Selected by Carmen Maria Machado as winner of The Bakwin Award, debut author Maegan Poland’s What Makes You Think You’re Awake? is a searing collection of stories that grapple with the limits of human connection, the borders of consciousness, and the slipperiness of coming to know oneself deeply amid the pressures of daily survival.
Poland’s book was published in June by Blair Press, and the same month appeared on The Millions “Most Anticipated” list. Stories in the collection include “Spores,” which previously received a Special Mention in The Pushcart Prize XL: Best of the Small Presses 2016 Edition anthology, and “Milking,” which was a finalist in the 2019 Mississippi Review Fiction Prize. Poland currently teaches creative writing and composition at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
While the stories in this masterful collection are deeply introspective, they are also incredibly gripping and, at times, darkly funny. Set amid contemporary life or in a very near future, Poland’s stories are grounded in the realism of daily life but layered with the speculative and the surreal. They sustain a level of narrative tension that approaches something like a thriller, causing her protagonists and readers alike to contemplate their bodies, minds, and motives. Think along the lines of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper but for the 21st century, if Gilman’s classic work met with the likes of Machado and Laura van den Berg. Poland’s collection offers a nuanced feminist critique of society and technology and asks difficult questions about the nature of perceived reality when internalized social norms have made it difficult to separate one’s true desires from one’s learned expectations. Poland’s characters grapple with trying to break free from traps both socially enforced and self-imposed. They seek something better, freer, truer—though perhaps yet ineffable.
Poland and I first met while we were Black Mountain Institute PhD fellows at UNLV and co-editors for Witness literary magazine. She spoke with me about her inspirations and writing process over two Zoom meetings this spring. The interviews have been condensed for length and lightly edited for clarity.
The Millions: Since you’re a debut author, I thought it would be good to begin with you introducing yourself to readers. Tell me about your inspiration: where do you feel you write from, and what considerations are foremost to you as a writer?
Maegan Poland: When I was growing up, like so many writers, I was a dedicated reader, and was really fortunate to have parents who gave me access to lots of books. I remember, in particular, being captivated by the book The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley. I read it over and over as a kid. The main character is an illegitimate princess who tries to prove herself by being a dragon slayer and ends up getting horribly burned in the process, and I remember thinking, “This goes against all the Princess stories that I’d read.” I fell in love with the main character. Her story wasn’t about being the beautiful princess, getting rescued, and having the one-dimensional happily-ever-after romance. She was a fighter. Even then, I think I wanted to read more stories about girls and women that surprised me, that didn’t fit with the dominant societal narrative I’d been fed.
The writing that inspires me shifts over time. I may curate what I’m reading to put me in the right state of mind for my writing. I have often turned to Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison for inspiration. I also am inspired by Lorrie Moore’s dark wit. More recently, I’ve discovered and deeply admired the writing of Laura van den Berg and Carmen Maria Machado. I’m often drawn to writing that examines societal expectations, gender roles, and sexuality, as well as writing that simply amplifies the magic and horror of life.
TM: A couple of the stories explore anxieties of living in the technological age—like in “How They Saw Her”—and even flirt with the dystopian; yet the stories still approach the dystopian from a realist sense, set in the now or the not-too-distant future, as in “Landline” and “Modern Relics,” but one could argue “Milking” gets at this, too, in a way, through the technology of the fertility industry. And then there’s “The Shed,” which uses magic realism to create a beautiful fantasy that soon goes awry. How do these stories originate for you? How does the blurring of genres serve the larger themes?
MP: There is a tendency in my writing, at least at this point in time, to be interested in things that are gearing toward a sort of psychological surrealism, but with a light touch. I’m really interested in the reliability of our perspectives, these epistemological concerns that seem to be even more relevant now that we’re living in an age where there’s so much discussion of what we can trust in terms of information. But also, this fits with sort of unpacking what we know about what we want. “How do you know that what you want, is actually what you want?” is a question that I explore in a few different ways in the collection because it’s just really hard to excavate the layers of what’s coming from inside us, whatever that means, versus what’s coming from outside of us, and the sort of feedback loop between those things. So, I often find myself leaning toward a place of a character maybe unlocking another perspective, maybe a different understanding of reality, but with the lingering question of, “Is this an accurate way of seeing things?” That’s the anxiety of the character. Is the character actually seeing their world the way that it is? And with a couple of the stories that dovetails with technology.
TM: What I particularly notice and admire about your writing is that the pacing and suspense are often approached at the level of what I thought of as almost a psychological thriller—but I like how you called it psychological surrealism—because mortality, death, and the threat of sexual violence are quietly present in much of the work. Yet the tensions within your stories are most often the kind nestled in the spaces between two people. It’s invisible, subtle, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, but unmistakable. Can you tell me more about what you mean when you say psychological surrealism?
