“A Giant Squid On Every Page”: An Interview with Megan Giddings
Editor’s Note: Megan will be giving away a copy of Best Small Fictions 2016 to the writer whose work she chooses for publication. All writers who submit stories August 29-September 4th are eligible.
You’re working on several different and awesome projects right now. What differences, if any, exist for you between writing a flash piece and writing, say, a novel?
For me there’s a difference in how I consider pacing and focus. In most flash, there’s room for only one central image that can double as metaphor and something that reveals character and plot. In a thousand words or less, you have to have focus. You have to be able to articulate what, why, and how efficiently and beautifully. For a short story longer than a thousand words, there’s more room for it to be about many things. You have space for characters to breathe. You can play with imagery. If a story is 5,000 words, most readers will get bored if an image is shown the same way over and over again. If a date is called a giant squid after being bad at kissing once maybe that’s funny. If he’s called a giant squid on every page and he isn’t actually a giant squid, well a reader is probably getting impatient. The image-joke is so tired it should have been taken out of the game, given some Gatorade, and told to stretch.
In a novel, I think there’s an obligation to consider layers (of characters, of images, of setting, of language) that isn’t as expected in flash or traditional short stories. I think some of it is being a good host: you know a reader is going to be spend hours of time on your novel, even if it’s considered short. You want them to be entertained, you want them to experience many things, you want to give them many moments they’ll think about days later, lines that will make them text their friends and tell them you have to read this book. You want to have layers of depth, textures of feeling in the novel. Those things are definitely present in shorter works, but I think there’s more room in the novel to forget that there’s more to writing than just writing some pretty stuff.
What novel that you’ve read recently has achieved “text status,” or maybe there’s even a flash piece that achieved this distinction? What about it stopped you in your tracks?
I think two very different things that have hit text status for me are Paulina and Fran by Rachel B Glaser and the short story, “Gloss, or the Strange History of Our Lady of the Sorrows” by John Keene from Counternarratives. Keene and Glaser are so stylistically different. When I think about Keene’s sentences, they’re straight-forward, often long, and deliberate. There’s beauty in them, but it always feels as if his primary goal is telling the story and communicating. In Paulina & Fran, the main draw for me is Glaser’s paragraphs. She’s taken a story that should feel played out (A negotiation of friendship and hateship and a little loveship mostly happening in art school) and making it feel raw and strange through her sentences and the way she looks at the world.
I think why I’m so focused on “Gloss…” (and I think the rest of the book is brilliant and insightful and difficult in the best way) from Counternarratives is it’s a story I wish I could’ve written. The mix of magic, race, religion, and femininity is so provocative and well done.
You mentioned focus and efficiency when it comes to flash, and I’m thinking about your writing at the sentence level, specifically in your story “The Alive Sister,” which feels all at once airtight and infinitely expansive. Can you talk a little bit about how you crafted that story, what your goals were structurally and beyond?
I started writing “The Alive Sister” when I was really pissed off. I had just read in the news that there would be no charges filed against the officers who had killed Tamir Rice. I read again about how there were no attempts to administer care. How his sister was handcuffed as her brother lay bleeding on the ground. There were no attempts to administer care. I’m getting so angry just typing this out. And I was and am deeply angry because so many people are willing to shrug these moments off or find a way to circumvent the argument or to place blame squarely on the victim’s family.
A friend whose writing I really admire once passed on advice to me that she had received from her thesis advisor: “You can either try to write the world as it is or try to find a way to, at least in fiction, make the world the way you want to see it.” And in “The Alive Sister”, I wanted it both ways. I wrote something based off Tamir Rice’s shooting. I decided to change details because I felt deeply uncomfortable with making it incredibly explicit about a child’s untimely and tragic death. The more I tried to write that story, I kept finding myself hitting against the conventions of traditional story-telling. Someone must change. Tension must rise. There needs to be some sort of message. I became hyperaware of the considerations I was making. With a lot of the contemporary stories that get published about racism, the message seems to always be directed toward white readers and the message is usually a bland, whoa, isn’t racism terrible? Yeah. No fucking kidding it is. So I started writing my own considerations into the story. There was a longer tangent for a little while about the ethics of writing this story that got yanked. I knew I wanted this story to be short. The entire confrontation between Tamir Rice and the police officers was seconds. I wanted things to feel just as quick. I wanted readers to feel overwhelmed like I was reading that fact, like I felt and feel thinking about irrational hatred and when I consider systemic racism.
I really like how you say airtight and infinitely expansive because that’s a great way to describe racism. Racism is suffocating and there are always small and large ways for it to be enacted. It’s not all slavery and being shot and being threatened, it’s also as small as being the props in people’s stories to teach white characters things. I don’t always want to be a writer writing about brutality, hatred, and racism. I already know that for a lot of readers and editors, once they know my race, everything I write, even if it’s about a woman eating a bunch of pasta and banging a hot dude to just feel alive again, is going to be looked at through the lens of race. The pasta is gluey because Giddings is saying something about systemic injustice. Whatever.
