September 06, 2016
Although we’ve both lived in Portland, Oregon for years, I met Margaret through a mutual acquaintance at the Association of Writing and Writing Professionals conference in LA. I was about halfway through with her collection of short stories, People Like You, and I was in love with her characters. They were sometimes lost, sometimes broken, but they were always hopeful in some way. It was quickly apparent to me in talking with Margaret that she was someone inspiring, perhaps especially to me. We both write while working in a field outside of writing, while also raising kids. It can be crazy-making, which is likely why it took three months of planning just to arrange a coffee date. Several months after that, when we met for this interview, it was early in the morning and we were both headed to work immediately after.
Margaret’s book was released by Alterier26 Books in Fall of 2015. It was the winner of the Balcones Prize for Fiction and a finalist for the 2016 PEN Hemingway Award. Margaret’s work has also appeared in The Missouri Review, Oregon Humanities, Swink, Propeller Quarterly and elsewhere. I interviewed Margaret on a sunny morning in a Portland coffee shop.
Let’s talk about your book People Like You. This book was 13 years in the making. Can you talk a little about the process of writing these stories? Did you write them chronologically? Did you revise one until it was done and then move to the next one, or did you churn out drafts of several and get back to them over time?
I started writing about half of them 13 years ago. I would write one draft, then another and another, putting them down and coming back to them later. I’m kind of a serial rewriter – I have a hard time putting things down and leaving them alone. Sometimes I would submit them and sometimes they were accepted, sometimes not. I just kept coming back to and revising about half of them. The more recent stories went through fewer drafts, and then the last story was written just days before the book went to press.
You wanted to bring back those two characters, Cheryl and Bert.
Right, because I wanted three stories for them. Three felt right. Knowing it was it going to be the last story was a little harrowing, because I felt this weight that I had to make it all work. But then it was also good to have the pressure of that timeline. I’m so happy it worked out the way it did. That last story is probably my favorite story in the book now.
It was hard for you to write, because you wanted to write a different ending.
I did. I wanted it to end a different way, on a happier note. I tried and tried to write that version. My god, I wrote that version over and over in the weeks leading up to the deadline and it just wouldn’t come. I don’t remember where I was, I think I was doing something not writing, where all good epiphanies about writing come, and I suddenly realized oh shit. They don’t get what I want them to get. As soon as I realized that, the whole second half of the story came pretty quickly.
A lot can happen in 13 years and a lot happened in your personal life during the time you were working on these stories. Can you talk a bit about how some of the challenges you faced in your personal life during this time affected your writing, your characters and your stories?
I was 27 when I first started writing and had a pretty typical middle class, white girl life. I worked a bunch of odd jobs, I was just married, we had no money, the usual. My stories were kind of the every day, although I always liked to write about the slightly darker version of the every day. Three years later, we moved up here to Portland, and then my husband was diagnosed with a brain tumor and I stopped writing. Real life was just too intense and I couldn’t write fiction. It just seemed meaningless. I started writing memoir and then about two years later, I really missed writing fiction. I had been in the middle of one story when it all happened and I wondered what would happen if I picked that story up again. At that time, we were renting this really old carriage house from the 1800s, which was our studio. It was freezing in the winter, boiling in the summer and you had to climb this old hayloft ladder to get up there and it was ridiculous, but it was a great place to write. I picked that story up again and I realized as I was writing it that after going through the experience I’d been through with my husband, it wasn’t enough anymore. It wasn’t enough to just write the every day. I realized that for a lot of people the everyday is often fraught with life or death issues. You just don’t realize the person next to you on the elevator might have just been diagnosed with cancer, or maybe their mom just died, or maybe their kid’s in the hospital. When I realized that, it was a shock to me. Which sounds ridiculous, but it truly was a revelation.
Right, because you don’t think about that stuff. You don’t assume someone next to you is in crisis, and yet you were that person in crisis.
Right, it either makes you a more empathetic person or it just shuts you down, and I completely understand how either one can happen. For me it just made me realize that the annoying guy on the bus next to me might have gotten the worst phone call he’s ever received just before he got on the bus. So I started trying to think about that when I wrote. When I wrote stories after that it felt like if there wasn’t some deeper level of something going on, it wasn’t worth it. It didn’t have to be a brain tumor, didn’t have to be life or death, but something had to really matter to my characters. So that completely changed what I was writing in terms of how I felt writing it. It dramatically changed my editing process. One of my final stages of editing became me asking what the hell was the story even about? Who cares? Why does this matter? If something important didn’t matter, then I needed to go back in and figure it out.
