Hybrid Interview: Megan Cummins
In our hybrid interview series, we pair an author Q&A with a critical essay about one or more of their books. We’re happy to share this conversation between CRAFT contributor Megan Cummins and our founding editor Laura Spence-Ash, who also essays about Cummins’s debut collection If the Body Allows It. —CRAFT
Framing the Stories: If the Body Allows It by Megan Cummins
Essay by Laura Spence-Ash •
The architecture of If the Body Allows It, Megan Cummins’s stunning debut story collection, is unique: there are two sets of stories within the one. Six stories are told in first person, from the perspective of a young woman named Marie; these stories appear as tent poles throughout the book, and this arc begins and ends the collection. This narrative arc moves through time, as we would expect to see in a novel, but because Marie is a writer, we also get to read her fiction. It becomes clear to the reader, as the book progresses, that the other ten stories in the collection are written by Marie. The relationship between Marie’s story and her fiction is subtle and nuanced; Cummins is clearly interested in considering the layers of storytelling, the way that a writer’s life makes its way into her fiction, the way that the telling of a story is dependent upon its narrator.
There is a wonderful predictability to this structure: we know we will return to Marie’s arc after we read two of her stories, and that movement back and forth is both comforting and exhilarating. One of the frustrations of short story collections can be a lack of forward momentum: without a character to follow throughout or a clear thematic structure, some story collections stall somewhere in the middle. By establishing this frame, though, Cummins creates that movement forward, the ability to learn about one character over time, and yet we also get to explore ten other separate worlds, with their distinct characters and narrative shapes. But all the stories, in the end, are connected to Marie, because they have developed out of her imagination.
Often the connections are thematic, rather than specific. Marie’s opening story, “Heart,” begins as follows: “The doctor looks at me and says—no fuss, no apology—that someone like me should never be pregnant.” In “The Beast,” the first story we see written by Marie, we learn that the couple in the story has a “no-children clause.” Beverly says, “I told myself I didn’t want children. What if I couldn’t love them? Worse, what if they couldn’t love me?” Having children—or not having children—looms large throughout the collection. In “Flour Baby,” Reggie is a high schooler, forced to carry around a flour baby for her life skills class. In “That Was Me Once,” the male narrator is father to a toddler who is not biologically his son. And it is clear, by the time we get to the end of the collection, that while Marie may not be able to be pregnant, her children exist, in the form of these stories.
At times, the connection between the frame and the story is easier to see, the membrane separating Marie’s story from the ones she is writing more porous. In “Eyes,” Marie meets a guy at a bar in Newark, and she thinks, as she leaves the bar in the freezing rain, “My father never knew I would end up living here. He never would have guessed.” Her story “Future Breakfasts,” which starts on the following page, is about Frances and Byron, who reconnect at a party in New York. After the party, during a blizzard, they return to Frances’s apartment in Newark. Because of the weather, the Newark setting, and the use of the first person, there is closeness here between the frame and the story, so much, in fact, that this story bleeds into Marie’s narrative.
As the book continues, the relationship between Marie and her stories is at times close and at other times farther away. This varying distance adds complexity and interest to the frame: we never quite know when we will hark back to Marie’s story and when we will be far from it, engaged in a wholly different world. Those moments of connection are wonderful and remind us of the frame. But what becomes clear is that Marie’s characters reflect different versions of Marie: younger versions, as in “Aerosol,” when a teenage girl is left home alone; older versions, like Karen, the mother of grown daughters in “Countergirls.” There is a richness to this complexity, a book populated with characters who are separate and unique and yet somehow all related.
Every point-of-view character has a fully developed interiority. Their insights into themselves and into those around them are often stunning. In “Tough Beauty,” Elizabeth is ignored by her closest friend: “My heart fades in my chest, like the moon when it’s out during the day. It’s there, but barely visible.” A character in “Countergirls” is described as follows: “She was like a walking blood orange, carrying that surprise inside her.” But by giving us the opportunity to read the stories that Marie creates and to see how they connect to her story, we are given another way of accessing Marie’s interiority: to be shown not only what she thinks, but how she takes the raw material of her life and uses her imagination and her strength as a writer to create wholly believable worlds. We rarely get this access to a fiction writer’s process, and it is fascinating, a whole other layer to explore. A portrait of the artist, at work.
In the end, of course, there is yet another layer, as Megan Cummins is the artist underneath it all. She has written a short story collection that, in part due to its elegant construction, is so much more than its parts. She is the creator of Marie, of the scaffolding, of the beautifully wrought stories, of the delicate and powerful interrogations into the human condition. This is a collection that deserves multiple readings, to explore the many ways these stories are braided together, to enjoy its beautiful prose, and to appreciate storytelling at its finest.
