I believe that you must write for and toward the world you want to live in.—Megan Kruse
A native Pacific Northwest fiction and creative nonfiction writer, Megan Kruse received her MFA from the University of Montana. Her work has appeared many publications, including Narrative Magazine, The Sun, Witness Magazine, Thumbnail Magazine, Bellingham Review, Phoebe, Portland Noir, and Portland Queer: Tales from the Rose City. Already decorated with scholarships, awards, prizes, residency grants, and fellowships, Kruse has an impressive CV for a debut novelist. Call Me Home has been cheered for its “ferocity and grace” by Publishers Weekly and deserves every word of the praise she is garnering.
All right, on to the interview! My questions are in bold, followed by Megan’s answers. Enjoy!
The story follows the splintering of a family, told through the eyes of Lydia, Jackson, and their mother, Amy. This presentation offers the reader an intimate and multifaceted view into the three tenuous lives. Did you ever consider giving a perspective to the abusive father, Gary? What was your experience writing this story from different points of view?
I love the word multifaceted; I think of diamonds. I picture the structure of the novel that way—light and shadows from one voice or moment reflecting and illuminating another. I wanted to tell this story in multiple voices because they build on each other. I wanted the narrative to be not only a story of individuals surviving the violence imposed on their lives, but something bigger when seen from afar. I like to think that the reader’s ability to see more than any individual character helps the voices to come together in something like a chord. The multiple voices also allowed me to write in different ways, to sort of flex language muscles. For instance, I love writing Lydia’s lyrical first-person voice, but it is hard to sustain for long periods of time. I was trying a lot of different things and I kept thinking, Well, why not use them all?
I never thought to give Gary a voice. I don’t believe he deserves one. His mark is all over these characters’ lives, and to give him a voice would invite the reader to identify or relate to him. Interestingly, when I first showed up at Hawthorne with my draft, it had what I called a “spaceship ending”; it jumped into the future, to a time when Lydia and Jackson received news that Gary had died. Rhonda Hughes at Hawthorne encouraged me to rethink it. That ending originally, even without including his voice, had given Gary power even in death—the agency to release his children and wife from his grip. I didn’t want the lives of my characters to stay suspended until his death. This isn’t his story.
You have spent a lot of your time studying and writing in the Pacific Northwest, and you currently live in Seattle. I was struck by the richness of description and the natural beauty of Washington depicted in Call Me Home. Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love called the natural landscape in your work “raw, hard, stark, ravaged.” How does your sense of place influence the themes, images, and voice of your writing?
I’ve always loved writing that transports, and I think that an enveloping sense of place creates that feeling. I spent so much of my childhood in the woods that I write about in the novel, and I still feel able to conjure that place with confidence. I started writing this novel in Montana, and then in Texas, and in the Midwest. I wrote Lydia’s character as one who is of the Northwest; she’s determined to hold on to it. I thought then about how the Northwest would strike Amy, coming there from Texas. The more that I defined what made the Northwest unique, the more that I felt drawn back home. In fact, I was at a residency in Minnesota when I decided to move back to the Northwest. I’d been away for ten years, just coming home for visits. It was a sudden, clear decision—one of those exquisite moments of clarity that I think are very rare. I was lonely in Minnesota, and uncertain about where my life was headed; I sat up in bed and asked myself, What do you want to do? In the dark of that room, my answer was unexpectedly clear: Go back to the Northwest. Go home. I’d never thought of that as an option before. I realize now, standing on the other side of writing the novel, that in some ways I was writing myself back home, writing through the fire of my own uncertainty about who I am and where I belong.
Those moments of clarity are such a gift! I want to talk about one of my favorite moments in the text, when Jackson reflects on an Easter holiday with his young sister. When she asks what the celebration is for, Jackson says, “God and rabbits.” How did you find that the early youth and innocence of the characters facilitated or complicated the exploration of mature and sensitive themes including abuse, desire, sexuality, and identity?
Jackson and Lydia are both living in interim spaces—they can neither be children, nor can they grow up. They are making very adult choices at a young age, but at the same time their need to protect each other and their mother suspends them, keeping them from moving forward on their own terms. Lydia in particular knows so much—but she is also relatively powerless in the world. She’s only starting to come into her own toward the end of the novel, to begin to define who she is and seize her own power.