Do you find that readers assume your work is more autobiographical than it is?
Sweet Jesus, yes. Pretty much everybody thinks that every single story has happened to me. A really good example is “The Things We Know Nothing About”.
That’s the story where the main character is ambivalent being pregnant and was drinking alcohol during her pregnancy.
Yes. For a while I was mainly publishing memoir. I was writing fiction also, but a lot of my friends didn’t know that. Before the book came out, that story got picked up by Nailed magazine. It was clearly labeled as a short story and the names have nothing to do with me or my husband, but I had friends email me saying “You are so brave to put that out there and let everyone know that that’s you!” There’s a whole line in there about how that character of the husband has a tiny penis, so people were telling me how brave my husband was for letting everyone know about his tiny penis (laughs). Okay, so Number One: it’s fiction and Number Two, all fiction isn’t real. So yeah, pretty much everyone assumes it’s all real and all autobiographical. There’s that saying that everyone assumes your fiction is all true and your memoir is all a lie, so you’re screwed either way. I just finished reading this book called When We Talk About Raymond Carver by Sam Halpert. When Raymond Carver died, Halpert was sort of devastated so he went to all the people in Carver’s life and interviewed them. Every interview included a question about how much of Carver’s material the person thought was true and really happened. Different people had different ways of answering that question, but it was fascinating to watch it unfold through the course of an entire book of interviews. The last interview of the book is Richard Ford, who was really tight with Carver at the end of Carver’s life, and god bless him, he’s the only one who could say this, since he was such a bigwig, but he basically told Halpert to screw himself. In so many words, he said it was a really boring question. Who cares what came from his life? What matters is what happened on the page. What were his sentences like? What was the storytelling like? How was he able to create what he did? I loved that answer because I wished I could say it. When people ask how much of what I write is real, I feel like the answer is the same for every author: some of it. Some is real and some has nothing to do with me. That answer was so empowering because it’s exactly right: it does not matter.
Do you have a favorite character from the book?
My favorite character is probably the girl from the story “Yes”, which is about this girl who gets engaged at 17 and ends up in Reno with her boyfriend and his mom. I love her just because she’s so not me. So smart and brave for her age. Feisty in such a brainy way, and she doesn’t really realize how smart she is. Feminism is such a big word, but I feel like many of the characters in the book are sort of “lower case f” feminists. They’re feminists for their worlds that they live in. She’s a really good example of that and I love her for it. The fact that she, at 17, can even question what she questions feels so awesome to me.
One of my favorites is Mindy, who catches that goose. She’s a great example of that feminism.
She is awesome. She’s absolutely a total, raging feminist for the world she lives in. What she’s doing and not doing is outrageous for her life.
There are so many ways to be a feminist. You work in a field outside of writing, and you have two young kids, so can you tell me about your writing routine? How do manage to be as productive as you are with all the things that you’re balancing in your life?
Before I had kids, I would write every morning before went to my day job and since I don’t work on Fridays, that would be my writing day. When I had kids I would write an hour when they were napping or squeeze in half an hour when they were playing. Just before the book came out, I ended up having to write late at night, which I hated. I literally would fall asleep, face down, on my laptop while I was editing the book. That last story was written in this way. Editing was hard enough, but it was really tough for my creative brain to work at night, when I was exhausted because I’d been up since five. There were many times I thought that there just wouldn’t be a book because I couldn’t do it anymore. I probably thought that every single day. But every day I got closer to getting it to print. My process now is that I drop my kids off at school, I go to a café and write for an hour or two and then I go to my day job. So the answer is, the routine changes. It looks different all the time, and honestly, it doesn’t work great for me. My brain is a very chaotic place, so I need things around me to be structured, so I don’t do well like this. But I have absolutely no choice. So if the choice is I don’t write at all versus I write in a yucky, uncomfortable way, then I’ll take the yucky, uncomfortable way and just hold fucking on to the hope that this will change, and I’ll get a little bit of normalcy and structure back. I get this question almost every reading and I wish to god I had a better answer, but it’s just messy. Because the alternative is that you don’t do it. For me, I have to find a way to do it, even if sometimes it’s just five minutes a day, or five minutes every other day.
