The Rumpus Mini-Interview Project: Shannon McLeod
I was delighted to talk with Shannon McLeod over Zoom about her debut novella, Whimsy (Long Day Press, March 2021), which follows the eponymous narrator at the beginning of a new romance with a journalist, Rikesh. Rikesh and Whimsy meet when he interviews her for a human-interest piece about the car crash that left Whimsy with facial scarring and killed her freshman-year roommate, a passenger in the vehicle. From the beginning of their relationship, her traumas and insecurities are fully on display—as she sometimes fears they are in all facets of her life.
In this novella, Whimsy finds herself caught between the desire to hide and the desire to be seen. This impacts her performance in the classroom as a first-year middle school teacher, her friendship with her childhood best friend Miri, and her romantic life. Shannon traces Whimsy’s struggle with empathy, humor, and clear-eyed vision about the way that our anxieties and insecurities can blind us to the truths about how we affect others.
Shannon is a writer and high school teacher in Virginia. She is the author of a chapbook, Pathetic (University of Indianapolis Etchings Press), and her work appears in Prairie Schooner, Tin House online, Hobart, and elsewhere. Shannon and I began exchanging work in 2018, so I’ve had the opportunity to follow Whimsy’s journey to publication. Below, we discuss how the short form of the novella enabled psychological exploration, negative space in storytelling, and of course, as the book’s title suggests, moments of whimsy and joy.
The Rumpus: Many of the chapters in this novella have appeared as standalone stories in venues like Joyland and Necessary Fiction. When beginning this project, what came first—the idea for a novella, or for a short story?
Shannon McLeod: I recently returned to the journals that held the seeds of ideas for the book. It started as a story about a teacher who is also a fencing coach and explored Whimsy’s relationship with her brother. In time, it turned into this story about her car accident, and the brother disappeared. Then, a love interest came into the picture. I had a couple stories that were fully formed before I knew it would be book-length, but once I felt more settled on the character and the world, I knew I wanted it to be either a “novel in stories” or a “novella in stories.”
Rumpus: How did approaching it as a novella “in stories” affect the form of the book? How did the book-length narrative and the self-contained stories begin to play with each other in the writing process?
McLeod: Writing the book in short stories gave me freedom to leave more things unsaid. Between stories, there are often jumps in the time period, so there are parts of Whimsy and Rikesh’s courtship that the reader doesn’t really get to see. If I was setting out to simply write a novella, I would have felt the need to flesh out those scenes, but I actually enjoyed the negative space of the story where key moments in their relationship development (i.e., their first kiss and second date) are not present. Instead, from story to story, the reader sees moments where their relationship shifts.
Rumpus: It occurs to me that Whimsy is a narrator who’s really focused with the way that she appears to others, and I wonder if actually we’re mostly seeing the moments where she’s in discomfort, not the moments where there’s a little bit more ease.
McLeod: Yes. She’s anxious and ruminates a lot on her insecurities, so she’s emphasizing those moments because she’s dwelling in them more intensely.
Rumpus: There’s also a lot of focus on her discomfort in her body (especially compared to Rikesh’s seeming ease). Her college experiences with interpretive dance are a way of mitigating that, and of course, as an adult, she tried to get her students in on the fun. I’m curious about dance as a metaphor here. I’m even more curious to hear how you made the leap from a book about a teacher who fences to a teacher who leads students through interpretive dance. How did dance enter the narrative?
McLeod: I don’t have background as a dancer, but I was a figure skater for ten years, so I can connect to the feeling of freedom that you experience when you’re completely in your body while you’re skating—and to the moment you get off the ice and come back to the awareness of how you’re perceived. You go from finding pleasure in your body to finding horror. I’ve taken some fencing classes, too, and what I loved about fencing is that it asks you to be more confrontational. But that wasn’t where this character is mentally. It made more sense for her to experiment with moments of freedom and expression with her body through dance than it would to experience assertiveness and confrontation in these moments with fencing.
Rumpus: I can see that. She lacks this ability to defend herself. As a first-year teacher, she’s caught between establishing an adult identity and being dragged back into childhood, even thinking that the students are bullying her. Did your own experience in the classroom influence the way that you thought about Whimsy’s interactions with students?
McLeod: It’s really uncomfortable to be a new teacher. I was a few years out of college when I started teaching, but I still felt close enough to being a teenager that the gap between myself and my students wasn’t as distant as I would have liked it to be. Going from being a student who can hide to becoming this public figure—the person who is supposed to be looked at—is something that could be disconcerting, and I imagined it drawing Whimsy into the social dynamics between teenagers.
