When I first told people that Call Me Home was slated to be published, friends and acquaintances kept asking me, “Is it funny?”
“No,” I would say. “Not even a little bit. Not even for a second.”
This makes me laugh, but it’s true. I think I can be decently funny in person, on a good day, and I respect (and am fairly jealous of) anyone who can be funny on the page, but I’m not a humorous or light writer, often to a fault. André Aciman writes in Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere, “What we reach for and what ultimately touches us is the radiance we’ve projected on things, not the things themselves — the envelope, not the letter, the wrapping, not the gift.” I’ve often been accused of misplaced radiance—of being drawn toward darkness, toward flawed characters. But I don’t think that’s it—I don’t think that I’m projecting radiance on to anyone; I think it’s there; I think of how achingly beautiful it is that each person in the world has their own set of dreams and needs and wants, and that’s what I wanted to do with the book. To show who these people are, individually, and then to show how their stories add up to a bigger story of their family, one that you can’t fully see from the inside, that is bigger than the sum of its parts. I think we have a responsibility to witness darkness and sorrow, to live alongside it and acknowledge how we are made by it, rather than pretending it away.
Where did this story come from?
Amy, Jackson, Lydia, and their world come from scraps of people I’ve loved and known and been, and they grew and populated and took on their own lives—what happens with any novel, I think. Those characters and this story grew out of some of my shifting ideas about the geographies I’ve been shaped by and the way I grew up, questions about what it means to be gay in a rural place, and the same emotions that have always haunted my life: loneliness, uncertainty, the desire for joy, the desire to spend a life to its fullest, the question of where we should be. I also spent some of my twenties working in domestic violence intervention, where I met so many incredible women who were making their lives and fighting for themselves and their children. I’ve tried over the last few years to make sense of how to write about the courage of survivors, to make sense of what it means to live with abuse. I was lucky to grow up in a loving family. But I see in my own family and in everyone else’s that to have children, to create a home, to enter into the transaction of life at all–this means that you are agreeing to keep an invisible ledger. You are agreeing to spend your life weighing how well you did for others. The responsibility and joy of existing in part for others is a trauma as well. Often, survivors of violence are made to be the sole keepers of that ledger, even as their lives are driven by other hands. I hope it comes through that, despite the fact that I don’t think the family in my story is always making the “perfect” decisions, I believe in them; I know that there are no perfect decisions, and that they believe in each other.
Why Jackson and Lydia? Why is that an important relationship?
Having grown up in a rural place, I think a lot now about how my brother is the only person who knows, really knows, what it was like. He’s infinitely cool, my brother, three years younger, and he spent a few years acting pretty feral when he a toddler, running around eating sticks and dog food. I floated him down the creek on old plywood boards and stole his penny allowance by dressing up like an old beggar woman, banging a tin cup, and shouting “Alms for the poor!”—and even though I was a terrible bully to him, it was him and me, always. He knows what that land was like, what our lives were like—where we started from.
When one of my dearest friends lost her brother to a cancer that ate its way through his bones, I thought of how my brother and I had made a secret code for late at night, to talk to each other even as we lay in our beds with a wall between us. One knock meant Are you awake? Three meant Yes. Fourteen meant Meet me in the kitchen. Fifteen meant I want to go to sleep now; stop knocking. My friend sat across from me and told me how the only other person who understood who she was—understood what it meant to be born into her world, was gone. I remembered how late into the night the knocking would fill our tiny house, how my brother’s and my messages would cross and recross the air, filaments stringing him to me. We were each other’s only means of measuring our finite little world, and comparing notes of what might be on the outside, of what lives we might make for ourselves. Jackson and Lydia bear witness together. The entire hinge of this novel–their separation and search for each other–is about their need to find the other half of their story.
My brother is still infinitely cool, by the way.
What made you want to write this character? How important is it that this is a queer story?
It is important to me to identify this as a queer novel, and some of the feedback I’ve received about the sexual content, about its potential taboo, confirms my suspicion that we are still in a place where queer stories are less than visible. How do you learn to be queer in a place that has carved out no room for you? There’s all this information about the urban queer experience that doesn’t reach out past where the mail stops running.To be openly queer in a rural place is still to be immensely brave; it is to be living a hugely different reality from someone who is similarly queer in the city. And that isolation of queerness compounds the need to escape, and ensures the sorrow of knowing you’ll leave your home. It’s a lonely feeling.
