An Interview with Micah Perks
Micah Perks is the author of three books: the novel We Are Gathered Here, the memoir Pagan Time, and, most recently, the novel What Becomes Us, excerpts of which won a National Endowment for the Arts grant and The New Guard Machigonne Fiction prize. She is also the co-director of the creative writing program at the University of California, Santa Cruz, which is where I met her during my sophomore year.
I was taking intermediate fiction with my boyfriend at the time, who happened to be my first love (and, apparently, my main focus). We would arrive late to this small class—sometimes 45 minutes late—and we rarely participated in discussion. After the class, I applied to the creative writing concentration and was rejected. Perks told me that if I wanted to be considered for the concentration, I had to retake intermediate fiction. I had to be a student who showed up on time and contributed to critiques. I took the class again. I was on time and contributed to discussions and went to the instructor’s office hours. During my junior year, Perks encouraged me to participate in the on-campus, student-run literary journal; I became the Editor-in-Chief during my senior year.
We’ve kept in touch. When I was a Saturday editor at The Rumpus, I published an essay and an interview by her, and she has invited me to speak to her undergraduate and graduate students. When she told me that her novel was going to be published, I asked to read it before the publication date. It’s funny and complex and layered; as someone who is interested in female characters and female desire in narratives, and in pregnancy and birth in literature, I found it fascinating.
When Perks was in Los Angeles for AWP, I interviewed her at a Mexican restaurant across the street from the convention center and then we sat outside on concrete blocks. She was a delight to interview; we laughed the whole time. While she is no longer my professor, I am still learning from her through her work and her words. And though I want to think of her as a friend, she will always be a mentor.
THE BELIEVER: When I studied creative writing as an undergrad, I didn’t realize how noteworthy it was that two women led the fiction program.
MICAH PERKS: Oh, yeah. We actually only have women teaching the fiction program. Even the ongoing adjunct lecturers are women, and now we have a graduate student who teaches intermediate fiction and she’s a woman, too. Sometimes we think, We should get a guy in here, because all the teachers are women.
BLVR: Well, I find it refreshing.
MP: I think it’s a good model for women.
BLVR: And men, too!
MP: Yeah, thank you. That’s a good point.
BLVR: As a writer and someone who would go on to working in publishing, it was important for me to see you and Karen Tei Yamashita teach fiction and direct that program. I didn’t realize how important that model was for me until much later.
MP: I’m lucky. Maybe you knew this, but Karen Yamashita and I applied for the same job in 1997 and she got it. They made a visiting position for me and she could have been threatened or not interested in me, but she completely embraced me. From the beginning, she would call us sisters in crime. I always had the feeling that we were doing this together.
We were recently at a party together and we called each other partners. People just assumed that we were romantic partners. Karen said, “Yeah. Pretty much.” Basically, we’ve had this twenty-year marriage of running the program together.
BLVR: I’m reading your book What Becomes Us and I am enjoying how funny it is. I was reading it and thinking, Micah is really funny!
MP: I laugh when I’m writing. I feel like all my work is funny to me. Not every sentence is funny. When I was in college, I had a friend who was an artist and her theory was that all the best art in the world is funny/sad. That was her favorite genre. Funny/sad are probably my two favorite tones.
BLVR: In the novel, I think there are all these different threads of humor and sadness. As for the humor, it’s like you’re poking fun at the characters. It’s not mean and it doesn’t come off as snarky, but—
MP: I’m a teaser.
BLVR: Yes! That’s exactly it!
MP: I’ve always been a teaser, even as a kid. Don’t you think almost anything can be funny? Almost anything.
BLVR: I’m constantly attracted to people who write or perform comedy, and when I’m hanging out with them, I find a lot of things funny. There are these moments when they’re not in my physical presence but they’re still around in my mind and everything is hilarious. So I think yes, almost everything can be funny. But everything being almost funny is also exhausting, because I have to be hyper-alert and my observations are kind of one-note.
MP: You have to be careful, too. You can hurt people’s feelings if you laugh. When the kids were growing up, I think they thought the worst thing about me being a mom is that I would laugh at them. They would say something that they thought was serious and intense and I would laugh. I thought it was funny, but they don’t want to be laughed at. No one really wants to be laughed at. I don’t make fun of my characters. I just like to laugh and I think people are funny and the world is funny. I probably think it’s funnier than other people.
BLVR: In your novel, the story is told from the point of view of twin fetuses that are inside the main character, Evie. Can you tell me why you chose that voice?
MP: I was thinking about narration and how to do a large-voiced narrative that had control over the whole story but also was not omniscient. I didn’t want it to be anonymous, like a storyteller of a fairy tale. I wanted a voice that was inside the story, like how a fetus is inside the character and I am inside the character.
