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Margaret Chen's 'Suburban Gothic'

On the podcast: Margaret Chen explores the unsettling idiosyncrasies of the 'burbs in her short story collection.

Margaret F. Chen's short story collection Suburban Gothic explores the complexities of life in the 'burbs — from creepy neighbors to the unsettling realities of daily life.

Mentioned in this episode:

About our guest

Suburban Gothic book cover.

Margaret F. Chen spent most of her childhood in a small town in southeastern Iowa. Her stories have been published in a wide variety of print and online journals and magazines, including Monkeybicycle, Rose Red Review, Yesteryear Fiction, Midwestern Gothic, The Bacopa Literary Journal, Eunoia Review, The Legendary, and The Carolina Quarterly. Margaret holds an MFA from Lesley University. Visit her website.

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  • Transcript

    Georgia Sparling

    This is Why We Write, a podcast of Lesley University. Every episode, we bring you authors in the Lesley community to talk about books, writing and the writing life. Today's guest is Margaret F. Chen. Margaret is an alum of our MFA in Creative Writing program and the author of "Suburban Gothic," 15 short stories set in suburbs across America. Her work, including many of the stories in this collection, have appeared in literary magazines including Carolina Quarterly, The Medulla Review, Monkeybicycle and, very fittingly, "Midwestern Gothic." So hello, Margaret, welcome to the show.

    Margaret F. Chen

    Hi, thank you so much for having me here today.

    Georgia  

    It's great to have you. I'm excited to talk about this book.  So as I said in the intro, all of your stories in this collection take place in the suburbs, and I read in your bio, that you've lived in maybe at least seven different suburbs across the US. First, why? [laughs] Why is that true? And how has it shaped your writing?

    Margaret 

    Oh, yeah, I didn't even count. [laughs] It definitely wasn't planned on my part for probably the first half of my life. And then it just ended up being, I just feel like it's probably the most common place, type of environment to live in around in America. So I have lived in short time periods in the city and in the country. But yes, most of my life has been spent in the suburbs. I just probably got used to it growing up.

    Georgia  

    The suburbs definitely have a big place in like American culture. [laughs] I think there's like the whole gamut, like sitcoms are often set in suburbs, there's like horror films.  I mean, just every genre, I guess, tackles suburbs and what it's like to live there, and there's lots of satire and all that. When you're writing about suburbs first, is it something that you found yourself doing subconsciously? Or was it intentional? And what are the suburbs to you? How do you describe them?

    Margaret 

    I don't think it was intentional, on my part to write specifically about a suburb, to sort of have a collection of stories centered around the suburbs. It just happened that a lot of my stories were set in those areas. And I didn't really plan on having this theme of how strange the suburbs can be and like, how strange people can be living in the suburbs. So I just wrote my stories. And then I just realized, wow, these are all in these really innocuous neighborhoods, and this is kind of cool. So the stories themselves, they're very different. They're strange, people are weird, and they're the living behind these really, almost facade. So I just found that really interesting.

    Georgia  

    Yeah, the suburbs, like you said, there is sort of a facade where, it's sort of meant to look a certain way. It's like, we've made it to the suburbs, [laughs] we moved out of the big city, and now we have our home and our like, half acre quarter acre land and our yard and our two kids. And yeah, it's set up often as an ideal. I'd love to talk about the first story in the collection, which I think is the one that stuck with me the most. The Zhangs and the Zumans. Am I saying that right? [laughs]

    Margaret 

    Yeah, sure. [laughs] That sounds good.

    Georgia  

    And for those who haven't read the book, yet, it's about this young couple, they buy their first house, and they have these kind of messy, chaotic neighbors next door. And Annie, the wife, she gets really fed up with just having to kind of deal with these people. And eventually, that leads her to say, "We've got to move." They rent the house out and this new couple comes in and completely transforms everything, like from the house to the relationship with these neighbors. And all of a sudden, it's totally different. And so I was really curious about this story, and just kind of where that idea for that came from?

    Margaret 

    We actually did live in a neighborhood. I was married at the time, I had a young child and we actually did live next door to a family that was very similar to the Zumans. And they were really fascinating. They were very much like how I described in the story, and we did, in fact, end up moving away because it just felt like we weren't going to ever enjoy living there. And, quite frankly, I did rent out the house and did have a couple who ended up being very much like the couple in the story. So it was very much a story that was very transformative for me in a way because I saw that this woman who brings these preconceived notions of how people should be or how you should live, and just the set ways of how she wanted to live in this house. And just seeing like, she couldn't see beyond her little narrow. In a way, it was a kind of narrow view of how people should be, and not really seeing the these neighbors as even, you know, she just didn't understand them, and becoming fearful of them, actually. So when the the new couple that moves in what seems to present another perspective, which transforms the neighbors themselves. The family that was formerly so difficult. Sometimes how you treat people really does influence how you're treated back, or what kind of world you're living, and you're putting yourself in.

