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PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction honors McNally

April 02, 2008

“I was in Paris, staying at hotel behind the Cathedral St. Sulpice, when I was visited by an old girlfriend. I was sitting naked on the bed, a white cotton spread, fresh from the bath because earlier that morning I had been caught in the rain.”

Sounds like an innocent Parisian tryst – until you learn in the next sentence that the man’s wife was out shopping for a new Parisian hat for the couple’s 3-year-old daughter.

With just two sentences, T.M. McNally, a professor of English, draws the reader into a story of possible deception, certain love – and a lifetime of memories.

The Parisian encounter is the centerpiece of McNally’s story, “The Gateway,” which is the title story of his newest collection of short stories. The book, “The Gateway: Stories,” has just been named a 2008 finalist in the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.

McNally, who was one of four finalists for the prestigious award, will win a cash prize of $5,000 for his efforts. The award will be presented May 10 at the 28th annual PEN/Faulkner Award ceremony, which will take place at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.

The PEN/Faulkner Award, founded in 1980, is the largest peer-juried prize for fiction in the United States. Judges for this year’s competition were Molly Giles, Victor LaValle and Richard Bausch.

Judges considered nearly 350 novels and short story collections by American authors published in the United States in 2007. Nominations came from more 70 publishing houses, including small and academic presses. McNally, who says he did not know “The Gateway: Stories” was being considered, was surprised and pleased to learn of the award. With typical McNally humor, he says his notification came “out of the blue. Wooooosh.”

When asked if there is a “moral” or “message” in the stories, McNally replies, in mock horror, “God, no. Oh, dear, oh, dear, God, no!”

“The stories, as a group, all do explore the intersections between the ideas of ‘home’ and ‘body,’ where we all start from, that particular crossroads,” he says. “And I suppose, too, they all address in one way or another the redemptive power and nature of love.”

Several of the seven stories are set in Phoenix. The first story is about a middle-aged son who visits the French countryside where his father was wounded in World War II and pursues his father’s ghosts – and some of his own.

In another, a young woman named Natalie overcomes her own demons and learns to reach out to others.

In “Given,” a widower decides to help his daughter escape from a marriage that was a mistake.

In the end, all of the characters find a place of refuge from their past.

McNally wrote the stories in “The Gateway” over a 10-year period, beginning in the spring of 1993.

“Skin Deep” came after he finished his first novel.

“Lacy, who tells the story, was also in that novel, and I wrote the story to find out Lacy’s story,” McNally says.

The story “Open My Heart” came to him in a burst of creative outpouring, he says, adding: “I wrote the initial draft in a single setting, two days, without moving: a sudden and pure blast of inspiration.”

“The final story is my most recent, ‘The Gateway,’ and I wrote it over the course of six or seven months as a way of saying everything I might possibly say about the nature of the short-story form,” he adds.

Where did he get the ideas for the characters?

“Oh, I guess the world; I guess myself,” McNally says. “They’re all me, even those most unlike me, and those most like. The people I write about are always much easier for me to locate than the settings and the conflicts they inhabit. The looking for particular subjects and ways to approach – for me, that’s the part that takes real digging.”

McNally earned his master’s degree at ASU in 1987, and lived and worked in Europe before returning to join the ASU faculty in 1999.