I think you have to count yourself as successful for doing that. For doing 10 minutes or 5 minutes. You have to look at what you have accomplished, not what you did not. If I get up and stare at the screen for 45 minutes, that counts.
Absolutely. That absolutely counts. That’s working.
You weren’t a writer first. First, you were in visual arts. How did your approach to visual arts inform your writing, and how did you move from one medium to the other?
Photography was my minor in college, but I hadn’t really planned on doing it professionally. I left college and followed my husband down to LA, where he was getting a master’s in film, and I figured I’d be the on-set photographer. Seemed like it be would be a great job. It would pay well, I’d take pictures, and it would be fun, right? I did it a couple times professionally down there and I just hated it. It wasn’t interesting to me. The thing I was always drawn to in photography is the exact same thing I’m drawn to in writing, which is people. People doing their regular, ordinary things. I’ve always loved that. So after that, I kind of floundered for a while. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I worked at all kinds of odd jobs and finally at a bookstore. After a couple years there I decided to take a short story writing class, and once I did that, I knew right away that’s what I needed to be doing. It’s only now that I’m able to see that I write visually. I write from the picture in my head. I call them “feeling pictures” because there’s always some feeling attached to it. Something like “melancholy” or “nostalgia”. Once I realized I could do that, then I sort of figured out what really works for me.
You don’t have an MFA, you have a degree in philosophy. Do you have any advice for writers coming to the business from outside of academia, or from working in industries outside of writing?
I have two answers. First, I think it’s a huge benefit to have your life outside of writing and academia because you see life differently when you’re not totally and completely submerged in the writing world. For what I like to write about, that’s a huge bonus. I just love regular people doing regular things because it’s so bizarre and fantastic. I just feel like you get anchored in reality in a different way when you have your outside life not about writing. It makes your writing richer on some levels. So that’s the first answer. The second answer is that it’s way harder. It’s all about connections and who you know, who likes you and wants to help you. If you’re not in the world, people don’t know about you and so they don’t know to help you. I thought about getting my MFA over and over. One year I applied to the University of Oregon and Portland State University and I got rejected by both places and I thought well, okay then. I’m just going to keep going and now I’m glad I was rejected. No doubt there were challenges. For a long time, it was just me working in my little vacuum. But yes, I think it’s great, and I think it’s hard as hell.
So now that your book is out and you’re busy with marketing and book promotion, how are you balancing the business life with writing?
Without a doubt, that’s my biggest challenge right now. That’s a question I’ve been asking writers for the last nine months as I’ve been traveling around supporting the book. How do you do this part? How does this work? I’ve encountered two answers. One super-organized person said she allowed herself one hour in the morning for social media. The rest of the morning was for book promotion, the afternoons were for writing and the weekends were for family. I got that answer and loved it, so I sat down with a piece of paper and thought about how I was going to organize my day and week like that. I thought about it, I took notes, I carried a notepad around with me to help figure it out, and I just couldn’t figure it out. I couldn’t make it work. So I thought okay, I’m just going to keep doing this haphazard thing, which mostly involves all my writing time going to business and promotion of the current book. But I kept asking people and I realized that the biggest answer was most writers can’t do both because the business and promotion side is such a different part of your brain. A lot of writers said if they were doing book promotion that’s what they focused on. If they felt like writing something, then they did. But for the most part, I had to let go of the idea of doing it all. I had been feeling this urgency, like I’d written a book and now I had to do something else. Right away. I had to keep working on something, keep being productive. I was creating all this anxiety, but I didn’t have an outlet for it, didn’t have an idea, and didn’t know how to make it happen. So now I’ve kind of relaxed about it. I’ve gone back to how I used to write when I was first writing. I carry my journal around. If I see something interesting I write about it. If I keep writing for an hour, then fine. If I just write down a moment that I saw on the subway and move on, then that’s fine. It’s been huge for me, because I’m giving myself permission to go back to what I love about writing, which is observing. Eventually, I trust that observation will turn into a story in my head that I won’t let go of, and it will come together the way it always has. I’m just going to keep on.