I recently got the chance to speak with Joe Meno, acclaimed writer of close to a dozen books, several plays, and a multitude of short stories. Winner of the Nelson Algren Award in 2003 and finalist for the prestigious Story Prize in 2009, he currently teaches fiction at Columbia College Chicago, where he himself once went to school. We chatted fiction, film, and the future of storytelling, among many other things.
Nicholas Olson: You’ve written plays, short stories, novels, and last year you even wrote a novella that was released in seven parts online at Electric Literature. What’s next for you?
Joe Meno: Well first of all, thanks for taking the time, Nick. I appreciate it. Yeah, as you noted, I had the privilege to be able to write in a lot of different forms and experiment with a lot of different kinds of media in narrative, so right now I’m actually working on a book-length work of nonfiction that deals with these two immigrants from Ghana who went on this harrowing journey starting in South America traveling out through Central America into the States and then ultimately into Canada. And yeah, it’s going to be kind of novelistic in scope, but it’s based on these two men and their actual life experience.
NO: Very cool. So we share the same alma mater, Columbia College Chicago, and I wanted to know: What was it about the program there that first attracted you and then brought you back as a professor?
JM: I think that’s a great question. Well, you know, I had gone through a state school in undergraduate at University of Illinois down in Champaign, and I knew when I went off to college I wanted to write. I didn’t know what form that was going to take, and so I took a lot of film classes. And at the time, and still currently, Champaign-Urbana is not the hotbed of the film industry. [laughs] And so I took as many writing classes too as possible, and I just felt like I was putting myself through school, and I just didn’t feel like I was getting that basic knowledge and feedback that I really wanted, and I didn’t feel like I was getting exposed to a lot of different kinds of writing. And so yeah, I heard about this program at Columbia College. At the time, there was an entire department devoted solely to fiction writing, which was really rare and totally uncommon. And so I did some research and saw that they were really oriented towards process, and they had like 50 different creative writing classes, which is totally, again, really uncommon. Most writing programs have like six [laughs] creative writing courses. And so yeah. I went and visited, and I decided to transfer there, and I finished my undergrad. I loved the program so much I decided to then go back and get my Master’s. And while I was there, I was really fortunate to start teaching as a graduate student. And so I’ll be honest, Nick, at the time I thought you can either devote yourself wholly to writing or you can devote yourself to being a great teacher. I did not think you could do both. And what I found is that they feed each other and complement each other perfectly, and that being able as a writer to be connected in these conversations about writing and seeing what people are attempting with their writing, for me it’s been just this amazing honor, and I really take it seriously, and I feel like the best writers that I’m ever reading are the ones in my classes. You know, they take huge risks and try to push the boundaries with character and language and form. And so since then, well back in the ‘90s, so twenty-some years later now, we have this amazing, very developed creative writing program that gives students the opportunity to experiment with fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, we have an amazing foundations class where students move from taking exciting fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and then there’s workshops, we have a class that looks at graphic novels. And so all the things that I originally loved about the program, ultimately as a professor I’m still able to get students excited about, and incorporating different developments in narrative over the time that I’ve been a writer.
NO: And that’s great, I think, that you bring up experimenting and pushing boundaries, because I was going to say that in both the way that you structure your stories and in the forms that they take themselves, it really seems like you enjoy pushing the boundaries of fiction yourself. So I wanted to ask you: What do you think the next frontier for fiction is?
JM: That’s a great question. Well it’s interesting, I feel like as a writer and an artist, you are setting these constraints up for yourself, and you try to transcend them and break them, and so the biggest influence at any one time is the last project that you did. And so a couple years ago, I did this book, and it was very open and kind of loose, called Office Girl, that incorporated a lot of imagery. And as we were putting it together, I wanted it to feel like a French New Wave film, like a collage, and jump cuts between chapters, and then the book I wrote right after that was the most traditional novel that I’ve ever written, this book called Marvel and a Wonder, which takes place in the midwest and is kind of mythological, even kind of biblical connotations to it. And so I think from one project to the next, I’m almost like trying to undo whatever I just did. And so, thinking about it in like a larger context, where technology or digital possibilities are concerned, there’s that same kind of back and forth effect. Like when internet was first introduced, I did this hypertext story for Playboy Magazine. And then after like two years, nobody was really interested in the form anymore. And so I think that’s oftentimes what happens where narrative and technology is concerned. There’s like this leap forward, and people are really excited about it, and then it gets mainstreamed or becomes kind of familiar, and then people kind of go back to some more traditional forms, and then that keeps happening. And so hopefully narrative keeps inventing itself. I was really excited about this project I did with Electric Literature, and I have the feeling that model is going to ultimately become something kind of more popular. When I wrote that thing for Electric Literature, I actually wrote the chapters thinking that you would read it on the phone. And so the length of the chapters, the complexity of the chapters, they were really informed by the reading stage that I was imagining. And that’s exciting to me, and so I think seeing how our reading habits have changed in the last 10 years, since we’re looking at books as three-dimensional objects or seeing them as text and screens and on people’s phones and iPads, I think that’s going to continue to offer some interesting possibilities. So I think that looking at what people are doing in film and television and seeing how you might go back to some of those same ideas with a traditional text. I really don’t know, you know what I mean, and that’s what’s really exciting. Like right now, I’m kind of amazed nobody’s done like a virtual reality text. You know, it seems like the technology isn’t that far off where you could write a text and then somehow interact with it virtually and move through a book and have chapters and things like that. Yeah, I’d love to see something like that.
