Meg Tuite and Kristine Ong Muslim on science fiction, pulp magazines and their movement in the world as both writers and women
HER KIND: Ladies, Welcome to the Conversation. Let’s get the ball rolling with Georgia O’Keeffe. She once said that “there is something unexplored about woman that only a woman can explore.” Does this statement resonate with you as a writer? If so, what in particular?
MEG TUITE: As a writer, there is always something that begs to be unearthed— otherwise, I would be an archeologist. Unfortunately, my first archeology teacher had that nasally monotone voice and spoke of measuring squares for weeks. I was forced to drop that arena as a major quickly, as that became my naptime.
I like to write from both genders and have found them equally challenging. I have not found it to be the case, for me, that there is something I can explore as a woman that a man cannot as well. Some great examples of male writers who write from both the male and female voice with power and depth, off the top of my head, are Madame Bovary, War and Peace and a few of my contemporaries, Len Kuntz and Robert Vaughan, who also write exceptional work narrated through the voice of either gender.
KRISTIN ONG MUSLIM: If you ended up as an archaeologist, then it’s a loss to contemporary literature. Like you, writing does unearth something for me. At the end of every book project, every finished story or poem, I discover something. What immediately comes to mind after reading the O’Keefe quote are “gendered” emotional undercurrents. An example is writing from the point of view of a character who undergoes postpartum depression, menopause, etc. where the “transformation” is crucial to the story. For me, how well and how much a writer “explores” depends on the motivation. And motivation is associated with a lot of things: cultural and political inclinations, even gender.
MT: I have written about a woman who has post-partum depression, yet I’ve never had a child. I’ve written about a man who is an incest survivor and ends up taking his eye out with a spoon. I’ve written about a boy on the street who is schizophrenic, and how his mother deals with the problem within the family. I love to work with the inner turmoil of a character and get into those dark corners. As a writer, we need to be able to get into all those spaces as well as both genders.
Kristine, you write from those shadowy places, as well. I’m teaching a class right now and one of the exercises is to write the same story through a male’s voice and then a female’s. There are many writers who don’t go into these places, of both genders. We, as writers, tend to be more sensitive and have to understand what it is to be an outsider in order to write from all these places that most people don’t want to go.
KOM: It’s the level of interest on a certain topic — what women or men are more drawn to and which subjects they find more fascinating to write about. For example, I have zero interest in sports, so I’m less likely to incorporate anything about sports in my writing because I have no interest in it. I’m not saying that only a woman (or a man) can write about a certain topic. The difference is in the level of interest which translates to how the final story comes out. If I’m more “interested” to write about a character who undergoes say, postpartum depression, then the more emotionally lacerating (at least, to me) that character becomes.
MT: We all have a propensity for certain subjects and depth of character that we aim to achieve. I find that you and I have a common love for poetic prose as well as working with the inner psyche of the characters. I love to grope into those areas that may make some people uncomfortable and yet also work the rhythm of the language, simultaneously. I keep a list of words that I love the sound of, as well as their meaning, and go to them when I am working on a new story. Of course, I keep a thesaurus and dictionary. What are some of the unique Kristine Ong Muslim secrets that you utilize to work that magic that you do so well in your work? Are you willing to divulge?
KOM: I love the dysfunctional characters in your stories, Meg! I have no special secrets when I write. I only have habits that make it easy for me. I write primarily on the computer and have a specific writing font, Sylfaen 12pt, my magic font. I then reformat the manuscript when I submit it to magazines. That word-listing that you do sounds really fascinating. How I love to read about the writing quirks of other writers.
Do you shy away from certain themes, Meg, and if so, what are they?
Mine has been militaristic settings and characters; I know because I tried. I am in awe of the military class. I also love crime novels, so there’s that ever present law-enforcement element which I find engaging. I once tried to write a story about a high-ranking soldier having to go to war. I found it difficult to conjure the behavior of a military man. I’ve seen it in movies, read it in books. I guess I have this stereotype of a military man in my head that prevents me from seeing anything else. That’s the ultimate “exploring” for me as a writer — the army/battlefield/law enforcement story.
MT: Oh yes, there are themes I stay clear of. The military would be one, although, I did write a flash piece titled “The Trench,” that was about a man dying at home who thinks that his caretaker is another soldier and they are in the trench together during the Korean War. That’s as close as I’ve come to touching on any war stories. I do love the internal war that happens inside of humans, though.
