The Exhilaration of Being Published

Isthmus | October 14, 2005
Rebecca Meacham Q&A

Ohio native Rebecca Meacham is a recipient of the Chelsea Award for short fiction and the Indiana Review fiction prize. The University of North Texas Press recognized her debut story collection, Let’s Do, with its 2004 Katherine Anne Porter Prize, and the Council for Wisconsin Writers bestowed it with the Anne Powers Book-Length Fiction Award. In an email interview, the assistant University of Wisconsin-Green Bay professor talks about her writing methods and habits, the pleasures of her craft, her adjustment to life in Packers Country and to literary recognition -- and how she reacts to prizes and awards.

Q: Where were you and what were you doing when you learned that Let’s Do had been awarded the Katherine Anne Porter Prize and the Council for Wisconsin Writers’ Anne Powers Book-Length Fiction Award?

MEACHAM: For the Katherine Anne Porter prize, which resulted in the book being published, I was in my office advising a student about graduate school. I turned to my computer to look up MFA programs and saw an e-mail from a woman at University of North Texas press. At that point, I’d entered the book in several contests, and it had been either selected as a finalist or soundly rejected from them all. So I’d just about given up.

The message, however, said something like, “Your manuscript is the possible winner of our KAP prize.” What’s a “possible-winner,” I wondered. I mean, aren’t we all?

And then I was too nervous to call the press, so instead I walked down the hall to find a colleague to share this possible-news and my possible-elation. Eventually, I got it together, called, and was told the book had won the prize, and that the “possible” business was just to ensure the manuscript hadn’t been taken elsewhere. And so it all began.

Months later, I found out about the Anne Powers award at home, unambiguously, again via e-mail. This time, I allowed myself to get giddy right away.

Q: How did you celebrate?

MEACHAM: With both prizes, the celebration consisted of e-mailing everyone I knew and phoning my mom, dad, and husband. I believe there was some wine. Coincidentally, the day I was notified about the Porter prize was also the day my wedding photographer dropped off the albums of my Door County elopement, so the joy of the prize was nicely entwined with the recollection of that fall day with my husband on the cliffs of Lake Michigan.

Q: Is it gratifying, exhilarating or unsettling to have your debut collection of short fiction attract this volume of recognition, both from the two aforementioned prizes and from Barnes & Noble, the Wisconsin Library Association and others?

MEACHAM: It’s all of those things. Mainly the first two. I’ve spent shameful amounts of time online checking my sales rank, Googling myself until I’ll surely go blind. On the flip side, it’s a bit unsettling in terms of the pressure to perform with Book #2. And recognition through awards is definitely great, but at the risk of sounding sappy, the real exhilaration of recognition has come from people I already know -- long-lost friends, former students, parents, colleagues, relatives. Signing a copy for my elementary school choir teacher, who’d actually read the book -- this was unexpected and dear. A friend’s mother created and sent along her own set of happier endings for each story. What other career allows you such pleasures?

Q: The author Jonis Agee has called the stories in Let’s Do “deliciously subversive, brave and outrageous, reminiscent of a young Alice Hoffman.” How comfortable are you with that assessment?

MEACHAM: Very comfortable! It’s an enormous honor to have Jonis Agee read my work, let alone say such nice things. Plus it inspired me to buy books by the young Alice Hoffman.

Q: Some of the nine stories in Let’s Do hinge on broken or struggling relationships, which suggests at least a little latent skepticism toward love and commitment. How do you reconcile that with the more hopeful prerequisites implied by the fact that you are married?

MEACHAM: Let’s just say that my skepticism about matters of the heart has been hard-earned. And that I had little hope about marital love and commitment until I met my husband, Chuck Rybak, who would hang the moon for me if I asked him, and for whom I’d do the same.

Q: Why do you live where you live?

MEACHAM: I live in a house in the Wisconsin woods because it is quiet and beautiful, because it’s near my job at the university, and because I can watch deer stand on their hind legs to eat apples from my trees.

Q: How big an adjustment was moving from Ohio to the frozen tundra of Green Bay and Packers Country?

MEACHAM: In terms of friendly people and harsh winters, it’s quite like northwestern Ohio, where I grew up. Generally speaking, the NFL options are much better. I’m ever grateful that Wisconsin has been so warm and welcoming to me.

Q: When, how and where do you prefer to write?

MEACHAM: So far, my writing is less like a habit and more like an event. It tends to bloom, like flowers in the desert, seasonally and after great periods of dormancy. I always feel like a bad writer, and envious, when I hear about people writing daily, on planes, in bathroom stalls or wherever. I’m too compartmental to work like that; I don’t transition smoothly between the world of teaching and the worlds I create in fiction. So I try to find periods of sustained stillness and then write intensely, incrementally, until the work is done. The stories in Let’s Do were grown erratically over a 10-year period, and two-thirds of the book was written during a year on fellowship. But this is not the kind of writer I wish to be. I am trying to change my ways!

Q: What was the last book you read that you would recommend -- and why would you recommend it?

MEACHAM: From my summer reading list: Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier, because it’s filled with an aching that’s tempered by a lushness of language and detail; and The History of Love by Nicole Krauss, because it’s filled with an aching that’s tempered by the charm and wit of its narrators. And I always recommend Among the Missing, the bold, haunting collection by Dan Chaon.

Q: Who or what is your muse -- from what sources do you draw inspiration?

MEACHAM: Bits and pieces of daily life, my own or other people’s. Overheard conversations. Surreptitious observations. Incongruities and vulnerabilities. And the work of other writers.

Q: What can readers look forward to next from you?

MEACHAM: I’m working on a novel set in 19th century Wisconsin as well as another short story collection that seems much brighter and lighter than Let’s Do.

Q: Do you have any tattoos?

MEACHAM: One. On my left outer ankle, there’s a Hawaiian petroglyph -- “the wise woman who sees beyond” -- standing in front of some curling waves. People tend to think she is a butterfly.


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