Frank Reardon: Right off the bat I’d like to ask you about your writing process. When you sit down to write, whether a novel or story, where are you? Do you have an office? A place you like to write? Do you have a time frame you try to achieve each day? Do you listen to music when writing?
Meagan Lucas: I start every piece in an XL soft cover Moleskine notebook. I can do this anywhere: in the car-line waiting to pick up my kids from school, on the deck at our lake place, in my bed buried beneath a thousand blankets; but this is where the stories all start for me, on paper. Sometimes it begins with a piece of dialogue, a conversation between two characters. Or sometimes with a feeling or thought that a character has, and I just get as much out as I can. Like vomiting. Eventually, there are enough arrows and scribbled lines that I need to type it.
I have an office. It’s lovely. Great light and filled with books and houseplants (I’m obsessed; I’ve been accused of trying to turn our house into a jungle). In addition to writing, I also adjunct at a technical community college, so having a place where I can plan and grade is important. I have one of those giant retro papasan chairs. It’s a great place to curl up and read, or edit (I like to edit on paper.)
After that initial purge in my notebook, you can usually find me sitting at my desk trying to find the shape of the story, with my bulldog/pug mix, Lincoln, on my feet. I like to listen to what I’ve heard described as “divorced dad” music while I write. (The National, Foy Vance, Gregory Alan Isakov, Ben Howard, Lord Huron…) but often, like today, my children are home and so I am listening to them argue over video games from the other room. Before 5pm there is always coffee, after, something a bit stronger.
When I was at my most productive, word count wise, I wrote every day. I sat down for hours and wouldn’t let myself move/sleep until I had thousands of words in. But you know, then you take on new projects like marketing a book, or editing at a magazine, and it changes how your day is shaped. I spend less time physically writing now—I try to schedule three two hour blocks a week to actually sit down and put out words—but I like what I’m writing better. I spend more time thinking and reading now, and writing less, but I think it makes my work more thoughtful. I think there is something to be said for the push-push-push hustle. But I think too, that we have to find that balance between production, and craft, which might mean we don’t write every day.
FR: I believe I read you are originally from Canada. Perhaps you told me, I cannot seem to remember. How long have you lived in North Carolina? And how has it influenced your writing? Tell us a little about your personal North Carolina…
ML: I grew up on St. Joseph Island, in Northern Ontario, Canada, and am still a Canadian citizen. I moved to Michigan for graduate school and met my husband. We moved to North Carolina in 2009. Our move was highly motivated by our desire to be away from snow, and the lack of opportunity in Michigan at the time. We visited the Asheville area for our honeymoon and fell in love with its easy-going vibe. I think when people think North Carolina (especially if you’re from the North) you think beach, but here in the West it’s all about the mountains. In Henderson County, we have four gentle seasons, gorgeous views, serious eats, and a small town feel. We also have world-class mountain biking and kayaking—if that’s your thing. It’s not mine. I’m indoorsy.
Fun Fact about me: I have a condition called Cold Urticaria. Basically, when exposed to cold I get hives like crazy. All my blood rushes to the surface of my skin, forgets to keep my organs warm, and hello hypothermia. I was hospitalized many, many times between the ages of seven and thirteen, when I sort of figured out how to control it. Swimming in cold water, or playing snow sports, are a no go. Holding a cold beverage causes a reaction on my hands. So, the South suits me.
I can think of little else (with the exception of reading) that has influenced my writing the way that this place, that this land and these people, have. Sometimes I think that my stories take place here out of laziness—I don’t really have to research, I just have to pay attention—but I find that there is something about the Southern US, and particularly the mountains, that lends itself to the kind of stories that I want to write. When we first moved here, I found it very claustrophobic: the sun goes down early, it’s hard to see the horizon – the very dirt was crowding me. I’m a northerner, and an islander. I was used to bare Canadian shield, pine trees clinging to rock, and wide-open water. I felt like North Carolina was crushing me, the mountains were a threat.
And, in my ten years of living here, I’ve learned that my first impression was right. They are a threat. The landscape is wild, treacherous and consuming. But then so are the people, and the stories, and where else would a storyteller ever want to be?
FR: I read the novel and I really enjoyed it. It’s an excellent debut and I think you have a nice career ahead of you. Can tell some of the readers who might’ve not read the book why you chose the title, “Songbirds & Stray Dogs”?
ML: Thank you. I’m thrilled you liked it. To be honest, I don’t think authors choose titles, I think that the title chooses you. It did for me, anyway. I called the novel Jolene for a long time, after the main character. I do that with a lot of my works in progress. My work is heavily character based, so that seems to work for me—the story really is about Jolene. When I finished the first draft, I started calling it As Is the Mother from Ezekiel 16:44: “…as is the mother, so is her daughter,” but it didn’t feel quite right. I wanted something that encompassed more of the hardships that Jolene and Chuck face—not just family, but religion and poverty, too. When I was in the revision process, I was on vacation with my family, and in a little bookstore in Beaufort, SC (which is where my novel starts) I picked up Beach Music by Pat Conroy and found this sentence: “Eternal life seemed especially sweet to folk who had eaten songbirds and stray dogs for dinner and who tried to coax measly crops from fields more granite than loam.” And that was it. I couldn’t think of it as anything else. It picked me.
