Super Hot Prof-on-Student Word Sex: Julia MacDonnell

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I met Julia MacDonnell at the Vermont College of Fine Arts Post-Graduate Writing Conference, which specializes in students who have already received MFAs and are thus pretty advanced.

But Julia was one of those “students” whom you suspect, after maybe fifteen seconds, should actually be teaching the class you are currently (allegedly) teaching. Her comments on the other manuscripts were delivered in compassionate, precise paragraphs that seemed to apprehend not just the words on the page, but the deeper artistic intention that led to there being set down.

At the class reading, Julia read the opening pages of what we would later learn—to the surprise of absolutely no one—was her second published novel, called Mimi Malloy, At Last!. It was the sort of voice we could have listened to for hours: brassy, lyric, tender, and tough.

Some months later, I laid my hands on the finished book and found Mimi just as irresistible as I’d remembered.

I was curious to ask Julia where Mimi came from, what it was like to publish a second book two decades after her first, and whether she might consider taking over any and all classes I ever teach. Here’s how that went…

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The Rumpus: It’s a bit awkward to have had you in class, as you’ve written two published novels and I’ve written merely half a published novel. Is it possible that you should have been teaching me?

Julia MacDonnell: I learned so much in your workshops, most importantly that my stories sucked because they were ego-driven, that ego being mine. In my journal I wrote: “Heartbroken. More than anything, I wanted Steve to love my work.”

Rumpus: I am such an asshole. It sometimes amazes me.

MacDonnell: No, it was a necessary humbling. I learned, painfully, that what I (the writer) wanted didn’t really matter. All that mattered was what the characters wanted. A major recognition. I also absorbed some essential lessons in craft: The deeper you want to go in the story, the more carefully built the ramps have to be. Also: don’t fear exposition! You use the term ‘big game hunting’ a lot. You helped me to realize that writers who are ‘big game hunting’ in their stories are likely in for a long arduous battle; that struggles and setbacks are only to be expected. Struggling with my work didn’t mean I was a bad writer, but a writer going after something just out of reach.

Rumpus: As a character, Mimi Malloy feels so deeply inhabited. You really disappeared into her. Where did she come from? You do not, as I recall, have seven children, or a Frank Sinatra habit. Or a cigarette habit. But maybe you’ve been keeping secrets?

MacDonnell: Of course I’ve been keeping secrets. All writers must have their secrets, the dirtier the better. Mimi is an almost purely imaginary character, but she might be the mother I wish I’d had. My novel was already published when I found some journal notes from 1992 about ‘a mother’s voice…’ I wrote them right after my mother’s death, at 64, from a massive stroke. My mother and I had a sadly bad relationship—I’m one of eight children, the second oldest—and I couldn’t ever go with her flow. Once she’d passed, unexpectedly and way too young, I realized I knew almost nothing about her life or why she hadn’t been the mother I’d wanted her to be. By then it was too late to ask. But I’d always been trying to piece together scraps of secrets and half-told stories in my family. I kept at it, with many false starts. Then I began to hear Mimi’s voice—a pungent brew of wisdom, snark, and cliché—that was both familiar and strange. She began to talk to me and tell me how she wanted her story to unfold. She insisted that her life take a more joyful path than the one I’d laid out for her. Her voice became clearer and clearer as I moved through revisions andMimi Malloy then the editing process with Picador. From the start, I had the good sense to listen to her, though we argued often.

Rumpus: So there were autobiographical elements?

MacDonnell: Well, I grew up in a large ship-building family on the South Shore of Boston and eavesdropped on my mother and her sisters during their frequent get-togethers. The way they talked has stayed with me, a music I can’t get out of my head—the Yik Yak Club in my novel. My mother was one of five daughters; she lost her mother in childbirth when she was six and her father just a few years later. She and her sisters ran away from their crazy stepmother and were ‘taken in’ by their paternal grandmother. My mother never ever talked this, but her situation was clearly the take-off point for my novel, though all of the other circumstances and events are made up.

Rumpus: The novel is, in some ways, a meditation on the notion that long buried feelings and secrets will eventually find their way out. Which feels like a metaphor for writing itself. Is that the purpose it plays in your life: as a conduit?

MacDonnell: I hadn’t thought of it that way, but yes, I do believe that. I come at narrative from an emotional intuitive place, not a place of intellectual understanding. This is likely why I have so much trouble with structure, and why I’ve been more drawn to the novel than the short story, which demands such a high level of craft. I’m wild with admiration for those who do it well.

