Feeling Comfortable Enough to Be Funny Is What Makes Me Want to Write Fiction: A Conversation with Megan Giddings

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The Women Could Fly, out now from Amistad, is Megan Giddings’s second novel and tells the story of Josephine Thomas—a 28-year-old Black woman whose decisions about love and marriage would seem ordinary if it weren’t for the extraordinary context in which she is making them. In the America that Josephine lives in, witches exist, and any woman who doesn’t marry by the age of thirty is suspected of being a witch—an egregious crime in a society that fears and reviles powerful women. In a world where heterosexual marriage is compulsory, currents of racism underwrite state policy, and any behavior that challenges cis, patriarchal norms is subject to criminalization, Josephine struggles to find a way toward freedom.

Giddings’s newest novel is chilling for how clearly it reflects the ugly truths of the country we are currently living in. At a time when it seems we are one Supreme Court ruling away from the rollback of all social progress or one statehouse decision from fascism, this novel provides a clear-eyed look at our society’s dysfunction, and the consequences such dysfunction bears on people’s lives. And yet, even within this dystopian setting, Giddings’s subversive characters are fun, hilarious, and never quite defeated. Their fight to live authentically, in control of their own lives, with dignity, hope, and even humor, suggested to me that we might be able to do the same.

Megan Giddings is the acclaimed author of Lakewood, a New York Magazine top ten book of 2020, an NPR Best Book of 2020, a Michigan Notable book for 2021, a finalist for two NAACP Image Awards, and a finalist for an L.A. Times Book Prize in the Ray Bradbury Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Speculative category.

It was a pleasure to speak with Giddings about this visionary novel, and we exchanged messages in which we discussed the ways fiction can give us insight into our reality, how writers can use humor to illuminate the darkest topics, what it means to decenter capitalism in the process of art-making, how to write flashbacks that actually work well, and so much more.

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The Rumpus: This is a book about a world where witches exist and are persecuted and oppressed by the state. Maybe it’s just the moment that has me thinking like this, but so much of this book, and especially the language around the various laws designed to punish witches, seemed aligned with the ways we’re seeing abortion restricted around the country. When I read something like, “Did you know that in half the states, women have to prove they’re not witches before filing for divorce?” I can’t help but think of half the states in the country that are currently poised to ban abortion. Were you thinking of abortion as you were writing this? What else was top of mind? 

Megan Giddings: I was thinking about all the legislation happening in this country that is meant to target anyone who is not a cis, straight man. One of the hard things to me about this moment is if you’ve been paying attention (and this is not to ding anyone who doesn’t have the time and the means; I don’t have kids and I’m affiliated with universities that give you free access to a lot of newspapers) the majority of states have been finding ways to keep making sure that there is no such thing as equal rights. In Missouri, if you’re pregnant, you can’t get a divorce. Texas is a full-on fascist state if you’re trans. We can’t get an Equal Rights Amendment added to the constitution of this country that theoretically prevents sex-based discrimination. One of the hard things about writing a book like The Women Could Fly is that it is really hard to write a novel with as many high-concepts as it has and talk about all the things I want to discuss, to point directly at how this country is a democracy for some, but for most of us, it’s democracy-lite at best.

Rumpus: We’re so inured to news reports, to real-world statistics. Do you get the sense that fiction might help us see our reality more clearly than news reports ever will?

Giddings: I think one of the most frustrating things happening today is that fiction is becoming far more easily accessible than the news. You can still go to a library and pretty easily find and read a book. Amazon (and this is just an example and not meant to say how I feel about this) regularly prices books for around $2.00 on Kindle. People tend to spend far more time worrying and doing the math about recurring subscriptions than that quick online impulse buy or free grab. Like, yes, of course, I want more people reading novels. And I know I’m answering your question sideways, but I keep wondering while I think about the question: Is it that we’re inured or is it just so hard to get the news on a consistent basis?

I also think we have to start thinking about the way our cultures teach us to see reality or even influences how we perceive the idea of wanting to see reality clearly. Novels are wonderful for people who want to do the work of looking at things sideways, of pressing against a book’s ideas, and forming an opinion about the themes and ideas presented. I feel like I sound like a Wikipedia article right now. But I think so often people tend to be taught during their education that reading is this puzzle where there is a set right answer for a quiz or for an essay or have been taught that hating something is a sign of intelligence that my cynical answer is, too often, the only thing a person sees from a book is their own relationship to reading. It’s hard to be a generous enough reader to see a book and what it’s looking at clearly and sit with that understanding.

Also because that felt painfully cynical, my optimistic answer is more people should read to think about how people live now.

Rumpus: This is your second novel. How did the process differ from writing your first book?

Giddings: It took me five years to write Lakewood and I think if I combined all the drafts together that 73,000-word book probably has close to a one-million-word life. So, I definitely think I learned drafting concision from that book to The Women Could Fly. That one is about 80,000 words? Sure, that sounds right. But I would say that I knew much more about the story I wanted to tell. Doing the draft math, it probably has only a 500,000-600,000-word life based on cuts and shifts through the drafting process.