The Conroy quote I think explains well the connection to, and legacy of, religion and poverty. But also, as a very astute reviewer pointed out, there are stray dogs in this story, a number of them. People abandoned and left to wander, to try to find shelter and safety in a world that doesn’t want them. But I think that there are songbirds too, moments of hope, and clear notes of joy.
FR: I think some of the best fiction reflects our own lives, or lives of people we know. and, man, Jolene is a fantastic character. When reading I found myself immersed in her life, I felt for her. There’s a realness to her. Do some of her experiences come from your own life? Perhaps someone you might know?
ML: I’ve heard that first novels are often accidentally autobiographical, and there is certainly a lot of me in Jolene—more her personality than her experience. Songbirds and Stray Dogs was born when I overheard a conversation at a coffee shop where a young woman was telling a man that she was pregnant with his baby, and he was having none of it. I have babies myself and really felt for her. I found couldn’t stop thinking about her, and from there I just kept asking myself “how could this be worse?” until there was a novel. The plot of Songbirds… doesn’t come from my life or anyone I know even though, for example I was raised in a conservative religious tradition that I no longer follow, I’ve never been kicked out of the house and my parents are lovely. I do a lot of listening, a lot of wondering and asking possibly inappropriate questions, and I think that is where a lot of the plot came from.
I did, however, want Jolene to feel real, and so it was important to me that she wasn’t a beauty queen, and that people didn’t like her because of how she looks. (So she’s a chubby brunette with crooked teeth, and you guys are going to publish a picture of me with this interview, so readers will figure that out.) Readers will also notice that she has no remarkable talents, she isn’t particularly smart or athletic. Jolene just tries really hard, and in that way I think she echoes me. I never want to fail for a lack of effort. And I do think that the safest and likeliest way to make someone want to keep you around is being useful to them. As I talk to readers at events, I’ve come to realize that this feeling is much more common than I realized, the idea that usefulness and hard work will be your salvation, will make people like you and stay, seems to be deeply engrained—particularly in women. Helpfulness as both shield and tether. If I may be so bold, I think we can see it through generations of women making something out of nothing, and never letting bellies get empty.
Additionally, I am very aware that I am a Northerner, a Canadian, and not a born Southerner or Appalachian. That is why Jolene is an outsider, because I wanted to be very careful about appropriating culture. I wanted to be true to what I see, to where I live, but I also know how easily characters can become stereotypes and caricatures when the author isn’t aware and sensitive. One of my favorite things is when some approaches me at a reading and tells me they had no idea I wasn’t Southern until they heard me speak and my Canadian accent came out. That’s real praise right there, that’s how I know I got something right.
FR: What was it like putting your first novel together? Your experiences working with the publisher?
ML: Songbirds is the first novel I’ve published, but not the first novel I’ve written. The first one was a real dumpster fire, but I learned a lot about pace, finishing, and patience while I was writing. Songbirds continued my education. If I’m being honest with myself, with the first novel, I didn’t have enough patience with my writing to produce a piece that I loved. I wrote a lot, quickly, but when I got to the end I wasn’t proud. I’m thankful that I had enough balls to just set it aside and move on, and not put in the effort to try to sell and then market a book I didn’t love. With Songbirds I honestly didn’t have enough patience with the querying process. I had terrible imposter syndrome, and I didn’t look for an agent, but went right to a couple of small presses. I was thrilled when Songbirds and Stray Dogs was snatched up because I was so afraid no one would like it. It has turned out well, but I’d be lying if I didn’t suffer from a bit of the “what-if’s.”
As a reader, I think that small presses are putting out some of the exciting and challenging work. I’ve bought a bunch of SFK Press, Cowboy Jamboree, Broken River, Blair, Press 53, etc. books this past year. As a writer, there are some really wonderful aspects of working with a small publisher—they care about what I want, and what I think. It feels like a partnership and it has been a really valuable learning experience. I’ve learned a lot about distribution and book marketing—enough that I’m starting to teach workshops on “No Budget” marketing for indie press and self-published writers. I’m so grateful for the doors that have been opened for me, and I don’t want to sound whiny but I do counsel up and coming writers to start bigger with their queries. A “do as I say, and not as I did,” situation. Living with the regret and jealousy of watching a book that is similar to yours with a bigger publisher, get a national tour, and lots of marketing money will eat you alive.
FR: You have a solid presence on social media. I’ve seen all of the photos you posted for some of the readings for the book, congrats! How have those experiences been for you? Any weird or funny things happen at a reading you care to share?
