Alive and Slippery: Talking with Megan Giddings

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Megan Giddings’s Lakewood is a fever dream of a book, one that rings in the mind and sticks in the craw. This debut novel opens innocuously enough: Lena, a young black woman, finds herself strapped for funds, lacking health insurance, and considering a less-than-ideal job. It’s par for the course for many coming of age in this millenium—except in Lena’s case, the job is to serve as a test subject in medical experiments at a mysterious government facility. Lakewood soon spins out into a claustrophobic house of horrors both micro and macro, physical and mental, from gruesome bodily side effects to the invasive, casually racist questions of white researchers.

Lakewood sits at the borders of many genres, and plies its “slippery” nature (Giddings’s own term) to good use. Readers are jolted to attention by shocking imagery—there is one scene concerning teeth that haunts me—but even more disturbing, perhaps, are the subtler social ills that run beneath and feed that horror. And yet Lakewood is also a book of surpassing tenderness, in which Lena sacrifices all she does in order to support her ailing mother. If your scalp prickles with recognition at the impossible conundrum of loving while being trapped in the jaws of a flawed capitalist system, then Lakewood, for all its strangeness and seeming surrealism, is for and about you. Which is, as Giddings notes, precisely the point. Is it cynicism or realism? Is it horror or truth?

Megan Giddings is a fiction editor at The Offing and a features editor here at The Rumpus. In 2018, she was a recipient of a Barbara Deming Memorial fund grant for feminist fiction. Her stories are forthcoming or that have been recently published in Black Warrior Review, Arts & Letters, Gulf Coast, and The Iowa Review.

Giddings and I emailed back and forth over several months about the roots of Lakewood, genre and craft, and the weirdness of having a body.

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The Rumpus: What was the genesis of Lakewood? Given the history of experiments the US government has performed on black populations, did this historical knowledge seed the novel?

Megan Giddings: Some of Lakewood was generated from many conversations with friends about what it’s sometimes like to be not white in the United States. There are times where you get to just be a person, there are times where it feels like you could almost be on a weird prank show, and there are times where it feels like it can just be a series of thoughts and trials to see how many small and large slights you can endure. I wanted to capture that feeling in a book—the movement from personhood to haha, that’s weird I guess to feeling consistently watched and monitored to make sure you’re having the right reaction.

The other genesis is I grew up in a rural small town, Owosso, Michigan. It was recently talked extensively about on the podcast The Dream. If you haven’t listened to it, you might find it fascinating and infuriating. There’s a moment where the host, Jane Marie, talks about how the city has always had a mistrust of the US government. I grew up hearing people from my classmates to adults speculating on the pollution in the Shiawassee River. There were so many conspiracies about it. I think that does have a big root in my thinking.

And when I started reading more about the different research studies that have happened on different at-risk populations in the US—I’m hesitant here to only say black because Native and Indigenous people were also used as research subjects and as far as I know, the US government has not apologized to them—I think this all worked together to help make the foundation for Lakewood as it is today.

Rumpus: It’s infuriating and fascinating to hear about Owosso’s history. Did growing up in a community that was more suspicious of the government color your approach to this novel? Did you consider questions of believability or palatability?

Giddings: It seemed like every community I’ve gone into and encountered is always suspicious of the government, some of which is rooted in very real historic and present grievances.

Once I understood what I was actually writing about—after a million conversations, walks, coffees—I didn’t question it. I questioned my ability to write it, how to structure the novel, if maybe I should just save this one to write as a second novel when I maybe understood more about writing a novel, but never the content. I do my best writing when I’m not thinking about other people.

My entire life there have been people that have treated me like I’m less than them because I’m black, because I’m a woman, so it makes it hard for me to give a shit about palatability. There is nothing I can ever do to make some people like me or respect me, so it’s something I don’t often consider.

I’ll also admit that I have the luxury of not considering that because of my agent. The best advice he gave to me when I turned in a draft of the book was to point toward the weirdest sections and get to me keep going in that direction. I could be myself on the page, and he’d worry about selling it.

Rumpus: There’s more and more genre-blurring in mainstream books and movies and shows. So many artists seem to be saying, no, realism as we generally understand it—here I’m thinking of the conventional white, middle-class social novel in which there is sibling rivalry and a divorce and questions of status—has never been reality to many of us. “Realism” is a genre and a construct, too. Are there works that you think are doing this well, and do you feel like it’s a movement?

