Thursday, February 17, 2022

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Maegan Poland

Maegan Poland [photo credit: Michael Martin Shea] lives in Philadelphia, where she teaches creative writing and composition at Drexel University. Her debut short story collection What Makes You Think You’re Awake? was selected by Carmen Maria Machado to win the Bakwin Award and was published in 2021 by Blair Press. Her fiction has been published in Mississippi Review, Pleiades, Beloit Fiction Journal, Juked, Notre Dame Review, and elsewhere. She has received a Special Mention in the Pushcart Prize anthology, a Tin House scholarship, and a grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation. She is currently working on a novel. You can find more information on her website at

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

My first book was just published this [past] June (2021), so I’m not sure if I can fully answer this question yet. What I can say is that there is a sense of tremendous relief and excitement that my first collection of short stories has found such a good home (Blair Press) and that I can now focus on moving forward with my other writing projects.

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?

I think I was exposed to more fiction than poetry or nonfiction when I was very little, and that was when I was most impressionable, maybe? The stories I wrote as a child were usually mashups of the fantasy novels I was reading.

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 story. Sometimes I feel inspired and can write a story down in just a few sessions. Some stories are a painfully slow and mysterious process, where I’m adding a few lines each day and then deleting as many the next. I tend to revise as I go, so there are many drafts of the beginning of a story, but by the time I get to the final pages, it is close to its final form. There are always exceptions to this. I’ve had drafts that I’ve thrown out and rewritten from memory because I needed to imagine a new structure or shape to the story.

4 - Where does a work of prose 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’m always keeping a notes file full of possible images, moments, lines of dialogue, etc. I’ve been surprised by how many of the notes from that file make it into a story without my consciously deciding to use them. Some stories begin with an image or a moment. Some stories begin with a specific character conflict. I need to find a way to connect with the main character’s inner turmoil to fuel a complete story draft. For my collection, there were a couple stories I wrote before envisioning the final book, but at a certain point, I kept gravitating to similar themes and felt that the stories were coming together as a collection.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I enjoy doing readings. I think I learn about my writing when I see and hear the way people react to my writing. But I can be self-critical, so I need space away from performing my work or from receiving outside criticism when I’m embarking on a draft that is new and uncertain.

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’m often dealing with competing perspectives or the potential unreliability of perspective. How do we navigate these doubts surrounding perspective? How do we cope with the inherent loneliness of the ego?

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?

I don’t want to declare a monolithic role for all writers. I think different writers can offer different things. Sometimes I aim to create an enhanced sense of awareness or to provoke a particular feeling, for myself and hopefully for the reader. Sometimes I am exploring a complex moral question. Or sometimes I just want to see how a certain personality would respond to certain circumstances. I appreciate writing that interrogates power structures. But that doesn’t mean I’m reading for didacticism. I love nuance, complexity, and contradictions. I like writing that sets the profound contradictions of life in motion. I like reading and writing flawed characters who are living their messy lives, reflecting the world we live in.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I’m extremely self-critical so I love to share that burden with an editor. Please, by all means, help me decide what needs revision. I’ve only had lovely experiences with editors. I could imagine how it would be difficult if the editor didn’t share my vision for the work, but that hasn’t happened to me yet.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

Write a messy first draft. I’m still learning to do this. I keep revising as I go along. But I think it’s important to turn the perfectionist off while creating the overall structure of the story. That structure may change, but you need a starting point.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (short stories to the novel)? What do you see as the appeal?

I don’t know if I’m equipped to answer this question, since the determination remains to be seen. I’m still working on my first novel. The transition has not been easy, but I think that’s partially due to my subject matter, which has required a lot of research. I did research for a few of my short stories, but I’m currently researching things that are so outside of my previous knowledge base that I’m constantly nervous about whether it is adequately informing my writing. Because of this nervousness, I’ve had to rely a lot on outlining, which is not always my first impulse as a short story writer. I know the outline is a myth. I may have to start over and choose a different structure, but I have to give myself training wheels to keep the forward momentum, because I find the complexity of my current project to be intimidating, to be honest. As far as the appeal? I don’t know if I see an appeal to the novel versus the short story; I love short stories and could focus on them for the rest of my life. I chose to write a novel because I feel the story I currently am trying to tackle requires more narrative threads than a short story can contain.

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?

When I am writing, I’m writing every day, but I do have periods of not writing. This is usually when I’m between projects and busy teaching. When I’m not actively writing, I still keep notes and I focus on reading fiction and doing research that will inform my writing.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

When I’m stalled, it’s usually because there is some mood or feeling that I want to convey, but I don’t have the structure of the story that will get me there. When this happens, I like to listen to music and read fiction and watch movies that evoke that particular mood. I then brainstorm different ways to structure the next scene or sequence.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

The smell of autumn, when leaves have begun to fall and decompose, and the temperature has dropped. I grew up in Indiana, but I spent most of my adult years in places that didn’t have such a distinct fall fragrance.

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 and film influence my writing all the time. I’m not musical at all now, but I grew up playing violin and I went to film school. If I find a movie or a song that evokes an intense mood, I’ll often use that as inspiration for a scene or story that I want to approximate that mood. 

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

I would not be so bold as to say that I’m writing in the tradition of these great writers, but I’m always inspired by Toni Morrison and Virginia Woolf. The writers that are important for my work change over time, as the work changes. Different writers have been important to me at different times in my life. So I hate to make a list and suggest it’s comprehensive, because I’ll inevitably omit writers that have been deeply important to me. Lately, I’ve been inspired by Carmen Maria Machado, Shirley Jackson, Ted Chiang, Clarice Lispector, and Laura van den Berg. I also benefit from being friends with quite a few talented writers, many of whom I met during my graduate programs at University of Mississippi and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Their writing inspires me, and my conversations with them about writing help keep me focused and motivated.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Finish and publish this novel!

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?

A virologist. Or maybe an epidemiologist.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I always loved writing and film, but I thought I needed to focus on a career in science. It wasn’t until I saw a brochure for film school that I even considered other possibilities. I recall a possible turning point: I was staying after school and working on a lab for AP Chem, and I remember my lab partner enthusiastically ranting about biochemical pathways and it dawned on me that she was more passionate than I was about the science. I liked narratives about scientists overcoming challenges. So, I decided that I wanted to pursue the art of narrative in some way. It’s funny, because it was such a big yet mercurial decision. Given a different year, a different lab, or a different subfield, maybe I’d have been the one ranting passionately about some scientific concept or principle I’d finally understood. But that’s the way it went for me. I left a different life, a different me, at that fork in the road. I was also lucky to get a scholarship for film school, so that tempted me and allowed me to study writing (especially screenwriting) in college. To be clear, I always knew I wanted to write, but growing up, I didn’t realize I could make it a more central focus of my life.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

Real Life by Brandon Taylor. And Midsommar. I was late to the party and I loved it.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I’m working on a novel about artificial intelligence, privacy, and feeling haunted.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

No comments: