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Interview with Catherine McCall, June 3, 2008 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Interview with Catherine McCall, June 3, 2008
June 3, 2008
Interview with Dr. Catherine McCall, graduate of UNCW's MFA in Creative Writing program and author of "Lifeguarding: A Memoir of Secrets, Swimming, and the South."
Phys. Desc:

Interviewee:  McCall, Catherine Interviewer:  Rodrigues, Carmen Date of Interview:  6/3/2008 Series:  SENC Writers Length  60 minutes


Rodrigues: This is Carmen Rodrigues. This is Tuesday, June 3, 2008. I'm at the Randall Library with Dr. Catherine McCall. Catherine is a 2004 graduate of UNCW's creative writing program. She is the author of Lifeguarding: A Memoir of Secrets, Swimming, and the South, which was named a finalist for the Kentucky Literary Award in nonfiction in 2006. Catherine resides in Wilmington where she draws upon her more than 15 years experience in the areas of psychiatry and psychotherapy to teach others in the areas of self understanding and wellness creation, mind-body medicine, and creative expression. Welcome, Catherine.

McCall: Thank you, Carmen.

Rodrigues: I'd like to begin with the most basic of concepts. When did you first begin writing?

McCall: (chuckle) I first began wanting to write, I think I was probably about 12 years old. I started collecting quotations I saw in the newspaper or quotes like that. Then I was given a journal and I started writing, I guess they were prayers basically, poems, prayers. Then I was given a journal in my teen years. But in that journal I pretty much just collected things that I had gathered from other places. Even though I had a desire to express myself, I didn't actually write other than these sorts of prayer-poem things, if that makes sense. I would say the desire was there very early on. But it wasn't until I was in probably high school and in English class. Fortunately, I had good composition courses. That was an opportunity to write. But it was always for someone, to please a teacher or that kind of thing, not just for myself.

Rodrigues: Do you still have those journals?

McCall: I do.

Rodrigues: Who encouraged your love of reading? Were you reading at a very young age?

McCall: Actually, I don't know what age I was reading. I was a pretty smart little kid, but I was kind of a spacey kid, too. I was very active when I was a kid. I still am. It was always very hard for me to sit down and read. I thought I was a slow reader. I think what I realize even today, I would consider myself a slow reader. But that's just because I sort of sink into it. My mother was an English major and an English teacher. My older sister read all the time. I really didn't read a whole lot when I was a little kid. I read occasionally. I read a whole book when I broke my arm, for example. But mostly I was in motion, very outdoors and active.

Rodrigues: When you got into your high school English classes, did you start to gain a greater appreciation for reading or was that something that came entirely later in life?

McCall: No, no. I loved it. But again, I would really-- those were precious times. I loved reading Heart of Darkness and Walden and a lot of things that we read really impacted me. It is still a challenge for me to stop myself and allow myself-- I say that, although I think I probably read a lot more than I realize I read, if that makes sense. Anyway, it was later, especially once I got out of all my medical training. That's one reason I love the MFA program is because I got to read so much, like I was supposed to. Now that I say that, I've spent a lot of time reading, but not as much. A lot of writers sort of swim in the words and the language. I envy that, but I'm not made that way. I'm more kinesthetic.

Rodrigues: When you do find the time to read, what types of books appeal to you?

McCall: I have been reading much more along the lines of energy and quantum theory and those sorts of books, but not really a textbook. I'm reading an old book called The Quantum Doctor, which is really interesting. That's just what I've been reading lately. Those are interesting concepts to me right now. I read nonfiction, that kind of book. Also I think I'll always love memoir, too. But I haven't been reading as many novels as I did when I was in the program.

Rodrigues: Is there a particular memoir, of course beyond your own, that you love?

McCall: I really like Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams. I think she did a great job on that book. Let's see. I like an old book called Drinking the Rain. I don't know if you've ever heard of that one or read that one. It's about a woman in her mid life who goes and lives in like an old cabin in Maine because her marriage is falling apart, and the insights that she comes to and that experience. It's by Alix Kates. I can't remember now. I keep those books I have them so I can reread them.

Rodrigues: You do reread them. How often will you reread a book? Is it something that you do throughout the years?

