When I met Meagan Macvie, during the first minutes of our three-year MFA program, she was buried in a book, occasionally peeking up through her glasses to observe us all getting to know each other. An introverted bookworm, I thought, and I was right about the bookworm part. Just check out her answer below when I asked her for the titles of two influential books. But by the end of the evening, as we all continued getting to know each other over pizza and drinks, and more drinks, Meagan was perhaps the loudest and bawdiest among us.
There is a lot of Meagan in Meri Miller, the protagonist of Macvie’s debut YA novel, The Ocean in My Ears, which is set in Macvie’s hometown of Soldotna, Alaska, or as Meri thinks of it, Slowdotna. Both Meri and Macvie are readers, introspective and brimming with big thoughts, but there is also a fire in them, smoldering and flaring as the fuel around them varies. Like Meagan that first day we met, Meri keenly observes her world – suffocating, small-town Alaska and the broader promise of “Outside” – providing insight and humor along the way. It’s been a pleasure and a privilege to be along for the ride with Meri and Meagan through our time together at the Rainier Writing Workshop and beyond. This summer we raised a virtual toast and exchanged e-mails to celebrate the release of The Ocean in My Ears, an outstanding book that promises to be the first of many. –Tom Cantwell
TC: Having read an earlier draft of your book, I’d like to start at the beginning, literally. Your early draft began at the 7-Eleven and the night at the carnival. Why did you choose to instead open the story at church, with the sermon from Pastor Dan?
MM: A great question only a person familiar with the early manuscript could ask. The short answer: the former beginning wasn’t the right place to start Meri’s story. My first inkling that something wasn’t working was when I queried using the old first pages and received lukewarm responses. One agent felt the characters of best friends Meri and Charlie in that early carnival scene didn’t hit the right note. (Her exact words: “close but no cigar.”)
So I stopped querying and set about figuring out how to fix the problem. I re-read favorite novel first pages, analyzing how they worked, and decided a good first chapter made clear promises to the reader on which the rest of the novel delivered. The old opening passage didn’t show Meri’s true character or even really what the story was about. There’s an artifice in the later carnival scene (the former opening) that only works if the reader first understands the nature of Meri and Charlie’s friendship and knows the real Meri—the vulnerable and conflicted Meri. I wanted my first chapter to show what’s at stake for Meri and to draw readers into her inner landscape—all her turmoil and yearning, humor and indignation. All her stifled desires and confusion. The way she argues with the adult advice constantly being hurled at her.
The new first scene in church accomplishes these things much better. It sets the novel’s tone and showcases Meri’s personality. The sanctuary (even in its ironic name) serves as a kind of metaphor, reflecting her larger sense of feeling trapped. But the microcosm of the stuffy church sanctuary is also a perfect setting for an intimate and funny scene. Out the window is a vibrant world she can’t even see from her pew. Meri’s dreaming about a boy while the pastor’s warning her about (maybe even inspiring her to have) these lascivious teen thoughts. Her parents and brother, though so close in physical proximity, have very little awareness of Meri’s inner landscape. The reader, however, has deep intimacy. The reader feels with her. The new opening better establishes the critical relationship between reader and narrator, communicates what’s at stake for this girl, and invites the reader along on Meri’s journey.
TC: Something else I think is new for me with this published version are the diary/journal entries. It’s interesting, because you have a 1st person narrative, spliced with these 1st person entries. What were you going for there?
MM: One of the things about writing a first-person present-tense story is that your main character is operating in the moment so has limited space to reflect. I wanted to build in pauses and spaces for the reader (and Meri) to take breaths, consider, and contemplate. The initial idea was to create a private place where Meri, the blooming writer, could work her stuff out on the page while also allowing the reader deeper access to her character.
I did have journal entries in the early manuscript, but they were neither consistent nor effective. As I worked through revision, I edited, deleted, and added entries. Written in past tense, the entries reveal thoughts Meri’s been mulling over, provide an outlet for her grief and angst and emerging inner poet, and expose brief flashes from her everyday life.
Each tiny entry was, for me, like adding layers of color onto the canvas of her character. I found as I worked through the novel that the entries could also function as connective tissue without slowing down the narrative. For example, a short journal entry in which Meri wrestles through a fight with Charlie or her feelings about Joaquin was often a more effective and expeditious way of moving the story forward than adding a full-blown scene.
TC: Let’s talk about your decision to set the story in 1990, which I love, right there on the cusp of two decades loaded with pop culture treasure. I’m wondering why else you chose that time, besides it also being central to your own experience.
