Meg Elison is an author, a columnist & a recent graduate of University of California, Berkeley. She is Senior Staff Writer and the Opinions Page Editor at The Daily Californian & is Managing Editor for Caliber Magazine.
Last year, in May 2013, she wrote the 1st draft of her debut novel. Less than a year later, Sybaritic Press decided to publish it! Meg’s debut novel, The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, a novel in the post-apocalyptic genre, is out.
Years of hard work and a steely determination have got Meg to this moment. Meg tells us about the moment she knew she wanted to be a writer, how she finds a connect with her audience by writing honestly about personal experiences & how her debut novel was published within a year of her writing the 1st draft!
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I figured out I wanted to be a writer, not all at once, but as a series of small events. There were contests like “Write a poem for Arbor Day” or other government holidays, and I would win sometimes. I thought it was a side effect of being a smart kid than any kind of talent. I didn’t get it then.
When I was in high school, I was very disaffected & full of angst. I hated our school newspaper. It was not very creative and didn’t have anything to say. So I started my own alternative newspaper. They tried to stop us from distributing it but we had checked the rules so we knew it was fine. It ended up being something I had to fight for. It was called The Hemet Underground.
Probably the best moment for me in high school was when I walked into a classroom and I looked around and almost everybody had a copy of our paper. I knew they were reading something I had written and there’s nothing like that feeling.
You worked in retail (at Lowes & The Home Depot) for 8 years. Were you consistently writing during this period?
I dropped out of high school. I moved to Europe for a number of years where I was engaged to a guy in Germany. That didn’t work out, but I had quite an adventure. When I came back I had no education, not even a high school diploma. And there are very few jobs you can get in that position. So I got a job answering the phone at Lowes. Retail is awful. It’s mind-numbing, soul-crushing, really bad for your back, really bad for your spirit too.
But I was consistently writing the entire time I worked retail. In retail, a lot of people keep notepads in their pockets where they can write down item numbers, or answers questions for customers. Mine were full of notes for stories.
That’s one of the things I realized when I worked in retail – writing was the thing I couldn’t not do. There was no way to stop me.
Was there a trusted group of people you shared your stories with?
I would occasionally share it with my best friend. And after I got engaged, I would share things with John.
For a long time I didn’t trust people and didn’t feel like I could share my stories, especially with other writers. That is the scariest thing. It’s sort of like diving off something very high. As soon as you’ve done it, you’re like, oh yeah! But talking yourself off the edge is very hard. I wish I had done it sooner, it’s invaluable.
When I worked at Borders – people who work at bookstores are often frustrated writers – we would trade short stories. We would judge each other based on very short utterances – like how we might recommend a book to a customer or notes we’d leave on each other’s lockers. I remember somebody had left a note on a friend’s locker that said “Your Viking Longship is double parked.” We figured out we were making literary allusions and were interested in the same things. That was the first time I opened up.
You started writing for The Daily Californian with a column called Broke in Berkeley where you talked about living economically in Berkeley and your own experiences growing up poor. How did you decide this is what your column was going to be about?
I decided what the column was going to be about before I got hired at The Daily Californian. They had turned me down previously.
They recommended that if you want to pitch a column you should have a unifying theme. I didn’t know what my theme should be. But I had the experience of seeing the guy in my class who lined his backpack with a garbage bag. And I thought about that moment. There are moments of intense connection that happen during fleeting times. I always return to those when I’m trying to craft a scene.
It occurred to me that I could write about the times that I’ve seen other people and known that they were poor, without them having to tell me. This immediately opened up the idea of having to talk about very personal things honestly. Nothing works like honesty. There is some indefinable ring to honesty.
“Broke in Berkeley” got me the most responses from individual readers. They would say – I grew up very poor or my parents never talked to me about college & I had to figure this out on my own. I’m doing what you did. And they would thank me. That was powerful.
You said in one of your articles: “I wrote my application essay for UC Berkeley four times, each time carefully skirting the part where I dropped out of high school to live on the street..” What did you write about in your college application essay?
I did talk about some of my struggle but for the most part, I focused on what I wanted. I explained that I had seen enough of the life I had had. I was ready to see the next thing. I’m very interested in a culture of intellectuals, in changing the scope of my world which was this small & I’d really like it to get bigger.
You’ve written over a 100 articles for The Daily Californian in a year. Are the schedules aggressive or do you just write so much?
Some of it is schedule, but majority of the pieces are Arts pieces. The Arts Editor just sends out emails – hey, we have invitations to a gallery or tickets to a movie, does anybody want to go see it? And I always say yes.
Arts assignments are the easiest thing – just go out into the world and find something and say I loved this, or I hate this, or this reminded me of being on the beach, or of being alone, or this reminded me of Ernest Hemingway and say why. It’s like the whole world is conspiring to give you writing prompts.
Go out and do something you’ve never done before! If you sit at the same desk and stare at the same laptop and feed the same cat, nothing new will happen.
How do you edit your work and make sure everything looks right?
I don’t edit while I write. On the first read-through, you just look for obvious mistakes. On the next pass, you have to read it out loud. Absolutely everything works better if you read it out loud.
The best thing is if you can ask somebody to read it out loud to you. In the final stages of editing my novel, my husband read the whole thing out loud to me, which is amazing. It took days.
