Zacharis Award Winner Richard McCann

by Don Lee

ZACHARIS FIRST BOOK AWARD Ploughshares is pleased to present Richard McCann with the fifteenth annual John C. Zacharis First Book Award for his collection of stories, Mother of Sorrows (Pantheon, 2005). The $1,500 award, which is named after Emerson College's former president, honors the best debut book by a Ploughshares writer, alternating annually between fiction and poetry.

This year's judge was John Skoyles, who is a Ploughshares trustee. In choosing the collection—which weaves together ten lyrical sketches of a family living in the postwar suburbs of Washington, D.C.—Skoyles said: "Richard McCann's Mother of Sorrows is beautifully written and portrayed. There is not a word out of place in McCann's careful sentences that pick up dramatic momentum as they build scene by scene. A boy's secret ways and dreams are brought to life with understatement made vivid through detail, but what sets this book apart is the author's compassion for everyone involved in his household and in his world. McCann's understanding of the frailties and strengths of the human condition is the driving force behind this moving work of art."

Up to now, Richard McCann has been known mostly as a poet. He received the Cohen Award from Ploughshares in 1992 for his poem "Nights of 1990," and he won the Beatrice Hawley Award in 1994 for his first volume of poetry, Ghost Letters, which was published by Alice James Books. He also edited, with Michael Klein, the anthology Things Shaped in Passing. His fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry have appeared in such publications as The Atlantic, Ms., Esquire, and Tin House. He lives in Washington, D.C., and since 1988, he has co-directed the M.F.A. program in creative writing at American University. He is also on the boards of the Fine Arts Work Center and the PEN/Faulkner Foundation.

McCann was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1940, and grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland. His father was a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, his mother a "Welcome Wagon hostess" who later worked in a consignment shop called Good-as-New. "Through high school," McCann recalls, "I was an utterly unremarkable student whose chief goal was to be found pleasing by others. I think it would be fair to say that not one teacher took particular notice of me, except for my tenth-grade English teacher, Mr. Carl Smith, who once phoned my mother to say I had written a nice description of my own hands."

It wasn't until going to Virginia Commonwealth University that McCann developed any real interest in becoming a writer. He found himself reading poems such as Anne Sexton's Live or Die, John Berryman's 77 Dream Songs, Robert Lowell's Life Studies, and Diane Wakoski's Inside the Blood Factory. "They aroused in me a hunger to enact the drama of a human voice," he says. In 1971, just before graduating from college, he published his first poem in Shenandoah. He received his M.A. in creative writing from Hollins College in 1972, and from there went to the University of Iowa for a Ph.D. in American studies, but he quit writing almost entirely from 1978 until 1984, when he lived in Europe and taught film history and American literature.

Not long after returning to the Washington, D.C., area, and not long after the sudden death of his older brother, David, McCann began the stories that would eventually come together, many years later, as his first book of fiction, Mother of Sorrows. "I began the book—or so I now believe, in retrospect—in an effort to understand the meaning of 'home' and the source of the multiple sorrows that shaped my family's life," McCann says. "I told myself that I was writing it in order to free myself from my family's controlling myths. By the time I finished the book, however, I was one of my family's few survivors, and I came to see that I had also been writing it in order to preserve my family in words forever. I also wanted, in writing prose, to understand what time did to people—that is, as I grew older, I began to see that time was the medium through which lives were revealed, and it was only natural then to turn toward narrative. When I was younger and writing only poems, I was far more inclined to see life as a series of lyric, ecstatic moments, with long, sad lulls between them."

McCann is currently working on a memoir called The Resurrectionist, derived from his experience of receiving a lifesaving liver transplant in May 1996.

Copyright © Don Lee

Winter 2005-06 Cover
Poetry & Fiction

Guest-edited by:
David St. John
David St. John