Optimism One (MFA Literary Nonfiction ’14) talks with Meghan Robins (MFA Fiction ’14).
Optimism One: What made you decide to pursue your MFA in fiction?
Meghan Robins: After undergrad and a few years of traveling, I was determined that I could write stories without any guidance – it was harder than I thought. I took one creative writing class with Karen Terrey, who owns Tangled Roots Writing in Truckee, CA and she told me about the new MFA program at Sierra Nevada College. My improvements with Karen were so immediate sitting in her living room drinking tea that I wondered how much more could I learn in graduate school? Even with a natural affinity for writing, it takes practice, studying and an incredible amount of self-discipline to write every day and I wouldn’t have truly understood this without an MFA program. As for pursuing fiction, I enjoy the freedom of making up characters and stories where no one can tell me I’m wrong.
Op: Do you write in other genres as well?
Meghan: I occasionally write literary nonfiction but stay pretty clear of poetry. I have a plethora of backpacking stories from childhood that I would like to compile, but am certain that even the truth might read like fiction when I’m writing it.
Op: What made you choose Sierra Nevada College to get your degree?
Meghan: I chose SNC because of the rolling admissions and the low-residency format. I was eager to begin my graduate studies right away and the low-residency schedule allows me to keep my job while earning my degree. The faculty is nothing short of amazing and having a small community of incredibly talented writers is something that is really important to me. I didn’t want to be lost in the crowd at a bigger school and SNC guarantees a 5-1 student-teacher ratio.
Op: Who are your primary writing influences or inspirations?
Meghan: When I was in the seventh grade I was kicked out of class for reading Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel A Princess of Mars. They don’t wear clothes on Mars and the cover depicted that. But the story was so good I couldn’t put it down. I loved the action, the stranger who becomes the hero and how Burroughs created an entire world out of his imagination. His books made me want to write, to use my imagination to create places and characters and then see how they survive. Other books that I truly love and I consider inspirations are: Bryce Courtaney’s The Power of One and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Op: Outside of writers, what else influences or inspires your writing?
Meghan: Nature, absolutely. I was born and raised in Tahoe City, California and my parents gave my sisters and me a pretty long leash growing up. We ran through the mountains and built forts out of anything for fun. We’d named all the close meadows and rocks so our parents would know where we were. We learned to take care of each other, respect the power of the rivers and cliffs, and I believe we understood the imperativeness of being careful. If one of us got hurt too far away from home, not only would our mom be super angry, but the others would have to carry the third all the way home.
Op: Can you describe your writing practice: what time of day, how long, where, etc.?
Meghan: I write best in the morning, before anyone has talked to me. I’ll make a cup of tea, sit at my computer and eventually, when I get hungry I’ll eat breakfast. On a good day I can write from 8am to 1pm and then my legs get antsy. On a bad day, I check my email way too much.
Op: What are your immediate and long-term goals as a writer?
Meghan: My immediate goal is to complete my first novel, Undercut. My long-term goals are to be able to support myself through writing and to continue to challenge myself throughout my career. There are lots of tricks in writing and often I think of an idea or read a book and imagine all the different styles I could apply to create a different effect in my own story.
Op: In the novel you are writing, Undercut, what is the underlying theme?
Meghan: Since I have not finished this novel yet, I’m wary to say exactly what is the underlying theme. The most obvious is logging in Tahoe in the 1860’s. Another will probably be betrayal. But we’ll see.
Op: How did the idea for your novel come about?
Meghan: My dad made an offhand comment when I was 22 years old about how the entire Tahoe basin had been clear-cut. I grew up here and had no idea. Most of the trees we enjoy are second growth and occasionally you’ll come across a gigantic tree and I almost can’t imagine these mountains shaded by giants instead of suffocating by competing trees like they are now. I did some research and thought, yes, this is the story I need to write first.
Op: Do you base your characters, like Giuseppe and Shipp, off of people you know or have met?
Meghan: I am completely making them up. It is very probable that their characteristics resemble a collaboration of people I have known – as all things must – but I am not thinking of any one or two persons in particular. As I write them, I am trying to understand them. And in doing so, I am open to the possibilities that they may be good or bad. It would be hard to write too closely to someone I know because I have a hard time deviating from the truth and I would inevitably write a story that actually happened and then call it fiction.
Op: Because your novel is historical fiction, do you find it difficult to make sure to stress the details and vernacular of the mid 1800’s? What do you do to make sure you are maintaining that same level of tone and scene in a consistent manner?
Meghan: Maintaining consistency comes easily to me because when I sit down to write, I am very much in this story and this timeframe. Balancing research and writing has been a hard habit to learn. First and foremost, I am writing a story. The backdrop happens to be set in historical reality. I sit down and write (most important) and occasionally I’ll pause to fact-check (Did they wear long-johns in 1860? Only in the Union Army and they were called union suits.) Alright, so my character only wears trousers because I don’t want him to be a Union soldier. But it’s most important to write the story and then I can tweak the details to make them accurate later. Outside of my assigned reading, I also read a lot of research literature about logging and mining so I can weave accuracy in on the first draft. Wallace Stegner wrote in Angle of Repose, “I have heard publishers, lamenting their hard life over Scotch and soda, complain that they must read a hundred bad manuscripts to find one good one. Having practiced the trade of history, I feel no stir of sympathy. A historian scans a thousand documents to find one fact that he can use” (367). Oftentimes, I feel just like that.
Op: How far along are you in completing a first draft?
Meghan: I’ve written and edited up to Chapter 3. I imagine the completed novel will fall somewhere between 10-14 chapters. And inevitably I will edit even the first three chapters over and over again. Either way, I plan to be finished by the end of our program, so the summer of 2014.
Op: Do you have specific ideas for other novels after this one?
Meghan: A lot of ideas, but none specific. I’m still trying to comprehend the idea of completing one novel!
Op: Finally, what is the best piece of writing advice you have heard that sustains you?
Meghan: Two things, though they’re not exactly writing advice, but they absolutely sustain me. Next to my desk I have a quote that says, “If you are what you should be you will set the world on fire.” – St. Catherine of Siena
And from George Hunker, who taught me how to fly fish, “Can’t catch anything if your lines not in the water.” I think that goes for everything in life. Writing is what I want to do, it is what I am supposed to do, so as my mom has always reminded me, “Butt in chair.”
Meghan Robins was born and raised in Tahoe City, California. After earning a Bachelor’s degree in English with a minor in Philosophy at the University of Oregon, she traveled throughout Mediterranean Europe, living in Rome, working on a farm in southern Spain then teaching at an elementary school in Membrilla, a small town south of Madrid. She quickly learned their thickly accented version of Castellano and every day she ran along la ruta de Don Quixote. When the school year ended, Robins left the agrarian land of central Spain for the majestic topography of New Zealand. Although gigantic ferns and jagged peaks rival the beauties of her own tromping grounds, it was time to return home. Now she lives in Tahoe City and is earning her Masters degree in Creative Writing from Sierra Nevada College. She also works at an outdoor retail shop called Alpenglow in Tahoe City. When not working or writing, she is playing Ultimate Frisbee, backpacking, skiing, or walrus-ing around the Lake Tahoe shores. She is currently writing a historical fiction novel about logging in the Lake Tahoe Basin in the mid-1800’s and has every intention of finishing it by the end of her MFA program, which will be the summer of 2014.