Megan Harlan, MOBILE HOME

Megan Harlan, MOBILE HOME

Zibby Owens: Welcome, Megan. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Megan Harlan: Hi, Zibby. Thank you so much for having me. I’m so excited to be here.

Zibby: Yay. Your work, Mobile Home, can you please tell listeners what this is about and what inspired you to write it?

Megan: Mobile Home is a memoir in essays about how I moved seventeen different times across four continents when I was growing up. It really explores how our homes and our places shape who we are. The types of homes that I lived in really spanned the gamut. At one point, I was living in a very posh flat in London, in Kensington. I also lived in several different really normal suburban houses in California and Texas, so your McMansions and your ranch houses, that sort of thing. I also lived in three trailers. One was located in Saudi Arabia. One was in a jungle in Columbia. The first one was in Alaska not too far from the Artic Circle. Moving all the time, it gave me a different relationship with place than probably most kids tend to have.

Zibby: I would say so. How could it not? That’s a perspective that, child or adult, most people have not been able to have. That is a huge geographic and structural variety that you have there. Wow. There are so many things to tease out. One is the effect of frequent moving. One is the actual environment into which you moved. Break it down for me a little bit. When you were moving so much, what do you think that did to you as a personality and all the rest of it? Then we can go to what those places were like.

Megan: On the positive side, I think it gave me a sense of ease with cultures across the world, a real curiosity, and just a desire to learn more about the world. Socially as a kid, I think it was actually really difficult. It’s funny, I didn’t really see it until I became a mother myself. I had always sort of believed that my childhood was this great adventure. It was in a lot of ways. I don’t think I ever really had the perspective of what a child who’s growing up actually needs from their home, which is a sense of rootedness and, really, structure. If you’ve ever taken a child on vacation somewhere, if you’re in Paris, you want to see the Eiffel Tower, and they want to get ice cream. Their perspective on a place is just completely different from what any adult would have.

Zibby: That is why I haven’t taken my kids to Paris.

Megan: Exactly. It’s a little bit wasted until they’re at a certain point, maybe.

Zibby: Yes, wasted on the youth.

Megan: Totally. That was something that, again, when I had my son, I started to see this huge difference. I would think about when I was in kindergarten and I was living a motel for a while. Then I was living in a hotel in London. Then I was living in Saudi Arabia. It was always about a year. Meanwhile, he was going to a very normal public school in our city and just had a completely different life than I did. The chasm between these two experiences really started to fascinate me. I started writing these essays. I would say he was about seven or eight. I started exploring the differences that we were having.

Zibby: How old is he now?

Megan: He’s thirteen.

Zibby: I bet he’s glad you’re not up and moving all the time.

Megan: I think so. He loves his home. He does. It’s worked out. We do travel as much as we can. I think being in one place, for our family at least, has really been the right thing.

Zibby: Do you feel itching to travel all the time? I know you discussed your nomadic childhood, but do you feel like a piece of that snuck into you? I think you said you did.

Megan: I do. Partially, I just think it’s my family history. Everyone in my family is like this. I do think there’s almost a genetic part, possibly, that some people like to keep moving and some people really want to stay in one place. If I hadn’t become a parent, I don’t know that I would’ve settled down the way that I have. We’ll never know at this point.

Zibby: Tell me about writing the essays. How did you decide how to structure each one? Then when did you decide that they would be great together as a complete work?

Megan: I love writing essays. I find the form to be incredibly freeing. When I start a piece, I usually have some kind of question in mind. As I’m writing, I’m really trying to find, not so much an answer, but maybe more interesting questions. For example, I wrote a piece about my arachnophobia. I still am afraid of spiders. I have kind of a superstition around them. I never kill them. As I was writing the piece, I started seeing there were actually some more interesting questions that were buried underneath the surface. I really come to each essay trying to look for more discoveries as much as I can find them. As far as the book itself, I don’t know that when I first started writing the essays I conceived it as a collection. At a certain point, it was hard not to notice that there was a certain theme that kept coming up. Then I was able to write a few pieces to pull them together and give the whole thing a shape so that they would cohere, hopefully.

