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NIU English instructor’s fiction makes ‘Best American Short Stories’ for 2014

October 17, 2014
English instructor and noted author Molly McNett offers constructive criticism to NIU student Savanna Robles.

English instructor and noted author Molly McNett offers
constructive criticism to NIU student Savanna Robles.

NIU students taking fiction and First Year Composition classes taught by English instructor Molly McNett can be assured of this: They’re learning from one of the nation’s best writers.

McNett has proven time and time again that she’s the real deal. Now the award-winning short-fiction author has yet another national recognition to add to her collection.

Her short story, “La Pulchra Nota,” is being published this month in “The Best American Short Stories 2014,” an anthology featuring contemporary American masters of the form, including Joyce Carol Oates.

“Publication in these annual collections is reserved for the very best short story authors,” English Chair Amy Levin says. “Students in our First Year Composition and creative writing programs are truly fortunate to be taught by a writer of Molly McNett’s caliber.”

Entries into “The Best American Short Stories 2014” anthology were selected by best-selling author Jennifer Egan, who won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for “A Visit from the Goon Squad.”

Egan cites McNett’s story in her forward to the anthology.

“If there was a single factor that decided whether a story ended up in my ongoing pile of contenders, it was its basic power to make me lose my bearings, to envelop me in a fictional world,” Egan wrote. “In the case of Molly McNett’s ‘La Pulchra Nota,’ that world unfolds in the year 1399, when a devout singing teacher named John Fuller narrates his own mystical, heartbreaking downfall.”

Book cover of The Best American Short Stories 2014“La Pulchra Nota,” which translates to “the beautiful note,” is about a 14th century musician in England who falls in love with his singing pupil’s voice.

“I was working on this idea as a modern short story, because I sang in high school, but it felt a little light and silly to me,” says McNett, who has been teaching at NIU since 2001.

“So I went to the NIU music library and got some books about vocal teaching, including its history,” she adds. “That’s where I found the work of a music theorist called Jerome of Moravia, who wrote that one should teach by aspiration to the perfect note, or ‘La Pulchra Nota.’ So I decided to set the story in a time when this idea might be used.”

“La Pulchra Nota” also was chosen for the 2015 Pushcart Prize series, a prestigious anthology which features the “best of the small presses” and will be published later this month.

McNett’s previous works of fiction also received critical praise.

Her book, “One Dog Happy,” won the John Simmons Award for short fiction from the University of Iowa Press, and her other work has appeared in anthologies, such as The Best American Nonrequired Reading, edited by Dave Eggers. McNett also has won fellowships from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she earned an MFA, as well as from the MacDowell Colony.


McNett, who also holds a master’s degree in linguistics from NIU, grew up on a cattle farm in Oregon, Ill., and lives not far from her childhood home with husband, Dan Libman, who is also an NIU English instructor, and their two children. At NIU, she teaches four sections of First Year Composition courses two days a week, as well as a fiction class each spring.

“She is a gifted and inspirational writer, a humble scholar and an unassuming, kind instructor,” says Teresa Phillips, an alumnus who took a fiction-writing workshop with McNett in 2012.

Molly McNett

Molly McNett

“She provided excellent source materials for modeling and pushed us to try new voices in our writing,” Phillips says. “While she was quick to point out the strengths of our pieces, she was equally relentless in helping us see where we could improve. What I most appreciate is that I felt safe exploring my craft and taking risks with my own writing. She treated us as if we were already professionals.”

McNett says she enjoys her work, both in the classroom and at home, where she tries to write daily.

“It’s easy to teach something I love,” she says. “And I feel fortunate to have a job that allows me time to write. But writing keeps you pretty isolated sometimes, and I enjoy the company of my students a couple days a week – I genuinely like them.”

She adds that there are other perks to working at NIU.

“Maybe the most helpful thing is that my job comes with library privileges, and I can’t say enough about all of our librarians here at NIU,” McNett says. “They’re knowledgeable and extremely helpful, and I feel really lucky to have had their help on the last few pieces I’ve worked on.”