Molly McNett doesn't write exclusively about the Midwest, but rural Illinois is a big part of her identity and her writing. "I'm not going to write about hipsters in Brooklyn," she says, "because I just don't know a lot about that."
McNett lives on a farm in Oregon, Ill., that's been in her family for six generations. She has lived elsewhere, and recently wrote a story inspired by a summer in Guatemala. That story was part of a manuscript that won the 2008 Iowa short fiction award. But the publisher, University of Iowa Press, dropped it from McNett's debut collection, One Dog Happy. "They thought it didn't fit with the rest of the stories," she says.
McNett isn't sure if she'll embrace the label "Midwestern writer," but all the stories in One Dog Happy convey a strong sense of place, something she calls an important element in storytelling. "I'm re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird right now, and you just can't imagine it in any other place," she says. She calls the setting "almost like a character" in that classic southern novel.
McNett's characters convey their own regional identity. Two stories -- "Catalog Sales" and "Alewives" -- feature typical Midwestern families coping with visits from attractive young women in stylish urban clothes. In "Alewives," an uncle brings Valerie, a woman half his age, to dinner. The family tries to relate to her, but finds it difficult. Just before dessert, nine-year-old protagonist Allison asks Valerie, "What's a cradle robber?"
Valerie put down the strawberry spoon and looked at Allison.
"What did she just say?" her mother yelled from the dining room.
"Allison! Allison!" yelled her father. "Get in here!"
Allison's face felt hot. She ran upstairs and into her bedroom with her heart pounding. Cradle robber, she thought, with a small flow of pleasure.
McNett says the above incident isn't specific to her childhood, but it's close. "Allison really likes being naughty and sort of provoking the adults around her," she says.
As for the Midwestern setting of this and the other stories in the book, McNett puts this way: "It's all about looking around you and seeing how well you can render the detail so other people can feel and see and experience it." She adds: "And if people don't know what it's like to live here, and be here, they still get it."
Next Friday, June 29, our Summer Book Series concludes with Joe Bonomo's book AC/DC's Highway to Hell. Hear the broadcast version during Morning Edition at 6:34 & 8:34. Then come back here for web-only extras.