Zibby: What do you think the characteristics of being able to adapt like that — what makes someone better or worse? Like you said, you feel it’s genetic. I kind of like things the way they are. I would like to be more, today I’m in Saudi Arabia, tomorrow I’m in a posh flat in London. To be perfectly honest, I’d rather just stay in the posh flat in London if I was going to go anywhere.

Megan: Were you always that way? I know you have kids. I do think when you have a family, it really does change.

Zibby: I like to travel, but I’m not like you. I like to travel recreationally a few times a year. I wish I had that wanderlust. I know people like you. I have someone in my life who loves to travel and is always off somewhere. You have to have a baseline adaptability, a baseline, you can drop me anywhere and I’m going to pick up. It’s like my dog. We just inherited this dog from my mother-in-law. Anywhere we drop her, she’s fine. She just figures out what’s on that block. I don’t know how to get that or how to give that to my kids, but you have it. I want it.

Megan: I think there is a lot of nature and nurture. It’s hard to suss that one out, I have to say. Are there places that intrigue you from afar that you’ve never been? I feel like there are cultures that I’m just like, I have to go there. I have to feel what it’s like to be there. That, more than anything, is what drives me to keep exploring and keep things fresh. Honestly, it’s a nature/nurture question. I’m not sure I can figure that one out.

Zibby: These days at least, travel is sort of on hold anyway. I can table this for my self-improvement next year. I love your writing style. You have a really beautiful writing style that’s different than others that I’ve read lately and that really was arresting from even the first page, the way you see the world and your vocabulary and the way you piece it all together. It’s a really nice style.

Megan: Thank you. That’s so kind.

Zibby: Tell me about your writing background and what classes you may have taken or when you decided that — I know you realized that essays are your preferred medium, but when did that all happen? Take me back.

Megan: Such a good question. I studied poetry early. I got my MFA in poetry from NYU many years ago. Then I went into freelance journalism. I really made a living doing that. I did some travel writing. I did a lot of book reviewing, some arts journalism. I did author interviews, that kind of thing. I think that what happened for me is — poetry, obviously, is so creative. Then the journalism I also really enjoyed, though, because I actually enjoyed the fact-checking. I liked just learning about a subject and almost having a humility when you come to it. You think you know something. Then you research. You discover new elements to it. For me, writing essays really smashes these two things together where I can be creative and bring kind of a lyrical voice sometimes to the subject, but then also keep everything tethered in reality to some degree. That’s really my background. I have another book, which is a book of poems. This book, it really does bring together what I love to do in writing the most.

Zibby: Tell me a little about your publishing journey.

Megan: My publishing journey for this book, I submitted it to some creative writing contests, academic presses, that kind of thing. I sort of felt that because it was a book of essays that are very literary, I probably should go the university press route. I picked out some of the contests that looked really interesting to me and the presses that I know are class acts. I really focused on those. I was so fortunate with this. The contest I ended up winning that resulted in my book being published was the first one I submitted to. I didn’t know it, of course, for many months, so I was still submitting to other contests. I was very fortunate. It’s worked out beautifully.

Zibby: I love that. I had somebody else on the podcast recently who won a book prize in Connecticut that she had entered. It just makes me think people should be entering more contests. I don’t know if people are doing that or what the hurdles are. I don’t know about the cost or whatever. I don’t know much about them. It just seems like a good way to at least motivate you to have something finished enough to send out to that as a start.

Megan: Absolutely. I know. There’s nothing like a deadline. In fact, I actually finished the collection the day of the deadline of this contest, believe it or not. I was sending it that day. It was really my goal. I’m like, I’m going to get it in for this one. Having the deadline is key to finishing. I feel like I can pick at these things for years, as I sometimes have. It’s really helpful for me to have a deadline at some point.

