August 21, 2020 |

Our Conversation with Megan Giddings

Megan Giddings is the author of Lakewood (Amistad, 2020) and her stories have appeared in Black Warrior Review, Arts & Letters, Gulf Coast, and The Iowa Review. Her story “Displacement” appears in our spring 2020 issue. She is a Visiting Professor at Michigan State University, a fiction editor at The Offing, and a senior features editor at The Rumpus.

This interview has been lightly edited.

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell me a bit about how you first started writing?

MEGAN GIDDINGS

In general, I never really considered how much I write. I went to a private Catholic school when I was really young, and one of the teachers had us journal every day, starting in first grade. Those are some of my earliest memories from school. It made me never question that writing was a part of my life because I was always doing it. Every single day I was in school, there was an hour where I would just write and draw. [Laughs] I still have some of those, and it was not deep, but it’s still something that I think I’ll be forever grateful for because it never made me feel like writing was hard. It made me feel like, Oh, this is just a thing that you do. Those slowly became places where I would start getting bored with writing about my life, and so I would start writing stories and poems.

As a more professional writer, I was a poetry major in undergrad. I realized near the end of my time that I wasn’t very interested in writing poems anymore. I was into stories. Because I had no plan yet, I applied for MFAs. I didn’t get into any of them. I kept thinking, Oh no, what am I going to do next? But it was probably one of the best things that happened to me. I started reading more intensively, I made time to write, I started taking it much more seriously, and not taking it for granted. Eventually, I did go get an MFA. But first, I worked and I did a lot of things that made it, I think, a much healthier experience for me than going right after college.

INTERVIEWER

What has kept you sticking with writing, especially after the possibly daunting feeling of not knowing what to do next with it?

GIDDINGS

I think it was because I was just writing to please myself. When I talk to my students, I try to get them to realize that their best audience is truly themselves. If you aren’t writing for yourself and you aren’t thinking deeply or writing things that are interesting to you, then even if you get all the cookies, like publishing a book, it still won’t be satisfying. It will still always be in pursuit of someone else’s gaze and feelings.

That’s another reason why I think it was a gift for me to do my MFA later. I didn’t have to think about anybody else. I realized that I was writing just for me, and it was freeing. It took a while to get there, and I don’t think I wrote anything more than a journal entry or a few ideas for about eight months after I graduated. Then, suddenly, I wanted to start writing again. It was still years before I decided, Okay, now I’m going to try and do this thing.

INTERVIEWER

What surprises you the most about your writing?

GIDDINGS

I think I’m always surprised. I’m one of those people who’s a slow processor. I never really know what’s going on inside, and then I read stories that I’ve just written or revised and I realize that I’m actually thinking deeply about something that happened five years ago. I realize that I’m still upset about this thing, or that I still don’t understand it. It’s never one of those things where I can exactly put the pieces together, but it’s that slant emotional feeling. Deep down, I know this is what I’m thinking about and that it’s coming out in this story.

INTERVIEWER

That’s so interesting, because I’m also a very slow processor. I think that’s part of the reason why I write, too — it unearths the stuff that’s been resting inside of me. I think that process really contributes to what makes your writing so breathtaking. The emotions in “Displacement” are so poignant and powerful. I was especially interested in that piece because the truth at hand is unknown, both to the reader and to Renata, the main character. What was it like to write a story where the truth is so fuzzy?

GIDDINGS

You don’t think that’s how we live every day, though? I guess the older I get — and I’m not even that old yet — but I guess the more time that I’m an adult, the more I see that things aren’t rigid. Things are rarely as we see them in the moment. They’re usually much more complex, and there’s usually a root to it. The only thing that sometimes brings honesty or truth is time. In some ways, it’s very pleasurable to realize that time is the only thing that will give you the distance and ability to understand something. Yet, I’m still deeply impatient, and I just want to know everything all the time. I don’t think this is just true to my work. This is at the heart of what a lot of contemporary writing is getting to.

