knowing yourself will help you know who to go into business with. 

My biggest piece of advice for young writers is to master the art of writing first, and then to learn the system of publication. Understand that writing is pure. It’s an art form you must come to honestly and faithfully. Publishing, however,  is something to be endured. It is a capitalist endeavor and it is often a corporate one. Research which writers have which agents, what things they did before they published their first novel, and where they got their “start.” Create a (realistic) roadmap for yourself based on the data you collect. 

It takes a long time to find publication. Be patient. Find community. Read voraciously. 

I seem to have a pattern. I write one deeply personal thing, feel viscerally and unbearably exposed, and then I try again. The first book is like a shadow book of the second. This project is me trying again to create art that I can talk about without becoming overwhelmed by the vulnerability of the process. 
JAYAK is, among other things, a capitalist critique. What other books—recent, forthcoming, or otherwise—are, for you, its kindred spirits?

I read a lot of nonfiction when embarking on the project. These texts may seem unrelated but I was thinking about each of them deeply: 

  • David Graeber’s bibliography, especially Debt     
  • Sidarta Ribeiro The Oracle of Night 
  • Merlin Sheldrake Entangled Life 
  • Matthew Desmond’s bibliography 
  • Isabel Wilkerson’s bibliography, especially Caste 

As for fiction, here’s some newer stuff folks who want to get back into reading might like if they vibe with my work: 

  • Temporary and Terrace Story by Hilary Leichter 
  • Chain Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah 
  • Tender is The Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica 
  • They by Kay Dick (this one is super weird and sick as fuck) 
  • Enormous Changes At The Last Minute by Grace Paley (IMO the best to ever do it) 
  • CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders 
  • Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang 
  • Something New Under the Sun by Alexandra Kleeman  (21st century Philip K Dick if he wrote about hot girls surviving the ongoing climate disaster) 
  • When a Man Falls From The Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah (Nneka Arimah = the Ursula K Le Guin of our time) 
  • Users by Colin Winnette (like Jonathan Abernathy, this is a novel about a workaholic ruining his own life) 
Understand that writing is pure. It’s an art form you must come to honestly and faithfully. Publishing, however,  is something to be endured. It is a capitalist endeavor and it is often a corporate one.
Tell us about book tour. Has it been glamorous? Has it been exhausting? 

I have been heavily medicated the entire time and I don’t think I could do it any other way. 

Talking to readers and booksellers makes it all worth it, though. I love recommendations. Especially the weird stuff.   

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