A Conversation With Meghan Kenny by KR fiction editor Geeta Kothari
Meghan Kenny has lived in Japan, Boise, Idaho, and the coast of northern Peru. Currently, she lives in Baltimore, where she is the Tickner Writing Fellow at the Gilman School. She teaches fiction, mentors the student literary journal, organizes the reading series, and finds time to work on her novel, The Driest Season. Recently, we talked via email about her story “What Will Make This All Right,” (KR Spring 2009).
Geeta Kothari: The story starts with a fairly simple problem—Rick is hungry—and as it progresses, obstacles prevent him from satisfying his hunger. But the story is about so much more than physical hunger, and I’m wondering how the metaphor developed as you wrote the story.
Meghan Kenny: This story started from a prompt my friend from graduate school made up years ago. The prompt was simple: a character walks into a store and sees a twenty-dollar bill fall out of someone’s pocket. What does he do? So I had to get a character into a store and I knew he’d take the money but wasn’t sure why, so I made him very hungry. Then I figured he’d forgotten his own wallet and would take the money just to get what he wanted and get out of there. That’s where the surface story began.
Then I needed something deeper going on–something that mattered more than an empty stomach and finding twenty bucks. Around this time the news kept talking about age and infertility, and I couldn’t get it off my mind. I kept thinking of myself and others I knew who were focused on our careers but did want children, and I thought: What if when we’re finally ready to conceive we’re not able? I didn’t really make the hunger connection for Rick and Charlotte wanting a child until revisions. I’m glad it worked out, though, because having a baby is a very real hunger and desire for so many people, especially if they seem to be able to do and have everything else but can’t make this one thing work that we human beings think is part of our makeup and natural right—being able to make a baby.
GK: I can never tell if my students are sneering at the prompts I assign or if they appreciate them. And yet, I’ve written some of my best stories in response to prompts.
MK: I love prompts. Sometimes writing feels less daunting when someone says, here are the parameters for this story, now write. Prompts get me started, and I can always change those parameters in a revision. What I like best about prompts is that they make me write about people or situations I might never have considered before. The more I give my own students prompts the more I see how helpful they are in teaching specific elements of craft.
GK: You chose to tell this story from a man’s point of view. Why?
MK: Half of the stories I’ve written are from a male point of view. I started experimenting with that point of view because I felt I could step out of myself in the writing and explore a different voice and vision. I often write about things I don’t understand, and there’s a lot about men as fathers, boyfriends, lovers, and husbands that I don’t understand. I wondered how a man might feel about and react to wanting a child.
GK: So, if this had been written from a female point of view, would you have felt restricted by the basic similarities between you and the main character? It seems there’s a lot more freedom in writing about things you don’t understand, and yet the old advice “Write what you know” seems to persist. Is there a necessary balance between the two?
MK: I thought writing the story from Charlotte’s point of view would feel too familiar. I couldn’t find an angle from her point of view that interested me, or felt new. And yes, I think there’s always a balance between writing about what you know and don’t know. For example, I understand what it’s like to long for something specific to happen, but I don’t fully understand where that longing comes from, what it means, or what to do with those emotions. Oh, and I understand what it’s like to get those Christmas cards with the photos and long letters in the mail every year–I open them with both excitement and dread. Sometimes they’re hard to look at because they make me anxious and make me wonder, “Am I behind? Should I have accomplished more? How does so-and-so look so great after three kids? Are we really this old already?”
GK: I love how the dog, first as an image then as an actual dog, takes on meaning in the story. Was that planned or a happy accident?
MK: The dog was a surprise and happy accident. Her role evolved over the drafts. At first she was just in the car that the shopping cart hit, then she linked up with their friends’ Christmas cards, which all seemed to have a dog in the picture. It made sense that Rick and Charlotte had to have this dog, somehow, to use in their Christmas card photo. Charlotte hopes Ruby might make them look and feel like they fit in, but it doesn’t make anything better.
GK: In this case, the story revealed itself to you as you wrote. I find it hard to trust that process sometimes and even harder to teach my students how to see these happy accidents and use them rather than pressing on relentlessly toward some pre-ordained ending.
MK: That process of “writing as I go” is the only one that I know. I’ve never been an outliner. I don’t want to know how my stories will end before I write them. The most frustrating and wonderful parts about writing, and life are the surprises along the way. The most important and profound moments I’ve experienced I never saw coming, and I love reading stories like that and hope to write stories like that too.
GK: And yet, despite this lack of control, the story itself is compact. It takes place in a short expanse of time yet covers so much with no extended flashbacks interrupting the forward motion of the story (can you tell I read a lot of stories like that?). In fact, Rick and Charlotte’s whole past is summarized in one paragraph.
MK: I had a lot more about Rick and Charlotte’s pasts in earlier drafts, but it slowed the story’s momentum and felt too heavy, too explanatory. I’ve always been a fan of short stories that are scene-driven in “now-time” with little flashback: Carver, Wolff, O’Connor, Carlson, Ford. I think summarized back-story information or flashbacks can be very helpful and powerful, but I wanted to focus on the moment at hand, of how Charlotte and Rick dealt with this particular day in their lives.
GK: What are you working on now?
MK: I’m working on my first novel. I wrote a story a few years ago called “The Driest Season,” and I kept thinking about it. It’s a quiet story, but I love it and felt like the characters had more to explore and figure out, so now it’s the first chapter of my novel. I’m drawn to family dynamics and to the idea of loss and how it shapes us. The protagonist is a fifteen-year-old girl whose life has been turned upside down by her father’s suicide. She’s questioning the big things in life: What is love, truth, and trust? Why are we here, and what the hell is the point of it all? I’m fascinated with the idea of how things in life don’t usually work out the way we thought they would and how hard it is to come to terms with the fact that we ultimately have little control over who we love and who loves us, who stays and leaves, where we end up geographically, professional, emotionally, and who we become.
GK: Taking a complete short story and building a novel from it seems harder in some ways than generating a novel from new material.
MK: Even though my story “The Driest Season” was finished, it had a lot of unanswered questions at the end, and so to use the story as a jumping off point for a longer piece made sense to me. I kept wondering what would happen next with these people. It’s been easy for me to use the story as a first chapter because it gave me a concrete world with which to work and step back into. I already knew the terrain, I liked the language and tone of the piece, and I wanted to know the characters better—what kinds of discoveries and decisions they’d continue to make.
GK: Have you been influenced by anyone in particular while writing the novel?
MK: I’ve been reading all sorts of novelists and short story writers this past year, but I’ve found Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road most helpful for their simple yet profound premises and mostly chronological and scene-driven writing.
Geeta Kothari is the fiction editor for The Kenyon Review.