    Georgia  

    It really is the perspective too, because the new couple comes in and they maybe don't immediately judge the Zumans. And then you find out too, I think, I hope it's not too much of a spoiler, but like Annie is not maybe the most happy with her own situation. And so you see how that colors some of the ways that she sees other people. I kind of kept waiting, like, is there going to be something sinister about this family? [laughs] And like, the book is "Suburban Gothic," it's the name of it. And there there really wasn't, but there's always kind of that potential, maybe in the suburbs, or just when something isn't like what you're used to, to think of it as a bit sinister. So I'm curious of that idea. There were a couple of stories, one that was kind of more of a horror story. I can't remember the name of it. But in most of the stories, there are these people who are fairly mundane, just kind of your everyday folks. But there's something ominous going on, or there's something that seems just not quite right. And I was curious if you could kind of explore or talk a little bit about that feeling or  putting that feeling out there and your stories, considering they are like people that are very relatable like a single mom or a couple that's looking for a daycare for their kid and yet something seems not quite right.

    Margaret 

    Yeah, I think that is the theme that really fascinated me, when I would was creating these stories or writing these. A lot of things just aren't way that they seem. And I don't know if this is a story you're speaking of but there is one where the mother tries to find a school, it looks absolutely perfect, like a fairy tale type of place, it's very clean, and everyone seems friendly, but then it turns out to be terrible. And again, that doesn't sound like really super different, or it means something that happens all the time, and yet, it's something that happens over and over and over. So you still believe in things that are presented to you, and you believe people, ad yet, when it comes down to it, and you do try to figure out the truth of what the situation is, it can be very, very different. So I did find that to be very interesting to me. Do they really want to believe what's underneath that? Do they really want to see what's the truth behind it or not?

    Georgia  

    We'll be back after a quick break.  It occurred to me that you dear listeners might not know much about our MFA in Creative Writing program. At Lesley, you can develop your craft in six genres: Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, Writing for Young Adults, Writing for Stage and Screen and Graphic Novels and Comics. Our faculty are award-winning practicing writers who offer one-on-one mentorship throughout the year. It's a low residency program, so our students come to campus just twice a year: nine days in the summer and nine days in the winter. The rest of the time, they work on their writing from home, communicating with their mentors and peers virtually. So you get the best of both worlds: face to face time with faculty and your fellow writers without having to uproot your family, life, or job. Of course, if you want to move to Cambridge to be close to us, we want to say no. If you're considering an MFA program, check us out. You won't find a more supportive or encouraging program. And this podcast is proof of what our alums and renowned faculty accomplish. Learn more at lesley.edu/writers. There's also a link in the show notes. Okay, back to the interview.  So another theme I noticed in several stories was about motherhood. A lot of times you think of like suburban moms, they're kind of like the queen bee. [laughs] They rule the house, and their nails are done, and they're often, not always, but there's this idea that they're all like, stay at home moms and, have this wonderful life and make casseroles or something. [laughs] It's not true, but there's maybe this idea that that's the way it is. And yet one of your stories, "Kite" is the name of it, there's a single mom, and she doesn't really fit any of these stereotypes. She's single, she moves to the suburbs where most people are married, it's her hometown where she grew up, and she just has this young son. I was wondering, would you talk a little bit about that idea of how maybe your stories are challenging what modern suburban motherhood really is?

    Margaret 

    Yeah, that's a great question. So going back again to like why I write these kind of stories about the suburbs, not only about how things aren't what they seem, but it's also about people not really fitting in or feeling like they fit in to certain environments. I've certainly felt that way in many of the neighborhoods I've lived in and I would say, it's not something that I think people plan. It's not like people are trying to make you feel uncomfortable or anything like that at all, it's just myself, being someone new in a new environment, it's always going to be a little bit of a challenge to try to adjust. So, in that story, I definitely did address that, even though this is some place where the mother had grown up, and she knew these people, I think my idea in that story was that she just didn't ever really fit in, even from the beginning. I think it's a feeling that was very much intensified in the situation that I described in the story, especially when she needed help, and there was really no one. It's definitely a little bit more a darker aspect of kind of being alone in the suburbs, and not really being the typical family living out there.

    Georgia  

    Yeah, because she goes from needing help with like, stuff at her apartment. [laughs] And like the kite gest stuck in the tree and it's a really nice kite that she bought for her son and there's no way to get it down. It's just a frustrating thing of like, it's right there and I can't get it. [laughs] And everybody kind just walks by and they're like "Eh," which is kind of ironic, considering the suburbs is supposed to be friendly and open and community based or whatever.

    Margaret 

    Yeah, that happens. [laughs]

    Georgia  

    Oh, totally. It happens everywhere. But yeah, like that feeling of alienation.

    Margaret 

    Right, right.

    Georgia  

    And so shifting gears a bit; so I notice all of these obviously are short stories. Are you a confirmed short story writer? Is that your main mode of writing?

    Margaret 

    Yes, I definitely enjoy short stories the most and I enjoy reading short stories the most and writing them. I have written a few novels. I didn't really feel they showed my best ability or I just didn't feel turned out very well. And I tend to enjoy getting an idea and then sitting down and just having that whole idea already presented as a story.

