Five Questions With Madge McKeithen
Madge McKeithen began teaching nonfiction writing at the New School in 2006, shortly after completing her MFA in the low-residency program at Queens University in Charlotte, NC, and publishing her first book (Blue Peninsula, 2006. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux). She has taught courses on the poetic and comic in essays and on the memoir, as well as a broader survey of the nonfiction forms and techniques in workshop during the Summer Writers Colony. As an undergrad, she studied international politics at William and Mary and as a grad student at Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies and worked in government, international and educational institutions before coming to the New School. The courses she is teaching in 2018-19 will continue to connect subjects that matter deeply to writers as individuals, forms and ways to write powerfully, and wider human concerns in, and Writing Real People: Intersectionality in Nonfiction, and Honors Nonfiction Workshop. The particularly powerful and popular form of Micro Essays (aka Flash Nonfiction) is the focus of a short intensive course in November of each year. Madge’s writing has been published in the Best American Essays, 2011, The New York Times Book Review, Utne Reader, TriQuarterly, Lost and Found: Stories from New York, Best American Essays 2011, Lumina, and in other journals, newspapers, and anthologies.
1. Who is your favorite villain, and who is your favorite protagonist in literature?
My favorite villains, Robert Wringhim and Gil-Martin, live in a work rather obscure to most twenty-first-century readers. Alternatively, the corrupter and the corrupted, or the corrupted and the imagined, from the Scottish writer James Hogg’s 1824 book, The Private Memoirs, and Confessions of a Justified Sinnerreappear whenever I encounter newly conceived characters of depravity in books and film and television.
Justified Sinner, a failure in Hogg’s lifetime was read by Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote that it “haunted and puzzled him” and that it perhaps “came again in a new form” in his creation of Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hyde. Never popular in Hogg’s lifetime, the book was discovered, widely praised, and republished by Andre Gide in 1947.
Set in Scotland, it is concerned with the corruption of young Robert Wringhim and the sequence of murders he subsequently commits. The events are narrated by The Editor to whom Wringhim has told his story in the first half of the book, and in the second half, by Himself (Wringhim) – creating a structure that is full of intrigue, interest, fascination, intensity, and mystery. The murderer in the Editor’s Narrative garners little sympathy while, in the Confessions of a Sinner Written by Himself, the reader’s interest is directed toward the mind of the murderer, victimized, perhaps, by Wringhim’s demonic double, Gil-Martin. Accounts merge and differ, and more is unknown and unresolved than is known or resolved.
Both narratives seem unreliable, all is suspect, and in these ways, the book written in the 19thcentury about events set in the 18thcentury, is, when unleashed from its unfamiliar Scottish religious history accessible to present-day readers of fiction.
Its villains seem, for me, to lie behind many newer iterations of evil and depravity, those we love to hate if only in recognition of how crucial they are to the story. Among my frightening favorites — The Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” Arnold Friend in Joyce Carol Oates’s “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Nurse Ratched in Ken Kesey/s One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest, and The Joker in Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s Batman.
2. When did you know you were a writer?
I began to consider that I needed and wanted to write when the most pressing questions facing me did not have quick solutions. They seemed to ask for new routines, new skills, and practices, new content. The shift in my work was toward a different sort of reading and writing and thinking and drafting revisions, and perhaps reshaping the questions, and sometimes, throwing some questions away. I saw poets, novelists, story writers and essayists working in some of these ways, I watched the discipline and commitment involved, and I was fortunate to be watching a sample of very fine writers in the MFA program I attended at Queens University in Charlotte, NC.
In the midst of my life’s complications almost 20 years ago with the appearance of an undiagnosed degenerative illness in my 14-year-old son’s life, I began to write intentionally and with focus. I find writing to be a solitary and communal enterprise. To be in a room with writers and readers and to exchange perspectives, language, possibilities, and critiques is as vital as the counter-balancing solitary writing work.
3. What are you currently working on?
I am currently working on fragmented pieces about being with three members of my family during their dying months – a work I started well before any conscious awareness of their impending deaths. I am working in a variety of styles and forms and seeking to discern patterns and attributes of changes in form and tone.
4. How has your writing process changed over the years?
I started writing in 2003, and my process has changed very little over the last 15 years. Mornings are still the best for me, so I try to guard the time from waking until 2 or 3 p.m. for my own writing. I read poetry daily in some part of my process, often at the beginning. One or two nights a week are for teaching and literary readings.
5. Describe your writing style in one sentence.
A narrator’s voice relying on observation, experience, reflection, and projection with usually spare diction… and shifts in form and tone that are, I hope, navigable and meaningful