OBJECTS OF DERISION
AN INTERVIEW WITH MEGAN PERRA
If you were a character in a piece you were writing, how would you introduce yourself?
“She had a passion for foxes and a funny way of wearing socks.”
Your work as a visual storyteller with your company Feral 5 Creative (F5CC) leads you to assignments around the world; do you think that your visual work has influenced the way that your writing voice has evolved? Or even in the way that you approach written work?
It’s kind of weird, actually, because I took myself seriously as a writer long before I thought of myself as an artist. So I was writing a ton when I was younger, and from the ages of 10-19 that was the bulk of what I did with my free time. I’ve written 3 book-length works of fiction over the past few years that will probably never get read (only one of them deserves the light of day), and then I rediscovered Annie Dillard (Editor: Oh! I love Dillard) in my second year of university and began writing essays. So writing was always this big part of my life and my artwork was usually more of a party trick until recently.
But having a visual way of thinking does help with descriptive language, and there are certain ways the light plays off a landscape that you wouldn’t notice unless you were a painter. Understanding other mediums are helpful too: as a filmmaker you come to understand the power of different perspectives, and as a radio producer you develop a talent for recognizing distinct dialogue.
For me, the biggest benefit of being a visual artist is that it brings me to more places. Saying I’m an artist is like this secret backdoor into the rest of the world. I’ve met people and gone places that wouldn’t have been possible if I said I wanted to write a story about them or I wanted to film. So art has sort of been my ticket for establishing relationships and stories that I return to later in other mediums. In that way, it does really change my approach for written work, particularly for journalistic pieces and creative nonfiction, because I’m working in a topic that I’ve already approached in a different way. I like to think it helps the depth of my understanding of a subject because I just spend more time with it.
Can you tell me a bit about your recent residency at Westfjords Artist Residency in Iceland?
Yeah I actually applied for the residency way back in December 2016. I had just gotten back from spending 10 days in Iceland on a trip which basically ended up being preliminary research for what I’m working on now, so I sent them the project proposal and set things up so I would stay there for the months of March and April in 2018. I went there to work on my documentary project, Fox Grim (see icelandfox.com), and do a lot of related side projects. I wanted to film enough to put together a demo and then go back to finish shooting in the summer. The doc focuses on the relationship that the hunters have with the foxes they shoot, how they are often paradoxical and sometimes touching, and what we may learn about the changing environment using the carcasses they donate to research. Part of my project actually had a research component since I was partnering with a friend from the University of Calgary, Madison Bradley. She could evaluate whether or not pollutants from the ocean appeared to impact fox development, specifically in the development of their mandibles. The foxes eat many of the same foods as the local people, so if we’re seeing negative impacts in them then it’s likely that the people may be at risk as well. I organized some public presentations in the Westfjords where Madison came to explain her research to the communities that would be most affected by oceanic pollutants.
I was in the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve on two separate trips in February and April in order to get footage of the foxes in their natural environment where they’re protected and unafraid of people. I met up with some people who have/had previously had foxes as pets, and went on a few hunting trips near Isafjordur and Bolungarvik. I went into the whole thing with a somewhat nebulous idea of a narrative, and that’s been completely thrown out the window as other things have come into play. I have a very clear sense of the story’s direction now, but nothing is for sure until I complete the second production period in the summer of 2019, which is slotted to be a summer filled with fox cubs.
As far as side projects go, I produced an episode for the podcast Here Be Monsters about an infamous 3-legged fox, and I ended up painting the first public mural on the side of a large building in small town of Thingeyri, where the residency was located. The whole residency was basically just a crash course in trying to do everything all at once. I just got back home to Oregon a few weeks ago and now I’m putting together an art exhibition at Art Center East in La Grande, and trying to write all the stories I can before I start going through the documentary footage.
What does your writing process look like? Do you have a set schedule you like to keep to, or do you write when you can?
Just manic. If I’m writing something I want to get it done as fast as possible before the essence of the idea grows stale. I write for as long as I can, then I eat or go for a run, then back to writing and so on. With essays I really have to work hard to wring the meaning out of the experiences that make up a story. It usually works out that I have all the pieces, but they’re just in the wrong order, or I’ve put the wrong one as the main focus, and it’s this process of moving them into their most effective arrangement. I almost always write things in the wrong place, and I usually don’t have an exact ending in mind, just a feeling that I want the reader to have when they finish. This can mean I reach a lot of creative roadblocks, and I have to spend quite a bit of time trying to think my way out of dead ends. It can be really painful sometimes, to be in that place, but that’s when the most important writing happens, and I only get there if I keep writing.
What or who do you turn to when you’re in need of inspiration, in need of refilling your creative well?
It never hurts to pull out some of the greats and read a page or two of Barry Lopez or Annie Dillard, or even some good contemporary poetry just to get a sense of rhythm back.
I’m a long distance runner so I find it helpful to just work until the coffee wears off and then go for a running break. I won’t get on my soapbox about how important it is to keep your mind and your body in shape but it is and you should do it and that’s all. Knowing that my body is capable of running for X amount of miles helps me feel that my mind is capable of doing X hours of work. In general, it’s just a good strategy of dealing with crippling self-doubt and anxiety.
Other times, I’ll just take the family dogs for a walk and do some low-key birding while they get all of their sniffs and pees. But my latest strategy for breaking up the uninspired moments has been to dance when no one is home, preferably with the dogs and preferably in the kitchen while waiting for vegetables to roast. Usually I’m stuck in a spot because I’m feeling self-conscious about my writing, and nothing gets rid of inhibitions like a good dance.
And finally, can you tell me who & what you’re reading of late?
I have a big fat literary crush on Caitlin Scarano and her most recent book of poetry, “Do Not Bring Him Water”. I read some of her poems in Fourth River’s Tributaries section and fell in love with the dark, visceral nature of her writing. Recently I’ve been reading and rereading “The Doe’s Song” by Leath Tonino, an essay published in Orion Magazine a few months ago. The piece really hits you right in the gut when you read it. Equally good has been Norman MaClean’s “Young Men and Fire”, which is a haunting nonfiction story about a wildlife that killed 13 smokejumpers (those are wildland firefighters who arrive on a fire by parachute). It’s an old book, but I love the fluidity of his writing and there’s an emotional weight that comes with the decades he spent researching it. You can feel him grappling with ghosts and mortality in a very real way, and there is something to be said for the fact that he died writing it. If you’ve ever seen the wilds of your country burn, it is worth reading.