Interview with Megan Reilley
Rappahannock Review Nonfiction Editors: In your essay, “A Good Dream, Almost,” we’re drawn in through Ellen’s voice. What steps did you take to develop it throughout the piece?
Megan Reilley: This question reveals one of the most beautiful aspects of making any kind of art: that it is subjective and open to interpretation. Once we craft a story and release it, it becomes something else to the readers who interact with it. When I read this question about Ellen’s voice, my instinct was to say that I did not use Ellen’s voice at all. I was puzzled for a few moments that readers found her voice in the piece. Yet I absolutely did harness Ellen’s voice—even as my doing so was somewhat invisible to me. It is her scream, her voice, that starts us off. And we end there, too, with my reflecting on the passage of time since I dreamed of Ellen in the kitchen.
My impressions of the man in the essay are informed by my relationship with him, but also by the tremendous influence of his late wife and his children and their family home on shaping the man he was at the time of our relationship. So in that sense, Ellen’s voice is present, too, in my descriptions of the professor and his daughter. I spent time in the essay imagining what he might have been like as a young husband and father, how he might have been viewed by his late wife.
The italic sentences that pepper the essay are direct quotes from the psychic that I visited on Ellen’s birthday, a session in which I specifically asked to speak with Ellen. I’ve never been a big believer in psychics and I’m not even really sure if I believe that people can communicate with us after they’ve passed on, but the pull to see a psychic was so strong that I gave into it despite my skepticism. In the session, the psychic believed Ellen was communicating with her by showing her meaningful images and words; the psychic would then describe those images and repeat the phrases and terms she was seeing or hearing. Of course, since I did not know Ellen, none of it had any meaning to me. The psychic sent me an audio recording of our session, which sat untouched in my Dropbox for well over a year. The original draft of the essay was written in 2019, shortly after the end of my romantic relationship with the man. I visited the psychic about a year later, in early 2020. It was more than a year after that when I had the idea to transcribe the audio from that visit and look for sentences that would complement the narrative in the essay. If you believe that the psychic was communicating with Ellen, then the quotes throughout the essay are Ellen’s voice…and when I included the quotes in the essay, they added a depth that instantly felt right. I moved them around and played with different quotes until I found the configuration that amplified the essay’s themes.
RR: We noted the symbolic use of birds throughout the story. Why did you choose birds to personify Ellen in your essay?
MR: I knew that in some cultures, cardinals are considered to be ambassadors from another realm, messengers sent by our loved ones who have passed on. Like my skepticism of psychics, I’m not sure I ever really believed that myself. My own parents died when I was quite young, but I’ve never viewed a cardinal as a bridge to my mom or dad, or any other deceased loved one. I would occasionally see a cardinal and think, how pretty, but I spotted them infrequently. In the months during which I dated the man I describe in the essay, and in the year after the end of the relationship, I saw cardinals everywhere, all the time, alone and in groups. And always, the first thought I would have when I saw them was, “Ellen.” I have no idea why. And very often, a few minutes or hours after I would see a cardinal, I would receive a text from the professor. Or an email from him — after not hearing from him for days or weeks or months. Likewise, I would sometimes be thinking of him for no particular reason, and a cardinal would land right in front of me, or a group of them would fly across my path. It got to the point where I would see a cardinal and I would just know I was going to see or hear from the professor…and I did, every time. I began to wonder if, in fact, these birds are messengers after all. It happened so frequently that I could not ignore it. I wanted to write about that phenomenon. Ultimately, I turned down the volume on the oddity of the birds. I kept the personification because it was the truest way to render my association of Ellen with the cardinals and to suggest that the birds might be spirits of loved ones who are no longer earthside.
RR: How did you decide to have the essay extended beyond a year?
MR: By the time I thought to transcribe the audio from my visit with the psychic, I had been dating a professional photographer for about a year. When I was transcribing, I saw the psychic’s words about the photographer in a new way. Previously, I had interpreted the “photographer” to be the professor, because he took lovely photos as a hobby and as the chronicler of his family life; many of the photos that informed my impressions of Ellen and her relationships with her family were taken by him. Considering the psychic’s words, “Who’s a photographer? Like, a real photographer?” gave me pause. I took some time to interrogate the arc of the story as it stood at that time, and it was suddenly very clear that the story was not over. And that’s the crushing moment of the story about my short-lived but long-remembered romance with the professor—it was all a dream. My reality was with someone else. I knew I had to push out beyond the original timeline to include the present.
RR: Your bio mentions that you have a memoir on female identity, mothering, and the bodies of females and children. What encouraged you to write on those topics?
MR: I began writing a memoir in my mid-20s, believing that I had something to offer about how my identity as a young woman had been shaped by my girlhood experiences of abuse and loss, and in particular, the space left by my mother’s death. I had to grow into that space and discover myself without having a mother to orient to. I set that very immature draft aside for twenty years and built a life—which included becoming a mother to four children—that took me far away from that story. In my mid-40s, my life was upended. Major life events tend to bring on self-examination for many people. There were very clear parallels between my young life and my identity as a motherless daughter and my responses to the events I was navigating at mid-life, which included a betrayal, a divorce, a teen pregnancy, and supporting a child whose gender was different than what I had believed it to be.
My memoir in its newest iteration examines the cultural forces that act on women and girls and push them to conform to ideals and expectations created by others. It looks at how we perform gender and how gender influences familial roles. Milestones in female social and emotional development and the effect of trauma on those milestones are of particular interest as I consider how certain elements of “self” were arrested by my mother’s death and remained suspended until seasons of my development as a mother. Breasts serve as the base for many of the themes in my work—our relationship as girls and women to our breasts and others’; breasts as a source of sexual pleasure and of invisible wounds from childhood; breasts as a source of life-sustaining nourishment for my babies and healing for me, of intense suffering and life-threatening dysphoria for my child, and of treason against my mother, who died even after undergoing mastectomy. I write about these topics because I believe there are many, many people who will see themselves or their families in the various parts of my story, and who will be comforted by knowing that we can come through difficult things and be okay.
RR: What was the last dream that you remember?
MR: I dreamed last night that I was in London. London is very special to me. I studied abroad there when I was a senior in college. It was my first time out of the country, and I went alone. Traveling abroad was an important goal for me. My mother lived in the Middle East when she was a child and a young woman, and I remember with great fondness all her stories and pictures. I am lucky to have a collection of the letters she wrote home to her parents when she was a college student at the American University of Beirut in the 1950s. In my dream, I was in London with a person from my childhood who has a strong connection to my mother. We are estranged in real life, yet in the dream I was excitedly showing her all the places I frequented when I lived there. The London Eye had been transformed by innovation and was now a series of independently floating glass pods that brought riders high above the city. We were in a pod, looking over London as the sun was setting, laughing and inspired. It felt very real. I woke up tired from my adventure.
The London Eye didn’t exist when I lived in London. In the times I’ve been back to London, I’ve never gone on The Eye. It scares me. The beauty of dreams is that anything can happen. Not even the sky has a limit.
Megan Reilley’s work appears in Issue 10.1 here.