MP: I think about how so many of the stories that I’ve been writing recently—and it’s not every story—but so many of the stories are exploring how the characters’ perspectives are creating these harrowing possibilities. And so, there’s a sense of slipperiness between reality and perspective, and uncertainty about how much those two things are overlapping or connected. And so, one of the tensions in my recent fiction is essentially how things deviate from our expectations for reality. I’m able to explore that through the characters’ perception, which may or may not be flawed.
TM: Yes! And how do you go about crafting that? It’s so masterful because it’s these really subtle—almost microaggressions, but in some cases it’s even more subtle than that—like you said it’s a slipperiness of perspective. So that strikes me as very ineffable in life, in a lot of ways. I’d love to hear more about your process around bringing that out in your stories.
MP: I think in life I’m actually a very social person who cares deeply about my relationships, and I trust the people I care most about. But there is a part of me [laughs]—the nightmare that is always at the back of my mind is this idea that we’re all skin bags [laughs] creating these illusory personas for each other. And that we never truly are connecting as much as we would actually hope to. That’s not necessarily how I engage with the world, but it’s a part of me: this fear that resurfaces from time to time—and I suspect it’s a common fear for others as well. It’s something that can produce a lot of tension in relationships when we feel like maybe we’ve been wrong about someone, and we don’t trust our discernment. I think that can also comment upon our larger anxieties about the world, and about trying to be able to correctly perceive what is happening around us.
I’m concerned about a reckless propensity towards conspiracy theories right now in the United States. So, when I examine these questions, I don’t want it to sound as though I’m trying to create fodder for that sort of mindset, but I think there is something in the zeitgeist. There’s a lot of anxiety about how we can feel sure about any of the information that we’re receiving, especially with certain structures of power, like even just thinking in terms of the subtle ways that we’re influenced by algorithms, and the subtle ways that algorithms can be utilized for profit. There are so many things that are shaping how we see the world that a lot of us are not yet aware of. The exploration of the ways in which we fail to know each other, or the ways we are nervous about whether or not we truly know each other, is also about how we are anxious about the world and the knowability of the world. I think all those things are connected. As a craft question, I just think about all those fears, and I write them down [laughs]
TM: [laughs] That’s wise advice.
MP: —but, I write down the weird specific permutations of it, you know? All the strange mundane manifestations of those types of fears. Sometimes if it’s the right character, who is inclined to have those fears as well, that helps me shape them, and to shape how they’re interacting with other people.
LT: Even amid the narrative tension we just talked about and those deep dark issues that you’re exploring, there’s often an underlying comedy—witty, ironic, sometimes neurotic. There are certain lines that I find myself laughing out loud at, even on the second or third read. Yet, that sense of comedy does not take away from the actual darkness of what the protagonist is going through in any of the stories and I’d love to know more about how you approach the use of humor in your work.
MP: I have had people before say that my writing can tend towards being darkly funny. You know, I was watching a movie last night, The Wolf of Snow Hollow. It was a dark comedy in a lot of ways, but it was so sincere with its treatment of the main character and his struggles with alcoholism; for me, that use of dark humor did not take away the emotional impact. If anything, the quick juxtaposition of a joke followed by a moment of really raw emotion emphasizes the character’s struggle, I think. So, if somebody thinks that I’m doing something similar, then that’s very good news for me. At least, that is something that I sometimes do aspire to. I meant for “Spores” to be a funny story. That’s what I think of as my most comedic story.
TM: [laughing] That’s hilarious to me because that story really freaked me out! I’d love to know why you find that one funny.
MP: [laughs] That story is fiction, but it was informed by my experiences in screenwriting and film school as well. I had screenwriting in mind as I was writing it, so I thought of set pieces, and I was thinking in terms of creating this comedic payoff. I usually write from character first and foremost—you know, I usually do not approach comedy in that way—but I did in that story, and now that we’re talking about it, I do think that screenwriting was an influence on that.
I tend to be a person who can be very joyful, but I also struggle with having a pessimistic interpretation of things sometimes, and I think the way that I have learned to cope with that is to try and poke fun at it, and so I think that sometimes gets translated into how I’m trying to explore the heavy seriousness of a moment. I sometimes then have this impulse to—not poke fun at the character’s predicament—but I guess it’s a way of sort of commenting on the inevitable absurdity of the human experience [laughs]. It’s like, how strange that we can conceive of our own mortality, and have to constantly make choices to minimize the likelihood of our death, while also deciding whether or not we want to have a unicorn latte, you know?
