How did you get on board with “Naked Came the Cheesesteak?”
Kelly McQuain: Mitch, the editor approached me. We’ve known each other since doing our MFA at the University of New Orleans. It had been a long while since I wrote a fiction project. I’ve been working in poetry and essays these last few years, and though I was a little shy at first I decided this might be a fun way back into writing fiction. It was.
Victoria Janssen: Greg Frost brought me on board, when one of the other writers cancelled. Greg and I used to be in a workshop together.
Tony Knighton: Christine Weiser got me involved.
Tell me a little about the characters and story in your chapter.
Kelly McQuain: I wrote chapter 6, and it seemed each chapter that came before introduced a lot of new characters. I wanted to bring back or mention as many characters as I could so that there would be a sense of continuity and development. That’s what I like in books with large casts, to see the way the characters’ stories weave in and out of those around them. As this was near the midpoint of the novel, I thought it was important to do so. Of course, to pull this off I had to add a new character that I hoped a later writer might further develop. Arhsad is his name, a college student who sheds some light on the backstories of some of the other victims. I also wanted to add more diversity in terms of race and sexual identity. I was delighted to have an opportunity to also flesh out Josh, the food truck owner whose truck is where the initial murder happens. He’s mentioned in chapter 1, but he had been kept off-stage. And, of course, his girlfriend Angela had to reappear. In terms of tone, I tried to be consistent with chapter 1, that this was a comic murder mystery, both a satire and an affectionate peaen to the City of Brotherly Love. I also wanted to pin down the passage of time during the fall term, so I set this chapter just before Halloween with a note to my collaborators that I hoped the upcoming holiday might make a good backdrop for a later chapter.
Victoria Janssen: My new characters were Olive Norvell and Laurel Gutierrez, police sidekicks for Chelsea Simon, the detective. I based their personalities very loosely on Laurel and Hardy; their main purpose was to serve as comedic foils. Given where my chapter fell, I thought it would be a good idea to sum up some of the previous action and create a bridge to later events, while working in another death. Greg had mentioned he’d created “Pants” to be a murder victim, so I obliged!
Tony Knighton: It seemed to me that the story was running away; I wanted to bring it back around to Angela (I liked her character). I had used Mickey and Mrs. DeSantis in another story and thought them perfect for something happening Downtown.
Did you read the previous chapters before writing yours? How has this serial novel structure influenced your writing?
Kelly McQuain: Of course! I would have felt like I was being disrespectful to the hard work of the other writers if I hadn’t done so, and I would not have benefited from the seeds they had lain. What was useful to me was the meta-data the editors and other writers helped generate, so that I could more easily track characters and happenings. A project like this is fun for the wildly different approaches you see in what gets turned in, but to me it also emphasizes that for my own writing projects the importance of timelines, plot diagrams, and outlines to the cohesion of the work. This project, by it’s nature, breaks the rules in a fun way, but at the same time it served for me as a reminder of why those rules are there to begin with.
Victoria Janssen: I did read the previous chapters before beginning to write. I tried to make my chapter build structurally on what went before while providing a launch point for succeeding chapters. I didn’t make any attempt to match styles, because I figured the different authorial voices were a feature, not a bug.
Tony Knighton: Of course I read the previous chapters, and liked them a lot. If this exercise has influenced my writing I’m not aware of it.
What have you noticed about writing for a serial novel and how it influenced the overall story?
Kelly McQuain: I had to make peace with the fact that the set-ups and characters I liked the most wouldn’t necessarily be embraced by later writers, who steered the ship in their own direction. A serial novel is not going to be as tight or as streamlined as an Agatha Christie novel. The fun lies in the diversity of approaches. I think what the overall novel becomes is a portrait of how 13 writers see Philadelphia at this moment in time. My favorite parts are how we satirize the city, how we critique its legal system and the exploitation of adjuncts on campuses throughout the city. How we poke fun at beloved low-brow cuisine like the cheesesteak as well as at Philly’s restaurant renaissance. How we even poke fun at the genre of mystery writing itself when the novel takes a possibly meta turn. A huge amount of geographical territory is also covered in the book. There are scenes at Kelly Writers House at Penn, at the Drexel Dragon, at Community College of Philadelphia and at Temple. Rittenhouse Square, South Philly, Strawberry Mansion, and so many other places also make appearances. The novel’s definitely a portrait of the city’s people and its places.
Victoria Janssen: I discovered how very useful it can be to keep a list of characters and their salient characteristics. I had done a couple of round robins before, so I was prepared for later authors to radically depart my expectations for the story.
Tony Knighton: I haven’t yet read the subsequent chapters; I want to read the story all at once.
Were you surprised at the direction any of the characters you wrote or created were taken by other writers, or did other writers express surprise at the direction you took with your characters?
Kelly McQuain: Merry, who wrote chapter 2, expressed surprise when I read at our launch party that I turned one of her characters gay. “No, Merry,” I playfully told her, “he was gay all along. Deep down in your sub-text.” The truth is, her character’s sexuality had not been clearly established, so I saw it as an opportunity to surprise the reader. Isn’t that what we try to do as writers? Just when a reader thinks they have everything pinned down, the writers shows them something new that deepens the story. Good old “recognition and reversal.” I’ll add that as a queer person myself, I do not operate under the de facto assumption that most of the world does, that all people are straight until proven otherwise. That’s a perspective and sensitivity I could bring to the mix, and probably one of the reasons Mitch wanted me on board.
I was less surprised by the direction in which my characters were taken (and other people’s) than I was in my desire to still want to know more about them by the novel’s end. Several of these characters are interesting enough to drive their own books. One of the things that surprised me was that a project designed to be set in Philadelphia would ultimately end up somewhere else. But as for where… well, dear readers, you will just have to read and see.
Victoria Janssen: I haven’t finished reading the whole novel yet!
Tony Knighton: See [previous answer], and no.