Peace Alongside Unrest: The Millions Interviews Meghan Gilliss

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Meghan Gilliss’s debut novel Lungfish tells the story of Tuck, a new mother residing on an uninhabited island off the coast of Maine, with only her child and her detoxing husband for company. As Tuck watches her husband Paul painfully ween himself off the opioid-like drug kratom, she grapples with questions about marriage, motherhood, and addiction. Experimental in form, Lungfish is segmented into page-length chapters resembling prose poems, mirroring Tuck’s own dissociative response to the isolation and scarcity that constrict her life. I spoke with Gilliss via email about catharsis, nature writing, and her personal connection to her protagonist.

Liv Albright: As Tuck finds with her research, kratom is used to help alleviate symptoms of withdrawal from supposedly more harmful opioids, yet her husband, Paul, is addicted to kratom. How did you hear about kratom and why did you choose it for Paul’s drug of choice?

Meghan Gilliss: My relationship to kratom in real life is very similar to Tuck’s relationship to it, and unraveled similarly, in emotional terms. I began this book in 2016, when no one was really talking about the drug. It was a struggle, writing the novel from Tuck’s perspective—giving the reader enough information about what was going on to feel grounded, while maintaining the sense of her own disorientation and lack of solid information. There were points during the revision process when I thought that it might make more sense to substitute kratom with a substance more readers could easily latch onto, but in the end that extra layer of Tuck’s isolation and confusion felt worth keeping; our problems are never as simple as other people’s problems, and they are always entangled with other unique problems, which means that solutions have to be completely custom-built and don’t come easily. I chose to designate kratom as the drug in the novel because I believed it might keep readers more alert than they’d be if the characters were under the sway of a substance people are more familiar with. It was also cathartic—a kind of revenge against a part of the industry that in my own experience had knowingly cultivated and profited from the addiction of others.

LA: Themes of addiction are balanced with nature in Lungfish. Nature is given as much importance, if not more importance, than humans in the novel. Tuck sometimes senses her family members in the earth, and at times plants and trees are characterized as living, breathing beings. What is your relationship with nature and why does it manifest so strongly in your work?

MG: I think that there are people writers and there are nature writers. And I think which one you are might come down to which community—of people or of nature—gives you that sense of being at ease, of being in your own skin. I think I’m just the second kind—writers who have always known we don’t think or talk fast enough to live in a place like New York, as good as it might be for a writing career. The ability to reflect on the natural world in writing is a huge opportunity, too, in terms of developing selfhood. But also, in this novel, Tuck is grasping at things—whatever is actually there in front of her—to help her make sense of her situation. She happens to be isolated within a very natural setting, so it makes sense that she tries to draw some meaning from it, or even just understand it.

LA: In your short story “Old Money,” published in Salamander, the narrator’s ancestors have built a house on an island, which is central to the story. This is very similar to Lungfish, where the narrator is squatting in her deceased grandmother’s island home. Did “Old Money” at all inspire Lungfish?

MG: Lungfish probably did borrow some themes from “Old Money,” but “Old Money” first borrowed those themes from my life. We have a piece of property like this in my family—a steadily shrinking piece of the land that generations of my ancestors have spent time on, though I do worry about how they came to have it. It’s a complicated place—my deepest home, but at the same time a place that can’t be experienced without the awareness of the huge unearned privilege of having access to it, coupled with the deep and real fear of losing it. Peace is experienced alongside unrest.

LA: In “Old Money” and several other of your short stories, including “A Bush in Harbor View,” poverty is a central theme. This is also the case in Lungfish, where the family gets evicted after Paul, the husband, loses his job. What draws you to writing about the experience of poverty?

MG: I grew up in a family that had been declining economically for generations. Culturally, I was taught to have the concerns of a wealthier class. But practically, I had the concerns of someone living paycheck to paycheck for my entire adult life. I remember being a kid and asking my dad how much money he earned, and he wouldn’t tell me, basically saying it was impolite to talk about these things. I was just trying to understand how much you needed to earn to be okay—we were getting by, but I grew up attending private schools and so ran with a much wealthier crowd, never inviting anyone over to my house. At a certain point in life, it just started feeling better to be open about money, and the lack of it, and the interesting situations the lack of it causes. While I hate the fact that so much of America lives in poverty now, I’m at least grateful for the fact that people talk about their poverty and don’t take such great pains to hide it.

