NIU Author A 'Best American' Writer
Ernest Hemingway. Joyce Carol Oates. John Updike. Annie Proulx.
These are just some of the writers whose work has appeared in The Best American Short Stories, an anthology of the best fiction published during a calendar year.
Now you can add Molly McNett from Northern Illinois University. The English faculty member's story, "La Pulchra Nota," appeared in the journal Image this year. Best American selected it for their 2014 edition, which came out in October.
The story is about a 14th Century English music teacher named John Fuller, whose marriage grows cold after the death of his twin daughters. During this time, Fuller meets a talented young singer named Olivia, who becomes his best student.
McNett, who sang in high school, originally wanted to write a contemporary story about a choir teacher. "But it seemed too much like `Glee' to me," she laughs. "Or I was worried that it would seem like that to people."
For ideas, she went to the NIU music library and looked for books on singing instruction. "And there I found a little chapter on the history of vocal instruction," she says. "And that's where I got the idea of teaching from 'La Pulchra Nota,' or the perfect note."
John Fuller realizes Olivia can achieve such perfection when she gives a brief recital after they're introduced. A devoutly religious man, Fuller is put off at first because the song makes no mention of God:
But soon I had forgotten the song itself and marked the contrast between this girl and my typical student, who strained so on high registers, who, if she hit the note, often pushed into it like a German, or broke the tone in the manner of the French. Olivia's voice lifted to each note directly, holding 0n the tone without excess of ornament or vibration -- the sweet sound of a child. In its simplicity there was something wondrous about it, and I wanted to laugh and delight in it, rather than find something to teach her.
To get an idea of how a medieval Englishman might speak, McNett read texts from that era. One was a diary written by a man who had a large family; within a month they all died except him.
"I don't know if it was to the Plague or what happened," McNett says. "But with every death he gave thanks to God or `Divine Providence' and so forth. There was no bitterness and almost no sorrow, just complete acceptance." McNett says she's not a religious person, but was deeply moved by these accounts. "So I wanted to include at least one person in the story who had that faith." Here's John Fuller's account of losing his twin girls:
But divine providence was pleased to take the life of our dear twins two days apart from each other, the first on 5 June at the hour of terce, in the year of our Lord 1393. Then I too was taken sick, and woke from my fever one morning to find that the second twin had been gathered back to the Lord on 7 June at 5 o'clock, in the year of our Lord 1393. For this may the Lord be thanked and praised, for every devout man knows the great mercy He shows us in taking a child out of the world.
This stoic reaction in the face of frequent death might seem strange today. "That's modern medicine," McNett says. "Maybe we're the ones who are strange, because we expect that not to happen."
McNett practices Buddhist meditation. She says Christianity and Buddhism share an uneasy view of worldly things. "It bothers me sometimes that there's a pleasant breeze and sun," she laughs, "and I'm encouraged to think, well, this is temporary."
Entries for this year's Best American Short Stories were selected by Jennifer Egan, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her novel A Visit From The Goon Squad.
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