Award-winning author and Carnegie Mellon University professor Jane McCafferty enriched Clarion with her wit and clarity at Tobeco’s open mic night on Thursday, Feb. 25.
McCafferty read a selection from her fiction novel “First You Try Everything” to a crowded room at Michelle’s Cafe. The book centers around Evvie and Ben, a married couple who are on the brink of divorce. The reading packed sadness and humor into a relatable scene, where a drunken Evvie climbs through Ben’s apartment window and confesses her feelings about their separation.
The literary fiction author has also written two short story books, “Director of the World” and “Thank You for the Music.” Her first novel, “One Heart,” is similar to “First You Try Everything” in examining strained relationships from multiple viewpoints. McCafferty enjoys the difficulties that come with alternating narrators.
“I really love voices. The first voice came to me, and I thought it would be a challenge to write another voice that sounded very different. And then another. And another,” McCafferty said when talking about “One Heart.” “It was great fun, but not easy. I am still really drawn to voice in fiction, and may try another novel like that down the road.”
While she now resides in Pittsburgh, McCafferty was born and raised in Wilmington, Del. and began writing at the age of six. Her early writings explored lifestyles that vastly differed from her own childhood.
“I liked to make up stories about a girl who had many brothers and sisters. I think my desire to live in a big family drew me to writing,” McCafferty said. “I lived across the street from people who had 13 kids, and from my vantage point, that looked great. In fiction I was always identifying with a little girl who slept in a room with 10 other kids.”
McCafferty said she explores life events, confronts her emotions and escapes through her writing.
“I use [writing] to help me stay awake, too. I think we can use language to help us see things more vividly and feel things more deeply,” McCafferty said.
Place is a vital part of McCafferty’s writings. She said the more particular a setting is, the more universal it is for readers. Paying homage to a place and people draws readers deeper into a storyline.
“I am mostly inspired by people I love, but music plays a role. And I traveled when I was young, and lately would like to do more of it. I’m fascinated by travel, and do a lot of it these days in my imagination. I think having a strong sense of place—even imaginary places—really feeds creative work,” McCafferty said.
As an English professor, McCafferty teaches a variety of nonfiction and fiction writing classes. Teaching can conflict with her own writing, but students bring her other forms of inspiration.
“Students inspire me. I’m sure in some way my own writing is fueled by their spirits, but in other ways teaching competes with writing because it’s time consuming,” McCafferty said. “But I feel very lucky to be with students who are learning to write, and I especially like it when I know I’m helping a young writer along.”
McCafferty recommends that aspiring writers continue the uphill battle that creative writing presents. Taking the time to learn is challenging, but important.
“Writing is about persistence. You learn your craft for the first years, and then you hang in there, and if you do, I promise you, you will get better. And I also promise you that writing never gets easier. But it does stay interesting,” stated McCafferty.