McCall: Yes. How often, I would say every few years. There's another book, I Will Not Die an Unlived Life. That's by Dawna Markova. That's another one of those sojourn, maybe I'm just destined to search. There's a lot of wisdom in books. Our experience of them changes as we change. I think there's a lot of value in rereading them, particularly the ones that affect us deeply. They teach us about ourselves.

Rodrigues: Let's talk about your book, Lifeguarding.

McCall: Okay.

Rodrigues: USA Today called your memoir "a charming debut," which is great.

McCall: Yes. It was fun.

Rodrigues: A great comment. I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about the book and also the process of writing it.

McCall: This book is, in some ways, the story of my childhood, but really more it's the story of our family and how we struggled against an unnamed challenger, which was grief and alcoholism and homophobia. Our family was tested by all those things, those forces and came through them. That's really what this story is about. How we were tested and how we also came through it.

Rodrigues: How many years does the book span of your life?

McCall: Technically, it begins when I'm 22 and have graduated from college and have not been accepted to medical school and don't have a job. I returned to the job that I had all through high school, which was lifeguarding, which is a crazy reason to go to college. Then really technically, it only goes from when I'm 22 to about when I'm 26. Within that frame, I actually go back to my early childhood and even before I was born. So it's hard to say how far it spans. It goes back somewhat into the lives of my grandparents, who I didn't know and their early sudden deaths are what created the grief in our family. That sounds really clinical. But the question that I asked was: What created the hole in our family that alcohol was trying to fill? Probably the meat of the book is from the time I'm about 12 or 13 until I'm about 25.

Rodrigues: When you began writing the book, you were in the MFA program? Or was this something that you started maybe prior to coming into the program?

McCall: Actually, I started the book before I knew I had started the book, while I was auditing a class by Barbara Waxman here on autobiography. I had not read many autobiographies before taking that class. In that class, she encouraged us to do what she called life writing as a part of our critiquing or whatever. In that, I had these two little journals. Journals come in all different sizes, which is fun. I had these two little ones and I would start to write down memories in the form of scenes, which is kind of what we were doing in the class. That was very cathartic for me. It was an incredible experience. I just wrote them like they were scenes. It was amazing to remember the conversation, the whole-- we can get into that if you want to, but what we do with memory. Anyway, when the semester was over, I had two little books and I put them away. Then it was the next year that I started the MFA program. When I started, of course we were supposed to do a book. I started writing a book on self care like as a psychiatrist, which is much more comfortable. This is a long-winded answer. Terry Tempest Williams came to visit in the spring. I took her class. She was sort of like following a guide into a cave. She had the light on her head. You could see amazing patterns in this cave. What I realized is that writing my self care book from my comfortable psychiatry chair, I hadn't gone in the cave. I thought, "I could write a memoir, or at least I could try." That's when I decided to write the book, which was really an accidental, wonderful thing. Those were like little pearls that I could pull out of a closet, literally. But the emotion had been already discharged from those memories to a great extent. Does that make sense?

Rodrigues: Yes. You're saying that by going back and recapturing these moments you had already done the work. Was it a painful experience?

McCall: Right.

Rodrigues: Or was in painful in some way?

McCall: There were places where it was painful. The writing of it was-- I love to write, but I didn't know anything about really writing, which is the craft of writing and the art of it and how you put it together. That was like wrestling a monster. But the distance-- and that's a little bit of an exaggeration. But the distance did allow me, I think, to be able to let go of this, let go of this, a little better. It was not, even though it comes across-- I've met people who go, "Gosh, how are you doing?" I was in my 40s when I wrote this book. A lot of life and analysis or whatever, it happened since then. But still, conjuring it up, I needed that. That distance was very helpful. But it was still hard to write it, but not as painful. There were some places, some experiences like it was scary and my family read it and things like that.

Rodrigues: How is it to bring the pieces of your manuscript to class and to share that with other classmates in a workshop environment?

