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Visiting with Richard McCann

by Claire Guyton

What’s your best “And that’s how I got the idea for that essay/poem/story/book” anecdote?

Most of my ideas come from the same starting place. I ask myself what I would prefer not to write about for fear of the feelings the subject matter might arouse. Then I write about that. I am attempting to move through my life in this way, using it up as I go.

If you could choose any literary character and rewrite that character’s fate, which character would you choose and how would you change what happens to him or her?

I can’t imagine wanting to change a character’s fate, no matter how tragic, unless it’s a character from a book I don’t like very well, in which case, well, I don’t much care what happens. I have had to discontinue teaching two of my favorite literary works—Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire and Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight—because I could no longer bear my students’ desires to change the fates of the women who are the protagonists of these works. Of Blanche DuBois, they often said, “Someone needs to tell her to stop drinking” or “She needs to wake up and smell the coffee.” Of Sasha in Rhys’s novel, they often said, “How can she possibly believe a new little black dress, however chic, will save her life? She needs to lay off the sauce and get a job.”

These are not sentiments I share, and not because I don’t adore these characters. I love Medea, for instance, in all of her wounded grandeur. Buy I wouldn’t think of telling her not to murder her children.

Raymond Carver said a writer should follow the command “No tricks.” Do you keep any quotes or reminders at your desk?

Over my desk, I keep a photo of Walt Whitman and a photo of Bette Davis—hand-signed by her and sent to me in the mid-1960s, when she and I were pen pals. I consider Walt and Bette my spirit parents. Together they guide me in all my literary endeavors, though sometimes I also have babysitters, like Tennessee Williams, Jean Genet, and Truman Capote. I also have a framed copy of Robert Lowell’s poem “Epilogue” and an old baseball card to which Jane Cooper affixed a photo of her own face, something she made and mailed to me when she was named Poet Laureate of New York.

Is there a “writing rule” you never break? One you love to break?

I didn’t know there were rules. But now that I do, I’m willing to go back and revise everything.


To read Richard McCann’s essay on craft, click here.

For more Author Visits, click here.

For craft shorts, click here; for craft essays, click here.

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