Nancy McKinley is an award winning author of fiction and nonfiction. She earned her Ph.D. from State University of New York at Binghamton; M.A. from Colorado State University; and B.A. from College of the Holy Cross. A founding faculty member at Wilkes University Maslow Family Graduate Program in Creative Writing, she teaches fiction and nonfiction, and supervises the writer-as-teacher internships. She lives in Ft. Collins with her spouse, Mike Lester. “St. Christopher on Pluto” (West Virginia University Press) is her first novel-in-stories.
Tell us this book’s backstory. What inspired you to write it? Where did the story/theme originate?
My aim of bringing light to dark times prompted the creation of “St. Christopher on Pluto.” I wanted to employ humor as a way for accessing the serious, so the novel could give rise to rarely heard voices of rural America.
Two female characters fueled my authorial intent: MK and Colleen. I could hear and picture them getting up to no good while also finding ways to do good. Thus, I drew from the wellspring of experience to ground them in the specifics of place, and northeast Pennsylvania suited them well. The setting, replete with beauty and blight, generated an undercurrent of resiliency that coursed through many characters, heightened by the backdrop of historical moments.
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Moreover, I opted to depict how the protagonists became friends in elementary school, but disconnected in high school, with even more distance as young adults, finally reconnecting in midlife when they worked at different stores in a failing mall. Ever bound by their parochial school past, they realize one another’s shortcomings, sometimes exasperated, more often teasing or joking, yet always there for each other, doing what comes naturally to them: helping one another and their community navigate the difficult pathways of life.
In the process, characters surprised me with moments of laughter, especially when human folly elevated an indomitable spirit. Such discoveries proved a driving force and strengthened my belief that there is hope and humor in the struggle.
Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it?
“Navidad” is one of my favorite chapter-stories, for it reinforced the importance of practicing what I preach: establish a writing routine. Much like an athlete puts in daily practice, the consistency can lead to breakthroughs. More pointedly, I tell students, “What happens if the Muse shows up and you’re not there?”
This proved the case as I tried to come up with a suitable beginning that would achieve the tenor I wanted. Even though I had written the bones of the story, I needed a strong opening image, but nothing took shape. Each day, I battled frustration, forcing myself to the keyboard as I tried different openers. All fell flat.
One morning, I considered taking the day off, but then convinced myself to give it an hour, and that’s when the Muse arrived. I got my opening scene and started having more fun with the characters. Yet again, I was reminded how a playful spirit is integral to creativity.
Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project before you actually sat down to write the book?
I planted seeds for the book way back when I was a graduate student at Colorado State University, but it took years for them to germinate. I’ve joked about my pace, saying I was a section writer for this project, much like there are section hikers on the Appalachian Trail. Whereas thru-hikers do the entire 2,190 miles in 5 – 7 months, the section hikers break it down to manageable segments, some taking years, even decades to hike from Georgia to Maine. The section writer pace worked for my project.
Plus, my life experience was necessary for finding the right pitch, so I could use comedic elements to create a path for the serious. Of course, I worked on other fiction and nonfiction projects during that time. Crafting and publishing those pieces helped to till the soil that produced “St. Christopher on Pluto.”
Additionally, a community of writers-helping-writers proved invaluable. I teach in the low-residency Wilkes University Maslow Family Graduate Program in Creative Writing, and during our residencies, I gave readings from work-in-progress. Colleagues and students provided helpful response, and I also participated in writer groups.
When I finished the project, my friend and colleague, Sara Pritchard, a fiction writer who grew up in Pennsylvania, urged me to check out West Virginia University Press. They publish a wide-range of books that address the culture and voices of Appalachia. Since my characters, MK and Colleen, inhabit the northern brow of Pennsylvania-Appalachia, I considered how WVU-Press might be a fit. I also remembered how Rashidah Ismaili Abubakr, a poet and prose writer, had reminded me that it’s not just about getting published, “You must find the right home.” I sent off the manuscript, and St. “Christopher on Pluto” found the right home.
Once you began writing, did the story take you in any unexpected directions? If so, how would you describe dealing with a narrative that seems to have a mind of its own?
The way that chapter-stories link together often surprised me with connections I hadn’t realized when drafting an individual piece. The interlocking process reminded me how you can see someone, and you have a dim sense you know the person, but it takes a while to figure out how and from where. That process happened for me with the drafting of stories, and I wanted to create links that would create a similar response for the reader.
What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book?
The structure of “St. Christopher on Pluto” posed my biggest challenge, for I needed to develop a through-line that would create a narrative arc. The task proved difficult since the interlocking chapter-stories are not chronological; rather, the nonlinear structure takes shape like friendships take shape. When people meet and spend time with each other, they learn of one another’s past in bits and pieces, sometimes realizing shared connections. Occasionally, friends move away, or don’t see each other for a while, but when they do connect, if they’re truly friends, they pick up where they left off.
Same for my characters and their storied histories. I created a narrative structure with a link-together frame, which, in turn, prompts the reader to make connections, much like piecing together a puzzle. Sometimes, the reader will see links the characters may not know, resulting in a kind of dramatic irony. Thus, there is a generative quality to the reading process. While each chapter-story can stand on its own, when taken together as a novel-in-stories, a continuity heightens the literary experience and reinforces the motif of community and hope.
Has the book raised questions or provoked strong opinions among your readers? How did you address them?
Some readers have questioned why I didn’t create more educated or professional characters. I explain my choices were deliberate, for I wanted to give voice to female characters rarely acknowledged in fiction.
I see MK and Colleen as highly accomplished in navigating the difficult pathways of life. Their comedic behavior provides a lifeline for sustaining hope and maintaining community. I suppose that sentiment reflects what I, too, have found and experienced. My time spent living and working in underserved communities taught me how humor is the one thing that can’t be taken away and along with that, I discovered empathy in varied contexts and forms.
Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write?
I write at home. Most days, I’m up before sunrise, grab coffee and go to a room with a morning bed, as opposed to the sleeping bed. I sit propped up with pillows, ensconced in blankets, and with a journal on my lap, I write into the day.
I started this practice when my children were young, for it was the one way I could get time to myself. Plus, my subconscious was more apt to bring words to the page if I hadn’t talked with anyone or had distractions. Now my children are grown, yet I keep to the routine, for it’s a way of claiming the day and reinforcing my writer-energy.
From journaling, I move to my desk, yet continue to hand write for the early stages of fiction or nonfiction. The act of pen to paper heightens my creative sensibility while exploring all sorts of ideas and possibilities. Not until I draft actual work, do I use my laptop. After a few hours of writing, I take a walk or get exercise to think through my writing, and transition to what I have to do next.
In terms of “St. Christopher on Pluto,” my journal prompted me to hop into Big Blue and go for the ride with MK and Colleen.
How does teaching impact your writing?
When writers have any sort of a job, they must create boundaries that allow them to carve out time to write. For me, routine helps to create compartments, and that way I don’t have to think about what needs doing.
Sure, I spend hours planning and grading papers. Yet I also get to share exchanges with my students. I know I’m fortunate to talk about words and stories—what we share and love. As we explore form and technique, I’m constantly reconfiguring my lens on craft, figuring out new ways for my own writing.
In a more far reaching sense, teaching has allowed me inroads to communities that provide an awareness I might not have had otherwise. The multifaceted process feeds my creative energy.
Tell us about your next project.
I am continuing the fictional stories of MK and Colleen, influenced by the pandemic, of course. Additionally, I’m revising a collection of humorous nonfiction narratives that show how growing up female can prompt ways to speak up.