LA: The novel also plays with this idea of women’s bodies being inadequate. Tuck feels like she’s not supposed to feel hunger, and her trouble starting the boat leaves her feeling that “female bodies were just missing something. Some muscle in the shoulder that made the necessary motion possible.” Yet Tuck is an active force, collecting food and caring for her daughter, while Paul is incapacitated in a detox state. What do you make of this gender dynamic? Can you talk more about Paul and his motivations?

MG: I think Tuck is a person for whom passivity had no noticeable consequences until she became a parent. I think that like other heroines—like the narrators in Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays, Ann Beattie’s Walks with Men, and Mary Robison’s Why Did I Ever—she is wired as a receiver, a sort of collector and compiler, but less so for action or even necessarily synthesis. But sometimes, even for these people, action is eventually demanded. I think people across the gender spectrum are wired this way, though of course it’s most cultivated and appreciated in women. Certainly, when it comes to Tuck’s internalization of the idea that she should not feel her own hunger, you realize she’s been damaged by societal messaging. And as for Paul, I think he loves his family and is driven away from them by shame as much as by a protective need for secrecy. I think his own deep need for something in order to feel okay—in his case, drugs—overrules all the choices he’d rather make. His brain was hijacked, as addicts’ brains are. Unfortunately, it’s pretty simple and really not the least bit moral.

LA: Tuck spends much of the novel questioning her faith. Meanwhile, you thread religious imagery throughout the narrative. Can you explain your approach to writing about faith and religion? 

MG:  Addiction forces you to face your own ideas about God and all that. Parenthood also makes you feel inclined to revisit your beliefs; you begin to understand, if you didn’t already, why human beings rely on belief systems. For Tuck, who is surrounded by the evidence of her grandmother’s faith in the Christian God, religion and faith exist as alternatives and experiences, potentialities—and even, I think, they represent feelings of being left out, of some understanding that access will be granted only in exchange for self-obliteration. Is it worth it? Mostly, Tuck has to choose, day in and day out, what to believe about her situation, and then has to move forward with that. It takes her a while to learn she has to do that even if it means potentially being wrong.

Conflicting Narratives: The Millions Interviews Courtney Denelle

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Courtney Denelle’s debut novel, It’s Not Nothing, forthcoming from Santa Fe Writers Project on September 1, is based on the author’s own struggles with mental health and addiction. The novel follows an adrift woman, Rosemary Candwell, as she tries to claw her way out of a mental breakdown that results in homelessness. In telling Rosemary’s story, Denelle creates her own niche in the genre of women’s psychological fiction. Written in elegant, poetic bursts, It’s Not Nothing reflects the psychic battle of its subject’s illness. Denelle helps pave the way for mental-health fiction writers who crave a written structure that speaks to the reality of their experience. I met with Denelle via Zoom to discuss It’s Not Nothing, writing women’s pain, and misogyny in the field of mental health.
Liv Albright: I’m really interested in how you portray men in It’s Not Nothing. There’s a passage where Rosemary, the protagonist, reflects on how the men in the psych ward take up so much space, but women aren’t allowed to do that. Can you describe how male entitlement manifests in mental health settings?
Courtney Denelle: Rosemary realizes that contrary to the men in the psych ward, her pain has never been validated or seen as respectable; her symptoms don’t compel sympathy. Women are encouraged to make themselves smaller, to make themselves more manageable in order to move through the world. If there are aspects of gender socialization in children that cast a long shadow, of course there would be gendered expressions in certain symptoms of mental illness. It’s my experience that women are aggressively condemned for being mentally ill in public, versus men who sometimes can get a pass, especially in creative communities.
LA: I also think certain diagnoses, like borderline personality disorder, may be used to shame women for their emotions. This theme shows up in other ways too, such as with Freud and other contemporary male psychologists who are misogynists.
CD: I was focusing on a particular outpatient program that I was in that implemented DBT practices, that have their merit for sure, but the irony to me is that, for the most, part it’s only available to women. It’s just funny that it’s a classroom structure that is designed to teach women how to sit with discomfort, how to bear pain. That’s kind of our lot in life—bearing pain and moderating the narratives around that pain. The way DBT is processed by others that are in a position of power in mental health communities is problematic.
LA: In your book, you talk about how Anne Sexton died from “terminal misogyny.” Her doctors were fascinated by her, and they didn’t treat her. They kept her where she was.

