10 Questions for Mary Ann McGuigan
- By Edward Clifford
She's sure she can't be dreaming, becuase she can feel Nora's hand on hers. The touch is light, barely there, but the cold bracelt is enough to bring her into the morning, back into the colorless room.
"Aunt Peggy," Nora whispers. "You're having a bad dream." The tops of Nora's fingersgraze her forearm, but she pretends she's still asleep, because she wants it so badly, this contact."
—from "Because Her Hour Is Come," Volume 63, Issue 3 (Fall 2022)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
The first piece I wrote predates the moon landing; it still needs a lot of work. But one of the first stories I submitted anywhere appeared in The Sun and much later became the opening chapter in my novel WHERE YOU BELONG. Much of it was drawn from real life. I tried to capture the experience of a young girl, Fiona, whose family is being evicted from their Bronx apartment. Her brother dares her to return with him to the place they used to live, the apartment where their father, a violent alcoholic, still resides. The brother winds up taking a beating, so Fiona can escape. She does, running desperate and alone and guilty out into the streets. The novel—and its sequel, MORNING IN A DIFFERENT PLACE—came from the need to figure out where Fiona went that day and what became of her.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye stopped me in my tracks. She conveyed a child’s sense of “not being good enough” so artfully and so powerfully that I decided maybe the experience of a poor kid from an impoverished, alcoholic family might be something worth writing. The main character of my first novel, CLOUD DANCER, is a young girl from a family like that. Although I intended the novel for grown-ups, I pitched it to Scribner’s Sons as YA, and they went for it.
I also love Alice McDermott’s fiction and the way she captures the Irish-American experience. Many of my characters, in both the adult and YA stories, are second- or third-generation Irish, but influenced—consciously or not—by immigrant traditions and beliefs. Unlike McDermott’s characters, most of mine are barely blue collar. But even when they’re middle class and/or well educated, they’re often seriously dysfunctional (and sometimes quite comical as a result).
What other professions have you worked in?
I taught junior high, loved it; spent a long while in business communications, mainly helping big companies tell their employees why they were losing their pensions and health plans. I wound up spending almost twenty years at Bloomberg, thrown into the deep end, editing articles and books on wealth management (loved the wordsmithing and the company, but talk about ironic).
What did you want to be when you were young?
I can’t remember ever not wanting to be a writer. Before I could actually read, I pretended I could. But holding the book upside down gave me away (to one of my brothers, who teased me about it for decades). I escaped early and often into books. By the time I was nine, I was writing plays and short stories. I realized books could change people’s lives, so I tried to write my way out of mine. Back then I didn’t have the good sense to keep them hidden away. In college, I thought I had a few skills. I didn’t. So I wised up, kept it all under wraps for a long while. I still try to be careful about what I let loose in the world.
What inspired you to write this piece?
The character Peggy is drawn from my aunt, a very Irish-Catholic, very successful business woman. She never married, never had children. By the time I was in high school, I admired her accomplishments and appreciated how she tried to steer me in the right direction. But in her last years, she had to give up her New York apartment and live in a nursing home. I served as her guardian for those years. She was used to being in charge and she could be very difficult. Even as her dementia worsened, she was often remarkably sharp and articulate. Being guardian was time-consuming (and painful) and I imagined it would have been easier had I been caring for my mom. After my aunt passed away, the story came: What if she had been my mother but kept it a secret until it was too late?
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
My fiction tends to land in the poorest of neighborhoods—in the Bronx, Jersey City, Brooklyn—because issues of poverty, domestic violence, and alcoholism are almost always part of the story. When WHERE YOU BELONG was a finalist for the National Book Award, I served a “writer-in-residence” at a Bronx high school for a week and on the last day the kids had a surprise for me. A bunch of us piled into a van and the school’s program director drove us to see all the places—schools, streets, even addresses—mentioned in the novel. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the van.
Sometimes, for me, place is inseparable from the story itself. The collection I’m working on now is called THAT VERY PLACE and the stories are set in locations that the characters think they know—a laundromat, a convenience store, Seventh Avenue in New York. But the familiar gets laced with something unruly, something that simply shouldn’t be happening, and the characters don’t know where the events will lead them.
Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
It varies. For the blank page: usually Irish traditional (Solas, Clannad) or something I can’t sing to, like Beethoven or Vivaldi; for later drafts: maybe Stevie Ray Vaughan, Bonnie Raitt, Tom Petty, Amy Winehouse, or whoever—as loud as the neighbors will tolerate.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
For most of my life, my writing was either a secret or the lowest priority, so I work best if I really should be doing something else. I’ve learned to write on commuter trains, at Little League fields, on business flights, during lunch breaks, in the bathroom at family gatherings. If push comes to shove, I can make do with a pencil and a paper towel (although a pen is easier).
If you could work in another art form what would it be?
Singing. It was mandatory in my family growing up, but I was never that good, and it was a tough crowd.
What are you reading right now?
James Baldwin’s Another Country (incredible, don’t understand why I never got to this one till now) and Steve Almond’s All the Secrets of the World (a wonder).
MARY ANN MCGUIGAN’s short stories have appeared in North American Review, The Sun, Image, Prime Number, and many other journals. Her collection Pieces includes stories named for the Pushcart Prize and Sundress Publications’ Best of the Net. Mary Ann’s young-adult novels have been ranked among the best books for teens by the Junior Library Guild and the New York Public Library. Her novel Where You Belong was a finalist for the National Book Award. She was managing editor for two Bloomberg publications in New York and later publisher for Bloomberg Press. Born in the Bronx, New York, she attended St. Peter’s University in Jersey City and lives in Metuchen, New Jersey.