Interview with Author Madeline McDonnell

Madeline McDonnell is the author of There is Something Inside, It Wants To Get Out. On Thursday July 28, She will be reading at Prairie Lights with fellow Rescue Press author Andrea Rexilius. I sat down with her to talk about her writing, teaching, and her work as a lexicographer for the Oxford English Dictionary.

How did your book, There is Something Inside, It Wants To Get Out, come about?

I attended the Writers’ Workshop with both Danny Khalastchi and Caryl Pagel, the publishers of Rescue Press. They are two of my closest friends, and they have always been supportive of my work—miraculously, unreasonably supportive! They got in touch with me last year about the possibility of working with them on a small collection, and asked if I had three stories I’d like to put together in a book. I had a much larger manuscript of stories at the time, which included the three that comprise There Is Something Inside…Those three were the stories I felt I’d come closest to finishing; I sent them, and a few others, to Caryl, and she thought those three worked together well. I did notice repeated images and dramatic and sonic connections between the stories in the process of putting them together, but I hadn’t thought of them as a book before that.

While reading your book, I was struck in particular by your sense of humor, I think especially so because of how dark some of the stories are. What role do you see humor having in your writing?

Humor is insanely important to me—I have ruined friendships for the sake of a laugh! But I’m interested in using humor in fiction not just because I think readers might enjoy a few jokes. Part of why I write fiction is because it enables me to say things I couldn’t say any other way, to acknowledge feelings so complicated or thorny or strange they seem to defy summation. I feel like humor does a similar thing—you make a joke to acknowledge the secret layer of experience that everyone is conscious of but not admitting.

I think there is sometimes a parallel impulse behind fiction writing and joke telling. There is this urge to please and engage, but there also the urge to find a way to tell an untold truth, to name something nameless. Also, I feel like life is never just dark, it is never just light, it is both those things…and it’s funny! When I write stories that don’t admit that intricate duality, they don’t seem very good. I had a teacher at the Workshop, Elizabeth McCracken, who said a sad story becomes even sadder when you introduce humor, and a funny story becomes even funnier when you introduce sadness. I’ve found that idea useful as I’ve worked on my own fiction.

A brief excerpt from McDonnell’s story “Wife.”

“You should work more popular culture into your scholarship. You love film, and that one paper you wrote, that reading of Point Break as a domestic drama only disassembling as action narrative, well, that was really interesting.”

“You wrote that paper, Mom.”

It was true. Her mother had been at the National Women’s Studies Association conference in Orlando (“NWSA CALL FOR PAPERS: Toilet Papers: The Gendered Construction of Public Toilets”), but Wednesday had faxed the essay to her hotel, and her mother had phone back with line-edits. They’d talked for three hours. Wednesday at the computer, taking dictation.

“Honey, that’s not the sort of thing you should joke about if you want to have a serious career.”

You did an interview for Rescue Press’s website where you discussed your appreciation of the novel Sophie’s Choice. In it, you referenced what Styron himself considers to be the recurrent theme of his novels, “the catastrophic propensity on the part of human beings to attempt to dominate one another.” I was curious if you see this theme at work in the three stories in your book, each of which involve a protagonist struggling against at least one domineering antagonist.

I didn’t think about themes very much while I was writing the stories, so that’s a hard question to answer. All the characters in this book are young women, and I guess I was—and am—interested in the notion that women are sometimes trained—by pop culture, by familial traditions, by a variety of forces—to be pleasing. And I am very interested in the ways young women might participate in or be complicit in this training. Being pleasing isn’t necessarily a bad thing—I was just talking about how delighted I feel when I tell a pleasing joke!—but that urge also can have a darker side. I guess that is what comes to mind when I think about “the catastrophic propensity to dominate” in relation to the stories in the book.

You have worked as a lexicographer for The Oxford English Dictionary. How did you come to hold the job?

I had just graduated from college and moved to New York, where I was applying for a lot of different publishing jobs. I was interested in continuing to interact with books and words in a professional context, but I didn’t know what that would mean practically. The OED happened to be setting up a North American branch in New York, and I saw an open position and applied.

It was an intense application process—I had to complete a written test evaluating my research skills and intuitive ability to identify a word’s nuances, so that the word might be broken into different senses and defined. It was really long, and I remember questioning whether it was worth it to spend the time the test required just to get an interview for a job I probably wouldn’t get.

Prior to working for the OED, I had always been interested in language. I had studied Latin in school and I had some interest in English etymologies, but there wasn’t a point where I explicitly decided I wanted to work for a dictionary.


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When I learned about your background with working at the OED, it reminded me of Erin McKean. While working as an editor for The New American Oxford English Dictionary, she wrote the novel The Secret Lives of Dresses. I was curious if you ever interacted with her while working for the OED?

Yes! She was actually the head of American Dictionaries when I worked with Oxford. She worked in Chicago and she would sometimes visit our office, but I wasn’t working with her directly. She seemed like such a cool person. I’ve followed her blog, A Dress A Day, where some of the narratives that make up her novel were first published. I would like to have her life. [laughs] She has figured out a way to do really important work, work that affects people’s understanding of how the language is used and how it’s changing, but she still makes time for all sorts of unrelated idiosyncratic and creative projects.

