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Abstinence Only: An Interview with Meghan Phillips

January 4, 2021

by Corey Miller

Meghan, I don’t think you know just how long I’ve been waiting for this chapbook to come out. I was at the Barrelhouse Conference back in April of 2019 when I asked Dave Housley if they planned on publishing any books with nothing but flash and he mentioned this project. I was so excited to hear about this chapbook and now I’m so happy Abstinence Only is out in the world. This seems like it’s been years in the making, when did you first start these nine stories and when did you know you wanted to group them together in this collection?

First of all, thank you! “V-Card” is the oldest story in this collection, and funny enough, I started it while at Barrelhouse’s Writer Camp. At the time, I was doing a daily email prompt exchange with the wonderfully talented Laura Citino, and she sent me the prompt that led to “V-Card.” Then in 2018, I took Kathy Fish’s Fast Flash workshop and wrote versions of four of the stories in the chapbook, including the title story, during those two weeks. At the end of the workshop, we were talking about our goals moving forward and I very nervously told our group, “I think I might have the beginnings of a collection here.” Dave reached out to me not too long after that and asked if I was working on anything, a chapbook or a collection, and I was like, actually…

I absolutely love Kathy’s flash workshops! Everyone generates so much new material in her classes.

All of the stories take place in high school with these coming-of-age students, in all of their awkward glory. Many have just the slightest touch of an absurd element (all the girls wearing chastity belts or carrying a literal V-Card) while these students go through Sex Education, yet, it all feels real. Like this could somehow be a true story out there in America. Did you begin writing in high school and were any of these stories prompted by your high school experience that you wanted to push further and explore?

I wish I had a cool writer origin story, but I don’t think I do. I started keeping a diary when I was in the 3rd grade, and continued to journal on-and-off well into college. In high school, I wrote a lot of bad poetry (but who didn’t?) and would also write these romance novel-style stories for my friends about them and their crushes. I didn’t really start writing in earnest until I took a class on flash fiction writing at my local literary guild in 2014. That class was my first introduction to flash and also to submitting work to literary journals. It’s also where I met Tyler Barton, who helped me get involved in our local lit scene in Lancaster, PA, and who was also the first person (other then my mom) to be excited about something I wrote.

The story that’s the most directly reflective of my high school experience is “Two Truths and a Lie about Elizabeth Kinsley, Thirty-Three-Year-Old Virgin.” The section that details Elizabeth’s experience with sex ed as a student is ripped directly from my own experiences. I really did watch a video of Andrea McArdle talking about puberty in elementary school. I really did miss the whole 8th grade viewing of “The Miracle of Life” because I was on a field trip with my advanced science class. One of my high school health teachers really did play us Meatloaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” and make us discuss the song’s message.

I think that’s a pretty fantastic origin story actually. Curious about these romance novels now.

Throughout the chapbook you examine the dynamics between Teachers and Students, how the people in charge are still learning themselves. For example, in “Two Truths and a Lie about Elizabeth Kinsley, Thirty-Three-Year-Old Virgin” you sort of walk the line between unreliable narrator based off the title, following a sex ed teacher who is still learning her place in the world. I love that everyone always has something to learn and ways to progress in your stories. What were some of your goals with these stories as a collective? What are you hoping the reader takes away when finishing your book?

My surface-level goal while working on these was to have a cohesive group of stories that explored the topic of sex ed (or lack of sex ed) from multiple points of view. It’s comfortable for me to write in the voice of teenage girls, especially the collective “we,” because so much of the emotional core of these stories comes from my own experiences. It turns out I’m pretty angry about how teenage girls are treated, both in the dismissal of their experiences and passions as frivolous or silly and the immense responsibility placed on them in regards to how they are perceived as sexual beings (school dress codes are a prime example). How they are simultaneously sexualized and shamed for showing any sexual agency. I hope these stories get the reader thinking about their own experiences learning about sex and sexuality, as well as the broader cultural conversation about these topics.

I could only imagine the hardships faced for young women. It feels like America in particular has a difficult time talking about sex and feeling comfortable expressing sexuality. I hope more writing like this will break those boundaries.

