Self-Worth, Life as a Doll, and Dwelling on Agency

An Interview with Megan Baffoe

by Fiction Editor Madeline DeLuca

“You must have conviction in your own humanity if you are to survive.”

 What gave you the idea to write this story?
I was dwelling a lot on the concept of agency, and who gets to claim it. When someone seeks to control others, they often portray them as not fully autonomous or capable. Sometimes, the cruelty in the world – what people feel comfortable doing and saying to other people – can feel very overwhelming. I was quite angry and quite sad when I started writing this story, and this was my attempt at portraying why.

Being a doll—looking a certain way, acting proper, etc.—became ingrained in Melissa’s mind from birth. Can this be compared to girlhood?
I think the central conflict of (sub)humanity is applicable to a variety of experiences. Unfortunately, many share Melissa’s struggle to articulate her personhood to people who don’t quite believe her truly capable of making a reasoned argument in the first place.

However, I think her life as a doll – obedient, passive, confined to domestic duties, never seen eating, and held to constrictive standards regarding her mannerisms and appearance – is particularly evocative of girlhood. The magician lies that his wife gave birth to a son; if that were true, I think the boy would have grown up very differently to Melissa.

The magician is not particularly good at magic, although he likes to pretend he is—and the magic he uses to constrain Melissa is cruel and rooted in insecurity. What inspired you to write a villain this way?
An inflated sense of self-worth is a very dangerous thing, one that often comes hand in hand with insecurity. I think it’s difficult to truly deceive yourself regarding your capabilities, however much people like the magician might try.

As for his mediocrity, I think the villains we encounter are very rarely truly exceptional people. And if their motivations are selfish – pure ambition, greed, a desire for attention or prestige – that can drive the cruelty towards others. Rather than working and improving, they reinforce an undeserved place at the top of the hierarchy by keeping others down.

Music is a key part in helping Melissa escape her imprisonment and begin her new life. Why did music play this role?
Personhood is at the crux of this story, and I couldn’t think of a better way to demonstrate it than music. We often define our humanity through our ability to create art. It’s social, something which is denied to her as a doll. And it evokes emotion; Melissa’s tears, despite the mythology surrounding her, are real. This is what Edmund recognises.

In addition – and this relates to the preceding question – a true master of music possesses genuine talent, which I think would rankle the musician. It’s a form of entertainment that might distract from his enchantments.

Edmund and Melissa “were each other’s hidden route, trap door.” If they had never met, do you see either of them finding the courage to escape their lives?
Edmund would definitely have ended up ducking people’s expectations, although it may have been a more gradual process if not for meeting Melissa. In escaping with her, he pushes himself into a situation where he has to change his name and abandon his former  life completely – I think it’s likely that without it, he would have indulged in much smaller rebellions that would see him dishonoured (very possibly disinherited). Maybe later in life he’d have settled down somewhat.

Melissa longs for freedom, but I don’t believe that she would dare to venture outside alone while the magician was still alive. She is painfully aware that – by his design, of course – she knows very little of the outside world. Edmund offers her the guidance – and, crucially, the belief in her true nature – that gives her the courage to escape while she still has reason to fear her father’s wrath.

What would you want readers to take away from this tale?

Firstly, that you must have conviction in your own humanity if you are to survive.

And then, that survival isn’t our primary goal – that human connection and feeling (and art, which invokes it), can lead us to a life that holds more joy, freedom, peace and opportunity.

If you were a magician, what spell would you most want to cast?
I’d like to think that I’d be far more charitable than the magician in my story. It would be wonderful to treat illness, but I suspect that magical medicine requires just as much rigour as its scientific counterpart.

What are your writing rituals?
The closest thing I have to a daily ritual is composed of three ingredients: a comfy chair, a cup of tea, and my laptop. If I feel as if I’m not focusing, a nectarine often helps. (As do Kinder bars – I suspect that it’s just the sugar.)

Deadlines are useful for providing me with a sense of structure. I take note of potential ideas as I have them, but they generally refuse to be made into anything until they’re ready. If I’m really struggling to make progress, I set a timer for ten minutes and just write – no editing as I go – and take it from there. Very often, I find a flow and can continue; if not, I press on with the timers. You eventually end up with something that – however poorly phrased, disjointed, or misshapen – can be polished and refined into a story.

Whose writing do you admire?
Angela Carter, Shirley Jackson and Jonathan Swift are the three names that immediately come to mind. But there are countless others, including Toni Morrison, Edmund Spenser, and Christina Rossetti.

What are you currently working on?

I’m trying my hand at poetry. Not much good has come of it yet, but I have developed one complete poem, about a misguided teenage lout and some children who turned into angels.

Prose-wise, I am making very slow progress on a short story based on a Nigerian fairytale about a woman who has two skins. It’s a gothic piece set on some atmospheric misty moors.

By Madeline DeLuca

Madeline DeLuca is fiction co-editor of Mud Season Review. She has her MFA in Fiction Writing and Publishing from Fairfield University. She currently lives in Pennsylvania and works at a bookstore. She loves language, words, and stories—especially strange ones. She has written a novel, poetry, short stories, and essays, and her words can be found in The Portland Review, Causeway Lit, Kalliope, and Hardfreight. She is honored to read your words today.