Interview: Christine Sneed

February 4th, 2016

CSPHS1Midwestern Gothic staffer Rachel Hurwitz talked with author Christine Sneed about art and curiosity, ambition, bad love poetry, and more.

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Rachel Hurwitz: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Christine Sneed: I’ve lived here for much of my life; both of my parents are from the Midwest too (Illinois and Wisconsin).  I went to college in Washington, D.C. and studied in France for a year too, but other than those four undergraduate years, I’ve resided in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Indiana.

RH: How do you think that living in and around Chicago has shaped the way you see the world and consequently, your voice as an author?

CS: I suspect that most writers are very much affected by the places where they currently live or once lived – your values, personal and professional, are often shaped by the ethos of your family, closest friends, and by the socioeconomic realities of your upbringing.  But how exactly your home turf and your family and friends, past or present, influence your writing is hard to gauge.

Tangentially, some of my fiction is set in the Chicago area, some isn’t.  Sometimes setting is very important to the characters and the events in the story, as in my first novel, Little Known Facts, and my second, Paris, He Said, but I’ve written short stories where I’m not terribly specific about where they’re taking place.

RH: Your most recent publication, Paris, He Said is a novel, but you have also published and won awards for your poetry and short fiction. What is your creative process for working with so many different styles of writing– do you often work on multiple styles in tandem or focus on one at a time?

CS: For the most part, I write prose these days, almost no poetry.  Sometimes while writing a novel I’ll also work on an essay; sometimes I’ll write a short story while also drafting a novel.  Having more than one project underway helps me not get too bogged down with a novel manuscript.  I used to write poetry too, especially in the years immediately following my MFA degree (which I finished in 1998), but my poetry-writing tapered off pretty quickly in the early 2000s when my energies went more toward fiction-writing.

RH: Paris, He Said, is centered on a painter and a gallery owner, Jayne and Laurent; your first novel, Little Known Facts revolves around the effect of a talented actor, Renn, on the lives of his family members; your collection of short stories Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry also deals with the tribulations of being and working with artists, movie stars and novelists. What draws you to write about such artistic characters and the huge effect they often have on those around them?

CS: One reason why I write about writers and artists is because I have a number of friends who write and make art.  I worked at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for the five years directly following my graduation from Indiana University’s MFA program, and during that time, I met a number of gifted visual artists, some of whom are friends (and one of them, Susan Kraut, is a character in Paris, He Said – cast as herself and the mentor of the main character, Jayne Marks).

Another reason: even though I resist the bromide that you should write what you know, I do think it’s easier for me to create and work with characters who are artists and writers.  I’m also curious about what keeps us making our work, even if we don’t always (or ever) receive the kind of notoriety and/or financial stability we might be hoping for.  Working artists also usually have interesting minds, and I like trying to portray this on the page, while also attempting to entertain and engage readers.

51NW3GXHMSL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_RH: In a New York Times review of Paris, He Said, Robin Black states the story “elevates from merely an entertaining novel about a near-universal fantasy to a serious exploration of how one manages the hunger for recognition and success…” Do you think this description is fitting of your work? Why or why not?

CS: I very much like Robin Black’s description of Paris, He Said.  When I first read  the review, I was so relieved, and I thought, “She really gets it.”  It’s a novel about artistic ambition, not a romance (even if there is a love story involved), despite how it might look or sound in descriptions that appear elsewhere.  As I wrote Paris, He Said, it became clear to me that I was most interested in what motivates a person to make art and how she/he sticks with it (or doesn’t) over time.  I also wanted to show that talent is important, but it’s not everything – you need good luck sometimes (which Jayne has, in the form of Laurent Moller’s patronage); you also need to be stubborn in the face of rejection, dismissal, unkindness, and other adverse responses from the rest of the world because they are plentiful.

RH: As a teacher of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne, you obviously interact with young writers frequently. Is there anything you wish you would have known at their age about becoming an author professionally?

CS: I knew from the beginning that this was going to be a career path that rewarded patience and persistence. I guess one thing that I maybe didn’t understand right away is that you really should try to waste as little time as possible comparing yourself to others, especially the people who seem to be doing better than you.  It’s fruitless to do this, despite its inevitability – unless you’re going to use someone else’s success to motivate you to be better, to be more productive, to be less afraid and jealous.  I also remind my students sometimes that the rising tide lifts all boats – a friend’s success can help you achieve success too. This friend might introduce you to an agent or editor, for example, or publish one of your stories or poems in a literary journal that she/he is editing.

