In Drowning Practice, Mike Meginnis’s new novel, the entire world dreams the same dream one night, and now everyone must haplessly prepare for whatever is coming for them on November 1st. By turns painful, moving, and darkly comedic, Drowning Practice follows a family of three: Lyd, a novelist who doesn’t want to leave the house; David, her estranged husband, who is surveilling everybody; and Mott, their precocious tween daughter. This, Meginnis’s second novel, is a dramatic pre-apocalyptic quest with his signature wit and weirdness. Some of its best jokes are on writers, like one aspirant who excitedly reports that he is hypothetically signing with an agent for a hypothetical book.
Meginnis is the author of Fat Man and Little Boy (Black Balloon, 2014) with short fiction and essays appearing in PANK, Recommended Reading, American Book Review, Writer’s Digest, and many other journals. His story “Navigators” appeared in Best American Short Stories 2012. He co-hosts the podcast Gift Horse with his partner, Tracy Rae Bowling. Meginnis lives and works in Iowa City.
We spoke over Zoom about writing Drowning Practice, the bad fathers of the post-apocalypse, the most beautiful thing you can do with your time, and the weird solace of thinking about the end of the world.
The Rumpus: You’ve said that before you were writing the novel you found solace in apocalyptic films, books, and video games. Could you talk a little bit about your relationship to the apocalyptic genre?
Mike Meginnis: I read The Road at a formative time. I have slowly turned against Cormac McCarthy and now I don’t know that I would like that book at all if I went back to it. But it was something that I thought about all the time for a long time before I decided I hate how he writes.
I like schlocky stuff like The Walking Dead. I like Children of Men. The Last of Us is a video game series—that’s another one that I almost disavow even as I talk about it, which is a theme: I probably wouldn’t have written in this genre if I thought everyone was nailing it already. That game really provided a lot of the structure that got me initially started on this because I kept thinking we’ve got [lots of] examples where it’s a father and son, it’s father and daughter, but we don’t have a mother-and-daughter story. I wasn’t running into them in the sort of mainstream big venues I’m describing here. It seemed to me there was obviously narrative interest to be found in exploring how that is different.
There’s a fantasy that is a big part of how apocalyptic fiction operates, which is “We’re going to reset society; we’re going to kind of go back to the garden of Eden; we’re going to have an opportunity to build things anew,” but at the same time there’s a really bizarre conservatism to the way that that usually plays out because of the dynamics I was just talking about where it’s just about a man protecting a community, a family, etc. We end up actually regressing.
Rumpus: You not only change the gender dynamics, but also you avoid this heroic ideal of a parent-child relationship because Mott’s parents are both kind of bad in their own ways. There are lots of problems with the way Lyd parents, and then Mott’s father, David, is this very complicated villain.
Meginnis: In standard genre apocalyptic exercises like The Walking Dead, there is frequently an encounter between the heroic father figure who is masculine—and it’s important that he’s masculine because that’s what’s going to save everybody—but he is also thoughtful, sensitive, and he cares about the survival of his community as a community. He may eventually take a fascist turn, but he isn’t starting in that place. Then he runs into another father who is worse, a father who has got really heightened masculinity that is initially fascist and is therefore more dangerous. We’re saying we want masculinity, we want a man to protect us, but we don’t want it to be that man. The first time I remember seeing this and being disappointed by it was in 28 Days Later. A general guy shows up, and he’s barely a character. It’s just like, “What if bad man were here with gun?”
It’s a hollow sort of liberalism. I wanted to have a man be the villain, but I wanted him to be less conventionally, oppressively masculine and more specifically a man in a particular way, and so a lot of the decisions that complicate him come from that. I also have a rule that anything I believe that gets put in one of my books explicitly has to be said by the least dependable, worst person in the book. He is sort of what I imagine as the worst consequence of what I do believe. I’m sort of a free-love hippie myself in a way, but I am aware that that has some bad consequences.
This book came from so many failed attempts at books. I had published Fat Man and Little Boy, my first book, in 2014, and actually, in the time before it came out, I had written another long thing that is a complete mess and I’ll never let anybody see, which was unpublishable, but I thought it was good at the time.