McCall: That's a good question. On the one hand, I had the experience that you-- and this is a challenge with MFA programs in general. It's really valuable to have to go through that experience of sharing your work and having it critiqued and learning what to keep and what to ignore. What is constructive criticism? And how to read better and all those things. But taking something to a workshop before you feel comfortable enough with it renders you and the work, I think, very vulnerable. When I first started, I was kind of exploring memory in this as well. The class just wanted to go to straight to the story, which is a benefit. In some ways maybe it would have taken me a lot longer to get to the same place on my own. On the other hand, something else might have come up. But in terms of personal, I'm trying to think about it. The first scene is a scene where a boy, we were at swim practice. I was 13. We swam at Lakeside in Louisville and there was a big rock quarry. Where we had our swim practice was just a part of the quarry. Recreational swimmers swam all over the place. It was a Saturday morning and there weren't a lot of people. It was sort of a gray day. There weren't a lot of people there. All of a sudden, they blew the whistles to get everybody out of the water, which was extremely unusual. A boy had drowned. They were trying to-- the lifeguards were over in one part of the lake. We could see this. We were up on the ledge looking across the water at this. They were diving and diving and diving and finally pulled out this body. I just simply had never revisited that experience in my life or shared it. It was interesting to share it with other people and hear their response. I guess in a sense it was a good thing to share. I'm writing it in a book. If I can't share it in a group of 15 people, then I don't need to be writing the book. Lots of people are going to read it.

Rodrigues: I'm curious about the process of crafting something personal. I think there's the element of sharing it first, but then also, like you said, going in and kind of taking these very personal memories and letting, including yourself and an editor and your classmates, chip away to find the most pertinent universal truth. I think you've spoken a little bit about that, but could you speak just a little bit more about what goes into that?

McCall: You have to gain that optimal distance. I really think the image that comes up for me a lot is a camera lens and the perspective that changes of what you're seeing as you shift that lens, for lack of a better way to say it. It's the famous "I" as subject and "I" as object. If I'm identified with the story, then I'm hearing all this criticism directed at me. Not just criticism but attention or whatever. I think that if I want that, I'm doing that, then that's really a narcissistic exercise. One reason I'm drawn to memoir is because I think it's a fascinating way to study self. You have to have some eye needed, other people's eyes, frankly, as well as my own eyes from a different perspective. William Zinsser is a wonderful teacher of memoir. One of the things he talks about is memoir is not just the story of what happened to a person. It's also how they got from where they were to where they are now to be writing a story. How they got there has to do with their ability to be here and look here. If we don't share, how do we learn?

Rodrigues: Given that, do you think that this is something that you could have only written when you were in your 40s? You said that's when you started the process. Is it something that you think you could have delved into earlier or was it being in that time, in that moment, that made you ready to tackle this particular project?

McCall: I think that's a great observation. whatever people say about getting older, 40s is a wonderful time of life because of the perspective that it allows me, I think. There's no way I could have written this book, I don't think, as comfortably or perhaps even as fully earlier.

Rodrigues: Let's talk about memory. When writing a memoir I guess memory becomes a huge concern. When you were writing these stories they might have featured other members of your family. Did you ever contact them to say, "I'm writing this particular scene and I want to make sure that I've gotten it right"? Or was it more important that it was completely kept from your perspective and from your personal truth?

McCall: I interviewed the people in my family, which was sort of like this, which was kind of funny. It was a formal thing. People stiffen up when it's a formal thing. To answer specifically your question, I was given the advice by Sarah Messer, and I really appreciated this. She said, "Don't show your manuscript to your family until it's accepted for publication." I really appreciated her vote of confidence that she thought it would be accepted for publication, but also particularly that advice. I followed that for the very reason of what you just said, which is that so that the memory, the scene would be from my perspective. Then much later on in the revision process--there's one exception to that and I'll tell you that in a second--I asked for input. Just kind of, "What did you think about this?" Like in the scene where I tell my sister no for the first time. She says, "I remember that. But I thought you were a little younger than that." That kind of thing. They helped with some details to sort of flush out the scene. Some of the big ones were very pivotal moments in our family. In general, there was a lot of agreement on how they went down, which was pretty interesting, too.

Rodrigues: What other types of research did you do beyond the one-on-one interviews with family members?