RH: In the creative writing classes that you teach, do you find yourself using a particular author, work of some kind, or writing exercise consistently? If so, what is it and what do you find compelling and/or resonant about it as a tool or example for young writers?

CS: I have found myself frequently quoting George Saunders – I saw him in Chicago about three years ago when Tenth of December was just out, and he said that he strives for “a line by line energy in [his] work.”  I think of this so often and tell my students to remind themselves of this too.

RH: How did you start writing? Was there a certain event or form of inspiration that really set you on your path as an author?

CS: I started writing with some purpose when I was still a girl, maybe about twelve years old – bad love poetry for boys who barely knew that I existed.  It was therapy, pure and simple, but I kept writing, and eventually it became my life, which I realized during my last year in college.  No – it was junior year, the year I studied in Strasbourg, France.  That’s when I gave myself permission to try to become a writer.  No one else was going to give it to me, I realized.

RH: What’s next for you?

CS: I’m working on a couple of different things right now – both are novels.  We’ll see how it goes.  My fourth book will be published in September 2016, a story collection titled The Virginity of Famous Men.

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Christine Sneed‘s first book, the story collection Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry, won AWP’s 2009 Grace Paley Prize, Ploughshares‘ Zacharis Prize, and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, first-fiction category.  She has also published the novels Little Known Facts and Paris, He Said.  Her second story collection, The Virginity of Famous Men, will be published in September 2016.  She lives in Evanston, Illinois, and teaches for the graduate writing programs at Northwestern University and the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign.

Contributor News

Nancy Austin, whose work appeared in Issue 15 (Fall 2015), recently saw the publication of her new book, Remnants of Warmth, which you can find out about here.

Ron Austin, whose work appeared in Issue 14 (Summer 2014), recently had his short story “Cut Open the Vein and All You’ll Find Is Rust” published in the first issue of Cog, which you can read here.

Richard Thomas, whose work was featured in Issue 9 (Spring 2013), has recently launched a Kickstarter in order to help fund his new magazine, Gamut, which will focus on publishing genre-bending, hybrid fiction that utilizes the best of genre and literary voices. The Kickstarter closes on March 1st, 2016, and you can read about Gamut and donate here.

Congrats, all!

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Contributor Spotlight: K. Brattin

K. Brattin’s story “Milk and Cookies From the Other Side” appears in Midwestern Gothic Issue 20, out now; the story was awarded First Prize for the 2015 Lake Prize.

What’s your connection to the Midwest, and how has the region influenced your writing?

My parents are both from Michigan, and most of my extended family lives there. Though I grew up in the Northeast, my mom, who has a great deal of regional pride, always emphasized to me how different things were in the Midwest. Sometimes I felt like my people were from some exotic land! Maybe this is why the characters in my stories so often seem displaced, in one way or another. Now I’m finishing my MFA in Illinois, and I see that it really is distinct from other parts of the country.

What do you think is the most compelling aspect of the Midwest?

Yesterday, I stood in the rain to watch a parade. The marching band from a high school one hour west approached in their ill-fitting, decades-old uniforms, looking bedraggled, but as the woodwinds blended with the brass and the drums kicked in, the band members joined in a surprisingly well-coordinated dance, advancing in time, swaying with their instruments, and a woman in front of me who’d been stooping with her kids to pick up candy yelled out to them, “Yeah, you get it! Y’all are gettin‘ it!” Without a doubt, there are many cool people in this region, but I like the enthusiasm and respect for the corny that thrives here unchecked.

How do your experiences or memories of specific places—such as where you grew up, or a place you’ve visited that you can’t get out of your head—play a role in your writing?

There’s an appealing sense of lonesomeness around the Great Lakes. You can walk for miles alone across desolate sand dunes or along the shore; deer flit across the two-tracks, momentarily illuminated by your headlights, and kids party around isolated bonfires in the dark woods. It’s like the end of the world up there. I’d like to write about that.

Discuss your writing process—inspirations, ideal environments, how you deal with writer’s block.

Right now, I enjoy writing in a room with my friends, who are also writing. I put on my headphones and we set a timer and I have to be typing furiously until it goes off, of course, or else I’ll embarrass myself. Then, after we talk for a bit or get another cup of coffee, we reset the timer. I’m lucky to have this community. Of course, I also spend a lot of time alone at my kitchen table in my pajamas with the shades pulled down.

How can you tell when a piece of writing is finished?

