All Her Most Private Places: An Interview with Meghan Lamb by Curtis Smith

Meghan Lamb is the author of All of Your Most Private Places (Spork Press, 2020) and Silk Flowers (Birds of Lace, 2017). She recently served as the Philip Roth Writer-in-Residence at Bucknell University, and she has taught English and Creative Writing at Eötvös Loránd University, the University of Chicago, Interlochen Center for the Arts, and Washington University in St. Louis. Her work has appeared in Quarterly WestDIAGRAMRedivider, and Passages North, among other publications. She currently serves as the Nonfiction Editor of Nat. Brut, a journal of art and literature dedicated to advancing inclusivity in all creative fields. 

Curtis Smith: Congratulations on All of Your Most Private Places. It was a fascinating read. Can you share the story of how you ending up working with Spork?

Meghan Lamb: Thanks, Curtis! It’s hard to know where to begin, given that this was such a long and crazy process. Spork Press has been my friend-in-publishing for over 10 years. Their magazine published one of the first short stories I ever wrote (technically, I think it was the third) way back in July of 2010, and I collaborated with them on a few other projects long before I finished this collection in 2017. Originally, we’d actually planned to put out the collection’s short novella-length title story—“All of Your Most Private Places”—as an illustrated chapbook (with atomic age-style tear-out postcards). To make a long, complicated story short, we struggled for a long time to find an illustrator for the postcard illustrations (which sadly never ended up materializing), and during that time, I finished a whole full-length collection. I asked if they’d be interested in taking a look, they said yes, and ultimately said yes to the manuscript.

Drew and Richard—the guys who run Spork—went through a hell of a year even before this pandemic: personal struggles, deaths in the family, the closing of their book store, a stroke (and that’s a big part of the reason this book wasn’t published until three years after I finished it). It’s just incredible that this book even exists, and I’m grateful for the beautiful work they did with it.

 CS: I admire your writing style—it’s lyrical, mysterious, and sparse. The sentences flow—there’s so much rhythm—but I know making it come off the page so easily is hard work. Who were the authors who had the greatest influence on your style? On the sentence level, what are the things you keep in mind as you polish a passage?

ML: Sarah Kane will always be one of my greatest influences. She was one of the first writers who had a strong effect on my style, and she’s still one of the writers I regularly re-read and re-visit. Her syntax and punctuation are so emotively charged: one moment, like bullet fire, the next, like rain. She was also such a master of the narrative list, insinuating beneath-the-surface tensions (sometimes quietly, sometimes wryly, sometimes explosively) with a mix of sparse fragments (like the lists from “The Hi-Point” and “Afraid of the Rain”) and long run-on accumulations (like the last piece in my collection, “To Hold, To Hollow”). She was also one of my earliest models for genre-bending (writing plays that read like poems) and using the page to perform her texts (with passages taking on their own physical characters, sometimes big shouting paragraphs spread from end-to-end, sometimes these broken cascades falling diagonally, bit by bit, like someone tiptoeing down stairs of broken glass). I’ve always admired both her remarkable control over language, and her rawness, her ability to communicate so much strength and so much fragility in the same passage.

On the sentence level, I’m always attentive to this weird rhythm in my head that I can’t really explain without sounding crazy. It’s like a metronome tick, tick, ticking away, and I have an almost compulsive need to make each sentence flow with the ticking. Sometimes I deliberately break from the metronome’s rhythm (and I’d be really curious to hear if anyone else even notices when I do), but I only break deliberately, to encourage a moment of pause, a sense of disruption, or an otherwise off-feeling. I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m consistently following some kind of poetic pentameter when I write, but if I am, I don’t want to know! That would ruin my sensation of it as an intuitive drive!

 CS: I think in a style like yours, the choosing of details becomes even more important—the decisions of what to leave out and what to leave in. What do you look for in your use of details—something evocative, something that works on a couple different levels? Do you find yourself writing longer in early drafts then paring back during revision?

ML: I definitely don’t write longer in early drafts. For every piece I write, I go through a lengthy gestation period of observing, note-taking, and precisely outlining in my head before I ever put anything down in a document. I also outline all my pieces in their document files before I ever start writing sentences and paragraphs (including section by section divisions and notes about what I want in them: what happens, which of the details I want to use from my notes, etc.), and I revise the outlines as I go.