ML: Social Media is a very important tool for a small press author. Lit twitter in particular has been really helpful and encouraging for me. It’s where I “met” the authors who so generously blurbed my book, reviewers who took a chance on a newbie, and where I’ve found so many new writer friends.
Strangely enough I have not physically met most of the people I ‘know’ from social media so there is a disconnect there between my “online” life, and my “in person” life. I have had a number of wonderful readings and events in four states and two countries. I can’t say that anything really weird or funny has happened. In person events make me really nervous—not the speaking in front of a lot of people part, I do that all the time, I’m a teacher. It’s the speaking to individual strangers part that I fuck up. I know I’m going to say something idiotic and I do – you don’t want to ask George Singleton or David Joy what an ass I made of myself the first time I met them—but people are kind and generous and have been so welcoming and encouraging to me.
FR: Give us your favorite authors. I’ll make it easy, give us five dead authors you love, and five living authors. Authors who influenced you, and/or inspire you?
ML: This is an awful question. I can’t do what you’re asking. Also, dead writers don’t need promo, however:
The best novel I read last year was: Lights All Night Long by Lydia Fitzpatrick
The best collection I read last year was: This One Will Hurt You by Paul Crenshaw
The novel that made me want to write: A Land More Kind than Home by Wiley Cash.
The novels that made me want to write better: Coyote Songs by Gabino Iglesias and Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison.
Writers that I own everything they’ve ever written: Ron Rash, Flannery O’Connor, and Tana French.
2020 Books I’m really excited about? Holding Smoke by Steph Post, F*ckface by Leah Hampton, When These Mountains Burn by David Joy, Pride of Eden by Taylor Brown, Blackwood by Michael Farris Smith, and Even As We Breathe by Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle.
FR: I know even when alone and trying to relax, ideas or current works are going through your head. When not writing, working, and spending time with the family. How do you like to spend your time?
ML: I read. I used to bake, but I recently went dairy and gluten free, so it’s no longer as fun.
FR: You are the fiction editor over at Barren Magazine. You guys put out some great stuff. What’s it like being a part of that team? What do you look for in a story? What moves you as an editor and reader?
ML: As I type this, I am currently the Fiction Editor at Barren Magazine and thank you, it’s a wonderful magazine, a great group of folks, and I love working there. I am, as of May, going to be moving into a more strategic/planning type role at Barren, and less an everyday in the trenches type role because time is a limited resource, and changes in my teaching career and other editing opportunities have created the need to evolve a bit.
What am I looking for as an editor? The short answer—something I wish to God I’d written, something that keeps me up at night. The long—on the first page, I want stakes, tension, and a character that I care enough about to keep reading. By the end, I want to feel something, and I want to not be able to stop thinking about it. There are lots of writers who write pretty prose, or who can do something clever, and those are wonderful skills. But I want more—it needs guts and sticking power. This past year we published a story called “Knots” by Derek Pfeffer. We nominated it for a Pushcart. The first time I read this story it made me nauseous. It is a very tough read, but beautifully written, and even now, months later I can’t stop thinking about it—there are layers and levels of meaning and it has made me take a hard look at what I write, and ask if I am brave enough, or honest enough, in my own work.
FR: What’s next for Meagan Lucas? Another novel? More stories?
ML: Next is a Spring of Lit Festivals and promoting Songbirds and Stray Dogs, followed, hopefully, by a summer of writing.
I have the first draft of my next novel finished. It’s currently called Mercy, which is the main character’s name so there is a good chance that is going to change. It’s another Southern lit story, little bit gritty, with a whole lot of heart. It’s about three generations of women, legacies of pain and guilt, and it’s set on Lake Hartwell the upstate of South Carolina, where my husband and I have little lake house. The draft is currently a bit short, but I have a plan to fix that. I’m working towards having it in query shape by the end of 2020.
And, there are always stories, aren’t there? I think every writer has a bunch filed away, just waiting for the right moment to come out. Publishing wise, I have a dark little flash piece called “Good Heart” coming soon from a mag I love—don’t worry, I’ll have it all over the social media.
FR: Silly bonus question. I wish I could sing. I can’t, I sound like a dying dog. I wish I could wash a dish properly, apparently I’m blind and never clean them correctly. Tell us something you are really bad at that you wish you were good at?
ML: So, I can actually sing. I took years of vocal lessons and was a choir and musical theater nerd in high school. However, I cannot dance, or do anything that requires moving my body with any sort of grace or rhythm. I’m going to be 38 next month, so I’m pretty much okay with that. I do wish, however, I could play a musical instrument. I think that would be really fun and stretching for me. I took piano lessons as a kid, but when I realized that I have super stubby fingers and was never going to be able to reach an octave, that dream died. (The stubbyness is to be expected, I’m barely 5’2.)