If you go to a karaoke bar with Megan Cossey, respect the unwritten rules of karaoke decorum. No “Stairway to Heaven,” and don’t even think about “Dust in the Wind.” And if she’s singing “La Isla Bonita,” don’t ask the bartender for a second microphone, and don’t jump on stage to join her. She’s a novelist with a Masters in Journalism from Columbia. And although she’s moved away from working as a journalist, she’s always game for a deadline, and appreciates the magic of how they almost always, at last, help you find something to say.
She lives in a sweeping one bedroom apartment in Marble Hill that she shares with two cats and her nine-year-old son, Leo. The apartment includes two sets of large casement windows, both of which allow you take a long look toward the island of Manhattan, which rests just across the Harlem River.
At one point as the three of us were standing near the windows in her living room, and looking out at the view, she filled me and Alex in on the history of Marble Hill. “It used to be attached to Manhattan and the Harlem River, which connects the Hudson and the East River. It used to go across at 230th Street, and then about one-hundred years ago, the Army Corps of Engineers dug this channel so that it would be easier for ships to pass through. So this was an island for about fifty years. And then they filled it up again, so now we’re physically a part of the Bronx, but we do jury duty in Manhattan, it’s really bizarre.”
According to the flap copy of her first novel, The Seventh Book, the story begins when “The literary world comes to a standstill with the shocking announcement that a seventh undiscovered novel by Jane Austen has been found.” Her main character is a journalist, Mounif Howard, who hasn’t read any of Jane Austen’s books, and mostly disregards the news. “That is, until new evidence begins to question not only the authenticity of the unearthed manuscript but also the provenance of Austen’s entire body of work.” In its present state, the novel traverses over one-hundred-thousand words; but even so, it reads quickly, and moves at a pace that encourages and entices you to keep turning the page.
Cossey’s wit is sharp. And when she gets a new idea for a story, the entire arc of the plot seems to come to her all at once, as if in one sudden strike of inspiration. So when you’re speaking with her, it’s easy to feel as though you’re also on the brink of solving something, or answering a question that you’ve been asking yourself for years, but just haven’t been able to answer. All you have to do is give yourself a deadline, she might say, and then the answer will appear.
Alex: I have a question. Do you mind me asking about the story a little bit?
Megan: No, of course.
Alex: Because I was really intrigued. On the first read, by the time I got to the end, I thought, okay, there’s something really off about the character, maybe she has some sort of serious mental condition, and then on the second read I started thinking, maybe she’s living in an apartment that her mom set up for her, and her roommate is her caretaker, and she actually can’t really take care of herself and she’s actually half-living in a world that she’s making up. That was on my second read through, which I thought might be a little extreme, but I felt like there was something with the roommate.
Megan: Yeah. I’m suggesting that she’s a caretaker that her mom set up.
Alex: Got it. Okay. I’m glad that was what you intended.
Megan: But it’s funny because as I write, never in my life have I been able to plan ahead, but because I’m currently writing a novel, and I’ve had to write an ending, it’s helped me for the first time to plot out the rest of my book, which goes against everything that I’ve ever done. But as I was writing the story, it was almost as though the roommate was impinging on my consciousness more and more. And I was thinking, why is she always around, and why is she always re-arranging the apartment and making her bed.
Alex: Yeah! I thought that was so bizarre. Just crazy.
Megan: But I also didn’t want the narrator to be totally out of it. She knows what’s going on in her family.
Alex: Right, of course.
Megan: But she’s a mess. And it’s the day after Thanksgiving, so you can’t tell, but yeah, she’s definitely unemployed and on disability.
Alex: Yeah, because she doesn’t talk about a job or anything like that.
Megan: It’s funny, because sometimes the characters give you the information. Because as I was writing, I was thinking, wait, what about her job? And I thought . . . I don’t think she has one.
Isaac: I didn’t really consider those things. It’s really interesting.
Megan: Well you don’t have to as the reader.
Alex: It reads well without it.
Isaac: I guess she didn’t describe her job, but not everyone wants to talk about it in that way. But then once I started connecting the dots more, I thought, well, maybe . . .
