Go Big or Go Home

“Sometimes the things that give us the most power and joy in our lives seem shameful, or the morally “right” answer is not the answer that makes the most sense to who we are, or how we see our lives.”

Jenny Forrester interviews Megan Kruse

Megan Kruse’s debut novel, Call Me Home, is just out from Hawthorne Books! We were lucky enough to get an interview with her during this busy book-launching time. Catch her on her epic book tour this spring.

What do you think you learned about your own philosophy of love when you were writing Call Me Home? Did the act of writing this story clarify your notions of human love?

For so much of the time that I wrote this novel I was adrift, trying to write, trying to live, not sure if I was succeeding at either. My characters were drifting in more overt ways, and I do think that guiding them through the mire and the dark helped me to start to define what is important to me, what it means to love each other and how to bridge the distance between ourselves.

I have always resisted dichotomies of good/bad, right/wrong, and I think that this novel was a chance for me to look closely at that. Sometimes the things that give us the most power and joy in our lives seem shameful, or the morally “right” answer is not the answer that makes the most sense to who we are, or how we see our lives. I think of my character Jackson, who is escorting in Portland, and that work gives him a brief feeling of power, of control that he hasn’t had in his life before, and affords him the things he needs. And the work hurts him, too, in some ways, but at this particularl moment in his life, he finds the net worth to be positive. Our choices aren’t always easy, but we have to come to terms with them. To love someone, I think, means to believe that they have made their choices for a reason, and to trust that your own experience doesn’t determine how someone else should live.

Beyond believing in each other’s choices, or at least acknowledging them as valid, I think that writing this novel was a reminder to me that we have to hold on to the people who make us want to consider ourselves. When you have found the people who keep you affixed to your life, the people holding the invisible tethers you can feel through the dark and across distance, it is your job to hold them close, to recognize the power of that connection, be thankful for it, and nurture it as best you can.

The landscape of this book is so integral to the storyline. I know some of the places in the book are places you have lived or known intimately. Did you return to those when you were writing? Do you have to be in a geographical place to write about it? Or do you write place from memory?

I spent the entirety of my twenties moving from place to place across the country. I had always thought that I would find the place I belonged–that it was out there somewhere, if I only looked hard enough. But I kept getting older and the people I loved were getting deeper and deeper into their own lives while I kept searching, and I finally began to realize that finding your place was only possible if you also stuck around.

I began writing this novel when I was living in Montana, and finished large parts of it in Texas, Nebraska, and Minnesota. Even as I was searching for the place I was meant to be, I was writing about the land I grew up on in Washington. As I wrote it, it was so vivid–steep banks, deep creeks that filled in winter, curtains of root and dirt and fallen trees that my brother and I knew as well as any suburban child must know his or her cul-de-sac. After I finished the first draft of the novel, I decided rather suddenly to move back to Washington state for the first time since I was seventeen. It’s only as I’m writing this now that I think those things had something to do with each other–that writing this story of home and belonging and recognizing how much that land is a part of me made me understand that my home was there all along. All of that writing was from memory, and that meant something; it made me realize the significance of that place.

That said, I’m still prone to restlessness and drifting. I blame it a little bit on poetry. I’ve always been haunted by the one-two punch of Elizabeth Bishop asking, “Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?/Where should we be today?” and Mary Oliver chiming in, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/ with your one wild and precious life?”

Now that I’ve written about places I’ve lived and known intimately, I’ve decided I need to raise the bar–the novel I’m beginning to work on now is set in the Midwest in the years following World War II. I haven’t quite figured out how I will handle that process, since the setting of Call Me Home was written entirely from my experience of place and time. Go big or go home, I guess.

Do you have a particular audience or reader in mind for Call Me Home? What do you hope people came away from it feeling or wanting to do?

I dreamed of a lot of different readers as I was writing this novel. It began as the story of a young queer man trying to make his way without a clear path, trying to establish who he was by feeling with blind courage and hope. I hope that the audience for the novel begins to think about the relationship between place and identity–to consider that there are queer people making lives outside of urban centers, where the way is hazier, and where, despite so many gains, the world is still not a safe place.

I hope as well that people come away from the novel thinking about violence, and paying attention to its echoes around us. In the three years that I worked for a domestic violence intervention program, I began to see it everywhere–the way that an abuser can move into your path like a rock into a river and divert your life elsewhere. You can spend your life running from someone, or from the shadows they have cast on your life. I know that the experience of the family in my novel is only one story, but it is important to me to acknowledge that those stories surround us all the time.

Finishing things is difficult for some writers – what would be your advice for finishing?

I recently taught a class at Hugo House in Seattle called Seeing it Through: Finishing Your Novel. I went in to the course feeling like I didn’t have much right or enough knowledge to tell people how to go about completing a project, but over the course of those two days, I realized that I do have some strategies that I subscribe to, things that have worked for me.

Above all, writing this novel made me recognize that writing only really works if you understand it to be a long game. This wasn’t a very easy realization for me. I remember finishing the first draft of Call Me Home while I was on a residency in rural Minnesota in the spring of 2012, and sending it off to an agent. For the next week or two I marched purposefully around town, waiting for the call to come about how she wanted the book, and on top of that there was already an exorbitant offer or three. It didn’t come then; in fact, it was another few weeks before I heard back that it wasn’t a good fit.

It was a particularly lonely time in my life. That had something to do with being in an isolated place, but more to do with what I’d done to myself. I’d made myself believe that to become a writer was like watching your number come up in a lottery–that it would happen, and then the answers for everything else would fall into place. I thought my life would start when the book was published, and then someone would tell me how to live.

Instead, it was two years before the book sold. The things I began to work on during the early months of defeat have become my current projects, and my slow revision changed the novel remarkably. I think of that Alice Munro quote from The Moons of Jupiter: “They were all in their early thirties. An age at which it is sometimes hard to admit that what you are living is your life.” This a roundabout way to explain that I think the secret to finishing is recognizing that this is your writing life. You have to take away the timelines and the expectations–you’re doing it now, and you’ll be doing it tomorrow.

The other piece of advice I kept touting like a pundit in my recent course was to be greedy with your writing practice. This goes along with the idea that writing is a long game, with no clear endpoint. I believe in playing to your strengths and desires; write today what you want to write–as long as you write. I’m never going to be someone who writes each day from 6-7am, but maybe I feel like writing at 2 in the morning or maybe not today but tomorrow instead. Don’t let anyone fool you into how it’s supposed to be done. Be kind to yourself–that’s different from letting yourself off the hook.

You have an MFA. What advice would you give others about getting an MFA or not? If a writer does want to go the MFA route, how important is choosing the right program?

I know that there are hosts of opinions out there about the MFA–essential or useless? Homogenizing or inspiring? I think you should be clear to yourself about what you want to gain from a program, and where you’ll be coming out of it; those expectations should dictate if you enroll, or in what kind of program. I’d always been drawn to Montana and what I viewed as a Western voice–storytelling with a strong sense of place, of space. I tend to make decisions quickly and with great resolve, and the University of Montana was a wonderful spot for me–to be teaching and writing in a small town that felt analogous to the rural, tumble-down vistas I’d grown up in. I did struggle, as I think a lot of people do, with hoping that the path will become clear post-MFA; I was–and maybe still am–underemployed for a long time. I think that the choice to complete an MFA needs to be a conscious one. You can go and do it, and you can make it sustainable with teacherships, but don’t do it unless you can say to yourself honestly that this is a step along a path you’ll be on forever. The act of writing is what makes you a writer. I remember being nineteen, finishing up my first “novel,” a 250 page Jeanette Winterson lesbian fiction rip-off. I was so certain that I would turn a corner and suddenly be someone. It was exactly the same feeling I had in Minnesota, waiting for the agent to call about Call Me Home; it had taken me another ten years to really understand that it doesn’t work that way. It doesn’t matter what the milestone is–a first terrible novel, or an MFA; you work and work and then you get there, and it feels wonderful or anticlimactic, but regardless you keep going.

How much time do you spend on social media promoting your writing? How much do you think social media helps or hinders writers?

I used to be a super-weirdo about social media. I was really cagey about anyone knowing where I was or what I was doing, and I think I wanted to control peoples’ impressions of me. I remember demanding loudly of someone I was at dinner with, “Why on earth would you want to tag us here??” As time has gone on, I got over myself a little bit. I recognize, even if it’s still difficult, that you can’t control anyone’s opinions of you, beyond being certain to be a basically decent human. Once I let go of that, I started engaging more on social media. And here’s the thing–I cannot imagine going into this novel publication without that community. I have been tremendously lucky to have the support of so many incredible writers, friends and family, and the team at Hawthorne, who have been my greatest champions from day one. Social media is the forum where I can feel all of that support now, a place to reach otherwise nebulous, far-flung communities. Once I began to think of social media as a clearinghouse for sharing information and victories and questions about writing, my angst about the platform fell away.

This question made me think of the other day, when the news about Harper Lee’s second novel started circulating. I realize that there are still many questions about the publication which need resolution, but I bring this up purely as an example of the role of social media in my writing life now. I woke up and I heard the news, and because I am surrounded by writers and readers, my entire social media feed was on fire with it. I ran down to Georgetown in the weak winter sun to grab lunch with a friend and I was full with a rare joy for the whole world– a sense that we could all come together and be awed by something. I was grinning wildly at cars, thinking Harper Lee! As silly as it sounds, I know that feeling of connection is spectacular and rare, and if social media provides it, I can’t discount it.

Megan Kruse grew up in the rural Pacific Northwest. She studied creative writing at Oberlin College and earned her MFA at the University of Montana, writing about lonely places and our faulty, beautiful hearts. Her work has appeared widely in journals and anthologies, and she recently completed residencies at the Kimmel-Harding-Nelson Center for the Arts in Nebraska and the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center in Minnesota. Her debut novel, “Call Me Home,” releases from Hawthorne Books in March 2015, with an introduction by Elizabeth Gilbert. She currently lives in Seattle.

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