Geosi Gyasi: You teach at Ripon College in Ripon, Wisconsin. Could you tell us anything about being a teacher?
Megan Gannon: I once had another writer say to me, “Wouldn’t it be great if we wrote Best Sellers and didn’t have to teach anymore?” and I couldn’t really answer, because I was thinking, “I hope I never stop teaching.” I love it. I love the students, I love how they make me smarter, and I love how it makes hyper-introverted me get out of the house and talk to people. Writing often feels like a pretty selfish way to spend my time; teaching feels like I’m having a positive impact on the world.
Geosi Gyasi: Does teaching and writing have anything in common?
Megan Gannon: I’m lucky enough to teach writing, so often I’m reading good books and analyzing what makes them successful, or I’m applying the same critical lens to student work or my own writing. Teaching and writing also require me to balance maintaining and relinquishing control. In my writing, I’m following my characters, but I still feel like I’m in control. Sometimes I push them to do something disingenuous and then I get blocked and I can’t write anymore, but when I go back and have my characters do something else–something that is truer to what they would actually do–then I can get back to writing. In my teaching, I’m making the parameters for discussion, but I find I need to relinquish control a bit more and follow my students to see where they’ll take the conversation. Sometimes they get off course, and then I have to try to tweak the discussion without hijacking it. With my characters, I can pretty much hijack the discussion.
Geosi Gyasi: How long have you been teaching and writing?
Megan Gannon: I started teaching right out of undergrad (albeit overseas,) and I’ve been teaching ever since. I started writing in about second or third grade. I’d finish my class work and I’d be bored, so I’d write little stories on some pieces of lined newsprint. (Remember that stuff? That weird sand-papery pink and blue-lined paper that sticks to your pencil eraser? That was terrible paper.)
Geosi Gyasi: You served as a Peace Corps volunteer in The Gambia, West Africa. Was it your choice to go to West Africa?
Megan Gannon: I chose “Africa,” but this was kind of a running joke in Peace Corps. We all wanted to go to East Africa. Like most Americans who haven’t visited one of the world’s most culturally diverse continents, we had one idea about what “Africa” was, and it was lions and elephants and antelopes and Mount Kilimanjaro. I even took a year of Swahili in undergrad to try to cement my chances of going to East Africa, but I ended up about as far away as you can get from any Swahili-speaking nation. It was fine, though. I traveled a lot, so I got to see some elephants in Ghana. They were enormous.
Geosi Gyasi: Did you encounter any culture shock upon arriving in The Gambia?
Megan Gannon: Ha! Yeah, a bit. Peace Corps is a pretty amazing experience for taking everything you think you know and just stripping it down to where nothing remains absolute–even tiny things. For instance, I had a teacher come to me and ask for help thinking up antonyms. “I have the adjectives, but now I need to think of the nouns,” he said. “Oh,” I said, “You mean, like ‘sun’ and ‘moon’ and ‘dog’ and ‘cat’?” The teacher stared at me and then said, “Why are ‘dog’ and ‘cat’ antonyms?” Then I thought about all of the various animals in the village and where they lived and which ones got along and which ones didn’t and I said, “You know what? They’re not. That’s just a weird American idea. I have no clue where that idea came from.” So, I was continually surprised by my ability to be surprised, even near the end of my two years in The Gambia. And yet, there was so much that was universal. Everybody likes to come out of their house at night and sit around a camp fire and look at the stars and crack groundnuts and tickle a baby and laugh at fart jokes. I don’t care who you are. You’re going to laugh at the fart jokes.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you write from personal experiences?
Megan Gannon: My poems are often pretty autobiographical, but sometimes they aren’t. Any autobiography in my fiction is definitely piecemeal and distorted. I guess my life is reflected in my writing sort of like a carnival funhouse mirror that someone shattered.
Geosi Gyasi: At the time when you served as a Peace Corps volunteer in The Gambia, were you a writer?
Megan Gannon: Yes. I actually told the recruiter in my interview that Peace Corps was going to buy me two years to write, but I didn’t want to be totally selfish, so I’d try to help out a little bit while I was there. He was fine with that. I think the Peace Corps volunteers that ended up completing their two years of service didn’t have illusions about “saving the world” and had ways of occupying their time.
Geosi Gyasi: Is there any special reason why you decided to become a writer?
Megan Gannon: It wasn’t really a choice. It’s what I like to do, it’s one of the few things I’m good at, and it’s what makes me feel alive. I’d go crazy if I couldn’t write. I’d feel like a waste of space. I write because I have to.
Geosi Gyasi: You’ve been described as a poet and novelist from your website. Are you a poet or novelist?
Megan Gannon: I’ve been trying to think of a good word for what I am: a poevelist? A novet? For sure, I’m a po’ novelist. In any case, I write both, just not at the same time. When I’m in the middle of a fiction project, it’s pretty consuming, and that’s all I can write. I find that I can always sit down and work on a novel, but poems take a lot more reading and staring at the wall and jotting down lines and listening for voices, so they’re better suited for down-time. But I think you can tell in my fiction that I’m a poet at heart. I’m a poet who likes characters and open-ended plots. That’s why I write poems and novels, but not short stories.
Geosi Gyasi: Is it true that writers live solitary lives?
