Such Terrible Desire: An Interview with Megan Baxter

She was riding the bus into work when she felt something give in her belly. They’d been trying for two years now and she knew what it meant and doubled over. She was standing and gripped the metal pole hard. There were three more stops before her office park. It was the first warm day of spring and the sun was already hot between the buildings downtown. She’d worn a fitted dress in light yellow, like the creamy eye of a daffodil. Her computer bag swung over her chest as she fumbled for her cellphone. She was crying. The last two times she’d been at home and they’d cried together, he’d gone to CVS to buy pads and run the sheets through the wash and by morning everything was cleaned up and she was empty again. No one even knew what was lost. Another cramp snapped her forward and something warm began to crawl down her leg. How could there be so much blood? It bloomed across her dress, it pooled under her boots. A man standing next to her jumped back. She’s been shot! He whispered. Someone has a gun, a woman shouted. People started screaming. The bus broke hard and bodies toppled forward. The woman gripped hard to the pole. I’m fine, she was saying, but it hurt to stand up. Everybody get down! A man in a ball cap yelled. They all crawled under seats, curled against the metal floor. The stain moved horribly down towards the driver. For a long while there was quiet on the bus. The radio crackled; the red eye of the security camera stared. I’m okay, she said again, it’s just, she tried to straighten up but the pain bent her double. This time she’d thought for sure. They had a good feeling about it. When the police stormed up the stairs the first officer yelled for her to show her hands. She was shot, a man said, she needs help! The officer looked at the blood and back up at her. Her face was red. She shook her head. The officer said something quietly into his shoulder radio. He holstered his pistol and reached out his hands. She pulled herself from the pole and walked forward, blood in her boots. I want to go home, she told him, but they took her to the city hospital and she lay under crisp bleached sheets, staring up into the glare of fluorescents. What was it about trying that exposed you, she wondered. Such terrible desire. Outside flowers followed the sun across the sky.

Megan has won numerous national awards, including a Pushcart Prize. Her work has been listed in The Best American Essays of 2019. Recent publications included pieces in The Threepenny Review, Hotel Amerika, The Florida Review, and Creative Nonfiction Magazine. Megan mentors young writers and loves developing cross-genre and innovative creative writing pedagogy for her workshops and classes. Megan lives in New Hampshire, running her own small, organic farm and teaching creative writing. Her third book, Twenty Square Feet of Skin, will be published in May, 2023, by Mad Creek Books. To learn more, visit her website.

We’re also very excited to share an interview that dives deeper into Megan Baxter’s piece. This interview was conducted by our Fiction Editor, Morgan Horner. Please note that the transcript has been edited for clarity.

Morgan Horner: Hello everyone! My name is Morgan Horner, and I’m one of the fiction editors for the upcoming issue of Superstition Review. I have the honor of interviewing Megan Baxter on her story “Such Terrible Desire.” Megan has won numerous national awards, including a Puschart Prize, and her work has been listed in the Best American Essays of 2019. Megan mentors young writers and loves developing cross-genre and innovative creative writing pedagogy for her workshops and classes. Megan lives in New Hampshire, running her own small, organic farm and teaching creative writing. Well, good morning, Megan. Thank you for joining us today.

Megan Baxter: Nice to see you!

MH: I’m so excited to do this interview with you. I absolutely love this story, and I’m glad I get to know more about it. Before we start, is there anything else you’d like to add?

MB: No, not at all! I’m excited to speak to you more about this piece.

MH: For our first question—in many stories that depict miscarriages, they focus on the emotional trauma that is caused by such an event. In “Such Terrible Desire,” we get to see more of the physical and mental trauma that this woman is experiencing, especially when the idea of a gunshot is introduced into the story. So what inspired you to write about one woman’s experience with miscarriage and the trauma it invokes?

MB: So this story was inspired by the true life story of a friend of mine, who had a similar experience miscarrying on her way to work, all dressed up and headed to the train to take her into her office. And when she related this story to me, the way that she told it was focused on the physical component of the experience. She had had previous experiences with miscarriages, at home with her husband and with her family. And she had not been out in public, wearing the heels, dressed up, ready to go in. And I was just struck by the question of “What do you do in that situation?” When you appear so physically injured, and there’s all those little questions of, “Do I call in? Do I go home? How do I clean myself up for the time being? Do I take an Uber?” How do you recover from the physical and public shock of that moment? So that had me thinking for a while. It’s one of those things that just turns around in your head.

