Megan Ross was born in Johannesburg in 1989. She is the author of a book of poems called Milk Fever (uHlanga), and several short stories which have been runners up for and won numerous awards, including the Short Story Day Africa Award in 2016, Brittle Paper Award for Fiction in 2017. Megan is also an Iceland Writers Retreat Alum, and currently lives in East London with her partner and son. She is working on her first novel and a collection of short stories.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I have just launched my first book, a collection of poetry, and already I feel a sense of relief. I recently returned from the first leg of my book tour, and am excited to get stuck into writing again. Launching Milk Fever helped me realize that I write because I love to write – not for the part that comes after, which is helpful to know given that I have two manuscripts I have promised to finish for my agent. So far, it has been an enormously rewarding experience in bringing my poetry a standard fit for publishing, especially because it is my first serious foray back into poetry in many years. Poetry collections are a notoriously hard sell, especially in South Africa, where I am from, and so I am excited to have got this far with my own.
Insofar as it feels different to my previous work, I have only ever published poems in anthologies, and mostly write short fiction. In that way, it has been interesting to explore another genre, and experience the contractions and expansions that occur when moving from short fiction to poetry and vice versa. I feel that when writing short fiction, one is tasked with creating a universe from scratch, and giving it to the reader. Writing a poem, however, feels as if one is setting the Big Bang in motion, and then watching as readers experience the beginning of their own new worlds.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I write fiction and work as a journalist as well. I have never found it awfully difficult to switch from one genre to another, and I enjoy the way each form influences the other, and how I can grow as a writer of poetry or fiction when writing one or the other.
I began writing poetry when I was a teenager. It felt like an accessible medium; the obvious choice, really, given that I had no idea how to begin a short story or anything longer. Returning to it after fifteen years is exciting. I think that young girl who won awards for writing and performing her poetry as a child, would be really excited to know she would one day write a whole book of it
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
It depends on the project. My poetry collection began as a single word a couple days after my son was born. This word seemed to draw more words to it, and a poem formed, and before I knew it, I was writing a collection. So from start to publication it was two and a half years. I don’t think that’s a very long time, but I think the impetus was there: I had this fervent desire to prove that I could do it, and the poetry collection became to me as much a means of survival, of writing myself – my voice and my life outside of motherhood – back into existence. When I look back on those first drafts, however, I’m quite glad that I returned to the manuscript over and over again.
My other writing projects are taking longer. I’m sitting on years of drafts, now. My novel, for instance, needs me to stew for much longer periods than poems. Short stories less so, but much more than the poetry. I read somewhere that short fiction is a really accessible form for mothers of small children because one is able to write in the stolen hours when baby is sleeping or at school. Most times, however, the period between the initial idea and beginning writing it is very brief; it’s the layers, of text, of meaning, of editing and extrapolating, that take longer. I often write what feels like a complete idea, in that the grain of truth that appeared in a dream or in thought-form, and then the story forms around this. Often the endings write themselves, as if they were always meant to happen that way.
4 - Where does a poem or work of fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I think there are multiple things going on when I write. On one hand, I really respect the singularity of one poem, or one short story, and I like to write so that these individual pieces can stand alone. However, it’s always exciting when writing a collection, and each individual piece begins to speak to other stories, and create links and reveal hidden depths that then inform the way one rewrites or edits other stories. The collection becomes more than the sum of its parts, in a way. Entirely new, and other; I think, actually, quite like the feeling of being a parent, looking at one’s child who is, biologically speaking, the result of your and another’s DNA coming together. And yet, they’re not you and their other parent. They’re the first of their kind, their only. There’s something magical in this.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I don’t live in a very literary town. In fact, there aren’t even very many book stores so readings are not something I have the opportunity to do very often at all, other than when I am invited to attend literary festivals in other cities. I am hoping to move back to Johannesburg soon, where I was born, and hopefully then I’ll be able to do more readings. That said, I really, really love literary events and festivals, and thoroughly enjoy reading my poetry. It feels like performance, well, it is performance, and I enjoy the different energy that is given to the poems when they are read aloud, and in front of the audience. There is nothing quite like the feeling of looking up from the page to see a room of people looking at you, and listening.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I am writing the answers to questions I have wanted to ask, or have silently asked, or might one day realize I have always been asking. Questions like: do I matter. If I matter, as a woman, as a queer woman, as a mother, then why have I been hurt in the ways I have been. Why is there institutional violence. Why is their sexism. I write to make sense of the violences acted upon my body, and my psyche, and the private joys inherent in freedoms I allow my characters, and in a sense, myself. The best writers I have ever read – all women, I’d like to add – have not only given me access to, but created, rooms and worlds and universes that I can walk into, and reach out to others both like and unlike myself, to gain understanding. I hope that in my own writing I am able to create this place for my readers, spaces where meeting, contemplation, healing, joy, understanding can be found. Mine is a feminist project. I hope that by bringing into the world what has been inside of me, turning myself inside out, I can help more young women feel able to do the same.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
The greatest freedom some people find will be in the books they read. I’m not sure that I agree with a writer having a role outside that of storyteller, because that is in itself an important role. Storytellers remember and record and reveal truths and lies and things we’d rather not think about; storytellers create: often from the fabric of those around them. Giving readers the opportunity to see themselves and feel seen, or learn, or grow, is incredibly important.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I have loved almost all of my experiences with editors so far. In South Africa, we’re very lucky in that there is incredible generosity in the various literary communities, and I have found almost all the editors I’ve worked with to be sensitive, intuitive and wise.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
This is a piece of advice I live by and it’s advice I always give to new writers: sit on your chair, and build a body of work.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction to journalism)? What do you see as the appeal? [I think I already answered this in question 2?]