Lately I realized that I started writing about twins because they represent the closest you can be to another human being. I’m not a twin, so that’s just how I imagine it. Also, I think what happened is that when I got together with my partner, he had a son and a daughter and I had a son and a daughter. The boys were literally a week apart in age and the girls were close in age. Everything doubled. In a weird way, I suddenly had this doubling and this overwhelming quality of how there were twice as many of the same thing. Right around that time, I wrote other stories with twins and a mother who is overwhelmed. [Laughs]
BLVR: You’re like, “It’s so obvious now.”
MP: Exactly. Also, the “we” voice is rare, and the communal impulse of the “we” is interesting to me.
BLVR: There’s this point where Joan wants to help Evie during her pregnancy. She tells Evie about things that can go wrong with having twins and mentions vanishing-twin syndrome, which is when one twin vanishes during pregnancy. The twins who are narrating say, “It’s just not possible. We couldn’t be an I.” It was so interesting to see that sentence and realize how “we” differs from “I.”
MP: They’re insisting on being a “we.” It’s a utopian impulse but it’s also impossible. I think in some ways all the characters are insisting on being a “we.” They are insisting on being multiple and together, right?
BLVR: I was thinking this, too. Evie moves into a community and they’re very welcoming but don’t seem to have boundaries. She has a home but the door doesn’t lock and they just walk in at any time. Your novel takes place during 9/11 and I remember at the time the mainstream message or political agenda was this insistence that our nation was a “we.” There’s the shadow side of the “we.” It goes back to that sentence: “We couldn’t be an I.” The individual sometimes cannot exist or thrive within the collective.
And then there’s Mary Rowlandson. Before I read your book, I had never heard about her. How did you first hear about her book A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mary Rowlandson?
MP: I don’t know! I’m teaching captivity narratives right now and teaching Mary Rowlandson on Tuesday. I was trying to remember how I stumbled on her book and I don’t know.
When I was first reading it, the book blew me away. I think in some ways it connected all these disparate things I was thinking about and what was happening. 9/11 happened at the same time my marriage was ending and I was falling in love with someone else. It’s a book about a woman’s life that literally goes up in flames and how she survives it.
The voice is really confident and I liked the musicality of it. She’s a really good writer. The first line is something like, “The first coming was about sunrising.” It’s beautiful. Then there’s this moment when she says, “As we went along, they killed a deer, with a young one in her, they gave me a piece of the Fawn, and it was so young and tender that one might eat the bones as well as the flesh, and yet I thought it very good.” I was just like, “What? What!”
BLVR: When Evie keeps reading the sentence, I couldn’t. It’s so—
BLVR: It’s so disturbing.
MP: It’s crazy. This mother was eating a fetal fawn, bones and all. There’s another line where she ate horse liver and the blood was on her face: “the blood about my mouth, and yet a savory bit it was to me.”It’s brutal and matter-of-fact.” It’s also the spectacle of this woman.
BLVR: You have to be so desperate to eat that way.
MP: It is radical for a woman to choose to survive and to choose to eat anything. She’ll eat horse hooves. She takes a horse hoof out of a child’s mouth without any apology because she doesn’t want to die. There’s this line where she writes that she once thought their food was trash but now she finds it “sweet and savory to my taste.”
BLVR: Evie becomes obsessed with Mary Rowlandson, and maybe that’s because she’s so unlike her.
MP: Evie really wants to be a nice girl and nice girls keep letting people in. People push her boundaries and she even has two people inside of her. She’s thronged by other people’s needs and desires. Then there’s this model of Mary Rowlandson, who only cares about her own needs, which is one need.
MP: Her own hunger.
BLVR: Which kept coming up in your book. Hunger and the desire to feed oneself.
MP: Nice girls are not supposed to be hungry. They are not supposed to feed themselves or care about their own food. They’re definitely not supposed to take food out of a child’s mouth. Evie eats more and more and gets bigger and bigger. Her desire is growing and growing.
BLVR: So we’ve discussed the different models of two women in the book: Evie as a nice girl and Mary Rowlandson as a woman who prioritizes her own needs and hunger, mostly above all else. I wonder about Joan, who is a character that I love. She seems so strong and also very vulnerable. What model do you think Joan represents?
MP: I think the character of Joan represents a very different model. She’s just going to spit it out and going to say no. I admire Joan so much, too. She’s fierce. She’s brave, heroic, and puts her beliefs above all else. Like many activists and people out to change the world, she can be very difficult to live with. As she says of herself, she’s very good at risking her life, but not so good at daily life.
BLVR: While reading the novel, I thought it was going to become a ghost story. Sometimes the story would seem to lean in to a ghost story and then pull away.
