Monica McFawn, winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and recipient of an NEA Fellowship in Literature, is taking the helm as both fiction editor of Passages North and director of Northern Michigan University’s MFA program. Monica sat down with incoming co-managing editor Willow Grosz and associate fiction editor Ethan Brightbill in the viewing room at the farm where she boards her horse. A dusty old office with a giant wooden desk and brown leather armchairs, the room overlooks an indoor practice arena, where a woman was putting a horse through a series of cantering exercises.
It took a while to set up the recording equipment, fumble with notes, and try to decide what order to ask questions in. This felt like a real problem at the time: should fairness and balance be prioritized, or should the direction of the conversation dictate who asked what, and when? We did the best we could. Read on to hear Monica’s discussion, including what she brings to the journal, how horses have influenced her life, and where that weird noise in her apartment is coming from.
[Equipment records static as Ethan and Willow have the first face-off over who will be more polite and wait to ask a question. Ethan wins the first round.]
Willow: You joined us in the fall—how are you adjusting to Marquette?
Monica: It’s been good so far. I think the biggest difference is that everything’s really close together. I taught at Grand Valley, and it was a half hour drive to work and twenty minutes in the other direction to see my horse. Now people are really close. So overall, I like the area so far. It’s a bit eerie how often you bump into people you know—I’m not used to that. And I still don’t feel like I really know the area. You just get so caught in getting your job started that it’s really hard to feel like you know the area, but I’m starting to slowly figure out what it’s all about, and it’s obviously a friendly place. I went cross-country skiing, I’m getting out a little more and doing sports and things like people do, and I’ve been coming out to the stable a lot, so it’s good.
Ethan: So what writing aesthetic do you bring to Passages North?
I think I’m still trying to figure it out. I like things that are I would consider warm, things that are very close perspective, so if it’s going to be third, I like close third, and if it’s first, there’s going to be a degree of interiority—a lot of it is going to be about the psychological state of the characters. I’m not only interested in character; I’m really interested in people grappling with questions about how to live, ethical, moral, questions like that. Highly conceptual stuff that’s heavily based on writing style or that’s a little more experimental—I may like that work, but there’s got to be some element that feels like a lived experience. Otherwise, sometimes that kind of work can feel a little gimmicky to me. I think because of my interest in screenwriting, I’m more captivated by an exchange between characters, how characters speak, how their thoughts might belie their words and actions. I want to see that made anew.
Style plays into this, of course. If the author is playing with long and short sentences, if there are lines that go modifier to modifier to modifier, all of that is interesting to me if it’s making me feel consciousness. If the reason we’re having these long sentences or short sentences is because they represent a condition of the mind, a certain consciousness, a certain kind of being of the character, then that interests me. So I do think that character/the mind is fundamentally important and that form and plot need to lead up to that.
E: Are there any writing quirks that particularly bother you?
M: One is when people use the “years before” or “years later thing.” I hate when a story accelerates—when you tell a story in an arrow of time and then it goes, [mocking] “Years later, she would look back on those days and her father’s candy store and remember the way he whispered into the phone while she ran her hands through the starlight mints…” You’ve flown us out of the story and basically said that the story has already ended, and it just kills my investment as reader. It’s lazy to accelerate in that way, a lazy way of showing us the impact of all of this on the character without actually showing it to us. I suppose the logic is that obviously it had an impact, because year’s later, she thought of it, as if the fact it is remembered gives it all the weight it needs. I’d much rather see whatever impact this is going to have in the moment, in whatever scene that we’re in, rather than advance to make it all a memory. “Years before” isn’t quite as bad, but years later—I really don’t like that move. And I feel like it’s something in literary fiction and not in other fiction, one of those “literary” in quotation marks things.
I also don’t like she imagined. Usually such phrases are followed by a trippy scene in which we see something like a symbolic fantasia. But it’s really a trick of the writer, a way to throw some symbolism and imagery in the story because no one really daydreams thematically apropos images that way. And so I think it’s really out of character, and again, I think they’re writerly mechanisms for trying to add to the gravity of the story, but they seemed artificial and forced to me.
