(drawing of McKay McFadden by Vanessa Waring)
McKay McFadden is a writer who moved to Bolinas in 2017. Before Bolinas, she worked for the filmmaker Ken Burns in New York and then studied creative writing at the University of Mississippi. She is a slow reader, a slow writer, and a slow surfer.
What are you reading now?
I’m re-reading Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry. It’s a very dark story about alcoholism and heartbreak, mostly set on one day, the Dia de Muertos, in a southern Mexican mountain town. There’s a recurring metaphor of ripped-up love letters floating like a flock of butterflies from a ship in Acapulco towards the mountains that has stayed in mind since I first read it about five years ago.
What’s the last great book you read and recommended to a friend?
East of Eden by John Steinbeck.
Were there any books that made a big impression on you in your life? Perhaps a book that has impacted your consciousness a bit?
Books populate times and places for me with memories and feelings that aren’t my own but have become part of my knowledge or feeling of a place. For example, most of my childhood memories are actually of the children in Madeline L’Engle’s books. I imagine every bar in Paris has a Jean Rhys character in it. England is a minefield of wistfulness and marriages I regret. All the characters, houses, weather, language, and moods become part of my life too.
Do you read one book at a time or several?
I read one novel at a time with occasional New Yorkers to supplement some nonfiction along the way. I know that other people feel differently, but, for me, reading multiple books at a time is a sign that none of them are great.
Is there a famous author that you ever wanted to meet? Maybe back in time?
I wish I had met James Salter. More accurately, I wish I had fallen in love with him one summer traveling across southern France in a previous life.
Is there a book that you always meant to read but still haven’t?
Crime & Punishment (Dostoyevsky) and many other big Russian novels. My mother told me that every human emotion is included in The Brothers Karamazov, but I have yet to find out on my own. Will I ever?
Are you a browser in the library or do you know in advance what you are looking for?
I love browsing the local author shelves, especially for poetry. Other than that, I request books from the Marin Library app (MARINet) to be put on hold for me in Bolinas, a service I’m so grateful for. I love being able to easily request books I hear about and have it delivered a few days later. I also love seeing what other people have on their hold shelves.
What kind of characters draw you in as a reader?
Voice is what draws me in as a reader. I usually know from the first page if that narrator’s voice is one I want to take this journey with.
What do you plan to read next?
Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish. He is the son of the lionized editor Gordon Lish and published this first novel at age 40. It’s told from the POV of a Uighur immigrant to the US alternating with the POV of her boyfriend, an American who is an Iraqi war vet. I admire how ambitious that is.
Do you re-read? If so, why?
I’ve been working on my first novel on and off for the past six years. There were some books that I read just before I started the novel that inspired me to write this book in particular, and to write fiction at all. These include Under the Volcano (Malcolm Lowry), Light Years by James Salter, and The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles.
I’ve started to re-read them now looking for a final push of inspiration to finish my book. But re-reading can be sad to me, because sometimes a book turns out to be not as great second time around, and then I miss the version of me who was able to love the book so much in the past. I don’t want to be a cynic or to lose the joy and admiration I felt before. That’s what happened when I re-read The End of the Affair by Graham Greene.
What is your novel about? Have you been working on it a long time?
My novel, The Pleasure Principle, is about a girl who is raped by an upperclassman in her New Hampshire boarding school. She keeps it a secret and tries to understand sex and justify violence using her rational brain, ignoring and numb to the effect of trauma in her body. She becomes a famous photographer, and most of the book is set in post 9/11 Central Asia, where she is traveling and taking photos while she mentally unravels in the face of war, violence, and environmental degradation.
It is taking me a long time because I am not very disciplined, and also I find these subjects hard to research and write about. I need weeks of uninterrupted work time to submerge myself into the voice and into the world of this book to write well, by which I mean with depth, to get beyond what is obvious to details and revelations that are thoughtful and resonant.
What do you plan to write next?
I have two new book ideas — one is about the relationship between a family of caretakers and the family who own the land they live on. The other is a collection of stories set in a place like Bolinas (but not called Bolinas!) spanning at least a hundred years, so that the reader gets to know the place names and family names, but also sees a century of economic and ecological change. If anyone has any fiction or nonfiction books to recommend to me related to these ideas, I would be very grateful.
Books open my mind to so many worlds, places, details, and feelings. I am often shocked, delighted, and sometimes flabbergasted by the depth of experience and emotion that is possible through reading fiction. That’s why I read and that’s what I want to create as a writer.