    Georgia  

    When did you first start writing short stories?

    Margaret 

    I started writing stories when I was in about third or fourth grade. I also illustrated my stories. I wrote about animals.

    Georgia  

    So you didn't start out writing about the suburbs in third grade? [laughs]

    Margaret 

    [laughs] But I did write about families starting fairly young. I had a friend that I collaborated on a book with when I was in fifth grade. And it was in fact about a family.

    Georgia  

    And you're a graduate, as I said, at the top of the show, of our Creative Writing MFA program. What did you focus on there? And what led you to take that step in your writing career?

    Margaret 

    I always felt like I had to keep trying and keep improving, and just keep working at my writing. So I just kept taking classes, even before I applied to Lesley, I was taking writing classes at UCLA Extension. And I've just kept trying to improve my craft, basically. To me, the MFA seemed like the culmination of that effort to try to do keep learning and trying to do my best to create the best stories I can.

    Georgia  

    Could you tell us what your day job is?

    Margaret 

    Oh gosh. [laughs] I actually helped many, many different jobs. And my first degree was in finance. So I have done everything from advertising, and I've been an office manager, I've done restaurant work. Currently, I work at a store, I'm the assistant manager. So you know, it's fine for a day job, and just something new, I guess.

    Georgia  

    Do you feel like that day job is helps with the writing career? Or does it give you the space? Because that's a hard thing, writing or the end of the day,

    Margaret 

    That is definitely a challenge. And I do find that when I'm working a lot, I don't have the time to sit down and write at all, actually. So I've had to take breaks between jobs to be able to complete the MFA program. So even when it was getting towards the end, I was working in a bookstore. I was like "I really need to focus on finishing my degree." And the problem with not being in an MFA program now is that it's so easy to just be like "Oh, I'll just write when I come back home," and it doesn't happen. [laughs] But school kept me, I had deadlines, and I had to do it.

    Georgia  

    Yeah, accountability is really nice.

    Margaret 

    Yeah, that's true.

    Georgia  

    "Suburban Gothic" came out in 2020 and I noticed that you got a starred review in Kirkus, which I imagine is not an everyday occurrence for a self published book. They also talk to you about your path to publication and why you chose self publishing. So why was that option appealing to you?

    Margaret 

    Well, I would say about half of the stories in that collection were already in journals, online journals, and print journals. So I felt like it was going to be very difficult for me to get my short stories together in a collection and actually find an agent and a publisher for them. So I did try, and finally, I just came to the conclusion that if I wanted to actually get these stories published together, I was going to explore different options, including self publishing. And it seems that self publishing has come a long way from the times when there were a lot of sketchy companies out there. And I happened to be in one of my favorite bookstores locally, and I had no idea that they also published books and I was very excited. So I met with the person who was in charge there, and we got along really well. He's an awesome graphic designer and he helped me get started with that. So it was just a great connection with a local bookshop that I happened to really like and I connected well with the person who would actually put it together for me. So that was a great. That was just very lucky, I think.

    Georgia  

    And that's Politics and Prose, a bookstore in D.C. Shout out to all the independent bookstores.

    Margaret 

    That's the other thing is that I really wanted to support that whole endeavor as well. So that was my route to getting "Suburban Gothic" out. He happened to really like my stories and we were like, on the same wavelength about how to design it and I love the cover that he created.  It's great. So yeah, I felt very fortunate that I had that opportunity. Also, another reason I wanted to go that path even before I met Gareth, at Politics and Prose, these were stories that have been published a while ago, and I was getting kind of tired of them. I wanted to just kind of put them away. [laughs] I wanted them in a nice collection, so it's not for just myself. I wanted to kind of see it together, but also kind of move on to other things.

    Georgia  

    It's so cool.

    Margaret 

    So what are you working on next? Or currently? I actually had just finished a novel during the summer, and I'm going to try to go back and edit that novel and polish it up and see if it is something I still like. I'm going to go back to short stories again. [laughs]

    Georgia  

    That's your medium. [laughs]

    Margaret 

    Yes, definitely

    Georgia  

    Yeah, that sounds great. Since the name of our podcast is "Why We Write," why do you write?

    Margaret 

    I don't know. [laughs] I've just written since I was little, and it's my outlet for expressing myself and just capturing ideas that I have and I think are really fun or fascinating. Not always fun, but fascinating, or interesting, that I want to share with people. It's like, when people enjoy playing certain instruments or have other like, sports or something they enjoy doing, I feel like this is my way of spending time doing something I really like and doing something creative.

    Georgia  

    Yeah, that's great. So thanks so much for coming on the show today.

    Margaret 

    Thank you so much, Georgia for having me here again. It's a pleasure.

    Georgia  

    Margaret Chen's book "Suburban Gothic" is available from Politics and Prose, as is her 2019 book of short stories, "Three Terrible Tales. The link to those and her interview with Kirkus are in our show notes. Thank you for listening, and be sure to subscribe to this podcast on your favorite app. And we'd love it if you'd recommend it to a friend. We'll be back in a few weeks.