An Interview with Shannon McLeod

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Shannon McLeod’s debut novella, Whimsy (174 pages; Long Day Press), was released on March 23. The book’s narrator, a first-year middle-school teacher named Whimsy, journeys a path of recovery after a horrific car accident that left her with facial scars and psychic scars as well. McLeod’s narrative threads a series of distinct scenes that measure her main character’s capacity for change against people in her life—intimate partners, parents, friends, students—who seem to navigate change with enviable ease. McLeod, whose work has appeared in Tin House, Prairie Schooner, and Hobart, discussed the novella with me via correspondence. We discussed the book, the writing process, and, because we are both teachers, the interplay between writing and teaching.

TQ: I want to meet this main character for real! I enjoyed spending time in her world. But if I did meet her, I would surely be on her outside, right? I would be part of her externality, her otherness. Almost assuredly so, although that probably says more about me than it says about her. I feel like you’ve created a book for which there will be two distinct camps of readers: those who identify with Whimsy, and those who empathize. Either way, you’ve elicited a powerful response. What have you thought about your readership? What do you hope for them?

SM: I certainly hope readers will fall into one of those two camps, but I also anticipate a third camp: readers who are annoyed by her self-absorption and find her too “unlikeable.” I hope for those who identify with Whimsy that they can feel some comfort in reading her story. I read mostly for comfort, I think, to climb into someone else’s mind that is flawed in similar ways that my own mind is flawed and find some reassurance in being able to relate.  For those who empathize but don’t relate, I hope this book helps them better understand those around them who struggle with anxiety and self-esteem issues.

TQ: This makes me want to interject: we are told so often that stories are about how characters change, yet Whimsy is a character who perhaps isn't ready to change, certainly not in her own mind. I noticed how characters around her were changing (her boyfriend, her mom, even her students), but her own capacity for change was perhaps one of her central challenges. This puts you in an interesting position. What was it like to push your main character so hard?!

SM: I don’t think I realized I was pushing my protagonist so hard! I think I was doing that to myself during the process of writing this book. I was so tired of living in fear, shrinking myself because of my litany of insecurities. I’m sure I was working that out on the page. 

My hope is that by the end of the book, it’s clear that Whimsy’s self-perception is not accurate. And that her insecurities have kept her in this self-involved, isolated place. By the end of the book, she starts to recognize this. I intend for the reader to get the sense that Whimsy is finally ready to change when we leave her in the final chapter. That she’s become more present in the world, and therefore more connected to it. 

TQ: I do share one thing in common with Whimsy. I too have a facial scar. Mine is from a burn. I was only three years old, but I remember it with precision. So perhaps more than most readers, I notice that Whimsy’s scar from the automobile accident is not explicitly described. Early in the book, she is shown concealing it with makeup. Later in the book, she looks for her reflection in a restaurant window but doesn’t see the scar. We get other people’s reactions to her face, or we see people overtly avoiding her face, but we don’t get a direct description of her scar. I’m fascinated by this artistic choice, and I’d love to know more about it.

SM: Oh, that’s an interesting connection you have with the protagonist. I wanted to avoid too much overt description to allow for a significant difference between how Whimsy sees her scar and how the outside world perceives it. There’s a point in the flashback chapter right after the accident where a drunk college student notices her scar and expresses disgust. I imagined that years after this occurrence, when the majority of the plot takes place, the scar would have mostly faded. But Whimsy continues to imagine it looks just as noticeable and repulsive as it did after the accident. If you’ve ever experienced someone expressing disgust at your body, that feeling sticks with you. There’s a version of ourselves that we carry in our minds, and then there’s the real version of ourselves. And our imagined selves are sometimes stuck in the past. 

TQ: The story reminds me: I once participated in a workshop where a writer said of my work, “I wasn’t surprised when these two characters had sex. Of course they were going to have sex. It’s the aftermath that interests me.” Your novel is very much an aftermath novel, with Whimsy having survived a horrible car crash in which one person was killed and Whimsy herself was left with injuries and scarring. Could you talk about how you, as the writer, managed aftermath?

SM: I was in intense therapy for the first time in my life when I was writing this manuscript. I was dealing with self-esteem issues, anxiety, depression, and a fear of driving. I’ve been in a few car accidents. Thankfully nothing serious. But I think confronting those fears with my therapist, who actually drove with me so I could practice mitigating those fears, got me stuck on thoughts of car accidents and the thoughts of what if I did get in a serious accident. I started trying to think less about impact and more about aftermath. In hindsight, anyway, that’s how I’m making sense of why I wrote this book the way I wrote it five years ago.

TQ: The character of Stephanya, a student in Whimsy’s middle-school classroom, captivates me. She’s like a mirror that doesn’t reflect back what Whimsy wants. She appears in four scenes, including, arguably, the climax. I would love to hear about your imagining of this character.

SM: I wanted to have a prominent student character because, as a teacher, your relationships with students are so important and take up a lot of your social energy. I thought about the way teachers project their own experiences onto their students, especially the ones who remind us of ourselves. That’s Stephanya: the artsy, insecure, awkward and lonely seventh grader. Stephanya seeks out Whimsy and her classroom as a safe haven. Whimsy sees herself in this student, and she ends up trying to “help” her, not in the ways that are probably best for Stephanya, but in the ways Whimsy would have wanted to be helped as an adolescent. 