TM: [laughing] The characters are recognizing that as much as they’re really hampered by these existential as well as practical concerns for their lives, they also see the absurdity in it, but they can’t stop themselves. That really comes through in the stories.
So, going back to the darker subject a little bit—In many of the stories, which are most often told from the perspective of a female protagonist, there are antagonistic men invading women’s spaces and lives through gendered microaggressions. I am thinking especially of “The Shed” and “Landline,” to different degrees. While the women in the stories are often sort of painfully polite—which you’re masterful at conveying as a survival strategy—for instance, in “The Way They Saw Her,” the protagonist, who is being harassed and potentially stalked, cannot think of what she would have done to be worthy of “a vendetta” since she has always prioritized trying to behave in ways that would make her innocuous and well-liked by others. Can you discuss how these stories deal with the issue of safety and survival in a male-dominated world?
MP: With “The Shed,” when I wrote it, I had been revisiting Virginia Woolf. I was thinking of A Room of One’s Own and I was also finalizing my dissertation. I remember saying to my now-husband, “I just wish I could go into a shed and stop time,” and then, I was like, “Wait a minute. I’ve got to write that down.” And so, it started with a premise: What would that mean if you could go into this separate space that really does sort of stop the world for a while as you gather your thoughts or collect yourself—what would that do to someone? It seems like it could be addictive. It would be tempting to shut the world out, but how much would that interfere with somebody’s ability to perceive the world?—whatever that means, if that is possible. On top of that, there’s a man in that story who invades her space. I didn’t want to create a story that was didactic or that had all the questions answered for me. I wanted to use the story to explore—to set up these premises and then, set them in motion and see how the tension of those elements, the shed and this intruder, would resolve or explode. And of course, this premise evolved into something quite different than the importance of Woolf’s message that women needed dedicated space and time for their writing, but I think there are still resonances; on one level, the story depicts how difficult it is for a woman to secure an inviolable space.
TM: It strikes me that she’s had these life experiences that have drastically influenced her to know that the world is very dangerous. She’s uprooted her whole life in fact, as a result of it. Yet, even so, the rules of social engagement are such that the reason she doesn’t react until things boil over is because she’s afraid of his reaction; because then he could say she didn’t have the right to be more assertive, right?
MP: It was definitely part of my intention that she feels that there are certain ways that she has to behave to de-escalate the situation and that allow him to actually keep pushing. It’s still a problem that some men expect women will pay them a certain type of attention. A seemingly well-intentioned guy might still have some of these bad habits of demanding a level of attention that would force a woman to have to pause and do the calculus of “is he safe or not?”
TM: That is really well-depicted in all your stories. The women in the stories are often experiencing being watched in some way—most overtly “In the Way They Saw Her,” but again recurring in “Landline” and “Modern Relics.” Thematically, it made me think of Foucault’s panopticon and this idea of being observed all the time or not knowing if you’re being observed all the time. So, I wondered if you might talk about how this idea might apply to gender dynamics—perhaps, when considering the male gaze.
MP: In “Modern Relics,” the surveillance becomes part of the automation and part of how the capitalist system can just keep rolling along. But the main character also has this fear of how surveillance video could be used against her. Could someone secretly watch footage of her having sex with her husband? Could someone use that footage to say she was unfit for her job? Previously private spaces have become public and open for public judgement and consumption. With “The Way They Saw Her,” it definitely was about exploring a social media-saturated, Internet-saturated world and thinking about how that gives people so much access to—I am trying to think of the right word—I almost want to say so much access to hunting, sort of like cyber-hunting, and how that gives somebody so much access and, sometimes, anonymous access to criticizing and, maybe in other ways, psychologically violating anyone. Specifically, I was thinking about how certain groups, including women, are more likely to be targeted. It creates an amplification of an already problematic power structure. And then, the unfair burden that the way to protect yourself would be to go offline, but that’s in direct opposition to career goals, and direct opposition to the character’s goals of no longer being isolated, right? So that if she is going to follow police advice, if she is going to do the thing that’s prescribed for her by authorities within society, she is sort of erasing herself.
TM: Many of the stories deal with women’s sense of self and identity amid social expectations, such as the roles of wife and mother. These stories also offer a nuanced and complex exploration of sexuality and desire—often in conversation with one another and to different degrees—with danger and trauma as well as the nature of romantic intimacy, sexual identity, and the complex search for sexual empowerment. How do you see these themes being explored in your work?
MP: Earlier, I had said how a driving question or anxiety I have for many of my characters is: how do they know what they want? How can they know how much of what they want is what they really want or how much of it is influenced by other forces that make them think they want that? I explore this in “Milking,” for example. There is a sense of how the protagonist’s mother pictured that her daughter should have a kid by a certain age, how her husband now thinks that she should start a family with another round of IVF versus what she feels comfortable with, and she’s struggling with that pressure.
