Our guest today is Tyler McMahon. His new book “Kilometer 99” recently came out. His first novel, “How the Mistakes were Made,” were one of the Word Nerd’s pusher books in 2011, making it to the Top Ten list for books that year.
Word Nerds: What kind of reader is going to like Kilometer 99?
McMahon: I hope this book will appeal to readers who are interested in subjects such as surfing, travel, Latin America, and the like. When I was a Peace Corps volunteer, there were a handful of novels and memoirs that all of us had read about the experience or the region. I’d love it if this novel fit into that small canon.
There is definitely a lack of books (especially fiction) about El Salvador, and I hope that this one will fill that gap, and appeal to the growing number of Americans who have some sort of connection to El Salvador or the Salvadoran community in the US.
WN: You’ve lived or worked in a variety of places. How has that influenced the settings and places in your writing?
McMahon: It’s funny; I never considered myself as a “place-based” writer. I grew up in a part of the country that always struck me as neither here nor there—not really city but not really rural either, not quite the south and not quite the north. The fact that I’ve moved around a lot fueled the notion that I didn’t have much to say about a particular location. I never saw myself as a writer who was fortunate enough to start with setting.
In the case of Kilometer 99, however, the story definitely began with a particular place and time: Puerto La Libertad, in El Salvador, during the aftermath of the 2001 earthquakes. It was a place that left a major impression on me, something I’ve thought about ever since. Nearly every other element of the story changed along the way. Looking back, I can see that I was determined to write a novel set there.
WN: What was different for you in writing Kilometer 99 from the process of writing How the Mistakes Were Made?
McMahon: On the whole, I think of Kilometer 99 as a much more personal book.
How the Mistakes Were Made involved a lot of research, for one thing. Also, I was trying very hard to understand novel writing, and the sorts of things that readers—as well as editors and industry people—might be interested in. From the very beginning, I had a solid idea about where the book was going.
In the case of Kilometer 99, I was writing about issues that held meaning for me, personally. I put all those other demands on hold, and explored exactly what I wanted to. In my mind, there was a chance that I’d get to the end and just scrap the whole thing—and I was okay with that. As a result, it evolved much more organically, in fits and starts.
WN: You are an English prof in addition to writing novels. What’s piece of writing advice do you give your students that’s the hardest for you to take yourself?
McMahon: I always try to convince my students that writing is an extremely subjective art. I hate it when we talk about it as though there’s sort of hierarchy based on skill or success. Some people just respond to certain books and stories; others do not. Some writers enjoy better reception than others, but there’s no scorecard.
But I’m sad to say that I’m not always mindful of that advice, when it comes to my own work.
WN: What books have captured your attention lately?
McMahon: I just finished Mercy 6 by David Bajo, which is a terrific novel—a sort of literary medical thriller, as if Borges had written a special episode of House. Lately, I’ve been interested in novels with suspenseful plots, as well as those with some sort of speculative elements. I also liked The Circle by Dave Eggers, Forest of Fortune by Jim Ruland, and Of Sea and Cloud by Jon Keller.
I often read nonfiction for fun; that’s sort of my guilty pleasure. Right now I’m readingBig Dead Place, Nicholas Johnson’s hilarious and depressing account of life in the Antarctic research station.
WN: What’s next for you as a writer?
McMahon: I have a couple of things that I’m working on at the moment. The most far along is a bit of a murder mystery that takes place along the Idaho-Montana border. I’ve always been interested in that region—with its weird mix of beautiful mountains, natural resources, and extremist groups. I don’t want to say too much about it, but I’m hoping it will be finished soon.