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Writers’ Workshop alum mocks Iowa City

BY ERIC SUNDERMANN | MARCH 09, 2010 7:30 AM

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John McNally loves Iowa City. He loves the downtown. He loves how smart the residents are. He loves the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He loves the bookstores. He loves how it feels like a“big small town.” He loves it all.

In fact, he loves Iowa City so much that he wrote a satirical fiction book titled After the Workshop — mocking it.

“I think I need to talk to Prairie Lights to see where the closest exit is,” McNally said jokingly. “But, it’s very farcical. It’s not an exposé or a serious book. I’m hoping that people will take it in the spirit it was written, which was a high comedy.”

He will read from After the Workshop at 7:30 p.m. today in Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St. Admission is free.

The novel follows Jack Hercules Sheahan, a graduate of the Writers’ Workshop who initially was headed for fame. While in school, a short story of his was published in The New Yorker and later anthologized in the Best American Short Stories. He began work on his first novel, only to find himself, 12 years later, still in Iowa City, still working on his first novel. Now, to make rent, he works as an escort for authors who come to town for readings.

“For me, the book is more about a guy with a crappy job who’s questioning the meaning of his life,” McNally said. “That’s the universal part to me.”

Although After the Workshop is not a memoir, moments are based on McNally (who attended the Writers’ Workshop from 1987-89), and his experience in Iowa City and working as a media escort.

And, even though the novel is based on a very specific town and lifestyle, the writer isn’t worried about too narrow of an appeal.

“I always tell my students that the best way to receive universality through fiction is with specificity,” the 44-year-old said. “If you try to be universal, then it seems generic, and it doesn’t appeal to anyone.”

UI Press Director Holly Carver calls McNally, who has published four previous books and edited six anthologies, quite humble and said he plays down his success. She credited him for carrying that similar tone to After the Workshop.

“I felt really sympathetic toward the main character while he was being a doofus,” she said. “And it doesn’t have that ‘oh, I’m an artist’ type feel. He doesn’t seem to have any sense of entitlement at all, which is really kind of nice to read. I think if he did,it would be an elite book, but God, he’s so human.”

While writing After the Workshop, McNally took a different approach than his previous work.

Rather than completing large chunks and then revising, he wrote in smaller portions and read each section aloud to his wife.

“I don’t think I planned to do that, but I was having so much fun when I first started writing it that I wanted some feedback right away,” the author said. “I didn’t plan on turning into Charles Dickens, giving nightly readings or something. I would read to her with a pen in my hand so that if I read a line, I’d look up, and if it seemed like it fell flat, I would cross it off and keep reading.”

And his process paid off. He set out to write a fictionalized memoir and based some events in After the Workshop on his own life.

“If I had written this when I was younger, it would’ve seemed like a memoir, and it probably wouldn’t have been funny,” he said.“It would’ve been sentimental, and melodramatic, and angry. So finding that comic voice gives me just enough distance to straddle that line between fact and fiction.”


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