A few months after meeting Megan Kruse for the first time at AWP in Seattle, I was on an airplane, 30,000 feet in the air, with her manuscript pages stacked on my tray table. Riveted, I didn’t stop reading until we landed. Call Me Home, Megan Kruse’s stunning debut novel, tells the story of three family members broken by violence and searching to find a home in the landscapes that surround them and within each other. It’s a haunting, beautiful novel about loneliness, love, and survival. Megan grew up in the rural Pacific Northwest. She studied creative writing at Oberlin College and earned her MFA at the University of Montana, where, as she says, she was “writing about lonely places and our faulty, beautiful hearts.” Her work has appeared widely in journals and anthologies, including Writer’s Digest, Narrative, The Sun, and Witness Magazine. While Megan was traveling across the country on her book tour, we spoke via email about queer characters in rural places, sibling relationships, and how the music of Lucinda Williams inspires her.
The Rumpus: Place is such a vivid pulse in your book, and I felt drawn into each of the novel’s major settings: rural Washington, Idaho, and Texas. I know you grew up in a place similar to Tulalip, Washington, and you’ve also spent time in Texas. Can you talk about the inspiration for the settings in Call Me Home, and how place informs your writing?
Megan Kruse: One of the simplest and most surprising realizations I’ve made—and continue to make—during the writing and publishing and promotion process for Call Me Home is that I’m not simply recording my thoughts on these themes; they’re evolving as I write. It seems so silly to need to be reminded of that. There’s that beautiful Joan Didion quote, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” And I know that; I’ve referenced that quote to teach writing time and again, and yet now I’m surprised. I think I wrote about these places, these landscapes, because they were the ones I knew best, the places I wanted to hold onto, and at the same time because I’ve been trying to figure out where I should be. Where should I make my life? I grew up with a tremendous love for the corner of the Northwest where I was born, and at the same time a deep desire to leave, to see the big and sprawling world. As my characters tumbled around the country, it became clear to me, through them, that home exists most clearly within each other. Over the last few years, I’ve similarly come to find a sense of home that I’m not sure I ever had before, in the people that I love. Letting that be significant—letting people stand for home—has given me a greater sense of security and stability than ever before.
To complicate things even more, as I looked more to people for home, and less to geography, to define myself, I was also able to see more clearly where I was from. Some of that speaks again to queerness, I think—once I was able to say, “My home exists in chosen families and places,” and not think of myself as belonging solely to places where no community existed for me, then I began to more clearly understand that I could still be from those dark, wet woods. I do know my home of origin, the feeling of the loam, the egg-shaped leaves of the salal, the taste of orange salmonberries. That ability to find home in multiple places, and not to try to choose, has given me a tremendous new solace and sense of myself, and that happened through the process of writing this novel.
Rumpus: What you say about growing up with a tremendous love for the place where you’re from as well as this deep desire to leave definitely resonates with me. I too have felt a strong love for rural places, for example, coupled with this understanding that, as a queer person, it would be very difficult for me to live in those spaces. In the novel you show how complicated home is for Jackson, a young gay man who grew up in an isolated place, and, after a short time in Portland, ends up in another rural environment. It’s rare to see queer, rural representation in literature. Was this something you were thinking about when you were developing Jackson and exploring his relationship with Don? Do you think Jackson finds a sense of home?
Kruse: I think that we have a responsibility to write to the world we want to live in, and so it’s important to me to write queer, rural narratives. When I was growing up, the stories of queerness outside of urban settings were ones of fear, of isolation and secrecy. We’re at a critical point now where that fear narrative is changing—when visibility is growing exponentially and being openly queer and living outside of an urban center are no longer mutually exclusive. I want to live in that new world, and I think that literature is one way to shape it. In some ways Jackson represents this shift to me; he is living it. He does not feel ashamed of his identity or try to hide it, but neither is he completely safe to live openly, particularly in places like the fictional Silver, Idaho in my novel. He is both bold and careful, but most importantly, he is unwilling to settle for a half-life; he has a vision of a life that will one day belong to him, a life that is open and full.
Something that occurred to me only as I read your question was that Jackson does excel, in many ways, in Silver. I think of how I grew up very much outside of urban areas—in the woods, essentially—and those are still the geographical places that I thrive in. I’ve often struggled with that—knowing that to go to the city was to have community, identity, dates—but I felt as sea in those areas, uncomfortable and out of place and unhealthy. I like the contradictions that exist within Jackson; he enters into what can seem a ruinous and destructive affair with Don, but in many ways, he is more himself, and in many ways safer, than he was in Portland. He has the protection of the brotherhood culture that exists on his crew, and he understands his physical space, and while his relationship with Don is not necessarily sustainable, it does provide important things to him—not the least of which is his certainty that there is a future—and future loves—for him in his life ahead. I don’t know that he, of all the characters, needs to find a physical home. I think that his sense of home is tied to finding his mother and sister again, to forgiving himself, and to beginning to seek a life for himself that stretches beyond the narrow confines of his violent childhood—and in those ways he is succeeding.
