Interviews / Novelists

Interview with Meghan Gilliss: “A story tells you whether it demands 500 words or 50,000.”

Meghan Gilliss is a fiction writer whose debut novel Lungfish (Catapult) was a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice, longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, and named a best book of 2022 by Vanity Fair. Her short fiction has appeared in journals like Nat. Brut, Salamander, fields magazine, and others.

She’s worked as a journalist, a bookseller, a public library worker, a COVID-era nursing unit secretary, and currently operates as a program coordinator for a social services non-profit from her home in Portland, Maine, where she lives with her husband and their daughter. She earned her MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars and has been a resident of the Hewnoaks Artist Colony.

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Hi Meghan! We’re delighted to have you as a guest on Famous Writing Routines. How do you think your past experience of studying studio art and photojournalism has influenced your writing career?

I spent a long time thinking about how a story could be told in a single frame, or maybe a few frames. Which is to say, in images. After identifying myself as “an artist” in high school (in Kentucky), I went to the San Francisco Art Institute to study painting and photography. I quickly felt lost.

For whatever reason, I felt that the art we were making was supposed to be declarative of something, rather than exploratory. What did I have to declare, as a very young person trying to pretend I wasn’t experiencing culture shock? I felt very naïve and received the idea that that wasn’t good. I went to see Sebastião Salgado’s “Migrations” exhibit at Berkeley, and it was honestly the first time I realized there was a difference between “fine art” photography and documentary photography.

I realized I was more interested in the latter, in photography as a tool for conveying external truths and stories. So off I went to the University of Missouri at Columbia to study photojournalism instead. It was while studying there that I began to recognize the photographer’s capacity to oversimplify a situation when putting together a traditional “photo story.” You could pick and choose from your negatives to find images that would tell just about any story, with its familiar emotional arc.

It seemed it was too easy to tell a story, but not necessarily the story. Then I started learning about the “photo essay,” which was less conclusive, and relied less on a sense of beginning, middle, and end. An essay allowed questions to exist between the images. An essay admitted that nothing was tidy. 

But after graduation I started working at a newspaper, back in California again, in West Marin County. It was a small paper, meaning that everyone pitched in with everything—so I was writing my own stories. But it was culture shock again, and I didn’t trust my power to perceive the true machinations of the towns and people I was reporting on. It was easy to write a story that hit all the points needed to run in the paper, but I was constantly aware of how much more I didn’t know.

I felt like the platform gave me a power I hadn’t earned. I was 21. But beyond that, it was frustrating. So often, it seemed like the story could be better if so-and-so had just said this instead of that. Like, it would have more aptly revealed what I was beginning to see as an actual truth. Or a truth that was more beautiful, maybe one that went beyond the limits of the situation. One that I wanted to get at. I think this is when I began to think like a fiction writer, imagining things that might have happened, that would have been effective in revealing something I wished to reveal. So that was the path.

But also, journalism exposed me to a lot of situations and people I might not otherwise have had contact with. And I’m so happy, now, to be able to use that knowledge—or the questions that came up—in fiction. It’s been fifteen years since I snuck into a meat processing plant to interview workers, and I’ve just finally planted two of those men in a short story.

I never stop thinking about the ripples (between people, within people) caused when affordable housing gets built in an idyllic liberal enclave—about our capacity to deceive ourselves about who we are, to be many things at once. Journalism taught me a lot about people, and about how guarded we are with our words, how we are generally only trying to display a certain side of ourselves to the world (and even to ourselves); I try to keep these ideas alive in my fiction, a certain dissonance between what is being said and what is being revealed.

And then there’s form: I still think about what fun I had in journalism school, moving selected photos around into different orders and layouts, noticing the emotional nuance that attended each different arrangement. I tend now to think of the sections of a piece of fiction as “plates,” which is so very close to a “frame.” What comes up between the plates? What if these two are next to each other instead of these two? What happens, emotionally, when they’re re-ordered? 

Can you speak to the themes and subjects you explore in your writing, and how they relate to your interest in the rise of the voice of mothers in literature?

Sometimes I worry I’m repeating myself, as certain themes reappear in different stories, and in the novel. But I’m starting to think of these as points of intersection. As touchstones, sort of. There was a stillborn baby in my family, growing up. Dead babies appear in different stories—or the fear of a child dying.