And then I was also thinking a lot about how we often, as you mentioned, imagine miscarriage as something that is very personal, very private, very internal. But pairing it with a public experience made me realize that it’s one of those very few experiences that we have that can be so public, that can be so seen. And there’s so much exposure in that moment. So I was struck by its similarities to other forms of violence and the shock that it might have for other people who are witnessing the event.

MH: I was definitely going into the story not knowing what to expect, and then getting hit by that—I just felt so bad for the main character having to be in a public situation… I could not have imagined. It was very moving.

So, color plays a strong role in this story, from the delicate yellow of the main character’s dress to the vibrant red of her blood. Can you discuss how and why you chose color as a tool to relate this for your readers?

MB: I think color, for me… I’m a very visual person. I’m very image-based in my writing. So color is always something that sticks with me. But I think for this particular piece, because of the shock of blood and its immediate connotations to other forms of violence, it was important for me to stay focused on color as the primary mover. But also because the woman here is thinking about her clothing and thinking about the way she appears. And so I wanted to tie in the dress and some of the joy that we all feel this time of year as spring is beginning to bloom, and there are flowers finally—and we can bring out a beautiful sundress if we want to. So I wanted to tie in some of that and connect it to the world of the blood and the shock of that kind of public exposure.

MH: I definitely think it makes a huge difference, especially by the end when she goes to the hospital, where everything is just white and clean. Color is just so amazing—how it can change a story.

MB: It’s such an evocative technique for me and for many other readers as well.

MH: I was captivated by the form of the story; it’s all one paragraph with no quotation marks around the dialogue. Which, for me, made it feel very panicked, as the main character probably felt in that moment. Can you describe why you chose to write this story as a piece of flash fiction, and what emotions were you hoping to invoke through the use of this form?

MB: I think panic is exactly what I was hoping for with the form. I wanted it to read very quickly on the page, and I wanted the dialogue to feel smashed up into the action as well. I didn’t want to isolate it through the use of any device, like italics or quotation marks or a new line. I wanted it to all feel really immediate.

In terms of choosing a length for this piece, I wanted to linger on the images. And so when I find myself attracted primarily to image, I realize that it’s probably going to be a piece of flash fiction, something that’s shorter and lets me exploit that. Because I don’t think, in this situation, knowing what happens before and what happens after really changes the way we see this one moment.

MH: I think, for me, I definitely have gotten into flash fiction a little more, just within this semester alone. I think it’s so amazing how much you were able to tell in such a short piece of time and how every word matters in that moment as well.

MB: Thank you. I think one of the things I love about reading flash fiction is that there’s a lot of space for the reader, as well. So even if it is just a small little flash or slice of a story, the reader brings a lot to it. I find that I always leave a flash piece feeling like I experienced something really full. I think that that’s a really gracious way to go about writing: leaving more space on the page for the reader to fill in.

MH: Yeah, especially in this story, our main character—we’re never given her name. I think that’s kind of indicative of a lot of flash pieces. It doesn’t need a name; you’re already in that moment, you’re already in that character. The last two lines of the story are incredibly striking. They honestly left me in tears. “Such terrible desire. Outside flowers followed the sun across the sky.” I felt like I was reading a poem. How has your education in poetry and creative nonfiction influenced your writing, this story specifically?

MB: Well, I studied poetry for my undergraduate degree. Arthur Sze, the poet—at Bread Loaf in 2011, I think, when I was there as a poet—very kindly took me aside in his poetry workshop and said, “I really like your writing, but I don’t think you’re writing poetry. I think you’re writing nonfiction.” And he was right; he was completely right. So I started to shift at that point in my life towards writing creative nonfiction, studying it in my undergrad. But I read a lot of poetry, and I think because I am—as I mentioned before—someone who does focus a lot on image, the poem still appears as a form in my prose. And for me, not just image, but lyric and sonic devices are really important. I love pieces that are read out loud. I love the sound of things. So I do try to bring that to sentences as much as I can.

MH: Yeah, it was so beautifully written. I loved it. So, you’ve taught creative writing at the middle school, high school, and college level. What are some pieces of advice that you find yourself repeating to all of your classes?

