A Little Bit Irreverent, a Little Bit Truthful: Talking with Megan Cummins
In her newly released debut collection of short stories, If the Body Allows It, Megan Cummins examines themes that overlap with her own personal history—an autoimmune disease, the death of a father, and the sense of guilt that followed—through her central narrator, Marie. The collection won the 2019 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction and was published on September 1 by the University of Nebraska Press.
Cummins is skillful at reaching deeply and tenderly into the fragility that lies inside every human. Other characters in the book include an unemployed, middle-aged man reaching out to his ex before a heart bypass surgery, a stay-at-home wife who met her husband online, young men and women working mindless jobs, and clueless teenagers navigating everyday life. They’re all trying to deal with losses, mistakes, and addictions, while searching for connection and meaning along the way.
Cummins is a Brooklyn-based writer whose work has appeared in Guernica, One Teen Story, The Masters Review, Electric Literature, Ninth Letter, and A Public Space, where she is the managing editor.
In June, Cummins and I spoke via Zoom about how the feeling of being lost is unique to each of us, the absurdity of the American health care system, drawing inspiration from real life, and more.
The Rumpus: When did you start writing?
Megan Cummins: When I was a kid, I would write stories about objects, like a painting I saw, for example. I had a great interest in the Titanic, and I would also write stories about being on the Titanic. I always loved to read books, of course. In high school, I tried to write poetry. So, it was something that was with me from a very early age. This might sound kind of cliche, but I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t either telling myself stories or telling other people stories.
Rumpus: Did you know any people who wrote when you were growing up?
Cummins: My aunt and uncle are both writers, and my father was a copywriter. He wrote commercials; his form was very short, thirty-second ad spots. When I was a kid, I’d see his commercials on TV or he’d show me what he wrote, and, as I got older, I realized that I was in awe of how he could tell a story in thirty seconds. I think maybe that was what made me interested in short stories, in how you can get something across in a short space. I do think that my father had a deep understanding of how to use space really efficiently, and he was also an extremely funny writer. If there’s an ounce of humor in my book, I got it from him.
Rumpus: Did he ever give you writing advice?
Cummins: I never had a conversation with him about that, but he did occasionally read my stories. Once, I gave him to read a story from my honors thesis for undergrad. Writing it, I had drawn from real life, and he said, “You captured your mother’s tension and my aloofness just perfectly.” I wish he were still alive and we could be having these conversations now. I think it wasn’t until after his death that I realized what he’d been doing with narrative in his writing. He was a big reader, too. During his life, we didn’t read the same books, but now I would love to read and discuss books with him like War and Peace. It would be a fabulous experience.
Rumpus: Several stories in your book are about Marie, a narrator who closely resembles yourself. Are there a lot of autobiographical elements in these pieces?
Cummins: I knew that I wanted to write about certain experiences I’d had, but I also knew that I wanted to do it in a way that was fictionalized. That’s where the structure of the book comes from. I know the frame of linked stories isn’t going to appeal to everyone, and maybe some readers will think it’s too much of a conceit. There’s the linked frame, and I imagine the rest of the stories in the book as the ones that Marie writes. I wanted to play with the idea of the author-as-character-as-writer in a way that was a little bit irreverent, but also a little bit truthful. Marie is actually maybe more of a doppelgänger for me than she is me. I wanted to see what I could learn about my experiences by giving them to someone else. So there’s me, the author of the book, and then there’s a character who’s a writer, and then she writes the other stories in the book.
Rumpus: Marie has lupus. Is autoimmunity an important topic for you because you have an autoimmune condition?
Cummins: I do have lupus, which is an autoimmune disorder. I was diagnosed with it in 2011, when I was twenty-four, a couple of months after my father died. I spent the next couple of years dealing with both of those things. Eventually, after a lot of time thinking about them, I realized there was a link between the body attacking itself, treating its own organs as foreign objects, and the sense of guilt, or the mind attacking itself. When I started to make that connection in my own life, I knew I wanted to write about it. At first I felt the need to be vague, for characters to be ill in some mysterious way, because for so long I had been sick but undiagnosed. But then I shifted, and Marie’s illness is very clearly defined and described. Autoimmune disorders are already invisible in so many ways. I realized her lupus shouldn’t also be invisible in the book.
