“The Blueprint of Your Brain” by John McNally
Volume #2, Issue #24 • November 18, 2014
John McNally is the author of three novels: After the Workshop, The Book of Ralph and America’s Report Card; two story collections, Troublemakers and Ghosts of Chicago; and two nonfiction books: The Creative Writer’s Survival Guide: Advice from an Unrepentant Novelist and Vivid and Continuous: Essays and Exercises for Writing Fiction. His young adult novel Lord of the Ralphs will be published by Lacewing Books in the fall of 2015. A screenplay he co-wrote is in development with the producer of Winter’s Bone. A native of Burbank, Illinois, and a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, John is Professor and Writer in Residence at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
A month ago, Jimmy Presko accidentally burned down his parents’ new garage. He was twelve years old. A pile of charred debris now sat in their driveway, and you could smell what had burned and melted from several blocks away. His mother sat across from him, snipping an article from the newspaper with her toenail scissors. All the articles she saved looked like doilies because of the scissors’ curved blades. Jimmy’s father appeared every few minutes out the living room’s bay window, pushing the lawnmower and smoking. He hadn’t spoken much to Jimmy since the fire episode. Jimmy didn’t blame him, really.
“Look at this,” Jimmy’s mother said, handing over one of her scalloped-edged newspaper clippings. The story was about a new program for latchkey kids. If a girl or boy came home from school and started feeling lonely or frightened or sad, all she or he had to do was pick up the phone, dial zero, and say to the operator, “Grandma, please!” to speak to an elderly woman or “Grandpa, please!” to speak to an elderly man. A moment later, the child would be connected. According to the mayor, who spearheaded the program, it served two goals: it provided a sense of comfort for the rudderless kids in town, and it gave meaning to the lives of forgotten retirees, who were lonely themselves and felt that their connection to society was slipping through their fingers. “It’s a win-win,” the mayor was quoted as saying.
Q&A by Patrick Ryan
Where did the idea for this story come from?
Many years ago, a student in one of my composition classes told us about a program in his neighborhood for latchkey kids in which lonely kids could pick up the phone, dial a number, and be connected to an elderly man or elderly woman in a local nursing home. And of course I thought, man oh man, that could go so wrong so fast! But I didn’t start writing this story until seven or eight years later, and then, after I wrote a draft by hand, I put it away for two years in order for it to come into better focus for me.
There were, I would imagine, a lot of parts that were fun to dive into when writing this story. What did you enjoy the most?
The phone calls between Jimmy and Perry. I liked the idea of Jimmy, the boy, talking to someone the reader primarily gets to know through these calls. Perry, the old man, was a fun character to write because I had to paint a picture of him using only his voice and implied actions.
Jimmy, your main character, is drawn to an era far earlier than the one he’s living in. The music, the clothes, the manner of speaking—he likes these things even before Perry comes into his life. Were you, as a teen, drawn to an earlier era, or have you ever known a teen who was?
Oh, yeah, that’s totally me. As early as four years old, I was fascinated with movies from the 1930s and 1940s, and throughout grade school I began reading up on silent movies. With money I made walking dogs, I would buy Super 8 movies starring Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, and others. I learned vaudeville routines, like “Who’s on First?” And then I began writing to actors and actresses from that period, and many of them wrote back, so I decided to write a book about old-time comedians. Using two fingers, I typed an entire book manuscript on a 1940s cast-iron Royal typewriter, finished it when I was in the 8th grade, and then wrote to every publisher in New York. Sadly, no one took it! I was devastated. Also, during those years, my father bought a Brunswick Upright Phonograph, like the one in the story, and I would search flea markets for 78s—the Andrew Sisters, the Boswell Sisters, the Dinning Sisters. Lots of sisters! I own the phonograph now and occasionally use it.
Where do you see Jimmy in, say, five years? What are his hobbies, his passions? And where do you see his father? Does the marriage survive?
That’s a tough one. I honestly don’t think much about what’s going to happen to my characters after the story ends. If he’s like me—and he is like me to some extant—he may join the Drama Club in high school. That gave me a chance to wear fedoras and be in plays like Arsenic and Old Lace. Being in plays, in turn, gave me a chance to escape my own life for a little while, which was appealing when I was a teenager. I could see Jimmy doing that. As for his parents’ marriage, yeah, I think it’ll survive. My parents’ marriage was rocky right up until my mother died, but they stayed together. A lot of the fathers that I write about resemble my own father, who wasn’t a bad man but who was deeply flawed.
Perry is one of my favorite older characters ever. You nail him right from the moment he appears in the story (via that first phone call). This is a tricky question because I don’t know how you’re going to answer it without giving some sort of spoiler, but what do you think Perry wants from Jimmy? What do all these favors add up to for Perry?
First, thank you. I love writing about characters like Perry. When I was a kid, I was friends with older guys in the neighborhood. I think they were lonely. Many of them were retired, living alone, divorced. Or they were widowers. I was a shy kid. Quiet. And so I think I looked like I would be a receptive audience to them. And I was. I liked talking to these older guys. In retrospect, they weren’t always decent people. They had dark sides. But they were kind to me. I was a substitute child for their own children who were grown and, in some cases, had turned their backs on them. Perry is modeled on some of these guys I knew. Not a specific guy but more of a composite of them. And I think part of what he wants from Jimmy is what these guys wanted from me—a chance to tell their story, once and for all, to someone.
What are you working on now?
As always, I’m working on a number of projects. I have a YA novel titled Lord of the Ralphs coming out in the fall of 2015. “The Blueprint of Your Brain” is part of a story collection in progress. And I’m under contract for two more books—a collection of personal essays and a novel, which will be published in 2016 and 2017.
What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
“The writer is the person who stays in the room.” Ron Carlson said that. I’m a big advocate of work ethic. My father was a roofer, and my mother worked in a factory, so the fact that I’m a writer is not only a small miracle but a luxury. I used to help my father work on friends’ roofs—pouring buckets of hot tar across the flat roof of an apartment building in July and then spreading it with a mop while the sun beat down on me. Trust me: writing, as frustrating as it is, isn’t hard work. Roofing is hard work. And so I make sure that I write every day because there are harder, less satisfying things in the world to be doing.