Meagan Lucas and I are sitting in front of our computers—probably—in separate states and probably on different days, because we're communicating the way we normally do—through Slack. And also because, when you're promoting a debut novel, you ain't got time to waste.
Meagan and I have worked together for nine months now on the masthead of Barren Magazine, and I've learned many things about our Short Fiction Editor, not the least of which is: girlfriend don't mess around.
In addition to her no-nonsense intelligence and intuition, she is one helluva leader. She's also one helluva writer.
I scored an advance reader copy of her debut novel Songbirds and Stray Dogs, about a southern girl who is out of luck and out of her element. I could rhapsodize all about the novel, but that's for another post.
I decided I had to unfold the brain of the author who's been called "a brave new voice in Southern fiction"(Taylor Brown, author of Gods of Howl Mountain), whose voice is "so striking you'll be haunted long after you turn the last page"(Steph Post, author of A Tree Born Crooked).
It's well known that Meagan loves and is influenced by Appalachian literature, the love letters written by her contemporaries in the South. So when—as I was stalking all her interweb pages for this interview—I discovered she was born in Canada, I added that question to the list.
How does life in Northern Ontario differ from Western North Carolina?
As it turns out, there are a number of similarities between St. Joseph Island, where she grew up, and the mountains near Asheville, North Carolina. Meagan talks about the independence of both cultures, of "people who would rather take care of something themselves than rely on someone else, who don't like being told what to do;" the importance of family; an almost "fanatical" love for the rustic beauty of the land; the limited educational, economic, and medical opportunities due to the sparse population; and the young people taking on independence early.
But differences do exist, she says, in the form of religion, gun culture and food, each of which Southerners take far more seriously. Growing up in Northern Ontario she saw more religious diversity, handguns "weren't a thing"and she says the food alone is a reason to live in the South. "My god. I can’t even shrimp and grits," she says. "Fried chicken. Cornbread. Catfish. Biscuits. Barbeque. MMmm. I didn’t eat like this in Canada. Not the quality or the quantity. Southern cooks know what they are doing."
She's hit on my favorite subject: food. Her website says she misses the butter tarts she had in Canada. Butter tarts, people. So of course, the interview proceeds from there:
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What is a butter tart and where can I get one?
A butter tart is Canada’s answer to pecan pie. It’s an individual-sized tart with a pastry crust. The filling is similar to the “goo” in pecan pie—sweet and buttery—it’s a translucent egg custard. BUT—although you can put pecans in your butter tart if you’re a weirdo—the best ones have raisins. If you want one, come over, I’ll bake. The best ones I’ve ever eaten have been made by Brian P. at Ann’s Café in Richards Landing, Ontario (I used to waitress there), or by Debbie T., a family friend, and for those you’re going to need a passport.
How do the differences between Ontario and North Carolina influence her writing?
I haven’t lived in Canada in nearly 15 years, and I’ve lived in Western North Carolina for ten. I don’t know that Canadians want to claim me anymore. As an adopted Southerner, I feel like I’m in a special position to write about it. I live here. I’m of here—now. This is my home. I participate, I watch, and I listen. My children have Southern accents. But I don’t have the weight of the history on me the same way people who were raised here do. In some ways that’s freeing—I’m not worried about pissing off my kindergarten teacher or my great uncle by being critical of a Southern institution. I’m very careful when I write not to fall into the traps that people who aren’t from somewhere can—stereotypes, pity porn, easy answers, etc. There is a reason that Jolene [the heroine from Songbirds and Stray Dogs] isn’t from the mountains, more than just plot points—I wanted to explore what it's like for someone to move here; I wanted to share that experience with someone.
The first story I ever wrote was a mystery called "Max Catcher and the Eye Spy Detective Agency," and all manuscripts have been thoroughly destroyed. Can you tell us about the first thing you ever wrote?
I’m not sure about short stories, but the first novel manuscript I finished was called Jane and it was embarrassingly terrible but a terrific learning experience. Let’s just say there were gangsters and a very long car trip (the entire thing took place in a car—every single scene), and my critique group at the time had the most patient and kind people in the world.
Do you have any hobbies?
If so, how do they influence your writing?
