Meghan Kenny’s stories have appeared in literary journals including The Gettysburg Review, Cincinnati Review, Hobart, The Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. She was awarded the 2005 Iowa Review Award, and was the 2008-2009 Tickner Fellow at the Gilman School, a Bernard O’Keefe Scholar at Bread Loaf, a Peter Taylor Fellow at The Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop, and a Tennessee Williams Scholar at Sewanee Writers’ Conference. LSU Press published her short story collection, Love Is No Small Thing, in March, and her debut novel, The Driest Season, is forthcoming from W.W. Norton in 2018. She currently teaches at Lancaster Country Day School in Pennsylvania and for Gotham Writers’ Workshop online.
Curtis Smith: Congratulations on Love is No Small Thing. This is your first book, correct? I’m always interested in that journey. Can you tell us how Love came about?
Meghan Kenny: It is my first book. Many of the stories began in the late 1990s and early 2000s when I was in graduate school at Boise State University, where I studied fiction writing with Robert Olmstead and Mitch Wieland. I had a draft of this collection done ten years ago, but when I queried at least twenty agents, they all wrote back saying they liked my writing but wanted to see a novel. So I set the stories aside and began a novel in 2007, which took me six years to write. I also kept writing stories, many of which made their way into the collection. In 2013, I went back out to query agents with both books, and I landed my first choice, a wonderful agent, and I thought that things would be smooth sailing, but that wasn’t the case. The two books are very different and it was a tough market. We sent the books around as a package for over a year, but no one was interested, not the big houses, not the smaller houses, not the independents. In the fall of 2015, I was back to sending the books out on my own again to contests and smaller presses, and to anyone who would read them. Michael Griffith, who edits the Yellow Shoe Fiction Series at LSU Press, accepted Love Is No Small Thing in February of 2016, and it was published in March of 2017. I also sold my novel, The Driest Season, in September of 2016 to Starling Lawrence at W.W. Norton, and that book comes out in early 2018. So, from start to publication, the collection took almost twenty years, and the novel about eleven. Thankfully, my stubborn persistence paid off in the end, but I need some lessons on how to work faster and more efficiently.
CS: The title story examines a failing relationship—and interwoven in it are a series of wonderful visuals—mysterious, fire-throwing neighbors, elk in a frozen lake. And speaking of wonderful images, I loved the ballerinas falling from the sky to end “All These Lovely Boys.” What comes to you first—the situation that will be the story’s central element or the images that speak to the story’s undercurrents in another kind of language? What are the challenges of weaving them together?
MK: A lot of different things work for me in starting a story, but it usually comes in the form of something concrete rather than conceptual. I never plan or outline; I write forward on instinct and revise later. It’s a see what happens way of writing, and while it can be painstakingly slow and messy, that’s my process. I’m not organized or disciplined enough for outlines. For the title story, the situation came first: I was drawn to the absurdity of being in costumes on Halloween night when the narrator finds out her long-time boyfriend had cheated on her, blowing up so much of what she hoped for and wanted—a committed partner, a baby, to make a life with another. The elk bit was from a local Boise news story I’d seen, and I wanted to work it in because of the haunting image of these huge animals walking over thin ice unknowingly to their death, making the same bad decision over and over again, much like the narrator did with her crappy boyfriend.
“All These Lovely Boys” came from a summer writing workshop prompt where I’d been given two photographs from a magazine: one of a man dressed as a female ballerina wearing a wig, sparkly eye mask, and with a penciled in mole, and another photo of a camera man and lighting man. The goal was to figure out how these people would end up in a story together, and this story was the result. Both stories, along with a few others in the collection, are set in Idaho, where I lived for seven years—it’s a beautiful and dramatic landscape that was foreign to me as a New Englander— the high desert, foothills, rivers, and mountains worked their way into me.
CS: I’m also always intrigued by point of view, and in Love, you have stories written in first, second, and third person. At what point of the process does pov make itself known? Do you imagine it from the beginning in a certain voice—or does it evolve with the story itself?
MK: I think “How Far to Go” was my one requisite second person story after reading Lorrie Moore. Second person gets a bad rap, which is unfortunate. I’m fond of that story, and I love the energy of the second person, but I don’t think I’ve ever written another story in second person. I usually write in first or a close third. I feel most connected with a character that way. When I started writing I was exclusively first person, and I love the intimacy of first person, but over the years I’ve felt more comfortable with third person and the room it allows a narrative. I’ve found, though, that my content dictates my form, and so I tend to go with what feels right for the characters and the story itself.
