“The subjectivity of the world is endlessly interesting.” A conversation with Megan Kruse
In Portland writer Megan Kruse’s debut novel, Call Me Home (Hawthorne Books), love and danger often seem inextricable. All three main characters—close siblings Jackson and Lydia, along with their mother Amy—find that love may lead them far away from home or safety. When Amy makes a choice to flee her abusive husband, she carries the burden of having chosen between her children. Something essential inside each of them is split at the root.
Especially for Jackson, the possibility of true connection with another person seems almost too much of a long shot to imagine. Struggling to survive his first months alone as a queer youth in the Northwest, Jackson falls into a relationship that could bring him disaster. Set among numerous wild places in the rural West, Call Me Home creates a haunting sense that the human heart may be no match for the land.
EMILY CHOATE: Jackson’s story feels like the emotional center of the book in many ways, detailing his perilous coming of age as a gay man in the rural Northwest. How did Jackson’s character first begin to evolve?
MEGAN KRUSE: Jackson was the beginning of this book, for me, and he is in many ways a reflection of myself. I wanted to tell a queer story, but one that I recognized—one that took place outside of the urban areas where most queer narratives take place. To grow up queer in a place without those narratives is to live with the anticipation of loss, to know that you will have to leave in order to fully live your life. Your identity and your home cannot coexist, and so you must choose between them. I think—I hope—that is changing. I believe we have a responsibility to queer youth to tell those stories, to create representations that are recognizable and that resonate with people outside of urban centers.
The other element of Jackson’s story that I wanted to explore is the often perilous nature of first queer relationships, the potential for violence and exploitation. I don’t know that many people realize the kind of breathless relief it can be to fall in love the first time, at sixteen or twenty or thirty, when you haven’t been certain you would ever find someone to love, let alone someone to love you back; in some empty places the possibility of a relationship feels unlikely, impossible. So imagine: you have experienced love, lust, sex, intimate emotional connection for the first time, without any role models, without a sense of what it means to be in a healthy queer relationship, or what queer sex is, really. How can you ascertain then what’s healthy, what’s harmful? In Jackson’s case, it would be easy to say, “Why keep seeing this married man? Why not demand the better, the more that you deserve?” But the choice in a position like his is not between a troubled relationship and a thousand others, but between a troubled relationship (which nonetheless has moments of joy) and no relationship at all. Those early unhealthy relationships are my own story, and the story of so many people I know. It is important to me to talk about that.
EC: Jackson and Lydia’s mother Amy reaches a point of needing to make heartbreaking, no-win decisions in order to secure her own safe escape from her abusive marriage. Knowing how high those stakes were, how did you approach your depiction of Amy as a mother?
MK: Writing Amy terrified me, and waiting to hear how people respond to her terrifies me as well. I think a lot about what I call the emotional ledger, the internal accounting we do in significant relationships: Did I hurt you? Did I change you? For better or for worse? How are you marked by me? I imagine that for anyone who has children, that ledger must be a constant internal refrain, and for a survivor, the responsibility of keeping that ledger for her children is nearly entirely her own burden. She must work to undo harm, to protect, to create new and tenable lives. Terrifyingly, that burden exists similarly legally; women may lose their children for “failing to protect.” Amy’s situation is no different; she must not only try to protect and nurture her children, but work against the ruin her husband is inflicting upon her and Jackson and Lydia. She makes an impossibly difficult decision. My fear about writing her character came from a deep desire to get it right—to show that she is doing the best that she can. I wanted to show moments that illuminated her path and informed her position. I think that looking at Amy in 2010, before she leaves, it would be easy to consider her to be weak. I wanted badly to show that she was constantly making vigilant decisions, and I wanted the reader to see her in her early moments with Gary and identify with her feelings—to understand how Amy might be you or me or a stranger on the street. I don’t know that I succeeded perfectly, but I do hope that my desire to show her as complex and human and aching and compassionate comes through on the page.
EC: Call Me Home switches points of view among Jackson, Amy, and Lydia. In terms of craft, how did you reach the decision to write Lydia’s sections in first person, in contrast to third person for Jackson and Amy?
MK: In truth, some of the decision to write Lydia in the first person was indulgent; that first-person lyrical voice has always been my favorite to write. I love how it feels driven equally by serpentine language and emotion. To look at that more deeply, though, I do think of each voice and point of view as the most accurate way I could bring the character to the page. Amy’s third person voice moves back and forth through time; it is a voice compelled by hindsight, by trying to make sense. She is moving through the world but she lives mostly internally, in many ways, trying to weigh her own decisions and her history. Jackson, fighting his way through his first love and his deep regret, is in a space of action, existing more in real time than any of the other characters. Lydia, though, lives the most internally, and with a present that is exacted upon her, sweeping her forward as she barely notices it. Her role in the world is as a ledger-keeper, the steward of her family’s history and inventory of memories. The first person allowed her voice to be less tied to time, existing more within her.
More than anything, I wanted to create a chord—three notes that together create something bigger, richer. I think of them sometimes as pieces of mirror that reflect the same events in different ways, and that together give the reader a deeper understanding of the family than any individual is able to possess. The subjectivity of the world, of truth—that is endlessly interesting to me.
EC: Did you write their sections in tandem, or was there one voice that took shape first (and/or much quicker and easier) than the others?
MK: Once I decided to braid the three voices, I did work on them rather equally. My writing practice philosophy is to be greedy, to always allow myself to write the parts that I am excited about on any given day. I tend to write all of the big moments, and then work to bring them together. Connections—the walk from the room to the car, the small machinations that make writing coherent and believable—don’t excite me until I have momentum, until I’m motivated to join bigger scenes together and watch a full picture begin to take shape.
