Lancaster Country Day School teacher Meghan Kenny is celebrating both her first child and her first published novel, ‘The Driest Season’
Meghan Kenny, an English teacher at Lancaster Country Day School, enjoyed a pair of momentous firsts in February.
Her debut novel, “The Driest Season,” was published in the second full week of February, and her daughter was born four days later.
“The Driest Season” is about a teenager named Cielle living in Wisconsin farm country during the 1940s who finds her father in their barn after he had hanged himself. The story revolves around the aftermath of the hanging and how it affects Cielle, her older sister and their mother.
The New York Times weighed in on her novel, inspired by a 2005 short story Kenny had written, and wrote, “This resulting quiet but satisfying novel about a long, hard summer expands her original raw, exquisite portrait of a girl in crisis into a broader examination of American adolescent anxiety and grief, contextualized by devastating global conflict.”
Kenny, who last year published a collection of short stories titled “Love Is No Small Thing,” graduated from Ohio’s Kenyon College in 1996 and earned her master’s degree in fiction at Idaho’s Boise State University in 2002.
She started teaching at Country Day about four years ago and previously taught in Baltimore. She also teaches an online creative writing course for adults through Gotham Writers Workshop.
Kenny, who has resumed teaching at Country Day following the birth of her daughter, recently found time in her busy schedule to answer a few questions.
You recently gave birth to a daughter. Which is harder — raising a child or writing a novel? Any similarities between those two experiences?
My daughter, Lucy, is only 11 weeks old, but tending to her has been, by far, the hardest thing I have ever done, and I’ve led a pretty adventurous life. I find writing hard, but emotionally and intellectually energizing. The baby, at the moment, is draining in the most basic of ways; she demands all of me — physically, emotionally and psychologically — 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The similarities between Lucy’s birth and “The Driest Season” are that they were labors of love. Both the baby and the book took four years to bring into the world, and, with what felt like kismet, arrived the same exact week this February. The novel was released on Feb. 13, and Lucy was born on Feb. 17. Lucy is a Lucile, named after my grandmother, to whom my novel is dedicated.
I know it took you a long time to write “The Driest Season,” and it took a long time to get it published. What is it like to have it finally out in the world?
“The Driest Season” took six years to write and four years to sell and publish. I believe in this novel. It’s close to my heart, and I worked hard to make sure it found a home, so it’s exciting and a huge relief to finally have it in the world.
What has been your reaction to the reviews, which have been laudatory?
Surprised and thrilled. You never know how your writing will be received. The starred Kirkus review was the first to roll in, and it was a boost after so much rejection. The New York Times book review is a dream come true, and then came a mention in The New Yorker. It’s been a great few months.
The central action in the book is the father hanging himself in a barn. There’s a hanging in your family history. Could you talk about that?
There was a family rumor that my maternal great-grandfather hanged himself, but we never knew for certain, because my grandmother and her siblings never spoke of their father’s death. I wrote the original story, “The Driest Season,” that later became the first chapter, in response to that rumor. I had wondered, what if this happened, what if my grandmother had found him, and how would that have played out? When I finished the novel and went to visit Boaz, Wisconsin, in 2014, to do my final research, I was scrolling through the microfiche, and I found the announcement of his suicide by hanging on the front page of the local paper in October of 1932. It was a powerful moment, and an eerie feeling to have that confirmed.
Why did you decide to set the story during World War II?
I liked how World War II offered an extra layer of conflict and loss to the storyline. It was a way to bring the outside world into the rural farming community of Boaz, and parallel Cielle’s confusion and grief on a larger scale.
Have you spent much time in the Midwest, where the novel takes place? I ask because you capture it so well.
Thank you. My parents were raised in Wisconsin, but I was raised in Connecticut and New Hampshire. We only visited my grandparents in Wisconsin every few years, and then I went to Kenyon College in Ohio, so that’s the extent of my time in the Midwest, but I’ve always had an affinity for the Midwestern landscape and farmland.
The novel revolves around three strong women — a mother and her two daughters. Was it always designed that way? Also, does that at all reflect your own family?
Yes, Cielle, her mother and sister Helen were always at the center of the story and novel, as strong, resilient women who endure and overcome loss. And yes, the women in my family are strong-willed, independent, brave and stoic.
Would you describe the book as a coming-of-age novel?
I didn’t set out to write a coming-of- age novel, but “The Driest Season” certainly fits the mold.
How did you know that the short story could be turned into a novel?
In 2006-07, every literary agent to whom I’d sent my collection of stories said they wanted to see a novel, and I hadn’t written one, so I started looking through my short stories to see if there was one that I wanted to expand upon. “The Driest Season” was the one story where I wanted to know more. I wanted to know how Cielle’s world would have changed after her father’s suicide and how she would have navigated that loss.
Are you working on a second novel or a short story?
I’m always working on short stories, and I’ve been circling a longer piece for a few years now that may be a novel or may be nonfiction. We’ll see.