After reviewing their chapbook The Feels, I had the pleasure to meet up with Megan Milks for an interview. A self-described author of queer feminist fiction, Milks provides insight into the authors, books and literary movements that inspire their work.
CW: Thank you again for meeting with me, I really appreciate it. And I just want to start off with asking, how would you describe your work?
MM: Oh, boy. I guess I would describe it as queer feminist fiction. Experimental is a word that could be used, potentially, for it. Although I’m kind of moving away from that word. I’m really excited by body horror and the tradition of the grotesque so that tends to work its way into my writing. And also, pop culture. I’m really excited by pop culture. Also displeased with it in many regards, so I try to channel both the excitement and the displeasure into my work.
CW: Yeah, I was seeing some of the pop culture, video-game stuff in Kill Marguerite, that was one of the stories I was just re-looking at. Yeah, I can definitely see it in there. And I liked how you started off by saying that [your work] is queer, that it’s feminist, which is one of the things I was going to ask you next, is that, when people describe your work as “queer”, what do you think that means?
MM: When people describe my work as queer. I guess it could mean any number of things. The characters are often queer, I’m often writing about queer relationships, queer intimacies, queer sex. I think another dimension of my work’s queerness is form and the aesthetics that it’s working with. I see body horror as very queer and many of my stories that are working with horror are queer in that they don’t try to evacuate the queer monstrosity from the space of the narrative. It’s about using that.
CW: Could you talk a little bit more about the horror aspect and the grotesque? I’d love to hear more about it.
MM: It’s the kind of thing that makes people like my work or just not like it at all. There are many bodily fluids in that book [Kill Marguerite], but you asked me about–?
CW: The horror, the grotesque aspects.
MM: Yeah, and this is something I’ve been, I want to say I’m moving away from it, but that’s not true at all because my new novel is — well it takes place inside a body [laughs]. But yeah, I love horror, I grew up reading a lot of horror, and there are ways in which you can relate to horror as a queer genre. I think particularly as a genre that’s outside the mainstream. It’s doing a different kind of work than mainstream realistic fiction. I’m particularly interested in the viscerality of it and the intensity of it. And the shock of it. I guess I am invested in shock value to a certain extent. But of course a lot of horror is misogynist too, and racist and all sorts of problematic dimensions. But I like to try to intervene, by bringing a more feminist, queer perspective to it.
CW: So, what is the role of feminism in displacing the misogyny in horror? How do you manage that?
MM: I think, hmmm, I think by honoring women’s perspectives and experiences, that’s one. Another way to think about it, I’m really infatuated with the monstrous feminine as a realm of narrative texture and experience. But I’m interested in embracing the monstrous aspects of it. Similar to—are you familiar with the Gurlesque? It’s a poetic tradition that’s recently been named [by Arielle Greenberg]. But it’s kind of embracing the monstrosity of the woman as a construct, as opposed to, you know, presenting it as something to be feared. Maybe a better way of thinking about it is channeling that power in ways that are feminist. The power of weaponizing the feminine. And recognizing the inherent queerness of the body as an unruly system.
CW: And speaking of embracing things that are typically pushed away, for your chapbook The Feels, you use fan fiction as a source. What’s been your experience with fan fiction?
MM: My experience with fan fiction. Well, so I’m in my thirties and I grew up, well I came of age, with the internet. My first experience of being a fan was participating in the Tori Amos fan community, which was one of the first big online fan communities. So that’s how I have come into being part of a fandom, and enjoying fannish community. And I guess I’ve come into thinking about fan fiction as an alternative to parody and satire. So, when I think about the actual kind of work that fan fiction stories do, there’s a relationship to other forms of art that use source material, like satire and parody. But fan fiction is really about like loving the source, often correcting the source in various ways. Or stretching it all these different ways, but certainly, there’s an affective investment that I find so compelling and valuable as a practice.
CW: So, not like satire in the making fun of, but having fun with.
MM: Yeah, yeah I like that. Are you a writer of fan fiction?
CW: I did occasionally, and I’ve been trying to find ways about how we can de-stigmatize that because there is a very heavy stigma attached to being involved in those communities.