As I mentioned, Lydia’s voice was my favorite to write, the most distilled version of my writing voice. It allows me to move into lyricism, memory, to let go of linear plot and chronology. At the same time, it’s not sustainable for me, and so I loved moving back to the other voices.
I found Amy’s voice to be the most challenging, because of the leaps through time. I worked with Brooke Warner of She Writes Press on some revisions, and her guidance was really invaluable in identifying moments of confusion. Amy’s voice was the most technically difficult, but I also think that I gained a tremendous amount of skill in writing her character, and for that reason I’m very proud of her chapters. They aren’t the flashiest, but they add essential context, to help the reader understand how anyone might end up in the most unrelenting and difficult situations, and how desperately she is trying to create new lives for herself and her children. The other challenge with Amy was the one I mentioned already, the potential for failing tremendously. What if my portrayal seemed accusatory, or incriminating? That would be devastating.
However, at the same time, I think that her experience is essential in adding context to the situation they are in currently, and how desperately they are working to create stronger lives.
EC: Jackson and Lydia’s upbringing seems inextricably tied to the woods around their house, and you’ve made reference to your own upbringing in the woods. How has your relationship to nature helped to shape your voice as a writer?
MK: I think of those woods where I grew up, in Tulalip, Washington, as the seat of my imagination. Even looking back now, I have vivid memories that couldn’t exist—of magical creatures, of witches and warlocks and odd winged animals. At the same time, I wasn’t a fancy-free kid, tripping happily through the woods; I was deeply anxious, observant, sensitive, and so much of growing up in that damp corner of the world was uncomfortable, cold and chilly, damp, the outside always coming in. I recently heard Charles Baxter talk about books as both a comfort and a way to experience manageable danger, and I identify with that so much. The world around me in my childhood was fraught with worries and nightmares, and books gave me dangers that I could be outside of, at the same time that they held me. One of my most comforting sensory memories is being in the corner of a ragged old sofa, in front of the wood stove, while the rain battered the house, reading. I was both in love with that area and wanted to escape, and I think that having a simultaneous love and desire to leave is perhaps the most defining trait I can think of for writers.
EC: What have been some of the books that played such a dual role for you, either during those early years or later on? Specifically, since you mentioned the rarity of narratives for queer youth, I’m curious which books did bring you glimpses of the larger world outside your upbringing?
MK: I always say I was a poet first, though I wasn’t a very good one. The first true love of my literary life was Adrienne Rich. I was in eighth grade when I read Twenty-one Love Poems, particularly, “The Floating Poem, Unencumbered.” It sort of blew the lid off of what I thought writing could be, and it gave me a lifeline, a sense of the size of the world, an indication that not only might I be able to be the person I was already suspecting I was, but that my life might be beautiful. I researched the poets I loved, Rich, and Edna St Vincent Millay, and Elizabeth Bishop, and luxuriated in the warmth of the details I found about their personal lives, in the subtext I detected in their words. As I moved into high school and college it was Jeanette Winterson and James Baldwin, Sherman Alexie, Dorothy Allison, Sarah Waters. I imagine that anyone with an identity that is underrepresented must identify with this—the feeling of voracious longing for anything that looks like you; the equivalent feeling of being sixteen and stealing up in the night to watch Foxfire or High Art, or being twenty three and crowding into a bar to religiously watch The L-Word because it doesn’t matter that it looks nothing like your life; it looks more like your life than anything you’ve encountered before, and it feels lifesaving; it feels like a promise, like hope.
EC: I’ve thought recently about Muriel Rukeyser’s famous line: “Pay attention to what they tell you to forget.” Similarly, in a previous interview, you’ve invoked our “responsibility to witness darkness and sorrow, to live alongside it and acknowledge how we are made by it, rather than pretending it away.” Do you see Jackson, Lydia, and Amy in this light? While you crafted them as characters, did they embody for you some of these darker, hidden matters?
MK: So much of living through the unlivable is to fight with the shame and guilt, the sense that you might have lived your life differently, chosen differently. But what a furiously desolate way that is to view the person you are. I think that it often seems like pretending away the darker things that have shaped us is a way to be set free, but instead those things become bigger, as does the sense of dissociation, the feeling that the people around us don’t truly know us. I see Jackson, Lydia, and Amy as people who are moving toward the light by beginning to shape new lives that don’t ignore where they have come from. I once taught a writing workshop for incarcerated women, and I remember how incredibly powerful it was for the women to write about the things they had experienced, rather than dismissing those things as wrong, as poor decisions that should be erased. Even our worst decisions are rarely made out of a desire for destruction or to harm ourselves or others, and I believe there is great and important agency in saying, “I am who I am because I lived through this, because I did the best I could with what I had at any moment.”
Find a copy of Call Me Home on IndieBound.
Megan Kruse is a fiction and creative nonfiction writer from the Pacific Northwest. She studied creative writing at Oberlin College and earned her MFA at the University of Montana. Her creative writing has appeared in Narrative Magazine, The Sun, Witness Magazine, Thumbnail Magazine, Bellingham Review, and Phoebe, among others. Her essay, “The Trailer,” won a 2010 Lambda Award for queer literature. Her nonfiction essay “Ballads” won the Bellingham Review’s Annie Dillard Award for Creative Nonfiction in 2007. She received nominations for the Pushcart Prize in 2005, 2006, and 2011. Call Me Home is her first novel.
Emily Choate holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. Her writing appears or is forthcoming in The Florida Review, Chapter 16, The Double Dealer, Yemassee, Nashville Scene, and elsewhere. Her short fiction is a runner-up in the 2014 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Competition, and she has held writer’s residencies at Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts and Vermont Studio Center. Emily lives in Nashville, where she’s working on a novel.