Rebecca here—thrilled to share an interview with Meagan Lucas, author of Songbirds and Stray Dogs, a debut novel I happily put at the top of my summer TBR.
Meagan Lucas is a Canadian who found home in the mountains of North Carolina. She teaches English at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College and is the Fiction Editor at Barren Magazine. Her stories have been published in a variety of journals. Her novel, Songbirds and Stray Dogs, follows a single young woman named Jolene—sweet, naïve, and suddenly pregnant. When her bible-thumping aunt kicks her out of the only home she’s ever known, “Jolene tries to outrun her shame” in the mountains of North Carolina, where she meets Chuck, a man with a criminal past he can’t outrun. There Jolene is “forced to confront exactly who she is, and what she wants.” Set in 1982, the story is a Southern one, but it’s also a universal one, “of escaping the burden of your past and finding yourself at home in a strange land.”*
Once I’d devoured Songbirds and Stray Dogs, Meagan was kind enough to spend an hour talking with me over the phone about her book, about Southern literature (we are in the RVA, after all!), Imposter Syndrome, and a little upcoming Mercy.
Meagan, the settings of Songbirds and Stray Dogs—coastal Carolina and the mountains of North Carolina—are so vivid. Right away, the story felt rooted in the Southern literary tradition. How was it, writing as a transplant?
We moved to North Carolina about 10 years ago. We came to Asheville on our honeymoon, loved it and decided to stay. We’re here in the mountains, and it has its own culture—a very vibrant arts and writing culture, and it’s very diverse, which is great.
I felt that the best way to do justice to the characters and setting in the novel is to write what I know. I’m most inspired by the things that happen around me. I live here in North Carolina, grocery shop here, send my kids to school here. Even though I don’t sound Southern, I feel Southern. And I do a lot of eavesdropping to find stories.
What were your literary influences growing up in Canada?
Not Southern literature. I grew up reading Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, and L.M. Montgomery: the Canadian cannon. So, when I read novels from the South now, there’s a freshness. Because I’m an outsider, I’m in some ways not weighted by the tradition of Southern literature in the way some of my Southern contemporary writers are. I’m able to be critical of the church or other Southern institutions—because I know them, but they didn’t shape me. From the outside, you’re also sometimes better able to understand what makes something special.
What makes Southern culture special for you?
I don’t think Southerners even realize how special some of their culture is. They take their cooking for granted—when they don’t know even how bad cooking in general can be. My grandmother, for instance, was Scottish and we lived in Northern Ontario, and there was a lot of boiled potatoes and oatmeal. I’m riveted by these Southern institutions, particularly the food, and the religion, and gun culture, which is much different here than where I grew up, and some of that comes out in the book.
You mentioned religion, which figures heavily into Jolene’s story. Are you a religious person? Or, did you come at it from the outside looking in on this trope of Southern literature, as in the work of Flannery O’Connor, for instance?
I love O’Connor. Of course, she was a believer her whole life. I was raised very religious, but I had some difficult experiences and left the church in college. So I have an awareness of the interior workings of religion but I’m not still within them. From the outside I can throw stones! But, my own experiences are mirrored in Jolene’s; the hypocrisy of some religious people really bothers me and is the reason I left. I tried to make Jolene’s religious aunt a little rounder; she, and people like her, have reasons why they embrace things that seem to be at odds with what they say they believe.
So, we both came to Southern literature later. What I find interesting about Southern lit is that the aspects of faith and goodness often butt up against violence. Your novel could have been tamer “women’s lit,” more about Jolene finding her way, but instead you threw some real violence, a la Southern Gothic, at your protagonist. How’d you make that decision?
I do love me some Southern Gothic. I consider O’Connor and Carson McCullers, Dorothy Allison, and Cormac McCarthy influences of mine. I intentionally made Jolene an outsider to give it a bit of a Southern Gothic feel. And, you may have noticed, she’s not as traditionally attractive as most women’s lit protagonists. Jolene has crooked teeth. She’s overweight. People aren’t doing things for her because she’s so attractive—that just makes me crazy.