I’m a wife, a mom to two smallish children (eight and six), I teach English at a technical community college part-time, and like you I’m an editor at a lit mag (yay, Barren!) Writing is my hobby. Ha! Kidding aside, I’m a reader—about a book a week—this year my goal is 60 titles. I’m a wannabe gardener. I like to bake. My husband and I like to find new restaurants. We also have a little lake place in the upstate of South Carolina and I spend as much time there looking at the lake as I can. I hope that all this reading makes me a stronger writer. I think it makes me more aware of clichés and pitfalls than I would be otherwise. Maybe some of the good writing rubs off on me. I think you can tell, reading my work, that I like to eat too; I include a lot of food detail and often my characters like to bake. [Yes—if you read Songbirds, she'll have you pining for plates of bacon and eggs.]
You've had several short stories published. Which was your favorite and why?
I think it’s a tie between “Kittens” [winner of the Scythe Prize for Story] and “Voluntary Action” [nominated for a Pushcart prize and Judge's Choice Finalist in Still: The Journal's 2018 fiction contest] because I really like to write about complicated women, and I think both of those stories were successful at that. Both protagonists feel whole to me; they’re aren’t someone you want to be friends with, but their actions are understandable and their circumstances pull at the reader’s guts. Nothing makes me angrier than flat characters—particularly shallow women. Both stories also address issues in our culture I think don’t get enough attention: addiction and poverty.
What is the most challenging part of writing for you? What is your favorite part?
Right now, it’s finding the time. Marketing a book is consuming. Usually the most challenging part for me is knowing when a piece is “done.” I don’t think they ever really are—just abandoned. Even now, as I edit the galleys of Songbirds, I found things I would change: sentences and details I didn’t like that I wish I could fix; my reading copy is filled with pencil scratches. I usually work on something until it makes me bonkers, and then I put it away for a while—a week, a month—and keep revisiting it until I can endure the idea of someone else reading it. Only then does it end up in some fiction editor’s slush pile.
My favorite part is that moment you think of the perfect detail to pull your outline together, that one piece that makes your whole story work. No wait—scratch that—my very favorite part is reading my own work and discovering a line that makes me catch my breath.
I just read two breathtaking essays you wrote for One Year of Letters, and I was blown away by how candid and compassionate these pieces were. You just had another piece published; can you tell us about that and where to find it?
I have a little creative nonfiction piece at Tiny Essays called “Self Care.” It’s about those foot peel booties, but also a whole lot more. It was really cathartic to write. I’ve struggled with body image over the course of my life, and frankly still do, but I think it’s a topic ripe for creative nonfiction because while we don’t talk about it, I think it’s something a lot of people can relate to. It also touches on the idea of change, of starting over, which is something that can be very hard—for me because I don’t often give myself permission to let something go. Even if I know it isn’t in my best interest. I’m really pleased with how the piece turned out.
Sending it out, though, well, that feels an awful lot like being naked in public. Fiction allows me to explore ideas in what feels like a safe manner. Songbirds and Stray Dogs addresses ideas of religious hypocrisy, abuse of power, believing victims, what makes a family, abuse and addiction, and in fiction I can probe those at a distance without putting a magnifying glass on myself personally. Fiction allows you to use lies to get to a bigger truth. Creative nonfiction is a whole different beast. I’ve had the pleasure of coming across a personal essay or nonfiction piece exactly when I needed it. Sometimes knowing you’re not the only one who feels the way you do makes all the difference. When I write nonfiction I try to be as honest as I can and still survive it. I owe a great debt to Charlotte Hamrick for helping me shape “Self Care” and giving me the confidence to submit it.
Writers have all kinds of traditions, processes, and work ethics. Give us an idea of a day in the life of Meagan Lucas as writer.
