Interview with Dr. Meagan Cass

Dr. Cass is is a professor in the English and Modern Languages Department at UIS. Her works have appeared in Washington Square Review, Bluestem, Joyland Magazine, and others. She is also the faculty advisor for the Alchemist Review.

If you could have lunch with any author, who would you choose, why, and where?

Dead or alive? Anything? Oh wow. I think I would want to have lunch with– I feel like I get asked this question like, this is like the writer party question that always comes up for some reason. I think I would want to have dinner with Adrienne Rich I would love to talk to her about– because she’s such an intentionally political and feminist poet. I would want to like talk to her about how artists are working in our current political climate and kind of how poetry can make a difference within that so I’ll say zombie Adrienne Rich.

What is your favorite thing you’ve written and why?

Oh, you’re asking me to choose between my children! Uhh, oh man, okay, I think my favorite thing that I’ve written is this story in my first book, it’s called Jews and Sports and it’s about growing up in a kind of anti-Semitic town, I was raised Jewish and our temple was defaced when I was 12, like spray painted swastikas all over the temple and like so a group of us, like my dad and my siblings and I went in the morning and washed them off the wall and it was like a really vivid memory from my childhood and I tried to write about it in MFA school like in a story and it just was this really like kind of dogmatic story and like it  just felt like it was trying to be an essay about anti-Semitism rather than like a piece of fiction and so I like put it away in a drawer for a while and like I went and did my PhD, and like I didn’t really think about it and then a year after I finished my PhD I was working on, like I was trying to work in a more focused way on these stories of like sports and games that make up the book and I remembered this book that my dad got my brother because there’s not a lot of Jewish athletes in like American culture and it was called like Jews and Sports and it was just like this catalogue of Jewish athletes to help my brother feel like he could be an athlete and it just wound up in our bathroom so it was like always in the bathroom and like , so I started writing from there and it turned out like the scene of the defaced temple popped into the story and it was totally right like where it was and it clicked into place and, and I think it’s meant for the story because of the magic of that, like sometimes you write something and you’re just not ready to write it yet and like I’m really glad I wrote the draft in my MFA because then it was like in my head but like yeah it wasn’t like I took out my old draft or anything, I just knew that I needed to rewrite that scene and it just came to the new draft and then it became a story that like meant a lot to me emotionally and, as well as in terms of like the book so like yeah, I think that would be my favorite one.

How do you know when a work is ready to be sent out to be published?

I feel like I’m going to give the cliche, annoying, answer, which is just like it feels like, it’s kind of a gut punch, like you feel it, like you reread it to yourself, like I always read my work out loud and when I kind of get to the end and when I feel like that sense of the piece is doing something to me, like when if I’m approaching it more objectively as a reader and I feel like it’s moving me and I’m excited to share that experience, that’s when I know it’s ready, so, also, like usually like before that happens, I get feedback from folks I went to school with so even if I feel like “oh, this is ready to go”, I’ll usually like make sure to get feedback from people to see like what things I’m missing, or you know, one more round of that. Yeah, or like I’m editing the same paragraph over and over again, so then it usually needs to leave my presence in some way.

What was one surprising thing you learned in creating your book?

I learned, when I was in the copyediting stage that like I’m really drawn to images of space and space travel and I think it’s partly to do with my father, is like, he was like obsessed with space travel when we were kids, he’s a math teacher, and he did like all of these units involving like calculating distances between planets, and like he went to like NASA for teachers and like so, but I’d had no idea that those images were so persistent in the stories until I read all of the stories at once and then I was like “Oh! There’s a lot of like planetary thing”, kind of cool to see how that vocabulary was like subconsciously filtered through. Also, I think just realizing more broadly like how much being an athlete shaped my identity and the identities of people I’ve known, how much of it was a form of love and communication and community building as much as it was also a source of stress and like negativity and really like, tough love kind of individualistic, patriarchal kind of way of thinking about people, so like I had no idea that my first book was going to be a sports book. Like if you had asked me in MFA school, like I was planning to write like surrealist fairy tales and some of them kind of are, even though they’re about, like sports is the subject matter, but like yeah, I didn’t write any stories of this nature like up until the very end of my PhD, so just that that was something that was moving and like haunting to me was a pretty huge surprise.

Why is literature and writing important to you?

I think, for a few reasons. It helps me to keep challenging my ideas of myself, of the world, of the narratives that I think I know. When I’m write well, my stories are taking me unexpected and uncomfortable places so I think it’s just this really critical way  for me of engaging with the world and engaging with my own sense of identity and how, I feel like, and this is something Dorothy Allison writes about, like it’s really hard to hide from yourself in fiction, which sounds kind counterintuitive because you’re writing about made up people who are not you, but like you bring yourself to those stories and like for me, if I’m lying to myself about something or not looking closely enough at something, like I can see it in the writing and so I think it helps me hold myself accountable to myself too, so I guess those things, and also it’s a really fun way to move through the world, like noticing how interesting people are, the language they use, and it’s just people are so weird and wonderful and like writing, when I’m like writing consistently I’m so much more awake to that and like open to it and so I really feel like when I’m not writing, it just feels like things are dulled down, and then you’re just like oh, where’s my notebook, like that’s hilarious, or like yeah that kind of intuition kicks in, that way of paying attention, so yeah.

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Let’s see, um, I feel like the answers that you usually get are like read a lot, show your work to people, like revise a lot, and those are all good but I think for me, like something that’s been really important is the idea of fighting perfectionism however you can. When Megan Giddings was here a few weeks ago, she was talking about how when was was like working full time, her writing for that day was just like describing the cafeteria that she’s always in and it just like clicked in my brain, yeah, like sometimes we’re not always our ideal writerly selves, we’re not always like “I’m gonna spend three hours a day, like with my cup of hot tea and like in my silent place”, like a lot of the times, writing practice has to be kind of scrappy because you’re busy and I think at various times in my life this idea of the perfect writing routine has kept me from writing and like, so I would say, find a method for, it’s kind of like if you can’t play your sport for a long time but maybe like you keep a tennis ball in your office and every once in a while you like kick it against the wall, you’re like keeping that intuition, that muscle alive in the way that you can, and sometimes like that collecting of stuff is really good and like I think you always need a pool of images and language to draw from in fiction so it’s only going to enrich your work even if that day, like something you heard in the hallway, like a weird piece of cake that you had, whatever, like that’s, the action of writing it down, like makes it something that, for me, like it makes it something that my subconscious is going to remember, like that’s in this notebook, and like if and when I need it in a story, I’ll be able to access it better than if I didn’t write it down at all.

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The literary journal of the University of Illinois at Springfield.

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