I came to know Alison McGhee’s work several years ago, though it wasn’t yet through any of her many published books. My daughter-in-law asked Alison to write a haiku for me through Haiku for You, a project where Alison writes a haiku about someone in response to their photograph. She donates all proceeds to Life and Hope Haiti, a nonprofit which runs the Eben Ezer School, educating more than three hundred children in the rural town of Milot in northern Haiti.
Poetry lives large in Alison’s world. Every Saturday, in her Poem of the Week blog, she introduces a poem coupled with her own flash memoir piece. She’s the creator and host of a poetry podcast, Words by Winter, where she invites listeners to write in with a situation with which they’re struggling. She then picks a poem for the podcast that speaks to that specific struggle and which, hopefully, will feel like a “tiny lifeboat.” Alison even has a free poetry library in her front yard for passersby to pick out a poem to take with them as they go on their way.
But Alison writes in many genres and for all ages. She’s published fifteen picture books, including the #1 New York Times best-selling Someday, ten children’s novels and graphic books, three young adult novels, and six works of adult fiction, including her breakout novel Shadow Baby, nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Her latest novel, The Opposite of Fate, along with many of her other works, tackles some very difficult questions of love, loss, and choice.
I spoke to Alison recently over Zoom about her latest novel, as well as writing over time and, of course, about life.
The Rumpus: I’d like to start with your love of poetry. When did it start and how does it inform your writing?
Alison McGhee: I’ve always loved poetry. Even as a child, certain poems felt as if they spoke directly to me. Poems have always felt like they were speaking directly to my life while simultaneously saving my life. Poetry is essential. This is why it’s my forever goal to spread poetry throughout the land, to make poems an everyday experience, like reading the news.
Rumpus: You write across genres, and your fiction has been published for just about every age group. How do you decide whom to write for?
McGhee: Sparks of ideas each seem to demand their own form, which often determines the age range. A toddler luring a parent into play, for example, feels like either a picture book or a poem. A young woman assaulted and left for dead is clearly inappropriate for young readers and thus requires the context of an adult novel. My books end up all over the map!
Rumpus: I’ve noticed a common theme in several of your novels. The body holds trauma, memories, pain, even when the characters are unaware they’re doing so, almost as if a phantom person holds clues to the characters’ identities. They create stories to make sense of their world.
McGhee: That right there—creating stories—is the key not only to my books but to my existence. Stories hurt, stories heal, stories save our lives. As a human being, you will tell yourself stories to survive what happens to you. So much of what happens in life we would never, ever choose. You can try to bury the things that happen to you, but if you do, much of your energy will go toward keeping that buried. So how do you absorb what happens and, despite that, become bigger in a way because of it?
When I was twenty-four, I was in love with a man who died of suicide. And for many years thereafter, when April and early May came around, it was hard to function. I wouldn’t know why until it would wash over me, and then… of course, of course.
Physical trauma is held in our bodies, too. I had minor heart surgery a few years ago, outpatient. When I woke up, my electrocardiologist asked me if I remembered talking during my surgery. “You kept telling us to stop setting your heart on fire,” he said. “‘You’re burning my heart. Stop hurting me.’” Clearly, I had experienced pain but had no memory of it. But our bodies know what happened, and they hold the experience within.
Rumpus: You write about some very tough experiences. Your YA novel What I Leave Behind is about a young boy in the wake of his dad’s suicide. In The Opposite of Fate, a young woman named Mallie was attacked, raped, and became pregnant. But because of a brain injury and subsequent infection, leaving her unconscious for sixteen months, she could not be involved in the decision to keep the baby or have an abortion. You’re not afraid to broach political questions. What is the role of the political in your art?
McGhee: I’m a writer of my time, and as social issues arise in the world, they arise in my books. This feels organic, not something I purposely set out to do. The central question of The Opposite of Fate is this: what would Mallie want in terms of her pregnancy? Who gets to decide for her? This naturally led to a deep dive into current issues surrounding pro-choice and anti-abortion.
Rumpus: You don’t shy away from difficult topics and yet, you always weave a magical thread of hope throughout your books. There’s life, in spite of; growth, in spite of. While the topics may be very heavy, your books are not.
McGhee: I’m so glad to hear you say that. People do say that they’re left with hope, a sense that someone has come through something awful and is still fully alive and living with so much beauty. That is how I feel about life, and it’s my hope for my novels, too.
Rumpus: Many of your novels take place in the same town and have overlapping characters. Do these characters talk to you and say, “Hey, I want another chance. Write about me again?”
