In the fictional coastal town of Cumberland, Georgia, fifteen-year-old twin sisters Ansel and Isabel Mackenzie have lived with their eccentric grandmother since a car accident killed their parents and paralyzed Isabel. Over the past seven years the responsibility of caring for her sister has fallen increasingly on Ansel. However, as she cultivates a romantic relationship with a local boy, as well as an artistic apprenticeship with a visiting photographer, Ansel’s growing desire for independence compromises her ability to care for her sister, threatening their sororal connection, and ultimately, Isabel’s life. Juxtaposing Ansel’s traditional narrative against Isabel’s poetic prose, Cumberland highlights the conflicts between independence and familial duty, the difficulty of balancing the dark draws of the body against the brighter focus of the mind.
Megan Gannon was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee and is a graduate of Vassar College (BA), the University of Montana (MFA) and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (PhD). She also served as a Peace Corps volunteer in The Gambia, West Africa from 1998–2000.
Her poetry chapbook, The Witch’s Index, was published by Sweet Publications in 2012, and her work has appeared in Ploughshares, Pleiades, Gulf Coast, Third Coast, The Notre Dame Review, Verse Daily, Poetry Daily, and The Best American Poetry 2006.
She lives in Omaha, Nebraska, where she is currently at work on her second novel.
Interview with RPCV Megan Gannon on Geosi Reads
You teach at Ripon College in Ripon, Wisconsin. Could you tell us anything about being a teacher?
I once had another writer say to me, “Wouldn’t it be great if we wrote Best Sellers and didn’t have to teach anymore?” and I couldn’t really answer, because I was thinking, “I hope I never stop teaching.” I love it. I love the students, I love how they make me smarter, and I love how it makes hyper-introverted me get out of the house and talk to people. Writing often feels like a pretty selfish way to spend my time; teaching feels like I’m having a positive impact on the world.
How long have you been teaching and writing?
Megan Gannon: I started teaching right out of undergrad in the Peace Corps, and I’ve been teaching ever since. I started writing in about second or third grade. I’d finish my class work and I’d be bored, so I’d write little stories on some pieces of lined newsprint. (Remember that stuff? That weird sand-papery pink and blue-lined paper that sticks to your pencil eraser? That was terrible paper.)
You served as a Peace Corps volunteer in The Gambia. Was it your choice to go to West Africa?
I chose “Africa,” but this was kind of a running joke in Peace Corps. We all wanted to go to East Africa. Like most Americans who haven’t visited one of the world’s most culturally diverse continents, we had one idea about what “Africa” was, and it was lions and elephants and antelopes and Mount Kilimanjaro. I even took a year of Swahili in undergrad to try to cement my chances of going to East Africa, but I ended up about as far away as you can get from any Swahili-speaking nation. It was fine, though. I traveled a lot, so I got to see some elephants in Ghana. They were enormous.
Did you encounter any culture shock upon arriving in The Gambia?
Ha! Yeah, a bit. Peace Corps is a pretty amazing experience for taking everything you think you know and just stripping it down to where nothing remains absolute–even tiny things. For instance, I had a teacher come to me and ask for help thinking up antonyms. “I have the adjectives, but now I need to think of the nouns,” he said. “Oh,” I said, “You mean, like ‘sun’ and ‘moon’ and ‘dog’ and ‘cat’?” The teacher stared at me and then said, “Why are ‘dog’ and ‘cat’ antonyms?” Then I thought about all of the various animals in the village and where they lived and which ones got along and which ones didn’t and I said, “You know what? They’re not. That’s just a weird American idea. I have no clue where that idea came from.” So, I was continually surprised by my ability to be surprised, even near the end of my two years in The Gambia. And yet, there was so much that was universal. Everybody likes to come out of their house at night and sit around a camp fire and look at the stars and crack groundnuts and tickle a baby and laugh at fart jokes. I don’t care who you are. You’re going to laugh at the fart jokes.
At the time when you served as a Peace Corps volunteer in The Gambia, were you a writer?
Yes. I actually told the recruiter in my interview that Peace Corps was going to buy me two years to write, but I didn’t want to be totally selfish, so I’d try to help out a little bit while I was there. He was fine with that. I think the Peace Corps volunteers that ended up completing their two years of service didn’t have illusions about “saving the world” and had ways of occupying their time.
What inspired your book, “Cumberland”?
There’s a section of Isabel’s in the book that just popped in my head one night in about early 2003. I was writing poems exclusively then, so I didn’t know what it was, but I got up and went to my laptop and typed it up. I knew it was the start of something much bigger than a prose poem–that it was spoken by a character, and that she had a story. I started daydreaming about what that story was. Who would say this? Why is she so deep inside her own head? Slowly, the story started forming itself in my head, and then I received an Artist’s Grant from the state of Arizona, and I decided, let’s write this thing. I wrote about thirty pages and lost my nerve for a few years. Then I entered the PhD program at UNL and, on a whim, decided to sign up for the Novel Writing workshop. It was terrifying, but holy cow, that was another charmed group of writers–Rachel May, Emily Danforth, Penn Stewart, and Rebecca Rotert, among others, and all helmed by the amazing Jonis Agee.