Megan Giddings has degrees from University of Michigan, Miami University, and Indiana University. She is Fiction co-Editor at The Offing and a Features Editor at The Rumpus. In 2018, she was a recipient of a Barbara Deming Memorial fund grant for feminist fiction. Her stories are forthcoming or that have been recently published in Black Warrior Review, Arts & Letters, Gulf Coast, and The Iowa Review. Her novel, Lakewood, will be published by Amistad in 2020. She’s represented by Dan Conaway of Writers House.
In Lakewood, the debut novel from Megan Giddings, a young black woman drops out of college to support her family, and takes a job in the mysterious and remote town of Lakewood, Michigan. On paper, her new job is amazing: high pay, free rent, full medical coverage. All Lena has to do is participate in a secret program—and lie to her friends and family about the research being done in Lakewood. But the experiments grow wilder and more dangerous every day.
I caught up with Megan Giddings as she prepared for her debut to launch. We talked about fantastical science, the realities of body horror, and the challenges of creating a novel versus short stories.
Amy Lee Lillard: There’s a level of surrealism and dreaminess that Lena experiences as a participant in these scientific studies. She can’t always distinguish what’s real and what’s not. What inspired you to bring together science and surrealism/fantasy in this way?
Megan Giddings: For me, this isn’t about science. It’s about peoples’ relationships to their very human bodies. People are frequently lying to themselves about their bodies. This crystal calms me; this milk bath will give me the skin of a 19-year-old; this smoothie that’s destroying my butt is way healthier than eating a solid apple; if I stick this jade egg in my vagina, it will grow tighter, and I will O harder and louder than a tsunami.
Anxieties, feeling out of control, and our relationships with our bodies, and the idea of being well, seem to go hand-in-hand for so many of us with doing surreal things to make ourselves feel stable. I don’t want to at all discount the placebo effect. But there are so many things we do to make our bodies feel aligned with our minds, to push away death, to feel even-keeled alive. And if you put state them bluntly, they don’t really make sense. But clearly, a lot of us are buying into these ideas.
I think it was pretty easy to blend these two things, a place where science and rationality are supposedly taking place with the surreal, because it seems to happen all the time now.
AL: Readers may know about the Tuskegee trials, the MKUltra trials, and other secret experimentations that have been done in the past by the government. But many readers may assume that’s all an ugly chapter of the past. The idea, then, that humans can still be used like rats in cages may be shocking and surreal to some people. On Twitter, you were pointing out recent examples of continued experimentation—was part of your process digging into current research, or lesser known stories of rogue experiments?
MG: Part of my process was research-intensive. I read some released CIA documents about things like Project Artichoke/Project Bluebird. I read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. I read and read about famous studies, read reports from the ACLU about current or recent events, and even enrolled in some research studies.
One of my favorite research studies—what a weird way to put it, but I guess one of the delights of being a person is that you can have favorites about almost anything—that I read about was Operation Sea Spray. The U.S. government sprayed Serratia marcescens, a bacterium that can cause infections, on San Francisco to test whether or not the city could withstand biowarfare. And I guess, whoever was in charge didn’t know that this bacterium could cause illnesses (UTIs, wound infections) in people. Some people got sick, but not many. And I think reading about this helped to push my imagination; if the government for years had been quietly doing these sorts of tests—well, what would that look like now?
AL: Do you think science as we know it has major flaws? Was this something you set out to contend with in the book?
MG: I’m going to be very cautious with how I respond to this one because there’s so much proven and excellent science that’s under attack. Like vaccines, the idea that the Earth is round, etc. But, like anything produced by people, it’s not faultless. J. Marion Sims, a white man, who had a vast impact on gynecology as we know it today, performed surgical experiments without anesthesia on enslaved women.
I am not a doctor or a scientist. I’m a writer who, because of her background, can’t stop thinking about inequality. One of the places where things are most unequal is in healthcare in the United States. We can talk about government policies, the insurance system; we can talk about how differently a person gets treated in the healthcare system and how much it can affect their quality of care—based on race, whether they’re cis or trans, whether they’re female or male or gender nonbinary. I didn’t set out to contend with this. Any time I have wanted directly to talk about something specific in fiction, all that comes out is a rant that is very boring to read. But there’s a deep anger in me about these things that obviously seeped out onto the page.
AL: In an interview with Vol. 1 Brooklyn, you had this great quote: “Being a person is often hilarious and disgusting and fun…I mean, an easy way to start when thinking about body horror is to consider your mouth. The majority of people use their mouths all the time: eating, talking, whistling like a creep. And while that’s happening, on the inside, a tooth could be steadily rotting and you don’t even know until another person shoves some tools in there, takes a quick picture, and tells you, your tooth is dying.” How did your ideas of body horror influence this book?
MG: Look, every day my body does disgusting things. I am very slowly—god, I hope it’s very slowly—dying. The human body is a perpetual beach. There can be wonders and delights and fun, and also always nearby, rot, pollution, a seagull screaming for some fucking French fries.