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
For the last three years I have tried to write every day, but lately work has really taken off (I’m self employed) and so I’m writing less and less during the week. On a good day, my boyfriend wakes up my son and I, and once we’ve eaten breakfast and I’ve got him to school, I have a coffee with my dad at this coffee shop in my suburb that overlooks the bay at Gonubie Beach. I usually reply to emails and attend to urgent work for an hour or two, then head home to work. If I am lucky, and work is a little quiet, I can squeeze in an hour of writing in a morning. Sometimes more. In the afternoons I usually focus on design work, and I write in my breaks. Sometimes I’ll write in the evenings, but I’m usually too tired, so any writing I’m doing on my novel and short fiction right now is being done on Saturday afternoons.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I never panic. If I’m stalling, I put it down to boredom and go do something else. Usually a cappuccino and reading for a couple minutes will jog the urge to write and I’ll go back to it. Lately I really don’t feel like writing and that’s OK, I’ve just finished a book so I’m giving myself a break from my laptop. I’ll spend this time journaling and sketching and watching TV, and read for pleasure. It always comes back. Being a mom also forces me to make the best possible use of any free time, so I usually am quite disciplined when I have a deadline. That said, I never ever want to write the joy out of my words, or lose the joy of writing. I write because I love the process of writing, not for anything that comes after.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
The smell of ocean mist rolling into my mother’s garden. Braai smoke. Sunblock.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Music, especially old records and cassette tapes I dig up. I used to make mixes for my friends. Film! My current favourite director is Luca Guadagnino, who directed the Desire series (most recently, Call Me By Your Name). My favourite film of his, however, is I Am Love. Nature. The ocean. History. Science, especially chemistry (the idea of it; I was an average student). Biological processes in the body: currently, Microchimeras, breast milk.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Alice Walker, Sandra Cisneros and Toni Morrison are my literary Goddesses. Their books are my holy works. Akwaeke Emezi, Ocean Vuong, Danez Smith are big influences now, as are my contemporaries, Efemia Chela, Sibongile Fisher and Mapule Mohulatsi. My new favourite poet is Sindiswa Busuku-Mathese, who just won the Ingrid Jonker Prize for her collection, Loud Yellow Laughter. I am focused on reading African writers – from the continent and diaspora – right now. I’m judging a national writing competition and guest editing fiction for an African literary journal, and it’s making me so excited about the talent here, and the bridges that are being formed between continental Africans and writers in the diaspora. There’s this lovely conversation that’s happening right now, and I’m excited to be a part of it. I’ve also recently discovered the poetry of deceased Southern African poets Phillip Zhuwao and Wopko Jensma. I’m haunted by their words.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Go back to Paris and this time, with a warm enough coat and enough money to enjoy the city. Finish my novel. Dye my hair platinum blonde. Get a new piercing. Sky dive. Get a bar tending gig on an island called Koh Lipe in Thailand. Throw away all my things. Start again. Learn to rock climb.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I always wanted to be a healer. In another lifetime, I might have prioritized having fun over working so hard. I still do, sometimes, but being a writer requires a little self-xxxx. If I could throw in the towel now, and magically acquire an EU passport, I’d become a tour guide in Europe.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
It was an impulse more than anything else. I’ve always really wanted to write. Even while I was studying journalism and English literature at university, I secretly hoped that I would crack it as a writer of fiction one day. I knew that I would need to find a job in media and that writing would not offer me financial stability. I was right, and I’m grateful that I’ve had a career to finance the time I take off to write. Since there are very few, if any funding opportunities for South African writers, it’s almost unheard of for writers here to write fulltime unless they have a well-off partner or someone is happy to shoulder their finances.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. I’m currently reading I’m hooked on rewatching the three films in Luca Guadagnino’s ‘Desire’ series: Call Me By Your Name, A Bigger Splash and I Am Love, which might be my new favourite film.
20 - What are you currently working on?
Two books: a yet-to-be-named novel and a collection of short stories called Delicious Monsters.