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Gender Roles in Narrative: Shannon McLeod and Elizabeth Ellen talk Ottessa Moshfegh, Mary Gaitskill & Shannon’s novella, Whimsy photo

I have known Shannon McLeod a number of years. She used to live in Ann Arbor where we were introduced and did yoga with Claire Vaye Watkins and went to The Moth with Sean Kilpatrick and met in cafes to exchange writing and complain about publishing. I can’t remember how we initially met but I think it was through my ex-husband, Hobart founder, Aaron Burch. For some reason I am picturing a Claire Vaye Watkins’ book release. Though maybe it was an Amelia Gray reading.  I know it was in a bookstore I no longer frequent due to their cancelling of a reading I was hosting/involved in years ago… Damn, writing this intro to Shannon’s interview is really bringing back memories! Lol. Anyway, Shannon and I conducted this interview a year ago when her novella Whimsy was released and then something happened (read: I fucked up) and the interview never ran, … until now!

A year ago I wrote of Whimsy: “The women in Shannon McLeod’s debut story collection, Whimsy, are reminiscent of the women in Mary Miller’s Big World and Roxane Gay’s Difficult Women; young American women navigating a new world of female aloneness and autonomy, an aloneness in turns empowering and dizzying, battling society and men and themselves for feelings of self-worth and deservedness, battling the stillness of autonomy.”

A description from Goodreads: “Whimsy is a 7th grade teacher in Metro Detroit; her insecurities are compounded by her students, who never pass up a chance to humiliate her. However, when Whimsy meets Rikesh, a journalist who writes a human interest piece about her crash, she finally feels happiness is possible. Though he is emotionally unavailable, Whimsy is stuck on pursuing Rikesh, and they use one another to project what they lack. As she struggles with self-doubt in their courtship, at work, and in her friendships, she considers the ways her own perceptions of her physical appearance have shaped her reality.”

Shannon McLeod is the author of the novella Whimsy (Long Day Press, 2021) and the essay chapbook Pathetic (University of Indianapolis Etchings Press). Her writing has appeared in Tin House Online, Wigleaf, Hobart, Joyland Magazine, Cosmonauts Avenue, and Prairie Schooner, among other publications.

But what I’ll never forget about Shannon is the time we were in a yin yoga class together, side by side, doing a particularly challenging pose, when suddenly a sound emitted from Shannon, her head bent, face obscured. It was a sound like great laughter. Or uncontrollable weeping. Indeterminate. The teacher walked slowly over to her, bent her head next to Shannon’s, whispered words of encouragement. Later, after class, Shannon told me the teacher had misinterpreted her laughter for weeping. I remember thinking it interesting how closely the sounds of joy and misery resemble one another; close enough to be wrongly identified as the other. Something about this observation speaks to me of Shannon and her writing. The closeness of joy and misery. Pain and ecstasy.

I miss having Shannon here in town. I don’t go to yoga anymore. Or readings. On rare occasions, cafes with Darina Sikmashvili. Or to walk trails with Lydia Conklin.

I was happy to revisit this interview with Shannon. Apologies for waiting a year to run it!

-e.e.

 

Hi, Shannon! It’s so amazing to finally see your book – Whimsy - in print! I love it – the cover art, color, size…at one point in time you probably thought you’d never see the day you could hold the book in your hands…do you want to share the backstory/history to publication? 

Oh my gosh, it is amazing to see it, touch it, hold it, flip through it, pet it, kiss it, etc. It’s a real book! It has been a ~process~ getting here. And I know that’s true for all writers, but this book was originally supposed to come out with Curbside Splendor in 2019 after winning the Wild Onion Novella Contest. Long story short: that did not come to be. It was an incredibly disappointing experience. I think, though, that my book ended up in the best possible hands with Long Day Press. Joshua Bohnsack and Joseph Demes* were amazing editors and we collaborated really well with this book. I didn’t intend to do the cover art, but they liked my doodle, and that allowed me to turn the cover drawing into an animation for the book trailer, too. I love the aesthetic they created for the book’s layout, and they both just put so much time, thought, and care into it. So in the end, I am totally happy with how things turned out, even if it took several more years to make it into the world than originally planned.

*pronounced “Dee-mess,” I feel I must note because I’ve now mispronounced it in two interviews. Sorry, Joe! 

 

What was the genesis for Whimsy? Your title character? Her name and her origin story – car crash, facial scars, body scars, etc…

When I started working on this book, about five years ago, I was going through exposure therapy to address my driving phobia. I had already started some notes for a book about a teacher, but it turned into a story about a teacher recovering from the trauma of a horrible car accident, probably because my psyche was fixated on car crashes at the time. I was also just dealing with a lot of insecurities. I was a new teacher, new writer, new human adult. And this book reflects that internal struggle. The name Whimsy just popped into my head one day on my commute home from work. I don’t know if you ever have that experience with your writing? Usually it’s so much work to actively figure things out for my fiction, but every now and then some idea lands in my brain with so much certainty and so little effort that it feels right. So the name stuck. And I ultimately feel like it fits. This character is trying to find moments of lightness and joy -- whimsy -- in her life, but her own self-doubt keeps getting in the way.

 

How do you relate to Whimsy? If you do (must an author ‘relate to’ her literary protagonist?)? do you personally relate to your sentence, “After my accident, the world grew increasingly more polite”? and if so, in what way? 