MP: That’s fascinating you say that because it was a ghost story in one of its incarnations. At one point Mary Rowlandson was a ghost, but it didn’t work. I couldn’t make myself believe it. I love ghost stories, I love to read them, and I love the idea of being haunted. I think someone who writes a ghost story probably needs to believe it in some way. I had to do it metaphorically.
BLVR: I think there are different ways to be haunted.
MP: It could be supernatural. It’s a little weird what is happening to Evie, right? That she is having these visions of Mary Rowlandson.
BLVR: It doesn’t seem weird to me. It seems unsettling. I’m always ready to believe that there are various ways to become obsessed or haunted. I think about it a lot in terms of trauma. I believe there are things in our lives that take root and can leak out, consciously and unconsciously.
Evie flees her abusive husband while pregnant with twins and starts a new job and new life alone in a town (one that personally creeps me out). She lives nowhere near anyone she knows. She finds this book by Mary Rowlandson and finds herself wanting to say yes to her desires. Evie is under so much stress that I find it easy to believe that while she sleeps she becomes Mary Rowlandson.
You mention that it was a ghost story in one incarnation. There were probably more incarnations of this book. What was the writing process like for you?
MP: The process was sort of nightmarish. I could not get it right. Every summer I would rewrite it, during the year I would do a little more work, and at the end of the year, I would look at it again and think, This isn’t right.
But every time I started back into it, I would become immersed and feel happy. I would be so hopeful and think, Now it’s working. I love this process. And then it wouldn’t work.
At an early stage of writing the book, I was in a really immersive moment and finished it all very fast. The IT people at my university said they wanted to update my email and I gave them my computer and never heard back from them. I called them and they wouldn’t answer me. When I called and finally got somebody, he said, “I’m really sorry, but we erased your hard drive.”
I just said, “Oh. OK.” I hung up. I had only backed up a quarter of the book. I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t work on it for two years.
BLVR: You were probably like, “I just can’t.”
MP: This was about seven years ago. Then in 2008, Karen said, “You should apply for an NEA grant,” and I was like, “Eh.” She said, “Do it.” I used the first chapter of the book and I got the NEA grant. Then I rewrote the book and sent it out.
BLVR: It’s like you were haunted by your book. It’s been with you for so long and it kept disappearing and reappearing.
MP: I like the metaphor of haunting. I started thinking that this novel was a rock around my neck. It felt like the book was dragging me under. It was like an addiction. I thought, I have to finish. I have to stop working on this. When I called and told Karen that my book was being published, she said, “What book?” I said, “The same book!” She started laughing. She said, “That old thing?” She thought I had finished it years ago. She’s written three books in the meantime.
BLVR: Publishing the novel wasn’t an easy process either, right?
MP: I had a really hard time publishing it. I kept getting the response that it was really good but they didn’t want to publish it. I couldn’t find an editor that was really in love with it and small presses have to be in love with the book. They can’t just think it’s good.
The book is about a pregnant woman and maternity and what women are eating and sometimes I’ve wondered if maybe some editors, particularly some male editors, just thought those questions and topics were boring or not interesting. A lot of people want to see my story as a story of triumph because I didn’t give up and my book was published.
BLVR: I think that the triumph story is an easy one to tell. I’ve seen that narrative before. It comes up when someone’s book is rejected countless times but then finally it is published. It especially comes up if the book sells well or wins awards. Sometimes I wonder if we focus on this narrative of triumph because then we can skirt difficult questions about publishing.
MP: I am really excited that my book is coming out. That’s what I really wanted. And I love my publisher. But it’s not a fairy tale. I’m very stubborn and I didn’t give up, but maybe I should’ve given up. Maybe I wasted a lot of time. Maybe I could’ve written two other books. Like Karen said, “That old thing.” Maybe not letting go is kind of a stupid thing to do.
There are so many people who write really interesting work and try super hard and still don’t get published. I’ve heard a lot of editors and agents say, “If the book is good, it will get published.” I totally disagree with that. I know books that are really good and writers that are really good and they have become oppressed and ground down from the rejection and they stop. Either they stop writing or they have these books in their drawers. I know that for a fact. It’s really difficult to know what is the best way forward when you’re not getting a lot of support—and probably most writers aren’t getting enough support.
Zoë Ruiz’s writing has appeared in The Rumpus, Salon, Ohio Edit, and the anthologies California Prose Directory and Rooted. She is also a book editor and most recently edited Nothing Ever Dies by Pulitzer Prize Winner Viet Thanh Nguyen, which made the 2016 National Book Award Longlist for nonfiction. She lives in Los Angeles. Find her on twitter: @ruizzoe.