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“The Nasty Narratives We’re Fed About What It Means to Be Alive in 21st Century America”: An Interview with Meghan McCarron

Meghan McCarron's short fiction has been a finalist for the Nebula and World Fantasy awards, and she was recently awarded a grant by the Elizabeth George Foundation. Her work has recently appeared in or is forthcoming from Gigantic Worlds and The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, and she's currently at work on a novel. She lives with her girlfriend in Austin, TX, where she is the editor of Eater Austin.

Her short story, "Terrible Lizards," appeared in Issue Fifty-Four of The Collagist.

Here, Meghan McCarron talks to interviewer Thomas Calder about the boundary between satire and stridency, mashing up genres and how the magic world fucks up different people in different ways.

This is an intricate story, with several intertwining threads. What was the initial story you had in mind and how did it evolve?

I have no idea what the original inspiration for this story was. I wrote the first draft of it back in 2009, which is a scary long time ago. I was thinking about the years I was in college, 2001-2005, and the way those years were bookended by two disasters, 9/11 and Katrina. The surreality of those years is now semi-lost to us; we don’t like to talk or think about it much. When I think back to how pissed off and frightened I was in, say 2003, it’s a very strange feeling.

 (A bit of a follow up to question 1) The structure of this story is interesting, in that we are going back and forth between characters and time, spending brief moments in each scene. Did you write the individual stories as a whole and pattern it once you finished, or was the fragmented structure present from the start?

The fragmented structure was always a part of it. The sections were originally free-associated off each other, which made it hard to rearrange them, though I definitely did a lot of that. Several early versions were all in the second person. A professor wrote a critique in the second person that basically said, “Meghan, no one can understand this story but you and that is a problem.” As far as I can remember, I wrote the draft fairly quickly while I was living in Brooklyn. How it intertwined was what really changed.

My stepfather bought a BMW to do his part for the economy.” There are other moments throughout the piece where the cynicism and satire are just as strong, but this line jumped out each time I read your story. Is satire prominent in most of your writing, or does “Terrible Lizards” mark a new direction in your fiction?

You know, I thought about removing that line over and over again, and now I’m glad I didn’t! With a story like this, it’s really hard to find the boundary between satire and stridency. At the same point, in the fall of 2001 someone did tell me they’d bought their BMW to do their part for the economy. I’m not even exaggerating.

I’m not an especially political writer, any more than I’m an especially political person. I went to protests, but only the big protests. Never helped organize anything or got arrested or built puppets. But I am fascinated by power, and the nasty narratives we’re fed about what it means to be alive in 21st century America. Often my work is more concerned with the politics of gender, or sexuality, rather than specific events like in “Terrible Lizards” is, but I don’t see this story as a massive departure.

Who are some writers that have influenced you?

If I hazarded a guess, I would say the trickiness of this story is inspired by Karen Joy Fowler’s short fiction. Joy Williams is definitely in here, and my dear friend and one of my favorite writers Alice Sola Kim. I have a weird intense love for Pynchon, and the more science fictional folks he inspired like William Gibson. That weird love rarely manifests in my work, but I think it pokes its head out here.

In terms of overall influences, Jonathan Lethem and Kelly Link are the two writers I discovered in college who gave me permission to attempt what I’d always wanted to do – mash up genre images I loved desperately, like dinosaurs on a desert island or lurking vampires, with much more mundane but also emotionally compelling situations, like losing all your friends or figuring out how to be on TV.

I also really, really love Victorian novels. That shows up in now way shape or form here.

What is the most current project you are working on?

 I’m writing a gigantic novel about how going to a magical world as a kid would be a seriously fucked up experience. The novel wouldn’t be quite as gigantic if it were just about that, I guess. It’s about how the magic world fucks up different people in different ways, and also about what an American, as opposed to European-inspired, alternate world would look like. I’m closing in on a full-on rewrite of the last half. Dear god I hope I’m done soon.

I also have a couple stories in need of a bit more reworking – one about a cave full of dads, and the other about a woman quarantined in a Brooklyn apartment during a massive, deadly flu outbreak with her ex-girlfriend and the girl the ex cheated with.

Who are you currently reading?   

I wish I were a ‘who’ reader. When I discover I love an author I stop reading them so I never run out of their books, which is stupid, because if you love someone’s work then its totality has a great deal to teach you. I’m trying to get over this. I bought not one but two Shirley Jackson novels recently but they’re just sitting there on my bedside table, still fresh and uncracked, all anticipation.

I’m actually reading a book by Robert MacFarlane called The Old Ways that is all about walking (and sailing!) ancient paths, mostly in and around Britain. I just finished The Round House, which was really satisfying in its moral complications. Next I’m going to read Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon, because I want to read about ghul hunters and fighting dervishes. I’m also looking forward to reading Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch because Middlemarch is the best book. Did you know that? It’s the best book.


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