Rumpus: A lot of Drowning Practice seemed to me to be about the purpose of writing and what it means to be a writer. Lyd is a novelist whose third novel is called Failure and is about longing for the end of the world, and you have Little Women coming up a lot as an intertext. Your character Mott has these legal pads she’s writing her book on, which have to somehow survive all the pre-apocalyptic shenanigans. Mott writing this novel—even though we know it’s never going to be published, it’s probably never going to be read by anybody other than Lyd, it’s still so important for it to happen. It made me think of this hippie slogan: If I knew the world was going to end tomorrow, I’d still plant a tree today. Could you talk a little bit about the importance of the novel Mott’s writing?
Meginnis: I will say that I tend to resent reading about writers. Not because I think it’s an uninteresting subject, but because it always kind of feels like when you’re doing improv and you look around the room and you say something not because it’s an interesting thing to say but because it was at hand. So, I didn’t love doing it, but at the same time if I ask myself, “What is the most important thing to me?” it is writing. I chose to spend my life this way for a reason. The most beautiful thing I can think of to do with one’s life is to write a novel, even as I feel really ambivalent about the utility of doing it, about the value to myself and to society and to my local community of having written a book.
You mentioned that it’s not going to be published and nobody’s ever going to read it except for her mom—to me that’s the dramatic situation of being a writer. The fundamental question of the book is the question of “What do you do if you have a less than a year left?” and my stupid answer is I write a book.
Rumpus: You had this incredible breakout debut novel with Fat Man and Little Boy in which atom bombs are the characters. The two big things you have written about—nuclear war and the apocalypse—are two of my greatest fears. You just went straight at these difficult things. Why are you drawn to them?
Meginnis: I tend to look in my writing for extremes—I want the worst and the best, I want the hardest, most painful experiences I can think of because that is a guaranteed way to get myself to write something. Whenever I’m talking to someone who is considering writing, I always tell them, “Write about what you’re scared of,” because it’s an inexhaustible subject. I’m afraid of war. I’m afraid of being a person who, as I am, is complicit in horrifying violence, and I’m afraid of being a victim of it. I’m afraid of the political structures that create those circumstances and are created by them, and I am less scared of death than I was when I was writing this book, but I was terrified. And, I still don’t feel great.
Rumpus: I had a moment of anxiety about three-quarters of the way into Drowning Practice: I’m like, “We’re not going see the world end on November 1st, and I’m going to be so pissed off.” I could see an argument to be made for not depicting it, because the point is not what happens on November 1st, the point is everything that happened because of what they thought was going to happen.
Meginnis: A true end of the world is unimaginable and impossible, so that’s why we’re in the time before it in Drowning Practice. There is a character in the book who believes that the reason the world is going to end is that everybody is going to make it happen themselves. People are being induced to have that desire. That’s how I feel about the state of exhaustion we’re living in.
The reason that apocalyptic fiction is so popular right now is not that the world seems more like it’s going to end than it has in the past—everyone has always been saying that the world was about to end—historically that’s usually a way of talking about social change or political change, and it is now too, but I think that it is more popular now than it has been in other points in history because we want it. We feel that desire for just, like, “You know what? This sucks, get me out of here.” But what would happen if the world ended in any sense that is interesting or meaningful to human beings? It wouldn’t actually end, it would just change, and people would just struggle more. Climate change is not going to wipe out all the people for a long time. What will happen first is tremendous suffering. It’s going to be a process. It’s not going to be one cathartic moment. The reason that my book is structured the way it is, is partly that I wanted to talk about that desire for that moment.
I’m a person who enjoys suffering. All my favorite foods are too sour or too hot or too bitter. For me there is an almost indulgent pleasure in spending time in that miserable “What’s gonna happen, what’s gonna happen, what’s gonna happen, I’m so scared, I’m so scared I’m so scared.” For me, that’s fun. And I think for readers it is too. The Leftovers TV show does this really well; it’s just hell all the way through. You don’t know what’s happening in terms of the actual consequences of the plot, but you know that everyone is miserable and suffering, and that was what I wanted when I watched that show. So that’s the experience that I’m selling.