McCall: I think that's the benefit of writing memoir. It's in you. I didn't need to do a lot of research. I definitely went back and looked at when the newspaper accounts of when the tornado occurred in Louisville to make sure I got that right. I looked at the obituaries of my grandparents. But I had grown up with the stories, largely my mother's version and somewhat my father's version. Not that they were different, but that she shared a lot more and knew a lot more than he did in some ways. I don't know why or he just didn't share as much. He didn't remember a lot. I didn't go into genealogy and that kind of thing.

Rodrigues: When you're working on a project like this that deals with some really heavy-hitting themes--grief, alcoholism, homophobia--when you began writing it, did you set out and say, "These are the themes that I'm going to discuss in this memoir"? Or did you discover after you had finished writing the story that these were the themes that were present? Was there a conscious choice to look at these larger themes? Is that what you found was at the heart of the story?

McCall: Probably even deeper than that at the heart of the story, to a certain extent, is really a kind of coming of age experience, which is very universal. It's surprising to me how many people read the book who on the surface didn't have anything in common with me, yet could really relate to it. That really says it's about growing up. I did not have a conscious thought of, "Okay, this is going to be a vehicle where I can explore grief or alcoholism, or homophobia." No. I was proud of my family and wanted to tell the story of my family. Of those three, I knew that the alcoholism piece particularly might be helpful or instructive or inspiring for other people. We are a family who has benefitted greatly from recovery. My parents understood that and they were both willing to allow themselves to be vulnerable for that greater purpose. That would be the one conscious choice there.

Rodrigues: After you finished writing your memoir, was that in your final year in the program or did you have a draft done in the final year of the program and then you continued to work on it afterward? It was published in 2006.

McCall: Yes.

Rodrigues: So at the very end of your time in the program in 2004, did you have a completed manuscript that you were ready to send out into the world?

McCall: I did. I really used the structure of the program to challenge myself to have that. I don't know what the requirement is of how many pages you have to have by the end of your term, what your thesis has to be--100 pages, 150 pages maybe or something. I don't know. They had said, "a publishable manuscript." That's what it said in the application and that's what I wanted to have. I'm sure I overwhelmed my thesis committee by the stack of pages I gave them. I was probably about 250-260 pages. That said, the book is in two parts. I sent it as it was to an agent. I started querying in that last semester and had sent it. Some people really were very complimentary and liked it, but nobody is tortured in the basement or run over by a train. So it wasn't dramatic and gory and stuff somewhat. These days with memoir you've got to jump out of plane or something. Anyway, right after I sent it, and we can talk about that if you want-- you do? That was very exciting. The agent that I sent it to, they read the first part and they really liked it. They wanted to read the second part. They read the second part and they called back and said, "We didn't feel as emotionally connected to you in the second part of the book. But we think we can sell this book on proposal." So even though I had the completed manuscript in a very good first draft, "We can work with you on a proposal, if you'd like." Okay. So I had tried to write a proposal, which I didn't know how to write a proposal. Anyway, then I learned how to write a proposal, particularly the overview, the first five or six pages. That was the toughest piece of writing I've ever done. It's got to say what's in the book. It's got to reflect the tone of the book. It's got to peak the interest of the editor. It's got to say what the book's about, but not say too much. And it's got to be on point.

Rodrigues: And all of that is done in the third person, kind of distant?

McCall: No, no. This part is-- well, yes, yes. It's also done in a different-- right. It's a different voice. It's a third party. Anyway, what I realized later was that this was a kind of wooing. I love my agent. This was sort of that wooing time, too, so we could see if we could work together. She's a very good reader. Her name is Dena Fischer. She's with Manus & Associates. With this book, she was at a different agency. This book is with Amy Renner. Anyway, that took several months. That was really until the end of the year. Then once we finally got that, then you're supposed to do this whole marketing plan, which we don't have to get into the publishing experience, but the marketing plan and everything, which is kind of like "What?"

Rodrigues: Actually, I'd like to hear about it.

McCall: Okay. All right. Anyway, then she took this proposal and it didn't take all that long, maybe a few months. I don't know. It was probably in the early part of the year. This would have been 2005. It was accepted in the spring of 2005 on proposal, even though I had the manuscript. What I also had done in response to her, we're not as connected in that second part. Let me stay with that first thing. It was another year process.