This is to say: I always know precisely what I want to use and where I want to use it before I start drafting. All of the imagistic and thematic connectivity in my writing is pre-considered, developed in layers of planning, scaffolding, and revising as I write (versus after I’ve written a draft). Thus, by the time I write the last sentence, the shape of the piece is usually pretty finished (even if I go back and refine certain sentences, descriptions, and moments).

With all that said: I often develop the “plot”—the stuff that happens—in a piece of writing around a specific moment or detail (rather than the other way around). The narrative landscape surrounding these details emerges from me walking around (usually with my dog) and contemplating them, asking myself questions about what drew me to them, what they mean to me. I developed “The Hi-Point” around an actual building in my neighborhood (of that name) that was torn down. I saw that building and walked around thinking about the weird—and weirdly inaccessible—processes of self deconstruction we undergo once we’ve passed the “high point” in a relationship. I developed “Indoor/Outdoor” around a sign advertising an “indoor/outdoor” pool at a local hotel. I walked around thinking about the dichotomies and binaries we try to carve within ourselves, the divisions we make for our identities, the boundaries we try to create (unsuccessfully). The details in my writing are real things I observe in my environment, things that trigger some kind of internal questioning. The pieces I write are my attempts to answer those questions (however strange and convoluted those answers might seem on the page).

CS: You live abroad now, correct? How has living abroad influenced your work? Do you look back on America in a new light now? Please forgive us, we’re going through a rough period now.

ML: I’m not living abroad at this precise moment, but I feel like I am.

From Fall of 2019 to Spring of 2020, I taught English and American Studies at a university in Szombathely, Hungary (a small city of about 80,000 people just 10 km from the Austrian border). My husband and I had to move back to the U.S. during the pandemic (for numerous reasons, including my limited Hungarian-speaking ability/limited ability to advocate for myself and my husband should anything happen, my fear of the notoriously corrupt Hungarian healthcare system, and layers of anxiety and fear surrounding Viktor Orbán’s “indefinite rule by decree” power grab). Flying back involved almost two weeks of constantly booking and rebooking commercial flights until we were finally able to get on a flight from Budapest, then booking and rebooking flights in London and Boston when our connecting flights were canceled. The flights had more crew than passengers. The airports were uncannily empty ghost towns.

It’s an odd feeling, attaching the time you’ve spent in a space to a beginning and ending date, because most of us don’t experience spaces this way (or at least I don’t). Spaces linger strangely in your consciousness. In a sense, I never feel like I’m really “there” until I’m not “there” anymore. I definitely felt like an outsider in Szombathely, and I moved through the city, the university buildings, and even my own apartment with a strong sensation of otherness. My ears pricked with annoying eagerness in the rare moments when I heard English spoken—usually with a British accent—outside of my classroom. I watched American TV shows I didn’t even like with the excuse that I might “use” them in my American Studies classes, but really, I think I was just craving familiar accents, landscapes, and images.

Being in Hungary made me appreciate just how fluid our imagination and understanding of “the familiar” really is, though…how ethereal our sense of “home” becomes. I walked around the socialist-era panel apartment developments and remembered dreams I’d had in childhood, dreams of similarly tall, block buildings in their sparse arrangements. I remembered wandering around the Brutalist concrete buildings on my college campus as a student at Indiana University, looking at these towering formations in the snow, smoking clove cigarettes after my Modern Eastern European History class with names like Béla Kun and Nicolae Ceaușescu tumbling around in my brain, wondering what life was like in other parts of the world. And there I was: in “those parts of the world,” exploring the places I’d wondered about, walking around in them, carrying groceries through them, trying to connect what I thought I’d see with what I was seeing. And I found myself feeling like I’d turn a corner, and be in some look-alike section of Bloomington, Indiana…or Shamokin, Pennsylvania…or Chicago…or any number of other places I’ve inhabited.

And probably needless to say, the lockdown significantly augmented both the sensation of otherness and the sensation of uncannily blend-y spatial continuity. All around the world, we were existing in rooms, and everything outside—whether familiar or unfamiliar—was reduced to a glance through the window, a muffled conversation in the hall, little fragments seeping in.

