Copyright © Don Lee
Contributor Spotlight With her long story in this issue, Megan Staffel makes a return to our pages -- indeed, to any magazine's pages -- after an absence of twenty years, and this fall, her third book,
The Notebook of Lost Things, will be published by Soho Press twelve years after her last novel saw print. It might seem that Staffel, an author of obvious talent, must have taken some sort of self-imposed hiatus from writing, but that wasn't the case. She worked doggedly in the interim, finishing two novels that she was ultimately unable to sell, and her persistence, when anyone else might have quit, is cause for marvel.
Megan Staffel was born in 1952 and raised in Philadelphia. Her father was a ceramic artist, her mother a painter, and Staffel intended to follow suit, enrolling in art school. Quickly, though, she changed her mind, deciding to become an actress, and transferred to Emerson College. Ironically, she never took a single acting class there, finding her true calling in a creative writing workshop. After graduating, Staffel and her husband, Graham Marks, a ceramics teacher, eventually moved to Iowa City, where she attended the Writers' Workshop, studying with Frederick Busch and Hilma Wolitzer and receiving her M.F.A. in 1980.
In 1983, James Randall, her mentor at Emerson College, published Staffel's collection of stories,
A Length of Wire, through his small press, Pym-Randall, and in 1987, North Point released her first novel,
She Wanted Something Else. But thereafter, she found that she couldn't get anything published. "I got sidetracked into myself, into my own history," she says. "I wrote and revised two novels for nine years, and, in retrospect, I think it's fair to say that I'm not a strong autobiographical writer. But the years of writing and not getting published were not wasted time or effort. I learned a lot about craft. I also, incidentally, figured out a lot about my life."
A few years ago, Staffel developed a very different, more sophisticated narrative voice. She polished off her new novel,
The Notebook of Lost Things, in about a year and a half. Asked what turned it around for her, Staffel immediately answers, "I discovered fiction." She dropped the first-person viewpoint she'd always favored for third-person omniscient narration. "I was thoroughly sick of myself. That's when I discovered the power of imagining other people's lives."
She got the initial inspiration for the book playing Scrabble with one of her two children. Her son, frustrated by the game, used all of his tiles to make up a single word: rovatysnotnuk. "I was just touched by the idea of someone being boxed in a corner," Staffel says, "and opting for creative means to get himself out." Thinking of such a person led directly to one of the characters in the novel, which is set in a close-knit town very much like Alfred, New York, where Staffel lives with her family (her husband switched professions and is now an acupuncturist; Staffel teaches through Vermont College's low-residency B.A. program).
"Having grown up with artists, I wasn't afraid of failure," Staffel says. "My father would lose whole kilns of work, my mother would have shows where few things sold. They never thought about quitting. It wasn't ever about success, anyway. It has to do with a private necessity. That's what keeps it all going."