MM: Yeah, it’s surprising to me to hear that, but I know that it’s true. I tried to teach it, a unit on fan fiction, in a course on queer and trans lit and many of my students participate in these communities but do not want to come out as writers of fan fiction. I was surprised by it. I felt we had created a space where it should have been safe for them [laughs].
CW: But even that language. That you have to “come out” as a fan fic writer.
CW: Or a reader. That it’s somehow shameful.
MM: Right, yeah. It’s absurd. I think it’s such a vibrant community and such a vibrant space of narrative proliferation, that it’s just so exciting.
CW: Where do you think that shame might come from and do you have any suggestions on how we can de-stigmatize it?
MM: Hmmm, that’s a great question. Well, there are many contributing factors to the shame, to the denigration of fan fiction. I mean, we could point to the fact that most producers of fan fiction are adolescents, so there’s ageism involved. And many of them are young women, so misogyny is also involved. And the fact that it takes place outside of the marketplace also makes it seem like it’s not serious writing, but of course that’s ridiculous.
CW: And any writing is serious writing if you’re loving it. If you’re putting in the passion to writing it.
MM: Right, yeah and many writers of fan fiction have more readers than well, probably I do [laughs]. Yeah, so, large, large readerships.
CW: You work with a couple of other stigmatized subjects like disabilities and queerness. Have you faced any pressure from publishers or from editors to avoid these topics or other topics?
MM: Hmm, I’m pausing because I’m not quite sure how to answer that. I certainly have not experienced that directly from editors. The editor I worked with at Emergency [Press] was really excited about that content. But at the same time, you know, I haven’t tried to move into certain terrains within publishing where that might be less accepted. I’ve been working with a small press and that world of publishing. So, I imagine I will [laughs] get that kind of push back if I try to publish in a more commercial context.
CW: Have you thought about self-publishing at all?
MM: A little bit. I’m not averse to it.
CW: [laughs] How do you find the markets for your work?
MM: I don’t know that I’ve been successful [laughs]. That’s not really—I guess I don’t think about it that much as an intentional thing to pursue. I participate in a pretty specific literary community of queer feminist writers, and that’s my readership. And that’s what I read, so–[laughs].
CW: Do you have advice for authors hoping to join similar communities?
MM: Yeah. Read a fuck-ton. And write about what you’re reading and promote the authors that you love and get in touch with them: trade books, trade writing. Just entering into a community. People are really excited to be loved [laughs] and will be more likely to love you in return [laughs] if you put out that kind of energy and are excited about their work.
CW: You balance a lot as a writer. You write fiction, you write poetry—like from the chapbook The Feels—and then you also do criticism, you’re also a teacher. How do you balance all these different commitments? How do you decide, what am I going to work on today?
MM: Hmm, that’s an ongoing, open question. But I really thrive on change. I really thrive on working on multiple things at once and moving between projects. I like to really hunker down and focus on one thing then push it aside for a while, often when I get frustrated with it, and then have other things I can turn to, that are often a different mode of writing. For example, the Feel Extractions that are in The Feels was so therapeutic. It was an easy process to move through. I can take out this language and see what I can do with it. As opposed to trying to build something entirely new. I was working on this really complicated, challenging novel at the time, so that was the way I balanced the frustration I was experiencing with that added project.
CW: How did you get into teaching?
MM: Well, as a writer there are just not that many avenues for supporting oneself so teaching has become sort of a default for many writers. If you’re interested in pursuing graduate studies in creative writing you probably will be teaching as part of your funding package. That’s how I moved into teaching. And I’ve liked it well enough, so I’ve continued to do that.
CW: Can you talk a bit about how your work has, or has not, coexisted within the realm of academia?
MM: Oh, man. This is a really thorny question for me. Because I have not secured the dream tenure track job, and I’m actually one foot in, one foot out of the academy right now. So, I don’t know if I can answer that with real honesty in ways that I would want to be public.
CW: Okay, no that’s perfectly understandable. Not a problem. [Laughing] So, going back to the safe subject of your writing: do you have any themes that you continuously come back to?
MM: Yeah, oh yeah. Well, I’m constantly writing about the body, I’m constantly writing about sexuality in various ways, gender in various ways. I’m also very, very much obsessed with intimacy and the different kinds of intimacy that relationships involve, or can involve. So, not necessarily sexual intimacy, but romantic intimacy maybe, or just what we need from each other and how we communicate those needs. I’m also really excited by ugly feelings, and trying to make those feelings palatable, or even kitsch, funny, like the “Twins” piece that’s in Kill Marguerite, is very much about trying to make co-dependence kitsch, through these figures of the Wakefield twins. You might be too young for the Wakefield twins.