CD: If you haven’t read it, Anne Sexton: A Biography by Diane Middlebrook is considered canon. Of course, it was another era, but they taped her sessions, which are reported on in the book. You could see as a fly on the wall that it was less about moving into an integrated whole life, and more about activating certain wounds and the narratives that she had around those wounds. As a reader, that seemed to resonate with my experience as someone who lives with mental illness. But it does romanticize the tortured artist. I think an artist who is living a whole and integrated life is more likely to make art in a sustainable capacity.
LA: Did you write a lot when you were ill?
CD: I was engaging with the page. I always have, but it was not deliberate work, it was not work that I would ever pass off as being more true or real. It was me just trying to bear the weight of my own reality, and that’s always my relationship with the blank page. So much of my healing has come not only from my relationship with the blank page, but also my experience in meditation and in trauma-informed therapy, and that relies on witnessing the quality of my mind, which is a whole mess of conflicting narratives. Really cultivating my own still point enables me to honor those narratives, those parts of myself that I still live with, but don’t necessarily listen to. Writing this was very much cutting along the nerve. I’m a Rhode Islander, so I always think of water analogies, ocean analogies, and to swim out of riptide, you can’t swim into it—you have to swim alongside it until you feel the rip lessening and you’re able to go back to shore. This novel was really me swimming alongside the riptide until I didn’t feel the charge of it quite so much.
LA: Aside from catharsis, do you also feel like you’re also trying to help with the stigma around mental illness?
CD: I would say that it’s splitting the difference between both. I was only ever a writer because I wrote—I never had anyone outside of myself validating me, saying, “Yes, you’re a writer.” I had to find my own way. I wrote this novel as somebody who doesn’t have a college degree, as somebody who is making outsider art in a literary capacity. I think it was an extra benefit that it might work to destigmatize, or at least make people feel seen, by writing an aspect of real-time resilience. Resilience doesn’t always look the way that we want it to or expect it to, or how other people want it to, in order for your tale of woe to compel sympathy. For Rosemary, there’s no laurel crowning, there’s no overcoming obstacles, but she is somehow learning to live alongside all that’s passed, and that can be heroic. Especially in recovery from substance abuse or alcoholism, you’re never recovered, you’re always in recovery. Writing this was a way of implementing my tools and gaining new tools.
LA: There’s a scene in which Rosemary is feeling self-conscious about her scars, and the guy from the vitamin store is startled when he sees them. Why do you think society is so uncomfortable with those kinds of signs of mental illness?
CD: A mind run amok is scary for the way most people move through the world, as if there’s one person sitting behind our eyes, pulling these little levers. It could just be the idea of loss of control, true loss of control. There is increased fluency in the language of mental illness, but there is also an idea that it should look a certain way. I would say that if it’s heavy for people to observe or perceive, imagine what that’s like living with it.
LA: I think it’s easy to say don’t be scared of somebody who has a mental illness, because even to the person who experiences it, it’s terrifying. It’s also hard for the person observing, because that person can probably tell how bad it is.
CD: I think with suicidality in general—even for deeply empathetic, compassionate people—there’s a natural human fear or aversion to situations that you can’t impact. You can’t fix it, you can’t take it away from somebody, and that’s the same for substance abuse, too. That’s part of the challenge of recovery, supporting somebody who’s going through that.
LA: The character Rosemary has this guard up to protect herself, and she needs that because she’s been through so much.
CD: There are many things that we do that maybe don’t serve us in the long term that keep us safe in the moment. At one point, Rosemary has that internal response to the woman running the coat drive. The woman is outwardly a woman of wealth, who passes judgment on Rosemary, because Rosemary’s not subscribing to what she thinks is applicable to a young woman in her situation. I think that’s where the real test of people’s compassion displays itself, in moments like these, where the privileged can determine who among us is worthy of care and concern. I think there is still that knee-jerk response of wanting to determine who’s really in pain, who really is in need, and that is not helpful.
LA: A lot of people also don’t understand what is behind someone’s illness. For instance, Rosemary had a difficult relationship with both parents. Rosemary’s mother refuses to see her after Rosemary tries to kill herself, and her father is in his alcohol addiction, while Rosemary is trying to recover from hers.
CD: Rosemary is raised by a woman who hates women. Writing the novel made me investigate my own internalized misogyny. Moreover, alcoholism is often called “the family disease,” not just because it reoccurs intergenerationally, but also how it shapes, warps, and contorts interpersonal relationships. It was important to me to write a character where her drinking problem wasn’t the whole story. In fact, her sobriety was just the first step. It catalyzed the whole new emotional, somatic experience of having landed stark sober in a body, her physical body, for what felt like the first time. She has to learn how to live all over again.