When I was sending it out, I got a personal rejection from a magazine saying that the message for this story was important, but that their magazine just didn’t feel like the right place for it. If it wasn’t for the first half of that sentence, I wouldn’t have reacted much. Between editing for SmokeLong and reading for Boulevard, I fully understand the concept of a story being good, but for a variety of reasons (a just as good story with a similar plot or circumstances has already been taken etc.) just isn’t the right fit. And I am more than willing to believe that whoever wrote the rejection to me wasn’t thinking yeah, my magazine doesn’t want people to think about systemic racism. I just want them to think about magicians and failures and the inherent sadness of the human existence.
I think I’m reacting like this about that rejection because I feel like it sums up a feeling I have about publishing in general (and sometimes, I think indie lit can be just as bad an offender than mainstream publishing): It’s easy for people to acknowledge there needs to be many different viewpoints in writing. The world needs to be represented in its complexity. But when it comes time to do the work, people think it’s enough to say: “The message and work are important! The message and work are important!” But what are you actually doing to make writing a more progressive place if you think those things are important? Are you actively publishing and seeking out writers or works with different viewpoints? How many times has someone asked you about your favorite writers and everyone you list is white and straight and cis? When it comes time to solicit and invite writers to submit or read, do you try to include a wide range of people? When you mess up on representation and someone calls you out on it, do you use the canon as a shield? When you sit down to write a critical article or a review, once again: how diverse are your sources and the writers you’re discussing? Are you contributing to a very narrow world viewpoint? Can you look at your work, look at the way people and things are being represented, and admit, maybe I am doing senseless, self-profiting harm? I know it feels shitty to consider these things and realize you’re part of the problem. I get it. I stew sometimes about dumb things I have said, hurts I have caused people because I was being thoughtless or just didn’t want to deal or consider that my viewpoint is being too rigid. But I think we could all do better.
Anyway, the story ended up with Bix Gabriel (one of my favorite writers and editors ever) over at The Offing. She helped me tweak the last lines because before it was too tidy. I remember that the draft I gave her ended on the word safe. And she told me to use my imagination, to look again at the story. To let it breathe more. And I ended where I did because I wanted to be able to show the harm that’s been done and I also wanted some sense of hope.
I wonder if you might say a bit more about this, the assumptions readers and editors make about stories, the language we use to engage a story once we are made aware of a writer’s identity. And this often extends to the characters as well. The adjectives become gendered and racialized, pointed and myopic.
Sometimes, I think the quickest way to change the way fiction writers approach race is to start actively asking white writers how their work is about race. It’s a question–unless the writers are writing from a different racial viewpoint than their own–that I think very few white writers get asked or even consider in their revision process.
To use an example that’s recently in the news, Jonathan Franzen thinks none of his work is about race. Ignoring the interactions between black characters and white characters in The Corrections and white characters and Indian characters in his some of his other novels, his novels are still about race. One of the reasons why I’ve read some of his novels is that I think few other contemporary novelists are writing so explicitly about the anxieties of the upper middle class American white experience. His characters are regularly surrounded by other white characters. They are worried about money and other people’s perceptions. They have awkward interactions with people othered by the text. His characters often seem obsessed with how the community at large views them, their family, and their actions. How to embody the ideal methods of being according to the way they perceive status. This isn’t to say all these things are singular to the white American experience (just like I wouldn’t say injustice is singular to the experiences of people of color), but it is to say, I do think these issues shouldn’t just be included when we consider class, but also how we consider race in fiction.
As people in general, but as writers specifically, we need to stop saying things are about race only when they deal with racism, brutality, and suffering.
Which living artist or musician do you wish would try their hand at flash and why? Several contemporary song-writers have made the jump to fiction and poetry. Who hasn’t made the jump yet that maybe could or should?
Noname or Chance. I’ve been listening to Telefone and Coloring Book a bunch lately. They’re already telling stories, creating moments, and characters in three minutes or less. And Noname is so, so good at moving through time, using very few words to make everything feel snapped into place.
About the Reader:
Megan Giddings was a former executive editor at SmokeLong Quarterly and a winner of the Kathy Fish Fellowship. Her chapbooks, Arcade Seventeen (TAR) and The Most Dangerous Game (The Lettered Streets Press) will be released Fall 2016. She has been anthologized in Best of the Net 2014 and in Best Small Fictions 2016. Her stories are forthcoming or have been recently published in Arts & Letters, Passages North, The Offing, Pleiades, and Black Warrior Review. You can learn more about her at www.megangiddings.com.
About the Interviewer:
Annie Bilancini writes and teaches in Cleveland, Ohio. Her work has appeared mostly recently in journals such as The Collagist, Booth, and SmokeLong Quarterly. She helps co-edit the hybrid prose journal Threadcount, and was an associate editor for content at SmokeLong Quarterly.