Rumpus: Jackson is one of the protagonists, but there is also Amy, his mother, and Lydia, his little sister—all three are so complicated and memorable, and they stuck with me long after I finished the book. The novel is told from the perspectives of these three characters. You use a third person narrator for Jackson and Amy, and Lydia speaks in first person. Did it feel important for you to write this story using multiple voices, and to use first and third person narrators?
Kruse: Sometimes when I think of the novel as a form, I think of stepping inside a gorgeous junk shop or curio cabinet: the world the novelist has created, a collection of everything he or she has found remarkable, everything impossible to turn away from. Of course you can’t fit everything into a novel, but you can create a sort of highlight reel of beauty, meditation, and fixation.
My desire to gather, to tend my own curio cabinet, is similar to Lydia’s in the book—we both want to hold everything; we’re both terrified of what might be lost. I understand that to let go is important, but for now I believe in curating—in taking as much from the world as possible, in trying to be a full and representative as time and space can possibly allow. The three voices in my novel are to me a product of that attempt at maximization. They illuminate each other; I hope that they give you both the story of the individual and the story of the family. I love a lush economy—the idea of taking something you love to write, or some piece of beauty, and letting it snowball—but only so far. Is that answer enigmatic enough?
Rumpus: Illuminate each other is a beautiful way to put it. Yes, we do get a rich understanding of the characters individually, but also see how they exist in relationship to one another. The father, Gary, is this violent force that threatens to destroy the family, but also in a way brings the three of them together. I haven’t read many literary novels that portray domestic violence, especially in such a visceral way—there is this constant threat of danger, suspense. Lydia and Jackson, for example, see their father do terrible things to their mother, but it’s also more tense when he’s in a good mood—there is always that underlying worry that his mood will shift. Was it difficult to write about this subject, and could you talk about your approach to developing Gary? Did you ever consider writing from Gary’s perspective?
Kruse: If there is one part of this book, and the publication process, that terrified me, it was that—trying to write a survivor, and hoping that I got it right. It was a similar feeling to writing Jackson’s character—writing someone who has a lot at stake, and who potentially can be read to stand for everyone with that identity or experience. What if you don’t get it right? Amy is working to protect herself, to protect her children, to bring their lives out of the devastating shadow even as it still threatens her. I worried a lot about whether or not I did it “right” on the page—and I kept telling myself to try to be as honest as possible.
I never thought about writing Gary’s voice. I don’t think he deserves one. To write anyone is to invite you to understand them, and I don’t believe that there is anything to understand besides the calculated decision an abuser makes to control someone and decimate her life. I’m more interested in the power of survivors—in someone like Amy, who never stops defeating the odds Gary has stacked against her in order to move toward the light, to promise that light to her children. That’s the story I want to tell.
Rumpus: This is also a story about siblings. There is this gentle intimacy between Jackson and Lydia, and in some ways, Jackson is able to protect Lydia better than Amy can. You write that Amy at times “almost resented their closeness, Jacksons’ hovering, for the way it implicated her, proved what Amy knew: that Gary was dangerous. In some ways, Amy thought, Jackson considered Lydia to be his, and she couldn’t blame him for it.” I’m drawn to stories about siblings—I want more of them in fiction and film. Could you talk a little more about Jackson and Lydia?
Kruse: Sibling relationships have always fixated me, both in writing and in the world around me. I have always been fraught with a deep anxiety—I struggle with it, and war with it, and occasionally come to terms with it, though never for long. It’s anxiety about relationships of all kinds, about whether or not I’m good enough, about who I might have hurt or what I might have said. The sibling relationship, even viewed from the outside, is one that somehow soothes my deep worry. The nature of a sibling relationship is that you are both obligated and not obligated to each other. You are thrown together in the world, but then you have to choose each other again. Most importantly, if you grow up with a sibling, he or she becomes the only person who truly can know, as closely as possible, what it was like to grow up the way you did. It’s the closest you can get to knowing yourself, to comforting yourself, to knowing you are understood. You become witnesses together to your early life, and you shape each other’s understanding of events and who you become. I have a little brother and we grew up very close, always fighting and always together, and he is one of the most precious relationships I have in my life. Sometimes he’ll send me a message, a fragment of a memory of something from when we were young, and in those moments the anxiety fades away; it feels like we’re in it together. It feels like I come from something I can prove.
