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‘If the Body Allows It,” Megan Cummins' debut short-story collection, which won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction, is beautiful and unsettling. Stitched together by a narrative about Marie - whose story unwinds throughout the book and who, we come to understand, is the 'author” of the other stories in the collection - the book delves deeply into the lives of characters struggling with chronic illness and substance use disorders.
As she discusses in this interview, Cummins' writerly ambitions were supported while she was in high school by a summer spent in the Iowa Young Writers' Studio, a program of the University of Iowa. Her time at Iowa opened new avenue for Cummins in terms of genre and voice.
Cummins, who now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., answered questions via email.
Q: This collection is not just a series of stories. It has a unique organizing conceit and a longer piece winding through the text. Were you always writing toward this sort of format?
A: I've always loved linked collections, even when - and maybe especially when - not every story is linked by a through line of one character. When they're linked by place, or when two stories tell the same story from a different perspective. Holly Goddard Jones's 'Girl Trouble” is one example that does that really well. When I first started thinking about collecting the stories I'd written into a book, I knew they went together in some way, but I wasn't sure how. 'If the Body Allows It” didn't feel like a book to me until I started writing Marie's story.
Q: Was it always clear to you that Marie, the narrator of the recurring piece, was 'writing” the other pieces in the book? How would (or would) you say Marie's writing differs from Megan's writing?
A: As Marie grew as a character, it became clear that she was a writer herself. From the beginning, I was interested in how I could learn about my own experiences by fictionalizing them, and I wanted to see if I could add an additional meta layer by presenting Marie as the author of the other stories in the book. How would that imagined degree of removal change my understanding of the stories? I was aware that not every reader would know or care that I'd presented the other stories in the book as having been written by Marie, and I'm OK with that. It was important to me, regardless of the structure, that both Marie's story and the other stories in the book work on their own.
Marie's story is very fictionalized, but many parts of it track a biography parallel to my own. I didn't try to change my writing style by imagining Marie as the writer of the stories - some of them I'd already written before I knew that was how I wanted to frame the book - so in that sense Marie and I are the same writer. The bigger craft challenge, for me, was the effect this structure might have on a reader.
Q: It seems to me that both internal and external menace permeate these stories. What role would you say unease - experienced not only by your characters but by your readers - plays in these stories?
A: One of the things I was most interested in while writing the book was the idea of a chronic condition, and the relentlessness of it. That idea was in my head the whole time, and I intentionally wove it into the book through the exploration of chronic illness and addiction from different perspectives and in different situations. In a way it was an unending, unresolved exploration, and I realized that could be potentially unsettling for a reader. But I wondered if the book could mirror that unease by not allowing the reader to forget those themes. And I was curious what might arise when characters are placed in spaces they can't escape - a snowstorm, a boat, a hospital, a hopeless situation in school. We expect a person's behavior to change when they're physically trapped. But addiction and illness are physical traps, too. We just don't always think of them that way.
Q: You participated in the Iowa Young Writers' Studio when you were in high school. How did that experience shape you as a writer?
A: (Iowa Young Writers' Studio) had a great effect on me! I was in Thisbe Nissen's class, and she and I have stayed in touch. It was there that I was introduced to short stories and to writers I'd never read or heard of. Edwidge Danticat, Russell Banks, Amy Hempel. At the time I knew I wanted to be a writer, but I also knew I had a long road ahead, and a lot to learn. I remember having a conversation about point-of-view in Thisbe's class, and just thinking, 'Oh my god, that's so complicated. Will I ever understand it?” Up until the classes I took at (Iowa Young Writers' Studio), I had only written fantasy stories. I loved fantasy as a kid. Tamora Pierce, Tolkien, Francesca Lia Block. But it was there at Iowa that I explored realism for the first time.
Q: What are you working on now? Is Marie likely to appear in future work?
A: Marie might reappear someday, but for now I'm working on a young adult novel that has grown out of 'Aerosol,” one of the stories in the book. The novel continues the story of a teenage girl who is injured by an exploded aerosol can and refuses to get help, thinking she can manage it on her own. The novel follows her to South Dakota for the summer, where she's gone to live with her dad, who has relapsed. As she did with her injury, she thinks she can fix things herself. She also spends a lot of her time thinking about a fantasy novel she wants to write. I guess that fantasy influence is still there, as well as my interest in characters who are also writers!