Giddings: I don’t think it’s a movement. I think the way black literature and black art is regularly talked about focuses so much—because of who most regularly gets the space to talk in high-profile venues—on issues of race and politics. If you have never read Toni Morrison’s or Jesmyn Ward’s work but only read descriptions of the work, you would expect that they’re writing straightforward, three-act structure novels told in a straightforward way about tragedy. From the ways they write, to the ghosts that appear, to the innovations that happen in how plot and characters are presented, their works are truly innovative.

Look at Moonlight (a poem that sometimes through filmmaking slows and blurs reality), the works of Kerry James Marshall, the deep and chaotic strangeness of Missy Elliott’s music videos, Mariah Carey’s public persona, the NBA draft, Mickalene Thomas’s and Lorna Simpson’s collages, Key and Peele, Watchmen (I’m especially thinking of “The Extraordinary Being” episode by Cord Jefferson), Bootsy Collins, Son House… It feels like most of the predominant critical culture can only talk about black culture in the language of politics and from what they learned from listening to hip-hop on long car trips. I don’t believe there is one true black experience, but it seems that in the most persistent and culturally exciting of our works, there’s a mixture of genres, there is an edge of surrealism that tends to get ignored because of who gets the platform to talk about our work.

Rumpus: One thousand times yes to discussing craft and style in black art! On that note, I’d love to hear you describe Lakewood in your own terms.

Giddings: Lakewood is a literary fiction novel that takes place in a fictional town in Michigan. Lakewood is a coming-of-age novel that is more interested in what it looks like to come of age without putting sex in the equation. Lakewood is a novel that is about many kinds of inequity that are still thriving in the United States. Lakewood is gross and occasionally violent. Lakewood was my complicated best friend for several years who I was obsessed with, that made me think about family, about grief, about the ways even deep love can lead us astray. Lakewood is thinking a lot about whose stories get told and the way people get described in fiction. Lakewood is a book that many Instagram book people who have tagged me in their reviews have called “insane.”

Rumpus: I myself sometimes think of Lakewood as a parable of the current health insurance crisis in America. Our main character, Lena, is someone I might describe as a cynic—she isn’t participating in this medical experiment for any starry-eyed purpose. It’s all about job security and health insurance. How did that thread come about?

Giddings: Is it cynicism though, or being realistic? There are two emotional roots to the book. One is my own experiences as a child, when a doctor dismissed my physical health issues. The experience fundamentally shaped my life, my attitudes toward the US healthcare system, my relationship with my body.

And then probably about five months before I began the initial draft of Lakewood, a loved one went through a similar situation. Something strange came up on a routine health scan, we needed to see a specialist, we needed to get tests, those things cost us all our savings. We were lucky that everything was fine, but the whole process brought up so many things. I would wake up and think about money, what we could do, how we could handle this. It was a regular thing: What do I need to do to prepare for the future? It’s warping to have to think about what will I do if I don’t have the money to help keep this person I love more than anyone alive. And in the US, people have to ask those questions and weigh those things routinely because of our healthcare system. It’s enraging. It’s miserable. It’s disgusting.

Rumpus: Those strong emotions—rage and disgust, as well as love and loyalty—are on most pungent display in Lakewood when it comes to matters of family. Though Lena has friendships and romantic interests, these fall away in service of the greatest love, for her mother. Can you talk about this?

Giddings: Some of it is writing sideways. The idea of writing beat for beat something directly ripped out of my life and made a little more juicy feels impossible for me. I can’t be honest when I do that. But I usually find when I’m writing something that there is an emotional truth or question that I can only explore or attempt to answer when writing fiction. So, I see the connections after it’s on the page but I have to trick myself in the process. Writing fiction is my peanut butter with ground-up medicine in it.

I think also, I wanted to write about a younger person who would potentially have even less options. I thought about how when I was around the age Lena is in the book, I would’ve been sad if a romantic partner or a friend had been sick, but I would’ve been devastated if something was wrong with a member of my family.

Rumpus: Is there something about Lena’s youth that allowed you greater access into this story? Do you think that people grow less connected to their family members as they age?

