From Here to There: Molly McGhee '19
From Here To There is a series in conversation with recent Writing alumni whose books are hitting the shelves. We reflect on their time in the MFA program, how they took an idea from workshop to publication, and what the writing life looks like on the other side. This week we talk with Molly McGhee '19 about her debut novel, Jonathan Abernathy You Are Kind.
McGhee is from a cluster of unincorporated towns outside of Nashville, Tennessee. She completed her MFA in Fiction at Columbia University, where she received a Chair’s Fellowship and now teaches in the undergraduate creative writing department. She has worked in the editorial departments of McSweeney’s, The Believer, NOON, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and Tor. Currently living in Brooklyn, her work has appeared in The Paris Review.
Molly McGhee '19 wrote her debut novel, Jonathan Abernathy You Are Kind (Astra House 2023), on her phone in spurts at 3 am, following what she described as some of the “scariest nightmares of [her] life.” She tells me this via Zoom, her surroundings––an outdoor café in New York City––conversely serene.
“I have really bad insomnia, and so the idea came to me when I was having really bad nightmares during the times I was sleeping,” McGhee elaborates. “Then it was my job to translate.” She continues to say that her work is often rooted in the dream world, a trait she has only recently come to embrace.
“A lot of my ideas come through dreaming, and I always thought that was a little cringe, you know what I mean? I would think, ‘Whoa, this idea came to you in a dream, congratulations,’” she laughs. “But it was only once I started leaning into the natural rhythm of my own creative process that I realized you can't control creativity or set it to a set of rules.”
Inspired by dreams, McGhee’s book is appropriately surreal and dream-like. A novel about a despondent man who is paid to enter the subconsciouses of middle-class employees to clear their minds of unsavory memories, Jonathan Abernathy You Are Kind quickly earned a place on the Highbrow/Brilliant quadrant of New York Magazine’s October approval matrix, as well as numerous rave reviews.
“By the end, the novel feels like a dream that cannot be forgotten,” writer and editor Haley Mlotek writes in one such review for The New York Times. “Abernathy is too sweet, too small, too alone for us not to worry about him being swallowed by this nefarious business. He fumbles; he yearns. Like all of us, he is too human for the logic of this nightmare world.”
When I ask about her writing process for the novel, McGhee, who is now an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Undergraduate Creative Writing Program at the School of the Arts, espouses the importance of the bad first draft.
“I think the key is to just let your first draft be absolutely horrible and then commit to seven other drafts,” she explains. “I don't read [each draft] again until I'm done. Then I read it and I go, ‘What is happening here?’ Each iteration moving forward, I try to hone in on the heart of it.”
McGhee learned to regard writing and editing as wholly separate processes after completing her MFA and working in the editorial departments of various publications and publishing companies. “It wasn't until the end of my MFA program and then working as an editor that I realized that the creation of the text and the editing of the text were, to me, very different,” McGhee says. “I don't know if this is how it is for other people, but for me, getting that first draft out was the most painful and vulnerable part. And so the key for me was to psychologically trick myself into getting it out without judging myself.”
Ultimately, in both style and process, McGhee had to experiment until she found the techniques that worked uniquely for her. “I actually think this is one of the best parts of a Columbia MFA experience," McGhee says. "You go through enough classes, you hear enough feedback, you have enough teachers who are all wildly different from each other that you realize what really matters is finding your voice and honing in on what works for you artistically.”
For McGhee, one of the most exciting and helpful experiences she had at the School of the Art was working as a Chair’s Fellow in the Writing Program, a position she relished for its proximity to Professors’ reading lists.
“All of the professors’ syllabi would come through our office,” she says, quickening her speaking pace in excitement. “So I would read everyone's syllabus throughout the school semester. I still do that whenever I hear of [an interesting] syllabus. I was just sent a Victorian Science Fiction syllabus that someone in the English department teaches the undergrads. I read through all 10 of the books in a week.”
Many of the books McGhee came to adore through the program would later inspire her own work and writing style. “I remember in [Associate Professor of Writing] Rivka Galchen’s class, we read Leonora Carrington's The Hearing Trumpet, and reading her book introduced me to the surrealist and absurd movement,” she says. “From there I got to read Witold Gombrowicz, who is one of my favorite authors of all time. I think [Associate Professor of Writing] Sam Lipsyte wrote the introduction to Gombrowicz's Pornografia which is one of my favorite books ever written.”
When asked directly about her inspirations however, McGhee prefers not to draw direct lines of influence. “I think it's best for the writer to keep their inspiration to themselves,” she says. “The feeling and the art and the thoughts that created [Jonathan Abernathy] are hard to hold onto. They're really just painful, deep feelings for me. And so the only way I can engage with the depth of those feelings is through the medium. I don't know if I want to go back to the raw elements, or think about the inspiration too hard. To get [the novel] into this world in a way that was concrete was just so difficult. I don't want to go and move it back towards the abstract."
“My job is to write and make it whole," she says. "The way other people read it is up to them. I really like this Neil Gaiman quote where he says he explodes onto the page like a bomb and then he leaves it up to scholars and critics to decide how the bomb exploded.”
Appropriately, a metric McGhee values in strong writing is playfulness, but a playfulness that is mixed equally with authenticity. “Writing is communication and the best communication is when you're artistically trying to connect with another person,” she states. “When you are being playful about it, you're serious but not too serious. I kind of think of it like, when you have one of the worst days of your life and your friends sit with you and talk about it, and then at the very end, they crack a slightly inappropriate joke…and you think, 'okay, it's gonna be alright.'”