A Conversation with Meg Mullins
Would you share with readers the
source of the original idea for the story of The Rug
Originally, when I first conceived the short story, the idea was based on a couple of family anecdotes that I conflated into one story. I was six when my grandmother died suddenly. Home alone, she'd had a heart attack and collapsed on the bedroom rug. When she fell, she hit her head and the wound left a small pool of her blood on the rug. A few days later, my grandfather silently carried the rug to the curb for the trash collector and stood there, waiting, until it was picked up and taken away. That image haunted and inspired me. But as often happens in fiction, an image or an anecdote that may have sparked the idea will become almost unrecognizable in the end. Then, after finishing the short story, I had fallen in love with Ushman as a character and was compelled by my curiosity to continue writing about him as a man trying to find his way after a devastating divorce.
You have captured the essence of Ushman's character so well - both his inner and outer life. One can do research on the factual differences between cultures, but how do you penetrate the heart and soul of a character when his background is so different from your own?
The beauty of humanity is that none of us is so very different at our core. As I was writing about Ushman, I never felt he was unlike me. I certainly have a great respect for the vast differences in our cultures and our backgrounds, even our genders, but I loved discovering similarities, too. Love and pain, loneliness and desire are universal experiences and we are all linked by them. Stories that I admire are usually those that remind me of the power of empathy, the natural human ability to feel deep emotion for those outside of ourselves.
As a short story writer who has now written your first novel, would you talk a bit about how the writing process differs between the two forms?
For me, the thought of writing a novel was more than a little terrifying. I wasn't sure I could maintain my focus over two years. But what I discovered was that the process is very similar. It's still a sentence at a time. The gratification of a finished product is delayed, but the excitement of a first draft is extended.
The Rug Merchant beautifully illuminates how people from dramatically different cultures can still connect in a powerful way. In light of the current state of the world, (the Iraq war, 9/11), what role, if any, do you think books such as yours and literature in general play or should play in either educating the public or shaping public opinion? Was setting the novel pre-9/11 a deliberate choice, and how, if at all, might the story have been different had it been set post-9/11?
I don't think literature has a role in educating people about a specific issue or current event or shaping public opinion aside from the lessons that literature teaches us about life in general. Again, for me, it goes back to the question of empathy. A great book's beauty is that of looking at the world through different eyes, if only for a short time. I definitely chose to set the novel pre-9/11, simply so that there would not be a greater temptation to make assumptions about an entire people or culture based on one man's story. On the other hand, as America was invading Iraq, I couldn't help but be much more aware of the real and actual devastation we were causing on the ground to real and actual people, not just "Iraqis." I think there is a tendency to dismiss a group of people about whom we feel we have little in common - a group of people who live in a country far away with different customs and beliefs. It's tempting to believe that perhaps they don't feel pain or loss the way we do. That somehow it must not affect them as much as it would us. Whereas, if we realize that each of those casualties or fatalities is a husband or a brother or a wife or a mother or a cousin or a playmate or a lover, it becomes much more difficult to overlook them - much more difficult to pretend that pain or loss feels differently if you're living in the Middle East.
The mothers in the novel certainly cause their offspring much angst. Stella is tortured by her mother's obvious mental instability, and Ushman is tormented by his mother's self-pity. Would you talk about the role of the mothers in your story and how, or if, becoming a mother yourself influenced your writing?
Mothers are women with children. There is no magic that delivers us from angst and doubt. As a young child, though, both of my parents seemed utterly stable and untroubled. It was a huge gift that they didn't allow me to see their difficulties. I never worried about them or knew if they were struggling. Gradually, as I grew up, I understood that, of course, they each had their own difficulties. When I became a mother I secretly hoped that I would be admitted to some club in which all of life's questions are answered. I'm still waiting. It's nearly comical to me when one of my kids stumbles upon some terrific existential question and looks at me for the answer as though it should be as easy for me to answer as "What's for breakfast?" Becoming a mother is extremely humbling. I think that is good for writing. To be reminded of all that I don't know- of all of the wonder in the universe- is a tremendous inspiration for me.
When their relationship ends and they are discussing the future, Stella reminds Ushman, "Don't forget that there is joy, too. You can't leave that out of your sad stories." Does Stella's statement reflect your own "life philosophy"- i.e., do you believe there is some joy in every story, no matter how tragic?
Stella's point of view is something I'm trying to cultivate. Deep down, I struggle against a very cynical nature. Having recently lost my father to cancer, I am drawn to philosophies that remind us of our inability to understand the complexity of life. And I try to see the joy in the smallest of details, the way my father did before he died. Just the magnificent color of a blue summer sky can be heart-stopping. In that same way, a true and meaningful connection felt between two people, even if it ends unhappily, is a miracle. I tell myself to be grateful for the pain of grief or loss because it is a direct result of the intensity of love or joy that has been felt. And those feelings are life's gifts. So, yeah, don't forget the joy.
What books have inspired you in the past and what authors are you currently reading?
I have been hugely inspired by many contemporary books, such as Charles Baxter's The Feast of Love, Jeffrey Eugenides's Middlesex, Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies, Nicole Krauss's The History of Love, and many, many others. But I also return often to more classic authors like Grace Paley, Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen, Anton Chekhov, William Faulkner, and Vladimir Nabokov.
What are you working on next?
I'm working on another novel that I'm sorry I can't say anything about. I find it very difficult to describe a project while in the middle of it - I am afraid of breaking the spell.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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No Man's Land
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Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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