At the same time, this is not just a story about a young queer man’s coming of age. I hope that his identity as a gay man is read as one part of his full story, one part of his life and the person he is becoming.
What gives you the right to tell this story? To take on the voices of a survivor and mother, or of a gay man?
I’m still grappling with this myself. I’ve tried to be as honest as I can, to have as much integrity as possible as I show the pieces of my own experience and places I’ve been, and simultaneously create characters who are not myself. My hope is that it doesn’t seem like I’m trying to speak for every survivor or every queer person growing up in a place that doesn’t have room for him or her–but I do hope that it resonates. I hope that these are characters you can believe in and relate to and understand.
How long did it take to write this? What were you working on before?
I wrote a “book” at nineteen; it was called, “The Water in a Place Like This,” and it was a hamfisted Jeanette Winterson-rip-off about two women grappling with sorrow and lust. Next, there was a novel called, “When We Are Light,” which stretched too hard about things I didn’t know much about. I started “Call Me Home” in 2010, but if I’m honest with myself, I pulled a lot of themes from those first two novels. It’s a comfort to me to think that I finally told the story I was trying to get at–and both inspiring and sobering to know that I’ve worked on the ideas behind this for over ten years, off and on.
I have always wanted to write–I’ve never deviated from that path, and that certainty has always been a huge comfort to me, because I knew without a doubt that this was what I wanted to pursue. That kind of consistency makes it easier to believe in your decisions, even as you choose against some of the traditional securities that other careers and paths offer. However, I’ve hit a lot of points where I knew–and I still know–that personal certainty is not at all relevant to career certainty, that there’s no guarantee of your work being published. I feel a tremendous gratitude for what has happened, and I never want to stop being aware of that. I hope I can extend the generosity I’ve received to others.
I spent the winter of 2012 living in my grandmother’s abandoned house in Calumet City, Illinois, writing and helping to clean out the house after she moved in with my aunt and uncle in Indiana. I finished the first draft of Call Me Home there, and afterward I stalled out. I had been so sure that all it took was my finishing the novel and sending it out, and then everything would come together. I spent the wondering, wandering empty days between finishing the first draft and getting the first round of rejections transcribing my grandmother’s love letters–letters that I’d found deep in a trunk in her house. It was a hundred and fifty pages that catalogued my grandfather’s time in World War II, and his relationship with my grandmother as it evolved. At the time, the letters were a filler, a way to distract myself from the fact that maybe my novel wouldn’t go anywhere. It was only in the next two years, as I kept on with my life and revising the book, that I realized that the things you do today are the things you’ll write about tomorrow. If you chain yourself to a static dream, you might miss the next story coming for you.
My grandmother passed away in January of this year. In the last years of her life, I learned more about her and grew closer to her than I had ever, if truth be told, even expected to. So that’s my next story–writing something that comes from her letters, from what I thought was a filler until some fantasy ship came in. Her whole story is still in front of me to write, and I’m only at the beginning of it. That’s been my big lesson–we keep going on.
MEGAN KRUSE is a fiction and creative nonfiction writer from the Pacific Northwest. She studied creative writing at Oberlin College and earned her MFA at the University of Montana, where she was awarded a Bertha Morton scholarship. Her creative writing has appeared in Narrative Magazine, The Sun, Witness Magazine, Thumbnail Magazine, Bellingham Review, and Phoebe, among others. Kruse’s short story, “Dollywood,” which originally appeared in Witness Magazine, is one of 100 Other Distinguished Stories listed in Best American Short Stories 2011, edited by Geraldine Brooks. “Lila” appeared in Portland Noir, an anthology from Akashic Books (2009), and is currently being developed as an independent, feature-length film. Her essay, “The Trailer,” was published in Portland Queer: Tales from the Rose City (2009), which won a 2010 Lambda Award for queer literature. Her nonfiction essay “Ballads” won the Bellingham Review’s Annie Dillard Award for Creative Nonfiction in 2007. Call Me Home is her first novel.