This past spring I came across Megan Kruse’s novel, Call Me Home (published last year by Hawthorne Books). I read its description online and thought it might be something I’d like, something to give me inspiration for my own writing attempts about family and place. It turns out, I was quite right, though I couldn’t have predicted the degree to which this book would come to affect me. Kruse’s sharp yet evocative prose and fully realized tangle of characters make this a novel that will forever live next to my bed. It’s October now, and I still can’t let go of the characters.
In your essay titled, “The Driving Force of Desire,” you talk about traveling and moving often, and writing, as early as age nineteen. When did you first begin writing? When did you start to consider yourself “a writer,” if there’s a difference for you?
Megan Kruse: I can’t remember ever thinking of myself as anything but a writer. I think that’s one of the greatest gifts I can imagine—to always have the sense of who I wanted to become. I wrote from the time I could write—and I remember the frustration—I still feel it often—of not having the skills to articulate what I wanted to say. That desire, to say exactly what I felt, drove me to pursue writing, to pursue craft. I wrote my first novel at nineteen and my second at twenty-three—both clunky and faulty and mercifully unpublished, yet in hindsight inexorable steps toward the future.
Despite that certainty, I only allowed myself to identify as a writer in public—to say aloud that this is what I do, what I want to do, after my first—well, technically my third—novel was published. I wish now that I could go back and give myself permission to believe in myself, to own what I wanted so badly. The pull of affirmation as a means to ownership is strong, particularly in a field like writing where success is fickle and undefined. Now, I think of all the decisions I made, to pursue writing at the expense of stability, to continue down a very unclear path—and I allow myself to think of them as building toward something. Still, I wish that I had allowed myself a bit more confidence before that, a little more light.
I will say that even though I didn’t allow myself to publicly own the identity of “writer,” I always nurtured a certainty, secret and strong, that this was my path, and that allowed me to let go of some of the doubt, the questioning of whether or not to keep going. That’s something I think is essential—to stop questioning whether you are going to keep going, and do.
And to follow that, how does place, and changing place, affect your work?
MK: Movement, a constant searching for a sense of home, is an undercurrent in all of my work. The world is so very large, and I think that it is both compelling and devastating to consider where you should be—what life you should lead. The characters I write in fiction are similarly searching, trying to decide and discover how to live. I left home when I was seventeen and made my way through dozens of towns and cities over the next ten or fifteen years, hoping to find the one that felt right, that felt like where I should make my life. When I began writing Call Me Home I was still adrift, but I found myself writing the Pacific Northwest with a sense of longing and a sense of ownership—I knew every inch of that land, and around the time I finished the novel I moved back west. It didn’t occur to me until later, but the process of writing the book in some ways drew me to understand the geographies I love, and to recognize that home is where and in whom we invest ourselves. It sounds treacly to say, but I wrote myself back home.
What was the impetus for writing your novel, Call Me Home? Did you have a clear sense of its focus and the characters from the beginning? Did anything change over the course of writing it?
MK: Call Me Home began as a short story about Jackson—a young queer man working construction, trying to navigate the foreignness of that world, and its relative safety compared to the rest of his life. As I developed the story into a novel, I began to wonder about the other voices—his mother and his sister in particular. I think that fiction to me is a way to understand our human fallibility and relationships—how we treat each other, what drives us to do the things we do. It was impossible to completely understand Jackson’s story—or to even begin to—without considering the people closest to him and the ways they shape each other. We are social animals—our stories exist in relationship to each other’s narratives.
Your novel is vast—it has three narrators: Amy, the mother; Lydia, the daughter; and Jackson, the son. It spans over twenty years, and takes place in Washington, Montana, Oregon, Idaho, New Mexico, and Texas. Further, the story’s telling is jagged rather than linear. Did you write the book in chronological order first, and then shift the chapters around? What was your process for writing the first draft, as well as any following drafts?