Rumpus: In thinking about your novel, and the desire to tell the stories of the survivors, I’m reminded of something Dorothy Allison said: “I want hard stories.” Nothing too easy or glossed over, but the hard, complicated, beautiful stories. Were there any particular literary influences for Call Me Home?
Kruse: My book has received some criticism for its darkness and sorrow, but I’m not drawn to things that are, as you say, too easy or glossed over. We are born into this world and we do incredible things, often with very little, and the beauty I think is in that work, in that victory and in the ways we fail and try again. I always struggle with questions about influence because I tend to be an all-over-the-map reader, and there are so many writers I love, but there were some specific writers I kept returning to as I wrote. Dorothy Allison’s work, in fact, has been a great influence. As I wrote Jackson’s character I read a lot of Richard Siken’s poetry—in particular, I kept picking up “Little Beast,” thinking of the final line: I couldn’t get that boy to kill me, but I wore his jacket for the longest time. Mark Richard has a story called “Strays” in his collection, The Ice at the Bottom of the World, which I read for the first time in my sophomore year of college, and I remember being deeply moved by the way he treated violence—the way that the children view the violence in their families, and how the reader has access both to what the child narrator sees and to a darker understanding of what is happening. There were a few others—and I’m of course forgetting many more—that I kept really close to me while I wrote, and which influenced my thoughts on both the language and the themes: Edwidge Danticat’s Brother, I’m Dying; Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior, and Jayne Anne Phillips’s Black Tickets.
Rumpus: Speaking of influences, I know you’re a devout Lucinda Williams fan—you even mention her in your acknowledgments. What album or song most inspired you when you were working on this book? What is it about Lucinda? Did you listen to her music as you were writing?
Kruse: Haha. I love Lucinda so much. I even saw her play at Salmonstock in Ninilchik, Alaska last summer! In the years when I began writing this book, I was listening to “Happy Woman Blues,” her first original album. There’s a song, King of Hearts, on that album that really pulls at me; it’s a song of longing, and need, and disappointment. I think that current runs through these characters strongly; they want to hold each other, to be loved by each other, and there are so many relationships that are struggling and painful. I’ve just started working on a project with a dear friend about elegies—the duality of celebration and mourning, the beauty of loss, and Lucinda Williams is to me one of the masters of the elegy. Not to mention that I love a women singers with powerful voices—I think of Janis Joplin singing “Little Girl Blue,” or of Mary Gauthier, who is another big soundtrack to this book in my mind. Songwriters who tell stories.
Rumpus: As we’ve been emailing each other over the past couple of months, you’ve been on tour. How does it feel to be out there with Call Me Home? How many cities have you gone to, and what has the response been?
Kruse: As I write this, I’m about to board a flight home to Seattle. I’ve finished twenty-five of twenty-seven events so far. I work remotely, and so I was able to stay in motion and stay employed. I think that I’m going home a bit of a different person. I feel like I’ve stepped into my own ethos—or developed an idea of it, in the sense that I feel like I can speak clearly now of what is important to me, what I want to say and why. I’m also exhausted, feeling tremendously loved and also exposed and just brittle and bone-tired.
The response has been amazing. I think that one of the most impacting things was talking to diverse audiences about the rural queer experience, and about violence—how receptive people were to those narratives and their importance. I believe in writing for the world you want to live in, telling stories that are difficult in order to give voice to those experiences. The dialogues I had from the West to the South and then up to the Midwest were about those stories. There was a young man at my Seattle book release who later came to a reading in Spokane, who had picked up the book and told me how much it meant to him to read a gay narrative that wasn’t reductive, and hearing that felt like the greatest achievement.
Rumpus: You’re obviously busy right now, but what happens after the tour? Do you have any ideas for what is next for your writing? Any projects you are interested in talking about?
Kruse: I’m always working on a few projects. I don’t do a good job of being measured and focused in my writing practice, but I do stay writing by keeping a lot of irons in the fire—that way, something compels me on any given day.
At the very moment, I’m working on a biography of Sam Gladstein, an incredible man, educator, and catalyst for social change, who I’ve been lucky enough to have in my life over the past few years. The project was spurred by his sons after his diagnosis with terminal cancer, and I’ve been speaking with his family across the country—we had a storytelling gathering in Madison during my tour stop there. We put out a call to his friends and family, and all of these stories, written and audio files, have been flooding in. It’s the most intense privilege, to curate the way a life is told. I’m also working on an elegy project with poet Aileen Keown Vaux. It’s still super nascent, but we’re exploring the idea of celebrating and letting go, mourning, saving—and so those projects dovetail in many ways.
In my independent work, I’m been gathering pieces for a much vaster novel, a queer story set in the Midwest in the years after World War II—though I think it’s going to be a long process. In the meantime, I’m working on something much more personal, exploring questions of intimacy, secrecy, and love. You know, the staples of the heart.