Interview with Meghan Lamb, Author of Failure to Thrive

November 9, 2021

Failure to Thrive, Meghan Lamb’s newest book and debut novel, hits bookstores today from Apocalypse Party. In this interview, Courtney Harler and Meghan Lamb discuss innovations in fiction’s form, shifting pandemic perspectives, and photographic evidence.

Congratulations, Meghan! And thanks for taking the time for this interview. I’d like to ask you about form, but let me quote one of my writing mentors first: “There are no rules,” said Lan Samantha Chang (and rather repeatedly) at Napa Valley Writers’ Conference in August of 2021. We were in our fiction workshop, of course, asking questions on craft, debating everything from effective diction to the subtlety of plot. Based on your debut novel—which innovates the form of fiction in so many ways—I’d venture to say you’d agree with Chang. However, I do wonder if you have your own set of “rules,” as in, did you set specific parameters for the work, or let them emerge as elements developed? Perhaps, given the three-part structure, you allowed yourself “containers” for the story, as Pam Houston might recommend? Or, let me present a third choice, if only for the sake of discussion—because creative choices really are endless, aren’t they?—were you inspired by a singular writer or written work, which gave you the encouragement you needed to experiment so vividly with the form?

My approach definitely involved some combination of all three choices! In terms of shadow texts and inspirations, I was inspired by Steven Dunn’s Potted Meat in more ways than I could begin to enumerate. I love the way he uses fragments and economy of detail to emphasize patterns, motifs, repetitions whose resonance deepens with each reintroduction. Steven and I have talked a bit about the way ikebana arrangements can be mapped onto the creative process, and he’s described the recurring moments of connection with the sister as his flowers (which is such a lovely way to look at a novel…as a kind of minimalist floral sculpture). I also deeply needed that book in my life at the time when I was first drafting Failure to Thrive, as there were so few examples of Coal-Region novels that were gesturing toward the territories I wanted to explore with this one (which is to say, most of the novels I’d read that were set in this area were in the realm of historic recounting, nostalgic memoir, or otherwise dedicated to honoring the memory of these kinds of spaces rather than exploring the decay, illness, ruined beauty…the living experiences of the present moment). Potted Meat is definitely at the top of my list as far as inspirational shadow texts go, but there were so many others, including Bottomland by PA Coal-Region poet Harry Humes (which I quote from in the first frame section) and Lawrence Deklinski’s Dalado Photography Archive (which allowed me some precious glimpses of PA coal towns “as they once were”—many of which I reference in the pages of my novel).

Of course, there were also the spaces themselves, which I see as their own kind of shadow texts. The three spaces I explored in the novel’s frame sections—the underground mine fire in Centralia, the former JW Cooper School in Shenandoah, and the remains of Concrete City in Nanticoke—all spoke to me so deeply when I visited them that they demanded their own space in the novel. While I’d always kind of envisioned this novel as a triad of place-linked narratives, those spaces really ossified the three-part structure in my imagination.

I want to dig into the line here. You make interesting choices with punctuation, line breaks, direct and indirect dialogue. For example, the elongated ellipses made me think of Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. Wharton, I’ve read, wanted her extra ellipses to represent a gap in time, or a falling back in time, as a frame for the storytelling. For Olivia, whose story comprises “Part I: The Lonely Cold” and about half the book, the ellipses indicate not only the passage of time, but also, I think, gaps in consciousness or comprehension. You also fragment Olivia’s thoughts, or let them run wild together in unfettered streams of consciousness. Furthermore, readers can see a preoccupation with numbers, counting, clocks, and timetables—all of which help Olivia, and her mother, Emily, continuously rebalance and restructure their precarious, insular world. These numbers on the page punctuate the prose, adding even more tone and texture to the line. How does it feel as a writer—to let the line break and rebuild and shatter and un-limit itself? To let the numerals speak out loud on the page, when they are so often hushed by other words?

Oh, it makes me so happy to hear that you connected with those formal choices, particularly the weird ellipses and textual arrangements (and I’m particularly honored by the comparison to Ethan Frome—far and away my favorite Wharton novel)! I definitely hoped to evoke a certain blendy-ness and gauziness of time with them, and to perform the kinds of physical gestures, tics, and repeated bodily behaviors connected with the experience of time’s movement (for example, there’s some text-shaping in the latter half of the first section that I wanted to mimic the sensation of Olivia’s pacing and circling movements as she wanders—self-soothing in her grief—over the living room floor).