Rumpus: Part of the solace of that is that drowning practice, right? The solace of working out the consequences of all the ways we’re living, and what are people going to be like, and can we survive it, and how can we emotionally survive? All those projections. To me that’s part of the function of writing and reading. If you’re afraid of death it doesn’t do any good to ignore it. I prefer to push myself to think about it all the time. I wonder if the desire for a sudden and complete end is connected to a desire for a god and for an explanation and for somebody else to take the keys: “Somebody else end this or don’t, but I can’t be in this uncertainty anymore.” I read your early story, “Robot Christ,” which is religiously inflected, and I wondered if that was something on your mind, the Christian apocalypse.
Meginnis: Absolutely. The spectrum of how religious I started to how religious I am now is about as wide as it could get. When I was a kid, we weren’t allowed to dress up for Halloween unless it was a Biblical character, and I didn’t watch TV because I wasn’t allowed. I was homeschooled from kindergarten through college. There came a point in college when I realized that I had never actually believed in God, and I never thought I was going to go to heaven or anything like that. But I had definitely been using that belief as a way of managing some of these anxieties. With the Christian apocalypse, everything is terrible for a while and then God takes the wheel and then society is over-turned, we have God’s kingdom on Earth, and everything is great. There is a part of me that wants to punish people a little bit for having that fantasy because I don’t think that it’s a very adult way of living in the world to just kind of hope that eventually Dad’s going to come and set everything right. But it is an inescapable fantasy. It is something we all seem to be in one way or another kind of hoping for.
Rumpus: Were you, like Mott, a child-writer? Talk to me about Little Women.
Meginnis: People make fun of me for how I measure time on this and it’s fair: My writing career begins at three. That’s what I choose to assert. I had a parent who would type in a word processor for me and just write down whatever I said, and I would write stories. The next claim I’m going to make that people make fun of me for sometimes is that this is my eighth novel, and I wrote the first one when I was fifteen. I was very much like Mott. I was like, “Well, okay, I’ve written one, let’s get this thing going, who’s going to read this, who’s going to publish it, let’s go.” Because clearly if I’ve managed to put this many words in a row at this age, I must be a genius.
I really identify with Mott in that arrogance of youth I can’t quite get back to, where I’m twenty-five, and I’ve written this book about the atom bombs and about Japan, and it’s in France and I’ve never been to any of those places and I’m not an expert in history and I’m like, “Okay, let’s do it, let’s publish this bad boy, and hope I don’t get wrecked by reviews.”
I also never managed to finish Little Women. I share Mott’s frustration and inability to really get into it—that’s a subject of shame that I was hoping I would never confess in any interview and instead I’ve confessed it in my first interview. When I went through an extremely difficult depression, I really struggled to read. I am really embarrassed by how few books I managed to read in my late-twenties because I just couldn’t finish things. I would get frustrated and disappointed and I would get sad—also I had a sleeping disorder that I didn’t know about, and it took me forever to figure out why I was falling asleep reading books. I felt awful. For me, the sadness of just never being able to quite get to the end of a book is a very specific sadness that feels related, to me, to the sadness of knowing that you’re going to die someday and that you know you’re not going to get everything done that you feel obligated to do or that you want to do.
Rumpus: And when you lose the ability to do that thing that feels like the most definitive thing about you, that you read and write, that is catastrophic. You mentioned earlier that you no longer admire Cormac McCarthy’s writing and I wanted to end by asking how you think about craft now. How do you think about writing on the technical level, the stylistic level?
Meginnis: To continue picking my fight with Cormac McCarthy, who obviously couldn’t give a shit what I think, I realized I could not stand his fiction when I read someone else praising it. They had singled out from Blood Meridian and quoted this thing that described the sun. The sun was rising: That was the actual literal fact of the sentence. But the description was, like, an old man carrying a lantern into the grave in the mist. It was like, man, the sun’s rising, chill out! I stopped reading McCarthy because I felt like it was too much, and the grimness of it didn’t feel connected to any reality about my life or my processing of the world. I find it really aggressive and overbearing.
What I want at all times is to write a sentence that is beautiful and novel and extremely clear, and occasionally I think you’re allowed to show off a little. I think that when people treat minimalism as a moral imperative, that’s silly. My goal is to write the most beautiful sentences I can while constrained by a really simple, fundamentally dramatic situation. That feels self-congratulatory as I’m saying it, but that’s the goal.
Author photo by David Greedy