MB: That’s a good question. Well, I think the one thing that I’m asked the most from students is how do you become a writer? What is your secret to staying focused and being published? What I always tell to students, regardless of their age, is that the authors that they love are people who didn’t give up, are the people who kept writing. So I talk a lot about resilience and the process. That is a consistent thing that I teach. I also focus, as you mentioned, on those more poetic aspects, so writing truly as a form of art and playing with both sound and structure, regardless of genre. I like to teach works that use multiple forms of communication, whether it’s poetry, images, collage. I invite my students to bring all of their artistic interests—and other academic or personal interests—into their work. I like to create pieces, or encourage students to create pieces, that feel both rich and diverse in their inspirations.

MH: Yeah, resilience is definitely something I have to remind myself when I’m writing.

MB: We all do!

MH: There are sometimes when I’ll leave a workshop, just like, “That’s not what I wanted my story to be!” And then I have to remind myself: it’s just one story, and I can write so many more.

MB: You can write so many more, go back and write that. And so often the experience is about learning, not the product. And I think it’s hard, especially for younger people today, to understand process. That the thing that we produce for an assignment might not be the final thing that you are creating. So, not to encourage students to throw away pieces, but to come to the page realizing that not everything you compose is going to end up being a final masterwork. The actual practice of creating something is what you’re in it for.

MH: A lot of my teachers practice this mindset of “refuse to be done.” Matt Bell, he wrote a craft book on it.

MB: Yes, it’s a great book.

MH: That’s one thing I definitely remind myself: not every story is going to be finished the first time, even though I want it to be. It’s something you repeat over and over and over again.

MB: And just wait till you start writing whole books, and you realize that about whole first drafts!

MH: So, you’re releasing a collection of essays titled Twenty Square Feet of Skin this upcoming May. Can you describe your experience with publishing this collection, and are there any other projects you’re currently working on?

MB: Twenty Square Feet of Skin is coming out through Mad Creek Books, which is an imprint through Ohio State Press. And I submitted the manuscript to them via one of their annual contests, and while it wasn’t a winner, it was selected for publication, which was wonderful. And I’ve had an absolutely extraordinary experience with the editors and the staff there. They’ve really helped me make the collection better than it was when I sent it off to them. I think that’s what every writer is looking for in a relationship with a press.

The manuscript itself was sort of born out of my Master’s thesis at Vermont College of Fine Arts under the supervision of Patrick Madden, who’s an essayist out of Utah. And he and I focused a lot on experimentation and adding additional source material to the essays. So the collection as a whole explores the body through a multitude of lenses and influences. There’s a lot of essays about music, but there’s also essays about things that I felt weren’t “writerly” enough to write about, like giving pedicures or going to the gym. Things that are very much part of our every day, but don’t often end up being the material that we see celebrated in the personal essay. So over a series of revisions and additions, the book is now complete, and I have never been more proud of anything that’s gone out for publication, so I’m really excited to see what people think about it.

MH: I definitely will be looking out for it. As soon as I read your story, I was like, “This is someone I want to pay attention to for the long haul.”

MB: Well, I will say, to continue your question about any other projects I’m working on, I have moved out of the realm of writing nonfiction, at least for the time being. I’ve written three books and published three books of nonfiction since 2018 to today. In a very short period of time, I wrote a lot of material. And I won’t say that I’m out of material, but I’m definitely taking a little bit of a pause, and I’m turning my gaze toward fiction. So submitting pieces like “Such Terrible Desire.” But I’m currently working on a novel and also a lot of other stories and flash pieces.

MH: That’s so awesome. I admire how you’re able to switch through these different genres.

MB: It’s so much fun. Fiction has been such a joy. And you sit there and you think, “Oh my gosh, I can just make something up?” And it’s amazing.

MH: I love that. That was one of my favorite parts of fiction, and then I took a research-based fiction class, and I was like, “Oh, there’s some things that need to be very accurate!”

MB: My novel is heavily research-based, and it is exhausting.

MH: I can imagine. I finished a story last night for my research class, and afterwards I was like, “I’m not doing any more homework; I’m going to sleep.”

MB: Your mind really works on overtime.

MH: It felt so good to close all the tabs on my computer.

MB: I’ll be very happy to get rid of all these research books, which make me look like I have very strange interests. Eventually those will go away.

MH: I understand that. I’m so excited for you! I will definitely be on the lookout for Twenty Square Feet of Skin and anything else you publish in the future. Thank you again so much for doing this interview. I’m really excited for our SR followers to read “Such Terrible Desire” and get to learn more about you and this story. It’s definitely something that a lot of our readers will connect with and love.

MB: Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity to speak to you about the piece, and I’m excited to see it go up on the blog!