There’s also an age difference between Lydia and Jackson, which means Jackson is entering parts of his life, worlds of desire and sexuality, that Lydia can’t yet conceptualize. That age difference is part of what allows Amy to make the decision to leave without her son. Jackson’s life is defined by caring for his sister and his mother, and Amy makes a decision that she hopes will allow him to go forward, to make his own life. Is that her place? Is that a good or bad decision? I don’t know what that answer is, but I do know that she makes that move out of a sense of what she believes to be right at the time.
I also strongly identify with the state Jackson and Lydia are in, an emotional portmanteau of child and adulthood. I think that any anxious, introverted child spends a lot of time grappling with big concepts early on. I remember a strange conviction I had when I was young, after learning about the Bermuda Triangle. I have three freckles in a triangle shape around my heart, so I became convinced that I would be doomed in love. I was a six or seven years old, and in logical terms that was ridiculous—but what a beautiful extension of that concept—a distortion of God and rabbits.
Let’s continue the discussion of sexuality in the text. Obviously the explorations of sexual desire and orientation are pivotal in the story. Through the eyes of Jackson, we see that sex is “equal parts beautiful and messy, slipping bodies, grotesque things that looked ugly, but felt good, no matter who was doing it.” I think that this line echoes the artful way you have presented sex. The scenes of physical intimacy are emotionally gritty, visceral, but also beautiful. How did you approach capturing these charged encounters?
I loved writing those scenes! I’d never written much sex before, and I wanted to try to capture physicality. It’s always been easier for me to write about the ephemeral, about undefined and fleeting feelings. This was a chance for me to try to put those emotions on the body.
It was also important to me to capture the complexity in the encounters between Jackson and Don, the simultaneous ecstasy and fear, relief and apprehension. I wanted their relationship to portray the power imbalances that are so often a part of queer relationships, particularly young or first queer relationships. If you are queer and living in a place where you don’t have access to queer culture, or a sense of what your future might look like, then to find love—or even to date casually—can seem like a far-off impossibility. If you are eighteen, and you believe that there is no one who might love you, no one you to might date, and then someone comes along that, for the first time, you feel something for—and it is reciprocal—you want to hold that so tightly. And if that person starts to treat you badly, it is much more difficult to say, “Well, I shouldn’t put up with this—there are other fish in the sea.” It definitely does not feel like there is a big sea out there, and there may in fact not be, particularly if you don’t move to an urban area. I wrote those scenes hoping that some of that might come across. Jackson has an exceptionally complex view of sex; he is not ashamed of his sexuality, but he is ashamed in some ways of settling for the scraps of Don’s love. At the same time, how do you walk away from the first thing you’ve ever felt so strongly for?
In 2013, you recorded your story, “The Siamese Twins” with the Story Tapes Podcast. I also got to hear your reading with the Show and Tell Gallery. Honestly, I was surprised by how sweet and humble your voice is—it’s an unexpected pairing with the fearlessness and power of your writing. Your upcoming book tour is packed with readings from coast to coast, including at Powell’s tonight! Do you find that there are differences between presenting your work in written and spoken form?
Well, I’m not terrified of the written form, but the spoken… I’m kidding, kind of. I love reading aloud, but I still find my whole body humming with anxiety when I stand in front of a crowd. My mouth starts shaking around my words. I remember one of my first readings was at In Other Words in Portland; it was a reading for Ariel Gore’s Portland Queer anthology. I was such a wreck, and Ariel told me, “I love a nervous reader.” And it’s true—I think that when you can really hear the vulnerability in someone’s voice, you can begin to understand how important the work is to him or her, and you can connect with the story more powerfully. It stuck with me that just because it’s scary to read your writing aloud doesn’t mean you should stop—in fact, just the opposite. Reading in front of people is scaring me less now—I’m just so excited to bounce from place to place and read and take 5 a.m. Greyhounds and just do this thing that I never thought would happen and now is, for a book that I believe in.
Stay tuned for Part Two of the interview—coming soon!