Maybe I’m repeating myself or maybe I’m looking at that situation through different lenses, wondering what it looks like from this perspective versus from this perspective? From over here? The loss of home, financial precarity, a loss of mental footing, a feeling of strandedness in the world, these all reappear in different ways. 

My interest in the rise of mothers has less to do with theme (though I do very much enjoy that parenting, as a subject, now seems to have a place in “serious” literature that it didn’t have before) than with style and form. How does being a mother (or parent) shape your writing and your writing life? Yes, more mothers are getting their books published. But my sense is that they’re not achieving that through the kind of financial support that has historically buffeted writers against the demands of the world.

We’re writing while we’re mothering (and also, usually, working a job or lots of jobs). I find this frustrating, but also, I think the struggle has produced some really beautiful work, as struggle and limitation has always produced beautiful work. When you’re fighting for every minute of writing time that you get, how do you use it differently than you might use time that stretches amply before you? And what forms can your brain manage? (Virginia Woolf did not have children.)

Also, time spent writing also comes with some guilt. I know this is probably not true of all parents, but for most of the mother-writers I speak with, they’re aware of what they’re not doing when they’re writing. So, how do we make it worth it? How do we make sure our writing justifies the time spent on it? I think maybe it makes you hold yourself to a very high standard. Whereas if the writing is not good, if it doesn’t feel important, you’re more likely to just give up. To put it aside. To focus simply on what is already a lot to achieve, which is having a job and raising children and not falling to pieces.

As a parent, having a writing life can be like having your own ship. It can also be like having a leaky ship. It gets tricky.

Your short fiction has appeared in a variety of publications, can you speak to your creative process for writing short fiction versus a novel?

To be honest, it’s much the same, except that of course the novel became much, much harder to keep organized. But really, I approached it the way I’ve approached every story, which is with one sentence, and then another. A story tells you whether it demands 500 words or 50,000. You write to that.

But as with the stories, I wrote without outline, without knowing where it was going, by just trying to answer the demands placed by what was already on the page. In a story you might have one or two threads you need to make sure to pick back up. A novel has many threads, and as you’re moving forward, you just have to make sure you’re not neglecting any of them. I relied a lot on post-it notes, to remind myself of what was planted. And on my editor.

Can you discuss your experience being a resident at the Hewnoaks Artist Colony? How did that influence your writing process?

The gift of a residency, with its expanse of time, is that it allows you to establish really great habits. Maybe once the residency is over you can no longer spend quite that much time writing, but the brain is by then wired for it; if you’ve been applying it almost exclusively toward writing for however long, once you’re back to real life your brain is going to be working on sentences constantly as you go about your business. And you’re just waiting for that free moment to get them on the page.

Hewnoaks in particular is great because you get a very charismatic cabin right on Kezar Lake in a beautiful part of Maine; I really don’t think there’s a single block that a swim there can’t dislodge. Additionally, there’s no internet in the cabins and very little in the way of cell service. You can walk to the main lodge to make a call or check your email or look up some critical piece of information, but for the most part, you’re free from all that.

What was the creative process like for your debut novel, Lungfish?

Messy. I started writing all these tiny pieces that piggy-backed on each other and just had faith that they would accumulate into something bigger. My daughter was very young when I began, and I didn’t have a lot of time. I mean, I had a lot of time to be in my head, but not a lot of time to be actually typing out words.

I carried an image or a situation around in my head until I could steal a few minutes to turn it into something on the Word doc. I’d come home from work with scraps of paper in my pocket with sentences on them, or a piece of dialogue, or just a fact or two about some aspect of the natural world, or something I’d remembered to look up. The initial process was just about managing to get all this stuff into the same document.

Then there was a lot of arranging and rearranging to do, and that demanded a fair amount of re-writing, too, and also brought new possibilities to light, which I wrote to. So, in my perception of it, the novel is full of pieces that came into being out of their own desire to exist, without purpose that was extremely evident to me at the time, and then of pieces that I wrote to help hold them all together and to get the whole thing driving toward something.

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Can you talk about your writing routine? What does a typical day look like for you? 

