Paula Bomer interview with Meg Tuite
In this powerful heartbreaking story, “Friday Night at Howard Park,” everything is blasting through these pages: peer pressure, body image and loss of identity. I was reliving those heinous days in high school, even though the protaganist, Maddie is in seventh grade and only twelve-years-old. I am a fan of your writing because you hone in on the areas that most writers tend to shy away from. This is the real grit of growing up. What was your inspiration for this story and anything you want to add on these issues that most kids continue to deal with?
The inspiration for the story was the Howard Park ice rink in South Bend, Indiana, where I spent many a Friday night, skating around, desperate for the attention of the rink guards. Honestly, I can't remember if they were high school age or a bit older. I started at a huge junior high school in seventh grade after being at a pretty benign neighborhood elementary school. It was one of the worst years of my life. I had a terrible time adjusting. I think the key to this story is Madeleine’s loneliness. Her friend isn't really her friend. And that's not something that just happens to twelve year olds, sadly. It seems to be something we have to deal with our entire lives, but those early lessons, around pre-adolescence, loom large in my mind.
I totally agree with you, Paula! Those years were brutal and that’s what I meant by ‘loss of identity.’ Madeleine is trying so hard to be something she’s not, to fit in, and that’s what is so wrenching about it all. I can certainly relate to that feeling of trying to find some limb to hang on to in order not to implode. I understand the gang mentality because that’s what most of us did to find some kind of home within that ‘survival of the fittest’ existence. When that’s stripped from Madeleine as well, I wonder how she makes it through, especially as a 12-year-old. I just read an article on a guy in college who committed suicide because he’d been bullied by other students. Those years are especially excruciating and you captured them so well in this story. Can you share something of the horror of body image for girls and women even in this day in age?
Regarding body image, I have to mention that a dear friend of mine disliked this story - as did a woman in a workshop, come to think of it- because I made Madeleine "big". I often like to make my characters explicitly different than me and also, extreme. I was terribly insecure about how thin and flat-chested I was when girls were rounding out and "developing". I didn't really "develop" until my late twenties and even then, not so much. I imagine things haven't changed much since my adolescence. Some young girls are just going to be more insecure than others, period. And now- with the alarming amount of celebrities getting buckets of plastic surgery and girls going through puberty years earlier for God knows what reasons- I imagine body image issues are still a part of many young girls' lives. Change is a constant, but also, some things are timeless. As a mother of two sons, I'll just mention that boys, too, have to contend with body image issues.
Absolutely. There’s so much hype with the media throwing images at us and all the bullshit perceptions of what an ideal body is supposed to look like for both genders. I don’t understand how someone could dislike this story because the narrator is a large girl and you weren’t. We write from many perspectives, hopefully. And during adolescence and the teenage years especially, and no doubt forever, we are trying to find ourselves no matter what we look like. I worry about Maddie at this shift at the end. That’s one of the reason’s this ending is outstanding. It leaves us with the question mark of what will happen to her. Did you have the ending in your head when you were writing this?
Writing this story was a special moment for me (it's an old one). I think it's the first story I felt was "complete". I'd been writing for a few years and struggling to write well, like most young writers. After this story, I became more ambitious. In fact, I tried to write a novel and made this story a chapter. I failed, but did write a novella. I spent two years working on that novella and if I could go back in time, I would only have spent one year, tops. I wrote circles around that novella- changing the tense, the POV, everything, and then changing things back again. I actually allowed it to be downloaded for free one day, when Word Riot Press had a free download day of unpublished novels. It's called "Inside Madeleine" and I know for a fact at least one person downloaded it and read it.
Is that novella around now? I would love to check that out! I’m reading your collection “Baby & Other Stories.” Powerful truths in these stories and that’s what I most love about your work. You don’t turn away from the real day-to-day grit and how we all try to cope with finding something deeper in our lives amidst the hellish existence of errands, work and all the crap the world expects us to do. You get deep inside that inner dialogue of what the character is really thinking, feeling and wishing they could say while dealing with the outside existence of chitchat and bullshit. What draws you most to the characters you write?
