Black Lawrence Press
November 16, 2015

NaNoWriMo Feature: Megan McNamer

Welcome to National Novel Writing Month, 2015! We’re celebrating all month long with a gangbuster sale on some of our favorite novels, a consultation program for those of you with in-progress manuscripts, and this–a daily feature profiling a Black Lawrence Press author who has done the unthinkable: completed a novel.

Today’s featured writer is Megan McNamer, author of the novel Children and Lunatics, which won the 2015 Big Moose Prize and will be published next year. (P.S. We’re running an early bird special on the Big Moose Prize this month. Send in your manuscript by November 30 and get $5 off the entry fee!)

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Excerpt

It happened on a bus day. Occasionally she gave herself a bus day, when she would get on a SMARTbUS at the downtown terminal  – whichever was first to arrive, no matter the number or destination – and just ride. She tried not to look at the number, because she generally knew which numbers went where. She tried to make it a surprise.

The Number Five was her favorite. (Only a few times in her experience had it not been first to arrive.)  It went up Butler Creek Crossing, winding its way in a leisurely fashion through all the modern houses after the initial fast sail up Butler Creek Drive. The Number Five on a weekday was as empty as the streets. The driver knew her, but she pretended not to know him, so he pretended not to know her. She knew he knew her because he had tried to strike up a conversation once or twice when it was just the two of them. He had commented on her hat. After that she sat farther back and kept her gaze out the window.

She picked a number. She found it in the free news weekly. At the bus terminal she would pick up a paper and leaf through it until she found the number. “Three School Board Vacancies To Be Filled.” No. It had to be larger than five. “Ten Ways to Make Halloween ‘Spook-tacular’.” No. Not “larger-than” enough. “U.S. Military Death Toll Approaching 2,000.” No. It had to be less than one hundred. “Fifty-Five Alive: Driving Class Directed at Seniors.” Okay.

After the bus passed Butler School she counted to the number at an even tempo. Not so slow as one Mississippi, two Mississippi. She used “aw-loo” instead, the suffix her little brother Eddy would hang on numbers, names, and some nouns. Mama aw-loo, he said, at age three. Sissy aw-loo. He said Santa aw-loo and Bunny aw-loo and Pinocchio aw-loo. He said I am four aw-loo, five aw-loo. It was his way of affixing things to the world, keeping them in place. God aw-loo, he even said that.

At Halloween Eddy put on the hard plastic, battered Caspar the Ghost mask, his breath rasping through the cracks and nose hole, his face like a moon. Caspar Aw-loo he said with a muffled, buried voice, cocking his stiff smile this way and that.

When she reached the given number (fifty-five aw-loo) she pulled the bell, gathered up her satchel, and prepared to get off. The bus glided to a wholly unexpected spot, and she descended, the driver watching her. The bus left with a hiss, the driver’s eyes turned back to the road. The quiet, curving street was lined with smooth lawns and sporadic sidewalks. She began to walk, purposefully, head up, satchel tucked under her arm. Eyes open and fixed. She began, again, to count. She counted to half the previous number, rounding to the next highest (twenty-eight aw-loo), and when she reached that number she stopped and looked at the house, her house, the house that might be home.

One day it was a two-story house with a sun porch. Another time it was a white painted brick house with a columned front porch and a stone bench. Each time, just looking had the feel of going, going in, she heard an imaginary bell, a signal, cross the line, careful, proceed, step through…    

There were high cirrus clouds on this particular day, long wisps against the palest blue. A faint breeze. A hint of smoke, still lingering from the forest fires of the summer. It was on the cusp, the sky, the air, the day. It was on a fulcrum, balanced between all that had happened and what was yet to come.

After acknowledging her house (two-story stucco, shaded, with half a fence out front and lumber tossed here and there on the lawn, as if more building were in progress), she walked up the angled sidewalk that led to the front door under an archway flanked by bushes. The porch was made from stones. A small brass dog stood next to a bristled mat. A collar hung around the dog’s neck. It said “Attack Dachshund.” The bell made a chiming sound when she pushed it, and a delayed summons emitted from deep within.

She listened to the chime and to a plane that droned in the sky, far overhead, and to a distant call of a train. She could feel her heart beating. It made her entire body move, slightly, like a tree stirred by a breeze. She pressed the black button again, and heard the chime a second later, and she waited. The jet’s monotone receded into silence. The train remained, its presence a rhythmic thrum. Brown flowers in a pot moved just perceptibly in the late-autumn air. She turned the knob and gently pushed. The door swung open and let her in.