Rumpus: Why do you think you fictionalized these themes that interested you rather than writing nonfiction?
Cummins: I’ve written very little nonfiction. In fact, I have one essay that I wrote, which was published in Guernica in 2016. It deals with similar topics and experiences, and I do think that I wasn’t ready to confront some of these things in nonfiction, but also that I was perhaps more interested in what I would learn about them from making things up. Now that I think about it, pain might have something to do with it because I didn’t feel that I could tell a story unless I had the liberty to shape it. I would like to write more nonfiction, though.
Rumpus: How does an idea for a story occur to you? Do you work on a piece for a long time?
Cummins: I often start with an image or a glimpse of a person doing something and then build a life around that. One of the ways I draft a piece is very language-driven, so I move it forward through metaphor and figurative language. If I’m struggling, if I’m not sure what goes next in the paragraph, my mind conjures a simile. I usually write a first draft fairly quickly, maybe in a week or two, but then it’s important that I go back and be very hard on myself and my language. Because when it comes out quickly, there is inevitably going to be sloppiness, so I have to go at it with a fine-tooth comb and clean it up. I do love the type of simile that doesn’t make sense unless you let it carry you away, but sometimes I go overboard, and my similes really don’t make sense, and I need to revise.
Rumpus: How and when did you figure out the themes that most interest you as a writer?
Cummins: After I got my MA from UC Davis, I worked at an insurance company for a couple of years. It was boring, but all the while I was absorbing things, not realizing that they would become interesting to me later on. After that I worked as a bookkeeper, and so bookkeepers pop up in my stories. After that job, I decided I wanted to go back to school; I moved across the country and got an MFA in fiction from Rutgers Newark. It was time well spent, but I didn’t come out of it with a book, and I left knowing that I’d have to write from scratch. While I was at Rutgers, I had been thinking a lot about autoimmunity, grief, and guilt, and I took a nonfiction class with James Goodman. I think it was in that class that I realized I wanted to write about all of those things, because I had come to understand them as very interconnected. Over the course of the next couple of years I realized these ideas together, and decided to write a linked collection about them.
Rumpus: Something that unites the stories in your book is that most of them are about people who are lonely, a little bit damaged, and often clueless. Why do these characters appeal to you?
Cummins: I was interested in these characters because most of them are at some turning point in their lives, but they don’t feel in control of it. I was curious about what thoughts a person would have when they are at that point in their life, and how they would behave. It was important to me that those characters have different ways of seeing the world, have different appetites for risk, and different tolerances of what they’ll put up with from people. They are all lost, but I was interested in how differently the feelings of being lost can manifest themselves in different lives.
Rumpus: I found one particular plot point very striking. It’s when the character Byron is kidnapped by another teenager and then ends up in a serial killer’s basement, where he’s unexpectedly rescued by the killer’s uncle at the last minute. Did you get this idea from real life?
Cummins: It’s perhaps the most dramatic or melodramatic point in the book. The very basic part of that setup probably came from the historical case of the Michigan Murders, though it was very different in many of the details. What I remember from reading about that case was that this man was caught because he was staying in his uncle’s house, and the uncle came home and noticed that his nephew had painted the floor of the basement. None of that made it into my story, except for that idea of a killer being found out by a family member. That whole episode becomes a small point space-wise (but a big point consequence-wise) in this story about a couple, the mistakes that brought them together, and how they reconnect years later.
Rumpus: It’s my favorite story from the collection, and one that I found very believable.
Cummins: Thank you! I’m glad you said that, because it got rejected from a lot of places. People thought it was not realistic.
Rumpus: Agents say that story collections are notoriously hard to sell. Did you find this to be true?
