Reading Group Choices Interview with Megan Stielstra

Powerful new essays on fear, creativity, art, faith, and justice in Megan Stielstra’s latest collection.

Megan Stielstra is the author of The Wrong Way to Save Your Life, photograph by Joe Mazza)Megan Stielstra stopped by 702WI recently to read from and discuss her new collection of essays The Wrong Way to Save Your Life. She also spoke to us about everything from Inspector Gadget to Zoe Keating, and the book that made her cry in the back of a cab.

702WI: What book changed your life?
Megan Stielstra: There are many, but I’m going to say Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch. I wrote a bit about why.

702WI: What book(s) are coming out this year that you’re looking forward to reading?
MS: The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang and On My Way to Liberation by H. Melt.

702WI: What books are currently stacked next to your bed/on your desk/in your pile-to-read?
MS: My TBR pile: Heartland by Sarah Smarsh and Impossible Owls by Brian Phillips.

On my desk (because I’m teaching from them and the term just started): How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee, Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion, Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, Love and Trouble by Claire Dederer, The Argonuats by Maggie Nelson, Book of My Lives by Aleksandar Hemon, Essayism by Brian Dillon, and How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America by Kiese Laymon.

I carry a ratted-out copy of We Are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby in my bag and I read it whenever I need to laugh, which these days is all the goddamn time. We have to laugh. If we don’t laugh we’ll jump off the roof.

702WI: What book did you most recently recommend to someone else?
MS: The Great Believers, by Rebecca Makkai. I finished it in the back of a cab in Brooklyn. I was sobbing my face off and the driver asked if I was okay. “I’m reading a book!” I said, and he said, “That’ll do it.”

702WI: What was your favorite book when you were a child?
MS: Wrinkle in Time.

702WI: Who are your favorite writers?
MS: Samantha Irby, Dorothy Allison, Fatimah Asghar, Eula Biss, Ursula K. Le Guin, Chimamanda Adichie, Esmé Weijun Wang, Jessica Hopper, Parneshia Jones, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Roxane Gay, Cheryl Strayed, Wendy Ortiz, Sahar Mustafah and about a billion more.

702WI: Do you commonly use a word or phrase that is specific to a place you lived/from childhood/from family that you don’t hear often in day-to-day conversation?
MS: I just asked my husband and kid about this because they have to listen to me all day. Apparently I say God bless it a lot, which probably comes from my grandma, but I started saying it as a replacement for Fuck it when my kid started talking and repeating everything I said.

702WI: What book/s could you never part with? Think “stranded-on-a-desert-island” books.
MS: I know this question is theoretical but a few years ago my building caught on fire and everything became very real very fast. The truth, I’ve learned, is that push-come-to-shove I could part with any of my beloved books. I have a Chicago Public Library card and access to more than I could read in a lifetime which is a mind-blowing privilege that I’d like to see protected for everyone by adequately funding our local libraries, and extended for those who don’t have access by funding prison libraries.

If I were actually stranded on a desert island, I’d want a blank book so I could get my thoughts out of my head. I’d also want a water purifier, SPF, a satellite phone, and a jet pack. J

702WI: Were you ever embarrassed about a book you loved?
MS: No. Don’t be embarrassed by the books and music and art that you love. Those are the things that make you you. When you get lost, they’ll show you the way back to yourself.

702WI: What fictional character do you most identify with? Why?
MS: When I was a kid, it was Penny from Inspector Gadget. She had the same hair as me, and she was a genius, which I wanted to be, and she could talk to dogs, which I most certainly could, and she had a computer that was also a book, which amazed me. It’s wild to think about that now, while typing on a laptop.

These days I’m trying for the Marvel character Jennifer Walters who, after receiving a blood transfusion from her cousin Bruce Banner and turning into She-Hulk, can retain her intelligence and emotional control even when she’s pissed as hell.

702WI: Do you have a favorite musician or genre of music?
MS: Dessa (start here:, Zoe Keating (here:, and Aretha Franklin.

702WI: Is there a creator who is doing something you find amazing?
MS: My husband curates an art site called Colossal, which is full of people around the world making incredible things:

702WI: What do you wish you knew more about?
MS: Article 2, section 4.

702WI: Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
MS: The organizer and educator Mariame Kaba. I’ve learned so much from her work and would like to show my gratitude, both by cooking her a meal and fighting for what’s right in this beautiful mess of a world. “Hope is a discipline,” she said, and I think of those words every day.

702WI: Vinyl, cassette, CD or digital? Typewriter, notebook, tablet or computer?
MS: Yes. J

702WI: What is your most meaningful place?One of our recommended books is The Wrong Way to Save Your Life by Megan Stielstra
MS: The pier at Pratt Beach, Roger’s Park, Chicago.

702WI: What’s your favorite bookstore?
MS: Chicago’s independent bookstores are wonderful and fierce and supportive, of our city and its communities, our readers and our writers. Women and Children First is my local and they’ve taken care of me for decades, recognizing me and so many others as writers long before we had book deals. That’s vital for an emerging writer: to know that your voice matters. To keep going, no matter what. My heart also belongs to Quimby’s, Volumes, Myopic, the Book Cellar, City Lit, Bookends & Beginnings, Open Books, and Unabridged.

702WI: Can you share a favorite line from a creative work (book/play/film/song)?
MS: Last year I was on a panel at Wordstock with the essayist Melissa Febos and the poet Kaveh Akbar, which was healing in ways I’m only beginning to understand, let alone articulate. A line of Melissa’s cracked something open for me: “The ways we find to fix ourselves do not always look like fixing. Sometimes they fail, but they are never wrong.”

The past year has been so hard for so many. I am trying to figure out where to put my anger, and that line of Melissa’s was a guide as I wrote my way through:

702WI: What do you enjoy most about doing a reading or talking about your book?
MS: My favorite thing is when people tell me my work makes them want to write their own.

702WI: What is something you know about or have heard about Madison or Wisconsin?
MS: My best friend Jeff is from Madison. I come to your beautiful city to visit his family, who have been so welcoming to me and my son. Hi, John! Hi, Becky!

Read more about Megan’s latest essay collection The Wrong Way to Save Your Life
Visit Megan’s Website