“Everyone Remain Calm,” “Once I Was Cool,” and the Experience of Change – Chicago Review of Books


Reading Megan Stielstra is like having a cool older sister telling you it’ll be okay. She doesn’t sugarcoat the truth; she acknowledges things are hard. That honesty makes you trust her. Plus, she’s smart and makes you laugh—it’s no wonder we walk away from reading her books feeling better.

My first introduction to Stielstra’s work was her third book, The Wrong Way to Save Your Life. The essay collection was our Nonfiction Book of the Year at the 2017 CHIRBy Awards. Her first book, a collection of short stories called Everyone Remain Calm, was originally published in 2011 by Joyland/ ECW, an all-digital print. Her second book, an essay collection called Once I Was Cool, was published by Curbside Splendor in 2014. 

I did a happy dance when I saw Northwestern University Press was reissuing these two books. Since Everyone Remain Calm has only been available digitally, the reissue gives everyone (including Stielstra) the chance to finally hold the physical book.

I recently had the pleasure of speaking to Megan Stielstra about her first two books, editing decade old work, and figuring out life on the page. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Rachel León:

I’d like to start with hearing what it’s like to have a book reissued—two, in fact! Can you tell me how it came about that Northwestern University Press is reissuing both of these books?

Megan Stielstra:

The executive editor, Parneshia Jones, called me after the press that put out Once I Was Cool went under and asked, “Where are the rights?” I said, “They’re in my pocket,” and she said, “Could we have a conversation about that?” This woman is a force in literature in this city and this country. If she had called me up and said, “Will you cut off your arm and let me have it?” I’d have said, “Hang on, I’ll get the axe.” We got together and had some bourbon and she asked about my first book, Everyone Remain Calm. “That one’s in my pocket, too,” I said, and she said, “I want both.” I really admire what she and the team at NU Press—and university presses as a whole—are doing not only to bring us new voices but to honor and archive literature that for whatever reason is no longer alive in the world. We can have all sorts of conversations about publishing, about capitalism, about marketing, about what makes a book financially successful, but we have to lift up editors like Parneshia who are fighting to keep books in print that shape our local communities and contribute to our national cultural dialogue. I’m really excited to be a part of that dialogue.

Rachel León:

As someone whose first introduction to your work was The Wrong Way to Save Your Life, I was very excited hearing about these books getting a second life and to get a chance to read them.

Megan Stielstra:

I’m so interested to hear what people who read the most recent work first think. It’s fascinating with any writer; what did they start out making and how did it change over time? How do we track backward and see their evolution as both a writer and a person, in craft and in subject?

Rachel León:

It feels a little meta to read these books back-to-back because Once I Was Cool directly talks about some of the stories in Everyone Remain Calm. Was it a little meta editing them?

Megan Stielstra:

Yes, for sure. When both those books first hit the world in the early 2000’s, I was still directly involved in living them—my son was still so young, I wasn’t sleeping much, working a bunch of freelance jobs. I didn’t have the distance or, frankly, the time, to really interrogate what I was trying to accomplish long-term with the work. I was thinking hard about adulthood and how different it was from what I had expected, or maybe the story I’d been sold of what adulthood would feel like, and much of that thinking was happening through the writing. Many of the essays in Once I Was Cool were about trying to write and live through the stories in Everyone Remain Calm, so to reread and revise and edit both of them back-to-back over the past year of my life—jesus, this year. How did we make it through? Are you okay? Are we all okay? What does that question even mean? My son and I lived in four states over the past eighteen months. Everything I own fits in the back of my car. Everything I do is inside of a laptop.

Rachel León:

Yeah, you mention in the acknowledgements about editing during the pandemic. What was the editing process like?

Megan Stielstra:

We kept them true to how I wrote them at the time. There were things I wanted to change and I had some really fantastic conversations with my editor, Anne Gendler—she’s brilliant. I really like it when my editors are smarter than I am—and Parneshia about staying true to the girl I was then. Think for a moment about your ten-years-ago work; would you want to change it? I’m guessing yes. You’re a better writer now than you were then. You’re a different human, your understanding of your experiences is different. The world is entirely different, too. I’m a more informed and engaged individual now and I often felt pulled to update the stories through that lens.

I’m talking around something right now so let’s just say it plain: I’m going through divorce and a lot of the essays in Once I Was Cool were written at a time when I was really in love and… open to the idea of love. I was really hopeful then. I don’t know if I’m hopeful anymore. But that’s the truth of what I’m writing through now, not what I was writing through then.That’s where Anne and Parneshia came in and reminded me of the heart of these books; how my years-ago self and her wide-open hope still have value. Maybe she can touch people. Maybe she can touch present-day me.

Rachel León:

Everyone Remain Calm is dedicated “for those of us who are never calm,” and Once I Was Cool “for the girls who don’t think they’re cool and the women who know they always were.” I love how there’s this feeling of camaraderie in both dedications, like we’re all in this together. Can you speak a little about why you chose them?

Megan Stielstra:

I was in my mid-and late twenties when I was writing these books and when I think about the amount of time I wasted worrying whether or not I was cool—I want that time back! I’m a grown-ass woman now and I know I was cool. You were, too. All of us were. That’s what I’d like to yell back across time to myself then, and to offer my readers, especially young women: you are amazing. Look at you! Look how you’ve survived, the mountains you move. The fact you got up every day and kept moving over this past year-and-a-half especially but all the years before is a goddamn miracle. We all need to take a big collective break and celebrate that we did it, we’re still here. And then, in the same breath, we need to cry our eyes out for what was lost, and fight like hell to not lose more. I hope the work that younger-me made is a reminder that there can be joy and hope in the fight.