TQ: Whimsy being checked for ID in a bar. Whimsy’s mom developing a coloring book. A menu concealing a man’s face. The passengers’ features obscured by a plastic covering. Rikesh’s body leaving an imprint on a blanket after he has gone. Such is the imagery that Whimsy notices—and I think absolutely she would notice these things--but there’s never a huge blinking arrow pointing at it, like in a Scorsese movie. Did I just shade Scorsese? Yes. Anyway, I would like to hear your approach as you flesh out a story with detail but never in an obvious way.

SM: Thank you! I think the odd details are what I love most about the writing that I enjoy reading. I notice these little things. One of the gifts that comes along with being hyper aware, hyper sensitive, and hyper insecure is that you become very good at reading people and noting their behaviors and anomalies. I don’t think I’m great at writing observations about setting, for example, but I’m good at writing observations about people because that’s what I study all day long as a defense mechanism. 

TQ: Body image isn’t new terrain, but this text feels new to me. We as writers should always feel the newness of what we are doing. What felt new to you as you created this text?

SM: When I started writing Whimsy, I’d just finished working on this multi-perspective cult novel that had all this drama and was going for this environmental activism theme. In short: it was doing too much. My challenge to myself after that was to write a simple plot. When I stripped down the complicated narrative threads and the heavy-handed attempts at writing something with an overt global message, I ended up writing closer to the bone. It brought me to a more emotionally raw place that rang truer than probably anything else I’d ever written. That was new to me. The fact that the book ended up being so much about self-loathing and isolation was really because that’s what I was working through at the time. I think that makes it truer. Anytime you write something that’s really true, I think it feels new. Because you’re discovering something in the process.

TQ: I think this is so spot on. We might not write ourselves explicitly into our stories, but we process our own journey from uncertainty to discovery through our stories.

I would like to ask about your process in creating this novella. Inspiration. Composition. Revision. First genius, second genius. The path to publication.

SM: Inspiration was taken from the fact that there were so many shows and books that centered on the “teacher does bad things” trope that I felt compelled to write a story about a teacher who neither sells drugs nor sleeps with their student. The rest of the story fell in around that initial (simple, maybe shallow) goal.

My path to publication was a meandering one. As I mentioned before, I wrote this primarily about five years ago. It took me between 1-2 years to get it into shape to submit. After a lot of rejections, some promising, my book was picked up by Curbside Splendor through their Wild Onion Novella Contest. A few months after the announcement that Curbside would publish my book, though, they went on an indefinite hiatus. It was a pretty disappointing and humiliating experience to announce my debut and then have to announce it wouldn’t be happening. 

Then, last spring, I reached out to Long Day Press, which is run by the two former Curbside editors who I’d worked with a couple years before. Joshua Bohnsack and Joseph Demes are both wonderful editors and all around great humans. It ended up being the best pathway to publication for me. Josh and Joe had already put time and energy into my manuscript, so we were all invested. They’ve had a great vision for Whimsy and have done, I think, an amazing job with it. 

TQ: I am a middle school teacher, and I can certainly see how you may have tapped your own experience as a public school teacher for several of the scenes. A lot of the book takes place at Whimsy’s school. Could you talk about the interplay between your teaching and your writing?

SM: I think one of my biggest fears with putting this out into the world, especially having a first person narrator, is that readers will think I am that teacher. Certainly I drew some of the emotions from my own when I was a first year teacher. But I was never that petty or inappropriate, or at least not that I’m aware of! I’ve been teaching for eight years now and I think I’ve grown professionally, but not to the extent I would have hoped. When I started teaching, I thought all the struggle and self-doubt would dissipate a few years in. It’s muffled now but still very much there.

TQ: Do you ever worry that your writing might put your job at risk? Have your students read your work? For example, my work is out there, but it's definitely not suitable for my students, although they do know about its existence. Last year, a student bugged me all year long for a copy of my book. I held back, fearing the potential fallout, but now I wish I had at least given her a copy on her last day. Self-censoring felt worse than self-promotion.

SM: I definitely worry, which is why I write under my maiden name and teach with my married name. I think most of my students wouldn’t go out of their way to read my writing, but I don’t necessarily want students creeping on my social media that I use to engage as a writer with other writers, like on Twitter. At my current job I work with a teacher who published a novel years before he started teaching high school. He gave a bunch of copies to the school, and he encourages students to read his book. He’s a former college professor, though, and in academia you’re rewarded for being published. I think as a K-12 teacher there are so many horror stories out there about teachers getting in trouble for having photos on Facebook with a beer in hand or whatever and we’re indoctrinated to be scared of getting fired all the time. Or at least, that’s what I experienced in my teacher’s ed program where they used the “scared straight” approach of talking to us about social media and generally having a life outside of teaching. It's all just dicier when you work with kids. I get it, but it can also be very restrictive. 

TQ: What are you working on these days? What’s your next project? Is there an aesthetic or thematic evolution that ties Whimsy to your next work?

SM: I’m currently working on revising a suspense novel. I outlined it shortly before the pandemic hit, and I dove into writing as a sort of way to distract myself, something to control in an out-of-control time. I wrote more (and more consistently) than I ever have before: I had a goal of writing a thousand words or more each day, and I stuck with it for several months. It was my life raft last spring/summer. Now I’m just waiting for spring break when I’ll have time to get back into the mindset and spend some quality time with the manuscript. I think there are probably some ties between this novel and Whimsy, with themes of doubt and a desire for freedom. 

TQ: Well, I am extremely relieved that Whimsy made it to publication after its initial press went on hiatus. It deserves to be out in the world.

SM: Thank you so much! I’m grateful.


Editor's Note: Joshua Bohnsack, founding editor of Long Day Press, is the incoming managing editor at TriQuarterly.