E: What makes a story stand out from the slush pile?
M: Certainly if the story is a bit unpredictable. I think whether you read a lot of fiction for a literary magazine or for your own education, one of the risks of reading as a writer is that you automatically start to categorize everything you read. Oh, well this is experimental; oh, this is gritty realism, whatever. You find yourself automatically sliding things into categories—you do it without even thinking. And the problem with that is that you start reading with a certain cynicism, and you’re not doing it purposefully. You become accustomed as a writer and especially as a teacher to looking at things as models, looking at things as what you can potentially borrow. So your mind is geared toward categorizing, and if a story doesn’t allow me to do that, either because it breaks the category or because it’s so darn entertaining that I can’t have my mechanics hat on, that’s great. It’s like opening up the engine of the story as you’re reading it. You’re trying to understand it and saying, okay, so there’s that, and there’s this and this, and well, I’m not sure if I can keep extending this metaphor, but if the car is really beautiful, then you don’t want to open up the hood, you want to take it for a drive.
I also want to be highly entertained; if something is highly entertaining, and I can see what it is—oh, this is realism, or a story about family dynamics, or a father and son, or however I want to categorize it—but I become so entertained that I stop thinking about categories, that the category no longer brings it down for me, then it becomes a feature. So either break the category or transcend the category by being highly entertaining, something that I can actually enjoy. I think that goes for anyone who does a lot of reading. You’re always happy to see those things that take you in hand and make you not think so much. At least, I don’t want to think about the writer when I’m reading work. And if you throw around things like years later, she imagined, that’s making me think about the writer. Because they make me look underneath. And I don’t want to think about writing all the time. I want to have an experience.
E: If you could have anyone submit to Passages North, who would it be and why?
M: Living or dead?
E: We’ll go with living. For now.
M: Well, I really like Rachel Cusk’s novel, “Outline.” I’d be really interested in the kind of short work she would do. So she would be a person who would be awesome to have submit, because that novel feels really fresh to me, and I’d be happy to see whatever she’s doing.
E: Alright, well then who would you choose if they were dead?
M: Of course Nathaniel Hawthorne.
E and W: [laughter]
M: And I probably wouldn’t read his story, I’d just accept it. But yeah, if he sent in, yeah, absolutely.
[Awkward pause while Willow and Ethan decide who should go next using only their eyes.]
E: So what advice would you offer to applicants to Passages North, and to NMU’s MFA program?
M: Well, I think that for people applying to an MFA program, it helps if you really know what you want out of it. You should have some idea of what you want out of the experience, what sort of things you want to improve in your work, or where you want to go with your work. But the thing is, once you get there, you have to be open to having that ripped out, or shaken up, or turned around. You have to have a vision, but there also has to be a degree of openness, because if you have the vision but you really feel set in it, there’s no point in going to school, because you’re not going to get anything out much out of it; you’re not going to be open to it. You need a strong identity, but you also need to be a confident, open person; if a person comes in with no confidence, either they’re going to be too defensive about their aesthetic, or they’re not going to defend it enough. There has to be an element protecting what you want and who you are, but you also have to be willing to step out of your own boundaries. I think people who are confident can do both things. They know how to preserve their own aesthetic, and they know what’s up for grabs, and they know that they’re willing to be shaken up, they’re willing to twist it around. But if they’re too insecure or too defensive, they won’t change at all or they let their whole artistic identity become scattered by committee.
I also think it’s important to think about when to apply to an MFA program. I went to an MFA program right out of undergraduate, I was twenty-two years old, and if I had to do it over again, I would not have gone then. I would absolutely not have done that. I didn’t have the openness, the maturity, I don’t think I had enough life experience, and I would have gotten a lot more out of it had I waited a little bit. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with waiting 10, 20, 30, 40 years, whatever. I think people tend to get a lot more out of programs when they’re older. However, I’ve worked with younger students who have a level of maturity that I simply didn’t have at that age, so that’s the other thing that I hope would come through with applications—life experience.