Rachel León:

I think part of the reason I also feel like these books are in conversation is they’re similar tonally. Your work often tackles heavy things, but you do it with such humanity; it makes the reader feel less alone, which I think is part of your Megan Stielstra magic. Anyway, I’m wondering if you also feel like these books are in conversation?

Megan Stielstra:

Yes, absolutely. I think the similarities come from the fact that so much of my work on the page is tangled with live storytelling. I’m not writing for some faraway unseen audience; I’m writing for people sitting right in front of me. I can see their faces. I can see them laugh. I can feel the silence lying thick over the room. Honestly, it makes me brave. I don’t know if I would have published half the stuff I publish if I wasn’t able to tell immediately from a live Chicago audience that what I was doing has value and I should keep going. I know so many of us who work in memoir have these fears: ‘what if my mom reads this?’ or ‘what if my kid ten years in the future reads this?’ but in a live room, none of that exists. 

As my work has become more public, it’s less about me sharing a story, and more about how my sharing can make someone else brave enough to share theirs. That’s what I love about this work; one story kicks down the door for another.

Rachel León:

In the opening essay of Once I Was Cool, you talk about how the word essay comes from “Essais,” which means “attempts,” and how you like thinking of an essay in that way—an attempt to figure out an idea. I’m curious about your process for writing essays. How much do you need to return to them to figure out what it is you think?

Megan Stielstra:

I don’t think I can answer this question about essays plural. The process changes from one piece to the next, especially over the last year-and-a-half when I was on the road. There are pieces I’ve written in one sitting and others that have taken two or three years. Sometimes I start a thing, and I have no idea what to do with it, and then my life catches up with the work and it’s like, Oh! That’s what I was trying to figure out on the page. I just needed to live a little longer. 

Our lives run parallel with our pages. 

Rachel León:

I couldn’t pick a favorite piece in either book, but I do want to talk about a story in Everyone Remain Calm called “Times Are Tough All Over” because it feels a little hybrid, like it blurs the line between fiction and essay.

Megan Stielstra:

My friend Jeff and I were reading Susan Minot’s collection Lust and we were really into the structure of the title story, which is a sort of instance collection of times the character experienced lust. We gave each other the assignment to copy that structure (I do this all the time. Have you read On Beauty, by Zadie Smith? In the acknowledgements, she talks about how it’s an homage to E.M. Forster and if you look close, it’s pretty much a straight-up structural parody of Howards End). Jeff wrote a story called “Itch,” about lust through the eyes of a gay man—it was later anthologized in Windy City Queer, a fantastic anthology about queerness in Chicago, I can’t recommend it enough—and I wrote “Times Are Tough All Over” about economic hardship. I made a bunch of lists of how I was currently experiencing it and built a single-page website where anyone could anonymously contribute what they were going through. A couple hundred people wrote in and it was interesting and illuminating and infuriating to imagine hardship through all these different lenses, from “I can’t feed my kid,” to “I had to sell my third beach house.” There are parts of “Times Are Tough” that I lived through in real time—it was 2008 and we lost our condo in the recession—and parts that I fictionalized to bring lots of experiences to the table.

Rachel León:

How do you decide what to write as fiction and what as nonfiction?

Megan Stielstra:

At the time I made Everyone Remain Calm, I didn’t care about the distinction. I liked building and blending form and genre, experience and imagination, fantasy and reality—I still do. But then I got deeper involved with 2nd Story, a personal narrative storytelling series that I’ve worked with in Chicago for, jesus, twenty years? So much of who I am has been influenced by storytellers I’ve worked with through this organization. These people put their lives in my hands; what they’ve lived and seen and survived. That’s a profound act of trust and I feel the responsibility of nonfiction in a more profound way because of it. 

When I’m writing now, I’m careful to be transparent about what I have actually experienced. I tell the audience when I’m exaggerating, when I don’t remember exactly, when I’m filling in gaps in my memory with research or music or scene-building. I consider the promises of words like “story,” “essay,” “article,” and “truth,” and how our understanding of these things change how we approach a text.

Rachel León:

Will there be any in-person or virtual events for these books? 

Megan Stielstra:

Yes! On August 17th I’m doing a book release event through Women & Children First with L.A. theater director Khanisha Foster. She’s one of the people who started 2nd Story and was there with me in Chicago while I wrote and lived these books. I’m excited to talk with her about craft on the page and in performance, and how writing is both deeply collaborative and deeply lonely.

I’m also doing a performance piece with a Chicago-based ensemble called Eighth Blackbird. They’re scoring one of my stories and one of my essays that are tied thematically and we’ll perform them together live. I love their work so much and am thrilled to work in collaboration with musicians again. So many of the pieces in Once I Was Cool were made for live performance and I’m happy to get back the heart of what I do. I’m happy to get back into the world. Hi, world. I’ve missed you.

FICTION
Everyone Remain Calm

By Megan Stielstra
Northwestern University Press
Published August 15, 2021

NON-FICTION
Once I Was Cool
By Megan Stielstra
Northwestern University Press
Published August 15, 2021



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