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Monday
Aug042014

"A Conglomeration of Curiosities": An Interview with Meagan Ciesla

 

Meagan Ciesla has an MFA from University of Wyoming and a PhD from University of Missouri. She will join the English department faculty at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington in the fall. Her work has appeared in Kenyon Review, The Long Story, Cimarron Review, and others.

Her story, "Real Live African Pygmy," appeared in Issue Fifty-Seven of The Collagist.

Here, Meagan Ciesla talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about World's Fairs, types of research, and unlikely friendship.

My research (read: Googling your name) shows that this is not your only story to include an American World’s Fair (“Incubator Baby World’s Fair, 1939” was published by The Kenyon Review). What interests you about these World’s Fairs and inspires you to make them a part of your fiction?

My interest in World’s Fairs is a conglomeration of curiosities. When I was getting my MFA at University of Wyoming I read Katherine Dunn’s novel Geek Love for the first time. The novel is about a family of circus freaks and I found it so compelling that I started to research circuses, sideshows, and fairs. Soon after that I went to a talk by Art Spiegelman who mentioned that his aunt and uncle (this is how I remember it at least) escaped the Holocaust because they were attending the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. I didn’t know anything about World’s Fairs until researching them, but as I learned about them they became events filled with technological possibility, competition, xenophobia, and real excitement. Huge advancements were showcased at these fairs that changed the world, and they were critical for what we now consider to be modern progress. It was so unique to have enormous international gatherings, and when so many people are thrown together you get the conflicts and misunderstandings that serve as a great foundation for fiction.

Your story begins with the inscription “in memory of Ota Benga, 1884-1916,” and although fictional, it is based on real-life events. How much research did you do in order to write this story? How large a role does research normally play in your writing process?

I did a lot of research for this story, which is not unusual for me. I found all I could online about Ota Benga and read newspaper stories about him and looked at all available pictures. For this particular story I used a lot of information about Ota Benga’s life to create Musa’s character, but there are limits to facts. I knew he’d been married and had lost his family. I also knew he was put in the zoo and the orphanage and that he ended up shooting himself after removing the caps from his teeth. That served as the scaffolding for his character, but I had no idea what he was thinking or what his experience was actually like. The physical moments of the bones cracking under his feet and of following Campbell through the jungle were just as important as the factual events I borrowed. The sensory experiences are where the fiction comes in – without those you just have a list of things that happened.

A huge amount of my writing involves research because I’m much more confident when I know the parameters of the world I’m writing in. That’s not to say I don’t use my very active imagination, but it does help me define where my imaginative leaps need to start. The novel I’m working on takes place on a dairy farm and to research I worked on a dairy farm in upstate New York for a month just to get the feel for the work and the landscape. I don’t always have the time to do research like that, but I do generally read, research on the internet, and watch relevant YouTube videos and documentaries to get a feel for what I’m writing. Once when I was writing a story about Paul Bunyan I watched several episodes of Ax Men to learn how logging works…I didn’t say research was always hard.

You write both fiction and creative nonfiction, and we’ve seen that some of your fiction is historical. When you’ve created characters based on real people, how did you decide to fictionalize their stories rather than describing them in an essay? What can short fiction do with a story like Ota Benga’s that nonfiction could not?

I briefly considered turning this into an essay, but then I realized writing an essay about Ota Benga properly would take years. I would have to do tremendous archival research and interviews with experts to understand Ota’s life in the United States. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that an essay of that scope wasn’t practical for me at the time. Plus, what interested me the most was the private relationship between Benga and Verner, and the moments I was curious about were never recorded so I had to make them up. Short fiction gave me permission to imagine what could have happened, whereas I couldn’t do that in nonfiction. With nonfiction you have to keep on digging until you find the story.

Can you describe the revision process that “Real Life African Pygmy” underwent? In what ways did it change from the first draft to the final? Did you have to make any tough decisions?

This story has always been the length that it currently is. I knew I wanted to keep it under three pages because I like the restraint of that page limit and I always saw it as pairing with my other World’s Fair story, which is around the same length. That said, there were huge changes made to the story—not to the events, exactly, but to the tone of the piece. When I first wrote the story the tone was incredibly sarcastic as if the speaker was shaking a finger at everyone who had wronged Musa. For example, the title read: “Real! Live! African Pygmy!” and the lines were almost Dr. Seuss sing-songy, really over-the-top. I had someone read that draft and they said something along the lines of, “This story is telling us how messed up the idea of the White Man’s Burden is, but it’s too easy to point a finger 100 years after this horrible thing has happened. What’s more interesting is what would make someone think what they were doing was necessary.” That changed the way I looked at the story tremendously. I’d read that Ota Benga and Samuel Verner were friends and that became the most interesting conflict to me, mainly because I couldn’t wrap my head around that possibility. I spent the rest of the time on the story trying to piece together how these two men – one of whom took the other to be displayed at the World’s Fair—could have developed such a close relationship. Once I figured that out the tone of the piece changed and it became a narrative of loneliness and friendship instead of a soapbox story.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I’m revising a novel and am finishing a collection of short stories I’ve written over the past several years. The collection will have both World’s Fair stories as well as one more about Little Egypt, a group of belly dancers at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.

What have you read recently that you’d like to recommend?

I finally got around to reading Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, which was great. I also recently loved Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers and Anthony Doerr’s Memory Wall.  

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