A personal example would be my experience with horses—I used to never make the connection with writing. I would go to the barn, and I used to keep it really separate from my writing life—it was a hobby that was taking away from the important work that I should be doing. But as I got older, my riding became such a part of my life as an artist. And it is an art. It’s an art in its own right, training a horse. It really does inform my work and who I am as a person. That’s not something I was capable of articulating when I was younger. So I think an applicant to the MFA program should talk to me about their writing, but also about who they are, what they’re passionate about. If they’re just passionate about writing and reading, I don’t think it’s enough. There’s got to be more to one’s life than just art, because art is fed by life. If there’s not a life there, if they’re myopically focused on becoming a writer and being published, that’s just a kind of egotistically-driven ambition, and really you should be trying to say something bigger, you should be trying to add to the whole, you should be trying to contribute. You should also be out there living and being around people who aren’t writers, who aren’t artists, people who are different. This is a whole different walk of life out here at the barn, and it informs everything I do. It’s precious to me, so I want to see what’s precious to applicants. What do you care about?
W: What do you look for in a PN submission?
M: In terms of advice about submitting to Passages North, I think the general advice that I’ve used that helped me get published is make sure that you’re taking some risks. Make sure that you’re leaving something on the page, that you’re not—that it’s not just a performance for the reader, for me, or for the editors. There should be something that you actually felt, and that you experienced, that you created.
W: It seems to me that there’s a connection there to your advice about a full life being integrally connected to art-making.
M: Well, yes, but I think also it works the other way too. I love writing that does something. I like to learn when I read. I like when there’s specialized knowledge in stories, especially when a story doesn’t actually hold my hand about understanding. So it gets me actually more curious, when the story refuses to be like, “Hello reader, you may not understand the world of whatever, but here’s your little welcome.” I like when they just put you in it, and let you think, let you feel it.
And endings. For me as a writer, I revise endings a lot. And a lot of times it’s just the difference between one sentence structure and another. I mean, I will just move things around in the final couple paragraphs. I’ll spend several days, if not weeks, letting sit and picking it up again. So, don’t be afraid to wait until it really feels like it’s sealed for you, really right, and then submit it. I feel like when we have these discussions about what we accept and don’t accept, a lot of times we’re either dissatisfied by the ending or the beginning. So more, I think, than almost anything, is creating a shape to the story where once it ends, we feel like OK, that’s the exact right note, you know, that’s exactly the right spot.And then also, in terms of standing out in the queue, just work on your beginnings and endings. So many stories just have beginnings that could be cut off. A lot of times in editing, editors are reading these pieces very quickly. If the piece doesn’t pop off the page right away and there’s not something to draw us in, quickly, then that’s an issue. So see if you can lop off at the beginning. A lot of times you can get four paragraphs before the start, before where it really starts, so look at your beginnings.
W: What are you working on right now? Is there a last paragraph that you’re sort of tweaking endlessly?
M: Right now I’m starting a novel, which is kind of daunting to me. One of the things that I increasingly feel is important—and I think this is another message that I would address to MFA applicants, Passages North submitters, people in general—is that there’s always this temptation to get overly serious when one creates art. There’s always this feeling that “Well, if it’s not uncomfortable, if you’re not slightly tortured, then it’s not going to be good.” That there should be a level of discomfort or excessive rigor. And I think that’s a holdover from the American Puritan ideal that hard work is automatically positive, that difficulty is automatically positive, but I honestly think that being playful is really, really valuable. A lot of my teaching style is geared toward making people learn how to play and be playful. And actually, the reason that I focus on that so much is it’s the hardest thing for me. I think I’m a pretty playful person in life, normally, but it’s hard for me to keep that feeling when I approach my writing.
[The door creaks as a client of the barn comes in to lay out her saddle and tack on the sawhorse in the viewing room.]
