Margaret Malone interview with Meg Tuite
Margaret Malone’s debut collection, People Like You, is one of the best collections I’ve read in a while! It’s hilarious, strong, visceral, and brilliant. These nine stories are peopled with authentic, fractured, questioning human packages trying to figure each other out with all our proclamations of what a day should look like and what it is that keeps us moving forward and why.
I was pulling out quotes that I loved and then realized that any and every line is as exceptional and solid as the last. Malone has a manifold gift with language and bringing in the big picture of existence without proclaiming it. It weaves in naturally with each story of relationships and how we make our way around our own small planets.
Here are some of the quotes from this superb collection:
“There is music coming from the bedroom in the back of the small house, and a potato-looking guy in a faded Rush tee-shirt is next to me, talking and talking, the kind of person that talks about whatever is on his mind, no matter who he is talking to. He’s telling me and Bert and whoever squeezes past us for a pig-in-a-blanket about his car, a Grand Am, and what it can do.”
“I also know about kissing french. I did that with Eric Bingham in a closet at a party this summer. It was sort of gross and my tongue felt like a piece of meat that I was holding in my mouth at the same time I was trying to kiss someone and it made the kissing almost impossible. Kissing was on the way to sex and I knew that I wanted to know what sex was but I also knew I wasn’t supposed to have sex because having sex would mean I was a slut and if I was slut everyone would want to have sex with me, and then I’d be stuck having sex with everybody all the time, which sounds exhausting. I don’t know when I’d have time to practice the piano.”
“So now I’m engaged. I am reserved, like a table at a restaurant.”
“Reno is a smudge of tallish buildings and neon-signed casinos, dry desert mountains all around. It’s almost a tiny Vegas but feels unfinished, like someone took a lunch break in the middle of building it and never came back.”
“If I wait long enough time will catch up.”
“Our new neighborhood had bored kids and no sidewalks and stop signs that nobody stopped at.”
“It said a lot about me that Barb could get a goose and I couldn’t even get a man.”
“There was Raul, shaped like a yam with arms and legs. His tiny eyes and clenched lips overtaken like an avalanche by his big mound of a head. His face mostly stubbly flesh with features designed for a much smaller man.”
“Even though the hedges were as wide as a sidewalk, they were just leaves and branches and air after all, and sound traveled through them like nothing was in sound’s way.”
“A mouth of a memory swims to the surface. I cannot see the whole thing.”
“My old body liked sex; this new body preferred to be the basecamp for a brain.”
Like I said, you have to read Malone’s collection. This is a small sampling of the huge organism that is this literary beauty. Thank you so much, Margaret, for sharing a story from your collection and a video recording of that story. Everyone needs to have a copy of People Like You on their desk.
In the acknowledgements you write that “People Like You” took almost twelve years to birth. I love that there was no clock in the writing of this being. Can you share the path that brought this collection out into the world for us lucky folk to read?
Yes, that length of time was partly due to me being a slow (deliberate is the nice word for it) writer; part of it was that life got in the way; and part of it was procrastination. A few of these stories were first written, in different form, about twelve years ago, around the time I first started writing. Many of the writers I admired were mainly storywriters, so I knew early on my initial goal was to put together a collection, not to write a novel even though I was told repeatedly a novel was the only thing that made good career sense. I have a bit of an anti-authoritarian streak to me, so everyone saying I should write a novel was the perfect thing to push against. So I kept writing, adding new stories to this abstract, amorphous “collection” of mine, taking other ones out. Then for a couple years, life gave me a swift kick and I stopped writing fiction altogether and wrote only memoir. When I was ready to dive back into the stories, I edited them over and over, growing them, shrinking them, sometimes alone at my desk, sometimes in a workshop. Then in the autumn of 2014 I realized, Oh my god, Margaret. Enough!, and I knew I had to find a way to get the collection out into the world. I sat down to query my first small press on October 14, 2014, and on the very same day I received a thoughtful, eloquent email from someone I’d never met named Mark Allen Cunningham, the publisher and editor at Atelier26 Books, who said he’d heard me read at Powell’s Bookstore and he liked my work, and had I ever considered putting together a collection. And I was like… Um, well, funny you should ask…
I love the DW’s: Dangerous Writers: it sounds like you had an amazing group to workshop with? You wrote that you met every Thursday. How many are in the DW’s and how long have you been meeting?
The Dangerous Writers still meet every Thursday around a big table in Tom Spanbauer’s basement. When I was going, there were usually about twelve to fifteen of us at the table and several more writers sitting on couches and chairs on the outskirts of the table. I was lucky enough to be there every week for about three years. Tom’s big-hearted generosity and fierce belief in truly giving yourself up on the page is infectious. Everyone at the table, week after week, bared themselves in what they wrote and how they wrote: it blew me open. I will forever be indebted to Tom and the writers I crushed elbows with around the table for showing me that kind of unconditional love.
There are three Bert and Cheryl stories in “People Like You.” Was there a plan to put together a novel or novel-in-stories with those two? (I love them, but there’s no one in this collection that didn’t captivate me.)
Initially, it never occurred to me to try to use Bert and Cheryl as recurring characters, but then I read Justin Cronin’s Mary & O’Neil. Wow. That book rocked my world. Until I read that book, I didn’t know a writer was allowed to do something like that. Problem was, I loved Mary & O’Neil so much it was as much an obstacle as an inspiration – because the book was so perfect to me, why even bother attempting anything similar? That said, it’s totally possible I’ll write more Bert and Cheryl stories as time goes on. I’m so familiar with them now. Certain story ideas bubble to the surface and I’ll think, Oh, that’s totally a Bert and Cheryl story. There’s just something about them I love and want to visit again and again.
