Megan Coles’ debut collection of short stories, Eating Habits of the Chronically Lonesome, is one of the most exciting books I’ve read this year. It has won multiple awards, including a Relit award. Megan is also the co-founder and artistic director of Poverty Cove Theatre Company and the executive director of Newfoundland arts journal Riddle Fence. She is currently working on her debut novel, Little Yellow Heart, which will be published by House of Anansi next year.
We got to talk this week about writing, Newfoundland culture, feminism and more, and like her characters, Megan was brilliant, thoughtful and incredibly honest.
DB: The first thing that struck me about Eating Habits of the Chronically Lonesome was the incredibly note perfect, authentic dialogue. All the jokes and slang and warmth of the tone that jumped off each page made me so nostalgic for my time on the east coast. I’m curious: are you originally from St John’s or from a smaller town?
MC: I'm originally from Savage Cove on the Great Northern Peninsula. It is very rural. And not the easily digestible rural but rather: the actual bay.
It is north of Gros Morne. It is routinely devastated by industry collapse due to mismanagement in southern cities. Historically, we were isolated from the center with no proper roads during the first half of the twentieth century, so our tongues held fast to their ways. Ways that we were told would be met with open hostility at the university in town. Many a bay kid learned to slow down and subjugate themselves to the urban majority as if our ability to orally conjugate verbs was somehow reflective of our ability to intelligently think thoughts. The whole concept of inferior speech lending itself to the assertion of inferior humans. A falsehood then internalized by generations of young Newfoundlanders and Labradorians. Stealing language is page one in the exploitation playbook. Repeatedly suggesting one way of speaking is better than another undoes us. It is not better. It is just another way of speaking. A person is not more astute because they were given more words. They were just given more words. And I will use them all now. All the words. The dialogue is subversive. And warm. And funny. Because language, like living, is complex.
DB: I love that answer. The idea of a society using language (or a perceived lack of vocabulary) to oppress people is so Orwellian and terrible. One of my best friends is from a small town on the south coast of Newfoundland called Harbour Breton, and she’s talked a lot about that type of discrimination too. I love everything you’re saying about using words, and the idea of dialogue as subversive. It’s so powerful.
I want to talk about the way you write women, especially Ellen and Jaclyn, in A Sink Built For Smaller People, I Will Hate Everything Later, and Some Words Taste Better Than Others. I really loved both characters. Ellen was so vulnerable and honest, she really jumped into my heart and made me root for her to have a happy ending. Was she a difficult or easy character to write? When you wrote A Sink… did you have the companion pieces in mind? Was it fun or challenging to write Jaclyn? I thought she was very funny and very human.
MC: Ellens are simultaneously the most difficult and easiest characters to write. It is exhausting to live in that realm of vulnerable honesty. It takes a lot of emotional stamina to persist sometimes. But the Ellens are the kind of women I choose to surround myself with, so it is also fluid and empowering to write for them. It takes a lot of perseverance to carry yourself raw through the world like that and I think it is most admirable. I had no companion pieces in mind, just this underlying suspicion that pitting women against each other is wrong and intolerable. Because the Ellens and the Jaclyns are just trying for the same thing: happiness. Someone, likely a dude, has taught them and us that one woman's happiness must come at the expense of another's. It is a brutal tactic that has been employed for too long. It is not good for us.
DB: I completely agree. In all the stories, but particularly these three, there are so many realistic and thoughtful observations on female friendships. Like when Ellen wryly says about Jaclyn “But I know right away what she’s up to; I’m a woman, I’ve played that game before. We all have.” I also loved the dynamic in The Empty House is Full of Furniture, between Emily and Ruth (which flips between she’s terrible, why am I friends with her, to I love her, she’s my best friend.) Or for example, Ellen’s relationship with her cousin Kim in Single Gals Need All Wheel Drive. Was it difficult to balance a feminist perspective with trying to accurately portray the people sometimes feel or behave? You seemed to capture the balance between both perfectly. How did you manage that?
MC: I think romantic relationships have been perversely manipulated by popular culture. This has placed untold pressure on all of our personal relationships though female friendship has suffered the greatest injustice. Suggesting that a heterosexual woman's primary relationship must be with a man supports oppressive patriarchy while further diminishing our relationships with other women. This is no accident. It is a lesson we have to unlearn everyday. Boys are not better than girls. They are not more important. Your girlfriends deserve the same manner of devotion because they will carry you over the hard bits thrown in your path. This is the truth of it. Believe me.
DB: That’s definitely true. You know what else I loved? Aside from the unifying feature of food in all the stories, there was so much commentary about racism and the immigrant experience and class issues and health and cancer. I loved Modelaine in There’s a Fish Hook in Your Lip, and Tanya in These Canadian Children Are Not Mine. They were both so quietly strong and powerful. Was it difficult to cover so much in one collection? Are there particular themes you want to come back to later in even more in depth?
MC: I will likely always write fiction about vulnerable people, about what divides us and brings us down low. I am not interested in celebrating wealth or privilege or even beauty for the sake of it. I will never wax poetic about wheat fields or snow covered peaks. Where does that get any of us?
DB: I was reading about Poverty Cove, your very impressive theatre company. Do you think that writing for stage informs your fiction writing? And in what ways?
MC: The playwriting certainly informs the dialogue and pacing. I am cognizant of writing active prose. I want the narrative to be always densely pushing forward. Like a truck barreling toward you.
DB: I’m so excited for your debut novel, Little Yellow Heart. What can you tell us in terms of the story or characters or setting? I can’t wait to read it.
MC: Little Yellow Heart explores the distribution of wealth in a restaurant in the St. John’s downtown core.
The story examines the life experience of everyone present: from the immigrant dishwasher in the pit to the captain of industry at the staff-favourite table- the indentured servitude complicit in the student aide system, irresponsible municipal development, corporate corruption, illicit sex and overwhelming greed.
The Hazel: where individuals adhere to traditional social norms related to class and gender. Or not. The characters are exploited and in turn, exploit. They are abused and abuse. Everyone is implicated and invested in the trajectory of this one day of service.
The novel examines the conditions that impoverish while suggesting that an “in collar” mentality still permeates contemporary Newfoundland. Some whisper, while others yell, "Get your collar off me, I don't want your fucking collar." It is a regional story resonating wherever a hierarchy of needs exists; that is to say, wherever there are humans. Little Yellow Heart is dark. And it is funny. Such as life.
DB: It sounds amazing. I can’t wait to read it.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Danila Botha is a fiction writer based in Toronto. Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, she has lived in Ra’anana, Israel, and in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her first collection of short stories, Got No Secrets (Tightrope Books, 2010) was praised by the Globe and Mail, the Chronicle Herald, and the Cape Town Times. It was also named one of Britannica’s Books of the Year (Canadian short stories) in 2011, and was published in South Africa (Modjaji Books, 2011). Danila has guest-edited the National Post’s “The Afterword,” and her short stories have appeared in Broken Pencil Magazine, Douglas Glover’s Numero Cinq Magazine, Joyland and more. Her first novel, the critically acclaimed Too Much on the Inside was published by Quattro Books in June 2015. She will be teaching at the Humber School for Writers in the correspondence program in 2017. She is currently working on her second novel and a new collection of short stories.