Litdish: On Writing Form, Style and Moving Through the Moments: 7 Questions for Author Megan Giddings
The question of what one will suffer for a loved one is examined in Megan Giddings’ Lakewood (Amistad, 2020), which follows a Black student who quits college to participate in a secret research study so she can pay her mother’s medical bills. Timely themes like poverty, class, racism, and morality are woven into the medical-experimentation storyline, which can leave the reader provoked and deeply disturbed.
Lakewood has received numerous recognitions: one of New York Magazine’s 10 best books of 2020, one of NPR’s best books of 2020, a Michigan Notable book for 2021, a nominee for two NAACP Image Awards, and a finalist for a 2020 Los Angeles Times Book Prize in The Ray Bradbury Prize for Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Speculative Fiction category.
Giddings is the editor of Forward: 21st Century Flash Fiction (Aforementioned Productions, 2019) and a contributing writer to The Lonely Stories: 22 Celebrated Writers on the Joys & Struggles of Being Alone (Catapult, 2022). Her upcoming novel, The Women Could Fly (Amistad), is scheduled for release in August 2022. Her shorter work has appeared in numerous publications.
I enjoyed talking with Megan about Lakewood, the writing life, the best advice she’s ever received, and her newest novel, The Women Could Fly.
- As the following excerpt from Lakewood reveals, the government-run research project subjects its participants to physical and psychological torture. Did you do much research on unethical human experimentation before and during your writing?
“[Dr. Lisa] pulled out a pillbox and explained that this is a slighter higher dosage….[Lena] stood up. Sat down. Tried to stand again, but her legs gave out. She hit her back on the chair’s seat. She tried to pull herself up, but her legs flopped and kicked. She moved her arms breaststroke style….Her mouth refused to do what her brain said. It spoke only in gurgles and moans.”
I did a lot of research on human experimentation. I enrolled in several soft contact research studies because I did need to know two things: how it felt to be in a research study and what an ethical, by the book research study looked like.
At the same time, I was reading a lot about how most of our knowledge about gynecology is based on deeply unethical methods. So, J. Marion Sims experimented on people who were enslaved–people who a thousand percent could not consent–and did not use anesthesia. I read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks where, again, a Black woman and her body were treated deeply unethically by her physicians. It feels consistent, not just to medicine, that perhaps one of the biggest issues that people encounter over and over is being driven by the idea of a higher calling (Knowledge!) and using that as an excuse to exploit and not acknowledge other human beings as people.
- The experimentation descriptions in your novel contain powerful, emotionally-charged (and sometimes violent) scenes. How did you create those experiences and what reader effect were you hoping for?
I don’t write anything hoping for an effect on a reader. If I think too much about what I want a reader to feel, it takes me away from what the story needs to be: immersive and true to its characters. You can’t control your readers or their reactions to your prose, but you can control your characters’ reactions, what they notice in the scene, and what they don’t perceive.
I know a scene is working if I can easily move a character through the moments. If I can make them act, speak, react, think, and feel all within this space then the foundation of the scene itself and what happens within it are sound. If I’m missing one of those major aspects of characterization, I know I need to reconsider what I’m saying here.
- The novel packs a wealth of human conditions, and also human and civil rights’ concerns, into its storyline: family love and devotion, grief, morality, race, class, inequity, humor, and even a touch of romance. Was that planned, or did the many aspects naturally evolve as the story unfolded?
When I was getting started as a writer, there were times where I easily agreed to the label that I was an experimental writer. I was regularly playing with form and style, often wrote flash, and focused a lot on narrative time and multiple genres. More and more though, I wonder if I should start actively calling myself a realist.
I write a lot, even when things are fantastic or uncanny or uncomfortable, toward what it’s like to be alive at this time. Most of the books I read that are classified as realism seem more like a vacation to me: a person who gets to consider maybe only a few big things over 300 pages. A dream life! For most of us, all those things that you listed are part of our lives every day. Our concerns are varied. We live deeply intersectional lives. Our emotions aren’t cleanly and easily divided, especially as we age. Having all these things present is the only way I think writing is possible for me at this time.
- Were there any particular authors or books that inspired your writing of a tension-filled thriller?
So, the book isn’t a thriller. It was sold as literary fiction. Thrillers regularly have a set formula and style, so I’m pushing back here because I think anyone who came into Lakewood expecting it to be a thriller and follow that genre’s conventions would be deeply disappointed reading the book. There are parts of Lakewood where I put a lot of emphasis on wanting readers to turn the page. A lot of that feeling is based on working really hard on chapter breaks and beginnings. And to be honest, I think that’s the place where a lot more literary writers could put emphasis and urgency on where they break and end their chapters. I learned more about doing this from reading across different genres–YA, SFF, Thrillers–than staying strictly with literary fiction.
One literary writer, though, who I think a lot of writers could look toward as someone who is just a master of chapter writing (although she’s truly great at most things) is Lily King. On the surface, Writers & Lovers is low stakes in the great scale of book stakes. A woman with a substantial amount of student debt is trying to sell her first book and make ends meet. She is in a love triangle. She is deeply anxious and mourning the death of her beloved mother. But the way King breaks her chapters, the images and moments she ends on gives a reader that eating chips feeling. You have to have one more.
- What is your writing process like? Are you a plotter or a pantser?
It changes for each book. I didn’t write an outline for Lakewood when I was finishing the initial drafts. I kept writing and revising until I found a shape for it that made sense. For my second novel, The Women Could Fly, I didn’t write a conventional outline, but I did keep track while I was drafting of the questions each chapter was hopefully making a reader ask and tried to use that as a guide for when and what to answer or to make a more complicated question. I’m working on my third novel at the moment and while I don’t have anything that feels like a conventional outline, I am starting to build what feels more like a project book: brief notes about the major idea, who the characters are, images, etc.
- What is the best advice you’ve ever received, and what advice can you give emerging writers?
The best advice I’ve ever received is most of the common writing advice people give out rarely helps. It tends toward being prescriptive and generic and most of the writing worth doing isn’t generic or vague. Probably the only advice I feel comfortable giving emerging writers at the moment is to get comfortable thinking deeply about their choices of point of view and tense and how they impact the story being told.
- Can you talk about your new novel, The Women Could Fly?
It comes out August 9, 2022. The book takes place in a world where women who are thirty and unmarried have to register with their states as witches. The main character, Jo, resents these constraints and the lifestyles she feels pushed toward. When an inheritance from her mother gives her an unexpected opportunity for adventure, she takes it.
Gail Vannelli retired as an attorney and now writes children’s/YA fiction. She has her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and her Post-MFA Certificate in the Teaching of Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. She’s won several Writer’s Digest awards for her fiction. Her recent work has appeared in Cynsations, where she’s a news reporter and writer, and in Lunch Ticket, where she’s been a lead editor, assistant editor, interviewer, and blogger. She’s the founder of Kids Story Studio, a free kids story writing class.