Laura Spence-Ash: The frame of If the Body Allows It, your debut story collection, is fascinating: a series of six stories provide a scaffolding, an ongoing narrative that follows one character, and it provides a way to gather the other ten stories within that framework. How did you develop this idea? Did you write stories to fit the framework, or did the framework come later in the process?
Megan Cummins: I wrote the first two stories in the frame in 2015 at the Bear River Writers’ Conference in Northern Michigan. I didn’t realize until after I wrote the second story that the narrator was the same in each one. Once I knew that, I knew I wanted to tell more of her story.
LSA: One of the conceits of the framework is that the first-person narrator of the six present-moment stories is a writer, and we slowly learn that she is the one writing the other stories. The relationship between her life and her fiction is porous. There are many moments when we can see the connections between them. As a fiction writer, what are your thoughts on the role of the writer’s life in her fiction?
MC: I think one of the great things about this question is that it’s different for each writer, and even different in each work. Since there are similarities between me, the writer, and Marie, the character, and because inevitably the question of where I am in this book was going to be raised (by people who know me, anyway; and just because of the fact that the main character is a woman who is a writer who is around the same age I am) I wanted explore this idea of writing about oneself through my imaginary assignment of Marie as the writer of the rest of the stories in the book. Would the distance feel real? What could I learn by handing the personal aspects of writing about the self to someone who isn’t me?
LSA: The role of the storyteller in fiction can be difficult to discern; the narrator is often hidden from view. Here, because you have these layers of storytelling, we are able to see the narrator in a way that we usually can’t. How do you think that impacts the reading experience of the collection?
MC: My hope is that it makes the book feel, for a reader, as much like a novel as it does a story collection. I hope it feels like a whole, not just parts. I also hope, for readers, Marie’s story grows in their minds as they read the stories within her frame—that those stories have an impact on her first-person narration, not just the other way around, i.e. identifying her personal experiences in the stories she writes.
LSA: In the final story, “Skeleton,” the narrator puts her finger on the pulse of the book: “It’s the feeling that life is always on the brink of never being the same again, and sometimes pieces of our lives fall off the edge, but some things, good and bad, we carry with us after the crash. And those things make us who we are.” I love this idea and how nicely it sums up the current that runs through the book. Did you have this idea in mind as you were working on the stories, or did this story, with this idea, come to you in the revision process?
MC: Those two sentences you highlighted changed in small ways during the revision, but they’ve been there in essence since the first draft of “Skeleton,” which, even though it’s last in the book, was the third story of the frame that I wrote. And it was at that point that I realized I not only wanted to write more of the middle of Marie’s story—I had the beginning and the end—but that I also wanted to explore her role as the author in a layered way. I was interested in the idea of ending at her book launch, and as the reader might be thinking about what reading this book meant to them, they see at the same time what writing it meant for Marie. I also liked the possibility that they might totally disagree with her—or that they might not have believed in her as the author at all.
LSA: Just as the narrator haunts the stories, many of these characters are haunted by their pasts. In “Blood,” the narrator says, “When we have a conversation there’s space for our ghosts to sit between us calmly.” In “The Beast,” the protagonist meets up with a man she’d gone to prom with, years earlier. She thinks: “How much of my life had been shaped by the decisions I had made with this man years ago? Here with me seemed to be not all the people I could’ve been, but simply all the people I hadn’t been.” How does the weight of the past inform your work?
MC: I think many of my characters are, if not living in the past, at least wondering about different ways their lives might have turned out—and, really, imagining a present or future that doesn’t or couldn’t exist is its own way of living in the past, because it’s all about what you didn’t do. And I find that state of being so interesting. Not that every character is or should be stuck in some way, but as both a reader and a writer I have a hard time connecting to a character if I don’t know their past. And really, I sort of want it laid out. There’s always a place for subtlety, but I also appreciate when characters let me know what they’re really thinking.
LSA: A number of the stories feature teenage or young adult protagonists. You have such a wonderful ear for characters of that age: the dialogue and the insights are pitch-perfect. One of my favorite lines from the collection is from “Tough Beauty,” when Elizabeth thinks, “My heart fades in my chest, like the moon when it’s out during the day. It’s there, but barely visible.” You never condescend to these characters; their vulnerability is made plain. Do you find it easy to access this point of view?
