Q: Your characters in "Months and Seasons" are rather quirky. Do you think they're still representative of "all people, everywhere?" They also seem uniquely American. How have people in other countries responded to "Months and Seasons" and to your previous work? Have you been pleased with their reaction?
A: I have to catch my breath on that question. It’s a good one, but there’s a lot there. First, quirkiness is a subjective interpretation. I don’t create any of my stories looking for “odd” characters. They’re all very real to me. One of my mentors, the late Robert E. Lee, who co-wrote such plays as "Inherit the Wind" with Jerome Lawrence, told me that plot is nothing more than what interesting people do. The point is to have interesting people.
You happened to ask this the day after I’d read an essay in Time magazine about quirkiness. Lev Grossman wrote the following:
"If Susan Sontag were alive today, she would probably be hard at work on an essay. The essay would be called 'Notes on Quirk,' and it would be about 'Juno,' Feist, Marisha Pessl, 'Napoleon Dynamite,' Charlie Kaufman, Elizabeth Gilbert, Bridget Jones, Nick Hornby and roughly 71% of all bloggers. The essay would analyze--lovingly, pitilessly--that category of entertainment that celebrates people who are lonely, misunderstood and defiantly eccentric but who, we're supposed to understand, are secretly cooler than everybody else, if only they knew it. Sontag would locate the elusive line that separates Bad Quirk--annoying, self-satisfied idiosyncrasy--from Good Quirk--the authentic weirdness of a genuinely unique sensibility."
My characters are not defiantly eccentric, nor are they Shakespearian kings or powerful people falling into epic problems. Rather, they are ordinary people caught up in the cogs and wheels of life.
Bruce Springsteen said his songs chart what lies between American ideals and American reality. I feel I’m doing something similar. We’re all given a sense of what we need, the American dream--love, a career, a home with a backyard swing, a family, respect--success. Southern California is completely built on that to where people drive fifty miles each way between a job in L.A. to a small house in, say, Lancaster, a desert city where the air conditioning bill each month can top $200. Add to that your car’s air conditioning just broke, the next car payment is overdue, and one’s spouse rants about the dog needing a walk. Life doesn’t match the promise.
Even our TV programs contrast our lives. On a sitcom, everybody loves Raymond. The people are witty, even if they are blue-collar workers. On "Sex and the City," being a writer means you tap out your thoughts on an expensive laptop in high-end underwear and you can spend thousands of dollars on name-brand high heels. When I was a national columnist, ghost writing about computers for Peter McWilliams, what I was paid might cover half my food for a month. My shoes were brown.
My characters don’t sit around pondering the possibilities of their existence, but they do have realizations. They’re somewhere in the middle of what Mark Twain meant when he said, “The unexamined life may not be worth living, but the life too closely examined may not be lived at all."
The people in my stories happen to be American because the action takes place here, but I hope they come off as people do in a good foreign movie. That is, for readers who live outside of America, I hope there are universal truths that come through. I don’t have a lot of experience with foreign readers, as I can only go by a few foreign reviews or the occasional reader letter from another land.
In reviewing "Months and Seasons," a Czech reader said, “How does [Meeks] do it, I'll frequently mumble and gawk to myself -- hopefully out of earshot of my nearest neighbour, lest they think I'm lacking several in the stack of fifty-two, though hardly out of place in the former Czechoslovak capital, Kafka's former angst-ridden stomping ground. How does he manage to reach down so deeply within me?… I don't know, I answer to myself (again, hopefully out of earshot of the relevant audience), but I can't get enough of it. I never want to get enough of it, actually.”
A woman who oversees the literary website Dogmatika in Ireland, wrote at length and favorably about The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea. She connected deeply to the stories, writing, “Reading [the stories] together, you get the full impact of Meeks’s talent as he takes you in a head-long assault through ordinary day-to-day life, the mundane under the microscope and given the once-over through Meeks’s careful eye.”
To answer the last part of your question, I’m extremely pleased with the reviews so far, yet when I was writing, I wasn’t thinking in the least what critics might say. When I write, a part of me is in all the characters (a Jungian concept, I’ve since learned), and I’m into the moments on the page, not worried about publication.
Getting my stories first published in literary journals required getting so much rejection—over forty rejections each for a couple of the stories before getting the acceptance calls—that I felt outside the established literary universe. I kept sending out stories over seven years before having enough published work for a collection. With more of my mail saying “Thank you for your submission but it does not fit our needs at this time,” I was used to my stories not fitting most people’s needs. I was taken by surprise when I found people writing well and at length about my fiction.
By the way, when an agent was interested in me, I sent him several of my published short stories, and he said, “Write a novel.” He said short stories didn’t make money, and it wasn’t worth his time, as much as he liked them. “Write a novel.” That’s why I wrote my first novel--out next March and titled The Brightest Moon of the Century.
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