Rodrigues: So they accepted the proposal and they gave you a year to complete the manuscript?

McCall: I think that's about right. I might be a little bit wrong on my dates, but that's about right. Yes, that's right. I was supposed to deliver it by January 1st. It wasn't quite a year.

Rodrigues: With the proposal, did you turn in the actual proposal and then the first three chapters, the first 30 pages? Did they request any of the actual manuscript in that sell?

McCall: No, just those five pages. But then, and I think ordinarily they do. They want a chapter outline. I didn't review that before I came here today and I haven't looked at it in a long time. So they may very well. Now that I'm thinking about it, I think I did write. I was glad I had written the book. There was no way I would have been able to write a proposal. It's more like a novel than it is a nonfiction book, true nonfiction. But I did have to write what happened in the chapters. I'm kind of going through and reading. What happens here? Anyway, the valuable thing was that when my agent said that about not being connected, when I was writing this book for my thesis, there was a point where I could go in the direction of A or B, basically, to decide the second part. What I was trying to do in the structure was to create a kind of swirling, like a wave or a swirl. What I did was I abandoned that in the second part and went with chronology. I decided to do that. People who read it liked it and it flew along. They thought it was really great. But the agent caught, didn't know what happened. All she said was, "Then Phil's connected to you." I thought, "I wonder if that's what it was." I went back and I didn't have to rewrite it. What I had to do was kind of like take the stitches out and put the pieces together in a different way and then restitch it. When I did that I had the coolest experience. I came together. I had this sense of, "Oh my gosh! This is what art is." It really came together. That was really exciting. That time after the program was really valuable and worthwhile. It was new eyes, totally cold, new. They didn't know me at all. That was really valuable. That time was useful.

Rodrigues: So the book comes out in 2006 and your name is a finalist for the Kentucky Literary Award in nonfiction, which is exciting.

McCall: Well, yes. I actually also got an email from a publisher. They may send a lot of books this way, but she had emailed and said she put it in for a National Book Award and for a Pulitzer Prize. I was just floored by that. I was so excited about that. There was a real feeling of there was a good review of it in the USA Today. My mom read that and my picture was in the USA Today. Then there was a review underneath there. I said, "What did you think? I think it was pretty good." She said, "Did you read the one below? They really gave that guy a hard time. They tore him up." So there was, but there was a disconnect between-- I really like my editor Julia Pastore. I really do. I was very pleased with the people at Harmony Books. I really loved them. Yet, what I realized was I was a little bitty widget connected to a bigger widget connected to a little bitty cog connected to a bigger cog connected to a-- you know what I mean? This is part of Random House, which is a massive machine. It never really connected that this national attention was great, but it didn't seem to somehow-- I'm not sure what-- I did whatever I could do. But now if I was coming out with a book, I would go straight to the Internet, personally. I wish I had done that at that time. I think that might have been what-- it had trouble finding its readers. That's the way it goes. I was trying my hardest, but I knew I was totally out of my realm. I guess that's just part of the learning curve.

Rodrigues: What did your family, when they were finally able to get a hard copy of the book in their hands, what did they say to you? What were some of the responses you received?