Here I’ll paraphrase Robert Penn Warren: The attempt to write…is an attempt to find your place in the world…to find out what’s worth living for and how you want to live… That’s what writing has always been for me. With regard to Mimi Malloy, At Last!, I always felt my mother’s sorrow even though she never expressed it. We weren’t friends and never shared our inner lives. But now that the novel is out in the world, I see that it became, in the writing, a channel for my mother’s unexpressed sadness and confusions, and, also, tangentially, for my own.

Rumpus: There was a long break between your first novel and Mimi. What were you up to?

MacDonnell: Yes, 20 years between my first and second novels! Crazy, huh? I was writing all that time, another novel, short stories, and filling up journal after journal with my madness. Also, raising three children, who were two, seven, and ten when A Year of Favor came out. Then my husband lost his business, I was hired in a tenure-track position at a university, and my marriage imploded. I got breast cancer and a few weeks later my sister was diagnosed with (terminal) ovarian cancer. I vowed to myself that I would see her through it and I did, though she lived 315 miles away. I also helped nurse my father through his final illness.

During the long middle phase of these two decades, I kept writing but couldn’t attend to the business of writing. I was focused on mothering my children, getting tenure, and taking care of my larger family as best I could. The main thing, though I didn’t realize it as it was going on, is that I kept writing. I took good notes, even if I didn’t keep publishing. Maybe I was influenced by Tillie Olsen’s angry and achingly sad essay, “Silences,” in which she says she had “to let writing die over and over again in me.” I never let the writing die. And once I got through the worst of all that—emerging into a world quite different from the one I’d always known—I was still a writer; still had plenty to say, and an undiminished desire to say it.

Rumpus: I know you’re a passionate teacher. How does teaching affect your writing life, and vice versa?

MacDonnell: Teaching well is time-consuming and emotionally exhausting, at least for me. But my students inspire me, especially the intense, artsy undergraduates, the self-proclaimed outliers. In my entry-level classes at Rowan, I’m actually teaching students how to read, and how to find out what they have to say. I teach in a working-class public institution, cheek by jowl with the city of Camden. A shocking number of my students wouldn’t fare well on the Adverse Childhood Experiences quiz, but for better or worse, they’ve got tons of material, and it’s my job to help them figure out what to do with it. This is joyful work for me.

Our graduate program is a Master of Arts in Writing, not an MFA. Our grad students tend to be smart, passionate, motivated, but without the skills or experience you might expect in your average MFA student. I enjoy enormously working with this population, introducing them to basic craft of the literary writing they so long to do, and to the writers who can light up the path for them. It’s so much fun to see the glow once my students begin to understand what a sentence can do, what imagery is, and how figurative language, for example, works in a poem or story. I see small sprouts of literature in my students’ writing that can be nurtured into thriving life, and I try to be the nurturer. It doesn’t matter whether they go on to publish. I’m trying to give them a taste of and the tools for creative self-expression, and how other writers do it, so that they’ll always have the refuge of writing and reading to return to.

Rumpus: Are there literary influences you can point to when it comes to Mimi? I thought a bit about Alice McDermott’s wonderful novel, Charming Billy. But I could be wildly off-base. I usually am…

MacDonnell: I adore Alice McDermott, not just Charming Billy, but Child of my Heart and her most recent, Someone. Maybe more directly influential were Carol Shields’s The Stone Diaries and Alan Gurganus’s Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All—essentially old women telling their life stories. I’ve also been profoundly influenced, but in a more general way, by the late Carolyn Heilbrun’s scholarly work on ‘writing women’s lives,’ which is what I do.

Rumpus: What are you working on now?

MacDonnell: Two novels in progress, but I’m not going to attempt more work on either until I have a big block of uninterrupted time. I’ve done quite a bit of work on both, but need to lock myself away for a while to figure out which is calling loudest to me. Starting and stopping has become intolerable. Also, I wrote a novella about Mimi’s daughter Malvina before I wrote Mimi, and I hope that it, at some point, anchors a story collection, but short stories are such buggers for me.

Mimi Malloy, At Last!, with its happy ending, has been marketed as commercial women’s fiction and I have no problem at all with that. I love being read. I love all the feedback I’ve been getting from women who say Mimi’s experience has touched them deeply and somehow reflects their own. I love that this feedback has been coming from women of many ethnicities and cultural backgrounds. I love selling books, and I couldn’t be happier with my experience at Picador. But, at heart, I’m a somber writer. The Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh said it best, “We are a dark people…Our eyes are forever turned…Inward.”


Steve Almond's most recent book, Against Football, was a New York Times bestseller for at least three seconds. More from this author →