Author Tom McNeal lectures on love, life and Nebraska

As Judith Whitman reflects on her life, she cannot help but wonder if she has made the right choices. She is 44 years old, married to a good man, and together they have a beautiful, smart teenage daughter. She is successful in her career as a film editor in Los Angeles. Yet, she still thinks about Willy Blunt, a young man she met as a teenager in Nebraska. When she went away to college, she promised to come back to him. She never did. Judith is the protagonist of award-winning author Tom McNeal’s most recent novel, “To Be Sung Underwater.” Released in June of last year, the novel has earned praise from both The New York Times and Los Angeles Times.

“She has what I call a ‘swerve,’ and becomes a little bit troubled with her life,” McNeal said of his main character.

McNeal was the second author to speak at the Santa Monica College Spring Literary Series, sponsored by the SMC Associates and the English department.

“Most of you are faced with some pretty important decisions right now,” said Susan Sterr, chair of the English department, as she introduced McNeal to the audience last Tuesday. “You feel the weight of those decisions because you know that the choice you make is going to create another whole set of circumstances that will shape your life.”

Like Sterr mentioned, many SMC students are in flux, constantly making choices regarding their careers and personal lives that could impact their entire futures.

“The story follows a woman who seems driven to discover what difference another choice might have made in her life,” Sterr said.

McNeal is a Wallace Stegner Fellow and Jones Lecturer at Stanford University. He received the James A. Michener Memorial Prize for his first novel, “Goodnight, Nebraska.” Born and raised in Santa Ana, Calif., he spent parts of his summers in Nebraska at a farm where his mother grew up. Most of his work features Nebraska as an important character.

“[My mother] is a great storyteller, so I was raised with these stories about living in Nebraska,” McNeal said. “When I finally thought that I was ready to write fiction, I wanted to write it with a Nebraska setting.”

To write about Nebraska, McNeal felt he had to experience more than just summers there. Prior to writing “Goodnight, Nebraska,” he moved to a farm outside a small town called Hay Springs, population 680, in attempt to learn as much about Nebraskan life as possible.

“I just threw myself into it,” McNeal said. “I drove the team bus for the high school, I substitute-taught in a one-room schoolhouse for a week, I taught high school the next year, and by gathering those details and meeting those people, I felt like I could provide the kind of context and detail that would make it all credible for the readers.”

Tom McNeal has also co-written four young adult novels and a picture book—all set in Nebraska—with his wife Laura. Though he admits that Nebraska may be a “hard sell,” he makes every effort to make it interesting for the reader.

“In my fiction, again and again, I find myself wanting to know what my primary characters see when they look over their shoulders,” McNeal said. “I want to know where they came from, and usually that means figuring out the relationships that preceded them.”