I’m currently teaching a course at the University of Chicago on Reading and Writing the Body, and it means a lot to me that I might serve as a model for other writers hoping to use line breaks, lists, and other gestures of textual arrangement to more fully embody moments of lived experience (especially pertaining to queer characters, characters with disabilities, and other characters whose lived realities are too often marginalized or oversimplified).

Let’s continue this discussion on inspiration by focusing on epigraphs. Yours are brilliant, by the way, and since we so rarely get this kind of intimate glimpse into a literary artist’s mind, maybe you’ll indulge me here. While the Harry Humes quote from “Pennsylvania Coal Town” links directly to the setting of your novel, the second and third epigraphs, from Diane Seuss and Carl Phillips, orient themselves more toward a certain mood, or character. My question for you: how do you know when you’ve found the perfect epigraph? For the reader, the epigraphs open the door to intertextuality, or even to the writer’s process, but still retain some magical mystery. For the writer, do the epigraphs remain somewhat amorphous as well? They feel… Emotional. Deliberate. Powerful. Do they hold special significance for you, or did these particular words on the page simply want to have a conversation with your words on the page?

That’s a wonderful question. I’m afraid my answer is disappointingly simple: I usually know that I’ve found the perfect epigraph when I feel—upon reading it—like I’ve been given a window into a character’s mind. While the Humes quote is more of a ghostly ribbon I wrap around the whole novel—which is all about absence, and the internal conversations these characters are having with voices, spaces, objects in absentia—I feel like the Diane Seuss quote is a window into Helen’s perception, and the Carl Phillips quote is a window into Jack’s. So, yes…I guess these words did have a conversation with mine… In some ways, they even initiated parts of the conversation.

(Jack, by the way, is named in honor of the foggy-minded brother who returns to his own home-that-no-longer-feels-like-home in Brian Friel’s play Dancing at Lughnasa, another shadow text I re-read repeatedly while I was writing the novel.)

I’ve focused on “Part I” of Failure to Thrive so far, but the novel also contains two more interconnected sections about families in this same defunct, downtrodden coal town. In addition to recurring motifs, such as a flaking mural and the infamous “shit-creek,” all three parts unite over their sense of isolation and desperation. Moreover, and I believe readers will look upon such topics with new eyes since the onset of the pandemic, each of the three families represents long-term domestic caregiving situations: a neuroatypical daughter, an aged and unwell father, and an injured but slowly recovering son. After 2020, home is sometimes a kind of not-home, where care, concern, and comfort are often compromised because forced coziness just isn’t. (Cozy, that is.) In your novel, you implode many of the modern myths of blissful domesticity. While it’s nice to be able to choose to stay in, maybe bake and eat carbs, the choice becomes the significant factor. Your caregivers love their charges, but they remain “stuck,” nonetheless. I am not sure what parts you might have written pre- or postpandemic, but over the course of 2020, and even into this year, did your perspective on your characters shift due to the ongoing crisis?

ML: This is a great question, and—as is the case with most great questions—very difficult to answer succinctly.

I started writing Failure to Thrive in 2014, at the very beginning of my marriage to a person who has family members from the PA Coal Region. When he first drove me through the coal towns that inspired my novel’s setting—Shamokin, Coal Township, Mt. Carmel, the evacuated scar of Centralia—I was so struck by them, their singular blend of beauty and dilapidation (the coal-streaked clapboard, the once-resplendent buildings in various states of ruination, the houses with X signs on the front doors indicating to first responders that it was unsafe to enter). I was also struck by this weird, uncanny feeling that I’d been there before (even though I hadn’t been), perhaps triggered by associations with my family’s hometown of Decatur, IL (another once-thriving industrial city now on the decline). The landscape looked sick. The buildings looked sick. The roads looked sick. There were signs on the homes that said, “Danger, oxygen in use.” I was just filled with this sense of wonder about the people who lived there, who stayed there, who couldn’t leave because of barriers related to illness and disability.

When I began this novel, I think I was trying to map my experiences working as a caregiver for elders and people with disabilities in the Midwest onto my imagination of life in these Pennsylvania towns that were really important to my (then) husband. As time went on, though—and as our marriage started to reveal its hairline cracks, its sickness, so to speak—I think I was writing more and more toward my own increasing sensation of being “stuck,” of being cloistered with this person I felt loyal to, but ultimately disconnected from (as so many people feel, living in these kinds of towns: part of them probably knows that these towns are dying, that they’re not going to experience some miraculous recovery, but these towns are “home”…to the degree that “home” itself perhaps becomes aligned with a kind of sickness, a kind of sick-glazed mental fog).