McCall: We went through a period where the manuscript was in a bound form. That's when I had them read it. It was kind of an accident. I mean it was wonderful how they all read it within a short period of time, which was nice. My sister lives in Louisville, but she happened to be in Wilmington. She read it and my mom happened to come up from Charleston and she read it right after Ann. They were actually in the house when I was hearing them read. I could hear them laugh. My sister really loved it. She said first and foremost, "It is your story." I was like, "Yes." My mom, they were so supportive and really touched. My mom said the second part was much harder for her, which is interesting. That's the part about the homophobia and my having hidden so much of myself from my parents and especially my mother. The painful experience for both of us of having to come out of that deception and her coming out of her denial. That was more painful for her, but very proud. My dad was supportive. He loved it. My mom's back down. I give her the manuscript and sent it back down. Dad reads it and then she calls and says, "What do you want me to do with it?" I said, "Would you mind giving it to Curt?" There's this pause. She said, "No." I said, "Why don't you just take it to his office?" I didn't know how he would respond. He's my younger brother. He doesn't remember as much about our childhood. He remembers very different things. He was younger and my dad was harsh on him. He doesn't remember a lot of that. But he also was 12 when my dad got sober. So my dad turned into this really neat guy for my brother's adolescence. Anyway, he called me one morning and said, "Well, I've read the book. I loved it." It made him start to remember some things, which was fun. But then when it came out, a week before it was coming out he called me and said, "I still wish you had changed our names." I said, "We can't change our names." I think it was kind of the fear of exposure in a way. But they were really proud. I had the wonderful opportunity to have my mother and father attend some readings I did even in Louisville my mother went, which is exceptionally precious now, because she became ill and actually has died. She died this year. That's when I realized too, and now in retrospect my urgency. I couldn't have written the book now either. I couldn't have been as honest about her without her being here, if that makes sense. We had such a strong and good relationship and the strength of that. She was so proud that I'd written this book. I was really glad she was a part of that.

Rodrigues: It seems that writing has played a really important role in your life. What role do you think it should lay in the lives of others?

McCall: I think creativity is essential to life. It is life actually. That is how our planet exists and continues to exist. Whatever form that creativity takes in a person's life, it needs to have expression. Writing is such a nearly universal thing that we do. Only a few special people are able to draw and paint and sculpt and so the rest of us are left with words. I think that with that said, it also is much more ubiquitous. Even how a person, if they take a moment to craft a letter or an email, it will be likely received in a different way. I think it has as big a place as people want it to have. For me it's more of a kind of lifeline. I have the same old struggles I've always had. I'm interested in a lot of different things. I could say maybe my life is fragmented. Perhaps that's true. But I just really like doing a lot of different things. But if I'm not writing even in my journal, I'm not as balanced inside. I don't mean mentally, but just whole balanced.

Rodrigues: You earned a medical degree from Emory University and you practiced psychiatry prior and during your time in the MFA program. How did you balance the two in your life? How did you balance your time in the MFA program with your medical practice?

McCall: First of all I had sort of progressed to a place in my medical practice of focusing a bit more. I did outpatient psychiatry and psychotherapy. What I did is I limited the number of hours that I would spend seeing patients. I did that in quotations, if you're just listening to this. It's great to have the structure. I'm a student. I like being a student, if I have assignments and stuff like that. I just was able to be very focused by using the structure of the appointments I had in my office and then where I needed to be at my classes and also the work I needed to do.

Rodrigues: Did you find having that diverse background and bringing that into the program gave you an extra edge from the way you approached writing or your study of writing?

McCall: You know, I don't know about an extra edge. I experienced this program as much more community oriented and cooperative, as opposed to competitive. I also could see that I had grown a bit. I used to be very competitive and ambitious. I think I might be still as ambitious, but not as competitive. There were times where I felt like, especially because writing is such a-- whatever you're writing you are making yourself vulnerable. My comfort level with different kinds of people and human nature and emotions and stuff was probably a nice thing to bring to the table. But people would talk about writers and different aspects of writing that I had very little understanding of. In that way, I was kind of always going, "Huh? What?" We bring what we have.

Rodrigues: Did you find yourself playing catch-up those first few years? Were you researching the writers that they were talking about or making a conscious effort to read some of the writers that were suggested to you by other people in the program?

McCall: I just really felt a lot of respect from people and felt like that's a nice element of this program, that people respect where you've been and what you bring to the table. I would say that there was not a senior woman at the time. I benefitted a lot from Terry Tempest Williams' brief visit. Denise Guess was here for a year in my program. She's a magnificent teacher. I would consider not so much in age, but just in experience. That was really helpful to me, too. I don't know if that answers your question. I didn't have to try to be good enough. That's been a battle for me my whole life, feeling good enough. But in that setting I guess I had enough confidence. There weren't really any other psychiatrists in the program. People are, when there's a psychiatrist in the room sometimes they're a little hesitant to share. I had to kind of break some of that down. "No, no, no, I'm just a person."

Rodrigues: Did you find that because of your background that when you approached your interpretation of other people's work in the classroom, did you find yourself looking at it from more of a psychological point of view, a more emotional aspect that perhaps others were approaching it from?

