Playing at the Edge of Expectation: Mackenzie McGee on Entertainment, Absurdity, and Enjoying a Punch in the Gut
Jul 19 ● BY Sam Downs
Mackenzie McGee has a habit of referring to her work in the first-person plural. Or so I gather when we meet to discuss McGee’s (to use her words) first “real” short story: “Re: Frankie,” an epistolary fever dream of dystopian horror and e-harassment first published here, in Porter House Review. Couple the “we’s” and “us’s” with her preference to refer to the story as, simply, “Frankie,” and it is tough to shake the sense that there is someone else in the room.
Of course, because it is March of 2021 and activities like, say, sitting in a coffee shop involve an inordinate risk of respiratory failure, we are not actually meeting in person, but in the fathomless fourth dimension of Zoom. I am in Austin, seated at my dinner table, nowadays a landing strip for slips of paper and butterflied books and, on occasion, dinner. McGee is in a five-by-five box on my computer screen and at her writing desk in a cozy corner of her apartment in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Given the springtime, and also, as we both state outright, to mitigate our dread of another hour in cyberspace, we have both chosen seats adjacent to gleaming windows. We begin, as is customary between Minnesotans in Southern climes, by exchanging baffled remarks about the weather.
Heat looms in Central Texas; intermittent rainstorms have the Ozarks smelling the sweet, balmy way spring is supposed to. On McGee’s desk sits a framed Rumours album cover that, when held up to her laptop camera, reveals the visages of Mick Fleetwood and Stevie Nicks cropped out in favor of McGee and her husband’s. There are, too, a couple of what I take to represent a considerably larger, unseen collection of “vases-with-faces,” which (turns out) are pretty much what they sound like, and wear succulent hairdos atop pensive, sketched expressions.
Reflected in this environment, McGee’s affable demeanor belies the fact that she won a vaunted PEN/Robert J. Dau Award for Emerging Writers only a couple weeks before our conversation, making her first “real” short story one of twelve debuts chosen from literary magazines nationwide to highlight today’s burgeoning generation of fiction writers. And still (with advance apologies to the stumped writer reading this, shaking her fist at the sky) McGee recalls producing “Frankie” with obvious nostalgia. When the story’s first drafts come up—written after a round of MFA applications came up fruitless—her tone becomes bittersweet. For all the temptation to draw parallels between McGee’s relationship with the story she bore and the humanoid waste—allusive of Frankenstein’s monster—about which that story revolves, the bond between “Frankie” and McGee doesn’t read as one marked by hubris, but transience and, distinctly, that aura of confidential affection you sometimes encounter when in a room with two close friends you’ve only just met.
“Re: Frankie” will be anthologized in print by Catapult Books in August 2021.
Sam Downs: How did “Re: Frankie” come to be?
Mackenzie McGee: I started writing it in the fall of 2017. I had recently graduated from undergrad, and I was applying to MFAs and working in a coffee shop and feeling sort of unmoored. I was learning how to write in an undirected way. I was writing this story with the idea that this was my foray into the fiction world. It was sort of my “I’m a writer now” story. Thankfully my mentor from undergrad, Arna Hemenway—who is amazing—was still working with me.
Downs: You write in other genres. To what extent do you consider this your first foray as a writer, full stop?
McGee: I wrote compulsively as a kid. I would pull up a word document and write just to watch the words go by. I’m not sure I even knew what I was doing. But I didn’t know any writers, nobody in my life was an artist, so I had no concept of what it meant to make art or make art professionally. And then I took a creative writing class in undergrad and had a lightbulb moment where I realized “Oh, this is what I was missing. This is what I need to be doing.”
In many ways “Re: Frankie” felt like my first real story. It felt more mature than a lot of what I had been writing, and I was in charge of the entire process for the first time. I felt free from the constraint of a deadline. It was just me and the words. It was just us.
Downs: You’re writing, teaching and taking classes, and you’ve mentioned an undergrad mentor that had an outsized influence on you. I wonder what you think about the relationship between academia and your writing life.
McGee: I’ve always enjoyed the sandbox aspect of an academic setting. At its best, academia is a place to play and learn and discover, something I think my work has benefitted from a great deal.