Giddings: It was important for Lakewood that Lena be younger so that her primary support system is her mother and grandmother. Emotionally, it’s so much harder to find a support system you can actually trust and rely on when you’re young.

What I remember about college is knowing several people, being able to talk to them about classes, books, music, shit-talking, but feeling deeply emotionally distant from most people. I think there were very few people I felt capable of being truly vulnerable with. Maybe the thing I most have in common with Lena, other than a hatred of working in an office, is a deep desire to be vulnerable and open with other people and struggling with balancing that need with the need I have to protect myself.

I’m in my thirties now. Most of my close friendships have spanned a decade, sometimes two. And even the newer friendships I have, it tends to get pretty raw pretty quickly now. I don’t have as much to lose now being vulnerable with someone. I’m better at intuiting who I can open up with. But being in your early twenties especially, and being in environments where you always have to be a neat, polite, perfect version of yourself is so hard. It’s hard now, too, but the difference is now I feel far more comfortable telling someone and feel far more capable of taking care of myself.

Rumpus: Lakewood has some of the most memorable descriptions of body horror I’ve read in a long time; there’s one scene concerning teeth that I will probably carry with me to the grave. How did it feel to write those scenes? Do you have favorite writers, films, or other media that engage with body horror?

Giddings: I hate bodies because they’re gross. I love bodies because they’re gross. Pam, I’m scared of so many things! Probably every body horror scene I’ve watched in a movie, I’ve watched through my fingers while saying, “Oh God, oh God.” I really like the Southern Reach trilogy for body horror. The transformations of the characters throughout each novel is what made me read them in a frantic way. I think one of the biggest appeals of Kelly Link’s work is even though there’s so many fantastic elements (which are the things that immediately drew me to them), she captures a very visceral, could-actually-happen-to-someone sense of body horror. I think a lot about “I Can See Right Through You” and the Demon Lover’s disgust about sex, about aging, about being in the nude in front of other people. Parable of the Sower. Nothing is more horrific to me than your body seeing someone else bleeding and immediately bleeding because of empathy. The stories in Revenge by Yoko Ogawa. The heart outside the body! Some of the stories in Gutshot. Lisa Hanawalt’s cartoons because they show how a body is disgusting and hilarious and pleasurable. I think a lot of books about slavery are the most potent form of body horror for me—you’re treated like an object and punished and destroyed because the dominant culture feels like they can do whatever they want to you because you don’t look exactly like them. Animorphs. That shit warped my brain.

Rumpus: What’s coming up in your next project? Is it a chance to dive into different, more wholesome territory, or is it more of a spiritual successor to Lakewood? The world craves more Megan Giddings!

Giddings: I want a brain that could write a wholesome book. In this chapter, the character bakes scones for a friend having a rough day. Oh my god. These Puppies Are in Love: A Novel. What I’m writing next is definitely not Lakewood 2, but it’s still pretty dark at times. I’ve been reading a lot of black folktales and there’s so many strange things that happen to bodies that I know it’s influencing this book. I’m writing about mothers and daughters, a world like our own but oh yeah, there are witches, friendships, and how to build a life that you might be afraid to have. An island where it rains gold. Lake Superior’s there too because I can’t stop going home to Michigan.

Rumpus: I’m curious if you have a way of classifying Lakewood when other people ask. Is it realism, horror, science fiction?

Giddings: I think of Lakewood as a piece of realistic fiction. Maybe if I had written this even ten years ago, I might answer very differently. But being alive in 2019 and 2020, being on social media, paying attention to the news, makes me think that to accurately capture life, you do have to waver between genres. I feel in a given day horror, literary fiction moments, science fiction, dystopia, romance, and humor. I don’t know if I would even call most literary fiction I’ve read lately, realism. A lot of books feel deeply escapist to me. I would love to feel static for a day. I would love to be able to fixate on a relationship with a friend or family member or not think about money. Being alive is much more slippery than a lot of fiction allows it to be.

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Photograph of Megan Giddings by Jon Cameron.


C Pam Zhang's debut novel, How Much of These Hills Is Gold, is forthcoming in April 2020 from Riverhead Books in the US and Virago Press in the UK. It is an Indies Introduce pick. Born in Beijing but mostly an artifact of the United States, Zhang has lived in 13 cities across four countries and is still looking for home. She currently lives in San Francisco and also online. More from this author →