Megan: Well, and I learned again, through writing my novel, because I write so much stuff that didn’t go into it, that ended up just being background material for my characters. I realized that, at least for me, you have to figure that stuff out for yourself, whether or not it ever ends up in the book, or the story. You always hear about actors who have these elaborate back stories for their bit characters. And you think, that’s really weird, why did they do that? But you have to make these decisions, like where was she born, where did she grow up, how old was she when this happened, does she have a job, is she not going to work on Friday because it’s the day after Thanksgiving or is it because she just doesn’t have work? And if she does have a job, maybe I need to mention that, or something . . . that she has some kind of outside life. And then I thought . . . no, she doesn’t have a job.
Isaac: It’s good, because she doesn’t have to say, “Oh, and I don’t have a job, either,” it would be heavy-handed.
Megan: Yeah, because I don’t think it would occur to her.
Alex: Do you write down all of those details for the characters, or do you just have them in your head?
Megan: For my novel I have to. I always tell people that I do productive and healthy things because I’m forced to, and I’ve reached this point where I was getting so confused by the characters, especially with one of my main characters, Saul, that I ended up plotting the entire time-line of his life, his parents, his grandparents, year-by-year, because I was just losing my mind trying to figure out years, and ages, and when this would have happened compared to that, and compared to this historical event; but I ended up just doing all of these back stories about the main characters in my novel because I would suddenly get an inspiration to start writing it down. I hand-wrote most of it, and then afterwards I thought, this doesn’t belong anywhere, this doesn’t fit anywhere, but it’s actually really helpful to know. One of the main characters has a sister, but she doesn’t have a huge role, but I ended up writing all about their family life, and just all of this background stuff that ended up helping me keep it clear in my head. And it’s weird that only a fraction of it actually ends up in the novel. And my novel needs cutting, which I’m hoping you’ll suggest, no pressure.
Isaac: I’m excited to get through the whole thing. Overwrite first. And I think “deleted scenes” are sort of neat too, because sometimes you finish a book, and it’s very enjoyable and rewarding and you start thinking, I wonder if there’s anything else here, and it would be great if the author could say, “Oh yeah, I’ve got more for you!”
Megan: Well, in the old days ––– one of my favorite writers was Henry James, and back then, you could just write and write and write and write and write. And he would do pages of background and character descriptions. And based on what I’m reading now, that stuff would have all been cut. It’s all about brevity now, unless you’re a really established writer. It’s just something that I’ve noticed. I don’t know people in the publishing industry, but something like Moby Dick, which I do think really should have been edited, would never in a million years been published the way that it is now!
Alex: No. That’s so true.
Megan: Could you imagine?
Isaac: Herman, we have to move this along, come on.
Megan: And let me tell you I would have been right at the front of the line, we need to cut all of this.
Alex: Cut to the chase!
Megan: We get it, there are a lot of different kinds of whales, and you’ve done really good research about those whales, but let’s keep that for the website. But George R.R. Martin, I don’t read his stuff, but I’m obsessed with the show, and I heard that he has all of this deleted stuff ––– I can’t even imagine because the books are a lot already, but he has even more, because of all of the world building that he does, so you can go online and read all of the extra stuff.
Alex: Do you feel like we’re in the age of the short story?
Megan: I don’t know. That’s a good question. In terms of attention span, I guess. I think in terms of making money, no.
Alex: I’ll only write short stories and make a million!
Megan: I know! Yeah, no. But in terms of attention span, maybe. I used to read a ton of short stories, and then . . . one day I just kind of lost interest.
Isaac: Books of short stories can be interesting, because you have sort of the same characters with different names permeating throughout the entire book, but sometimes they just leave you wanting more, which can get frustrating.
Megan: Not a lot can happen in a short story, so whenever a short story starts I know that there’s not going to be any zigzags for the character, because the author is forced to show an arc that has already been predestined. I don’t want to say that nothing surprising is going to happen, but with short stories, it’s giving you a snapshot of something, whereas with a novel, it’s reinventing the world, within the novel. And maybe that’s true more for modern short stories, or the kind of short stories that get published, but I always feel that a lot of times they’re written in a very similar tone of voice, especially ones that you see in The New Yorker. Not all of them, like Karen Russell. She wrote Swamplandia, but she also wrote “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves,” which was a short story.
