Meg Pokrass is a fiction writer (her story collection DAMN SURE RIGHT from Press 53 comes out in Feb.’11), and is an editor at BLIP (formerly The Mississippi Review), but I first noticed her through her animation that was showing up on TNB and elsewhere. She has a point-of-view that is hilarious, unique, and odd in the best way. Meg Pokrass’ fiction reveals her more intense side. Her stories can’t help but move you—they are often sad, always touching, usually funny, and somehow huge in how much of a world she evokes in two or three pages. Of course I was also drawn to Meg’s writing because much of her work is set in California. It turns out we’re from the same small Southern California town. Not only that, but our mothers are from the same small Pennsylvania town. We’ve never met in person but clearly we have much to talk about.
We’re both from Santa Barbara, which is a “beautiful people” town. A rich people town. Although it was less like that when we were kids. What do you think was the effect of growing up there as opposed to growing up in, say, Reading Pennsylvania where my mother lived to about age fifteen, and where your parents grew up?
Being beautiful and rich always sounded really neat; I still think that. I really do. Beautiful friends were a backdrop to my life in Santa Barbara. Basically, I tried to be one of them and failed but managed to ruin my skin by browning myself like a Thanksgiving turkey. They had mostly straight hair and my hair was very very curly! I hated it and tried to straighten it every day. It worked if I wore a hat and I became addicted to hat-wearing and scarf wearing. I also had braces and headgear that made me look like a football player. It was the kind that went around the entire head. The orthodontist should have just shot me. The effect is that it probably built character but what that means is open to debate. I’m positive it whacked my self-esteem and made me plenty neurotic and self-conscious
Growing up in Reading, PA would have been nasty because my dad was not nice and we left him for a better life. Santa Barbara meant freedom to my mom, myself, and my two sisters.
How was your dad so awful? And when you got to Santa Barbara from Reading, was it like going to some incredibly new and amazing universe?
It was a strange and wonderful new land but with asterisks . . . I was lonely for family (cousins, grandparents, aunts and uncles) and often scared of losing more. Everything depended on my mother. That was a lot of weight for her to carry around and a lot of pressure on me and my sisters to be her everything. And I was terrified on the 3,000 mile car ride with my mother getting lost and driving through all kinds of weird weather not knowing much and depending on crumpled maps.
My father was physically and emotionally abusive, much worse on my sisters than myself. I was “the baby” and got away with more. He had (I am guessing) a serious mood disorder.
You should name your memoir (which I’m now convinced you should write) THE BABY THAT GOT AWAY.
When I was in high school, people could be identified by being part of one of four groups: Surfers and Surf-Chicks (self explanatory, although it should be pointed out that you didn’t have to actually surf to be part of this group); Soces (pronounced SO-SHIZ, meaning you were very social and joined clubs, etc.–most athletes were thought of as soces); Stoners (meaning you sat on the field at lunch time, or in the Greek Theater, and smoked pot); and “Mexicans.” (You weren’t automatically “Mexican” if you were Mexican-American. There were plenty of Surfers and Soces and Stoners who were Mexican-American. Being “Mexican” meant that you only hung out with other Mexican-American kids and didn’t hang out with the people from the other three groups.) Which group were you in?
Jessica, you absolutely pinned it. These were the groups that existed, and most of my really close friends struggled with this a lot. If I had been vulnerable in this way, if I had cared about these groups, I would have never gotten out of bed.
I believe this is why acting became a religion for me, a safe haven. About the only place I felt normal-ish was hanging out with other actors in rehearsal, inside a theater. Auditioning and rehearsing for something coming up was a necessary reality. There was a fringe group of Santa Barbara thespians (for lack of a better label) – those of us who did local theater religiously from a very young age.
Oh, so you were a Theater Geek! I forgot about that group. Which acting groups were you in? My sister and I were in Youth Theater and my brother was in Star Construction Company. It was all great.
I wasn’t in Star Construction (but I’m pretty sure I did a few shows there); I just auditioned for all local stuff as it came up. I did summer stock in Peterborough NH in high school (2 summers in a row) and went to PCPA after high school (can one call an acting conservatory college?).
Your older sister was a TV and movie star. Is a celebrity sister one of those life-changers, like a dead sister or a special needs sister?
It is absolutely a life-changer having a celebrity sibling in a tiny, delicate family like ours. Sian’s celebrity felt like an endorphin high and gave the family hope about what was possible for a talented girl from Reading, Pennsylvania. Sian retired from acting fairly young, but during her rise, and in the meat of her career in TV and film, we all felt as though we were living on the edge. Friends that visited and stayed with us at times were stars like Richard Thomas, Richard Dreyfus, Tom Moore (who directed the original Grease on Broadway). It was fun as hell and intellectually rich.
But, having a celebrity sister messed with my self-esteem because, naturally, people liked me or pretended to like me mainly because they wanted to meet her. I would ruthlessly test people to see if the friendship was genuine.
I am pretty sure that wanting to be an actress myself (I was an actor before becoming a writer) had everything to do with loving my sister, Sian, intensely and wanting to be like her when I grew up (Sian is much older than I, more like a mother than a sister and she played duel roles for me). I started acting at age 8 and quit at age 26.
Since you became a writer instead of an actor, let’s talk about that a little. The thing I love about your fiction is that it is short, quirky, very funny, and yet each small story seems to get out this huge, moving emotion. What comes first for you in the writing: the overarching emotion, the little details, the story line, or what?
I never start with an idea, and I usually begin writing rather blankly. I almost always use “found” words and launch off. I have no idea what I am going to write about and I grab words and see where they take me. I force myself to incorporate all the words even if I discard them later. I like the way they take me to unexpected places. I make many character decisions based on the awkwardness of words being thrown at me that feel kind of wrong and having to deal with that moment of “what now?”.
Then, I don’t touch the free-write for at least a week. I am always surprised. Though my initial steps toward writing a story are unconscious, the next steps which can be many (the first edit and all subsequent edits, sometimes as many as twenty) involve wearing a totally different hat. An editor must be sly, focused and intuitive. Coffee is essential!
Are you glad you became a writer rather than an actor? Getting older as an actor seems sort of painful to me. But getting older as writer seems easy. It’s like being the Wonderful Wizard of Oz—you can be anyone behind that curtain, all that really matters is what is put out there for people to see.
Yes. Acting rewards youth and beauty and these days (especially in film) talent is nearly peripheral. I can’t imagine how actors in their forties function in terms of the quality-of-life and the constant “you are too old, sorry”. So far, as a writer, nobody has said to me “You are too old to write this.” Writing is about as unphysical as an art-form gets. For example, the age of our characters and their emotional lives is imaginary and created with not one restriction that I know of. It’s a powerful feeling, as an artist, to be so unlimited.
I am shy and small and quiet but with my silly online persona, nobody really knows that and if they do know, they don’t seem to care. Having readers is a dream come true.
We have readers Jessica. We are lucky Santa Barbarians, wealthy and perfect looking. Or not!
Not. But lucky anyway!