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Unsettled and Unsettling: An Interview with Maegan Poland on Her Debut Short Story Collection


By Gina Myers

cover image of book what makes you think you're awake next to photo of author maegan poland


May 13, 2021

At the edge of a woman’s new property stands a shed that can freeze time. Another young woman navigates her new life in Los Angeles while being stalked online. An unlikely crew of individuals bands together when a solar flare causes a power outage in Las Vegas. Meanwhile, a mosquito-borne virus haunts a town in Mississippi, and a financially strapped couple takes their honeymoon to a luxury resort where everything is automated.

These are just a few things that readers will encounter in What Makes You Think You’re Awake?, a new short story collection by Assistant Teaching Professor of English Maegan Poland, PhD. Comprising 10 stories, the wildly imaginative and richly detailed book will be published by Blair on June 1.

Selected for the Bakwin Award by celebrated writer and National Book Award finalist Carmen Maria Machado, What Makes You Think You're Awake? is Poland's first book. She was surprised and honored to receive notification of the award. “I made my husband read the email and verify that it was legitimate before I let myself believe it,” she says. “I am such an admirer of Carmen Maria Machado’s writing, and it was the hugest honor to have her select the book—and to be with Blair Press.”

Poland recently discussed her new book over email.

How did this collection of stories come together?

A couple of these stories were first written during my MFA at Mississippi, but most of these stories were written during my PhD at UNLV. So I guess you could say that the stories span seven years, but most of them were written between 2014 and 2018. These were wonderful years of my life, but I think grad school (and my natural inclinations, if I’m being honest) can foster an unsettled feeling. I think many of these stories are grappling with some deep unsettling force, and I’m most interested when I can’t quite put my finger on it until I’ve written it. This often means that there is an element of questioning one’s own perception, one’s sense of self, or the reliability of one’s own body. My stories focus on women because I was interested in the ways that women are often made to feel unsettled or are left in a state of questioning.

Yes, one of the things I noticed was how many of the stories feature a lonely female protagonist, and some feature fear as these women navigate menacing or violent landscapes. Can you discuss why you are interested in exploring these conditions in your writing?

Returning to this idea of women who feel unsettled or are left questioning, I think that a challenge many women face (and certainly women are not the only category of people to experience this, but I focused on women in this collection) is that we have had violent and/or menacing experiences, but when threatening signs or unsettling people appear in our lives, we are often made to doubt ourselves. I think this is being resisted more now, but women have been raised to be polite — to not make others feel uncomfortable, even if that is at the expense of our own comfort and, sometimes, safety. It is such an alienating experience to know that it is reasonable to have these concerns, but to also not always know where the specific threat is, to not know exactly how worried one should be, moment to moment. Some of my stories, like “The Shed,” deal with this anxiety more directly, whereas others deal with this feeling in a more abstract way. Many of my characters are on high alert, even when the threat does not reveal itself in that particular instance, and this is often an alienating experience, even when they remain unharmed. This self-doubt, this state of constantly assessing risks but also constantly second-guessing, is another possible impact of experiencing sexual assault, harassment or other forms of oppression and violation. Even when the threat is over, the specter of the threat remains and changes how one navigates the world. In “Modern Relics,” the story is largely about dealing with a looming sense of mortality and recovering from loss, but there is still that specter of potential violation on the edges. Could someone in the hotel use its automated features to watch or listen to her have sex? Is the car recording her private moments? Will covert documentation of her sexuality be logged in some cloud and used against her in some way?

While many of the stories in the collection are realistic, a few stories have more fantastic or sci-fi elements. Can you tell me about your influences?

I remember my MFA mentor Jack Pendarvis once told me, in a jovial and kind way, that I was cheating, because I wrote realistic stories that used fantastic premises. (He says he does not recall saying this, so maybe I made this memory up. I am always left questioning reality, I guess.) I’m often trying to write toward the edge of reality. Many of my stories contain the possibility that something fantastic is happening, but it could also be a matter of the character’s perception. I love how Laura van den Berg often writes toward this blurred edge of reality that feels deeply anchored in the character’s psychology. I love subtly strange stories like Shirley Jackson’s “The Daemon Lover” or Clarice Lispector’s “In Search of a Dignity.”

I didn’t lean into sci-fi much in this collection, although “Modern Relics” deals with a largely AI-managed luxury resort, but I would love to embrace sci-fi more in future projects. I think sci-fi is the perfect genre to imagine the possible consequences of different choices we could make regarding the development of emerging technologies.

There are some eerily prescient stories, such as “Overnights Welcome,” where a deadly mosquito-borne illness causes people to significantly alter their lives, and “Spores,” in which the main character is worried about spreading an illness and even tries adding Lysol to her bath water. What inspired these stories and has the experience of living during a pandemic affected how you think about the details of these stories now?