CW: I do know what you’re talking about though. The Sweet Valley High?
MM: Yeah, yeah. They’re really American kitsch at this point.
CW: I’m going to gush for a moment, but you have very quickly become one of my literary heroes.
MM: Oh, thank you.
CW: Who are the literary giants in your life?
MM: Sure, yeah, I’ll try to focus on contemporary authors. Have you read Nalo Hopkinson? Have you read her work at all?
CW: No, but she’s been on my list for a while.
MM: She’s becoming increasingly important to me as an influence, an inspiration. She’s great. Kelly Link.
CW: I love her.
MM: Yeah, it’s really been exciting to see her come up in this way, she’s blowing up. She’s been blowing up for a while now. Let’s see, oh, there’s so many. Dodie Bellamy, I’m finishing her collection now. She’s really more an essayist.
CW: What did she write?
MM: Her new collection is called When the Sick Rule the World, and there are a couple of really just amazing essays in there. One is “Barf Manifesto” which is maybe her– one of her best known essays. Which sort of posits bulimic writing as a feminist, queer mode of writing. Bulimic writing as in spewing onto the page. That sort of thing. It’s a really good essay. Tim Jones-Yelvington, near and dear to my heart. He’s in Chicago. If you ever get an opportunity to see him perform, he’s wonderful. He often will dress in full drag. His work is also really, well some of his work, is concerned with fan fiction. He just published a really fantastic story involving, well it’s basically One Direction fan fic that is also appropriating from all of these other sources. Yeah, so good.
CW: Thank you. I work at a high school for a college access program and one of the things that we do when we work with students is we ask them to do a literary timeline. So, what their favorite book was as a child and what their favorite book is now.
MM: Yeah, yeah that’s great.
CW: Can I get your literary timeline?
CW: I loved those.
MM: And the Sweet Valley Twins. R.L. Stine. I read a lot of Stephen King too, as a kid. A lot of Stephen King and V.C. Andrews. When I was a teenager, I was big into Sylvia Plath, William Burroughs, the Beat poets, and William Faulkner, I also used to really love him. And then, in my twenties, the big ones for me were Kathy Acker and Percival Everett. They both do really interesting things with form. And, in my thirties, I’ve been really captivated by speculative fiction: sci fi, horror. So Samuel Delany, Octavia Butler, Nalo Hopkinson, that whole crew.
CW: Thank you for walking me through your life. What do you look for in the books or stories that you read?
MM: I’m a pretty promiscuous reader, so I look for all sorts of different kinds of things. Right now I’m reading 2666, a little bit late, by Roberto Bolaño. It’s a really huge novel by this Chilean author who did not finish it before he died. And I haven’t gotten to the part where it starts to involve the femicide in Juarez, but that’s typically how it’s described, is that it’s a book that deals with Juarez and all of the murders. So, there’s this giant middle part that just describes these women’s deaths in really stupefying detail. And so, I’m reading that to see what he’s up to. To see how he’s dealing with violence. And death. And to help me with a section of my novel that deals with similar topics. But I also read for bare pleasure, I mean I just finished reading Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On. Which is so fun. I read to read books that involve queer people. But there are all sorts of reasons that I read. I don’t know if I can unify it.
CW: You’ve been speaking on and off again on the novel you’ve been working on. Can you give us a few details?
MM: Yeah, so it’s kind of a fan fiction premise. Right now the elevator pitch is: Roald Dahl’s Mathilda meets Stephen King’s Carrie in an eating disorder treatment center where they fall in love and stage an anorexic revolution.
CW: I like that elevator pitch [both laugh]. My last question is, what advice do you have for emerging authors?
MM: Read a fuck-ton. Read promiscuously. And, I think the thing that has helped me the most that I’ll pass on is just trying to find, or form, a community of writers. Whether it’s online, in person, on goodreads, whatever, people you can exchange work with, people who are excited about similar books and approaches to writing.
CW: Thank you so much! This has really wonderful getting a chance to talk with you.
MM: Thank you for the opportunity.