M: So with this new work, the novel, I really, really want to keep it playful. I don’t want to have to feel the heaviness of, you know, a hundred and some pages unfolding from my mind. I want to feel a sense of lightness and a sense of freedom. So I’m writing it in fragments, and I’m writing, basically, mini-chapters in different documents right now. And I have it in those different documents because I don’t want the weight of the previous thing I wrote to be following me. I’m trying to keep it up here.
[Monica gestures to air above her shoulders and head.]
Really light. That, and I’m also writing about some stuff that’s patently absurd, because I think sometimes if you set yourself a task where automatically what you’re doing is almost impossible to make overly grave or overly heavy, or you think it’s sort of silly—you know, stuff you might automatically dismiss—if you really pursue them, that can actually produce the most interesting work. So I’m trying to work with ideas that I think are way lighter than what I’m accustomed to—kind of silly—and trying to create something that’s got a sense of play, that’s obvious, when you read it, you see that the writer is having fun. I think that’s another thing that I think is really important because if you’re making art, you have to enjoy it. Pleasure and quality should go together. You can be rigorous and playful. I think that those two things are never married when people discuss writing, but I think they should be. Play is rigorous, like a structured type of play—give yourself playful tasks. And I think it creates things that are more dynamic and interesting than something where you feel like, “Well it has to be beautiful and it has to be—I have to do all this.” What a burden to put on yourself.
I’m also working on a collaborative piece with another writer, and that’s been a lot of fun, too, because that throws in different elements, that kind of destabilize me as a writer. That’s a challenge that I like, you know, I like to be constantly destabilized. I feel like the habits that you have as a writer are always, I think, conservative. And I especially think that a perfect strength of a writer can become a weakness: you are praised for it, people think it’s great, you begin to lean on it, and then you’re always trying to lean on a strength. With collaboration, if you are constantly throwing in elements where you can’t use your strengths, it opens up a different world to you. So I actually want to create writing where when I look at it I don’t know it’s me. Like it doesn’t even look like me because that’s how far out my own wheelhouse I’m going.
[Ethan and Willow look down at their notes, then at each other]
W: I have kind of a silly one.
E: Go for it.
W: [To Monica] I hear you have a haunted room in your house. Can you talk about that a bit?
M: I’m not sure if it’s haunted, but I did have a disturbing moment in there the other day. I kept hearing this high-pitched creepy sound, it was like [Monica makes a high-pitched creepy sound], and I thought, I’m losing my mind. This is where it begins, you know, and it was actually like some This American Life I heard where a guy hears this tone constantly. He tries to mimic it, and he even has some musician play it back for him, and he’s like yeah, that’s the exact note that’s in my head all the time. I figured, well, now it’s my turn. But in fact, it was my yogurt; my yogurt smoothie was sealed up in this tumbler, and there was some reaction going on, and so air was trying to escape, and that’s what made the sound. But it took a really long time to figure out—I was preparing myself to live with that sound indefinitely. It was highly unsettling.
E: What have you read recently, or what are you reading?
M: What am I reading? Well, I just picked up Rachel May’s book, so I started to read that, um—
W: [interrupts] Which book? Her novel, or the quilting book?
M:The Benedictines and Quilting with a Modern Slant.
M: Both are fascinating and so different—really shows her range. I’m also reading Patricia Killelea’s poems—I just went to their reading yesterday and was impressed by the expansiveness of their artistic practices. They both work in different mediums—visual art, performance---and I think that’s also impressive and to be emulated.
What was I reading before that? Well, I’m reading this book, Three Men and a Boat, because my novel is centered on sailing, and I’m also interested in writing comedic fiction. It’s a British novel from the 1880s, and it’s really funny and different. It starts out talking about hypochondria and how this guy’s reading about all these diseases, and how he has all of them, and it’s so similar to how people are with the internet and becoming hypochondriacs by looking up their symptoms. It’s just funny how perennial that topic is—how humor from one hundred years ago so smoothly translates to today.
I’ve also been reading Diane Cook’s book of short stories, Man Vs. Nature. She plays with unreal elements in a way that’s really refreshing. It’s been useful since I’ve been working on adding more non-realist elements into my own work—I’ve resisted doing this for a long time, but my philosophy about writing is that you should always try writing the thing you shrink from—there’s a benefit in pushing against your own tastes. So I’ve been keeping up with a reading list of non-realist work and magical realism, etc. to help me do this.
