Every week, I’ll be doing a mini feature on my site (& blasting it on social media) on activists, artists, and educators who are doing important things in the world. Like Levar Burton, the only thing these folks have in common is that I like them, and I hope you do too.
This week’s feature is Michelle McGurk.
Michelle and I met in 2011, when we were both grad students in Lesley University’s low-residency MFA program. Throughout the near-decade of our friendship, I’ve been blown away by her staunchly American, quietly strong writing. Her stories are nearly all set in California–from the forests to the suburbs– and she utilizes place/landscape with the grace and dexterity of a surgeon, or a painter. Her writing, for me, takes its rightful place in the canon of my favorite fiction writers.
Where can we find your work?
The Journal, Pangyrus, and Cherry Tree. I’m a realist who loves fairy tales. My years as a journalist (and, as a child, pretending to be a Harriet-like spy) taught me to start with questions: Who, What, Where, Why, How. I see something as simple as a gingko leaf and wonder who planted the tree, who lives in the house where it grows, where are they rushing off to, why is there a half-inch of dust on the tricycle in the front yard, why haven’t they taken down the Christmas lights in over a year.
I embrace the domestic, the quiet. I attempt to create characters who love and despair deeply, and to unearth the secrets they keep.
My work is mired in place, particularly in the California not seen on television. I find myself returning to fictional versions of the subdivision where I grew up on the edge of San Pablo Bay, to the foothills and commuter suburbs, to places that aspire and often are overlooked in each succeeding Gold Rush.
What were you like as a child?
Awkward, emotional, more comfortable with books and grown-ups than with other kids.
When I was young, I could imagine for hours, pretending the garage was a wartime hideout or a cabin on the prairie, plotting romances for Barbies and Dawn dolls. With my cousins, I was the oldest, and whenever we were together at our Gram’s house, I’d direct plays or Christmas pageants. In school, I spent a lot of time observing. In junior high, I didn’t speak at lunchtime for almost an entire year, but listened while girls talked about what they had done on the weekend or their after school plans. Thankfully, I had youth group leaders, the school librarian, pen pals (I nearly failed math class because I was always writing letters), and a friend who hadn’t yet outgrown fantasy novels.
Can you remember the first piece of art– performance, literary, fine, street–you saw/read that wowed you?
When I was ten, I found Jane Eyre on a shelf at my grandparents’ house. Books had wowed me before—Narnia and Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler; Harriet the Spy; Ballet Shoes; the incredible mushroom planet—but Jane was the first heroine who spoke to my loneliness. Like me, she was ten when the book opened, “plain” and “little,” “obscure.” When I’d visit my grandparents’ I’d look for her and spend my afternoon rushing through the pages. I never checked it out of the library, or saved up to buy my own copy. I kept the book as something to savor on my visits to my grandparents’ house.
I find the book more challenging now, find the “love story” to be more disturbing than romantic. At ten, I had no understanding of how few options a woman like Jane had, what it meant to say no to offers of marriage or financial security or to work as a governess. But I loved Jane’s spirit of independence.
Somewhere in that same time frame, my elementary school had a visiting poet, through California Poets in the Schools. A small group of us met with her weekly, and she encouraged us to write our feelings and truths, to see the sun as a tangerine or a tennis ball. I can picture her—she had long brown hair, and one day we caught her sitting cross-legged on the multi-purpose room table meditating—but I can’t remember her name. What I do remember is that she taught us to dive beyond our fart jokes and blushes, to believe in the power of our words.
What work do you do in the world that you feel proud of?
In my day job, I help translate public policy into something that is easy for the community and the City Council to understand. Often this involves editing memos or helping with research and analysis. Most recently, I helped coordinate a study session on domestic violence, where survivors and family members told their stories to the City Council.
It’s one thing to tell the Council that, on average, nine domestic violence cases a day are filed with the police department or that DV is a leading cause of homelessness for women and children. It’s another for them to hear from a mother who struggled to feed her children after leaving or from parents who lost a daughter who had broken up with a violent man.
I’m on the community advisory board for Silicon Valley Reads (www.siliconvalleyreads.org). It’s a community-wide “big read” program that selects books focused on a theme each year (and companion books for children and teens). This year’s focus is “No Matter What: Caring, Coping, Compassion” featuring Rachel Khong’s novel Goodbye Vitamin and Mark Lukach’s memoir My Lovely Wife in the Psych Ward. I’m really excited to be interviewing Rachel at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library in Downtown San Jose at 2 p.m. on Sunday, March 25. And there are a bunch more readings, discussions, art programs, movie screenings, and other events throughout Santa Clara County between now and then.
What’s keeping you embodied right now?
Yoga, writing by hand, eating more fruits and veggies, allowing myself to say no to things I once would have considered obligatory. Making quilts for people I care about (or their new babies). I’m not a great quilter. I love the act of arranging and rearranging squares of fabric. I usually buy too much fabric and edit my way down to the final design. It’s a lot like how I write, pages and pages until I find the story.
Tell us a story.
This is an apology. And a promise. Once there was a girl named Laura who lived in North Carolina. Her address arrived via Tiger Beat or Seventeen (Pen Pal sign up! Find friends!).
For a while, ordinary letters. What do you like to do? Tell me about your life. California sounds exciting. Do you live near Disneyland?
Then, the first fabrications, the tiniest fib. Ballooned to outright lies. Parents divorcing. A very young and wicked stepmother. Handsome boys. Fine, fine boys. Fabulous vacations. (I cannot remember: Did I kill anyone off? I sincerely hope not.)
At what point did your mother say stop writing to that nasty girl? Did you ever open a letter and laugh at the overwrought prose?
I found your school photo the other day. A girl with a haircut only half as bad as mine. Someday, I will send you a story. Something published, clearly labeled fiction.
Michelle McGurk grew up in the Bayview Park neighborhood of San Pablo, a place she keeps reinventing in her fiction. As a reporter, she covered seniors’ issues and healthcare. She has worked in nonprofit communications and city government. She holds an MFA from Lesley University. Her fiction has been published in The Journal (online), Pangyrus, and Cherry Tree.