Q&A with novelist William J. McGee
Queens writer William J. McGee recently attended our Queens Literary Homecoming, where he was on the winning trivia team in the games portion of the night. He is the author of the novel Half the Child (CreateSpace, 2018) and the nonfiction Attention All Passengers (HarperCollins, 2012). Here, he answers a few questions for us about Queens, his career, and his work.
When you think of Queens, what first comes to mind?
My earliest memory is of the most iconic Queens image of them all—peering up at the Unisphere on the very last day of the World's Fair in 1965. I was three years old, sitting in a rented blue stroller shaped like a Corvette convertible, and watching as my older siblings scrambled to board the last rides and attractions. It's as if a flashbulb burst in my brain's hippocampus, because that vision remains just as clear today, and I suspect it always will. The rainbow of Crayola-ish colors, the artificial lighting, the competing musical strains—all superimposed on Flushing landfill, a mix of magic and grittiness that set a tone for me. Proust had his madeleine, I have the scent of Belgian waffles at the fair. Years later, I had a therapist tell me that if I spent the rest of my life only writing about the Jackson Heights block that I grew up on, I would never run out of material. He was right. But eventually I expanded my horizons, and now I've been known to write about locales as far flung as Woodside and Corona. Sometimes even Sunnyside.
How does the borough of Queens factor into your work?
My new novel, HALF THE CHILD, is set almost entirely in Queens. A novel can be many things, even to its author, and one of the secondary ways I view this work is that it's a jumbled love letter to the borough itself. To be clear, the book is not about Queens, but it is indelibly of Queens, and that sense of place infuses nearly every page. The narrator Michael Mullen is an air-traffic controller at LaGuardia Airport, so the tower provides him a perch with panoramic views as he speculates on nearly everything. Throughout the painful custody and abduction drama over his young son, Ben, Michael spends endless hours in family court in Jamaica; visits lawyers in Kew Gardens; boxes in a seedy basement gym in Woodhaven; roots for the Mets at Citi Field; stores his life's possessions in College Point; and breakfasts at the Georgia Diner in Elmhurst, lunches at White Castle in Bayside, and drinks at Donovan's Pub in Woodside. Eventually we learn Michael spent his childhood summers in a Rockaway bungalow, attended Queens College, and was born in Elmhurst General Hospital. Michael is not me, and I am not him, but we do share a common and specific heritage rooted in that place from which we both came. I've written about Queens before, and I'm sure I will write about it again. But Half the Child is my Queens Novel, and always will be.
What about growing up in Queens affected your life as a writer?
The word diversity wasn't in anyone's vocabulary in the alleyway behind our row houses off Northern Boulevard. Yet like so many other words not spoken—tolerance, acceptance—we learned it through absorption, and by rules that were both clear and yet never uttered. As a writer I was doubly blessed, since I was the youngest of 11 children as well as the playmate of neighbors with roots in Colombia, Greece, Ireland, Spain, Bavaria, and Hasidic Brooklyn. Later, when I began teaching Creative Writing and would discuss character, I gratefully recalled that my childhood was continually filled with the most colorful of characters, both inside and outside that crowded row house.
What is your favorite bit of Queens trivia?
My son is an architecture student and a few years ago he texted me that a professor had displayed photos of an unusual private home in Queens. I was shocked to realize he meant a house located not just in Jackson Heights, but directly across the street from my family's old home. In fact, I saw it nearly every day of my childhood from our front stoop. The Yerby House is unlike any other in the borough, with floor to ceiling windows spanning two entire floors, more Southern California than Northern Queens. I recall Mrs. Yerby drove a Jaguar E-type convertible of the sort eventually celebrated by Austin Powers, but I have no recollections of the absent Mr. Yerby, an expatriate novelist whose books were often displayed near the cash registers inside Food Fair at our corner. Years later I researched Frank Yerby, and was stunned to learn he may very well have been the best-selling African-American author to date—to the tune of some 55 million books. Did the publishing gods only smile on the west side of the 33-00 block of 86th Street, or did their grace extend to our east side as well? I'll let you know.
Thank you, William!