McGhee: My Sterns novels are set in a phantom world of people who feel real to me. I never intended to write a story cycle with the same characters coming in and out. It just happened. It’s as if their world is a parallel world to mine.
Rumpus: Shadow Baby really took off.
McGhee: Yes, Shadow Baby was really popular. It was a Today Show Book Club pick, a best-selling and beloved book.
Rumpus: Nominated for the Pulitzer.
McGhee: Yes. That was great.
Rumpus: So, how was the overnight success that took forever? You worked for years and years and then boom, there it was.
McGhee: It was a wonderful feeling. But it was many years in the making.
Writing tends to be a slow-grow art, and it certainly was that way for me. I had just turned twenty-two when I began my life as an unpaid, unpublished, penniless writer. I only wrote short stories back then, but I wrote every day for six or seven years until I had one short story published in a free neighborhood tabloid.
I kept writing another six, seven years until I had finished a novel. But shortly after finishing, it came to me that writing that book had been a training ground of sorts, and that anything I wrote from that day forth would be better than the best writing in that novel. This was a hard but true realization. I didn’t even try to publish that novel.
I then wrote another novel over the next couple of years and felt good about that one. It became my first published novel—emphasis on published—titled Rainlight.
Rumpus: In the twenty years between Shadow Baby and The Opposite of Fate, what have you learned?
McGhee: I would say I’m still learning. I don’t have answers, really; I just keep growing into the questions of life.
One question I continually turn over in my mind, when I feel happy about a piece of writing or about a book, is: Why do you feel happy about this particular writing? Same question when I feel sad and depressed about a piece of writing: Why?
Do my reactions come from inside me? Do they stem from the quality of the writing as I myself judge it? Or do my reactions, and subsequent self-assessment, come from the outside world? Likes on Instagram, Facebook, retweets. Our modern gauntlet.
This question speaks directly to the choice to make a life from art, a life that centers around a creative process. How much am I influenced by the world’s reception of me and my work?
Rumpus: And? How much are you?
McGhee: More than I want to be. It pains me to admit that, but I’m at a time of great reckoning with my life and I’m trying for deep honesty. Brutal honesty might be the term, but I don’t want to be brutal. I’m trying to be calm, rational, honest about the origins of the ways I look at myself and my work.
What have I learned in the last twenty years? In the last forty? What do I hope to learn in the next five? The next ten? These are great questions. I don’t have great answers.
But I know that I’m trying to come to the true heart of who I am and the way I have lived and hope to live in the world, apart from my identity as the oldest child in my family of origin. Apart from my identity as a mother who left my marriage. Apart from my identity as someone who has published so many books and still will be categorized as a novelist, or a children’s book writer, or a picture book writer.
I shun categorization. Much of my life, I’ve pushed against an encompassing framework that wants to categorize people, artists, life. I rebel against categorization on behalf of other people as well. I deeply question categorization, division, slotting.
Rumpus: You know the rules, but you break them.
McGhee: Or I ignore them, or bend them. I’ve heard many writers say things like, I’m a poet. I could never write a novel. I’m a fiction writer, I could never write a poem. I’m a memoir writer. I don’t understand any of those statements. Can’t we all do everything?
I always want a challenge. I’m restless. For example, I spent the winter and spring studying screenwriting. I’m working on adapting What I Leave Behind into a feature length screenplay. It’s so exciting to learn a whole new form of writing. I feel tiny explosions in my brain.
Rumpus: I’ve heard you say that you accept self-doubt. What does that look like?
McGhee: Lots of people talk or write about how to silence the inner critic. I don’t even try. The idea that she’ll ever be gone feels like a mirage to me. Why spend a lot of energy trying to silence her? And what if I did somehow manage? Would I then just glide magically into the flow and write gorgeous sentences without fear? That doesn’t feel real to me, either.
I also think it’s just fine to have an inner critic that looks at your work with a view to making it better. The reality is most drafts are not very good.
I’m not criticizing the joy of writing happily and uncritically. I’m just saying that the unrevised end result is usually meh. So, number one, accept the help that you can from the inner editorial critic. But the nasty inner critic, the one that says things like, You think you’re a good writer, you’re not. You think you’ve written good books, you haven’t? I don’t try to silence her. I just say, Oh, there you are again. Hello.
Rumpus: And then what?
McGhee: And then just move on. I don’t have a lot of time and energy to spend trying to shut out the forces, human or imaginary, that would bring me down. Even if the writing of the day is terrible, it’s my grounding force in life.
Photograph of Alison McGhee by Dani Werner.