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Thursday
Mar202014

“The Princess Isn’t Frightened”: An Interview with Rebecca Meacham 

Rebecca Meacham's short story collection, Let’s Do, was published in 2004 as the winner of UNT Press's Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Fiction, and was a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” program selection. Her flash fiction collection, Morbid Curiosities, won the 2013-14 New Delta Review Chapbook prize. Her stories have appeared in Indiana Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Hobart, Wigleaf, Necessary Fiction, Paper Darts, and other journals, and she blogs for Ploughshares. An associate professor of English, Rebecca directs the creative writing program at University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. She lives in the woods of Wisconsin with her family and their 100 lb. German Shepherd puppy, who enjoys chasing the deer. See more at: http://rebeccameachamwriter.com

Her story, "The Glass Piano," appeared in Issue Fifty-Five of The Collagist.

Here, Rebecca Meacham talks to interviewer Thomas Calder about painstaking construction over revision, the power of delusion and the intersection between private anxiety and public spectacle

How did this piece come about?

I was running and listening to a podcast about Princess Alexandra of Bavaria, who, in the mid-1800s, suffered a delusion that she’s swallowed a grand glass piano. At the time, I was writing a collection of flash fiction (Morbid Curiosities), which explores the intersection between private anxiety and public spectacle. Princess Alexandra’s story seemed thematically in line: a historical public figure with a private agony, now made into a public spectacle that I could, in 2013, think about while running through my Wisconsin neighborhood.

The thing was, the podcast imagined her as a tragic figure—with sounds of moaning and heavy breathing in the audio—as someone terrified to move. But I was more attracted to the power such a delusion might seem to confer, like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which ends with the narrator imagining she’s seized control of her confines. So as I was running, I literally said, out loud: “The princess isn’t frightened. She’s empowered. What does she gain from this?”

I like the Q&A structure of your story. The common form initially situates the reader, before dislocating him a bit with the more surreal aspects of the piece. Did you have the Q&A structure in mind from the very beginning?

The real Princess Alexandra was obsessed with purity; she eventually became an abbess. I was trying to figure out, to her, “What does a glass piano taste like?” And, in my reading of her situation, she has to want to consume it. Swallowing this piano, housing it within her body, has to give her some measure of distance from a family full of discord, from all the people in her household who invade her privacy and tell her what’s proper, at a fraught time in German history. The piano should taste like a kind of relief.

The story arrived exactly as you see it on the page: the first line was always the first line. I imagine she was questioned by doctors for years, both as a case and as a curiosity.

What was the revision process like for this story? You manage to convey a lot about Princess Alexandra within a very brief piece. 

From the start, I intended this story to be about 500 words long. And the first question led effortlessly to the first full answer. Then, for weeks, I got stuck. What would be the next question? The next answer? When the next question did arrive (“But your delicate throat! How did you consume it?”), I got stuck again. I realized maybe she didn’t know, or couldn’t articulate, the answer, because of her aversion to the human body and its processes. She could have been attacked, or she could have started menstruating; either event would have been shocking beyond words to this character, enough to distort her sense of reality.

So the piece wasn’t so much revised as painstakingly constructed. This is my pattern for any length of story: a dazzling first section blazes in, and then it’s slow, ugly pecking until I figure out the rest.

Do you find it difficult to balance teaching and writing?

Yes. I’m possibly the worst balancer of these two things. Plus, I have little kids and husband and a German Shepherd puppy and a fat cat who like my attention, too. But after an eight-year break from fiction writing (go ahead, gasp, it’s shocking), I realized I was channeling all of my writerly curiosity into new course preparations, which were engaging and taught me a lot, but didn’t allow room for my own fiction. I went on a sabbatical in 2012-13, and vowed, when I returned: no new course preps! Which I’ve totally violated already. But now, at least my course preps, are directly related to what I’m writing, or hope to write. And I’m training myself to write during the school year.

What are you currently working on?

I just published a collection of flash fiction, Morbid Curiosities, and while that project is done, there are some new flash pieces hatching in my head—all, oddly, about animals. I’m also working on another traditional-length short story collection and a novel about the 1871 Peshtigo, Wisconsin fire.

What book are you recommending friends read?  

I’m teaching a Major Authors class on Toni Morrison, so I always recommend Beloved, because it’s one of the best books of all time. More recently, I finished Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, and loved its scope, from sea voyages around the world to the microscopic growth of mosses.

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