Alex: Oh, yeah!
Megan: I like that one a lot.
Alex: That’s amazing. I’ve been reading Sherman Alexie recently. Do you know him?
Megan: I don’t.
Alex: He’s such an amazing contemporary author. He does a lot of the The New Yorker short stories, but he also does memoirs, and he also has a few novels as well. He’s a Native American writer, but he often talks about the idea that even though his stories are fiction, they’re autobiographical in a way, and he gives this look into Native American society and culture that we only see from the outside, in a way. But his stories are just very easy to be in, and really exciting. I would highly recommend them.
Megan: What’s his name again?
Alex: Sherman Alexie.
Megan: Okay, I’ll look it up.
Alex: Yeah, he’s great.
Megan: I’ll do it.
Alex: But they still are very snapshot-esque, although there’s one that I just listened to that was very shocking, where you think you know what’s going on, and then you’re like . . . whoa.
Megan: Yeah, I think it’s more that with novels, the hero is going to change her circumstance, but with the short story ––– I think of “The Lottery.” It’s a surprise ending, but it was predestined from the beginning . . . I guess this is just where I am right now, personally, with short stories.
Isaac: Well there’s only so much that you can do. Even with short stories that span over an entire lifetime, you’ll be introduced to the character when he is in his teens, and then it ends when he’s in his eighties or nineties, but even so, you can’t really dive into what’s changed. And usually when you have short stories that have spanned that great of a time, the idea is usually, this is how little has changed, despite the fact that all of these years have passed.
Megan: Yeah, as though it was all coming to some conclusion from the beginning.
Isaac: Yeah, and even though you’re jumping over a large span of time, you’re really not doing that much with the character, because you can’t. But just thinking about your story again, I think you’re excellent at writing dialogue, and not having it interrupt the story, but having it go with the flow of things. Do you remember learning specifically how to do that?
Megan: That’s actually the first compliment that I remember getting in a college writing course. It was one of my first experiences of being workshopped. That was what the professor said, that I had a really good ear for dialogue. And it reminded him of David Mamet ––– I had no idea who that was when I was nineteen ––– so I had to look it up, but I don’t know why. It’s just one of those things that came naturally, compared to other aspects of writing.
Isaac: I think dialogue is incredibly difficult to write well.
Megan: I think for me the biggest challenge is making sure that the voices are distinct. But that’s actually fun too. It’s fun to go back through conversations and adjust them to match the characters. But thank you.
Isaac: You’re welcome.
Megan: You and my first writing professor. I wrote a play once.
Isaac: Oh, what’s it called, what’s it about?
Megan: It was called “Get Some,” me and my best friend wrote it and produced it at The Zipper Factory. We also turned it into a web series. We only did a few episodes, so we didn’t finish it.
Isaac: Is it still up?
Megan: Yeah, the episodes are on Vimeo. It was a while ago. We didn’t finish filming the web series because it’s a lot of money, for not a lot of payoff.
Isaac: Is it written though, so people could pick it up and finish making it, if they wanted?
Megan: Yeah, we wrote the whole script for the play, and then we turned it into a web series. It was a lot of fun. Definitely a light comedy. It was so exciting to watch your work get picked up by actors, and changed in a good way, having it turn into something completely different, almost. So that was an opportunity to write only dialogue.
Isaac: Do you remember the first story that you ever wrote?
Megan: I was in second grade. Do you want that far back?
Megan: I don’t know if that’s what you mean.
Isaac: If that’s what comes to mind.
Megan: Well, we had to write . . . I forget what the assignment was, but I just went with it, and I wrote about a family going out west in a covered wagon, and it was posted up in the classroom because it was so good. And a friend of my mom’s is Gay Courter, who was really huge in the eighties, and who wrote this book called The Midwife that was on the New York Times Bestseller List. But she read the story, and she told my mom, “She’s going to be a writer one day,” and my mom told me this, years later, but it always stuck with me.