Megan Tucker on her Award-Winning Short Story "Candidates"
Megan Tucker was raised in the San Francisco Bay Area and is a dual-citizen of the U.S. and U.K. She studied English at Wellesley College and worked as an editorial assistant for magazines in New York City before moving to Ann Arbor for her MFA at the University of Michigan. She still lives in Ann Arbor with her husband (a professor at the medical school) and two young children. Megan is the associate fiction editor of The Common.
Last week, we announced that Megan Tucker was one of the twelve writers who won the 2018 PEN/ Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers for her debut short story, “Candidates,” which was published in Washington Square Review Issue 40. Along with the other twelve winning stories, “Candidates” will be published by Catapult in an annual anthology entitled The PEN America Best Debut Short Stories this summer.
We reached out to chat about Megan Tucker's story “Candidates” and to congratulate her on winning the Pen/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers. You can purchase Issue 40 here.
1. Congratulations on your PEN America Award win! We at Washington Square Review are so thrilled. How does it feel having your debut story recognized by PEN America?
I feel humbled by the mission of PEN America and energized by the work of the other writers they honored this year.
2. What was the process like sending out "Candidates?" Why did you choose Washington Square Review? (We're so glad you did!)
I'd sent "Candidates" to four or five journals in the year leading up to the presidential election, but I couldn't get anyone to bite. Then I read George Michelson Foy's short-short "Strandings" in Issue 38 and thought ONSQU might be a good fit. Washington Square's submission period was about to close, so I sent it off. I always believed "Candidates" was a good little story but was also convinced that after the election it would somehow become less relevant. Not so!
3. We loved the opening line, "The television is on but no one is watching." It set the scene and mood for the whole piece. Did the story always begin in that moment?
Thank you! This is an interesting question. I couldn't remember, but I found the first draft in a 2015 folder. It did originally begin with that line, but somewhere in 2016 I added a new first line: "We want to believe." And then must've taken that line away again. But it did always begin with the image of an empty, closed room with the television on—creepily more relevant now than ever.
4. Your use of the first-person present tense, as well as writing from the POV of a child, is highly effective and renders this story all the more powerful and immediate; this blend of techniques, however, is slightly less common. Can you speak a bit about your stylistic choices? Was the story always in the first person, always in the present tense, always from the POV of a child, etc.? I'd love to hear a bit more about your process of drafting and revision.
When I first started writing "Candidates," I was trying to see if I could switch POVs and/or tenses in various chapters of my novel. I'd done chapters of more traditional POVs and this story was my first-ever exercise in "we." I am one of three sisters, so a pair of sisters was the easiest choice. One great relief in studying other works of the "we" voice was realizing you can come out of it at the end (or anywhere within the story probably), back into a more traditional first person, which I do in "Candidates." I felt like I had a good thematic reason for it too, as the story plays with ideas of separation.
I shared this story with some alums of the MFA program in Ann Arbor. Their reaction was "This is beautiful and amazing and we have absolutely no idea what's going on!" I'm never purposefully trying to be tricky or confusing with my writing so I went home and tried to remake it as clear as possible. They also said there was too much pineapple. So I cut out some pineapple.
5. We were just talking about how lovely and strange the pineapple descriptions were! So great. When you write, do know where the story is heading?
I usually have quite a bit of material built-up in my mind before I am finally compelled to work on a new story, so yes I have an idea of the ending. But almost always the ending I imagined turns out to be a false ending. It doesn't necessarily get deleted, but a new one gets tacked on to push the piece a little further.
6. You’re an associate editor of The Common. What’s it like being an editor and sending out your own work for publication? Does it give you particular insight? Do you prefer writing or editing?
I started as a reader at The Common and after two years, took some time off to focus on my own writing. I have young kids so there is chronic anguish about how best to spend my available work time. But reading for TC gives me a real sense of purpose and belonging that is hard to generate when I'm only working independently, so I came back and was delighted to be named the associate fiction editor. Working as an editor has been invaluable for really understanding the submitting process and exactly how hard it is to make your story stand out.
Working for a journal has also given me a lot of confidence in my own taste. Just when I think I've lost my way, a story appears in the queue that blows my hair back and makes me feel like I know exactly what I love and how to achieve that. I find it incredibly fulfilling to help other writers succeed and that fulfillment helps me to relax about my own writing.
7. Do you have a favorite short story writer? Any favorite short stories?
All of the writers I've worked with for The Common! Especially NYU alums Vladislava Kolosova and Bruna Dantas Lobato. Last year I read PEN Open Book Award Winner Helen Oyeyemi's "What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours" and thought it was so good and exciting. Irish writer Claire Keegan's "Foster" might be my favorite short story. I loved Sally Rooney's "Mr. Salary" in Granta, and Jamie Quattro's collection I Want to Show You More. I am very excited for Lauren Groff's new story collection Florida to be released. Speaking of "we" voices, I really loved "The Lazy River" by Zadie Smith recently in the New Yorker. I could name stories and collections all day.
8. How did you choose the title "Candidates?"
I found "Candidates" in the text of the story and it was the obvious choice. I tried to change the title once, but it was terrible.
9. What are you working on now?
I am working on a revision of my novel and a longer story.
10. What was your first reaction to learning you won the PEN award?
I was in the middle of putting the kids to bed when the e-mail from PEN showed up on my phone, so I did a lot of silent screaming. It was a real surprise.