MK: I rarely write in chronological order. I had a sense of the plot of the book, but I almost always wrote in vignettes—the important moments, the revealing moments. Then, as those moments developed I would begin to see where the holes were—where I needed to reveal other scenes. It’s a process of tracing back, I think—trying to see which event or emotion begat the next. I have very little perspective even now on how everything is arranged—I try to follow the emotional path of the book, but that’s a very tangled and nonlinear route, and it’s constantly moving back in memory. I think I’m also experiencing some kind of intentional forgetting about how difficult the revision and the organization was, so that it doesn’t put me off the next book.
You mention Lucinda Williams in the acknowledgment section of your novel, and I’d never forgive myself if we didn’t talk about her, as she is my absolute favorite singer-songwriter. (I recently saw her and Neil Young play next to the Guadalupe River in New Braunfels, and, needless to say, it was life-changing.) I see a lot of similarities in Lucinda’s writing and yours: both pay close attention to language, both explore rural and rustic settings, both can be dark, yet also have that elusive quality I’ll call “heart.” What about Lucinda Williams inspires you, personally? Is music often a source of inspiration for you?
MK: She is my absolute favorite as well. Some of that may be due to the snowball effect of association—all the moments in my life when I listened to her, and those making me continue to want to listen to her…but I think of her early albums, the kind of raw heart and naked emotion and a voice that sounds like someone I believe. I’ve always been drawn to places and moments that seem dark—to their beauty, to the clarity of our lowest points. The world is so broken, and we are such difficult creatures—I love songs and books and art that acknowledge that, that say, “Look at all of this sorrow and destruction—and how we keep living, how we keep finding beauty and reasons to go on.”
Before pursuing my MFA, I worked as a social worker. My first job out of grad school was as a counselor for survivors of domestic violence and sexual abuse. Your novel captures the complicated nature of domestic violence so precisely—you brilliantly answer the tired question, “why didn’t she just leave?” You also don’t gloss over how abuse between parents affects children. Is domestic violence something you’ve known personally, or did this book require research? If so, what was involved?
MK: After college I joined AmeriCorps, and I worked with a domestic violence intervention program, designing services for teens. After that year, I was hired on, and I spent the next three years doing emergency services, helping women like Amy leave their homes and begin to remake their lives. I was young, and even if I hadn’t been, I think that the work would similarly haunt me: the pervasiveness of violence; the way that abusers rewrite the stories of their partner’s lives; the uphill climb that women are forced to endure, sometimes forever, to protect their children. I eventually needed to leave direct service, but I’ve continued to grapple with these stories. I wanted to write about a family trying to outrun the shadow of that kind of violence, and I hope I was able to do it with honesty and respect.
I use the word “survivors” over “victims” purposely. Your characters are strong. In the opening chapter, Lydia concocts a plan to feed her father a sandwich full of crushed glass, but then at the last minute decides not to. Still, my first image of her is not a weak one. Further, Amy is constantly trying to protect her children, often at her own expense. Was that intentional, to show those suffering from domestic violence as strong?
MK: Without a shadow of a doubt, survivors of domestic violence are incredibly strong, acting with tenacity and resilience every day. It is easy to look at someone whose life has been marked by violence and not take into account everything they have had to do to keep themselves alive, to keep their children alive, when their abuser has been actively dismantling everything he can touch. That was something I hope came clear in the book—that Amy is constantly working to make the right decisions at any given moment, and that what is “right” isn’t always clear.
In a few interviews you’ve mentioned how you didn’t want to give Gary, Amy’s abusive husband and father to the children, a voice—you don’t feel he merits one. And truly, he is an awful (though believable) character. Yet many writers feel quite the opposite and are attracted to the challenge of humanizing “the monster.” Do you feel that some characters don’t deserve to have their story told? Is this a personal rule—to only write in the point of view of characters you empathize with?
