Ghost stories with a twist

Most ghost stories tell less about the person who died than about the living person encountering a ghost. Associate Professor of English John McNally says the characters in his book, “Ghosts of Chicago,” don’t really fall into that mode.

“Every other story in ‘Ghosts of Chicago’ is about a dead Chicagoan — John Belushi, Walter Payton and film critic Gene Siskel, for example, made it into the book — or a long-gone artifact of Chicago pop culture,” says McNally, a native of Chicago. “The ghosts, by and large, are metaphorical. I tried to make the stories different from each other: from death-bed reminiscences to somewhat surreal narratives.

“The characters in my stories, even the stories that aren’t about dead Chicagoans, are definitely haunted, though — haunted by deaths, by failed marriages, by lies they’ve told, by crimes committed.”

McNally says the theme for the book came from a writing assignment on a dead writer from Virginia Quarterly Review. “I had been thinking about writing stories about dead Chicagoans as a way to give the story collection a hook; the assignment finally gave me the nudge I needed. I decided to write a story about Nelson Algren, who is closely linked to Chicago. From there, I began making lists of dead Chicagoans who were either important to me, culturally speaking, or who had had an interesting life.”

McNally’s newest novel, “After the Workshop,” is about a writer who gave up working on his novel and has spent the past 12 years working as a media escort for writers on book tours. “I spent a few years working as a media escort for writers on their book tours while trying to get my own first book published, so I wrote the book as a fictional memoir,” he says. “There’s more ‘fiction’ than ‘memoir’ in it, but a good deal of it was inspired by my own experiences.” The book is due out in March.

McNally also is writing a historical novel and trying to finish a nonfiction book on the writing life. “I decided that creative writers needed a self-help book, too, so that’s what this is: my advice on everything from getting published, to alcohol and the writer, to the perils of a life spent in academia.”

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