McKinley describes CSU writing community’s lasting influence
When Colorado State University alumna Nancy McKinley (MA ’84 – Creative Writing) wrote St. Christopher on Pluto, she didn’t expect the book to receive national attention. But it came nonetheless as a glowing review on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air in late May.
“St. Christopher on Pluto drew me in by its humor, but, like the best comic fiction, it’s constructed out of insider social observations that sting as much as they amuse,” Maureen Corrigan writes in her review for NPR.
The book follows Mary Katherine, or MK, and Colleen — two elementary school friends who meet again as adults when working in the same failing mall. After ditching Colleen’s car for an insurance scheme that goes awry, the women pursue madcap volunteerism. “They get into an insurance scheme together, but they want to help others,” McKinley said.
They take off in MK’s Buick, Big Blue — guided by a glowing St. Christopher statue glued to the dashboard — and the friends encounter unexpected events as they travel across the farm debris, mine ruins and fracking waste of northern Appalachia.
Despite widespread ruin, the women show why there is still a community of hope, filled with people looking out for their neighbors, and with survivors who offer joy, laughter, and good will.
“‘Covert’ is a good way to characterize how this droll novel-in-stories delivers its social commentary,” Corrigan writes. “It’s so entertaining to go along for the ride with MK and chatty Colleen, and, because of their wry, sometimes bumbling, suck-it-up resiliency, it’s also possible to take in these hard-luck landscapes and see some possibility amidst all the losses.”
McKinley says community has been a driving force in her work since her time at CSU. It was there that she says she first engaged with a community of writers coaching one another through the process. Now, as a faculty member of the Wilkes University Maslow Family Graduate Program in Creative Writing since 2005, Mckinley has been instrumental in developing a hybrid creative writing program using a familiar template.
“I wanted to bring the spirit of the CSU program,” she said, “to emphasize a community of writers helping writers. It’s really important.”
She continues to employ the tools she learned at CSU in her writing today.
“I planted the seed for a lot of these stories as a grad student,” she said. “But I didn’t really know how to use the craft to get them to take shape as they now have, in this interweaving of comedy and social consciousness.”
McKinley said she listens to NPR and Fresh Air, and she said she received several phone calls about the radio episode from friends and family as it aired.
At the same time, she views Corrigan’s review of St. Christopher On Pluto as a prime opportunity to inspire writing students with the writing that alumni continue to produce.
“I felt exceptionally fortunate to be positively reviewed,” she said. “But what I’ve always cherished was spirit and community.”