Detroit native and U-M grad Shannon McLeod’s new novella, "Whimsy," tells a different kind of teaching story
Shannon McLeod’s new novella, Whimsy, depicts the perils of those post-college, early career years through the main character for which the book is titled, Whimsy Quinn, who narrates in first person. McLeod is a Detroit native, University of Michigan graduate, and now high school teacher in Virginia.
Whimsy, who got her name because her parents wanted to name her something “that exuded light-heartedness,” works as a middle school teacher in Metro Detroit, copes with the aftermaths of a car accident that she was in, and navigates dating. She tells her story of how she weathers her setbacks, and it becomes clear how they strengthen her. When asked to describe teaching, for instance, Whimsy notes, “I told him I didn’t have much to compare it to, but that it seemed I had less free time and less money than people with other careers.” It is not a glowing description, but she also does not hate it.
Much of the novella situates Whimsy in the classroom. Her profession brings both humor and growth for her. Of running a classroom, she reflects, “I don’t know if you ever recover from the feeling of thirty pairs of eyes staring at you in concert.” That description may sound nightmarish to those of us who do not want to be the center of attention. Yet, Whimsy gets through the first few days of the school year and finds that the students’ levels of observation fade because by "Halloween you’re at the bottom of the students’ lists of interests.” A welcome change.
Teaching is fraught with challenges, though, from getting scolded by an administrator who questions Whimsy’s dedication to catching students passing notes in class, serving as a cafeteria monitor during lunchtime, and socializing with other teachers. Whimsy takes all these situations in stride. When she needs to be away from the classroom, she reveals, “I’d learned quickly not to expect my students to get anything done with a substitute teacher in the room.” A matter-of-fact and responsive character, Whimsy is well-suited to teaching even if she finds herself chagrined at times.
While Whimsy is a self-aware and descriptive narrator, the prose remains sharp and tight. Scenes unfold and shift. The reader sees along with Whimsy what’s really happening, such as at a wedding where Whimsy drinks too much. She attends it with a journalist, Rikesh, who she’s seeing. When she finds herself crying in the bathroom, Rikesh finds her, and Whimsy notes, “He said he would take me home.” Yet, the next sentence shows a different outcome because, she thinks, “I thought he meant he was coming home with me.” The chapter ends there. Disappointment is palpable but not explicitly stated. The endings of all the chapters are poignant, each like a short story coming to a conclusion.
I interviewed McLeod about her novella, participation with the Emerging Writers Workshops at the Ann Arbor District Library, the Wild Onion Novella Contest that Whimsy won, and what’s next.
Q: The book starts with an interview scene, and here we are in an interview! Let’s start by talking about Whimsy. The novella illustrates what it’s like to start out in a career and date these days when many of us are connected by devices. At school waiting to hear from Rikesh, main character Whimsy narrates, “It had been almost half an hour since I’d last checked. Still no texts from Rikesh.” These moments are relatable. What draws you to writing contemporary fiction and incorporating things like texting?
A: Thank you! I want my writing to be relatable, so the ubiquitousness of texting, phones, and the internet are part of creating a familiar fictional world. I’ve heard some authors omit technology from their contemporary fiction to make the writing “timeless.” But I think no matter what, some elements of the language or narrative will date writing in the future, even if technology is not included.
Q: Whimsy also tries to cook but tends not to be successful. She cooks Borscht for her love interest and thinks that it’s sweet he brings bread, but the bread ends up being the most edible thing! Whimsy perseveres, though. How did you think of her strengths and failures when writing the novella?
A: I hoped to add some levity to the story since Whimsy’s trauma and rejection loom heavy in the book. So her (less devastating) failures often create comic relief, such as the example you mention, as well as her teaching mishaps and foibles.
Q: Whimsy encounters setbacks in various relationships: her roommate who dies in the car crash, her longtime friend who is getting married and has changed, her mother who tries out her partner’s interests. On her longtime friendship, Whimsy reflects, “All of our beliefs that we’d shared, the things I thought were inherent in ourselves and made us special, turned out to be so malleable.” Do you think Whimsy stands firm in herself or changes, too?
