Megan Giddings on Delving into a Magical World in Order to Explore Censorship
In Conversation with Brenda Noiseux and Rob Wolf on the New Books Network
The Women Could Fly is set in our contemporary world with one big difference. A belief in witches gives rise to laws and a culture that encourages women to be married by the age of 30, locking them in a 1950s-style domesticity with the threat that they can be burned at the stake for merely being accused of violating the rules. In Megan Giddings’ second novel, the reader must first grapple with the question: Are witches real? As the story progresses, the question shifts: Even if witches exist, why are they considered nefarious?
From the episode:
Brenda Noiseux: Your protagonist is Josephine Thomas, who goes by Jo. She’s 28 and has been grappling for many years with her mom’s mysterious disappearance. Can you talk a bit about the pressure that she’s under because of her mom’s unexplained disappearance and the world that she lives in?
Megan Giddings: In The Women Could Fly, women around the age of 14 are given pamphlets at school—it’s based on the pamphlets that you take home about menstruating or safe sex—only in this world you start off with pamphlets warning you about witchcraft and not falsely accusing each other of witchcraft.
Women are really conditioned in the world of the book to be hyper aware of how they present themselves, and this is especially true for someone like Jo, whose mother is gone. She disappeared around Jo’s 14th birthday. Anything that a woman does that’s unusual or peculiar—especially something like vanishing into thin air—makes you seem suspicious, and that makes your daughter seem suspicious, too, because witches congregate together.
Some of these things are even based on existing laws. Like in Oxford, Ohio, where I did an M.A. at Miami of Ohio, one of the things people told me about the town—they thought of it as this charming detail—was that for a long time on the books (it might even still be on the books because a lot of weird laws never seem to get off the books) was that if there were more than, I think, four women living together, it was considered a whorehouse. That’s why there were no sorority houses in that town. There was a set limit of how many women could live together, and I think that was just one of the seeds of how often women are policed. If you know anything about Oxford, Ohio, it’s a huge fraternity town so has many fraternities and 20, 30 men could live together and do debauched stuff, but women, no.
I kept thinking about the different small ways that people tell you in the form of charming stories about being a woman in this country but they’re ways to also share how women’s rights have been inhibited. That really tied into the way I developed the world of the book, because I thought a lot about how ingrained some of these things are into American culture.
BN: I love how you you’ve brought that charming-story feel into this world by asking “what if those charming stories aren’t so charming? What does that look like?”
MG: I think it’s a super American way to deal with oppression because you go to the South and they tell charming stories about the plantation. The charming story is like when a landlord is trying to make a house nice, and instead of having the usual landlord blinds, they put some nice curtains up. They paint a color that’s slightly better than landlord brown and their whole thing is “Don’t look at the cracks. Don’t question the creaks in the floor, the old appliances. Look at the curtains. Look at this better paint than the place down the street.” And I think that’s how we treat a lot of the indignities of being either a poor person or a person of color or a trans person or a woman in this country or a gay person, too.
Rob Wolf: I wonder if you could talk a little bit about why you were drawn specifically to the concept of witchcraft to explore all the things we’ve just been discussing.
MG: On a basic level I just really wanted to write about magic. I wanted to write about a world where anything seems possible, but still people lean into their worst impulses and keep things small. And I think that’s one of the modern highlights of the human condition. There’s endless possibility for us as people. We could be good and kind. We could have a world where not every problem is solved, but we could work together, we could be cooperative, we could have so much. … But I wanted to show the ways that people constrain themselves. And I thought magic—something that could be limitless, something that could change anything—was the right way to get in there.
Megan Giddings is the author of the highly acclaimed Lakewood. She has degrees from the University of Michigan and Indiana University and is a recipient of a Barbara Deming Memorial fund grant for feminist fiction.