An Interview with Megan Giddings
Megan Giddings' first novel, Lakewood, was published in March 2020. More about her can be found at www.megangiddings.com.
I always get excited when I pick up novels set in my home state of Michigan. There’s something comforting in reading about a familiar landscape imagined through someone else’s words. In Lakewood, Lena, a Black college student who must help her mother make ends meet in the wake of her grandma’s death, is invited to participate in a lucrative research study in the rural town of Lakewood. Lena puts her academic life on pause and relocates, telling friends and family she has taken a desk job at Great Lakes Shipping Company, a front for a clandestine laboratory. In that facility, Lena and other people of color become subject to an array of traumatic experiments controlled by a white and apathetic staff. The more Lena tries to figure out what’s going on at Lakewood, the more she learns about the troubling history that brought her there.
If the genres of horror and psychological thriller often challenge readers to imagine something unreal, part of what makes Giddings’s novel a brilliant debut is that many of its most suspenseful and eerie moments are all too recognizable. Giddings and I emailed back and forth in early April. This interview has been lightly edited.
Aram Mrjoian: In your acknowledgments, you note that you first started working on Lakewood in a novel-writing workshop. I'm always curious about process. Can you talk a little bit about how the project evolved from an initial idea to a published novel?
Megan Giddings: I started first out of necessity; I think it was ninety pages had to be written that semester with the idea that it would stop us from doing the thing that I think keeps a lot of projects stagnant, just noodling on those first thirty pages. I knew in the class I was writing about bodies; I was writing about the tension you see in a lot of small Midwestern towns where things can be very picturesque, but all the ranges of the human experience are still there. It didn't take until several drafts where I realized, oh I'm writing about research studies. And then oh, I'm writing in some ways about experiences I've had with our medical system.
AM: One aspect of Lakewood that really stood out to me is its remarkable pacing, the organic ways it builds and builds suspense. There's both constant tension in each moment and a desire to know what happens next. As someone who is working on my first novel, I've found it difficult to think about where chapters begin and end and how to keep that momentum going, so I was curious how you were thinking about things like chapter structure, acute and chronic tension, and creating suspense?
MG: This was really hard for me to do, so I'm super flattered that you felt like I did it well. I read a lot of things that keep people reading, from the literary (Sally Rooney's novels) to YA novels like the To All The Boys trilogy by Jenny Han and even books like Twilight. If someone said they found the book hard to put down or that it was propulsive, I read it. I wanted that Pringles feeling for this book, you open the can, start slow, and by the end you're kind of in a daze of chip dust. I think what all of these different books made me think about is that—at least what kept me reading—there needs to be layers in a tension that kept me asking different questions.
The other helpful thing is I felt like most chapters of books that I loved did act a lot like short stories. Sure, there are some details and knowledge that you need and a build from a chapter to chapter, but in general, for me as a novelist, I took a lot from the short story: something has to happen, something has to be revealed about life or character, the difference is instead of building toward a climax or understanding or explanation, I worked toward a mixture of questions and answers.
AM: Lakewood takes place in Michigan. I love how you navigate the state's various settings: the major cities, campus towns, expansive forests, and rural in-between. Do you think there are any esoteric challenges in writing about the Midwest? How did you think about developing juxtaposing settings? How were you thinking about how Lena, as a Black woman living in a so-called purple state, occupies and navigates different geographical, cultural, and political spaces?
MG: It used to annoy me when people acted like the Midwest was this niche place. Now I think it's kind of hilarious. I mean, you caught the essence of it in how you framed this question: everything is in the Midwest. The issue is that there's this coded language about "the Midwest" that has gotten worse over the past ten years: are we talking about the actual geographic area or are we discussing a construct that means a place where nice white churchgoing people live who are actually still middle class and they feel resentful about the coasts and their lavish lifestyles because they feel all Americans should be at home eating casseroles. There's an esoteric challenge to talking about the latter because that Midwest only truly exists in a vacuum that's used in service of an America that exists if you obliterate history and context to make a facile point.
I didn't think much about the juxtaposition of settings because that's Michigan. I feel like we've talked a little bit about this before, but I think of Michigan as a microcosm of the United States as a whole. You have major cities, very rural small communities, resort towns, farming, cabins, college towns. We've both lived in Ann Arbor which, while not dense, is like a lot of major cities where you walk down the street, someone is in dire straits and needs money while a Tesla is backed up in downtown traffic next to it and everything is either branded or coded as luxury or as “the real version of the town.” You drive an hour one way, you're in a very small community where, except for the iPhones everyone has, and the Starbucks, it looks like it's 1985. You drive another hour a different way, you're in the metro Detroit area. So, to me, it was just writing the state as I understand it.
Sometimes, I think the closest Lena comes to me as a person is learning how to navigate those experiences. I grew up in a small town and I learned how to, by the time I was eighteen, read a lot of social situations. Then, I went to Michigan, and beyond the college education I was receiving, I received an education in what it was like to be in a very, very liberal space where people thought because they had generally progressive values, they didn't have work to do when it comes to issues of race and gender and class. And that's a very different set of power dynamics that made life exhausting in new, unexpected ways.
AM: The last quarter of the novel, part two, transitions from close third-person to the epistolary form in unsent letters Lena writes to her friend and former dorm roommate Tanya. Was that a natural shift that came about as you were writing or did you decide to make this change after seeing the full shape of the novel?