Interviews

Chronic Complexities in “If the Body Allows It”

An interview with Megan Cummins about her debut short story collection, "If the Body Allows It."

I’ve been lucky enough to know Megan Cummins for over a decade, ever since we did an MA in Creative Writing together at UC Davis. It’s been thrilling to see her sharp, lyrical, and hilarious stories find a final form in her debut collection, If The Body Allows It. The book centers on Marie, a struggling writer from Michigan living in Newark who is dealing with a chronic illness, struggling with guilt related to her father’s death after his long battle with addiction, and dating unsuitable men in the process. The Marie chapters are divided into six sections named after body parts — “Heart,” “Eyes,” “Lungs,” “Blood,” “Skin,” and “Skeleton,” — and the stories Marie has written fall under each of these categories, forming a dark, moving meditation on loss, chronic illness, and addiction. I caught up with Megan with a glass of wine over Zoom to discuss her book.

Maria Kuznetsova

What inspired you to write this book, or to see the stories you’ve been working on as a cohesive book?

Megan Cummins

The oldest story in this book is from 2010, and some of these stories come from my thesis during my MFA at Rutgers-Newark, but I didn’t leave the program with a draft of a book. I didn’t know how all the stories I’d been working on fit together, though I knew I was interested in the body and the mind and disease and addiction, and also guilt and trauma. The opening story, “Heart,” was inspired by my teacher Laura Kasischke, who once asked our class to write about a lie told by a character, then a weather event, and then to write about the lie and the weather event at once. That was where the character of Marie was born when she lied about having a kid during a blizzard. I realized that I wanted to write more about Marie and also to explore how the body makes you who you are just as much as the mind.

Maria Kuznetsova

I love how the book is structured around body parts that describe Marie’s journey, while also including stories that were written by Marie that explore chronic illness and addiction and coming-of-age in different ways. How did this book find its final form?

Megan Cummins

At some point, I began thinking of Marie as the writer of these other stories. I knew it was tricky because they were treading similar ground, but I wanted the reader to experience a sort of chronic narration that mirrored a chronic condition, but not feel hit over the head with the same themes. And then I knew I wanted to name the sections after body parts because lupus is a chronic illness that affects every system of the body. Some of the stories under each section were more explicitly connected, while with others, the connection was more subtle.

Maria Kuznetsova

While I was reading, there were definitely times when I thought Marie was writing the other stories, or that she was the narrative intelligence behind them. When I felt that the most, actually, was when reading the last story. While many of the stories focus either on Marie or other young women or middle-aged women with relatives struggling with addiction, “Higher Power,” is told from the point of view of the father character. He is now clean, trying to start a new marriage, and his daughter is chronically ill. This made me think that Marie was taking a step back and trying to think of her parents as people, and of her illness from their perspective. This is also the last non-Marie story in the book. Why did you choose to end on that note?

Megan Cummins

This book obviously focuses a lot on Marie — love her or hate her, she’s there! So much of Marie’s story is about the chronic guilt she feels over not having been there for her father and having shut him out, so I was interested in a story in which that father survives. And I thought it was important that it felt like how Marie would imagine her father if he were living. It’s not an exact mirroring of her life, because what she writes is fiction, but she’s thinking about how they traded places, how she is now the one who’s sick and the one in need of care. Marie mythologizes her father a little bit and mythologizes addiction. So I wanted to go out with a story that’s like, no, addiction is not glamorous, and recovery is a daily struggle, but like anyone else, a recovering addict has to deal with jobs, lawyers, car registrations, traffic. Marie makes her father real again in this story.

Maria Kuznetsova

This reminds me of your Guernica essay, “Plunge,” which is a meditation on illness and addiction and considers how those two things are similar and different. The title of your book, If The Body Allows It, can also be applied to both. How were you thinking about both illness and addiction when you were writing this book? How did they apply to the title? 

Megan Cummins

If I think of the Guernica essay having a thesis, then it would argue that guilt is the psychological manifestation of autoimmunity. And then, also addiction, while not an autoimmune disease, is also a chronic condition of the body. I suppose I think they’re more similar than they are different, but that is just my experience. Because autoimmune diseases are often invisible, there’s skepticism attached to them. Why can’t you work full time? Why did you cancel our plans? Why do you need 10 hours of sleep? Because the pain can’t be seen by others, it’s easily disregarded. With addiction, too, there’s a similar version of skepticism: that it’s an addict’s choice to use. So when I was thinking about the title of the book, I wanted to evoke the ways in which the body can be the sovereign in our lives, and not always a kind one.

