Erin McGraw, author of Joy

I’ve had the good fortune to learn from a variety of different authors. And sometimes they’ve had the bad fortune–I mean, they’ve been kind enough to teach me in person instead of through the medium of a book. Recently, I had the good fortune to go and listen to one of my professors, Dr. Erin McGraw, do a reading of her new book Joy (which is also my next read, by the way) at the bookstore near me. We got to talking afterwards, and I asked if she wouldn’t mind letting me interview her.

This is the resulting interview. Ladies, gentlemen, and non-binary people of manners, let me introduce Erin McGraw!

Rami Ungar: Welcome to the show, Erin. Please tell us something about yourself and your published works.

Erin McGraw: I’ve written seven books of fiction, three novels and four story collections.  Whenever I’m writing stories, I’m convinced that novels are easier.  When I’m bogged down in a novel, I long to be writing stories.

RU: Your latest book is Joy, a collection of 53 short stories. Please tell us how the project came about and what sort of stories are inside the collection.

EM: Joy happened largely by accident.  I had just retired and finished two novels back to back, and I was tired.  I thought I was writing tiny little stories—3-4 pages—just to keep in practice until I could figure out what my next book was going to be.  It took embarrassingly long to realize that these tiny little stories were the next book.

The stories are dramatic monologues, meaning that the main character steps out of their life to directly address the reader, explaining why they’re doing what they’re doing.  Since these are people acting as their own defense attorneys, they often lie.  That’s what makes things interesting.

RU: Obviously, there are a number of different voices within Joy. Did you do any sort of research for any of the voices you wrote?

EM: I researched almost all of them to some degree.  The ones that come from actual people, like Ava Gardner or Patsy Cline’s dresser, required that I read books to get the facts and background right, but even a story from the point of view of a nameless songwriter wannabe required that I look up some of the facts of the songwriting business, to make sure I got my guy right.  It only takes a paragraph or so before I start feeling responsibility toward my characters, and I want to treat them with respect.

RU: Were there any voices you tried to write but couldn’t? What were the reasons?

EM: I tried for a year and a half to write a story about a man who searched out his spirit animal on the internet.  People do this all the time, I reasoned; it should be easy.  And funny.  But the story stubbornly refused to get funny or easy, and eventually I parked it in my ever-growing “Undead” file, where I put things that I can’t get right but still seem like good ideas.  Maybe I’ll get this one right someday.

It’s funny, right?  Going to the internet to find your spirit animal?

RU: I think so. I mean, it’s trusting an algorithm created by interns and programmers to tell you something profound about yourself. Says something about the people who use it, I’m sure.
Anyway, you also taught for a number of years at Ohio State University. Were any of the stories in Joy based on your teaching experiences?

EM: Not any teaching experiences, no, but a lot of the stories exist, at least in my mind, in central Ohio.  I lived in Columbus for 15 years, and 10 years before that in Cincinnati, so I spent a lot of time thinking about Ohio and pondering its aggrieved status as a fly-over state.  Recent politics have changed that some, which I think is a good thing.

Joy by Erin McGraw

RU: What’s next for you? Are you working on any projects now?

EM: I’ve got a few more very short stories; I think they’re the leftover energy from finishing Joy.  A new project has floated to the front of my mind, but I’m superstitious about talking about things too early.  If it happens, it will be another book with a lot of voices.  I like to hear people talk.  It gives me a break from my own company.

RU: What are you reading these days?

EU: I’ve been on a tear for two years reading about the socio-economic divide in the U.S., and I’m still reading those.  Also books about the development of a recognizable U.S. cuisine, a subject of ongoing interest to me.  Also a superb book about climbing vines.  Don’t laugh.  It’s good.

RU: What is advice you would give to other writers, regardless of background or experience?

EM: The advice I was given by my teacher, John L’Heureux, regarding character:  Complicate the motive.  Simplify the action.

RU: I’ll have to meditate on that one a bit. Final question: if you were stuck on a desert island for a little while and could only take three books with you, which would you take?

Since they would have to be books I could bear to read over and over, the first would be Eliot’s Four Quartets.  Then King Lear, which I’ve never known well enough.  Then the collected Emily Dickinson.  She wrote enough to hold me for quite a while, in case the rescue ship gets held up.

RU: Ah, King Lear. That was an interesting read. Anyway, thanks for joining us, Erin. I hope you’ll join us again someday soon.

If you would like to check out and maybe get signed copies of Joy, you can click on this link. I’ll be checking it out myself very soon. And if you would like to know more about Erin McGraw and her work, check out her website here.

If you would like to see some of the other interviews I’ve been lucky enough to do, click on my Interviews page to check those authors out. And if you yourself are an author with a book you’d like to promote, send me an email at ramiungar@ramiungarthewriter.com

That’s all for now, my Followers of Fear. Until next time, pleasant nightmares!

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