McCall: I think that is true. In fact, one of the people on my thesis committee, or maybe it was that MFA exam you take or something like that where some of my comments they felt like were more emotional in nature than really focusing enough on the craft, I guess. That sounds like a criticism. I don't know if it was or not. I'm really, really conscious of not unknotting people or whatever, unzipping them, so to speak, their psyches. I would say that what I like that Rebecca Lee teaches so much is reader response. To me, reader response is largely emotional. That's what teaches me. When I'm reading what I've written, ideally I've written something and I come back to it. That way I can gauge my response in reading it when I've been away from it for a while and I'm not too close to it. In that sense, yes, I guess I did.

Rodrigues: You also came into the program as an older student. Some students come in straight from undergrad in their early 20s. Do you find that there's some benefit to you giving yourself some time to absorb life experiences prior to coming into a program like this?

McCall: I think there's value in giving yourself time to absorb life experiences in many, many, many junctures in our lives. I didn't go straight into this program, but I did go straight from college to medical school. I had a class at Emory. They called us an experimental class in a way, because they accepted a lot of nontraditional students. There were several students in there who were older. "Older" meaning maybe five years older or whatever, even in their early 30s. They didn't do that the next year, because our class caused so much trouble by asking questions and questioning why we do it this way. If you're just going along, you don't know to ask and question as much in a way. It was kind of fun for me to have that experience, too. To have had this experience and see some of these young whipper-snappers coming into the program, but then also now this time get to be a nontraditional person. In writing especially, maybe more so than getting a master's in history or something, I think you've got to get out in the world. Any art you've got to get out in the world. You'll make more of your investment when you come back into school, I think.

Rodrigues: That makes sense. I quickly just want to touch upon this. We are running out of time. I'm going to ask you two final questions.

McCall: Okay.

Rodrigues: This will be one of the two. Part of the title of Lifeguarding includes the word "Southern." Swimming and the South, but Kentucky is technically not in the South; it's in the Midwest. Talk to me about the dichotomy between growing up in this town that had a southern flair, but was technically a Midwestern location.

McCall: Maybe that's the source of my dislocation all the way around. I never knew it was in the Midwest. I always thought it was the South. I guess that just speaks to my experience. I lived in the east end of Louisville, which is a middle-class/upper middle class area along the Ohio River. I only knew it as the South. I didn't know that it was in the Midwest. I don't really know even how to answer that question other than we were talking before about in the book I question that culture that I grew up in. It was a country club culture. The unwritten and unspoken rules of particularly southern culture. Maybe there are unwritten rules of Midwestern culture. I don't know. But I don't think so. I think southern, we really carry our history on our sleeve in the South. The Civil War it was a border state. But the weather, we have terrific tornadoes in Louisville. That was really the only-- that's where it couldn't be as southern as it always wanted to be. It was more of a wanting to be. That's part of what that southern heritage. There's kind of a wanting to be perspective, wanting to be big or something. There's a want to be aspect in some ways. I don't know. Maybe Louisville would do better and maybe it's doing a lot better now. I was young then and I took a lot of my anger out on Louisville. Louisville's a wonderful city. It's a fantastic city. It's probably more balanced, because it's a little more Midwestern than I ever gave it credit for.

Rodrigues: We're going to close, but before we do, I wanted to ask you: What piece of advice would you give to an up and coming writer?

McCall: Write. Just write. Just keep writing. We didn't talk about writer's block. We're out of time.

Rodrigues: If you want to speak to that really quickly, you can.

McCall: I write, but I struggle with finishing. The most important thing is to write. If you have trouble doing that, get somebody, talk with somebody about the process of it. It keeps that channel open. We live in tidal areas and over time the sand closes up the channels and we have to dredge them. That's the same thing. If you're writing, you keep it dredged. That's what I would say to somebody who feels that they're blocked. The other thing is there's a real value in taking breaks. That's not blocking. There you go.

Rodrigues: Thank you for your time.

McCall: You're welcome.

Rodrigues: It was a great interview. Thank you.

McCall: Thank you, Carmen.

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