Coming to your novel- The Book of the Unnamed Midwife. It’s out there! What did the first sale feel like?
One of the first people who told me they were reading my book, is someone who I didn’t know. It was a very strange feeling. I have a friend named Mave. She said I haven’t had time to read your book but my boyfriend bought it and he is texting me about it right now. So that was the first person I heard back from. It’s like a intimacy with a stranger. Someone out there is coldly judging my work without any pressure socially to like me or reaffirm me in any way. At the same time there is a surge of power – there are other people out there in whose brain I am constructing a narrative. That’s quite a rush.
When you were writing it, were there moments of self-doubt where you questioned yourself or thought about quitting?
I never thought about quitting. I had other projects die that way, but not this one. I was very sure about it all the way to the end. I finished writing it in three to four months. After that, I started re-drafting and redrafting and redrafting.
How does the redrafting process work? Did you work with a professional editor?
I have good friends who are Beta readers to whom I am very indebted. But beyond Beta readers, my husband and myself, I did not solicit any kind of other advice. It had to be mostly from me.
Walk us through from the point when you sent off your manuscript to Sybaritic Press to the point they said – you’re on?
I sent it on New Year’s Eve to the publisher, Marie Lecrivain, who is the head of that press. She had published some of my work before. When she knew I was working on my novel, she asked if I would give them first option. I held on to it for a while, but then I gave it to her on New Year’s Eve.
She didn’t email me back that she had received it so I sent her a very gentle “not freaking out” note saying, hey did you get that manuscript I sent you? It turned out she hadn’t because I had sent it to the wrong email address. So that was nerve-racking! She said she’ll have some people at Sybaritic look at it and she’d be in touch. And then I didn’t hear anything for 3 months.
Yeah, I was nervous the whole time and I just had to not think about it. I practiced being patient. She got a hold of me around the beginning of March and told me they wanted the option on it!
I was excited to work with a small press because you have much more control. A large press exerts a great deal of editorial authority on your manuscript. It comes with a lot of money if you are lucky, but you could be giving up a lot. So for my first novel, I am very glad that I went through a small press.
What do they have you as the author do, to market and sell your, book?
We market collaboratively. They send advance copies to members of the press who they have contacts with and they advise that I do the same. Because I’ve been a journalist for a few years, I have contacts of my own.
They arrange signing and speaking events, in this case in Los Angeles because they’re based there. But they encourage me to advocate for my own signing and speaking events in the Bay Area which I’m doing.
I suggested we send copies to some book bloggers that I’ve been watching very carefully on the internet and my publisher readily agreed.
How did you find the book bloggers?
A lot of Google.. There are a lot of teenagers who are very good book bloggers because they want to break into publishing or writing. It’s so smart! I wish I’d done it when I was a kid. They start a blog on WordPress or Blogger and they get copies of books and review them. They get free copies from Goodreads or solicit publishers, and create a name for themselves in the industry.
I try to search for people who have read books that are similar to my book and have liked them. If they like “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood, that’s a giver. That’s who I want to talk to.
What’s your system to manage work & get the writing in for your novel?
The most important things is Google Calendar. I run absolutely everything through it. If I pull up a day, I know exactly what’s going to happen that day, what’s due that day, what has to be gone that day. A day-runner app or even a book is indispensable.
Second, email has to be dealt with the minute I get it. If I put it off, I will not go back to it.
It is difficult to give everything the time that it deserves. It often means something has to be sacrificed. I am essentially always working. There is no time that I am not on call. I have to seek out quiet sometimes, go to a library, just to get away from constant demand. I’m always online & always reachable. As an editor, I get a lot of things that need to get done in the moment.
If I need time to write for myself, I try to wait until I have something I have to, have to, have to get down. Conceptualizing a novel is a lot of playing let’s pretend in the head. When it comes to a point where I know I have an entire scene that’s when I’ll sit down to write.
So you don’t have a set time slot in the day to sit down & write?
No I don’t. I definitely have long term goals but how I reach it is not a matter of sitting down two hours every day to write. I do write every day though. I might only get thirty minutes on the bus with my finger on the phone, but I’m writing.
You are a writer and an editor. Which do you enjoy more?
Writing for a magazine or a newspaper is a lot of fun! Someone else will tell you what to write, how many words and when it’s due. You just do it and then you’re done.
Editing for a magazine means I have 10-12 people at any given time from whom I’m owed content. I have to remember their due dates and some I have to gently remind.
When I do receive their content, I have to make sure it’s suitable for the paper, it’s edited correctly & I fact check it. I have to make sure it physically fits in the layout. Layout is really hard for me. I’m learning InDesign but all of it is fiddly and time consuming. People who do layouts for books, magazines & newspapers are unsung heroes!
Also an editor is the one who gets in trouble if the paper is libelous. I wrote a piece not too long ago where I called Larry King a skin-eating goblin. My editor called me in and said “Do you think this is libel?” and I said, “I don’t think so because he can’t prove that he’s not a goblin.”
Photo Credits: Devin Cooper, frosch50,
A Note: I must tip my hat to one of my favorite articles Becoming a Writer by Junot Diaz, for the title of this piece.