I’m more likely to question any writing now that can write with absolute certainty about an event. I guess the pleasure of third-person point of view might be that someone can give you certainty. They can tell you what’s going on. But more and more, I think that’s a lie. Especially right now. I mean, maybe if this was a different 2020, I wouldn’t feel so adamantly about that. Especially right now, though, I feel like I don’t know anything. No one ever knows everything.

INTERVIEWER

It becomes even more evident as the days go on that we don’t really know what’s happening.

GIDDINGS

I mean, I don’t at all condone the bad behavior that a lot of people are showing, but it’s a temper tantrum. It’s the type of thing that a lot of people did as kids when things were uncertain and they didn’t understand what was going on. They don’t have to be assholes, but I also understand that it’s kind of a natural human trait. You’re lost and confused, so you lash out.

INTERVIEWER

Right. It’s a response to this fear of not knowing. That’s so interesting, and it’s why I think that writing from a place of uncertainty and the unknown is so important. It demonstrates to people that we don’t need to have all the answers. We have to sit in that uncertainty if we want to keep moving and figure out what’s happening.

Speaking of time, what has been your experience writing novels versus short stories? I’m sure you spend more time with a novel and with those characters.

GIDDINGS

[Laughs] You know, that’s not actually entirely true! One of the strangest things about this year for me was that I published my novel, and that took about five years, but I also published a short story that took me seven years to write and revise and get published. It all happened in the same month, and it was a very strange feeling. In some ways, it hurt a little more to let go of the short story than it did the novel. I knew going into the novel that it would be a big project that would take me years.

With all the revisions and twists and turns with the short story, I think I mourned that a little more than letting go of the novel. There was always one constant — and it was that I could not figure out this short story or how it worked. Then, suddenly, it turned out that I could. It snapped into place. I think it was proof that I had changed enough to be able to write it.

The other thing that writing does is let you get a measure of yourself. You start to get the measure of how much you’ve changed, your perspectives, or how willing you are to see things. You can see it just through your drafts and the process. I think sometimes that’s why novel writing can be so hard.

Sometimes the decisions you made a year ago have changed. You’ve changed so much. You think, Why would I ever think that or do that?

INTERVIEWER

Yes, exactly. That’s fascinating that you hold something with you until it clicks into place and you’re ready to write it. How do those ideas usually come to you?

GIDDINGS

I’m a question person. I love to eavesdrop. It’s so interesting to me. My dad and I are both eavesdroppers, and we used to listen and talk through what we were hearing. We’d say, Alright, what do you think is happening here? What do you think is going on at home? And then we would start speculating. Each question led to something else. It’s the same process for me with writing, where I wonder, What does this mean?

The bigger question for me now is, Why am I so interested in this? Why can’t I let it go? What is at the heart of this moment that is so deeply interesting to me? What am I trying to get to the roots of? That usually spurs me to keep writing or even make me start writing.

INTERVIEWER

Do you find that there are certain patterns to what you’re interested in?

GIDDINGS

Sometimes, yes. I think I’m really interested lately in the different ways that people are trying to express themselves. Maybe this is Midwestern, but there’s so much sideways talking that used to happen. I feel like lately, people are talking to each other differently. Before, it would take a while to get to the root of what someone actually wanted to talk about. I feel like with the pandemic and trying to be socially conscious and being isolated from one another, people are getting to the point much more. There’s less of a contrivance. It doesn’t have to be someone saying, Oh, I have a question or Could I ask a favor? It becomes, I’m lonely and I want to see you, or I miss you, and I’m worried about you. There’s no veil. It’s less hoops. I’m really interested in that.

I’m also interested in questions in general. More and more, I distrust criticism. I think criticism without a question can really kill a writer’s work. When I teach a workshop, I have the class ask questions instead, but not just the general ones about whether or not the story makes sense. I also ask them what they wanted to know. What made you pause? What do you think is thematically happening here? Then, we ask the writer those questions too, to get them to talk about it. I think it changes it from being flat to being something that can unlock ideas for the writer too, when they’re asked a truly good question about their work or thoughts. The most poignant things I’ve heard in a workshop are usually when the writer comes to a realization about what they’re thinking.