I haven’t written any detective stories, either, but I’m not very drawn to them. I do love Ray Bradbury stories, some of the first stories I read were his. I’ve only written a few sci-fi stories and would like to work that area a bit more. And no zombie or vampire tales. You write some amazing sci-fi stories, one that will be coming out shortly in a print collection that was a collaborative with an artist. I know because I’m editing that collection. It’s titled Origin of the Tentacles. And many of your pieces from your incredible collection, We Bury the Landscape, are futuristic/sci-fi themes. Do you have an affinity for that genre? And how are you inspired in your writing? Does a sentence come to you first or a character or is it the plot that generates in that brilliant mind of yours?
KOM: “The Trench” was one of the best stories I’ve read from you. I would love to see you try your hand at sci-fi, Meg. Writing for genre magazines was my first love. I had a treasure trove of old pulp magazines when I was a teenager. That’s how I “discovered” Harlan Ellison and his half-finished story that he said he never finished because it scared him so much. It scared me too. The unfinished story was very, very creepy. It was about a guy being visited by a creature that regularly left an offering on the guy’s doorway. The offering can be a scrap of unidentified meat, etc. — one grisly thing after another. The guy began to understand that the creature was only trying to please him so he’d take it as his pet. And the way Ellison wrote the story… God, I think, he can probably do anything, even write a masterpiece with a brown paper bag as a main character. The story was published in its unfinished form, which added to its charm. 16, 17 years after that, I still remember it. I associate horror magazines with the act of discovering that jewel of an unfinished story.
So, when I started to write my stories years ago, they were all tailored (in my unskilled writer’s hand) to fit a pulp magazine. In fact, my first story that appeared in print was in a British horror magazine. It was about a girl who had stories in issue after issue of the best genre magazines in the world. Her fans tracked her down and found out that she’s already long dead. It’s probably a subconscious drive that no matter how hard I try to make the literary stuff crackle and fly, tidbits from the genre slip in and become the mutant, the robot, or the fetal abnormality.
I read, hear, or watch something, anything — I react to it and sometimes it translates to writing. The hard work comes when I set my thoughts into words. I normally start with a sentence. That magic first sentence is sometimes all that I need.
I’d love to hear about the single story/literary work that had a strong impact in your writing. Please do tell, Meg, especially the driving force behind your Domestic Apparition. What pushes your writer-buttons?
MT: I loved hearing about your first story you published and that it was a horror story. The only horror stories I’ve written have been domestic scenes within families.
It’s close to impossible to single out one story or book that changed everything for me, but if I had to, I remember when I was about fourteen or so and my brother bought me a copy of Flannery O’Connor’s collection, A Good Man is Hard to Find. I remember every story in that collection vividly and I read it all in one sitting. I had always loved writing poetry as a kid and I attempted a novel at age seven, but when I read that book of Flannery’s I distinctly recall feeling a need to pull out my journal and write something. I have read her so many times and studied her work. I used to know how many metaphors and similes she had in her entire life’s collection. So I would have to say she knocked me out with her stories that were packed with pathos and dark humor. And an otherworldly understanding of the human psyche.
When I first started writing the skeleton of Domestic Apparition, my mother had cancer and was with hospice at the time. I was her primary caretaker and I lived with her throughout the period she was dying. It was one of the most difficult times of my life and also the most prolific. I would write all night voraciously and spend the days with her watching her come in and out of consciousness, sitting with my notebook to ask her where she’d been. I wrote down everything she said. She was an exceptional woman and our house was always filled with books and there wasn’t one in the house she hadn’t read at least once. She was a librarian and constantly had a book in her hands at home. And before my mom died, she said that I would write her story. I don’t know if that’s ever possible, but she was a huge catalyst for the novel-in-stories, Domestic Apparition.
My writer-buttons get pushed in many directions. Sometimes a first sentence sets me off, but most of the time I have a character in mind who stays with me and she/he is the first thing I think of when I wake up and before I go to bed. Then I know I’m on to something and sit down with the pen and start writing. But, writing is hills and valleys for me. Sometimes, I’m flying along and other times I’m staring off into space, trying to keep my focus. That’s when I try to read sections of some of the unforgettable work by writers I love that surround my desk. I have a few of your collections I keep close at hand.
I’ve always wanted to hear about your movement in the world. Where did you live when you were here in the states and when did you move to the Philippines? And what do you love most about living there? Give me one of those gorgeous passages of Kristine Ong Muslim’s that takes me into the world you reside in.
