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Midwest familiarity breeds ‘edgy’ stories

Author PatriciMcNair her home Chicago Ill. Friday January 25 2013. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

Author Patricia McNair at her home in Chicago, Ill., on Friday, January 25, 2013. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

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Author Patricia McNair will discuss and sign copies of her work:

• 7:30 p.m. Feb. 5 at the Hopleaf, 5148 N. Clark.

• 7 p.m. Feb. 22 at Quimby’s, 1854 W. North.

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Updated: March 4, 2013 6:03AM

In the opening story of Patricia Ann McNair’s “The Temple of Air,” a baby plummets to the ground from a Ferris wheel, and by the end of the same story, the three teenage witnesses to the horror confront one another with their own brutal echoes and unresolved angers.

Because of this, an early cover-design artist and later a printer turned down working with the book.

“The Temple of Air” (Elephant Rock, $16), McNair’s first book, is violently creative , and the author said starting the collection with such brutality has intrigued many readers.

“I find this interesting, especially because I consider this book to be very much about faith and its essential role in the lives of these characters,” she said.

McNair has been writing and publishing the short stories that became “The Temple of Air” for more than a decade. She has been in the Midwest literary scene as a student, teacher at Columbia College Chicago and, most importantly, as a writer. The book has received favorable reviews.

“I feel really lucky,” she said. “My first book, this is an honor, a longshot for a debut collection of short stories from an upstart publisher. It has received strong and important support.”

Jotham Burello, a former student of McNair’s, was sitting in her office talking about her writing when he decided on the spot that he wanted to publish her — and from that meeting Elephant Rock Books was born.

“As a small publisher, I have to live with this person,” Burello said. “And I knew Patty would be motivated and that she had an audience. I like her writing — it’s edgy, raw.” (Elephant Rock has published two more books since McNair’s success.)

Chicago author Joe Meno (“Office Girl”) added about “The Temple of Air”: “There’s a precision, a real sense of empathy to the writing, and also a willingness to write about characters outside the limited confines of most literary fiction.”

The book has won the Society of Midland Authors 2012 Finalist Award in Adult Fiction, the Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award at Southern Illinois University, and is a finalist for the Chicago Writers Association’s Best Books Award.

“If there’s any justice in the world, “The Temple of Air” will go through another three printings and win just as many awards,” said Meno.

Much of the characterizations in the book come from McNair’s use of setting and her short story format — she has created her own Winesburg, Ohio, like Sherwood Anderson.

“I wanted to write about this place, New Hope. It’s a loose composite of Mount Vernon, Iowa, where I went to school, and Solon, Iowa, where I lived for a while, and Mount Carroll, Illinois, a small town where I have a house now, and upper northern Michigan.”

McNair’s New Hope is where city dwellers run to for a slower life, only to discover that the rural landscape does not create an ease or any less intricacy, and that in spite of its name, there is little opportunity.

“A familiar place can be comfortable, sure, but you don’t move too much and you end up with bed sores,” said McNair.

The stories themselves can stand alone — each could be read independently — or as linked stories. The different isolated scenes are embellished by recurring characters.

“It is not a novel-in-stories,” she said definitively. In order for the form to work, this collection of linked stories had to hold together. In essence, she took 10 years of previously published works (all with the New Hope setting) and edited the characters to participate with one another.

“A lot of the final rewriting has happened because another story has found its way in,” she said. “How does it affect the whole story arc … Moving the elephant, they say. Pick up the ear, the tail falls.”

McNair is from a family of artists. Her mother was a travel writer and her father was a newspaper man from southern Illinois.

“My Dad gave Mike Royko his first writing job in Chicago,” she noted.

Her father died when she was 15.

“There is a plethora of absent and dead fathers in this book.”

The family bookshelves were the backdrop of her own Midwest reading: Saul Bellow, Richard Wright, Ray Bradbury, Gwendolyn Brooks and Carl Sandburg — “those people who my father loved and read made me want to be a writer.”

As for her next project ... McNair hasn’t quite left New Hope.

“I’m still working with some of the characters,” she said. “The town keeps calling me.”

Mark Eleveld is a local free-lance writer.

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