And here I am—back “home”—and the world still feels this way.

You asked specifically about how traveling and living abroad has influenced my writing, though. I’m currently writing a book that tries to answer or at least gesture toward that question (knowing that even over the course of a full book, I probably won’t…I probably can’t). It’s a book that explores the specific ways all the different spaces I’ve lived in blend together, a book that investigates the desire, the hope, the anxiety, and the confusion within that feeling of, “when I turn the corner, I’ll be somewhere else.”

In the course of existing abroad, I’ve grown increasingly attached to a quote from Janet Frame (reflecting on her own liminal existence moving through Europe, comparing her experiences to “home” life in New Zealand): “It would be nice to travel if you knew where you were going and where you would live at the end or do we ever know, do we ever live where we live, we’re always in other places, lost, like sheep.” What an apt question, “do we ever live where we live”? Having lived in so many different places, I have to admit that I have no idea.

CS: I read the first story “The Hi-Point”—and I tried to read it like a story, but it kept hitting my brain like a poem. And the same feeling found me in several other stories. Is this just me or do you find yourself deliberately blurring that edge between poetry and prose? If so, can you talk about this a bit?

ML: It’s funny…I never set out with the explicit intention of writing poetry, and I’ve never thought of myself as a poet, but in the course of my writing career (such as it is), more people have referred to me as a poet than a fiction or nonfiction writer. I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about being called a poet (or hearing my writing referred to as poetry). Part of me feels flattered and honored (because I like poetry, and I read at least as much poetry as fiction and nonfiction). Part of me struggles with a kind of writerly imposter syndrome, though (because I don’t really understand what it is about my work that makes people define it this way). This imposter syndrome is probably magnified by the fact that I’ve only ever formally studied fiction and I’ve primarily taught fiction at the university level (though within those courses, I always end up teaching genre blend-y texts: micro fiction that could be considered poetry, fiction and autofiction that could be considered nonfiction).

Ultimately, I suppose I’m less interested in the question of what defines poetry versus prose and more interested in why we have certain assumptions about what fiction is (assumptions that fiction is less interested in language than poetry, assumptions that things are supposed to happen in fiction, etc.).

CS: There’s a lot of everyday life in these stories. People going to the store, taking walks, breathing in and out. There’re silences and words unsaid. It’s all very normal, yes, but after a while, it’s also a bit unsettling, like a steady ticking that works its way into one’s thoughts. Is this undercurrent something you consciously work with? If so, can you talk a bit about it? What do you want it to bring to your work?

ML: I love that you used the phrase “steady ticking,” here, because for me, these everyday textures, sensations, and movements resonate with the tick, tick, ticking of the imaginary metronome I mentioned before!

Essentially, I want my work to pay homage to all the changes—both small and large—happening beneath the surfaces of our lives: the slow builds of never-fully-complete realizations, the inner rifts that split us open (often without knowing where they came from), the deep feelings that we can’t seem to verbalize or access, the existential crises we feel while driving to work or looking for flour in the grocery store. All the shit going on in our real lives that our real lives don’t always make space for.

CS: What’s next?

ML: What’s next indeed! Who the hell knows? I certainly don’t.

I recently finished a novel called Failure to Thrive that explores three families’ experiences of illness and disability in a Pennsylvania Coal Town (a town that is an amalgam of several existing coal towns, that is simultaneously imaginary and very real). I’m currently writing a sort of braided hybrid autofiction book of “Notes on Space and Disappearance” that explores overlaps between the many spaces I’ve lived in (mainly focused on the Coal Region and Eastern Europe). But the verdict’s out on where those projects will end up and what they’ll become…to say nothing of where I’ll end up and what I’ll become!

Curtis Smith has published more than 100 stories and essays, and his work has appeared in or been cited by The Best American Short StoriesThe Best American Mystery StoriesThe Best American Spiritual WritingThe Best Short Fictions, and Norton Anthology New Microfictions. He’s worked with independent publishers to put out two chapbooks of flash fiction, three story collections, two essay collections, four novels, and a work of creative nonfiction. His latest books are Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Bookmarked (Ig Publishing) and the novel Lovepain (Braddock Avenue Books).

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