Q&A With Gretchen McCullough
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Q&A With Gretchen McCullough
Thanks to my friend Mickey Mikkelson, he has connected me to more authors doing Q&As. My next guest is author Gretchen McCullough. Gretchen is the author of Confessions of a Knight Errant, & coming in February of 2024 Sharazhad’s Gift. Gretchen has had her stories and essays appear in The Barcelona Review, Archipelago, National Public Radio, & Story South among many others. Gretchen has also taught abroad in Egypt, Turkey and Japan.
Q: Gretchen, would you like to tell the readers a little bit about Confessions of a Knight Errant & Sharazad’s Gift coming February 2024 and how you came up with the concepts for both books? The titles alone sound exciting and something I would read!
A. Actually, the idea for Confessions of a Knight Errant came from the last novella in Shahrazad’s Gift. I published a collection of short stories called Shahrazad’s Tooth with a small literary press in Cairo in 2013. Shahrazad’s Gift is a reprint of this collection with a few new stories. The novella in the collection focused on two characters who were on the run, one, a Greek-Egyptian, Kharalombos is in trouble with the Egyptian government; the other, Gary, a maladroit professor, is accused of being a cyber-terrorist by the American government. They returned to Egypt on one of the worst days of the Egyptian uprising, 2011, when the networks were cut and the police withdrew. They meet up with a German tourist who runs a fancy girls’ summer camp in central Texas. The ending is open-ended in the novella. I wondered what would happen if these two characters really did go to Texas: that became Confessions of a Knight Errant. I experienced the uprising in 2011 so the novella was inspired by my experience.
The stories in the story collection, Shahrazad’s Gift, were inspired by the offbeat, flamboyant characters I met in my building in Cairo—and in the city. In one of the stories in the collection, my neighbor threw an egg at the lady in a nearby balcony because she wouldn’t stop watching him.
Q: What is the story of your next book about if you can reveal any details?
A: I just finished a draft of a new novel, which is set in West Texas in the nineteen thirties during the New Deal. My grandfather went to college at Sul Ross University in Alpine. He left a number of diaries about his life. That prompted me to visit Sul Ross and spend some time in the archives. I was so interested in the building of Big Bend National Park and the swimming pool at Balmorhea; these were projects that were completed under Roosevelt’s New Deal. Young, unemployed men in their twenties were recruited to work in these CCC camps. I was drawn to the project in Balmorhea. It is a huge swimming pool, probably as big as a football field, that is completely fed by natural springs. The novel focuses on a man camp at Balmorhea, but also overlaps with a medical quack. Doctor John Brinkley, a medical charlatan, who promised men greater virility with transplants of goat testicles. He was a real character and was practicing medicine in the thirties in Texas.
Q: What’s it like having your stories and essays appear in The Barcelona Review, Archipelago, National Public Radio, & Story South among many others? What advice would you give to anyone wanting to submit those publications?
A: I think it is just one publication at a time. You have to think about if you are the right writer for a venue or publication.
I only did one radio essay for National Public Radio. I had returned from a Fulbright in Syria in 1999. Syria was very much in the news. I called information and found out the number for NPR in Washington and told them I had just come back from Syria! They responded immediately. I couldn’t believe it. I whittled my essay down to about 400 words and I went to the Alabama Public Radio station and recorded my story about how poor communication was in Syria. At that time, email was even forbidden.
I wrote queries to the other magazines. I was writing about my experience in Syria—and the editor and publisher of Archipelago, Katharine McNamara, encouraged me and edited my work very artfully. They published “The Third Party is Also Watching” and “Living in Wild and Marvelous Stories.”
One thing leads to another. I don’t remember how I found the Barcelona Review, but I wrote a series of essays for them, called “Letters from Cairo” around the time of the war in Iraq.
Q: Does Hollywood have the rights to your work? The entertainment industry needs new content again.
A: No. I am a writer, far from New York, Hollywood and the big lights. I think that is probably good. I didn’t get distracted by the “biz”—and just kept writing.
I do think Confessions of a Knight Errant would lend itself to film. Of course, it would be wonderful if someone wanted to make it a film.
Q: You taught abroad in Egypt, Turkey and Japan! I would love to see those places someday. What was it like teaching in a foreign country and what did you teach?
A: My first teaching job was in Cairo at a church school in 1985. It was called “the American College for Girls” in its heyday in the fifties. But after it was nationalized, it became “Ramses College for Girls.” I was on a tiny salary, funded by the Presbyterian Church. It was a crazy experience, living in a country that I knew nothing about, but have really come to love. It was old-fashioned teaching with chalk and a chalkboard—and I didn’t have a clue about teaching. I was teaching literature to high school girls. We read Persuasion, by Jane Austen. It seemed a ridiculous choice, but the head of the English department said we had to teach it because it was “approved” by the Ministry of Education.
The kids were wild and I remember girls belly dancing on their desks!
It wasn’t all roses. I lived in a dorm with a lot of other teachers in their twenties and we quarreled a lot. The only salvation were the handsome Egyptian men who turned up! My first novel was about this school, but I never published it.
I taught in a similar school in Istanbul. The classes were bigger, at least forty in a class. When I heard that, I thought I might have a nervous breakdown after my experience in Egypt! But it was a very strict school. They even punished girls if their socks were not the right color. The headmistress kept prodding me to turn in the girls with colorful socks, but I was not interested!
I loved Turkey, too. I even lived in a converted classroom one year! My salary was meager, but I went everywhere in Turkey on the bus, with a pal. I spent two years there, 1987-1989.
Nothing prepared me for Japan. I couldn’t connect to the country, after my years in Egypt and Turkey. I taught at an international school, run by Spanish nuns! It was odd. I only learned “thank you” and “yes” in Japanese. It was my third country in five years and I felt exhausted.
After I returned from my Fulbright in Syria in 1999, one of my friends in Tuscaloosa, Alabama said, “Gretchen, there’s a job opening at the American University in Cairo. You’re perfect for the job.” I had not even bought a car yet! I returned to Cairo in 2000 and have been here ever since. I met my husband, the Egyptian poet, Mohamed Metwalli in 2008.
Q: Where are your favorite spots in Egypt, Turkey and Japan?
A: I really love Alexandria—many Egyptians don’t love it so much anymore because it’s crowded. But it has a different ambiance than Cairo because of the sea and its history. We also love Izmir in Turkey. My husband loves the place—and we went there almost every holiday before the pandemic.
I regret that I didn’t travel much in Japan when I lived there. I wish I would have gone to Kyoto, which is supposed to be a beautiful city.