The violence comes, in part, from what I like to read. Southern Gothic has shifted away from the grotesque to more “grit lit,” and that’s my favorite genre: Larry Brown, Harry Crews, Tom Franklin, and David Joy. Then there are these slightly softer mountain writers: Ron Rash, Wiley Cash, Taylor Brown, and even Charles Frazier, who are writing more “Appalachian lit.” My writing is less gritty than some of the grit lit authors’, but I think I write women better. There’s a space for the female writer, where there’s crime and violence, but more diving into the psychological, social, and cultural aspects—just less gunshots and blood.
To me, my novel is really about safety, and that’s hard to pull off without putting your characters peril. So, Jolene is starving at some points, homeless at others. She’s threatened with physical and sexual violence. I also wanted to reflect the reality that sometimes it’s scarier to report a crime—and not be believed—than it is to keep quiet. In the 80s, when this is set, it would have been even worse than it is now for this girl with a black eye and no money to come into town and make an accusation against the local lawyer with friends in the police department. That’s the reality of the small town. Everybody knows everybody, and it’s not always to your benefit.
How much of you is imbued in Jolene? Was she easy or hard to write?
Our actual life experience is completely different. But her neuroses are mine, too—her fear of never being good enough, of feeling like her only value is in what she can do for other people. So much of that is me. The idea of looking for a safe place and a safe person feels very real to me, but the perils she faces are mostly from my imagination.
The hardest character to write was Chuck. Writing male characters and capturing the kinds of conversations they have was difficult. I did a lot of eavesdropping and asking my husband, would you say this? With Jolene, it was in my gut. I knew this is what she would do.
Since this is your debut novel, I assume the publishing process was a new experience. What’s been the best, the worst, the most surprising event along the road?
I finished writing the novel and was suffering from some serious Imposter Syndrome. I didn’t know if it was good, but I felt like it was done. I was afraid to query agents and so I entered some contests and got some nice feedback. Main Street Rag Press, my publishing company, is based in Charlotte, not far away. They had a call out on Submittable, where they said, send us your first 100 pages. I thought my first 100 pages were pretty good, so I did. It was my first foray outside of contests, and they took the book!
I’ve been the most surprised at how absolutely wonderful the literary community can be. I had no idea writing a novel was going to entail sending emails to strangers asking them to help me. And I was like, oh shit. So, I reached out to writers I loved, told them so, asked them if they would read and blurb my book, and they helped me. I can’t get over how often that happens. On the flip side, the hardest moment for me was asking a writer who I felt close to, to help me, and them saying, no. I think we as writers need to protect our writing time and process, but there’s a sincerity we need to have with younger writers. The literary citizenship thing is so important. I really try to promote other writers, and I’m hoping that some of the amazing response to my book is good karma coming back at me.
What’s next for Songbirds and Stray Dogs? And…let’s talk Mercy!
This month is the Songbirds and Stray Dogs launch. In September, I’m doing a residency in Michigan, so I’m spending two weeks there, where I’ll be participating in the Harbor Spring Festival of the Book. For the novel, there will be trips and touring and bookstores and readings. But I’m halfway finished with a second novel. It’s currently called Mercy—that’s the main character’s name. I started writing it while I put Jolene aside to give her some air before I did final revisions.
How I came up with the character, Mercy: my family and I were sitting in a diner in East Tennessee, and this woman walks in, and she’s got the most dramatic port-wine stain on her face. I became obsessed with the idea that our physical beauty as women is so intrinsic to how we act and treat people. Me, I’m always on a diet and dying my hair and trying something new with makeup—always tweaking and trying to look just a little better. If you had a birth defect that took that aspect away, I wondered, what would your daily life be like? I wanted to place the book in the upstate of South Carolina, where my family has a lake house. It’s a really interesting area, culturally—it’s confederate flag central. But I spend a lot of my life there. And I wondered, what if Mercy lived here? Next thing I knew, I had 45,000 words. But I haven’t touched the story in a long time. And I’m very excited to go to Michigan in September and get Mercy closer to done.
Thank you to Meagan Lucas, whose debut novel Songbirds and Stray Dogs launches this month, August 2019. Get it here!
*Bio and quotes from…