Zibby: Since the contest and then it sold and all the rest, what have you been working on? Are you someone who has five different essays going at once?

Megan: I do. I actually started a new project last year. It’s another creative nonfiction type of thing. It’s funny to me because there are themes that really overlap with what’s happening this year. It’s really changed the way I see the whole thing. I’m not sure quite what to do with it. I’ve got some new stuff in the works, not that I’ve been writing recently.

Zibby: That’s all right. I was going to say I’m eager to see the output from this time, see how it’s affected literature and what comes out.

Megan: I know. It’s such an intense year. One thing with the pandemic and then the election and just so much to pay attention to with home schooling with my kid, it’s just been a lot having everybody at home all the time when I’m not always used to that, to have my own writing time. I’m really impressed by the writers who have been getting work done because it’s been a thin time for me.

Zibby: Do you have any go-to sanity-reclaiming measures in your day-to-day life to sort of regroup?

Megan: Yeah, I do. I do a lot of walking. I have to get out. I do yoga. The physical stuff is really what helps me the most, I’d say. We’ve had wildfires here in California. That’s been another layer of pressure on the whole system. Right now, things have cleared up, so I’m able to get out again and do hikes and socially distance with friends and that kind of thing. It’s really a lifesaver at this point.

Zibby: We inherited this dog recently. I didn’t used to walk in Central Park that much. I’m in New York City. I’m just not somebody who takes a walk with no destination. I’m not like, I’m going to go for a walk. It’s like, I’m going to go pick up my kid and I’m going to take the long way, maybe. Now that I have this dog, I’m constantly out and in the park. It’s a totally different perspective on the city and city life and life in general, getting out into nature. I know this is the most obvious thing.

Megan: No, it’s funny how we forget the obvious things all the time. I do, at least. It makes a huge difference. Are you enjoying it?

Zibby: Yes. Sometimes I’m so busy that I’m like, oh, my gosh, the dog hasn’t gone out in five hours. Yes, I enjoy it. The other day, it was pouring. I was like, oh, no, I’ll just go in the rain. I have to go. Now I need it. That happened very quickly. It’s only been three weeks, but now I’m very into it. All goes to show how quickly we develop habits and all the rest. I see a zillion books behind you. What kind of books do you like to read?

Megan: These days, mostly nonfiction. I read a lot of travel. I’ve been doing a lot of armchair travel just to remind myself that there is a world beyond my little town here. Actually, this is my fiction collection. These are all novels. I have a ton of books. Like I said, I used to review books for a living, and I just collect books. I adore them. I love the objects. I don’t read a lot on Kindle. Although, I do when I travel. I’m very old-fashioned. I just love having it in my hand. I’m also a margin person. I write in the margins all the time, so I’m kind of hard on my books. I love having them around.

Zibby: Me too. I always like to turn the pages and back and forth. Plus, I find the ones I read online, if I don’t have them, I kind of forget them. Whereas if I’m always reacquainting myself with the spines, they stay in my consciousness.

Megan: It’s true.

Zibby: What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Megan: For creative writers, I would say the best advice I wish I had had a long time ago is to write the pieces as if you’re never going to show them to anyone. This is also one of those obvious pieces of advice that I feel like I did hear many years ago. Write for yourself. Write not even because you’re afraid to spill the skeletons from the closet, but just because you want to write the piece. There’s some subject you’re fascinated with, you suspect maybe other people may not be, but go for it anyway. See what happens. I just think having that freedom is the key to really doing creative work.

Zibby: Very true. Amazing. Thank you, Megan. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Mobile Home. Congratulations on winning the contest. Sorry for how many times we rescheduled to get here.

Megan: That’s okay.

Zibby: I feel great that we can finally say we did this.

Megan: Yay! Thank you for having me.

Zibby: Thanks for the conversation.

Megan: Excellent. Thank you so much, Zibby. Bye.

Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.

Megan: You too. Bye.

Megan Harlan, MOBILE HOME