MK: I think that giving a character a voice invites empathy and identification, and in the case of Gary, I had no desire to do that. Abusers make a choice to abuse, and I didn’t want to write a story exploring that. I didn’t set out to write a story about abuse so much as a story about survival—about the ways that we manage to salvage our own lives, to find beauty in those dark places we were talking about. This isn’t a story about what Gary does but about how Jackson and Lydia and Amy make their lives, how they create themselves outside of his shadow.
In an interview with The Rumpus, you talk about setting queer narratives in rural places, as your character Jackson is a young gay man exploring his identity and sexuality in much of the novel. You state: “I think that we have a responsibility to write to the world we want to live in, and so it’s important to me to write queer, rural narratives.” That’s such a fascinating and bold idea—we as writers have the responsibility to write toward the world we want to live in. Can you elaborate?
MK: There’s a quote by James Baldwin: You write in order to change the world, knowing perfectly well that you probably can’t, but also knowing that literature is indispensable to the world… The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even but a millimeter the way people look at reality, then you can change it. I think about that quote a lot, and about how literature taught me how to be—it gave me a sense of the different lives I might lead, and it helped me to understand myself and others. If literature is one of the tools with which we portray humanity, it means that we also have the ability to shape how we see ourselves and other people. In the case of my own writing and this book in particular, I want to write queer narratives in places where those have been absent—not because queer people didn’t exist there, but because they were deemed invisible, their voices not essential or worthy. Recognizing yourself on the page, your humanness, your worth—is a lifeline. That makes the world we live in bigger and more encompassing of all of our stories.
Elizabeth Gilbert wrote the introduction to your novel. She describes meeting you at an artist residency when you were twenty-one. Drawn to your spirit and talent, she became a mentor to you. What are your thoughts on literary community? How has the community shaped, or hindered, you as a writer?
MK: Writing is such a conflicted vocation in that it requires so much solitude but it is fueled, at least for me, by exchange, interaction, the social currency of storytelling. I feel incredibly privileged to have so many writing communities—the more formal high-ed communities of my MFA program and places I’ve taught, but also communities of writers and readers and friends who tell a good story or play with language all along the way. I do struggle with balancing my desire to interact with others with sitting down to write, but that seems like a small tax in comparison to everything I’ve gained from other people. I think that at times writing communities manufacture fears of scarcity—as though someone might steal your success, or there isn’t enough to go around—but in my experience, the people that you write with and talk with and workshop with are the same people who are pulling each other up. I hope that I can repay the kind of generosity that so many people, Elizabeth Gilbert included, have shown me, by supporting new writers who are making their way.
In addition to Call Me Home, you’ve written short fiction, essays, and poetry. Do you prefer one form over the other? When you begin writing, do you always know what shape a project will take?
MK: I’ve always loved the novel—it’s always been my medium. The first real writing projects I undertook were novels, but as I struggled with the form I also studied poetry, nonfiction, the short story, trying them on and trying to understand them. I don’t think I can separate the crafts of those genres from the process of writing a novel; a transcendent novel needs the attention to language and lyricism of poetry, the ability to weave in reflection that I see in creative nonfiction, the arc and complexity of scene that marks the short story. I don’t always know what will turn out—writing in general to me is circling ideas, trying to get to the heart of understanding specific emotions, and I think that happens both in single lines and on a more epic, novel-sized scale.
What are you working on now?
MK: Right now I’m working on a novel called The Small Maps, which refers to the paths we trace back in our minds to the moments when things changed, when our lives shifted, where things went wrong, or hopefully, right. The novel follows four friends in Indiana during World War 2. In Call Me Home I wanted to explore questions of guilt, complicity, and connection on the scale of the family, and now I’m interested in how those same questions play out against a larger backdrop of unrest.
Lastly, describe your favorite place to write.
MK: Oh…I can write anywhere, as long as I have a little stretch of time, enough to pick up books and put them back down, and pace around, and move in and out of something. That kind of time is a rare place.