The pandemic definitely increased that feeling of being “stuck.” I went through the first month of the pandemic in Szombathely, Hungary (where I was then teaching at a university) confined to the apartment with my then-husband, basically 24/7. Then, when we made an emergency return to the US, we had to quarantine together in my parents’ small house by Lake Michigan. They’d actually just bought the house a few months before the pandemic, so we were literally staying in a house we’d never seen before. I think we both felt like squatters…or, at the very least, like we were living in a tenuous situation that was an emotional pressure cooker for both of us.

To make a very long and very complicated story short: I ended up leaving my husband and moving back to the fringes of the PA Coal Region (where I’d earlier lived as the Philip Roth Writer-in-Residence during the spring semester of 2018). Living there a second time, I felt like I transitioned from being an outsider writing about someone else’s home to a liminal resident who was forced to engage and identify more deeply with the landscape. I couldn’t find writing and teaching jobs when I first moved, so I actually ended up working at a hospital in the Coal Region (as a COVID screener/temperature-taker), and I developed a very strange intimacy with the community that way. I had to plead with (sometimes hostile) people to wear their masks. I saw the chart with COVID patients in the hospital—and COVID counts in the county—steadily rising. I drove through the beautiful, beautiful mountains early in the morning, late at night, through the fiery colors of fall, the bleakness of winter, the relief of spring.

I also revisited spaces my ex-husband had planned to photograph for the book, and I took my own Polaroids (the ones you see at the back). More than anything, taking these pictures helped me feel connected with the space…with the novel…or, perhaps, helped me feel more at home with my particular disconnect. Rather than writing toward experiences and spaces that weren’t “mine,” I felt like I was articulating my own perspective on these towns. It’s ironic, but in some ways, even as I grew to identify more and more deeply with my “stuck” characters during the pandemic, I felt increasingly at home. I felt free.

Let’s end today’s interview at the very end of your debut novel, with the image-based coda. Tell us a bit more about the Polaroids you took. For me, these bleak but honest photographs blend fact and fiction—an intentional effect, on your part?

Definitely intentional. I don’t want to explain away that effect, but I will say that I was hoping to blend the present and the past in an uncanny way, and also to blend different spaces, to blend an amalgam of spaces into one single “town.” This was always a goal of mine because that’s how these spaces feel to me: they’re simultaneously singular and unlike anywhere else I’ve ever lived while also being like everywhere I’ve ever lived. And they’re also stuck in time in an uncanny way. Most of the buildings haven’t been updated since the sixties…have been decaying since the sixties… You see these seafoam green awnings, these astroturf porches, and all these old, weathered shells of grand Victorian and Italianate homes from the 1880s, and you’re overwhelmed with this sensation of: “Where am I? When am I?”

I felt particularly compelled to include images and realia from the Pine Burr Inn because I had a remarkable experience there. My ex-husband and I stayed there on New Year’s Eve in 2016 (which very much felt like the “eve” of Trump’s inauguration) so we could both work on our separate Coal-Region projects (he was working on a film and I was working on an early draft of this novel). The young woman who checked us into the Pine Burr Inn originally put us in a room without working heat (we took videos of our breath fogging the mirrors). When she came to address the issue, she moved us to the room next door, Xed off the room on a little clipboard-ed map of the inn and shifted the mattress of one of the beds (in the room we were in) so it was pressed up against the window. The next morning, there was this eerie, ghostly stillness. There were no cars in the parking lot. The young woman wasn’t at the front desk to check us out. And I noticed that there were mattresses pressed against the windows of almost every room of the inn.

A year later, when I was the Roth Resident at Bucknell University, doing some idle online research, I found an obituary for the owner of the Pine Burr Inn. I learned that the owner of the Pine Burr Inn died that New Year’s Eve, on the night we were staying there. We were there on the last night of the Pine Burr Inn’s existence.

The book contains a menu from the Pine Burr Inn that I took with me when we left on that strange, ghostly morning. The book also contains photos from the Pine Burr Inn in 2020, when it was no longer in operation (though, when I took those photos, I heard someone talking behind the door of one of the rooms, so I think there must be some homeless people sheltering inside).

This is all a very roundabout way of saying: I wanted to document that sensation, of being in a place that—in many ways—no longer exists. A place that no longer exists, but is nevertheless a “home” to  many people. It’s an unreal, but real place, and people are still living there.

Interviewed by Courtney Harler


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