“For a long time, I pretended it didn’t matter,” says the award-winning writer of her craft. “I wanted to be an actress back in the day.”
It may have been that McNair would have made a great actress. She’s certainly worn a lot of hats in her life. But with other wordsmiths in her family, including a half-brother who is the poet laureate of Maine, it seems she couldn’t escape writing.
“I think writing has always been in my genes,” she says. “I’ve racked up a lot of stories.”
In fact, McNair sees stories everywhere, and her life has taken her to a lot of places and into a lot of situations—all of them rich with stories. Although she’s spent 98 percent of her life in the Midwest, McNair’s world reaches a lot of corners. Over the years, she has traveled to Honduras, the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom, and Italy. She’s managed a gas station, sold pots and pans door to door, tended bar and breaded mushrooms, worked on the trading floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, and taught aerobics.
And in all those places, doing all those things are stories. Whether in a bar, in a city, or in a small town, stories practically jump out at her. “You notice broken toys in the yard, and you wonder ‘What’s up with that?’,” McNair says, musing about where ideas come from and how quotidian observations become stories. “Observation plus memory plus imagination equals something new.”
Perhaps it’s that ability to see a story in just about anything that drives McNair and keeps the stories flowing. Her stories, which have been published in a number of journals, have won much acclaim, and her first novel, The Temple of Air (Elephant Rock Books, 2011), a collection of interrelated stories, has reaped equally glowing praise. In fact, the title was named the 2012 Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year.
“It’s done well,” McNair says, modestly. “I was surprised. I’m kind of happy about that. I’m kind of a big old mush. The first review—you’re kind of screaming and jumping around. But each one felt like the first one, actually. I’m either just thrilled that someone liked the book or a little sorry that somebody didn’t.”
The truth is that a lot of people like McNair’s work. And a lot of that support has come from friends and colleagues in the Chicago area. From Jotham Burrello, her editor and a colleague at Columbia College Chicago, to local author Audrey Niffenegger, who praised The Temple of Air as “a beautiful book, intense and original,” to Mare Swallow of Chicago Writers Conference, whom McNair credits with doing much to get Chicago’s literati out and about and talking to each other, McNair has high praise for the area’s literary folk.
“We have a very nice community of writers,” McNair says. “We support each other on the way up. We support each other at the top. We have some very significant award winners in our department [at Columbia]. We have always rooted for one another.”
Maybe that support has something to do with those Midwestern values that so many people like to talk about. Whatever it is, McNair calls Chicago home, and she has become part of a welcoming literary scene that embraces its local authors. From her colleagues at Columbia to the book clubs she meets with, McNair believes Chicago has a strong sense of community.
“People seem to help out each other a lot,” she says. “The number of readings and literary events around town is incredible. You can really run into people who are connected to or by the word.”
Connected to the word: McNair is certainly that. With scores of published stories under her belt and countless stories brewing in her mind, McNair is in no danger of becoming unconnected to words. Nor is she likely to become disconnected to the Midwest, a place she happily calls home.
“There’s something very comforting about the gentleness of the Midwest. I believe in the ‘heart’ of the heartland,” McNair says. “It’s part of my DNA.”