The novella remains unpublished, which might not be a bad thing. I'm also not opposed to trying, at some point, to get it published. If I could find an editor like Mark Doten, with whom I just worked so intensely on my novel Nine Months, I might be able to salvage it.
I don't really know what to say about my characters. I am very moved by daily life- I'm one of the religious people who think that life is a gift. And yet, we suffer, some more than others, some times more than other times. I'm inspired by the people in my life, past and present. I sometimes write out of love, sometimes dislike, sometimes revenge, sometimes, very often in fact, out of self-hatred. Mainly, I try to entertain myself, hoping that the reader will be entertained as well. That said, I don't find writing easy, usually it's sort of like squeezing water from a rock for me. I once had a friend tell me if it's so hard, so painful, don't do it. Since then, I'm committed to never stopping. Also, she's not my friend anymore.
Okay, I’m loving that answer. I agree with you that life is a gift. And sometimes the painful work is the only kind that can bring us through to another place. I see writing as hanging on to the edge of a cliff. It’s survival for me. What’s your take on it?
At this point, I feel like it's a choice I made a long time ago and now I should stick to it. It's too late for me to go to medical school. That said, I never wanted to be a dilettante- I was very serious about this when I was younger. I think most writers write to try to figure out life on this earth. My undergraduate degree was in psychology- I think I wanted to figure out humanity. Then, later, I decided writing fiction is a better way for me to do that.
I was a psych undergrad also. I find that those writers who don’t shy away from delving into the dark side of the psyche, as well, are the most interesting and gratifying to me. The strange phenomena of us. Humans. And you are far from a dilettante! Your work is grounded in the realities of existence and that’s what makes your work so welcoming. I feel like I’m not alone when I read your work. Thank you for that! Who were a few of your inspirations as a writer that kept you moving forward?
I was always a big reader. I read all of Toni Morrison when I was 13- Sula, The Bluest Eye, Tar Baby, Song of Solomon. I didn't understand it- get it all- I was too young, but the obsession was there. In high school, I was introduced to Flannery O'Connor. That was life changing. I started writing then. When Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill came out, I was in my early twenties- and that's when I let myself admit to myself- this is what I want to do. I committed. Recently as someone put it, I went "back to the well" and read Tolstoy again, the inspiration for my story collection (in particular Family Happiness and The Kreutzer Sonata) and a supposedly "lesser" novel by Richard Yates, Cold Spring Harbor, which was perfect, brilliant, heart-breaking- not a sentence out of place, insanely inspiring.
I believe the best writers are those who read, read and read! Love all of your inspirations, but haven’t read Richard Yates yet. I will be soon. Any projects that you’re working on right now that you’d like to share with us?
I just finished doing a massive revision of my novel Nine Months which will be out this fall by Soho Press. I've never worked so hard on anything and can't thank my editor Mark Doten enough--he made this book happen. I'm busy promoting two books that I'm publishing through my small press, Sententia Books, excellent books, Cul de Sac by Scott Wrobel and Embodied: A Psycho Soma in Poetry and Prose by Keith Nathan Brown. It's funny you mention reading- I've just started reading a lot now that I am done with Nine Months, as I tend not to read much when deep into a writing project. So, I plan on reading a lot - "going back to the well" and then I hope to finish up a short story collection that is very different than Baby and Other Stories in that not one character is married or pregnant. I love story collections, love putting them together, ordering them, figuring out what story goes where and why. All the characters are young- from age twelve to early twenties. I'm excited to get back to it, after the novel. I have no idea how long it will take for me to finish it, but I'm thrilled to move on to another project. That's the thing about writing- you're never done. It's an endless, life long endeavor.
So looking forward to reading ”Nine Months” and the new collection whenever you finish that one! Thank you so much, Paula, for spending some time with me. I totally enjoyed it. Best of luck with all!