When I’m working at my best, I’m in a routine. I used to get up really early before my kids were up (I prefer to write in the morning); most of Songbirds was written between 5 a.m. and 6:30 a.m., but now they're both in school I have the ability find some quiet during the day. I have a study in our house, filled with my favorite things—plants, books, candles, my desk and computer. I usually write on my computer when I’m home alone. If I’m trying to write at our lake place, or outside, or outline a new story, I love a Moleskine XL soft cover journal (I have a pile of them). I always outline on paper. I usually play music low—I like what one of our Barren submitters referred to as “divorced dad” music. (Gregory Allen Isakov, The National, Lord Huron, Bon Iver, the Lumineers, Joe Purdy, Jesse Marchant). I don’t like overhead light. I always have a beverage. Our friend Dr. McAdams has pointed out on many occasions that beverage is usually wine (it is), but also coffee. I love coffee. And my dog, Lincoln—an English Bulldog/Pug mix is on my feet. I wish I could hold myself to a “can’t move until” word count. But for me it’s all about time—squeezing in a moment here a minute there—there is never enough.
What is your ultimate goal for your writing?
David Foster Wallace says that good fiction should “comfort the disturbed, and disturb the comfortable,” and I’d say I feel similarly. More than anything I want people to understand that whatever they’re feeling, they’re not alone. All this human stuff we’re ashamed of, afraid of, hiding—we are all the same. I want to connect with people. There is nothing I like more than a reader saying they saw themselves in my work, or that it meant something to them.
If you could liken your style of writing to any other author's, who might you say your style is similar to?
I don’t know that I can compare my work to anyone famous, but I can tell you what I admire in writers who influence me:
Flannery O’Connor—her honesty.
Dorothy Allison—her fearlessness.
Ron Rash—his connection to the landscape, his ability to put you in his setting with only
Cormac McCarthy—his rejection of filler, his confidence in his reader to figure it out.
Ernest Hemingway—subtlety, the ability to say so much with so little.
David Joy—the beauty of his sentences, and his heart for rural Southern Appalachia.
Gabino Iglesias—his commitment to point at issues of social justice and not blink.
And, so, so, so many more. Lee Smith. Silas House. George Singleton. etc.
When writers make their stories as authentic as possible, their browser history can be somewhat . . . alarming. What is the strangest thing you've ever had to research for a story?
I’ve researched: how long it would take a pig carcass to rot in a well; what takes place during an exorcism; how to administer naxolone; and an obscene amount of stuff about drowning (I might have an obsession). I’ve also asked my husband enough questions about guns—how they work, how they sound, how they would feel in my hands—that he’s probably a little nervous.
Often when I'm feeling burned out, I turn to my guilty-pleasure reading pile. Do you have any guilty-pleasure reading? Do tell.
I do! I love thrillers—you know, the kind that have “girl” in the title and seem to be designed to keep you flipping pages. I also went through a vampire period that started with the Twilight series, moved through everything Charlaine Harris has written, and on to Anne Rice. I think it’s out of my system now.
You can only have one type of appetizer, one dessert, and one wine for the rest of your life. Which kinds do you choose?
Appetizer—some kind of fried cheese. I prefer a burrata, but how picky can you be about fried cheese? Dessert—Rum Cherry ice cream from Cinnamon Bear in Harbor Town on Hilton Head Island. I call it Pirate Cherry and can’t possibly get enough of it the one week a year I spend on Hilton Head Island. Wine—I like a Gewürztraminer for every day, a nice blend of sweet and tart. Frankly, I buy most of my wine at Aldi. But when I’m celebrating, Vietti Cascinetta Moscato d'Asti is the one I want.
But if I’m being completely honest—I’m doing the keto diet right now and was feeling pretty good until yesterday when the dress that I had made for my book launch party arrived in the mail, and it just barely fits if I don't breathe, and I realize that there is no fried anything, no dessert, and no wine for me for the next month, at least.
Now you're stuck on a desert island—with a fabulous entertainment system, obviously—and can only take one movie, one book, and one album. Which do you choose?
Movie—Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Album—Foy Vance Live at Bangor Abbey, but only if I can also add his “She Burns,” which is the song I wish desperately was written about me. Book—Jesus, this is like choosing between my children—Flannery O’Connor: The Complete Stories.
Right. So now Imma go have sympathy-not-wine, sympathy-not-fried-things and sympathy-not-dessert while reading the copy of The Complete Stories I just nabbed from the library.
Read my review of Songbirds and Stray Dogs or pre-order Meagan's debut novel through the publisher or through Malaprop's. For a taste of her writing, check out her portfolio, or connect with her on the following platforms: