Interview With Megan Arkenberg

Megan Arkenberg
Megan Arkenberg

Megan’s story “Harrowing Emily” appears in Issue #15.

How did “Harrowing Emily” come to be? What inspired it?
Most of my stories grow out of one phrase—a line of poetry I’ve read, a scrap of dialog I’ve overheard. “Harrowing Emily” is no exception, though in this case, the linguistic seed was something I’d written myself! I was working on a retelling of the Persephone myth from Hades’ point-of-view, and it included the sentence “No matter how much she bathes, [Persephone] cannot wash the smell of grave dust from her hair.” That image became the first line of “Harrowing Emily.” The plot itself—the dissolution of a partnership after a traumatic experience—is a theme that cropped up in several of the stories I was writing around the same time (summer 2011), including “How Many Miles to Babylon?” (published in Lightspeed, January 2012) and “Final Exam” (Asimov’s, June 2012).

In addition to prose, you write poetry. How are the forms different and how are they similar?
When developing story ideas, I divide them into “story situations” and “story plots.” Situations are characters, occupations, background events (like wars or scientific discoveries), and settings; plots are more concrete sequences of events. I try to combine situations with plots to create whole stories, but many times, I either can’t find a plot for a certain situation, or I include a situation in a story but don’t explore it as fully as I’d like to. These left-over “situations” become fuel for poems.

Both poems and short stories require well-developed voices. The voice dictates everything else—which events are shown, which merely told, which not mentioned at all; how quickly or slowly events unfold; how much is described, how abstract or concrete the descriptions are, how figurative or objective. On the other hand, I find that my poems require a lot less “hammering out” than my stories do—there are fewer moments where I need to step back from the writing and ask myself “Does this make sense? How did I get to this point?”

Do you have a favorite fairy tale?
How much I like a given fairy tale all depends on how it’s told. “Beauty and the Beast” can be a beautiful story about seeing through appearances, or a horrible tale to teach women that “all your abuser needs is more of your love, and he’ll stop hurting you”—it all depends on what the story-teller emphasizes. But as far as a central fairy tale concept that appeals to me, I have a special fondness for “Godfather Death” and its variants. I love the incongruity of inhuman, universal Death taking on a paternal (or maternal, depending on the telling) role in the lives of one human family. Death in this fairy tale is generous, courteous, protective, instructive—good things to hope for from Someone we’ll all encounter eventually!

Favorite book you read in 2011?
I read a lot of very fine short story collections last year—Sarah Monette’s Somewhere Beneath Those Waves and the Jack Dann/Nick Gevers anthology Ghosts by Gaslight come immediately to mind—but the stand-out in the category was Catherynne Valente’s Ventriloquism. “Milk and Apples” is the best retelling of Snow White that I’ve ever read; it takes all the incongruent pieces, the stepmother and the huntsman, the snow-white skin and the poisoned apple, and fits them into brutal, unflinching sense. Valente is a masterful short story writer. Her novels are brilliant, but her short stories—in my humble opinion—are perfection.

What piece of advice would you give writers for the coming year?
Question, question, question your assumptions. A lot of brilliant writing comes from following your intuition, but so does a lot of clichéd drivel and the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes. The greatest thing about fantasy and science fiction is that you don’t have to follow this world’s “rules.” Women can be fighters, men can be healers. Your character doesn’t have to be a woman or a man if zie doesn’t want to. Your successful business person can be whatever gender or color or age you want, and your window-washer can be the most successful person in the world.

Reject simple dichotomies. Never use gender, color, age, or orientation as short-hand in characterization; none of those traits necessitates or presupposes any other character trait. Show the world not as other people tell you it is or as you’ve learned to see it, but as you see it when you’re really looking. That’s the only way to write True fiction.

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