Maria Kuznetsova

I also want to talk about how you write young narrators so well, particularly in “Tough Beauty,” “Flour Baby,” and “Aerosol.” When my students write from the perspective of young characters, they often worry that they don’t sound authentic. You manage to create these complex characters that still really feel like teenagers. Do you have any hard and fast rules about writing young characters?

Megan Cummins

I try not to worry about limiting the voice or the thoughts of a young character — when drafting I don’t think about whether or not a teenager would say that or think that. There’s no one teenager or teenage experience. If I go into a story telling myself what I can’t do, or what a character can’t do, then I’m not going to be able to tell it the way I want to tell it. Sure, I might edit a teenager’s dialogue so it’s a bit snappier or less verbose or something, but those are things I can worry about in revision. When I remember how I was as a teenager, I spent a lot of time reading and thinking. Though I was obviously not mature in a lot of ways, I definitely thought I was, and that’s how I like to think of my characters. They may only be teenagers, but they’re still the most mature they’ve ever been, even if people don’t think they are.

Maria Kuznetsova

That could be good advice for writing any type of character, whether they’re an 85-year-old man or an alien. If you go into it thinking, “No, they wouldn’t possibly think this or say that”, then you’ll never tell the story honestly. Another story with a young narrator I loved was “Aerosol.” I found it utterly riveting, though most of the story is just a girl by herself nursing her wound from an aerosol can that exploded when she made a fire, while thinking of a fantasy story in her head. Yet it was such a page-turner, especially as the wound festered, like a suburban Call of the Wild. How did that story come about, and why did the wound and fantasy element exist in the same story?

Megan Cummins

That’s one of my favorite stories so I’m so glad you asked! When I was a teenager, my friends and I built a fire to make s’mores — it was really that innocent — and an aerosol can really did explode in the fire, but no one got hurt and we just went back to eating, but for all these years afterward, I kept thinking that someone could have died that night. That night had kind of a dark, supernatural feeling to me, so when I put it into fiction, I wanted to bring that element by having the character imagine a fantasy novel. I knew this character was going to be alone for the whole weekend and thinking about her family problems while her physical problems got worse and worse, and I needed a way for her to be able to escape to the fantasy story for comfort, and to ignore the wound, until the fantasy story gets dark, too.

Maria Kuznetsova

I could tell that was one of your favorites! And I could also tell that you weren’t done with it, in a way. It also called back to the book’s title so beautifully. I know it’s related to the novel you’re working on, so could you tell me more about your next project?

Megan Cummins

Yes! The novel continues the story of the protagonist in “Aerosol.” After she’s injured, she convinces her mom to let her go live with her dad in South Dakota. He’s newly sober, and when she gets there, she realizes he’s relapsed. As she did with her wound, she ignores it, thinks she can take care of it — all the while still writing her book.

Maria Kuznetsova

That sounds amazing! I have one last question about being funny while presenting very dark material. I think the story “Future Breakfasts” does this so well. In this story, the narrator encounters a man she hasn’t seen in years, and they end up hooking up and getting stuck together afterward because of a blizzard. Things were tense between them because her brother played a prank on the man, Byron, which ended up accidentally leading him to get kidnapped and nearly killed by a serial killer. Though getting trapped together in a blizzard is almost funny in a rom-com kind of way, and the serial killer thing is also funny in an absurd way, the blizzard encounter also feels extremely fraught and tense, and the serial killer stuff is pretty dark, especially as we see how it affected Byron as an adult. How do you see humor and tragedy working together?

Megan Cummins

I’m always trying to find that balance, and I think it’s how I live my life, trying to find the surprising places where humor can live, even in very dark situations. I always find that if I’m trying too hard to make something funny, then it’s not very funny, but the kind of absurdity where a prank would lead to a serial killer, or adults would ignore this blizzard felt very real to me. I like exploring all the ways that we blunder, which even if they’re really terrible can also be very hilarious from a certain angle. I’m not satisfied with anything I write unless there’s at least something funny in it, because otherwise, it doesn’t feel quite real to me. We can’t escape humor even when we want to.

Maria Kuznetsova

Or especially when we want to! Though your book covered very dark material, it never felt too heavy, because your voice is just so funny and charming. I can’t wait for the next book!

FICTION
If the Body Allows It
By Megan Cummins
University of Nebraska Press
Published September 1, 2020

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