Megan Cummins builds stories about kids and adults that anyone can feel and understand, in prose that is beautifully transparent until an occasional simile drives such clarity into an image that you have to stop and see how it was done. She is currently working on a novel, often while riding the train from her home in Sacramento to her job at a union office in the East Bay where she keeps the books.
Megan completed her MA with the graduate Creative Writing Program at UC Davis in 2011, when I was finishing up my first year there. Her short fiction has appeared in Freight Stories, and is forthcoming in A Public Space. We met for this interview at Old Soul Co. in Sacramento, where the barista there knew everything there was to know about the tea industry, and explained it to me in the time it took him to brew me a cup. Megan agreed he was astounding.
It seems that many of your characters are girls right on the cusp of adulthood, right at that pivotal moment, but also in environments in which they don’t recognize the danger around them. Could you talk about that?
Until about five years ago I was always writing about characters that were older than I was. Eventually I sort of realized that I didn’t really know the characters I was writing. Not that I can’t write about characters who are older than I am and not be convincing, but now with my novel it’s more interesting to me to write about kids. They’re in conventional places like suburbia, or in families or relationships that might not be stable but aren’t necessarily violent or anything like that, but there is always this underlying danger that I think comes from them not knowing themselves. As far as where that comes from in my life, maybe it’s from being young and not really feeling like I’m adult yet even though I am and have the responsibilities of an adult.
In the novel you’ve been working on, I noticed that the present narrative seems to center on a major event in the past, almost as if that event is still determining their lives even as adults. What drew you to that structure?
When I was at the Tin House Writers Workshop the summer between years at Davis, something all the teachers there seemed to say was to put a short clock on your story, the shortest clock possible. And I’ve never been able to do that. Even my short stories span at least months. I’ve never been able to put short clocks on my stories. It’s not my natural inclination. I always feel like I have to draw from something that happened in the past. But by the end of the story I want the beginning to somehow read differently in light of what’s happened.
When we were in school, we had what now seems like this unlimited amount of time just to focus on writing. What has the transition into the post-grad world been like?
I know at Davis that technically you were hired at 20 hours a week for TAships, and right now I work 20 hours a week for work.
But those are real hours.
You’re right. Those are real hours, so it’s vastly different in that regard. Also, even if I was really busy with grading and Lit classes and other obligations, everything I did in some way went back to Literature. It went back to reading and writing. So all these different things I was doing were somehow informing each other in a way that my work now doesn’t. I really love my job now. The people are really great. I’m the bookkeeper so it’s entirely the opposite. I’m doing numbers. So I don’t have this atmosphere where everything I do is related to reading and writing. That was amazing for those two years. Now, in some ways it’s kind of nice. I write on the train on the way to work and when I get there I don’t think about anything related to my own writing for however many hours I’m there. In some ways that break is kind of nice, but ultimately my work habits feel more scattered now. I try to stick pretty strictly to writing on the train, and then writing at home the days that I don’t work. Even if that’s more consistent it feels kind of fractured, because it’s not part of this bigger writing environment, or haven that I feel like we had. But I guess you have to grow up sometime. I’ve put it off longer than most people. In the end I think it’s a necessary experience but it’s definitely a different one.
Alex Russell recently completed his MA in creative writing at UC Davis. His work has appeared in the Atticus Review, and in The Georgetown Review. He lives in Davis with his wife and two dogs.