I also accepted that I’m not a traditional outliner, but did find ways of working with organization: keeping track of plot points after I write them, writing down worldbuilding moments and trying to make them work together, and journaling about emotional growth and movements. I didn’t add those things into the novel life word count I just did. But they’re part of the infrastructure I needed. I guess all of these things are a sort of reverse-outline if that’s a thing that makes sense to people.

 

Rumpus: I laughed out loud at several parts of this book. The writing can just be so smart, so acerbic, and yet also so light, which is quite an accomplishment for a book that is about a topic so dark. Josephine is not politicized in the book, but sometimes I get the feeling that the narrator is a modern-day activist, one that’s read all the reports, attended all the workshops, read all the organizing toolkits, and yet knows not to take anything too seriously. This sentence, for example—“If you were a Black or Latinx student at a Predominantly White high school, you were 66 percent more likely to have been accused of being a witch by the second semester of your high school career,”—had me envisioning a boarding-school-to-burned-at-stake pipeline. There are so many examples of clever places like that where you poke fun at the twisted reality we live in. I’m wondering if you can talk about drawing inspiration from real-life atrocities and your process for finding the humor even in situations that can feel so heavy and overwhelming.

Giddings: Honestly, for a long time I’ve regularly gotten in trouble for my sense of humor. When I was growing up–-church, school, dating, at home sometimes—it almost always felt like a negative. In almost every situation, I have a brain that wants to joke and play and laugh. Sometimes, yeah, it’s a trauma response. Sometimes though, the pleasure of living for me is the fact that I find so much of living gently hilarious. People can figure out a way to go outer space, we can treat cancer, we can communicate via telephones and computers, but most of our dumb brains can’t figure out how to live in a way that doesn’t destroy our planet. That’s devastating. That’s hilarious.

There was a long stretch where I tried actively not to make things I wrote funny because of a disastrous undergrad fiction workshop where I spent thirty minutes just listening to people complain that a story had jokes. And wouldn’t it have been so much better if the author had let us pay attention to the emotions? Lol.

But feeling comfortable enough to be funny is what makes me want to write fiction. If I can play and joke, well, I can write about anything over several years. I’m always a little fascinated by people who can write four-hundred-page books and it’s just these grim gremlins trying to understand why their dad cheated on their mom and what does that mean about family? I mean, I’m going to read that book and maybe enjoy it, but still, that’s years of your life with no laughter.

Rumpus: I want to talk about the utopia that Josephine finds among witches. It’s described as a place where “women were dabbling… the emphasis was on learning and making, not being famous or rich or special.” As a writer and a woman of color, I couldn’t help but think that my vision of utopia is very much in line with this idea of unbridled creativity that’s rooted in community and is incompatible with capitalism. Do you think this is how art should be made—in community, laser-focused on perfecting the craft, with no regard to the market?

Giddings: But is it a utopia? It’s been really fascinating to me the number of times people have called it a utopia; you’re not at all the first person to say it, won’t be the last. But I even deliberately had a character who lived there their entire life say, “It’s not perfect. We’re still people.”

There is though, a book by Jayna Brown, Black Utopias that is reimagining through a Black Studies lens what the word “utopia” even means. Brown is encouraging people to think about Black collectivism and movements that decenter capitalism, as well as how we even understand the ways change can happen. Now I’m directly quoting from her text: “I argue that instead of thinking of processes of change as necessarily based in a binary of opposition and antagonism, we can consider the possibility for processes of becoming that involve multiple forms of relations—cooperative, desirous, sometimes conflictual—between multiple elements.” When I read that for the first time, it made me consider how I rendered conflict in fiction, what it means to look at the world from a “cooperative” or “desirous” lens.

So, yes, when I’m making art alone, I don’t think about the market.

But, I’m also bumping against the community aspect because the community you describe sounds like one that would privilege people with means and connections still rather than a sharing of resources. The ideal writing community is one where the lens in which we talk about work isn’t meant to be about salability or making money, but one where we talk about the artists’ vision. And then we share resources. Who is a good editor who actually edits? How much are you making? How do you actually place or sell your art? Maybe I’m too practical, but right now, it feels like if you’re a Black writer, you need both parts of that community if you want anyone to have access to your work.

Rumpus: You do something really interesting with flashbacks in that you often weave them right into the scene, so one paragraph will detail what’s happening in scene, while the next will take us back to a memory. For pages, we’ll be reading these two narratives side by side in a way that feels really seamless. Can you talk from a craft perspective about your approach to exposition in novel writing?

Giddings: I’m going to be really specific about The Women Could Fly because every novel I’ve written (writing my third right now) has had a different relationship to exposition and flashback. For The Women Could Fly, the approach is purposefully slippery because I was trying really hard to catch the feeling of a retrospective mind considering events. Even if Jo isn’t commenting directly like a typical retrospective narrator might, we still see the mechanics of her brain working. Then, from there, it’s often putting scenes where the only overlap is Jo. The past is easier to delineate because Jo is at a party but her father is elsewhere and would never be at that party.