Everyone goes through changes while growing up and I think we all become such different people once we reach adulthood. Is there anything considerably different for you now since graduating high school? What advice would you give yourself then with what you now know?

I’m basically just a giant ball of feelings. I cry easily and often. I love the things I love with what feels like an embarrassing amount of enthusiasm. My husband very kindly describes me as earnest. As a teenager, it was too difficult to handle these feelings, plus puberty, so I kind of hid myself behind sarcasm and disliking “popular” things and some pretty out there thrift store clothing choices. It’s only been as I’ve gotten into my 30s, maybe even more so since my son was born, that I’ve not only gotten okay with the fact that I’m sort of weird and mushy and earnest but really embraced that as a key part of who I am. I wish I could tell teenage me that it’s okay to be vulnerable. That people will like her even if she shows them all the secret weird parts of herself. But honestly, I’m not sure if she’d believe me.

I saw on social media that you’re expecting another child. To be honest, I’m a bit terrified to have children and I’m worried how it’ll affect my writing. It sort of seems like parents who write struggle but make it work in the end. How has parenting affected your writing? Any advice for other writers with children?

Oh man. Probably the biggest way being a parent has affected my writing is taking away all the writing time that’s not actually writing. Even before I had my son, I was a slow writer. I need a lot of time to think over an idea, to let connections emerge among the stuff I’m reading or listening to or watching. I need long stretches of time to be in my head. I don’t really have that right now. I watch what he wants to watch (Cars and Toy Story). I listen to what he wants to listen to (the Cars soundtrack). Even though I can get time alone to write, I’m missing that crucial in-between time where I can just think my thoughts. I am totally in awe of other writers with kids, and am so grateful for the community of parent writers on Twitter. My best advice, the advice that I’ve been given that’s really helped, is pretty much cut yourself all the slack. Give yourself all the breaks. Be as gentle with yourself as you are able to be. There’s no one way to be a parent and a writer.

I think that’s some solid advice. And with a project like this there’s also a lot of people helping to make it the best it can be. I absolutely love the artwork in this chapbook, which you don’t see too often with such a small book. Many of these stories were previously published, yet, it seems there’s been some slight touch-ups throughout the book to polish everything up to be the utmost it could be. Could you discuss a bit about working with your press, Barrelhouse, and editor Christopher Gonzalez on your first chapbook?

Yes! The artwork is incredible. I’m so honored that Killian was on board with this project. Getting her emails with each new drawing was one of my favorite parts of this process. Working with Barrelhouse is the actual best. They’ve been so incredibly supportive of my work, and in a lot of ways, their encouragement is one of the things that keeps me writing. And Chris! I feel like I won the editor jackpot with Chris. He is such a talented writer in his own right, and also a really sharp editor. I struggled to write the last story that was added to the book (“Never Have I Ever”) until he pointed out that a lot of the stories have games in them or are structured like games. We brainstormed possible games to build a story around, and I wrote “Never Have I Ever” in one go. Chris saw things in my work that I didn’t see, and made every single story in this collection better with his editing.

One last question to leave us with, are there any projects you’re currently working on that we can look forward to or anything you’re hoping to begin?

I feel like I’m always kind of working on a bunch of things that might become Things, but my writer brain is both slow moving and easily distracted, so many of my ideas never become anything more than ideas. I started a novel in February and pretty much haven’t touched it since. Part of that is a combination of pandemic and pregnancy, and part of it is that my brain doesn’t seem to want to think in novel. It stopped being fun to work on, so I just stopped. Right now, I’m in the “really intensely thinking about it” stage of putting together a manuscript of my final girl and creepy ghost girl stories.

Yes! That sounds incredible! Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me.

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Corey Miller was a finalist for the F(r)iction Flash Fiction Contest (Spring ’20). His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in MoonPark Review, Pithead Chapel, Barren, Cleaver, Lost Balloon, Hobart, Cease Cows, and elsewhere. When not working or writing, Corey likes to take the dogs for adventures. Follow him on Twitter @IronBrewer or at www.coreymillerwrites.com.

 

Meghan Phillips is a 2020 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellow. Her flash fiction chapbook Abstinence Only is available from Barrelhouse Books. She tweets at @mcarphil.

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