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Craft Notes

I am very attached to some things I’ve written that are like hot air balloons on a windless day. I love the look of them, but they don’t move. In writing Children and Lunatics, I was taken with an eccentric recluse I made up who walks the streets and haunts thrift shops and rides the city buses, and I was content with just that, I liked to imagine that life. But one day she made a left turn off the sidewalk and went up to a house and rang the doorbell. No one answered, so she walked in. Things then quietly started to happen. Not in any straightforward way, but other lives crept in. I realized that it is desirable to have things happen in your writing, because then something else happens, and something else after that. The landscape comes into view. If you’re lucky, there is a flash of light, a coalescence, some kind of touching down.

 

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Q&A

1) What is the hardest part of writing a novel? What are your techniques for dealing with this aspect of the process?

I am a nooks and crannies kind of writer. I don’t really like to plot things out, looking instead to quirks of language and pockets of experience for an accrual of meaning. So I struggle with the question “What is your book about?” Or I just try to duck it. I don’t like to sum up my own work, though it doesn’t bother me to perform that act for others. I know a lot of people don’t like to talk about works-in-progress, and I’m that way too, but I extend it. It feels to me that a completed novel is ongoing, it is always happening, moving along in its own realm, with its own sense and logic. I feel as if I’ll somehow accidentally alter my book by talking about it, which I know is nonsensical. It’s probably just some kind of superstition.

But I do have to say that the hardest part of writing a novel, for me, is knowing how to engage with it once it is out in the world.

Here’s how I’ve dealt with this problem so far. I tell myself: “Just get over it.” But when people ask me what my book is about I don’t say “It’s about the cynical abuses of power and the surreal fear permeating the post-9/11 world.” I say “It’s about a bag lady.” They tend to look a little puzzled and more than a tad disinterested. So then I say “It’s about this bag lady who goes into peoples’ houses and sits in their living rooms when they aren’t home.”

They perk up.

 2) What is the best writing advice you’ve received?

Once, in the context of a craft lecture where I was the odd townsperson sitting with a lot of younger MFA students, I asked George Saunders, whose work I did and do admire, “Does something have to happen?” hoping he would say no. He said “Yes.”

3) How long did it take you to complete your novel? Please talk a little bit about your journey from first word to final draft?

My novel gestated for a long time, years. I’m not sure gestated is the right word, because it was partly hovering around me, sort of in the air. I wrote it by doing a lot of walking. It was always town walking (not trail hiking), and for some reason this made me think I was anonymous. Partly, I was propelled out the door by sheer anxiety; two teenage sons and a country intent on careening off a cliff. But it was also for pleasure, taking those long walks, pure flânerie. I went around and scavenged things with my eyes and listened to the beating of my heart.

I got “flânerie” from The Flâneur, by Edmund White, which my sister told me to read when she saw all that walking. White cites Walter Benjamin on the topic:

“Landscape – this is what the city becomes for the flâneur. Or, more precisely, the city splits into its dialectical poles. It becomes a landscape that opens up to him and a parlour that encloses him.”

Clearly, walking is a safe haven that might reveal things to be found.

But I wasn’t a true flâneur, in that I set for myself a destination: one of several thrift shops a good hour’s stride away. If the backdrop of my novel is the world gone to hell that made me so worriedly walk in the first place, then the thrift shops are equally important, right up there with the twin towers.

In my town we used to have “The Walker,” as we called her, a woman who incessantly walked the streets with a fast stride, acknowledging no one. There were speculations about her origins and why she walked. An escaped Connecticut housewife – for some reason that became one of the theories in circulation, maybe because, inevitably, she was tanned and fit. Escaped from what? No one knew.

As for me, well, I was beginning to be known. So I altered my routes. And that became my first line.

“She was beginning to be known.”

It took a few more years to get to the last word. I had drafts and reorganizations and there was a struggle near the end, when I had to kill an innocent something and didn’t want to. And then it was just done.

4)   What is your favorite writing time beverage?

PG Tips tea with milk and sugar

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Suggested Reading

I have the astonishing good fortune right now to be ensconced at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts for a whole month. I’ll just list three books I brought with me that I felt I needed to have around. I’m keen on the quotidian but want to find out what lurks. So these are my current inspiration.

  1. The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope
  2. Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym
  3. Sort of Rich by James Wilcox

 

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Megan McNamer 2 for BLP-2Megan McNamer’s novel Children and Lunatics won the Black Lawrence Press Big Moose Prize for 2015.  Her essays have appeared in Salon, Sports Illustrated, The Sun, Tropic Magazine (of The Miami Herald), and Islands Magazine, and her fiction has won finalist and semi-finalist awards from New Millennium, Glimmer Train, Writers@Work, and the University of New Orleans Writing Contest for Study Abroad.  She has an MA in Ethnomusicology from the University of Washington and studies and performs Balinese music as a member of the Missoula, Montana community gamelan, Manik Harum.