I was editing this collection during the pandemic. I only made minor line edits to “Overnights Welcome” and “Spores,” so those stories are overwhelmingly as they were before the pandemic. Reading through them, I was struck by how I had anticipated a couple of behaviors that we’ve seen since COVID-19 spread throughout the world. With “Overnights Welcome,” I was imagining a pandemic that was just dire enough to generate fear and alter the patterns of everyday life, but not severe enough to fully disrupt a certain kind of middle-class existence. (The impact of the disease would be significantly different for a family or community with fewer resources.) I imagined how strange it would be to have this backdrop of serious illness as characters still threw parties and worried about their love affairs. On one level, as the writer, I care deeply about how alienated Colleen feels in her marriage, but on another level, I was exploring the absurdity of some of my characters’ choices. I imagined that they would be tired of this virus that was unlikely to kill them but could still do serious harm. In my story, the teenagers wanted to get sick early and get it over with. I imagined that some people would make ill-advised choices just to feel free, to feel alive again. Apparently, this was accurate; last summer, it was not uncommon that I would be walking my dogs and suddenly see people gathering at a neighbor’s house for a party indoors.

“Spores” is a counterpoint to “Overnights Welcome” in terms of reacting to communicable diseases. In that story, the main character cares deeply about controlling the spread. She feels betrayed by her own body and has to work through the shame and fear that she can spread disease. I think that’s a difficult experience. I have a close friend who was deeply upset when she found out she was positive for COVID despite precautions; the moral burden of keeping others safe when we were still learning how this virus even spreads was immense. Returning to your question, in retrospect, I think these details feel accurate. Of course, there are many aspects of our current moment that these stories didn’t capture, partially due to the different nature of the featured pathogens.

One of the things I loved about the collection was the variety in subject matter and detail, from more mundane subjects to caviar farming, horror films and solar flares, as well as different locales, including Alabama, Nevada, Los Angeles and Buenos Aires. How much of a role does research play in your creative work?

Thanks for saying that about the variety. Even though I had recurring themes, moods and concerns, I tried to diversify the subject matter for this collection. I researched solar flares. It was fascinating to read about the Carrington Event and now (and probably for the rest of my life) I will occasionally think about the possibility of a solar storm on that scale and worry about the potential destruction. I think this is a topic I will return to in future writing.

I also researched caviar farming. I have no personal experience in that field. I watched videos of people harvesting caviar using different methods. I read articles about sustainable caviar farmers and competing approaches. I first wrote a story about caviar farming in 2012, but I threw that out and wrote a new story with new characters (but still featuring caviar farmers) in 2018. This became the story in the collection, “Milking.” It was interesting to see how much the sustainable caviar industry had evolved in that handful of years.

I didn’t actively research horror films because there was a phase of my life where I was deeply into horror films and even had a horror screenplay optioned (but never produced) with a small company. The story is fictional (and that scatological pitch scene is definitely fictional, just to be clear), but you could say that I drew a bit from my film school days.

Regarding places: Unless the place has a fictional name and is completely a product of my imagination, I usually try not to write about places unless I’ve spent some time there. This may change, but that is what I’ve done so far in my writing. I have never lived in Alabama, but I visited when I lived in Mississippi for four years, so I felt familiar with the landscape. I lived in Nevada for four years and Los Angeles for 10 years. “The Neighbor’s Cat” takes place in La Plata, which is about a 45-minute drive from Buenos Aires, and I spent a few months there. I grew up in Indiana, but none of this collection takes place there. I’m still figuring out how to write about that.

If you, like your protagonist in “The Shed,” had access to a magical shed that froze time, how would you use it? Or would you not use it?

I imagined the shed as a double-edged sword. It can provide personal space and a sense of safety. It can give you all the time you need to consume or review information, to read books, or to sit with your thoughts. But it can also be isolating. If you enter in a troubled frame of mind, it’s possible that the shed just allows you more time to amplify that troubled state. You are not building new life experiences or forming deeper relationships. It’s not a one-to-one, but I imagined the shed as carrying some of the potential of a substance addiction. In moderation, perhaps that substance offers escape and a sense of peace, but in the extreme, such dependence can prevent us from building the life that will actually allow us to move forward. All of this to say, I would definitely read in the shed. I’m a slow reader and would love to catch up on all the books I’ve been eagerly eyeing on my shelves throughout the pandemic, but if I found myself turning to the shed with too much eagerness, if I found myself dreading a return to the stream of life and time, I would cut myself off.

What are you working on now?

I’m currently working on a novel set in a high-tech future about a woman who goes on a tech-free retreat to a ghost town in Nevada. When mysterious and disturbing things begin happening at the hotel, she discovers that the retreat is not what it seems and tries to escape. The story explores the impact of data collection and strong AI on personal identity, privacy and freedom.