TM: I was thinking primarily of “What Makes You Think You’re Awake Right Now?”, but I feel many your stories capture the experience so well of being a woman in this time—maybe always, but I know it is a conversation I have had with many of my friends—for example, in deciding to get engaged or the possibility of having kids. Part of the experience is parsing, What do I want? What is empowerment? Whether it follows the script or not, you know? How do you see that aspect of the sense of self and identity amid romantic intimacies, sexual identity, and sexual empowerment?
MP: When I was writing the sleepwalking story, “What Makes You Think You’re Awake Right Now?,” I was thinking about the premise first and foremost. I found myself really interested in, first of all, a recurring theme in my writing, which is anxiety about the way in which our body can betray us. And then another anxiety I often explore is the ways in which people, even people we care about, how we might not perceive each other accurately. We may not be understanding what the other person needs, or maybe we might not be accurately perceiving what the other person needs. I also was tonally interested in something that at first could seem light-hearted and how quickly—because of this situation of being betrayed by your body and then also having someone not understanding how important it is that they correctly read what’s going on with you and your bodily experience—that could lead to such a traumatic experience.
TM: I love that you keep mentioning this phrase “body betrayal” because it is something I hadn’t articulated for myself as a reader. Could you talk a little more about your conception of body betrayal in this collection?
MP: Well, I think there’s a couple of levels. One is that it goes back to that anxiety and the absurdity of us being these walking skin bags and that’s a sort of two-fold horror. One is that the body is such a fragile vehicle through which to observe the world—I know we could also frame it as the “resilient human body,” but I am exploring the anxieties of the fragility of the human body. For all of our extraordinary thoughts and creativity and imagination, we are still housed in this skin bag that can fail us and shut it all down. I think that often, I am interested in how the reminder of that mortality can ratchet up anxieties that then fuel reexaminations of other aspects. But then also, going back to this idea of skin—the body betrayal is also this idea that we’re betrayed by our inability to transcend that skin barrier when we are talking about human connection. We need other humans, and we need to connect with other humans to be healthy and yet, we also—it’s a weird contradiction that we can never actually get outside of that perspective. We can never actually know what another person’s thinking or actually know what the other person needs beyond a shadow of a doubt. Even if the person communicates with us and tells us what they need, are they self-aware enough to correctly communicate what they need?
TM: This also speaks to how a couple of stories in the collection, such as “Overnights Welcome” and “Landline,” really seem prescient in the mood that they capture of the year we all just lived through in that they feature pandemic or catastrophic blackout, though they were written years beforehand. Can you tell me a little bit about how these stories came into being for you?
MP: I’ve always been obsessed with viruses. When I was in junior high, I remember I had this book—I think I got it for my birthday because I asked for it. It was The Coming Plague by Laurie Garrett. I remember reading that when I was in junior high and just being obsessed with this idea that we’re doomed and a pandemic is going to happen, it’s just a matter of time. And so, of course, I got caught up in The Hot Zone and all of that. I wanted to be a virologist for a while. I can’t say that I have any expertise there because I dropped that dream pretty early, but for a while I really wanted to be a virologist. Then when Zika was happening, I was struck by how devastating it was, especially in Brazil and then, thinking what would that look like in a community where there’s a lot of privilege?
TM: One thing I noticed about your stories is that there is often this exploration of intimacy or connection between lovers or, more often, the misconnection between lovers. Can talk about that?
MP: It goes back to something that we talked about before—this anxiety about not being able to truly know another person. This anxiety about how limited we are in our abilities to understand each other—and I say that as somebody who deeply values my connection with other human beings who I care about deeply and do feel like we actually communicate very well and have a significant degree of knowledge and intimacy with each other, right? But, there is something I find alarming about how people can become so deeply invested in each other and then find out that it wasn’t at all what they thought it was. And this happens to so many people, whether we’re talking about romantic relationships or friendships, work relationships, political relationships. Especially, though, when it’s romantic, the stakes are so high. You have presumably the most access you will ever get to another person, and there’s still the possibility that you will feel isolated from each other. That really fascinates me. I mean, it sounds like kind of an obvious statement about human nature, but I am always fascinated by how we bridge that gap, by our constant attempts to bridge that gap, yet it will always be there to some degree.
TM: These stories bring that complexity to the forefront really successfully. So, what are you working on now?
MP: I’m currently working on a novel set in a high-tech future about a woman who goes on a tech-free retreat in a ghost town in Nevada, but when mysterious and disturbing things begin happening at the hotel, she discovers that the retreat is not what it seems and tries to escape. The story explores the impact of data collection and strong AI on personal identity, privacy, and freedom.