And I’ve loved the MFA. Of course, there’s the craft perspective, workshops and those sorts of things, but I’ve also enjoyed taking theory and literature classes. I always write better when I’m reading a lot and thinking a lot. I also think the benefit of the MFA, in my experience, is time. When I arrived at the University of Arkansas, I knew exactly what I’d be doing for the next four years, so I have the comfort and safety of a space where I know I have room to write for sure. So I can just go ahead and do it.
Downs: “Re: Frankie” is a playful story, which of course belies its not-so-playful dimensions. How do you reconcile play, or the other aspects of fiction that are oriented towards entertaining or enticing the reader, with grimmer material? And in the case of “Re: Frankie,” that material is particularly grim.
McGee: I come to a lot of my stories from a top-down perspective. With “Re: Frankie,” I was thinking about how different people interact with the healthcare system in the U.S. and how certain people are less likely to be believed by doctors when they say certain things. A solution to a systemic problem has to be systemic, not a band-aid. I would argue that the ReJuve system in “Re: Frankie” is a band-aid solution. It doesn’t actually solve the problem: these systems are failing people. That’s what I was thinking about, how band-aid solutions can look nice and can help in the short term, perhaps, but are ultimately insufficient.
And so that’s like…a major bummer of an idea.
[We laugh, sort of]
But when it comes to sitting down to write, the little flourishes, the silly names, the trademark insignias, learning how to make the little “t-m” character in Microsoft Word. That’s what gets me on the page. That’s what draws me into a story as a reader, a sense of the writer having fun.
It’s also not only possible but important to enjoy yourself when you’re writing, regardless of what you’re writing about. Because that joy and love for the story will come out in the writing.
And when it comes to the dark material, I think a lot about indirect communication—that’s Kierkegaard maybe—the idea that good entertainment is never direct, or a sermon, or a lesson. It does what it wants, and if there is some moral or commentary there, it will sneak up on the reader. Pre-conscious experience has to be put first.
Downs: Do you consider your writing to be entertainment? Is that an important distinction?
McGee: I’m not interested in distinctions between high and low art. What I am interested in is whether or not a piece of media is affecting. The word “entertainment” has shallow connotations—it’s just fun. But really good media can punch you in the gut and you’ll say thank you. I just read Otessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation and that book just slapped me across the face, and I loved it.
The goal of entertainment is to touch you. Fun is only one part of it. Sometimes it holds you and makes you feel better, and other times it unsettles you, and I think both of those things are valuable. So, yeah, I would consider my writing to be entertainment, first and foremost, but entertainment can mean a lot of things.
Downs: One of the most striking things about “Re: Frankie” is that it drops us into a world that is both unlike our own and strikingly similar to it in many of its dilemmas. You mentioned that the story deals with contemporary politics in an outright way, and yet you enter a story through a sense of fun or whimsy. What I’m wondering is whether, when you sit down to play at writing, you’re also thinking about whatever heinous thing may have happened in the world that day.
McGee: I think a lot about the practice of being a socially engaged person, in terms of having causes and actively pounding the pavement to make the world a better place. So, educating, giving money, protesting, the non-writing stuff, so that when I actually sit down to write I’m not consciously thinking about these things. I’m thinking about character, and the sentence, and pacing, and scenes, and form. I’m very much in the craft trenches. But because I try to do that work in my normal life, I feel like I’ve cultivated the habits of mind that lead to socially minded art.
Downs: So, one way to be a better writer is to be a better human being?
McGee: It’s a positive feedback loop.
Downs: That’s a more inspiring idea than I’m accustomed to encountering these days. It makes me wonder how you’ve been thinking about art throughout the past year, particularly how your work has been affected.
McGee: I struggled to write a word last summer. I’m from the Minneapolis area, as you know. Quite a few people I know have been engaged with the protesting around the murder of George Floyd. A lot of the events of the last year and half have been, unfortunately, a wakeup call—unfortunately in the sense that it shouldn’t take things like this to get people with privilege to pay attention. And so a lot of my practice over the past year has not been explicitly tied to my art. First and foremost, very concrete, investing in mutual aid, educating, trying to help with organizing and these sorts of things.