One of the hard things I have with some first-person narratives is that they seem like they’re treated like a machine still: the easiest mechanism toward telling a story. But I think a lot of the way I understand storytelling does come from me listening to my dad invent and make up stories. One of the things he and I used to do a lot when we actually went to restaurants is make up stories about the people around us. We’re joking and adding more and more ridiculous things to it, but it’s also slippery and divergent. There’s never a straight line even when it’s just one of predominantly speaking and the other listening. It’s really rare to find someone in real life who is casually speaking that doesn’t add and go on tangents when they have a rapt audience.

Rumpus: There’s a section of the book where the paragraphs repeatedly start with “There was, there was, there was.” It took me several pages to notice that sentence structure, and that this monotonous syntax helped us see how devoid the narrator’s domestic life had become. It’s as if all she could do now was look around and list the things she was seeing—there was a mirror, there was a couch–-and naming them reminded her that she was still present, alive. She could’ve easily said, “I’m bored, life sucks,” but instead we get this beautiful, haunting chapter where the sentence structure—and not necessarily the words on the page—tells us what she’s feeling. Can you talk about your process of writing that chapter, and more broadly, how you use form to convey mood?

Giddings: So, this is the chapter I fought with my agent about the most in the latter half of the book. Some of the worry was that it might be slowing down the pacing, that I might have been over-trusting the readers. What people need to see is that someone can be simultaneously kind of happy and also simultaneously pretty bored and restless, etc. And all of those are fair points, but one of the things that I love most about novel-writing (and sometimes hate when a random tags me in their Instagram review of my book) is that you have to trust the reader to learn how to read your book. To look at how sentence structure can add its own emotional layer to the work.

Form communicates so much about emotion in novel writing. One of my favorite books that was released in the past five years is Lily King’s Writers & Lovers. What King does so well in that book is she uses even the length of chapters to communicate emotion and speed. A book about a depressed-anxious woman with a lot of debt and trying to finish her novel and maybe find a good boyfriend should not be a page-turner. But King delineates chapter length—the opening chapters are long and a little elegiac in tone and mood, and then around the book’s middle where it feels like Casey’s entire life might truly crash down on her, the chapters tend toward flash length. Her sentences are regularly long when Casey (the main character) is spinning on anxiety, but they don’t have the em dashes and semicolons and beauty that Casey’s sentences have when she’s not overwhelmed. All of these things added to a sense of momentum and interest to me that I’m still chewing over now years later.  

Rumpus: There’s a lot of commentary about art in this book, including this line from the narrator who works at an art museum: “Some people want art to show that it’s absolutely miserable to not be a rich, white man.” This made me think of the pressure that people of color in general face to produce art that is rooted in trauma. I’m curious if you can say more about why people might want art to show it’s miserable to not be a rich, white man, especially since we see that kind of art everywhere. Is the impulse to want to consume (or publish) art about marginalized people in pain inherently discriminatory?

Giddings: No. It’s not inherently discriminatory. I’m only talking about the United States here, but so much of our heritage is about the argument of who is actually a full person. There were times not that long ago that it was socially acceptable to assume that Black and Indigenous people did not feel pain like white people did. Even today, there are medical studies that show that many physicians who are not Black, don’t trust Black people about their pain levels or feelings. So, no, it’s not inherently discriminatory to publish this or consume this kind of art because in some ways this is still an argument. If art can in any way remind people that others suffer, well, okay, here we go.

The frustrating thing to me is that we haven’t overcome that pain jump. Before I completely locked down a big bunch of my social media, I was tagged in a review that said The Women Could Fly didn’t make sense because it wasn’t just about Black women being magic. Yeah, this was a review by a white woman. But there’s a level of easy dehumanization that happens with readers, with publishers, with editors, if a book is written by a Black writer but isn’t about their ideas of what it means to be a Black person in the world. The discriminatory thing is when people are more comfortable with seeing Black people suffer and they misconstrue the message of the book to be: Black people were made to suffer. Sometimes, I wish that everyone who felt that way had to read Leah Johnson’s Rise to the Sun which yeah, sure, her Black characters do suffer but not because they’re Black. The book is about finding joy and embracing your passions and sticking up for yourself.

Rumpus: I’m not going to spoil the ending for people, but I do want to say that it was my favorite part of the book. I didn’t know how much I needed to read something that reflected even a glimmer of hope back at me. Can I ask you how you decided upon the ending, and why you left readers with a (much-needed, I think) sense of optimism?

Giddings: Because the only way we’re going to survive, the only way life is worth living, is if we keep finding the ways to build hope together.


Stephanie Jimenez is the author of They Could Have Named Her Anything (2019, Little A Books). Her fiction and nonfiction has appeared in The Guardian, the New York Times, Joyland, and more. She lives in New York. More from this author →