Each quarter we ask a writer/editor/teacher from the wider writing community to work with our senior editor team to choose the stories for the quarterly issue. From February 15 to May 15, we are thrilled to have Megan Pillow on our team. She will also be teaching a module in our next workshop.
Shasta Grant, SmokeLong’s coordinating editor, interviews Megan Pillow below about her work at The Audacity and what she’s looking for in the SmokeLong queue
Shasta Grant: You are project manager for Roxane Gay and co-editor of The Audacity. I’d love to hear more about your work in these two roles!
Megan Pillow: I would love to talk about this, because I love my work! As co-editor of The Audacity, I get to help select and edit the essays we publish as part of Dr. Gay’s Emerging Writer Series, which focuses on writers who have three or fewer publications. We get fantastic submissions from all over the world – we’ve published writers from Kenya to Poland to Seattle. But this is only part of what I do – my primary job is to do whatever I can to help Dr. Gay manage her long list of projects since she has tremendous demands on her time. That work looks a little different every day – sometimes I’m editing or writing discussion questions for The Audacious Book Club, sometimes I’m helping do research for a book or essay project, sometimes I’m assisting with social media management, sometimes I’m helping with the Joel Gay Fellowship program. In short, I try to be a jack-of-all-trades: if she has a request or a task for me, I’m going to figure out how to get it done for her. It’s the perfect job for me. I constantly feel challenged by and interested in the things she asks me to do, and I get to use all of the skills I honed during my PhD program: writing, reading, researching, editing, problem-solving, and even teaching.
You wrote a series of three connected stories about Margo (the first one was published in SmokeLong). I’d love know more about the process of writing these connected stories. Did you initially plan to write multiple stories about Margo? How did you decide how much time to jump between the stories? Do you have plans for more Margo stories?
I did not at all plan to write interconnected stories about Margo. The first story came to me while I was writing a horror essay a few years ago, something that was a hybrid part from an old memory and from some of the new stories about rape circulating in the media at the time. The essay was about the bodily experience of horror, and the two just kind of wrote themselves alongside each other, something I do a lot. The first person plural took a little while to come to, but it felt like the natural way to write a story about a gang rape, because each of the narrators only access a piece of Margo – the reader is the only person who gets to see the whole of her. I thought I was done telling her story after I wrote the first one, but she kept coming back to me, creeping in as I was working on other pieces, and I realized I didn’t want her story to end at this moment of trauma. I wanted her to have a life beyond that moment. And I also wanted to see her older, through the eyes of women, not just the male gaze. So that lead me to story two. Story three forced me to consider the world where all of the memories and perspectives of the characters in the previous two stories intermingled – I wanted to know who Margo was to them now that time had passed, and whether she’d actually leave her husband. And the third story in the series imagines just that. As for whether there will be more Margo stories, I think there might be. One of the things I’ve realized about Margo as a character is that she changes as I do – the more distance and healing I get from my own traumas, the more I can envision life for Margo that moves beyond that moment too. And I do think about her. I think about what she’s been through, what she’s capable of. I also think about the way the people who raped her and were the beneficiaries of her kindness have all been imprinted by her in ways that they will never be able to shake. And so I do think I’ll return to her story. I have a feeling I’m going to return to Margo again and again for a very long time.
What are you working on now?
Ha! Well, as usual, I’m working on multiple projects. I haven’t been publishing many standalone pieces in the last year or so because I’m focusing on longform work. I slowed down my caregiver archive development while I got settled in my job, but I’m getting ready to move that project forward in 2023. I’m working with a longtime writing mentor on a public-facing monograph that we’re not prepared to talk about publicly yet, but that is deeply meaningful to me, and I’ll speak about more openly when we’re ready to. I’m also slowly assembling an essay collection, something I’ve been working on for a while but got a major overhaul in 2022. But my primary focus right now is developing Long Live The Girl Detective into a novel-in-stories. I’m keeping the story itself intact and writing a series of stories in the same world as the original. I have no idea whether anyone will want to read it when I’m done, but I love every minute that I get to work on it, and it’s a project that makes me excited to sit down at the computer every day.
What are you looking for as an editor when reading the submission queue?
That’s always a hard question to answer, but I’ll do my best. First of all, I try to approach the queue with an open mind. I’m not looking for pieces about particular subjects or written in a particular way. What I’m always hoping to find is a piece with a strong voice, a sense of self-awareness, a willingness to address uncomfortable things, a writer who is unafraid to take a risk. I also appreciate it when people find surprising or unexpected ways to tell familiar stories. What I’m looking for most are pieces that already understand their own vision, pieces that I believe I can help to magnify and honor.
Megan Pillow is a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in fiction and holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Kentucky. She is project manager for Roxane Gay and co-editor of The Audacity (Dr. Gay’s newsletter). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in, among other places, in Electric Literature, Smokelong Quarterly, The Believer, Guernica, and Gay Magazine. She lives in Louisville, Kentucky with her two children.
Shasta Grant is the author of the chapbook Gather Us Up and Bring Us Home (Split Lip Press, 2017). She won the 2015 Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest and the 2016 SmokeLong Quarterly Kathy Fish Fellowship. She has received residencies from Hedgebrook and The Kerouac Project and was selected as a 2020 Aspen Words Emerging Writer Fellow. Her work has appeared in cream city review, Epiphany, Hobart, wigleaf, and elsewhere. She has an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and lives in Indianapolis.