Among the words you defined, were there any favorites?

I defined “mack daddy,” which remains a favorite. Not only it fun to say I defined that particular word, but researching and writing the definition was really interesting and complicated because the word’s history is surprisingly rich. Discovering its different senses and the way its use changed over time was fascinating, but also a challenge to describe in a definition.

I also remember that the OED’s coverage of American sports terms was pretty limited during the time I was there. I am not a big sports aficionado, but I remember noticing that some basic sport terms, like “triple double,” weren’t there. It was always satisfying to find a term or a sense that wasn’t covered and to realize, “Oh, I can actually make this happen.”

Did working as a lexicographer influence your writing?

Definitely. Before I started the job, I had done a fair amount of fiction writing, but my prose style was much more minimalist and restrained than it is now. Having a job that immersed me in English—that forced me to grapple every single day with how enormous and dynamic our language is—was really exciting and transforming. I was learning and interacting with new words all the time, and I began to want to use some of those words in my fiction…or at least to find a way for my stories to reflect and embrace the vitality and vastness of the language they were made of.

A brief excerpt from McDonnell’s story “Physical Education.”

I returned to the hospital in May, floated under and up and recovered, finally, from the one-night stand of surgery. I strolled the halls, wheeling my IV, my rebound, holding its hands. I could see the children in the Oncology waiting room as I drifted by. They were cherubic and translucent, with beatific smiles and perfect, gleaming pates. I had hair then, thick and blond, thought sweaty and traumatized, laid around my scalp like taffy. Now the same scalp is pocked with scabs; its patchy with graying hair. Beatific I am not, but to gym class. I wear a leopard-spotted scarf around my head. I sit on the gym floor, waiting to be picked for a volleyball team, just as the article in the paper (“School-going Cancer Girl Teaches Life-Lesson”) described. I stretch my lungs in and out.

You are teaching here at Iowa for the summer writing festival. One of the courses you are teaching focuses on the crafting of sentences in fiction. Could you elaborate on what you see as the particularly important roles that sentences play in a piece of fiction?

I think the most visceral pleasure for me as a reader is in the language, in listening to a story or novel’s particular sound. When I am writing, I want to produce sonic experiences similar to those that I have taken pleasure in as a reader. I also want to produce a vital, sensory experience for a reader and sound is a way to bring about that experience, to produce feeling. If I want to transmit an anxious experience a character is having, I am not just limited to describing that experience, I can also arrange the words so that the sound of the sentence enacts it. If a sentence is very cluttered, for example, it might produces that anxiety I’m going for.

I also feel like attending to the relationship between the sound of a word or sentence and its meaning can be really useful. Some of my favorite stories contain sentences that imitate the sounds they’re describing—there’s a Leonard Michaels story called “Murderers,” with this amazing sentence comprised almost entirely of “s” sounds, which describes a character sliding off a tin roof. It can be interesting to play with that relationship too, maybe to describe a calm situation in a series of sentences that are restless and chaotic in terms of their sound.

Something I thought about while teaching the class that I hadn’t really considered before was the way that you can use the sounds of sentences to produce a sense of shape and coherence in a story, and to give the reader clues about a story’s structure. We looked at a few stories that repeated sentences or phrases, using them as refrains that changed subtly as dramatic tension intensified or as the characters’ circumstances changed. In a few cases, stories with fairly static action felt dynamic and eventful because of the way the refrain being used to make the sound of the story intensify and shift.

A brief excerpt from McDonnell’s story “Trouble.”

He carves his meat, lifts his fork; chews. “What a steak,” he says. He chews some more, and says it again. “What a steak!” He lifts his wineglass by the stem, and drinks. “What a finish!”

He is not using his Henry voice. It is his radio voice, that melodious, meticulously modulated baritone. “What a steak!” he says again, after the second bite. What a catch! What a play! What a drive!

“Nice finish!” he says, lowering his glass. Nice save! Nice hit! Nice pitch!

“Stop,” Lucy says.

“Stop what?” His fork is poised at his chin.

“I mean, it’s just you’re talking like – ” She looks at him. Henry,. He is her husband after all. “Um, you’re talking me up too much,” she stammers. “I’m going to get a big head.”

You are currently working on a longer book of short stories and a novel. Can you describe what these books will be about?

I can try. [laughs] The first story in the longer manuscript of short stories is about a linguist and the final story in the book involves a lexicographer. So I think there is a more explicitly articulated interest in words in that manuscript, in how they circumscribe our experiences and affect our perceptions. But then it also has just a bunch of other stories. [laughs]

I started writing a novel three years ago, and just finished a very very very rough draft of it. The one meaningful thing I could say about the project at this point is that there is a mother-daughter relationship in it that resembles the relationship in the story “Wife” in There is Something Inside, It Wants To Get Out. The narrator is a youngish woman, and both her mother and grandmother turn out to be major characters. I was interested in writing about alcohol abuse; I wanted to explore the notion that a woman’s relationship to alcohol might be passed down, not just genetically, but also through a family’s particular traditions. I was also very interested in the idea of addiction as self-medication; I wanted to explore the question of what particular ailment several women in the same family might be using alcohol to treat.

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