I think, in this book, I was trying to capture body horror on a threefold scale. There’s the generalized horror of having a body, there’s the horror of having a body that people perceive as a means or a reason to control or diminish you, and there’s the hyperawareness of your body that comes from having to observe or consider it.
AL: In that same interview you talked briefly about an earlier version of this novel, with some key plot differences. How did your concept of this novel and your writing evolve?
MG: When I wrote about what would become Lakewood back in 2017, I hadn’t solved two crucial questions to make the book come even close to working. And the questions were: why is Lena there in Lakewood, and why is this town so sinister and weird? Because they are! Because I want them to be! Because I have complicated feelings! While all of these things are kind of delightfully bratty, they didn’t work for me or for anyone reading the drafts of the book. I’m not saying that these things won’t work for you or anyone who’s reading this book, it just couldn’t work for this book of mine. Sometimes, a book works better when there’s more to grasp onto. Especially when it turns out that a lot of ideas are going into it.
AL: There’s an element of conformity and lack of choice in this book that’s fascinating. Lena doesn’t feel she has a choice when she goes into this study. And once she’s in the study, there’s extreme pressure to go along with all the rules, spoken and unspoken. Was this a theme you were exploring in some ways?
MG: No, not really. I think a lot of my personal experiences as a Black person growing up in a very white space is that there’s a lot of policing of your physical appearance. All of my life, I have heard so much about my hair, about how it needed to be tamed, how much better I would look if I straightened it. Family members, teachers, classmates, randoms who were :just giving me advice.” Even now, street randoms. I’m not going to pretend I was and am walking around looking like a magazine ad while all of this was happening. But from a very young age, people felt frequently like they could tell me what to do about my body.
And going beyond hair, almost everything about being an adult—education, potential job futures—was regularly couched by earnest white adults in positions of authority in life or death terms. They seemed to mean well, but there was always the implication that I had no safety net. If I get in trouble, well… I would be working at a K-Mart just like that woman with five kids, or I would be doing crack on a park bench. My life would be like the movie Tracy is in on 30 Rock, Hard to Watch. I would become the mama who just blew up, leaving her kids alone to face the world. I think some of that came out into the book on steroids.
AL: I saw in your interview with The Maudlin House that you love Ziggy Stardust, and particularly “Five Years.” First—selfishly—I was so psyched, because I’m obsessed with Bowie. But when writing this novel—any music, Bowie or otherwise, that influenced you?
MG: Albums that I really associate with my time writing Lakewood: Talking Heads’ Fear of Music, Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid MAAD City, Blood Orange’s Freetown Sound, Beyonce’s Homecoming live album (I think I listened to it a million times to keep me in a good mood while doing the heavy revisions I was working on with my editor last year), Solange’s A Seat At The Table, Gang of Four’s Entertainment!, ROSALÍA’s El Mal Querer, which I listened to on a lot of walks. Some of these I think thematically were appropriate, but I also kind of Pavlov’s dog myself with music. There are some albums now or songs that I hear, and my body is like, Oh, time to go sit at a computer.
I do still listen to “Five Years” a lot. I try to keep it on my iPhone so that whenever it’s raining steadily and I’m walking, I can do this. It always makes me feel wistful and happy to feel that way when I listen to that song and it’s raining.
AL: If you were to do a visual interview today (like this one in 2017), what images would you use? What visuals describe your life as you’re nearing launch of your debut novel?
MG: Some visuals for 2020: LOL, the Canvas homepage because I’m adjuncting, all of the galleys from the BIWOC debut 2020 group I’m in (So, Meng Jin’s Little Gods, Maxine Meifung Chung’s The Eighth Girl, C Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills is Gold, Alexandra Chang’s Days of Distraction, Maisy Card’s These Ghosts Are Family, Raven Leilani’s Luster, and Kelli Jo Ford’s Crooked Hallelujah—there are more wonderful people in the group, I just don’t have their galleys, yet).
Also, the books I’ve been using for research and inspiration for the second novel I’m well into drafting now. This includes Black American folk tale collections, a chapbook of spells and potions I found at Powell’s, Lolly Willowes, a Prismavisions tarot deck, the criterion edition of Häxan, a broken magnifying glass that was very nice until my little black cat slapped it off the desk, the bushes outside my house that are already budding and frequently populated by chit-chatting sparrows, an image from the Amy Sherald monograph my dad bought me for my birthday, the stationery I bought because I have so many thank you notes I’ll probably need to write people…
AL: How was your writing process different for this novel versus your many short stories? What surprised you about the process?
MG: I think the biggest surprise for me was that novel writing really burns me out. I have to do way more creative self-care. Sometimes all new literary fiction starts feeling like work to me, and I have to take way more breaks in the writing process and think about what I wrote, what I am writing, and what I will be writing.
I think there needs to be a necessary messiness if you’re at all going to capture everyday life in a novel, but it also makes the process hard because even though I’m writing 300 pages, I don’t want someone to get that bored. Writing short stories is vastly more pleasurable for me. Short stories make me feel in control. I can always after the first draft see what I’m talking about, and can intuit and plan where to go while revising.