CS: In “These Things Happen,” we’re dropped into an awkward then oddly threatening conversation between two older men. I’m drawn to stories that walk that fine line of suspense and normality, and this piece had a very quiet yet distinct ratcheting of stakes as the story went on. As you wrote this piece, how conscious were you of the element of tension and what strategies did you employ to pull off something so compact yet powerful?
MK: The element of tension was always the driving force of this story from the second Frank Farinella knocked on the window of the diner. I wanted George to feel threatened and uncomfortable, and be pushed out of his comfort zone. I don’t think I was aware of employing strategies while writing—this was the only story I’ve ever written in a day (because I had a workshop deadline) and barely changed at all afterward, but I had been reading a lot of Tobias Wolff stories at the time, where there are threatening conversations between men, I’m thinking of “Bullet In The Brain” and “Hunters in the Snow,” and it likely rubbed off on me. When I put these two men head-to-head and kept the banter moving forward, it helped to create that tension with a hint of danger. I love the juxtaposition of the mundane and weird in stories, the familiar and unfamiliar, because that’s how I experience the world. There’s so much absurdity in the mundane, beautiful, and tragic moments of our lives, and there are so many strange and unexpected ways we come to have a better understanding of ourselves and the world around us, and in this story, for George, that came in the form of a strange run-in with Frank at the diner that made him sit up and pay attention.
CS: There is a lot of love in these stories—sometimes true, sometimes tarnished, sometimes unrequited—but always present, if somewhat mysterious and coded in a way as unique as our fingerprints. Was the overreaching theme of love on your mind from the beginning? Did it creep up as you started amassing stories or did you realize only after you stepped back from the project and considered it as a whole?
MK: It crept up on me, for sure. Each story was written without the intention of theme or linking a collection. The stories were written over so much time, and came from such different places and states of mind, I didn’t consider how they would work in a book until much later. I simply wanted to write good stories that could stand on their own. It was much later that I realized my writing kept coming back to love in its various forms, and I later worked on choosing stories and ordering them in a way that might hold a collection together around the theme of love.
CS: Are you an everyday writer? Do you have a personal routine—time, place, atmosphere?
MK: I am not an everyday writer. I do carry around a notebook and try to write at least a page or two almost every day, but teaching full time at an independent school, teaching fiction online for Gotham Writers’ Workshop part-time, and tutoring on the side keeps me busier than I’d like, and I’m not a morning person, so getting up at 4am to write sounds awful. If I have a story or project going, I’m better at carving out time after work or during weekends, but I get most of my writing done on vacations and in the summer when I have space and time. I need a lot of space and time to think, read, process, and then sit down and write. I think habit is good, especially for being productive and having momentum, but everyone has to find their own approach that fits with their lives, and you do whatever works.
CS: What’s your favorite part of the process? Least favorite?
MK: Revision is my favorite part of the writing process. I’m a perfectionist and a procrastinator, so starting is hardest for me. I have a lot of false starts and tweak at things along the way just to finish a first draft. It’s easier for me to see the bigger picture and fit puzzle pieces together in revision.
CS: Was it always writing or nothing else for you? Were there other creative outlets that called to you before you settled on writing?
MK: It was always writing, but photography was a close second; I love both ways of seeing and telling a story. I’ve always been a visual learner and observer, and most often what I see sparks a story more than what I hear, or overhear. If I could walk around with a camera at all times, I would. I think that’s why I love the short story so much— it can feel like capturing a moment as a photograph would.
CS: What’s next?
MK: I am a few stories in on a new collection, and I’ve had an idea for a novel swirling around for years that I’ve been scribbling on, trying to find an in, but I haven’t quite found it yet. All I know is this next project has different requirements and will be a totally different beast. Writing the first novel was hard, and I don’t feel any wiser about how to do it again. I just hope it doesn’t take as long this next time around.
Curtis Smith is the author of three novels, five story collections, and two essay collections. His most recent book is Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five: Bookmarked, part of Ig Publishing’s new series where authors are invited to write about a book that influenced their lives and careers. He lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and son.
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