INTERVIEWER

Definitely. I feel like that’s what keeps the spark alive. Especially when talking about how people have been communicating differently because of the pandemic, that creates a great question. Has the pandemic changed your writing or your writing process at all?

GIDDINGS

For a long while, from about March to June, I barely wrote. In some ways, I expected that I wouldn’t. Everyone had warned me that with a book coming out, you feel stuck in the old book. At least, you hopefully keep talking about it and paying attention to it. But no one really prepared me for how ambivalent I would feel about writing a book immediately after publishing one. It’s a natural period. You see the inside of the business part, and not the art or the fun of it. Having a conversation about sales or what you should do on social media kind of destroys the fun of it. You also need space as a writer to actually write. Then all of this happened… and I have a really bad time writing during emotional upheavals.

[Laughs] I don’t know why I’m laughing other than for the reason that I’m still so annoyed I can’t do it. I wish I could be one of those people who could. One of my friends, if she goes through something, she’s up by six in the morning, drinking a cup of tea and journaling.

INTERVIEWER

That’s amazing.

GIDDINGS

Yeah. I need to watch trash movies. I need to process. I need a lot of things. So, it took me a lot of time to write. The other part of it was that I did need to think about the way the world has changed a little bit. It’s really hard to figure out how much of the world can be inside your book. You want to write about life and living, but you can still find a sort of timelessness in fiction. You don’t have to say, This is the day that Donald Trump was elected president, because it changes the whole book for a reader. But how far away can you write from our lived emotions? Or our lived experiences and overall feeling?

INTERVIEWER

Definitely, it really is a difficult balance to provide an escape, but also to keep your work rooted in what feels real. It’s like pulling back the curtain on what’s familiar to show all the things that are happening underneath. In Lakewood, I know you’re dealing with some of these very big, real things, like healthcare, insurance, debt, and the injustices that Black people have been historically and rather recently facing when being exploited in medical experiments. Can you tell me about your experience with writing that?

GIDDINGS

I think I wrote a lot of Lakewood very angrily. In the news right now, you might have read about how an elected official is talking about slavery in reference to The 1619 Project. He approached the question of slavery and addressed whether or not it was a necessary evil. He phrased it that way. It’s not subtext there. I think for a lot of people, though, inequity is the subtext. Because of the way our country works with capitalism, there’s always going to be someone who has to be exploited. I think this is what a lot of American art is trying to reckon with at the moment. How do we relate to other people if we’re also being encouraged to exploit other people? What does it mean to be a moral person under this system?

So, I was writing because I’m angry at how much of our culture is built on the idea that you have to get ahead no matter what. You have to be successful. And we don’t really — at least in my experience — we don’t talk about the ethics of what it means to be a person who has to get ahead. What happens when we start thinking about what we actually have to do and give up, and who we’ll have to be, to become “successful” in this country? I think we all have a different definition.

I was thinking a lot about that. So many things that aren’t slavery have been covered up, on every level. We can talk about education. We don’t have a well-educated populus, even though education is the ideal of a society. The way we have it set up right now, it mimics capitalism. If you have access to money, you get a better education, and that perpetuates the system where you need connections and you need money. Even the root of our medical care is unequal. I can’t say that it’s fully a Black experience because we could look at it in so many intersectional ways based on gender, based on class status. Also, while reading about medical experimentation and Tuskegee, which is maybe the most famous one in this context, I learned that the Black airmen got an official apology, but there were Indigenous and Native men who got no apology or recognition for what they gave. I think that’s also why I wasn’t comfortable having only Black characters in the experiments in Lakewood, because I think that if we stay static and think of diversity or racism as only this one thing, we’ll stagnate.

There’s an idea that has been really helpful for me as I wrote Lakewood, but also just in general. In every fraught interaction, there’s this level of power and oppression. And there’s so many different forms of oppression, it doesn’t only mean being stamped down. Oppression in our society comes just from being outside the norms. So, being a woman, in general, you’ve probably experienced oppression in some way, even just from something as small as your school’s dress code. You are the unfair subject of oppression because a teenage boy can’t handle seeing just one extra inch of your shoulder.

