THE INNER AND OUTER WORLD
AN INTERVIEW WITH MEGAN STAFFEL by Want Chyi
First published in Rain Taxi, Vol. 15, No. 1, Spring 2010
Megan Staffel is the author of the new short story collection, Lessons in Another Language (Four Way Books, $18.95), a work that hauntingly describes the silences that unite us—however temporarily. In the title story, fourteen year old Nathan comes of age in an artist commune during the summer of 1967, while questions of trust plague the young protagonist in the novella “Natives and Strangers.” Throughout the book, Staffel explores our attempts to plunge into a “raw unorganized existence” where there can be “no facts at all.”
Staffel is the author of two novels, She Wanted Something Else (North Point Press, 1987) and The Notebook of Lost Things (Soho Press, 1999), and of the short story collection A Length of Wire and Other Stories (Pym Randall Press, 1983). She teaches in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College and lives with her husband on an old dairy farm in western New York.
Want Chyi has an MFA from Arizona State University and was the International Fiction Editor for Hayden's Ferry Review. She has taught composition and creative writing in Indiana, Arizona, Illinois, and Singapore and currently edits for the online literary journal Our Stories. She is working on a novel.
Want Chyi: Much of your writing features the environment as a central character. This is particularly true in Lessons In Another Language in which the ways people choose to interact with the natural world affect their fate. How important is setting to your work?
Megan Staffel: I live in a landscape-rich part of the country and take great pleasure in my surroundings. For me, place is more than location. It’s topography, climate, geology, flora, and fauna, as well as the economic and social institutions that arise from these elements. Two of the pieces in this collection, the story “Salt,” and the novella, “Natives and Strangers” are set in or near the fictional town of Paris, which is similar to the towns I live near, and is also the setting for my previous novel, The Notebook of Lost Things. My intention, in these fictions, is for setting to be not only the backdrop for my characters’ histories, but an element that shapes them as much as family and culture.
In contemporary fiction, the urban-suburban setting is often taken for granted, and although I have spent many years in cities and have an interest in the kinds of pressures that the anonymous life in a city places upon a character, I feel a particular calling to write about places where true physical isolation is a factor, and where ironically, anonymity can’t exist because people are known and always watched over. This more public but limited existence profiles the existential questions of our lives in a very different manner.
WC: There are several stories in this collection that focus on sibling relationships. What interests you about sibling relationships? What makes them a ripe topic for fiction—specifically yours?
MS: The sibling relationship, by its very nature, is filled with drama. Two people who have the same parents share the same house and the same general period of time, nevertheless are completely different human beings and have completely different memories and relationships with those parents. My sister and I are close and my son and daughter are close; we are for each other a witness to the very same troubles and mysteries . And yet, despite that common territory, a huge chasm separates us. These relationships interest me because they contain these contradictions. (more…)