Maybe this is always true for everyone, but I think when you have a young child (or children), your routine changes week to week as circumstances change. You have to be ready (and hungry) to adapt, to recognize new opportunities. And you have to regularly ask yourself, what am I willing to sacrifice now? 

My routine now that I don’t have a novel in revision and I have child reliably in elementary school and work from home is different than it was when I was trying to finish Lungfish and it was COVID and I was working in a hospital and had a slightly younger version of the same child for whom school was interrupted, which was different than it was when I was beginning Lungfish and had an even younger version of the child in daycare while I worked at the public library, but who would not tolerate being in a room alone, even when (especially when) asleep.

Writing has always been easy enough to do some of per day, even if only for five minutes, even if only in my head (ideally the very early minutes of the morning, before anything else has begun). That adds up. But revising requires you to disappear into a hole for a very long time without needing to come out to see if everyone’s okay. For that, with Lungfish, I took a temporary partial leave of absence from my job, to have a day to myself each week. I was lucky I could do that.

Now I’m back to the cold, dark Maine winter mornings, to see what happens. I’m fully indebted to the Mr. Coffee machine I can set to brew on its own, so there’s coffee waiting for me. I want it while it’s fresh. I was too snobby before, but my neighbor was getting rid of this one, and I plucked it off the curb. I think I owe the entire book to it.

I don’t ever try to write in the evening anymore, even if I think I’m not too tired. I am too tired. It’s better to sleep on whatever might be kicking around up there, then wake up to the gurgle of the machine and do it right. At night, I read. Sometimes I let myself read my own work-in-progress before bed, but resist the temptation to touch it.

I obviously don’t know exactly what goes on in the brain during sleep, but if I’ve done this pre-bed reading, I’ll often wake up knowing exactly what needs to be done, excited to do it. I can’t really read other peoples’ fiction when I have good momentum on a project. I feel horrible about—it’s not that I don’t want to—but I personally need that distance from other peoples’ voices and styles and decisions in order to not feel so much less than them. 

If you could have a conversation with an author throughout history about their writing routine and creative process, who would that person be and why? 

Joy Williams. In part because she was a writer and a mother before a lot of women writers (published ones) were also mothers, and because her work has taken so many different forms (from the very very short stories/amazing acts of compression in Ninety-Nine Stories of God to the longer stories she got her start with, to the novels).

Has her life always dictated her writing, or has her writing dictated her life? What have conditions had to do with form? Because she’s been writing for so many decades, from the time she became a mother to now—when she’s nearly 80—I suspect there’s been a lot of fluidity. I’m less interested in pinpointing cause and effect exactly, than in understanding her relationship to conditions over the years.

I guess that’s because this phase of parenting I’m in right now, as mentioned, offers no consistency—once a routine is established, it’s time to try to carve out a new one. I guess I’d like to know: What got easier when your child became independent? And what got harder? And how did you deal with that? And what do you miss about writing during those early years? When has constraint been your best ally?

What have been some of your favourite reads recently? 

Kick the Latch by Kathryn Scanlan was an absolute powerhouse. And The Nature Book, forthcoming from Tom Comitta, is a joyous invitation to reconsider what a novel can be.

What does your current writing workspace look like?

I have a desk. But it’s in the main part of the house (there’s nowhere else to put it). And as I mentioned, I also work my regular job from home, so it serves as my work desk too. I’ve learned (am learning) to hide all traces of my work life in the evening, so that when I come down in the morning, it’s set up for writing, without imposing any intrusive thoughts. (A glimpse of an unanswered email on the screen of the company-issued iPhone is a death blow.)

The top of my Great Pyrenees’ crate serves as additional table space. My printer is there. The desk and the crate take up most of the room. My view is of my backyard, and when it’s winter, like now, and the foliage is off the trees that enclose it, I can see out into the field beyond it where the city’s public works department stores equipment, but where foxes also slink about.

Then behind that there are some railroad tracks, and a long, low warehouse painted green and decorated with some graffiti. I’m not sure whose property the trees are actually on, but there are a lot of snags, which is great for bird life. Sometimes encampments spring up back there. I value this view—it encompasses a lot but also feels very forgotten—a place where anything can happen. By facing the window, I keep the unkempt house strategically out of sight.

Photo courtesy of the author

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