We had the good fortune of connecting with Jessica McCann and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Jessica, can you tell us about an impactful book you’ve read and why you liked it or what impact it had on you?
I read dozens of books a year – for research, for inspiration, for escape – and it’s difficult to pick only one (or three, or five) that impacted me in some way. That said, a recent novel I thoroughly enjoyed that may not be well-known is A HUNDRED SMALL LESSONS by Australian author Ashley Hay. Her evocative writing and ability to create characters with real depth is so impressive. The story is set in Brisbane and expertly weaves narratives of two women from different generations. Hay drills right down to the emotional core of life – of marriage and careers, parenthood and old age, self-doubt and regret, love and joy. She explores the choices we make, the secrets we keep, the “what ifs” we ponder and, best of all, the wonderful serendipities that make us marvel at life. I also loved how Hay infuses her writing with literary themes that are simply brilliant – from her keen observations of nature and color and light, to her diverse perspectives on family, home and happiness. Hay’s characters lived in my mind long after I turned the final page.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
I’ve earned a living as a writer for more than 30 years. That’s a statement with serious heft, I know. It hasn’t always been easy, but it has always been a blessing. My earliest, foggy memories are of books and words. I’ve always been drawn to them – compelled to gather them, driven to string them together. Some people collect Hummels. Others knit scarves. I collect prose and knit sentences. One of my first big writing assignments was covering a new surgical radiation technique for destroying brain tumors, during which I was permitted to don scrubs and observe from inside the operating room. I was a senior in high school at the time, making four bucks an hour as a freelancer for St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix. It was surreal and thrilling. I dutifully launched into “real” full-time writing jobs for five or six year after that – positions in marketing, communications, publishing. Nights and weekends I pitched article ideas to magazine editors near and far. The variety and freedom of freelancing was simply too remarkable to give up. When I became pregnant with my second child in my late-20s, I quit my day job to freelance full-time, and I never looked back. Not once. The beauty of operating a solo writing business is that your professional journey can zig and zag and traipse many paths. Dozens of magazines, from Business Week to Raising Arizona Kids, sported my byline. Corporate assignments for newsletters, speeches, annual reports and brochures helped pay the mortgage. It was demanding and rewarding. For a change of pace somewhere along the path, I paused to dip my toe in fiction writing. It was brisk and exhilarating. Today, crafting historical fiction about ordinary people who do extraordinary things is what drives me creatively. My debut novel, ALL DIFFERENT KINDS OF FREE, was published in 2011 and awarded the “Freedom in Fiction Prize.” In 2018, PECULIAR SAVAGE BEAUTY was published and named “Arizona Book of the Year.” I’m currently at work on my third novel, and I can’t wait to see where it takes me.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
A visit from out-of-town family and friends almost always includes a happy hour at First Draft Book Bar, where we enjoy a drink from an Arizona winery or brewery while browsing the shelves and talking about books. Just down the road, we fill up on authentic New Mexican cuisine at Los Dos Molinos. The family-owned and operated chain is known for its flavorful recipes crafted with New Mexico chiles that bring the heat. If it’s baseball season, we head downtown for an Arizona Diamondbacks game at Chase Field, with a stop beforehand at Willie’s Taco Joint for a fresh Margarita and award-winning Green Butcher tacos. Visitors are always surprised and impressed by the Musical Instrument Museum; as locals, we discover something new with every visit. A desert hike in the McDowell Mountains, followed by a guided tour at nearby Taliesin West (Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter home established in 1937) also makes for a fabulous day.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
I’m grateful to my mom for instilling in me her love of books and for giving me a copy of E.L. Doctorow’s RAGTIME to read as a teenager. It was the first book that showed me how stories of historical events and real-life people could be intertwined with those of fictional characters. That means the author deserves my thanks, as well. Doctorow’s novel planted a seed in me that took root and grew into a lifelong passion for reading and, ultimately, writing historical fiction.
Book signing photo and Peculiar Savage Beauty book stack: Photography by Pam Murphy