Megan Gannon: Well, it’s hard to write coherently when you have, say, a very adorable five-year-old demanding you come see his latest Lego creation. You have to have little oases of solitude to write, at the very least. I guess it just depends on how much you write. If you’re Joyce Carole Oates, I’m pretty sure you never leave your house. Given the pages that woman clocks, I’m surprised she has time to go to the bathroom. But if you’re me, you write a little every day if you can, or you have weeks where you write bursts and then weeks when the grading is piling up and you don’t write at all. I could have easily been the crazy lady in the drafty garret typing away by candlelight year after year, but I wanted to have a child. And friends.
Geosi Gyasi: Does your family approve of your writing?
Megan Gannon: Yes. They always knew I’d be a writer. They like it when they can recognize things from my life in my writing. And I’m not airing our family’s dirty laundry in my writing, so it’s fine.
Geosi Gyasi: When do you often sit to write?
Megan Gannon: Whenever I can. Mornings are the best, I think. At night I’m usually thinking about the next day of teaching.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you mind telling us about your days as a student in the University of Montana?
Megan Gannon: Missoula, Montana is one of the most delightful and beautiful little hipster towns on planet earth, and I met so many wonderful writer-people there. The year I entered, we had a pretty charmed group of poets: Amy Ratto Parks, Natalie Peeterse, Martin Cockcroft, and Kurt Cole Eidsvig are all sickeningly great writers and just phenomenal human beings. That first year poetry workshop was such a love-fest in my memory.
Geosi Gyasi: You were born in Chattanooga, Tennessee. What do you remember most about your childhood?
Megan Gannon: I spent most of my time running around my neighborhood imagining summer-long sagas with my best friend, who is also a fiction writer. Sometimes we’d go inside to write novels together. She’d write a chapter, then I’d write the next chapter. We were big, big nerds.
Geosi Gyasi: What inspired your book, “Cumberland”?
Megan Gannon: There’s a section of Isabel’s in the book that just popped in my head one night in about early 2003. I was writing poems exclusively then, so I didn’t know what it was, but I got up and went to my laptop and typed it up. I knew it was the start of something much bigger than a prose poem–that it was spoken by a character, and that she had a story. I started daydreaming about what that story was. Who would say this? Why is she so deep inside her own head? Slowly, the story started forming itself in my head, and then I received an Artist’s Grant from the state of Arizona, and I decided, let’s write this thing. I wrote about thirty pages and lost my nerve for a few years. Then I entered the PhD program at UNL and, on a whim, decided to sign up for the Novel Writing workshop. It was terrifying, but holy cow, that was another charmed group of writers–Rachel May, Emily Danforth, Penn Stewart, and Rebecca Rotert, among others, and all helmed by the amazing Jonis Agee.
Geosi Gyasi: From where did you get the title of your book, “The Witch’s Index”?
Megan Gannon: I am terrible at titles. I think I’d suggested “Spell,” but Dan Beachy-Quick had taken that title. Then I suggested “Witch’s Dictionary,” but Sarah Kennedy had taken that one. Finally, my super-stupendous editor, Katherine Riegel, typed up a list of synonyms for “dictionary” or “appendix” and we both liked the sound of “index.”
Geosi Gyasi: Could you say anything about your book, “White Nightgown”?
Megan Gannon: I think the back cover blurb describes the book best, so I’ll just repeat a tweaked version here: “From the ruins of ocean liners and model cities, to the dark impulses of Greek myths and biblical narratives, the poems in White Nightgown trace the legacy of desire in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, examining how desire serves as both a creative and a destructive force, drawing loved ones near to us and pushing them away, destroying nations as well as shaping them.”
Geosi Gyasi: Do you have a favorite among the books you’ve written?
Megan Gannon: I’m not sure I’ll ever write a book that has more of my heart and soul poured into it than White Nightgown. That sounds incredibly grandiose and cheesy to say, but it’s the truth. It took me over a decade to get that book into the world, and it will always be the book that’s most precious to me. Apologies to any future book-babies, but White Nightgown will always be my favorite.
Geosi Gyasi: What are your plans for the future?
Megan Gannon: I’m tweaking a second novel right now. It’s called Claim, it’s set in Jerome, Arizona, in 1898, and it’s a broad, sprawling novel with lots of characters and plot lines. I’m pretty excited about it. Claim was incredibly fun to write. Next, I’m hoping to use 2015 to find a new method for writing poems. I just can’t write the way I did in The Witch’s Index or White Nightgown. I need something even sparser, more stripped down–a voice in the void. I’m gravitating to the work of Franz Wright and Louise Gluck and Christian Wiman. The next poems will try to emulate theirs, and they’ll probably be about bodies and pain, with some tributes to Frida Kahlo. I suffered a pretty awful back injury in late 2014, and it gave me a new appreciation for chronic physical pain, which wasn’t something I’d ever experienced before. I think I need to write about these double-edged swords we call bodies.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you care about who reads your books?
Megan Gannon: I guess I wish everyone would read them and love them, but since that’s unlikely, I’d like my books to find a receptive audience. That’s the nice thing about publishing my first books with small presses: you’re pretty assured that the people buying the book really like books, or at least, likes the writer and wants to do something nice for her. I’m pretty happy to reach that audience. I acknowledge that I tend to write weird books, so they probably wouldn’t fly with a huge, mainstream audience. Claim is different, though. I think anyone could read and like this latest novel.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you read reviews of your books?
Megan Gannon: I’m not aware that any formal reviews of my books exist, (another perk of small press publishing!) but I read the reviews on Amazon or Goodreads. Writer’s Workshops have prepared me well for reading these kinds of things. Some people are good readers for you, and some people aren’t, but you get good at reading between the lines and figuring out who the good readers are, and you take their advice.