MM: I wish I had a deep and meaningful reason for setting the story in 1990. It just seemed fun. The music, the clothes, the politics…even the candy. I lived through those years, so I had a fair amount of knowledge about the time. Unfortunately, the things that loomed largest in my memories were the teenage minutiae like lines from popular movies, my best friend’s dress size, and what cars people drove. Actual important details—what time of year salmon spawn, when and how the U.S. became involved in the Gulf War, and what happened when Mt. Redoubt erupted—were fuzzy. I loved going back as a researching adult and essentially learning about my own history.
TC: One thing I really liked about the book is the motif of anticipation. Meri talks about loving the early part of the weekend evening, the moment right before pulling up the fishing net, the first snow “fresh with possibility and waiting to be made into anything.” I’m wondering how conscious you were of that in creating Meri’s character, and while we’re at it, how much of that is you?
MM: I’m fascinated by the idea of temporal experience, and that element of the book is one hundred percent authentic to me. That you can be completely ignorant about, say, the feeling of a roller coaster and literally five minutes later be filled with the knowledge of having just ridden a roller coaster—it probably sounds stupid, but I want to sit and examine those before and after moments. I want to know what else changes in a person—what other perceptions and conceptions about the world, for example, are altered by even seemingly small first experiences. How does a first act or encounter imprint on a person, modify the way that person thinks, or even unconsciously revise who the person is or will become?
The book began as a series of connected vignettes, each titled “First [Fill in the blank].” In the final novel, the word “first” survived editing in four chapter titles, including the last. While writing the book, I definitely considered how first times impacted me and my life. However, Meri’s not me. Her friends and family only live in the fictional Soldotna. Though many scenes and characters initially grew from a seed of my own lived experience, Meri’s world became a realm all its own, more exciting than mine by miles.
TC: What single book had the biggest influence on you as a writer, and what’s the best book you’ve read this year?
MM: One book? There’s no singular book. Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman as well as her Selected Poems 1965-1975, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, Flannery O’Connor’s The Complete Stories, Sharon Old’s Satan Says, Marie Howe’s What the Living Do—these amazing women writers (plus so many more!) all were formative voices in my development as a writer.
Books that heavily influenced me while writing and editing The Ocean in My Ears include Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Erica Lorraine Scheidt’s Uses for Boys, Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Keshni Kashyup’s Tina’s Mouth: An Existential Comic Diary, Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, Sonja Livingston’s Ghostbread, Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted, David Levithan’s Every Day and more than I can list here. I learn something from almost every book I read, but for this project, I focused on first-person narratives, including memoir and nonfiction, though mostly young adult fiction and coming-of-age stories.
So far this year Sara Jaffe’s novel Dryland (2015) and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book-length essay We Should All Be Feminists are probably among my favorite reads. I just read Samantha Hunt’s brilliant short story “A Love Story” in The New Yorker (also included in her 2017 collection The Dark Dark) and am still reeling. Currently, I’m reading two books from 2017—Roxanne Gay’s story collection Difficult Women and fellow Ooligan author Brian K. Friesen’s debut novel At the Waterline—and am loving them both!
TC: What’s been the coolest part of publishing your first book, and what’s next for you?
MM: Working with the editorial team was definitely my favorite part. Having smart, invested readers provide insightful feedback that I could use to improve the manuscript—I seriously almost cry when I think of what a gift the developmental edit process was to me. I learned a ton and am endlessly grateful to Ooligan and my book team!
The future is…I don’t know. Scary? I’ve been surprised by how onerous book publicity responsibilities have felt, but I’m trying to carve out time to write. I’m working on a short story collection. I also have a middle grade novel drafted and another young adult novel started, but all writers know that the work is in the revisions and the getting-to-done, so I guess what’s next for me is the same thing as what’s next for all of us. A long, arduous slog punctuated by fleeting moments of joy.
Meagan Macvie was born and raised in Alaska. She received her MFA in fiction from Pacific Lutheran University. Her work has appeared in Narrative, Fugue, and Barrelhouse, as well as the short story anthology, Timberland Writes Together. Meagan lives with her husband and daughter in Washington State. For more on Meagan, visit her website.
Tom Cantwell earned his MFA, along with Meagan, at the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University. The nine short stories in his creative thesis, Earth Names, have been published in literary journals such as New Ohio Review, Massachusetts Review, and Weber–The Contemporary West. Tom lives with his wife and two children in Eugene, Oregon, where he as at work on a novel.