Rumpus: We also see Whimsy afraid to open up to the person she used to confide in in her own adolescence, Miri. Why does she need to hide herself from her closest friend?
McLeod: Miri is engaged. She’s confident in herself and confident in her relationship. For Whimsy, presenting an exciting potential romance to her friend—who’s already head and shoulders above her in that department—is too vulnerable. She would have to look at the contrast between the uncertainty of her relationship with Rikesh, which is not completely requited, and the certainty of Miri’s relationship with her fiancé. So, it’s easier and more comfortable to keep things to herself.
Rumpus: And of course, that affects their friendship and Miri in ways that Whimsy doesn’t fully recognize. While you were writing this, were you thinking of Whimsy as an unreliable narrator?
McLeod: I didn’t start writing with that sense. But as I got to know the character, I realized that her scars would likely be more pronounced in her head than they would be in reality, which is something that I can relate to with my perception of my own physical self. As I continued writing it, and by the time I got to the end, I realized that Rikesh would see Whimsy very differently from how she sees herself.
Rumpus: It’s such a powerful moment when he tells her that what she thinks is anxiety is actually narcissism. I think it comes as a surprise to Whimsy, but also to the reader, who has gotten so close to her first-person narration. She’s incredibly self-critical, but what Rikesh says rings true.
McLeod: Yes. Whimsy is so self-flagellating that she thinks it makes her good on some level, but she doesn’t realize that her anxiety isn’t just punishing herself. It’s punishing everybody around her.
Rumpus: I wanted to talk about a formal choice. You change tense in the last chapter. The narration is in past tense up until we reach the conclusion, and then the final chapter shifts to present tense.
McLeod: Whimsy doesn’t have a heroic resolution at the end of the story. When Rikesh calls her out for her anxiety as leading to self-centeredness and narcissism, she’s of course defensive. But I wanted the reader to get the sense that it has somewhat settled in, not just because he told her this, but because she has undergone some growth. In my own experience, anxiety entails dwelling on the past. What did I say that was stupid fifteen minutes ago? What did I say that was stupid fifteen years ago? To escape that rumination, to find a sense of peace, we have to come into the present moment. I wanted to switch tense to show that Whimsy has found the present tense of her story.
Rumpus: Having seen previous drafts of this novella, I know that there was one story that didn’t make it in. How did you decide to stop working on it and leave it at this length rather than pushing for a novel-length manuscript?
McLeod: I had that one story that didn’t make it into the book, along with other notes and ideas for scenes that could make it novel-length. But I finally recognized that this story was meant to be a novella, because it’s really about Whimsy, her relationship with Rikesh, and her relationship with herself, which is a rather simple story. And I think simple stories and, in particular, relationship stories work really well for the novella. Some of the material that I tried to add brought in more of the creeping darkness of the world that exists around Whimsy, but I felt that belonged in the periphery. It didn’t fit with the tone of the book.
Rumpus: Do you feel like naming the character Whimsy shaped the tone? How did you arrive at that name, by the way?
McLeod: The name just popped into my head. This doesn’t happen very often with my writing, so when something feels like it was just plopped into my brain, and I don’t know why, and it feels certain, I go with it. I think so much of her story is wanting to find moments of whimsy in life, and her own anxiety and self-hatred being the obstacle between herself and attaining that light experience of joy that the world offers, but that not everybody can access. Her doing interpretive dance in college and then trying to get this group of awkward seventh graders (who really probably don’t need to be socially putting themselves in the situation where they’re doing interpretive dance in front of their peers) fits with the idea that she is someone who wants to be a whimsical person, and could be, if only she wasn’t getting in her own way.
Rumpus: Did you also have to trust your gut or your brain with the idea that this was a novella, not a novel (since novellas are traditionally less “marketable”)?
McLeod: Absolutely. Actually, for years, I was calling it a “novella in stories.” But even my small press didn’t want to use that label, since linked collections are also infamously hard to sell.
But Long Day Press specializes in short texts like novellas and chapbooks. I love novellas, and this was the book I needed to write. I’m glad it ended up with a press that could appreciate it for what it is. I was also able to do the cover art. I put a lot of love and my own intention into this book, and I feel good that it has come out in the way that feels meant to be.
Photograph of Shannon McLeod by Billy Hunt.