A sudden snowfall in Houston reveals family secrets. A trip to Universal Studios to snap a picture of the shark from Jaws becomes a battle of wills between father and son. A midnight séance and the ghost of Janis Joplin conjure the mysteries of sex. A young boy’s pilgrimage to see Elvis Presley becomes a moment of transformation. A young woman discovers the responsibilities of talent and freedom.
Pictures of the Shark, by Houston native and Dobie Paisano award-winning author Thomas H. McNeely, traces a young man’s coming of age and falling apart. From the rough and tumble of Houston’s early seventies East End to the post-punk Texas bohemia of late eighties Austin, this novel in stories examines what happens when childhood trauma haunts adult lives.
Thomas H. McNeely is an Eastside Houston native. He has published short stories and nonfiction in The Atlantic, Texas Monthly, Ploughshares, and many other magazines and anthologies, including Best American Mystery Stories and Algonquin Books’ Best of the South. His stories have been shortlisted for the Pushcart Prize, Best American Short Stories, and O. Henry Award anthologies. He has received National Endowment for the Arts, Wallace Stegner, and MacDowell Colony fellowships for his fiction. His first book, Ghost Horse, won the Gival Press Novel Award and was shortlisted for the William Saroyan International Prize in Writing. He currently teaches in the Stanford Online Writing Studio and at Emerson College, Boston.
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Where did your love of books, writing, reading, and storytelling come from?
From my maternal grandmother. She was a high school prodigy in elocution – the dramatic reading of poetry – and won a Texas Intercollegiate Scholarship which would have given her a free ride to the University of Texas. For reasons that are still obscure to me, she declined the scholarship and married my grandfather.
She was a very complicated woman. She suffered from what today we would call depression, which was due in part to her thwarted ambition. (The other part, alas, is genetic.) She could be cruel, especially to my mother. She also had a kind of genius for friendship. Women, especially, gravitated toward her. My job from a very early age was to answer her phone and tell the stream of women who constantly called her that she would call them back later. Well into her eighties, she was reading Roland Barthes and Umberto Eco, and could recite poem after poem.
She nurtured my imagination from a very early age. I brought her my first attempts at writing. She asked me questions I hated, because I couldn’t answer them, but which have since guided my writing and teaching: Why is the character doing this? What do they want? And the one I really dreaded: Why does this story matter?
How has Texas influenced your writing?
I have lived away from Texas, now, almost as long as I lived there. But I have never written anything that isn’t set in Texas. It is my imaginative world, particularly the dingy, seedy world of Houston in the seventies and the demimonde of Austin in the eighties. Actually, I could hang out in my imagination inside the 610 Loop in Houston in the seventies and be perfectly happy. Actually, I would probably be fine just in Eastwood, now called the East End, between I-45 and the ship channel.
That doesn’t really answer the question of how Texas has influenced my writing, which I am not really sure how to answer. One answer is that, growing up in Houston in the seventies and eighties, I felt that the real centers of culture were elsewhere, and so I still feel an affiliation with odd and marginalized art and artists. I hung out at The Orange Show when I was a kid. KPFT and KTRU were my musical universe. This focus comes through strongly in my work, though it’s seldom noticed. Now, I realize that this kind of off-kilter view is a rich cultural heritage, as legitimate as the “official” centers of culture. Katharine Anne Porter, Donald Barthelme, Bryan Washington, William Goyen, Ben Fountain – there is a rich tradition of Texas literature that is written from an outsider’s perspective.
Another answer is that growing up in such a diverse and segregated city as Houston and shuttling constantly back and forth between my mother’s house in the East End and my father’s house near Rice made me aware of racial, economic, and class differences. I think that is probably true for anyone growing up in Houston at that time, because the divisions were so stark – they still seem to be. That’s also a central focus of my work, though more so in Ghost Horse than in Pictures of the Shark.
What projects are you working on at the present?
I am working on stories about loss. My mother passed away at the end of 2016, and I am only now coming to terms with that loss, so I expect that will come through in some way. “No One’s Trash,” in Pictures of the Shark, is a very indirect reaction to that loss.
I am also thinking about other kinds of loss, like losing familiar places and structures. This is a familiar experience to anyone who grew up in Houston – the loss of landmarks from one’s youth because of the relentless ongoing “development” and hostility to zoning laws. It’s a very American type of self-recreation and amnesia.
There is also the new type of loss of manmade landmarks and natural environments because of climate change. The devastation of the Bolivar Peninsula, where my uncle built a beach house in the fifties, and which was affordable enough for middle class families to build vacation homes and for a whole working-class community to live, was a traumatic erasure, not only of that physical space but also of a way of life.
That is the reality of living in Houston, now, as far as I can see – a kind of dogged endurance in the face of mounting disasters and erasures, which is becoming, unfortunately, the reality in which all of us live.
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