The question of, how do I write about these things and Covid-19? There’s an interesting dilemma in art created by the fact that people crave escape. They don’t want to think about Covid-19 all the time. And I don’t think all art produced in the time of Covid has to be about Covid. In fact, probably the opposite is preferable. But also, while your art doesn’t have to be about the events of the day, it’s good to be asking yourself “what is this showing me about the world?”
When it comes to current events in writing, it’s not so much about writing about the events themselves, as if I am a journalist, it’s about whether I want my writing to be representative of the human experience. What are the events showing me about the human experience and what needs to be explored there. So that’s where I get into class dynamics, gender dynamics, race dynamics, these sorts of things.
Downs: I was just about to ask how you perceive the role of artists to be different than that of journalists. A lot of writers would have reservations about using the word “media” to describe their work.
McGee: Both fulfill essential social roles. I actually like using the word media. I stay engaged with other kinds of art, and that really influences what I do. TV was instrumental. Fast-paced comedy was probably my best crash course in dialogue.
Downs: Any shows that were particularly instrumental?
McGee: I learned a lot about comedic pacing, and even character, from Community. Let’s see, Adventure Time comforted and validated the part of me that values strangeness and showed me how absurdity is something people will engage with. But I also watch a lot of movies, listen to music—and so I see my fiction as in conversation with a lot of these things, and I want to honor the connections made between them. I value fiction that feels like a part of the world. I like fiction in which people have jobs, fiction in which people have pop culture heroes that they talk about all the time. I like fiction that lives in the world, and a lot of living in the world is consuming media.
Downs: You mention welcoming the absurd into your work, that there was a point at which you felt validated in doing so. And “Re: Frankie,” too, could probably be described as an absurd story, to a certain extent. Did you have a lightbulb moment where you were like, “things need to get more absurd”?
McGee: I have stories that are more “realistic,” but the writers that got me engaged in fiction, short fiction especially, were George Saunders, Karen Russell, Helen Oyeyemi, Kelly Link, these people who are really willing to play at the edges of what we expect. That’s what gets me going as an artist.
Of course, anything can happen in fiction—and this is something we all implicitly understand—but the absurd reopens the door for the reader to feel like anything is possible. You know when you pick up a Karen Russell story that the premise is going to be fabulous and fantastic. The absurd reinspires the belief in the impossible.
Downs: What inspired the epistolary form in “Re: Frankie”?
McGee: I’m always excited by formal experimentation, and so I think it initially emerged as something of a challenge. I was thinking a lot about the George Saunders story “The Semplica-Girl Diaries,” which is written in diary entries. I thought it would be fun to play within the restriction of that, where your perspective is totally limited to this one person, this one format.
I also became interested in the fact that the narrator, Sean, is someone who really thinks everything is all about him. He’s basically a guy who can’t stop texting his ex, and he can’t figure out what his role was in the ending of this relationship. So, he’s obsessing, and a lot of the story is him figuring out that it’s really not about him, that he’s not the center of this conflict. That’s something I was interested in exploring.
Downs: What does it mean to win the PEN/Dau Award?
McGee: It’s stunning honestly. I had to pinch myself. It was both humbling and validating. It’s easy to think of my work as silly little words that I put into my computer, but to share them with people, and have people really engage with them. For me, it’s the pinnacle of artistic achievement. Regardless of awards, just to know that what I wrote resonated with people is more than I could ever ask for.
Downs: What are you working on now?
McGee: I’m always writing short stories, but my longer-term project is a novel. The working title is Another Castle, which is a reference to the early Super Mario World videogames. When you’re playing, you get to the end of a stage and reach Bowzer’s castle and are like, “hooray,” because you’re looking for the princess, who is supposed to be trapped in there. But after you defeat Bowzer, instead of the princess you get a toad, and the toad says, “I’m sorry, she’s in another castle,” and so you have to go to another world and do the whole shebang all over again. Until you get to the last one.
Mackenzie McGee is a writer and poet living in the Ozarks. She is a winner of the 2021 PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers. Her work has previously appeared in Porter House Review and is forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review. Find her on twitter @mackenziepmcgee and online at mackenziemcgee.com.