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Family, Iowa's rolling hills influence James McKean's latest essay collection

James McKean

James McKean will read from “Bound” April 5 at Mount Mercy University.
James McKean James McKean will read from “Bound” April 5 at Mount Mercy University.

James McKean’s new essay collection, “Bound,” is a deep dive into the histories, hopes and accomplishments of generations of women in his family. In this e-interview, McKean — a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and professor emeritus at Mount Mercy University — reflects on the genesis of the collection as well as his goals as he explored the lives of the women whose stories he set down on the page.

Q: Tell me about the origins of “Bound.” Did you set out to write a collection of essays about the women in your family, or did you discover you were returning to that theme time and again that then grew into a collection?

A: The essays in “Bound” were written over a period of six years. They were inspired by a variety of my interests and ideas. For instance, my wife is a bookbinder, and I was intrigued by how that discipline ordered her world. Concerning my Aunt Olive’s competitive swimming in the 1930s, I wanted to revisit an essay I’d written about her earlier. Her mother, my grandmother, was a part of that story, and I was curious too about her life, especially after years of her saying to me “it’s not for you to know.”

Then my wife and I discovered documentation that narrated her great-great-grandmother’s divorce from an abusive husband in 1860, after 30 years of marriage and eight children. This was an event we’d known nothing about, and I wondered who she was and what courage and grit it took for a woman to get divorce in the 19th century.

The more I reflected on these and other women in our two families, the more they piqued my curiosity. I realized what complicated figures they are and were: my mother, our grandmothers on both sides, aunts and daughters who deserve attention and more than a few words. Writing about one woman led to my thinking about the others. I wanted to know them better.

Their lives were fascinating, though sometimes difficult, and made for good stories. In answer to your question, once I started looking, these remarkable women began appearing, one after the other.

Q: Did you find that there were particular challenges involved in writing your way into the lives of these women? How was it different (or similar) to the process that resulted in your sports-themed book of essays?

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A: Writing about the women in my family has been very different from my writing about sports. During the process of writing “Home Stand: Growing Up in Sports,” I was looking at events from the inside looking outward. I could begin with an informed point of view, standing on the court in the middle of the game, as it were. But writing about these women, I felt as if I were starting from the viewpoint of a boy who hadn’t paid a lot of attention. I was standing on the outside now, looking into their mysterious world. Starting with fragments and possibilities, I had to discover ways to talk about their lives.

As a writer, I tried to revisit their lives and search for language to fashion their portraits. I researched the contexts and moments they occupied in history, and imagined what passions or desires they may have had, what obstacles and problems they encountered. When I was young, I was the witness who had it wrong, viewing the women in my life with a boy’s narrow vision. But time and reflection, thought and research, have given me a better understanding and a more sympathetic sense, I believe, of who they are and were.

Q: I was particularly struck by “So Much More,” an essay which is a follow-up to an essay about your aunt that appeared in “Home Stand: Growing Up in Sports.” “So Much More” is, in large part, an effort to make amends for the original essay, which apparently upset its subject. What were your concerns about and hopes for the second essay?

A: My Aunt Olive was familiar with being written about in her career as a swimmer and a swim coach, so I was surprised when she was critical of my essay about her swimming in the 1936 Olympics (“Bronze, 1936” in “Home Stand”). Did she feel that I’d focused too narrowly on just her Olympic performance? Did she feel I hadn’t acknowledged her lifetime of contributions and successes in the competitive swimming world? She had coached for many years for the Multnomah Swim Club in Portland, Oregon. She had coached for the American swim teams at the Mexico City and the Munich Olympics, and had coached a number of medal winners over the years.

I wanted to address these questions in a second essay, but also to share a discovery about her. Without telling the members of her family, my aunt had given her very comprehensive scrapbooks for the early years of her swimming, from 1929 to 1936, to the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I decided to fly to Fort Lauderdale, where I discovered in these scrapbooks a wealth of clippings, photos and artifacts that chronicled the hopes and dreams of a 16-year-old girl with the potential to be an elite, international competitive swimmer, and then over her next six years, how she reached that goal. These scrapbooks illustrated just how celebrated she was, how taken the world was with women athletes and with this particular athlete. They showed how hard she had to work to overcome obstacles and setbacks.

She was a strong, determined athlete, a beautiful celebrity, and for the majority of her life, an unassuming and modest coach and advocate for competitive U.S. swimming. Indeed, she was “so much more” than just a contestant in her lane in Berlin in 1936.

Q: How did your time in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop shape you as a writer? How has teaching writing shaped your work? Do you think of yourself as an Iowa writer — in the sense that your work has some essential connection to this place?

A: The Writers’ Workshop was a great experience. After a number of years teaching full-time, it was a gift to have two years to simply write, read and study. It was a pleasure to be in a community that takes writing seriously. The instructors were generous and smart, as were my fellow students. Although I graduated in 1981, I still correspond and share work with the friends I made during those two years.

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How has teaching writing shaped my own writing? I don’t profess to have the definitive answers when I teach writing. I try to be a good reader and engage my students’ work in a conversation, to imagine the world and thinking they evoke on the page and then imagine how things might evolve. I bring that process to my own work, but need to be careful not to read and write at the same time. It’s tough to look over your own shoulder and get anything down on the page. In addition, I think teaching writing has made me more aware of the importance of audience: imagining who might be reading my work and then how much to explain, how little, when to reflect and when to get on with it, and so on.

Although I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, I’ve lived in Iowa for over 30 years. My wife and I went to school here, raised our daughter here. The weather of Iowa is in my poems and essays. The seasons. My wife’s garden blooms in my work. I’ve written about fishing in the Driftless Area, and walking along the Iowa River. Maybe the Iowa rolling landscape has influenced my sentences. I don’t know, but I acknowledge that Iowa and its terrific writers and teachers have given me new ways to see literature and the world, and for that I’m grateful.

Q: What are you working on now/next?

A: Essays about fishing and the street we live on. Prose poems as well.

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