Q&A With Fiction Teacher Margaret Wappler

For years, we’ve been reading Margaret Wappler’s stories in Another Chicago Magazine, Black Clock, Facsimile, Public Fiction, and Joyland, plus her arts and culture writing in Los Angeles Times, The Rolling Stone, The Believer and LA Weekly.  So we are understandably pumped that she has joined WWLA as a Fiction instructor!

We asked Margaret a few questions about reading, writing and teaching.

You are currently writing a novel.  Our least favorite question is “what is your novel about” so we won’t ask you that!  Instead, can you tell us a little bit about your favorite scene from the novel, so far?

Well, my favorite scene is always the one I just finished revising. It feels so shiny and new (though it’s been redrafted, oh, probably some 15 times). In this scene, Gabe and Alison, the two teenage siblings in my book, are forced to fundraise for an Earth Day celebration on the mall. Their father is a staunch environmentalist and he really involves the family in his passions, for better or worse. Alison and Gabe, to make it fun, go to the weirdest stores on the mall first – the wig shop and the magic store. I’m a big believer in setting and how it can affect character interaction. If I succeeded, both of them have colorful encounters that are only enhanced by the surroundings.

You’ve lived, taught, and written about culture in both Chicago and LA.  How does a city and a sense of place affect your fiction writing?

Oh, you’d like me to talk more about setting? Great! Some of my favorite stories or novels are ones where place functions as another character or at least a force that can apply narrative pressure on the characters. In Gretel Erhlich’s “The Solace of Wide Open Spaces,” an essay collection about a grieving woman who uproots her urban life for Wyoming cattle ranches, her internal state is often directly challenged by the landscape. In my novel, suburban Chicago is both the most “normal” place on earth, and the site of a mysterious UFO landing. I wanted to utilize the built-in ideas of the Midwest and suburban America while also subverting them. As far as Los Angeles, when I first moved here 12 years ago, the jumble dazzled me – palm trees and industrial wastelands, scrawny coyotes and Koreatown. LA is one giant non sequitur. Whenever I’ve used LA as a setting in fiction, those disparate relationships end up informing the piece’s tone and atmosphere.

Can you give us a preview of one of the stories or novel excerpts you’ll be teaching in Fiction III?  Why did you choose it?

Margaret Atwood’s short story “Death By Landscape.” Atwood is a masterful writer who somehow manages to be devastating and understated at the same time. There are images from this story that are embedded in my brain, ever since I initially read it some 15 years ago. Those pictures, along with a certain memory of the story’s tone, will just come to me while I’m driving or standing in line at the bank. I’m eager to see if it affects other readers the same way.

What’s one of your favorite novels or short stories?  Why?

“White Noise” by Don DeLillo. This isn’t a perfect novel (which is actually really encouraging to me as a working writer) but it had such an impact that I carry it around like a memory. I return to it frequently for its treatment of reality. On one hand, it captures the routine everyday of family life, career, things we all can relate to. On the other hand, fantastical things happen in the book and seamlessly mesh with those prior banalities. Ultimately, the book is about death, which is both the most ordinary and extraordinary thing that can happen to you.

Here’s a classic: if you could have dinner with any writer, alive or dead, with whom would you want to share a meal and conversation?

How about a dinner party with Don DeLillo, JM Coetzee (though he seems rather stern), Ann Beattie, Haruki Murakami, Alex Shakar, Carson McCullers, Aimee Bender or F. Scott Fitzgerald? I think the living writers would have to pay for the dead writers, however. It’s just the polite thing to do, considering they traveled a greater distance.