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After editing four fiction anthologies, novelist John McNally crossed over to nonfiction to find out what writers had to say about a truly hard-to-get-over subject. The result: When I Was a Loser: True Stories of (Barely) Surviving High School (Free Press, $15).

Why losers?
John McNally: Although it's kind of tricky to write to people and ask them to write about being a loser, I just think it's a universal subject, however you defined "loserdom" in high school. Once I began approaching certain writers, they seemed really excited about the subject. I think everybody has a good loser story.

Was anybody not up for it?
JM: There was one writer who, I think, was going through a difficult time and was finding as he was writing the essay that he was still, he felt, too close [to the material], even though it was 40 years later, 30 years later.

How do you define loser?
JM: I left it open for [the writers] to define it for themselves. I think what I wanted, for myself, is that moment in which you feel that sort of isolation. But since my own writing has a comic sensibility or an ironic sensibility, that's what I kind of wanted. [And I wanted] enough distance so that you could look at that moment when you felt sort of isolated from your peers or your teachers or your parents with some perspective and some distance, and hopefully with humor and irony.

Did editing the book change your take on the subject?
JM: I think what I liked about putting it together was that each essay kind of complicated the definition.

Why do you like working on anthologies?
JM: In a way, there's a kind of fan quality about it, that I'm a fan of these writers. This is my way of getting word out about them and their work.