How a short story became a trilogy
Maureen McNeil 
Photo by Tamara Gaskell

How a short story became a trilogy

‘Anna Magdalena” started out as a short story that grew into a trilogy, written by Maureen McNeil, who gave a lively talk at the Roeliff Jansen Community Library on Wednesday, Dec. 13.

McNeil determined at an early age that she would become a writer. Even as a child, she had a vivid imagination, brought on by a kindergarten teacher’s story of dinosaurs. She also told of going to church often as a child, before school, and the stained glass windows and other church art encouraged her to make up stories about what was pictured.

Her sister taught her to read and write, and McNeil’s course in life was charted. Her sister, incidentally, became a teacher. A few years after telling her sister that she would be a writer, she told her mother, who found her a mentor with whom McNeil worked for over 20 years.

Being open to other cultures, becoming immersed in them, McNeil was able to learn about people, feelings, conditions and causes that her own upbringing in the Pacific Northwest, as well as her traditional schooling, wouldn’t have allowed.

“Anna Magdalena” was originally a short story that begins in the Northwest. McNeil was working on it at a workshop at New York University. When someone remarked that they’d like to know what happened when one of the characters went to New York, the story grew into a novel. After talking to a publisher about the book, McNeil ended up with a contract for a three-book deal, so Anna Magdalena, who is a performance artist, became the catalyst for a trilogy.

Introduced by library director Tamara Gaskell, McNeil proved to be natural and charming. In reading the first two chapters from the book, she invited the audience into a world that enveloped freedom, imagination and life. The prose is descriptive and, while never too much, one can “see” each item, each scene, each person or thing, clearly, never cloying or rigid. The words flow in a steady stream of sight, sound, shapes and smell, all of the senses are touched as the reader becomes enmeshed in the story of this powerful contemporary woman.

Life experiences have given birth to McNeil’s writings; she also uses historical references in a gentle fashion. A restaurant she opened with a college friend in Washington shaped some early writings. Work at the Lee Strasberg Theater and Film Institute found her reading the diary of the last seven months of Marilyn Monroe’s life. Her book “Dear Red: The Lost Diary of Marilyn Monroe” was written at that time. McNeil stated that without her intimate knowledge of Monroe, she could not have written as she did about Anna Magdalena.

After leaving the West Coast, McNeil has spent her time in Brooklyn and Woodstock, New York. The second novel of the trilogy, “Tinker Street,” is the story of Anna Magdalena as a teen coming of age in Woodstock, and the evolution of a performance artist’s life. That book is due out January 2024. The third book, “Clover Road,” is expected in 2025, and described by McNeil as utopian or dystopian, she’s not sure which.

Following the reading, questions were asked. Asked if any of her writings are autobiographical, McNeil noted that all writers write about what they know, but her stories are not autobiographical. She also said that writers create communities in their writings. As for performance artists, she thinks we are all performers, but asserts that you need to be who you are. Writing, she feels, gives you an opportunity to free yourself. She also said that, for her, writing nonfiction is harder than writing fiction.

Other works by McNeil include “Red Hook Stories,” from the beginning of her days in Brooklyn; and a collection of short stories, “Wild Blueberries.” She was a finalist for the Tiferet Fiction Prize in 2021 and won second place in the 2021 Barry Lopez Nonfiction Prize. She is a lecturer, teaches writing workshops, and is an activist who still splits her time between Woodstock and Brooklyn. She has worked with the Anne Frank Center USA, PEN America’s prison program, and the Prison Public Memory Project. In addition, she has designed and taught workshops for Yad Vashem, the Woodstock Day School, the Morgan Library and Skidmore College.

Next in the library’s author series is author and chef Julie Gale, who will discuss her new memoir “The View From My Kitchen Window,” a chronological journey of the kitchens in the author’s life, on Wednesday, Jan. 10, at 5:30 p.m.

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