Megan Arkenberg doesn’t believe in creating artificial boundaries around her writing, and that belief has served her well. Her poetry and fiction are reader favorites, evidenced by her 2013 Readers’ Award. She took the time to explain to us how her writing philosophy developed, her many strategies for avoiding writers’ block, and how she relates to the characters in her newest short story, “All in Green Went My Love Riding,” in our September/October issue [on sale now]. Don’t miss the free podcast of this story, read by Dani Daly, available on Spotify, Apple, or here.
Asimov’s Editors: Is this “All in Green Went My Love Riding” part of a larger universe, or is it stand-alone?
Megan Arkenberg: One of the things I enjoy about reading and writing short stories is the ability to fully inhabit a world for a moment, then let it go. Some people consider “This could be a novel!” a compliment, but I’m very much the opposite; I like the sense of closure and completeness that comes from a precisely crafted short story. It’s not that I want my fictional worlds to be small, but I want to feel like the scale of the world matches the scale of the narrative—like the author has told the story she needs to tell in order to show the world at its fullest. All of which is to say “All in Green Went My Love Riding” is a stand-alone story.
That said, some readers may find Mrs. Morrow reminiscent of a certain insular doctor. . . .
AE: Do you particularly relate to any of the characters in this story?
MA: “All in Green” is about a group of young women at a rural boarding school and their uneasy relationship with the nearby village. The anxiety that haunts Margot and the other girls at Hunger Lake—that everyone outside their isolated community sees and recognizes something about them that they don’t understand about themselves—is deeply relatable to me (although less as I get older, fortunately). It’s a kind of social or even moral Imposter Syndrome.
AE: How did the title for this piece come to you?
MA: The title is from an e.e. cummings poem (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/148503/all-in-green-went-my-love-riding) that plays with romantic conventions in the same way the girls at Hunger Lake do with their “love games.” The poem itself is about the draw of something fatal masquerading as something lovely.
AE: What is your history with Asimov’s?
MA: My first story for Asimov’s, “Final Exam,” tied for Best Short Story in the 2013 Readers’ Award and went on to be reprinted in several places, including Ellen Datlow’s Year’s Best Horror, Volume 5, Robert Silverberg’s This Way to the End Times: Classic Tales of the Apocalypse, and Hayakawa SF (translated into Japanese). My second Asimov’s story, “A Love Song Concerning His Vineyard,” was just read live on WFMU’s “Radiovert” program by Nicole Imthurn. I’ve also contributed a handful of poems to the magazine.
AE: Who or what are your greatest influences and inspirations?
MA: I’m an academic and a writing teacher, so I spend my days surrounded by words. My inspiration tends to come from particularly evocative phrases—combinations of words that imply a narrative, or several possible narratives. Both of my most recent Asimov’s stories began with their titles and the questions those raised.
AE: Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to throughout your writing? If yes, what and why?
MA: I write a lot of stories from the perspective of a guilty conscience. It’s probably because I grew up Catholic. Okay, I joke—but in all seriousness, I‘m fascinated by the question of what we can or should do when we realize we were unintentionally, unknowingly, and often unavoidably complicit in a wrong. Complicity is also a clear motive for narration; many of my first-person narrators are telling their stories precisely because they need to make sense of the harm they’ve caused or failed to prevent.
AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?
MA: There are different kinds of block. If I’m working on a story and I know what I need to write next but I simply don’t feel like writing it, I take myself to a beer shop or brewery, grab a nice stout, and make myself write on the patio for an hour or two. (Living in the eerily predictable weather of Northern California has its benefits!)
If I genuinely don’t know what to write next, something has almost certainly gone wrong with the draft. I reread everything I have, preferably out loud, to diagnose the problem. Is there a plot hole I’ve been carpeting over? A scene that doesn’t belong in this story, or one that should be twice as long as it is? Am I tuning in and out of the narrator’s voice like a car radio under a high-tension wire? Sometimes the problem is easy to solve once it’s identified. Other times, I figure out how to write around it and still end up with a passable first draft. When all else fails, I set a kitchen timer for fifteen minutes and jot down some utter, utter crap until it goes off.
On the other hand, I’ve learned not to panic when I feel generally reluctant to write—not stalled on a single project, but less interested in writing fiction than in my teaching, relationships, travel, home improvement projects, etc. Sometimes my brain needs time to recuperate between stories. I know that when I find myself itching to write again, I can and will.
AE: What SFnal prediction would you like to see come true?
MA: That we can find a way to stall or reverse the effects of climate change. The looming fate of the planet is one of the things that keeps me up at night; I don’t even write about it because it’s too upsetting to think about.
AE: What are you reading right now?
MA: I’m in the middle of K. Chess’s Famous Men Who Never Lived; I love parallel universe stories, and this novel takes one of the most compelling approaches to the trope I’ve ever encountered. The next thing on my to-read list is Alanna McFall’s debut novel, The Traveling Triple-C Incorporeal Circus, which is about a trio of circus performers (two of them deceased) on an on-foot road trip from New York to California.
AE: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?
MA: Do the best work you can on the story in front of you. Don’t worry about how or whether it follows a trajectory with everything you’ve written and published before now. You can write and publish radically different stories back-to-back, or tell the same story again and again in different forms. There are no rules for what your career or oeuvre should look like—so don’t invent them for yourself!
AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?
MA: I’m on Twitter @meganarkenberg, and my website is www.meganarkenberg.com.