Yes, Let’s.

 

Rebecca Meacham (and Stella)

An acquaintance recently suggested I pick up a copy of Rebecca Meacham’s debut story collection, Let’s Do, and I’m so glad I did. The book, which won the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Fiction when it came out in 2004, realistically explores high drama writ small. Jennifer Anniston’s divorce may have captured headlines the world over, but Meacham’s Lila in “Simple as That” experiences all the same agony in the privacy of her home. When another character gets struck by a car and can’t take care of herself for several weeks, we don’t expect or get the heroism of Christopher Reeves—instead we get a little insight into ourselves. Let’s Do has been honored by Barnes & Noble’s “Discover Great New Writers” program and attracted other national attention.

 

Meacham’s fiction has appeared in numerous publications and has been nominated for a 2005 Pushcart Prize. She is a regular contributor of nonfiction to the Women’s Review of Books blog and is an editor of Talking Writing magazine. She is an associate professor at University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and director of the creative writing program. She lives with her husband, the poet Chuck Rybak, and their two children in the woods of Wisconsin. I spoke with her recently about Let’s Do, her writing technique, and her current projects.

Nearly all of the stories in Let’s Do are in third person. What do you see as the particular virtues or challenges of writing in third person versus first person?
What’s in the collection was written over the course of 10 years. When I was younger I was especially drawn to 2nd person, so I want to throw that in the mix. I’m a very language driven writer, and you can tell that because my stories are not action driven. I like 2nd person because it is pared down. It has an edge. I like that.

For me, 1st person is hardest to write. I have a difficult time capturing the way a person sounds using 1st person. In 3rd person, you can detach and still convey things from the character’s point of view, but be more articulate than the character might be. You can still capture their perspective, use their idioms. When I was writing these stories, I read a lot of Antonya Nelson and Dan Chaon. They use the 3rd person, but in a way that brings you very close to the character. I used to read them every night, hoping that somehow by osmosis their incredibleness would sink into me and my writing.

One thing I tell my students is to think about John Updike’s story “A&P.” Sammy is the cashier, young and working class. When he sees beauty, what will he compare it to? When three girls come in wearing their swimsuits, he makes a comparison between their breasts and two scoops of vanilla ice cream. In his world, beauty is ice cream. Later he compares a collar bone to a dented sheet of tin. Those are the things he knows, and to him, that’s beautiful. You have to know what your character will think is beautiful. You also have to understand attitude. For example, Samantha in “Trim and Notions” has a grumpy attitude. I know how that shapes her sentences.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen pets cast as well as they are in Let’s Do. (I’ve always been sympathetic to W.C. Fields on the question of working with animals–except my own adorable pets of course.) The relationships you’ve written between the humans and the pets are so realistic. What would you say are a few key things about bringing animals into a story?
I’m so happy you asked about this. When the collection first came out people would interview me about the book and I always wished someone would ask me about the animals, but no one ever did.

Part of the reason for the animals is that a number of the stories were written when I was on fellowship, which is a glorious experience I would love to repeat someday. I was paid to just write my book. I was living with my boyfriend (now husband). He had two cats and I had a dog. He would work long hours, so I didn’t have much contact with humans. I was writing at home with these animals all day.

It’s always seemed to me that writers struggle to put animals into their stories. People who want animals in their work tend to be real animal lovers and they want you to see how cute the animal is. That stops the story. It’s like when you see a really cute baby and you stop what you are doing to notice it. Animals often make the reader stop and notice them instead of the story. The animals have to serve a greater purpose. They have to help develop the plot or the characters or the setting.

So I was at home with these animals, and it helped take the sentimentality out for me when I was trying to type away and I heard the cat puking in the other room. I realized that people can have terrible thoughts about their animals. In “Good Fences” the main character Bill and his wife move out to the Ozarks for their retirement. I started that story when I was doing my MFA and I was struggling with how to end it as I revised it 10 years later. I wanted an irrevocable act to split Bill and his wife. I was excited about the idea of working with violence in my stories, which I hadn’t done before. So I got excited about the idea that the story would end with Bill shooting the dog. I kept trying to figure out how to make that work, and then finally I realized that wouldn’t resolve anything.