When I started thinking of these issues like that — as issues where there’s always someone whose comfort, education, or safety is valued over yours simply because you don’t have the thing that society wants you to have — it made me think not so narrowly about what it means to be a person. It made me think a lot about how I could write this book that might speak for many people, hopefully, but would also get towards more of the nuances and complications of being a Black woman in the United States.

INTERVIEWER

Absolutely. Now, you mentioned that you did a lot of reading for this book, and I saw that you also enrolled in a contact lens study for your research about medical studies and experiments. Can you tell me about that experience?

GIDDINGS

I did a lot of them. The initial ones gave me a sense of what it felt like to just be a research subject. Then, a new person became in charge, and she ended up becoming one of my really good friends. She’s great, but I think both experiences were necessary. During the first studies, there was a moment when you as a subject weren’t allowed to touch the contacts for the experiment. One of the researchers had to remove them from your eye while wearing gloves. It became this situation where I was so uncomfortable — I have really dry eyes, and the contacts were stuck. After a couple of tries, I told her, “I can’t do this. This is freaking me out.” And she said, “Well, you have to.”

She was frustrated too. It was one of these weird times where I was there at midnight because I had to wear contacts for twelve hours. We were in this deserted building, and I was just exhausted, and she was exhausted. She was holding my head and trying to get contacts out of my eyes. It became this very uncomfortable thing.

I think the big difference from that to then working with Dr. Reed, who I love, is that Dr. Reed explained everything to me. She made sure that I understood. Ethically, she’s supposed to do that. You have to understand all parts of the experiment to be able to fully give consent. There are parts you can’t know because it would ruin the experiment, but you do have to know about anything that could actually put you at risk or could injure you in any way. She was clear about those things. She would also talk through every part of it, if you wanted to know. Some of that, I think, was that she was just excited that someone wanted to listen.

But, it helped my research a lot to see someone who was really good at their job, and ethical, and came through as a person. She was engaged in making sure that she saw every single person, versus the very negative experience I had at the beginning of doing this.

INTERVIEWER

For the discomfort part, like if those contacts really wouldn’t come out of your eyes, does that discomfort count as putting someone at risk, medically? Is that something that they would have to explain?

GIDDINGS

I’m going to guess, no, because it was an unforeseen thing. I don’t think they expected that my eye would be so dry and that the research contact would be so gummy. But still, the nature of consent is really important to me in Lakewood. I am really interested in what it means to actually be able to consent to something. I think the limit for me is, Will this physically harm me? I’m an adult, and I understand that with consent, you can’t predict the emotions a person is going to have. But there is something to be said about physical harm, and also deliberate emotional harm. You should be able to know about that before you consent.

INTERVIEWER

Absolutely. It makes me think of what we were saying about capitalism and what it takes to get ahead. I know that the Biology majors at my university take a BioEthics class for this reason, but I don’t know if there’s an Econ Ethics class.

GIDDINGS

I think even a good writing class should get into the ethics of writing, but I don’t know how many of them do. The most charged conversations we had in my MFA were about who gets to tell each story. Who has the right? It was very divisive. I would say that half my classmates had never considered that there were some stories they shouldn’t write, and then the other half of us kept asking, well, why do you get to tell this story? Why do you feel comfortable? This isn’t your life. What are you adding? How are you helping other people? And I think that’s a question that creative writing needs to reckon with. I think the way that everything is set up, it privileges a certain viewpoint. Even during the workshop, you’re quiet. You don’t talk. I think that’s set up mostly for an idealized male student from fifty years ago. And now the world is changed, and the way that we’re trying to talk to each other is changed too. Economists, writers — we all need to think about how we might potentially hurt someone else.

INTERVIEWER

Exactly. It’s so important to examine those questions before you send something out into the world. Thank you so much for meeting with me, Megan. This was absolutely wonderful.

GIDDINGS

Your questions were great. Thank you for being so thoughtful, I really appreciate it. It was nice talking with you.

Sarah Hume is a Junior at Denison University, where she studies International Studies and Narrative Journalism. Photo courtesy of David Cornwell; view more of his work on Flickr.