MC: I think I find it easier to stay with the point of view of teenage characters; to get into flow state while writing their stories. I start these stories with the idea I have as much to learn from writing a young character as I do from writing about an adult one. I’m not in a higher-up position, or directing from a distance, but like with any story I write I’m there with them, trying to figure it out.
LSA: While the overall tone of the collection is serious, with characters dealing with difficult and challenging situations, there is also great humor to be found throughout. Quite often you juxtapose something sad or tragic with something that is laugh-out-loud funny. Very few writers are able to write funny as well as write sad in such a compelling way. What is your process for incorporating humor into your writing? Which comes first, the laugh or the cry?
MC: I’m glad you found there is humor in the book! My sense of humor is very influenced by my father, who was very funny, but also very mordant. I’m less mordant, maybe, but I find there’s no escaping humor. It’s natural to find what’s funny. I think the cry and the laugh come at the same time, even when you might want to keep them separate.
LSA: The stories here feature both male and female protagonists. What is it like, for you, to write from a male POV? Do you find it more challenging than writing from a female POV?
MC: Yes, I do find it more challenging! Which is probably why I do it less often. Especially with “Higher Power,” I knew that story needed to be from the point of view of a father, because it’s a story set in an alternate universe where Marie’s father lived.
LSA: In the stories that form the present-day thread, Marie, the narrator, lives in Newark, NJ. These stories have a wonderful sense of place and seem to be a bit of a love letter for Newark. Needless to say, Newark is not often represented in this way—at least not since the early days of Roth. Can you talk a little bit about Newark and why you chose to feature it so prominently?
MC: I was living in Newark when I began writing this book, and it’s a place that had a great effect on me. I found a wonderful community of people there, an incredibly rich history, and found it to be so distinct from New York City. I was sad to leave for the same reason Marie leaves—health insurance. For Marie, who feels lost in so many ways, I wanted her to feel grounded in loving the place where she lives. And then to have that stability taken away when she has to move to find a new health insurance plan. The thing that makes her life most precarious (her illness) finally wins out over the one thing in her life that made her feel most stable (her city).
LSA: Conversely, many of the locations of the other stories are in small Midwestern towns that the characters might like to escape, if they could; “We Are Holding Our Own” begins: “Opal was a town of passing through.” How do these locations inform the stories and the characters?
MC: I grew up in the Midwest and have a deep fondness for it, and honestly never thought I would leave until I, well, left. And the longer you’re away from the Midwest, the harder it is to go back—your life gets set up other places. When returning to the Midwest in fiction, I think I find the need to translate the displacement from the Midwest I might feel into a desire to displace oneself. Oddly, I think if I had wanted to escape growing up, I probably would still be there.
LSA: In your stories, characters often have wonderful and searing insights into who they are and why they behave as they do. There’s an inherent tension there, between the self-awareness of the character and yet their inability to somehow get their lives moving in the right direction. Can you talk a little bit about that?
MC: I love this question. My characters spend a lot of time thinking, and overthinking. Craft classes talk a lot about action and plot and scene, and I love a good plot, but I’m just as interested in interiority, and feel it’s just as important to telling a story. And since my points of view, whether first- or third-person, usually stay pretty close to the character, I find it natural to be inside their heads. And I think the fact that they spend so much time thinking means they’re going to either learn something about themselves or continue to delude themselves in some way, or both—and that’s where the self-awareness, but inability to act on it, comes from.
LSA: Your titles are marvelous: they are often a bit mysterious but once the story is read, the title opens up the core of the story, the essence of what you’re saying. Do titles come easily to you? How do you know when you’ve come up with the title that feels right?
MC: I usually find myself knowing the title by the end of the first draft, though in a few of the stories—“Aerosol,” for example—I spent a long time not finding the right title. Patrick Ryan at One Story finally helped me land on that one. I like the idea of a story’s title taking different shapes as one reads, meaning different things. That speaks to the essence, as you said, but also might shape shift. The title of the book was wrong for a long time. For a while I just had a title story, which was wrong since the book is about the book itself (if that makes sense). Then I came up with If Your Body Allows It. And then I changed the “your” to “the.” I liked that distance. The idea of the body as independent, a force, not possessed by you.
MEGAN CUMMINS is the author of the story collection If the Body Allows It (University of Nebraska). She is the managing editor of A Public Space and A Public Space Books and lives in Brooklyn, New York.
LAURA SPENCE-ASH’s work has appeared in One Story, New England Review, Literary Hub, and elsewhere. She is the Founding Editor of CRAFT.