How close do you believe fiction and CNF are to each other? I see it as a fine line, but memory is its own marauder. Sometimes I’m not sure if something was an actual memory or a story told in our family over and over until I believed I was an actor in the play. Or does it matter?
Oh boy. From a narrative standpoint, I see them as extremely similar, by which I mean I believe the storytelling building blocks that make both genres sing is pretty much identical - the same rules almost always apply. In terms of why I choose to write one or the other, however, they are quite different. When I’m inspired to write fiction, it’s because I’ve seen or felt a moment out in the world that carried a particular melancholy or humor to it (or both) and I want to write my way into it and then out of it to see where it goes. When I’m inspired to write creative non-fiction it’s always because I’m haunted by some experience I’ve had, and writing is my way of trying to figure out what is at the heart of that inability to let it go: what am I hiding from myself that needs to find a way out?
What would you tell writers who are just starting to send their work out for publication?
I read that the artist Alex Grey once asked his (at the time) very young daughter what advice she would give to someone who wanted to be an artist. If I remember correctly, she said – Be yourself. Do your best. Never give up. It’s still some of the best creative advice I’ve ever heard.
How important and influential was the MFA program for you and your writing?
I don’t have an MFA. I thought about it and thought about it for years. And all the time I thought about it, I kept writing and workshopping stories, going to conferences and meeting other writers. Sometimes I felt a little bit left out, like there was this great big non-stop literary party happening in the MFA world and I hadn’t been invited. Other times, I felt proud that I’d made it work so far without one. Even so, I still haven’t ruled it out. It calls to me even now – all that time to read and write and learn!
Tell us about the workshops and retreats that you went to and how they worked for you?
Those two things provided different kinds of learning for me. The residencies, at The Sitka Center for Art & Ecology and at the greatly missed Soapstone, showed me what I was capable of: I had no idea if I could really sit down and write all morning, all afternoon, all night. But I did and I loved it. It was a high to have no responsibilities but to get completely lost in what I was working on. It helped me take myself seriously as a writer in a new way. In the summer of 2009, I attended the Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop – it was the first writing conference I’d been to and it blew me away. My workshop instructor was Steve Almond, who I already had a total writer crush on because of his facility for writing hilarious, heart-breaking short stories – that’s the dream one-two punch for most storywriters. But his teaching style took me completely by surprise – he was generous, crazy smart, and he held very high expectations for his students. He didn’t let me get away with anything. To this day, he gave me the best piece of comedic writing advice I’ve ever received. Working with him for a week was pivotal to my writing and it came at precisely the perfect moment. Then throw in the daily craft lessons and readings and… it was totally dreamy.
Who are some of your most important inspirations?
Some are recent, some are longtime heroes, and it’s a bit of a hodgepodge, but the ones that come to mind today are: Matthew Klam, Jim Shepard, Ethan Canin, Amy Hempel, Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, William Stafford, Garry Winogrand, Ramin Bahrani, Pablo Casals, Atmosphere, Soren Kierkegaard, Sophie Calle, and I recently saw the documentary The Artist Is Present about Marina Abromovic – she instantly became one of my heroes. I mean, wow! What she’s doing knocked me out.
Who are you reading right now?
I’m a single-focused kind of gal so I can only ever read one book at a time. Just finished the new T.C. Boyle book, The Harder They Come, and yesterday I started Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Small Backs of Children. In line behind that one is Mitchell Jackson’s The Residue Years.
Did you get an agent, or did you send your collection out directly to publishers?
I do have an agent, but for the collection my plan was to submit it directly to publishers, since I knew, for me and the collection of stories, a small press was the way to go.
How has it been working with Atelier26? Do you have a schedule of reading appearances and are they a POD or do they print out a number of copies and distribute to bookstores?
Everything with Atelier26, the whole experience, has been impossibly fantastic. Mark, the publisher and editor, is an author himself, and so there is this immediate shared understanding – he’s been on my end of things himself; he knows what this is like – and because of that (and because he’s all around decent, thoughtful human being) there was absolutely no bullshit at any point. He always made it clear there was room to discuss every suggestion. It was truly a dream come true. Atelier26 does print and distribute their books (via IPG), but I believe they are also POD, so that technically my book won’t go out of print. It’s the best of both worlds.
Yes, I have a list of appearances. You can check the Atelier26 site (atelier26books.com) or my website margaretmalone.com. I have dates from now through mid-January booked, with more coming soon.
Can you give me a quote that speaks to you and your writing?
“You should be very kind when you explain something.” – Haruki Murakami
Will you share something of the whole experience of bleeding out this exquisite book and what resonated most for you?
What’s resonated most for me throughout all the long years of putting this together, what I always come back to, is the power and importance of reading one’s work in the presence of an audience. I’ve always said that a piece never really feels finished to me until it’s been read aloud to a listening audience – it’s my final stage of completion. It changes the way I hear the story; it turns me into a listener too. When I start reading and fall into the groove, I am not the author. I am just a conduit. I am not me and you are not you and we are just us together inside the telling. It’s my most favorite feeling about the whole process. That’s how I discover real connection with readers, and for me connection is the biggest part of what writing is all about.
I cannot thank you enough, Margaret Malone, for sharing your process and thoughts with Connotation Press! You are a phenomenon and I am honored that you are a kickass, unforgettable writer who is my last feature here at Connotation Press! Thank you so much for your honesty and depth! I look forward to everything that you write!
Meg, thank you so much! And a big thanks to Connotation Press. It’s been such a pleasure.
In order to preserve the artistic arrangement of the writing, this piece has been created with Print2Flash Flashpaper.
*People Like You first appeared in Coal City Review: Summer 2012