Fiction | June 01, 2007

The full text of this story is available via the PDF link below.

On Saturday, S’is visited Maximon and gave him a cigar, a pint of liquor–Quezalteco–and a tart of blackberries.  The cigar and Quetzalteco were Maximon’s usual gifts, but berry tart was not.  The tart was his wife’s idea.

“Quichè Lessons” by Molly McNett

Featured as an Editor’s Pick, October 14, 2008:

“Quichè Lessons” was a piece that was discovered by a first-semester intern here at The Missouri Reviewthrough our thousands of mail and online submissions. This keen eye for good writing is one of the many reasons why we at TMR pride ourselves on maintaining a high quality internship where interns are selected through a vigorous screening process for their ability to pick out and discern writing that is acceptable for publication, backing up their decisions with close analysis of the works in consideration. Molly McNett’s work was chosen to receive the Peden Prize for this year’s best fiction piece featured in The Missouri Review. She will be honored with a reception on Monday, October 20th at 6:00 PM in Columbia, Missouri.

Below is a short interview our intern Nick Woodbury conducted with McNett about her work, followed by a link to download a PDF of “Quichè Lessons.”

Nick: “Quichè Lessons” was your second story published in The Missouri Review. “Bactine” was published ten years prior to that, in 1997. How had you changed as a writer in that ten-year period?

Molly: I would say changing as a person, getting older, makes as much of a difference in being a writer as the practice of writing or the development of writing style.  I had two children.  I went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.  I moved from the city to the country, to my grandparents’ former house. These things changed what I did and thought about, so my writing changed with them.

By the way, I’m very fond of The Missouri Review.  “Bactine” was one of the first stories I ever wrote, and The Missouri Review was one of the first places I sent it.  So I thought, “This is what writing is like. I guess you write something and then someone will want to publish it. This is going to be easy!”  Needless to say, it wasn’t quite that simple. . . .

Nick: Your piece Quichè Lessons”, a story about the cultural misunderstandings between an impoverished, Guatemalan language tutor attempting to provide for his family and a curious American student desiring to gain knowledge of a foreign language, was published in TMR in 2007.  In “Quichè Lessons” you beautifully explore the facets of S’is’s life outside of his interaction with the American student. What was your inspiration for the details of his life-his family, his wife, his perspective? Were these things imagined, or were they inspired by real people?

Molly: I spent a summer in Guatemala.  My husband was studying Spanish, and I was interested in linguistics at the time, so I was trying to learn a Mayan language.  I tell the story from the point of view of my language teacher.  Of course, I made up a lot of details, though I traveled in Guatemala a bit and tried to make educated guesses.  I suppose I was troubled by the same things all Westerners are troubled by when we stay in Third World countries: the power we find ourselves with, which we haven’t done anything to deserve.  For me, writing from a Mayan’s point of view helped me to try to imagine his experience of teaching me, and to help me understand his life more fully.

Nick: You recently won the 2008 John Simmons Short Fiction Award for your collection One Dog Happy. Tell us a little bit about the collection. How long did it take you to put together all of the stories? What types of challenges did you come across in your attempts to get published?

Molly: It took ten years to write them. That’s a long time for a few stories, really.  I was not sure for a long time if they were going to make a collection.  I spent the time in between either not writing or writing nonfiction,  But I learned more about what I wanted to write in these stories.  There are things in them that I wouldn’t write now.  That’s a common experience for writers, I think. I had given up on a story collection, because sometimes a publishing agent would want to see what I had, and then the question of a novel would come up.  They would say things like, “These stories are fine, and maybe if you have a novel . . .” and so on.  Because of that, I thought I’d better write a novel, but I had nothing, no idea for one.  I wrote a lot of essays during that time, as I got more confused about writing fiction and what I wanted to say with it, what it was supposed to do, and so on.  So yes, there were challenges, but mostly it was the cultivation of patience.

Nick: In One Dog Happy, you have such a wide variety of characters: two neglected daughters, a minister’s house sitter and a divorced father, to name a few. What did you do to unify their very different experiences and perspectives?

Molly: I never thought consciously about this.  I think there are some themes in this collection, but they arise the way things will when you juxtapose anything: almost on their own.  For a long time I was interested in that point at which an adolescent begins to see him or herself and begins to really realize what kind of a world he or she has to enter.  I thought there must be a “moment,” and one should be able to dramatize it somehow.  Anyway, I tried to get at that “moment” in several of these stories. I was also attracted to anything bizarre and grotesque, sometimes for its own sake, I’ll admit, although I’m not attracted as much anymore.

Nick: Belief, and attempting to find hope, appear to be strong themes in all of the pieces in the collection, and this belief is even present in the piece “Quichè Lessons” that was published here at TMR. What draws you towards that theme? How do you see belief carried out in your own life?

Molly: My sister is a Christian.  I am not, but I’m very close to her. There’s a line in the story “Catalog Sales” where the main character, Tammy, says, “When you have a sister, what happens to her happens to you.”  It’s like that for us.  I’d like to understand her faith, and I respect it because I love her.  That’s all.  So some of these stories have characters who doubt or who believe or who wonder about it.  I can’t write these as well as I could if I were someone who knew the Bible or who practiced Christianity in a real way.

Nick:  If you had to choose a favorite piece from the collection, what would it be and why?

Molly: “Ozzie the Burro.” It’s an epistolary story about an e-mail dating exchange.  You only read the woman’s e-mails to the man.  I have a feeling it wouldn’t be anyone else’s favorite story, but I just like the character who writes the e-mail,  and some of it makes me laugh.

Nick: What writing projects are you currently working on?

Molly: I have something in the hopper.  Will I jinx it if I tell you about it?  I’ll just say that one day I realized that my husband is so funny that everything he says should be written down.  It’s a shame that I’m the only one who can hear what he comes up with, since we’re pretty isolated out here where I live. That feeling about my husband caused me to start saving up some of his better lines, and soon there was a character who spoke them, and so on.  But we’ll see where that leads.

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