Childhood Love of Superheroes Leads to Book
John McNally freely admits he was an overweight kid who watched a lot of television while growing up in a Chicago suburb during the mid-1970s.
Batman. Spider-Man. Shazam! The Incredible Hulk. Superman.
Not a surprise then, when he had to write and perform a play for his fourth-grade class, it was about an overweight superhero who got stuck in a phone booth. The play was a hit, and it sealed his fate as an author.
"Sad to say, but I suppose ego is what kept me writing," he says.
Thirty years later, that kid, no longer chubby, is still writing. His award-winning short-story collection, "Troublemakers," and best-selling novels' "The Book of Ralph" and "America's Report Card," have established his reputation as "one of the best American writers in the new century." In the next year, McNally will have four new books coming out: his sixth anthology, fourth collection of short stories, third novel, and first work of nonfiction.
On Thursday, Aug. 28, at 4 p.m. at The Country Bookshop in downtown Southern Pines, McNally will present his new anthology, "Who Can Save Us Now? Brand-New Superheroes and Their Amazing (Short) Stories," co-edited with friend and fellow writer, Owen King.
Named an "Editors Choice" by the Chicago Tribune, "Who Can Save Us Now?" is a "fresh, imaginative collection that provides a new way of looking at the world."
The 22 stories, written by some of today's most talented literary writers, deal with the notion of the superhero in a more realistic, gritty, human way than the old-fashioned comic book conception. The Library Journal says, "The end result re-imagines the world of caped crusaders as a funny, lonely and weird place and one far more believable than that of 'The Dark Knight.'"
"It is not recommended," one reviewer wrote, "to those seeking traditional superheroes and villains. No mistaking that 'Who Can Save Us Now?' is for adults."
Owen King, son of author Stephen King, pitched the idea to McNally.
"I wanted to write a superhero story," King says, "but I couldn't think of who would publish it. So I had a brilliant idea to convince a bunch of people to do the same kind of thing, and make a book out of it. We didn't have much to offer the writers, other than the exposure of being in the book."
The pair gave them two ground rules -- the superhero had to be completely original, and "it had to be awesome."
"Owen and I were surprised at the results," McNally says. "When you solicit material, you have no idea what you'll get back and you just hope it's good. For me, the important thing was matching the right people to our subject matter."
Stephanie Harrell's "Girl Reporter," reveals the origins of a Superman-like hero through the first-person narration of a Lois Lane-like reporter. Sam Weller's "The Quick Stop 5" is the story about five people at a gas station who are turned into superheroes after biofuel spills from a truck. McNally's favorite is Will Clarke's story, "The Pentecostal Home for Flying Children," the story of the offspring of a B-level superhero/womanizer.
McNally and King each wrote a story as well as editing the others. McNally's story, "Remains of the Night," is told from the viewpoint of one superhero's butler. King's story, "The Meerkat," tells of a production engineer who gains the abilities of a meerkat, with largely less-than-desirable results, despite his efforts to protect Cleveland from a Cold War-era relic.
In October, "Ghosts of Chicago," McNally's first story collection since his award-winning "Troublemakers," will be published. The collection "resurrects a number of dead Chicagoans (John Belushi, Walter Payton, Richard J. Daley, Gene Siskel) for a series of vignettes and a couple of longer stories, and then alternates those with regular-length stories in which everyday people are confronted with, and are forced to deal with, their own private ghosts," the author says.
"The Last Semester," a novel, will be published next fall. He is still working on an untitled book of nonfiction that will be published in December 2009.
John McNally grew up on the southwest side of Chicago in the working-class suburb of Burbank. His father was a roofer, and his mother was from a large sharecropping family in Tennessee where she started picking cotton when she was three. Neither graduated from high school.
"They didn't think I shouldn't go to college; it just wasn't in their realm of experience, so it didn't cross their minds," McNally says.
His mother thought he should have gotten a job after getting his bachelor's degree in English from Southern Illinois University in 1987.
"I suspect she was afraid that I'd spend the rest of my life in school," McNally says. "My father was the one who thought I should follow my dreams, come hell or high water."
McNally went on to get a masters of fine arts degree in creative writing in 1989 at the University of Iowa. While there, he was research assistant for the author T. Coraghessan Boyle.
"My primary task was to locate as much information as I possibly could about the pygmy sunfish, a fish for which, I would learn later, not much information existed," he says.
In 1989, McNally had his first two stories published.
"I felt on top of the world; but then I went two more years without an acceptance," he says. "Then another two came in. And then I think I went another two years after that. You just have to remind yourself how whimsical the whole process is."
McNally went on to earn a doctorate in English and creative writing in 1999 at the University of Nebraska.
"I don't think I ever really wanted, or cared about, any of the degrees," he says. "But now people have to call me 'Doctor,' and that's cool. Actually, I only make people I don't like call me 'Doctor,' and those people usually end up thinking I'm a physician."
McNally has spent over half of his life in academia. Presently, he is associate professor of English at Wake Forest University. His wife, Amy Knox Brown, is an assistant professor of creative writing and English at Salem College and director of the college's creative writing major.
For information about the Meet the Author event, call The Country Bookshop at (910) 692-3211.
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