Cummins: I signed with my agent, Maria Massie, in 2017. The structure of my book was already in place, but Maria felt that the connectivity between the stories could be stronger. After a few conversations with Maria, I built out the story of the frame, and worked on thematic connections between all the stories. She went out with it to editors, but the manuscript was rejected everywhere—it was, is, a hard time for short story collections. So, I submitted it to the Prairie Schooner Book Prize, and that’s how it came to be published by the University of Nebraska Press. It found the best possible home.
Rumpus: How did you deal with rejections?
Cummins: I work in publishing, so I’m on both sides of that line. As an editor at A Public Space, I have to return so much work that is really fabulous just because of limited space in the magazine. I don’t take the rejections I get personally because I know how difficult it is to reject work. Magazines and presses are publishing the work they love, and that makes me feel good, even if they’re not publishing me! There’s a little bit of me that knows that if I keep trying, I’ll find a place where my work might be a fit.
Rumpus: How did your work in publishing come about? As you mentioned earlier, your career began at an insurance company.
Cummins: When I graduated from UC Davis, I started working at the insurance company because I needed health insurance. This was before the Affordable Care Act, and so that marketplace didn’t exist yet. I took the first job that accepted me and offered health insurance. When I moved to the East Coast, I didn’t even think of publishing as a possibility; I hadn’t been exposed to it, and I didn’t know how one broke into it. At that time, I has a story published in A Public Space, and then the magazine was looking for a volunteer reader. I started doing that; I lived in Newark, but I would go into the office one day a week and read. After I graduated from my MFA, I worked at a law office, but I stayed on at A Public Space as a reader. When an editorial position opened up, I interviewed for it and moved into that spot. It wasn’t until I had that chance to read for a magazine that I realized a career in publishing was something I wanted to pursue.
Rumpus: What are you working on right now?
Cummins: I’ve been writing a young adult novel for two years, which grew out of a story in the collection, “Aerosol.” Some of the stories in my collection have teenage narrators, and I’m interested in the late teen years, when you’re learning about yourself more than you’ve ever learned before and yet you’re thought of as immature. The novel is about a teenager living in Michigan; her parents have recently divorced, and her mother is going away for the summer with a new boyfriend. Her father has moved to South Dakota, and he’s a recovering addict. The girl convinces her mother to let her go stay with him, but things deteriorate. As her father’s addiction worsens over the summer, her own self-destructive tendencies emerge.
Rumpus: What’s your writing schedule like? Are there days when you can’t write? When you sit down at your computer but nothing happens?
Cummins: Definitely. I think what usually happens is that I end up on the internet and I realize that the time I had crept away while I was browsing. Some days I only get out a page or I just look at a paragraph, and it feels like I haven’t done much at all. This can be very frustrating, especially when you feel that you don’t have much time, that all you had was that window and now it’s gone forever. But I try to stay positive about it. I tell myself that there’ll be another window.
Lately, my writing schedule has been really ad hoc—I wish I had more of a schedule. I try to write for a couple of hours on Saturdays and a couple of hours on Sundays. I wish I could become an early-morning writer or a late-evening writer. Apparently, I’m an afternoon writer, which doesn’t really work well with a full-time work schedule.
Rumpus: Are you interested in becoming more political in your work?
Cummins: With this book, I was looking at the politics of healthcare, at least some facets of it, and the nonsensical way America handles health insurance. I focused on the absurdity of the current system. In the story, “Skin,” Marie has to move from New Jersey to New York because the New Jersey marketplace doesn’t have a plan that covers a drug she needs. There are huge differences in marketplaces from state to state. Carriers have fled certain states. You can’t be denied healthcare anymore for having a preexisting condition, but that doesn’t mean you can get healthcare. Marie has the privilege to move, and pay for a plan, but there is inaccessibility at every turn, and I know I’m not done writing about this issue.
Photograph of Megan Cummins by Francis Cosgriff.