Meghan Daum’s writing is something more than personal. It surely explores her interior life and pushes at ideas that some just would prefer to keep to themselves.
Her most recent collection of essays, 2014’s “The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion,” might rank as cultural criticism, spirited by the voice of an all-too-honest guide through America. She touches on motherhood — or purposefully avoiding it — death, sexuality and myriad topics perhaps not suited for refined dinner conversation. Larry David shows up for a bit, too.
Daum’s appearance at the fourth Virginia Quarterly Review Writers’ Conference, which runs Monday through July 15, only is open to conference participants. But Bret Anthony Johnston, who received a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, as well as being selected for a 5 Under 35 acknowledgement from the National Book Foundation, will give a public reading 5:30 p.m. July 14 in the Dome Room of the Rotunda.
The following Q&A with Daum has been edited for length and clarity.
PULSE: “The Quality of Life Report, 2017” appeared in April’s edition of VQR, which I believe is the first piece you contributed to the publication. Has there been any backlash for looking at privileged liberalism in that light?
MEGHAN DAUM: I was thrilled that VQR published my essay about the reissue of “The Quality of Life Report.” It’s a bit of an unusual piece because it’s not often that authors write about work they published a long time ago. But I wanted to try to give voice to some of the internal thoughts I’ve had about revisiting the book at this particular moment. Needless to say, we find ourselves in complicated and fraught times, culturally and politically. There’s a lot of talk about “identity politics” (however you want to define that) and questions around class and race and geography and the tensions between “coastal elites” and those in “flyover country” (again, these are often arbitrary labels). “The Quality of Life Report” is very much about those ideas, not just thematically but overtly and as part of the story. But because it was published in 2003, I was a lot faster and looser with some of the humor and characters and situations than I’d probably get away with today — and I love that about the book. I laughed so hard while writing it that I almost fell out of my chair a few times (though I guess it’s bad form to laugh at your own jokes.) I wanted to explore that dichotomy in the context of the current political climate and also my experience teaching students, who are in some cases very invested in identity politics and social justice. And to answer your question, there’s been no backlash to either the essay or the novel itself. At least none that has come to my attention. Maybe it’s out there hiding somewhere, but I haven’t found it yet.
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, is usually a few steps away from hitting on something archetypal.
P: You’re time in Nebraska frequently crops up in essays. Why is that four-year period a defining moment in your life, seemingly both personal and professional?
MD: It was so long ago that I lived in Nebraska that I don’t often think of it as a defining period anymore, but now that you mention it, I guess it really was. Partly, it’s a function of the age I was when I went there and my circumstances at the time. I was nearly 30, which is obviously well into adulthood by many standards, but still qualifies as late adolescence by the standards of the career and status-obsessed New York City media scene from which I had come. So, in a way, Nebraska allowed me to step into adulthood, or some version of it, in a way that New York simply wasn’t affording me at the time. New York City can be a very provincial place and also an infantilizing place. You don’t have to drive, you don’t have to cook, you can get away with only hanging around with people who are exactly like you in terms of demographic and background and taste and education. And I don’t think that’s healthy at all — certainly it’s boring. I always say that it was only by moving to “the provinces” that I became less provincial. Now I’m back in New York, so I guess I’m back to being an infant with a microscopic worldview.
P: You’re about a year into your recurring New York Times feature, “Egos.” Has writing on and reviewing memoir granted you some new insight into your own work?
MD: I don’t think reading and writing about new memoirs has affected my own writing that much. Most of the books I encounter with the “Egos” column tell some very specific and dramatic personal and true story, and I unfortunately (or probably fortunately) have never had enough of those, so I’ve always worked more in the realm of essay and journalism. But actually writing the column has informed the way I work with students who are writing memoir. I’ve become more attuned to what elements consistently make a memoir work and what makes things go off the rails. Sometimes, a writer can have an amazing story to tell that would make for a fantastic essay or short form piece, but doesn’t have the legs to be a whole book. That’s something I see a lot when I select the books for the “Egos” column: stories that have been stretched into books when they might have been better as standalone pieces. It’s made me more willing to tell a student, “You have an incredible story here, and the way to really honor it is to keep it a story, rather than water it down into a book.” It’s hard to hear, but not nearly as hard as trying to stretch 30 pages worth of material into a 200-page book.
P: Has your time at the University of Iowa’s Graduate Nonfiction Writing Program offered the same sort of reprieve that your time in Nebraska seemed to grant?
MD: Oh my gosh, no. I was doing a visiting professor stint at Iowa and I had two classes, plus various other responsibilities. It was a lot of fun and an incredibly valuable experience, but it did not feel like a “reprieve.” My Nebraska experience is 17 years in the past now. Being a 40-something professor isn’t quite the same as being a 30-year-old refugee from Manhattan kicking around the cornfields and seeking “experiences.” And I guess I just gave away my age for anyone who can do math.
P: How do you differentiate between your work as a columnist, essayist, teacher and, after July’s four conferences and residencies, as something of an avatar of contemporary letters? Is one of those a defining track for you?
MD: I would say all of those roles fall under the general rubric of “working writer.” They are of course distinct in their own ways, but you can’t really separate them because they’re all required to keep the ship afloat financially. I’ve been freelance for my entire career. Other than the year I spent working as an editorial assistant at Condé Nast after I graduated from college, I’ve never been a company employee or had a staff job or anything like that. There have been times when I wished I did, believe me. But for the most part, I’ve been able to piece things together in a way that’s satisfying enough to make up for the uncertainty that comes from living this way. I’d like to say the defining track is writing books, but that’s a little disingenuous because the books fuel the other gigs and those gigs, in turn, pay the bills when I’m writing the books.
P: I know the “The Quality of Life Report” recently was re-released. And “The Unspeakable (And Other Subjects of Discussion)” is only a few years old, but are you working on another book-length project?
MD: I am working on a new book, but not talking about it yet. With any luck it’ll be out next year and I’ll be talking about it entirely too much.