When Thomas H. McNeely was growing up in Houston, his first artistic love was making Super 8 movies. Inspired by his childhood obsession with “Jaws,” he crafted a finned apparatus to film in approximation of that movie’s famous shark. “God bless my mother,” said McNeely. “Somehow she got five kids into her little two-door Ford Maverick and took us down to the beach” to shoot the movie.
The title story in McNeely’s new collection, “Pictures of the Shark” (Texas Review Press), recalls a trip McNeely himself took with his father to see Bruce, the “Jaws” shark, at Universal Studios. The book is “autobiographical to a large extent,” McNeely said. “There are elements of truth.”
In addition to movies, McNeely grew up loving books. His grandmother (“a frustrated writer . . . she could recite poetry by heart well into her 80s”) had an extensive library, where he fell under the spell of Capote, Joyce, Orwell, and Faulkner. “A lot of stuff I read far too early to understand,” he said. “But I was absorbing the language and the rhythms of the language.”
McNeely began writing fiction about his own life while getting his MFA at Emerson (he now teaches writing at Emerson and at Stanford). “What I read when I was growing up were stories, and that’s what I love to write,” he said. While he’s written some memoir pieces, he added, “there’s something that happens in turning it into a shaped story.”
In these stories, he said, “I wanted to sort of show these characters trying to play these roles of being parents or children. And nobody knew how to do it.” From a 1970s childhood to college in Austin, Texas, in the ′80s, McNeely wanted to capture the times and places he experienced during the early parts of his life — some of which remain oddly relevant. “I was a pretentious, angry adolescent,” he said. “I have a 15-year-old daughter, and when she’s going off on me I just think: This is karma.”
Thomas H. McNeely will read in person at 7 p.m. Monday at Harvard Book Store.
Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.