A: Whimsy definitely changes over the course of the novella. It is a subtle change, but she starts to have some realizations about herself and how her insecurities keep her from connecting with others and being present in the moment. In the final chapter, her dynamic with Rikesh, her love interest, shifts, and the tense shifts (from past to present), too. I wanted to convey this subtle change both narratively and stylistically.
Q: I noticed that, too. Another place where Whimsy changes is school. The classroom scenes in Whimsy remind me of being in school, and they also feel like a glimpse into what it is like to be a teacher. As a teacher yourself, how did you decide to write fiction involving the profession?
A: For a long time I avoided writing about teachers and teaching in my fiction. But then I was at the library one day (shout out to AADL!), and I opened a book that everyone had been raving about that season. I couldn’t get past the first couple pages because it was another book about a teacher who sleeps with their student. I was just so tired of the trope of teachers who are only interesting because they sleep with their students or sell drugs, or [insert illegal and unsavory activity here]. There are so many novels out there about college professors who are able to have more nuanced and varied conflicts, yet I think K-12 school teachers have been pigeonholed in a lot of popular stories. It gave me the push to try to write a story about a teacher where she breaks those tropes and has a different story.
Q: How did you get into writing in the first place? What keeps you writing while also teaching?
A: I started getting more serious about writing when I participated in the New England Literature Program (NELP) through the University of Michigan during my undergraduate degree and then took fiction writing classes with Lolita Hernandez and Laura Kasischke through the University of Michigan’s Residential College. After college, I started working on my first novel, and after that I couldn’t stop! I was hooked on writing. It’s a really important outlet for me, so while teaching takes up a lot of mental and emotional energy, I’ve found I need to keep writing for my own wellbeing.
Q: What do you teach your students about writing? How do your students inspire you?
A: This is my first year teaching a creative writing class, which has been amazing. I have much more freedom to give students choices than I do with traditional English classes, which tend to be somewhat dictated by standardized tests. Validating students as writers and seeing what they create is really amazing and inspiring. I teach my students to experiment, push themselves, and try to find their voices by trusting their tastes and instincts. Teaching this is a good reminder for myself to do the same.
Q: Congratulations on Whimsy winning the Wild Onion Novella Contest! Tell us about entering and being the finalist in that contest.
A: Thank you! I actually submitted to the Wild Onion Novella Contest through Curbside Splendor Publishing in 2017. I got a call from the contest judge, Tim Kinsella, in 2018 telling me I’d won! I worked with a couple really great editors, Joseph Demes and Joshua Bohnsack, to revise the manuscript. Unfortunately, Curbside went on an indefinite hiatus before they could publish the book. So it wasn’t until last year when I reached out to Josh and Joe, who had started their own small press, Long Day Press, about publishing my book. It was really great to collaborate with them again. So after about five years of writing, then ups and downs through the publication process, that Whimsy was finally released!
Q: You have participated in the Emerging Writers Workshops that take place at the Ann Arbor District Library. What has drawn you to this writing community? What role has it played in your writing?
A: Writing communities are so important to me because writing is otherwise a very solitary endeavor. Emerging Writers Workshops, which were led by Alex Kourvo and Lara Zielin, taught me so much about writing, revising, beta readers, query letters, and finding an agent. I didn’t even know what a query letter was before attending those workshops. Alex and Lara were both so encouraging as I worked on my first two novels. They gave me both the confidence and the knowledge to eventually become published and agented.
Q: Your novella is set in Metro Detroit, and you’re from Michigan. Do your memories of Michigan provide inspiration for writing?
A: Definitely! I have certain places in mind when writing. I imagined Whimsy living in downtown Ferndale (but inhabiting my old apartment in Kerrytown). I imagined a few locations in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti as I wrote different scenes. I have a pretty good imagination for characters and plot, but I’m not great at inventing new environments, so I usually picture ones that are familiar to me as I’m writing.
Q: What’s on your stack to read and recommend?
A: Books I recently read and loved include: The Scapegoat by Sara Davis, Milk Blood Heat by Dantiel W. Moniz, and Girls of a Certain Age by Maria Adelmann
Q: What are you writing next?
A: Right now I’m revising a psychological suspense novel. It’s fairly different in plot from Whimsy, but the characterization and description style may feel familiar. It’s mostly set in Ann Arbor.
Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.