Phillip Mandel Interviews Meagan Cass
I WANTED TO TALK with Meagan Cass not only because we’ve been friends since we studied literature together as undergraduates at Binghamton University, but because she’s lived through such a perfect arc of the MFA experience, even going on to earn a PhD. Her work has been published in prestigious journals, and like many others who aspire to do the same, Meagan has been one of the lucky few who has landed that most elusive of jobs: creative writing professor (currently at the University of Illinois Springfield). Her latest feat is a newly published book, Range of Motion (Helicopter Press, 2014). In this long interview, we really get into it—less about craft and more about life, and what it means to be a writer in the 21st century.
On autobiographical fiction (13:37): “My parents got the chapbook, and I just got a text from my mom that just said, ‘Reading your book now.’ With no other comment. And then I got a text from my father saying, ‘Your mother’s reading your book.’ And then I called my mother the next day and said, ‘Okay, we’ve got to get this over with.’”
On pursuing an MFA right after college (19:50): “I think I was expecting to sort of develop my ideas of what stories were in the first place…and how to construct them, kind of…yeah, what was I expecting? I think I just wanted to write a shit-ton. That was the main impetus.”
On a good workshop experience (21:30): “We’d look at somebody’s story one week and let’s say it had a craft problem, like a passive narrator. The next week we’d read a bunch of stories that [Josh Henkin] had found that dealt with that problem. So we were constantly thinking of our own fiction in relationship to published fiction. How other writers were solving the problems we were bumping up against in our stories. It was completely revolutionary to me, the idea of thinking of my work in conversation with like, Alice Munro.”
On craft issues (22:14): “In all of my stories I had a ton of back story. I loved to insert long sections of exposition. Really long tangents and digressions. Which would eventually become really central to my stories when I learned how to use them in a way that was more intuitive and made more sense.”
On daily writing practices (24:27): “I think I was more focused on how good it would feel to have quality stories, versus the actual day-to-day sweat-and-blood, sitting-in-the-chair stuff that gets you to that place. And it took me a long time to really understand that and embrace that. I’m the kind of writer that has to clock in an hour or two a day. There’s just something about the way my imagination works. If I try to cram in all my writing on a Saturday—“This is my writing day, I’m going to write for six hours!”—I produce complete crap. I need to do it a lot, so I have a lot of time to fuck it up. That’s what allows me to take risks.”
On anxiety and freaking out about not publishing enough and fast enough (35:22): “All the time. All the time. I think I was just very dependent on teachers who were encouraging me, and those small notes you get on rejection slips sometimes. And having the writing group and having readers validating what I was doing. But I had a lot of anxiety about that, for sure.”
On whether you should you get an MFA (43:24): “Yeah I would say get an MFA! It’s time to write, it’s more critical instruction. You can evaluate your writing. I think it’s great. Especially if you can get someone to pay for it.”
On MFA diversity (44:20): “I don’t believe in [the MFA-ification of writing]. I’ve read so many collections that have come out of programs or from people who have been through programs that are so different—stylistically, formally—in terms of subject matter. I tend to be suspicious of people who make broad claims about contemporary literature. And I think that’s one of them. If somebody says “Oh yes, it’s the McMFA story,” then who are you reading?”
On writing while teaching (48:27): “I decided when I started teaching here that I was going to make sure to write every day no matter how busy I got. Because I’ve definitely gone through times in my life where I’ve been busy and let that slip, and I think I’m not as productive or happy as a person when I’m not writing, and it affects my work. So I write pretty much every day for two hours; if I’m really pressed for time, I’ll push it to the evening, or do one hour.”
On editing (53:05): “I would say probably each story goes through twenty or twenty-five drafts.”
Meagan Cass is the author of Range of Motion (Magic Helicopter Press, 2014). Her fiction has appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Pinch, DIAGRAM, PANK, and Puerto del Sol, among other places. She is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Illinois Springfield, where she is a curator of the Shelterbelt Reading Series. She also serves as assistant editor for Sundress Publications and as fiction editor for the Best of the Net anthology. Over the last ten years, she has done editorial work for a range of national literary journals, including Stirring, Harpur Palate, and Rougarou, of which she is a founding editor.