NO: Yeah, that would be pretty amazing.
JM: I’d like to see some institution give Neil Gaiman a couple million dollars, you know what I mean? ‘Cause that’s how it works, that’s the only way we get these leaps forward, is to have that kind of freedom and support. It’s really hard to do these things if it’s market-based. And so the experiment with Electric Literature, like for me it was less about how many clicks or how much ad money they make or whatever, it was you know here’s this cool thing, let’s try it. And that’s why Electric Literature over the last 10 years has done some really amazing things, because they’re interested in that kind of pioneering quality.
NO: Yeah. Personally, I think that was the perfect venue for Star Witness to kind of be in.
JM: Oh, thank you. Yeah, I’m such a fan of that. I mean that’s one of the few websites, you know I go to it every couple days. And the fact that they haven’t given up on literature being part of pop culture, that to me is at the heart of what I think I’m interested in in my writing.
NO: So in terms of your writing, your stories are very character-driven, but sometimes to me it feels like one of those characters seems to be the setting itself, like I would say the city of Chicago in your novel Office Girl. So I wanted to know: What does setting mean to you as a writer?
JM: You’ve got some great questions, I appreciate it. I think everything that I’ve ever started, whether it’s a short story or a play or a novel, whatever, it always starts with a character. And I have this kind of narrow idea about narrative in general, that for a story to work, you have to have two characters at least, and to do a play or novel, more characters than that, and ultimately there’s like one central relationship that drives each story. And so having that and then figuring out what’s the best time and place, how do you use a particular era or particular location, and really for me it’s about looking at these kind of invisible worlds or these like undiscovered places, these subcultures that haven’t been written about or documented all that often. And so looking at these punk kids in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s and writing about that, or writing about the kids at art school in Office Girl. And oftentimes like you mentioned, they come out of some sort of experience or some sort of place that I feel is important to me and had some sort of impact on me. And so yeah, in a way the places in all my books are kind of the artifacts of the different settings that have meant something to me, that have changed me in some way. And so you’re like going back and trying to identify those in your own life, and it ends up being this kind of strange map of the places and the kind of subcultures or the settings that had this kind of emotional impact on you. And then you bring the characters to that and hopefully there’s a relationship between those two things. And so you’re trying to use, like you said, the place as a way to raise the stakes, cause conflict, and sometimes even allow things to change as well.
NO: Very cool. So I recently watched “People Are Becoming Clouds,” a short film that was based on a story of yours, and I was struck by how your very distinctive dialogue was translated onto the screen. It was almost like I knew it was based on your writing even without knowing that beforehand. So I wanted to know: What does it feel like for you to see your work adapted to another medium?
JM: That’s a great question. I’ve been really fortunate, so I’ve had a bunch of short films made, mostly out of short stories, my first novel, a chapter of it was adapted as this great short film called “Tender as Hellfire.” So you know what’s interesting, Nick? I told you like I had gone off to college, and I took all these film classes and was taking writing classes as well, and so to me, at heart, I’ve always thought of myself as a visual writer, a very physical writer, and film and music both have always had just as much impact and kind of influence on my writing as actual texts or other novels and short stories. And so I feel like I’m constantly looking to film, looking to music, looking to other books, and seeing the collision where the interesting conversation arises out of those different things. But yeah, strangely it feels very natural. It doesn’t feel unfamiliar to see it actually filmed and physicalized in a cinematic way. To me it’s like that’s just what was in my head, and Marc Katz did such a fantastic job with that short film adaptation, it was premiered at Toronto International Film Festival, which is a huge honor, and then it was picked up by The New Yorker and hosted by The New Yorker. Marc did a wonderful job of capturing the spirit of the story and kind of making it his own. To me, it’s just another outlet or avenue to experiment with story.
NO: So I wanted to know: Do you have any specific rituals or locations you need to be at while you write, or do you just kind of adapt to the situation?
JM: That’s a great question. I try not to set any obstacles, so then I can write whenever or wherever I have to, and then trying to be adaptable. And I have a wife and two kids, so depending on their schedules and things like that, but as a working writer you don’t always get to pick the time and the place where you’re able to write. I will say, like I do work pretty consistently Monday through Saturday from 8 till 11, and that is like developing new material, rewriting, doing fiction, writing some nonfiction magazine stuff, and it’s a variety of different projects that are all kind of constantly overlapping each other. You don’t feel like you sit down at the computer and never have anything to write, you’re never staring at a blank page. So having a couple different projects going on at the same time, one, it’s just like a financial necessity, and then, two, you always feel like, well I need to go back to this. I will say, working on a longer book-length thing, that’s the time when for a month at a time you might be focusing just on that one project, and as soon as you get a draft of that done, you know I kind of put it away and then do a bunch of small projects and then go back to it for another draft. But yeah, I have an office in our house, and I sit down there and work. It’s not very interesting or glamorous, but I like it like that. I like just not being pretentious about it or not being precious about it, it’s just your job, you just sit down and do it, you know? And I feel really grateful for the time that I have to do it.