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Iowa City author Mike Meginnis’ ‘Drowning Practice’ begins with a world-ending dream
Apr. 9, 2022 6:45 am
The latest novel from Iowa City author Mike Meginnis starts with a shared experience: One night everyone on earth dreams that the world will end on Nov. 1, and soon all of humanity comes to believe that life as they know it will end in a matter of months.
Readers then follow the lives of three characters as they move toward their fate: Mott, a brilliant 13-year-old girl; her mother, Lyd, a reclusive novelist; and her estranged father, David, a government employee obsessed with surveillance.
In this recent interview, Meginnis discusses planning for the apocalypse, flipping gender roles and the importance of the YMCA — trust me, it will make sense after you’ve read the book.
Q: In your novel, everyone on the planet has the same dream: that the world is ending on Nov. 1. Where did this idea come from? Do you have any recurring dreams?
A: When I originally had the idea for “Drowning Practice,” I was in my basement, talking to my partner about my frustrations with trying to get a book going. I kept starting new things and running out of steam after the first 10,000 or 20,000 words. I started just saying ideas for books as quickly as they would come to me to see if I would get lucky and one would sound good, and then I did get lucky. I said something like, “What if there were a little girl who wanted to write a book before the world ended, because she admires her mother so much, and her mother used to be a novelist?”
I needed a way to explain how everyone would know that the world was ending, and I didn't want it to be a 100 percent certain thing, so I thought that giving everyone on Earth a dream that the world would end by a certain date was a good way to establish that danger while still leaving a little ambiguity. I chose November as the date because it wasn’t January or December (that would be too neat) and because it’s a cold-ish month, and because it sounds good.
My recurring dreams are all about rejection. For years I had one all the time where everyone I knew had a big get-together and told me that I sucked and they didn't want me around. I still have this one but less often. I also have a lot of dreams where my partner stops loving me, or it turns out they never really loved me, and we split up. I would love to stop having these dreams.
Q: This worldwide countdown naturally leads to some reckless behavior. But Mott seems to become even more responsible and disciplined. Tell us about Mott. Why is she someone readers would want on their side during the apocalypse?
A: Mott is a precocious, brilliant 13-year-old girl who was always serious to a fault, but who has become especially focused as a result of the impending apocalypse. For the last three years, she’s been making extraordinary efforts to take care of her mother, Lyd, who at the beginning of the book is an agoraphobe who can't bear to leave their home for things like grocery trips. As a result, she’s matured a lot in some ways (becoming responsible, dependable, strong) but is immature in others (socially and emotionally especially).
I think the good thing about having Mott on your side during an apocalypse is that she is extremely dedicated to pursuing the things that she cares about; the downside is that she tends to get tunnel vision and struggles to prioritize things appropriately if they aren't her very favorite things.
Q: In many pre- and post-apocalyptic books, adults — especially men — play a savior role. Not so in this novel. Tell me about how you flipped this common narrative.
A: I had the idea for this book partly because of my frustration with the exact dynamic you’re talking about. Most mainstream post-apocalyptic stories (TV shows like “The Walking Dead,” movies like “Children of Men,” games like “The Last of Us,” books like “The Road”) end up serving paeans to good, strong, moderate fathers — men who are capable of protecting children and women, who can do violence if called upon, who may be willing to consider illiberal social structures and living arrangements if necessary. The villains are frequently out-and-out fascists, men who have in some sense become too fatherly. I wanted to tell a story about a mother loving and protecting her daughter, both because it felt like an underexplored subject and because I think that reducing the genre to an exploration of masculinity has led to a ton of missed opportunities.
Q: In the shared dream, the figure helps the dreamer practice dying. “You’re not really drowning,” he says. “We thought that you could use some practice.” When we read and/or write apocalyptic fiction, are we in some ways studying up for what may come?
A: I don't honestly think there’s any meaningful way to prepare for the end of the world, but I do find some consolation in pretending that it’s possible, and I did want to offer folks the comfort of imagining how bad things could be and how they would respond to the knowledge they were living on a doomed planet. The book is called “Drowning Practice” partly because that’s what I want to offer the reader: an opportunity to explore the feelings we have about ideas like the end of the world in a relatively safe and loving setting.
I do think that we can learn a lot by contemplating our own mortality and the temporariness of human-built structures and institutions, and that the things we learn can help us make better decisions for ourselves and our communities, so I think that it’s worth doing even if it doesn’t help us survive the coming zombie plague. But ultimately, when the end comes, I doubt we’ll even understand or recognize what’s happening.
Q: A large theme in the novel is ambition — what do we do with the time we have, and how do we know that what we’re doing is worthwhile. For example: Throughout all the craziness in the book, we see Mott continue to write a novel on legal pads, even though the end is coming and it’s likely that no one will ever read it other than her mother. Tell me about this sense of futility and inevitably. Do you struggle against these? Can they be positive forces, too?
A: You know, what’s interesting is that I do feel some pretty intense pain and anxiety regarding life’s many inevitabilities and the apparent futility of creation, but I wouldn’t say that I exactly struggle with these feelings. Even when writing is really unpleasant and exhausting for me, I still do it. It's hard to name one rational action that people should take or pursuit that they should focus on in light of the fact that someday we all die, but it does seem absolutely clear that we should do something. I try to do the things that make me feel the best and the most useful to others, although those two impulses don’t always overlap. The decision to spend my life writing books is a really difficult one to explain or justify, but I had to pick something, and at some point I picked this. And now I'm not much good at most other things, so it is what it is. And I find some real peace in that.
Q: In your notes at the end of the book, you take the time to acknowledge a number of small, everyday moments that had a big impact on you over the last few years, including time with your D&D crew in Iowa City and the positive notes you received from readers of your first novel, “Fat Man and Little Boy.” Sometimes our daily lives can feel apocalyptic in their own ways. How can small things make a big difference?
A: I think that ultimately the apocalypse is only a heightened version of our real situation: someday this will end. It’s almost literally unthinkable, and I struggle to believe it, but it’s true. Another thing is that we don't know when it's going to happen; part of the appeal of an apocalyptic story is the idea of having such a frightening question resolved one way or another.
It isn't sustainable to literally live as if every second might be your last, but that kind of approach isn't very helpful for most people anyway. The best comforts, the most dependable ones, are the small ones. A person can depend on the pleasure of friends if they have friends, and good conversation, and games, and favorite meals, and so on. A person can't depend on big things — I am so glad this novel is being published, but there was little reason to believe, when I was working on it, that I would ever be so lucky. I try to rely on small pleasures because they are the ones that I can always find.
Q: The YMCA has a great cameo in your novel. Any chance the Y plays an important role in your life?
A: I essentially grew up in the Arthur Jordan YMCA in Indianapolis, Indiana, where my mother worked something like 70 to 80 hours a week for much of my childhood. I was home-schooled, so I went where she went. I loved that place, and I hated it (of course). I was lonely there and I became myself there. It was hard to make friends and hard to have the shared experiences that inform most friendships, but at the same time, my weird experience of childhood is certainly important to my work and my ethics and politics as an adult. It is what it is.
I go back to that YMCA very occasionally when I am in town, and at this point practically no one there knows me, which I can't help but find personally offensive even though it makes perfect sense (it's been 20 years). It used to be that everybody there knew me. I was well liked by many of the adults who worked there, and people treated me like I was special. Now the building and the people inside are indifferent to me, and nothing looks quite like it used to. I miss playing racquetball there. I miss the pool, even though I don't really like swimming.