W: What is the best book you’ve read in the past year or so?
M: I’m trying to think of something I haven’t already mentioned. I haven’t had any favorites lately. And that tends to be the case. One book I really like—and I can tell because I’ve reread it—is Jim Crace’s Being Dead. It starts out with the bodies of this older couple that were murdered on this beach. The whole book has this structure where it follows the decomposition of the bodies, but then it goes back in time and talks about their relationship, and it’s one of those books that I can’t forget. It’s beautifully done, and haunting.
[A woman comes in and asks if she can clean her saddle or if that would disturb us. She doesn’t disturb us. Monica says she would actually be more worried about just being in there running her mouth.]
W: Where and when do you write?
M: I actually don’t have an official time that I write. I mean, I’ve been using that Pomodoro technique, where you write in twenty-five minute increments. But I try to motivate myself sit there. I write in the evenings, almost exclusively. After 8 pm. If I write during the day, I feel like I’m missing out. I don’t like being inside during the day. I’ll only do it if I have to meet a deadline, and I’ll feel like I have a fever or something. It’s not a good feeling.
I also have a really cool apartment I live on the top floor of an old Victorian house, and my computer’s in this little alcove in front of the window, and there’s a little roof, or this little ceiling, sort of, a peak—so I have a really neat spot. That’s where I write, normally. Sometimes I’ll write in my office on campus. I try to do the thing where you quit writing before you feel completely done, ‘cause that seems to make it a little fresher.
W: Going back to that idea of play, and keeping it fun, do you give yourself treats? Like, how do you….
M: I do totally give myself treats! You know, sometimes they’re little treats. I’ll often call a friend, or I’ll read something that I’ve wanted to read, you know, from The New York Times, or I’ll read in bed for a little while. When I wrote my first book, I actually found it very hard because it was really unpleasant, and I did not enjoy writing it. And, I don’t want to live like that. I figure I have to make this a more pleasant thing. And I do think there’s a part of me that feels like writing should be hard and unpleasant, that it’s not going to be good if it’s not hard and unpleasant. But thinking about how horses are a valuable part of my life reminds me that you wouldn’t train a horse that way. You wouldn’t say, "This horse is only going to improve if he is uncomfortable, is he is unhappy." No. You’d say absolutely not. A horse has got to feel like you’re playing. A horse has to have fun. The horse has to feel fresh. The horse has to feel appreciated. If I were to treat my horse the way I sometimes treat myself when I write, it would be very, very difficult. So, I try to think about what works for an animal, what makes them want to do something and feel good about it. I want to take short sessions that build strength, not long drilling sessions where you’re being [smashes fist into hand]. That’s what I try to do. Keep it fun. Keep it light. And ultimately, feel good about it. You know, let yourself feel good.
E: If you had to choose just one story to represent your work, what would it be?
M: I would choose “Snippet and the Rainbow Bridge.” The premise of the story is four people—two vets and the co-owners of the pony—trying to decide whether or not the pony should be euthanized because of his broken leg, or if they should try more last ditch veterinary interventions. The story is told from four perspectives, all in the barn or next to the horse. It shows how people will take something like horses and use it as a canvas for all other sorts of beliefs. The puzzle of the story is that all the characters are acting out of character while simultaneously assuming that everyone else will act in character—for example, the pragmatic vet wants to try something daring and desperate, while the more risk-taking vet decides, unexpectedly, that the pony should be put down. And I think that really represents my interest in how people project what others are thinking, how another person’s mind is always a mystery, how people can act out of character. We always think of other people as being more stable than we are, always staying in character, they would never do x, y, or z, but their personalities change, too. Their characters grow more than we give them credit for, and they have an interior life that’s driven by forces that we don’t have access to. The story dramatizes this fact and represents my longstanding interest in how people read and misread one another. If I had to choose one story, that would be it.