I don’t necessarily relate to that particular line but I can relate to the experience of seeing myself in a very critical way and having my insecurities dictate how I interact with the world. I relate to my own perception of myself being distorted and destructive. Whimsy is not as prominently scarred as she imagines herself to be, but this obsession with her face leads her to sabotage her relationships because her insecurity is so destructive.

 

How did you come to/what made you want to be a writer in the first place? And was the University of Michigan (its writing program/its ppl/its physical proximity) at all an influence? 

I came to Ann Arbor for undergrad at the University of Michigan, and I didn’t leave for another ten years. While I was in school I did this summer program through the university called the New England Literature Program (NELP), where each year a group of students spend a couple months in the mountains without cell phones or the internet and just read and write and hike. That got me more interested in writing. Even more so were the teachers I had when I returned. I only took a couple creative writing classes in college, but Lolita Hernandez and Laura Kasischke were two amazing teachers who took me and my writing seriously and gave me permission to do the same. After I graduated, I continued to go to readings of the renowned writers who were brought to the university. I wouldn’t have had those opportunities otherwise. 

 

Who/what were your influences when you began writing and who/what are they today?

When I was writing Whimsy, five years ago, it was definitely you and Sheila Heti who were big influences. I was also reading a lot of poetry during that period; I had a routine of reading a poetry book as I ate lunch at work every day. I remember reading Claudia Rankine and Morgan Parker and Maggie Nelson while writing Whimsy. I’m sure a lot of what I’m reading has had an influence on my writing. Lately I’m trying to read more widely as I experiment with psychological suspense and thriller, or something like it. I’m drawing inspiration from Laura Kasischke and Ottessa Moshfegh. I also felt inspired by My Sister The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

 

My favorite story in Whimsy has always been “Night Swim” because of the female “frenemy” relationship between Whimsy and Miri, and my obsession with indoor pools and swimming at night. How do you see this female friendship? What’s going on between them? Or what’s going on (only?) in Whimsy’s head between them? Have you experienced similar friendships with women in real life? 

I can definitely relate to this friendship. I’ve had experiences with friends from my youth where we’ve tried to sustain friendship even after we’ve become very different people, and there’s such a bittersweet feeling to those interactions. They feel forced and kind of desperate. And that’s what I imagine is going on with Whimsy and Miri. Whimsy definitely needs Miri more than Miri needs Whimsy. And Whimsy sort of resents this. Miri has a fiancé and a circle of friends. Whimsy has her mom and a half-requited love.

I’ve spent a lot of time and energy tending to these kinds of forced friendships for “old times’ sake.” But moving away from Michigan has helped me to better see which friendships are worth holding onto and cultivating and which ones are better left as memories. 

 

Was curious: why do you think Whimsy gets so upset having to tell her thirteen year old student, Stephanya, her dance number (to a Scandinavian death metal band) was cut from the school concert (for being too ‘scary’)? Whimsy weeps openly in front of the student who, in contrast, doesn’t seem to care all that much. (“I’m sort of relieved. I don’t want to dance anymore,” Stephanya tells Whimsy.)

Whimsy is failing so miserably in her own life, and she identifies with this awkward outcast student of hers, Stephanya. She recruits Stephanya to join the middle school interpretive dance team that she coaches because she sees Stephanya as a younger version of herself. Whimsy thinks of dancing in college as a transformative time in her life, and she wants to give the same experience to Stephanya. But Stephanya is not the same person and, of course, doesn’t have the same needs. Whimsy cries when Stephanya can no longer dance for the school team, and no longer wants to, because this is another way Whimsy has failed.

 

What is your personal goal(s) for writing going forward? 

I’d like to write more books! I’m currently revising one psychological suspense novel and in the very early stages of writing another. They’re somewhat different from Whimsy, but still very much character-driven studies of relationships and uncertainty. I’m also (very slowly) working on a story collection of mostly stories that take place on nature trails, which I anticipate will be a tougher sell than suspense novels!

 

Do you have a favorite Ottessa Moshfegh book or story? 

My favorite Ottessa book is definitely her story collection, Homesick for Another World, and the story that sticks with me the most is “An Honest Woman.” I remember talking about this book with you and some other friends at a book club meeting and one person saying this was his least favorite story. The story is about this young woman who lives next door to this older man who lurks and spies on her. When the creepy neighbor invite her over he is clearly planning to attempt some sort of violation or sexual violence, but the woman acts in a completely unexpected way. She does not give into enduring discomfort for the sake of politeness, as women are trained to do. Instead she turns the tables and ends up making him uncomfortable. He thinks he has all the control and power but he turns out to be the weaker of the two.

I recently read a story by Cody Lee in Maudlin House, “The Dead Parade,” which does a similar thing to the reader with regards to expectations of gender roles in narrative. You think the story is going one way, headed towards this very tired male fantasy, but then the writer plays with the reader’s expectations by taking a sharp left turn. I just love that. 

 

Oh, that reminds me of a Mary Gaitskill story  - “The Other Place” - which, like Ottessa’s story, was also originally published in The New Yorker. I heard Jennifer Egan read it on The New Yorker Fiction podcast a few years ago and it has haunted me ever since!

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