KOM: So sorry to hear about your mom, Meg. Thank you for sharing. I imagine you with her, out-writing what you feel. I teared up a little with your mention of having to ask her where she’d been. What a stunning and brave woman your mother was for saying that you would write her story. Maybe, you are already writing her story or parts of it are being imprinted on your stories, but you’re not just consciously doing it.
I’ve never traveled outside of the Philippines. I have relatives and friends in the US, but I’ve never stepped outside the confines of my teeny third-world island. I live in a small rural town with backward ways and old-fashioned values. I’m not married and don’t have kids, so it’s a pretty laid-back life, one that’s very conducive to pursue nerdy endeavors. My employer lets me work at home, which is a perfect arrangement for me because I don’t like to travel. What I love most about living here — I see something that grows in soil. I wake up every morning, and the first thing that I see is a big glass window and behind it, an old tree. I’ve worked for a long time in the city, and the only semblance of a plant in my little apartment is a plastic rose in a cheap vase. What I really love is to grow things. I love to garden.
MT: I do believe that I’ve written some stories that delved into parts of my mother’s life. And I know I will continue to do so.
I grew up in Chicago, but have always had a yearning to be somewhere away from a city and close to nature. I live in Santa Fe, NM and it’s tough to grow much out here. I did have an amazing garden in this small shack I lived in before I got married in an old mining town and we called it the happy shack. I had those huge 6’ tall sunflowers growing everywhere with heads the size of bowling balls all turned toward the morning sun. But we live on Crazy Rabbit Road. Haha! And yes, we are inundated with the jack rabbits and bunnies of all persuasions. They tend to eat anything I plant so now I just consider them neighbors and feed them in the front yard. I call it the cantina when they are all out there nibbling away and gossiping. I have two rescue dogs and two cats that are all living the good life. I live slightly outside the city so we have twelve acres, mostly juniper and cacti, lots of coyotes and owls and occasional rattlers and tarantulas making their way south to Mexico. We just got some rain, thank God. It had been stifling here for a while and now the desert is richer, darker colors and clouds hover above the mountains. It’s quite beautiful this time of year, so I’m happy, and know how you feel being out in nature. Nothing better.
And my favorite writing spot is my desk upstairs with a window looking out at the Cerrillos mountains. Inspiring for me. I used to write in libraries. Felt, I needed to be away from my house, but now I am thankful for the days I can spend at home writing and not drive anywhere.
Do you have a writing community in your village? Anyone who reads your work before you send it out? Does the workshop deal fit into your world of writing or is it a solo endeavor from start to finish?
KOM: I know that there are Aztec ruins of some sort in New Mexico; there’s so much history surrounding you. I imagine you’ve got strong sun where you are.
I’ve never been part of a writing group or a workshop. Aside from the requisite basic English composition courses in high school and college, there’s really nothing else. What I do is to read as much as I can. I make an effort to pick up the nuances (a must because English is not my native language and I want to write for Western publications). In time, I recognized what worked and what didn’t. It’s practically DIY for me from the get-go.
MT: I agree with you completely, Kristine. The best teachers are always the books we continue to read and reread, silence, imagination and the pen and keyboard! Flannery O’Connor said you can’t teach anyone how to write. Just help them along with the craft.
I’m a true believer in that. It has to be something that drives us, somewhere deep inside.
* * *
Kristine Ong Muslim is the author of We Bury the Landscape (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2012) and Insomnia (Medulla Publishing, 2012). Dan Chaon’s selection for The Wigleaf Top 50 (Very) Short Fictions 2012 included one of her tiny tales. Her work appeared in many fine places, the likes of Ellipsis, Existere, Narrative Magazine,Southword, Sou’wester, The Pedestal Magazine, and Verse Daily.
Meg Tuite’s writing has appeared in numerous journals including Berkeley Fiction Review, 34th Parallel, Epiphany, JMWW, One, the Journal, Monkeybicycle and Boston Literary Magazine. She has been nominated several times for the Pushcart Prize. She is the fiction editor of The Santa Fe Literary Review and Connotation Press. She is the author of Domestic Apparition (2011) San Francisco Bay Press, Disparate Pathos (2012) Monkey Puzzle Press and has edited and co-authored The Exquisite Quartet Anthology-2011, stories from her monthly column, Exquisite Quartet published in Used Furniture Review. Her blog: http://megtuite.wordpress.com.