In “Worship for Shut-ins” I was so surprised to find the terrible feelings Valerie had for her dog. I didn’t start out with that in mind, but in so many of my stories people want to be caretakers and end up not being very good at it. They flail. Sometimes you see someone or something who needs cared for and you think what a great person you would be if you did it. But then you find out you aren’t heroic, you are just living every day with this difficult thing.

You tackle some pretty painful subjects in this collection—eating disorders, miscarriages, suicide, and more. Which of these stories was the most difficult to write?
I know, it’s a really hard collection. I always try to warn people! Sometimes someone will say “Oh hey, I picked up your book. I’m packing it in my things for when I visit my mom in the hospital” or something like that and I’ll be like, “No! Don’t do it, this isn’t the right book for that.”

As a writer, the most optimistic story, “Trim and Notions,” was the hardest to write. There is lots of dialogue and fight scenes, sometimes it would literally take me days to write a page—for example, the showdown between the sisters. I don’t have siblings, so it was really hard to figure that part out.

“Good Fences” was the same deal. I couldn’t figure it out. I had that dog getting run over, shot, etc. But it wasn’t about the dog. No animals were harmed in the story; I had to realize the resolution wasn’t about the dog.

“Let’s Do” is the hardest for me to read. Now that I have kids, I couldn’t write that, I can’t even read it. When I started the story I thought there would be a happy reunion between the husband and wife. Then I realized no. I reconstructed her history, this person who used to always say “Let’s do!” I had the title before any other thing. The first scene fell out almost entirely as is. That tends to be true for me. The first part of what I write is very shaped, then I think “now what?” I knew that she was at the end of something, but I didn’t realize she was beyond hope until I went back in the past with her and realized how she got there. I’ve never had a miscarriage, but since I’ve written that story I’ve known a lot of people who have had very hard experiences with miscarriages, and now I have two children and I could just never write that story. It is easier to write about terrible pain when there is a heck of a lot of distance.

How do you get that distance in the stories that have an autobiographical component?
I wrote “Weights and Measures” based on an eating disorder I had when I was twelve. Like in the story, it was when my parents divorced and I went into control mode. It all got resolved later, no worries. But when I wrote the story I had ten or more years distance and also it was in 2nd person and that directive voice allows additional separation. And a good part of it was written as fiction, too. So, the form, and growth, and the fiction, all gave me the distance necessary.

How did you decide how to order the stories?
Arranging these stories was hard. Erin McGraw mentored me when I was in Cincinnati and I was asking her, “Should I put the dead neighbor child story next to the dead dog or the dead baby?”

What are you working on now? Or what do you want to be working on?
What I want to be working on is a better question. I am a full time college professor and the director of the creative writing program and an advisor. I also manage the undergraduate literary magazine and I have a 4-year-old and a 2-1/2-year-old. I have to clear out all the furniture mentally before I can sit down and write fiction.

I have a novel I’m working on. I’ve never tried the long form before. It’s a historical novel about the Peshtigo fire of 1871. I became interested when I was going around Wisconsin to promote my book. Wisconsin has been so good to me, and I’m not from here originally. So I wanted to do something about Wisconsin. The Peshtigo fire has so many different intertwining stories. It’s dark and tragic. There was a meteorologist who knew what was going to happen, but couldn’t contact anyone. There was a corrupt priest. These are real characters that I’m fictionalizing. And then I am centering the story around three couples. In my research, I heard tapes of songs that were recorded by old lumberjacks, and I hadn’t thought about it before, but of course the songs were all dirty! So I was listening to this 80-year-old man sing about what he did to this woman in every room of the house! Even though it’s a dark story there are opportunities for levity.

[In addition to the above,] I am the fiction editor for a new online magazine called Talking Writing. I’ve been contributing non-fiction to that site as well. I like creative non-fiction. It’s new, and I like the overlapping structure with fiction, but I don’t have to do all the heavy lifting. For example, I don’t have to figure out what a Belgian immigrant would call a potato. I’ve also been doing reviews for the Women’s Review of Books and I like thinking about technique and writing about that for an audience.

I’m also working on another collection of short stories, taking some of the unused material from Let’s Do. It’ll be a little funnier. There some bitterness to it, but it’s brighter.

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2 Responses to “Yes, Let’s.”

  1. April Says:

    I love how Meacham describes how she writes her story: the beginning is very shaped, but then what? I run into that a lot, too. I’m curious about the novel about Peshtigo! Could be very interesting.

  2. Glenn Lyvers Says:

    Enjoyable article.

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