I put it away for a few months and then, when I go back to it, I have a better idea about whether it needs major revisions or minor ones. That’s the theory, anyway.

Who is your favorite author (fiction writer or poet), and what draws you to their work?

Can I say two? My favorite Midwestern writers are Louise Erdrich and Tom Drury, both of whom create imaginary interconnected constellations of ordinary people. Erdrich is wise about the world, and wisely tolerant, I think, of its mysteries and ambiguities. The precision of her prose is beautiful. Drury, who is less well-known, draws me in with his humor. He has a way of exposing his characters’ secret thoughts and most crucial screw-ups without ever stripping them of their dignity.

What’s next for you?

I’m finishing up my MFA at Southern Illinois Carbondale this spring. I don’t know what’s next for me vocationally, but I hope to finish my novel-in-progress — which is about immigrants from a destroyed alternate universe — and write more short stories!

Where can we find more information about you?

Follow @da_brattin on twitter or check me out at kbrattin.com.

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Submissions Are Open for Issue 22!

We’re happy to announce that submissions are open for Midwestern Gothic Issue 22, Summer 2016!

From now until February 29, 2016, send us your fiction and poetry inspired by the Midwest!

Never submitted before? Please read through our Submissions Guidelines—it only takes a few minutes and they’ll fill you in on what Midwestern Gothic is all about. Or you could check out one of our previous issues to get a sense of our aesthetic.

Please make sure you submit through Midwestern Gothic‘s Submittable page. (All the relevant details are there, too.)

We can’t wait to read your work!

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Interview: Judith Claire Mitchell

Judy_4Midwestern Gothic staffer Rachel Hurwitz talked with author Judith Claire Mitchell about origin stories, finding inspiration in history, balancing wit and darkness, and more.

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Rachel Hurwitz: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Judith Claire Mitchell: I moved to Iowa City in 1996 to attend grad school. I was what they call a non-traditional student, which is a polite way of saying I was middle-aged. My post-MFA plans were to return to my house in Rhode Island, go back to work at the law firm where I’d paralegal’d for 20 years, and write in my free time.

But before leaving Iowa, I sent out some oh-let’s-just-see-what-happens applications for post-MFA fellowships and, to my surprise, I received the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing’s James C. McCreight Fiction Fellowship. This required me to hop over to another Midwestern state for one more year. After that year, the the English Department at UW-Madison kept me on for one more year, and then for another, and eventually I discovered I had found my way onto the tenure track. So I now appear to be a professor in UW-Madison’s English Department teaching creative writing.

RH: You grew up in New York, went to school and began your career there, but eventually transferred out to Wisconsin. How has this transition affected your life and your work?

JCM: Because the move was connected with my receiving, first, an amazing fellowship, and ultimately, a career so fulfilling I’d never even dared fantasize about it, I’d say the transition has affected my life in an incredibly positive way! I love Madison. I like the relatively small scale of the city and the intellectual life you find in university towns. I also like to walk my terrier in the local dog parks where the prairies have been restored and the wildflowers are proliferating. It’s very beautiful here.

And, in turn, working with the UW-Madison creative writers—both the faculty and the students—has been inspiring, rewarding, and encouraging in terms of my work.

At the same time, I can’t say that the Midwest has crept into my fiction, at least not yet. My imagination still seems rooted in the east, New York especially.

RH: You didn’t start your career as a writer, but as a paralegal. Can you tell us a little more about the path that led you back to writing?

JCM: I’d been a creative writing major as an undergrad but never thought I was good enough to pursue writing seriously, so when I graduated from college, I basically stopped writing, and a friend at a law firm got me a job there as a paralegal. I didn’t mean to remain a paralegal as long as I did, but I wound up working with a nice group of people in Providence and the next thing I knew, 20 years had zipped by. Sometimes, if you work with good people, the actual tasks you perform become less important than the collegiality and common purpose of the team; that was the case for me.

But then a friend of mine died very suddenly, and I began to understand how very short life could be. I decided I needed to return to doing what I’d once loved, even if just as a hobbyist. That led to me evening and summer writing classes here and there, where my teachers kept urging me to take my work seriously and consider an MFA program. I was leery; it seemed irresponsible to leave a secure job at the age of 44 to go get a graduate degree in the much sought after field of literary short fiction. But I’d recently married a man who was (and still is) an artist, and he encouraged me to take a chance and apply to programs. Somewhat reluctantly, I did apply, though to very few programs. My plan was to take the low residency route, which would allow me to continue to work at the law firm. But I also sent off one of those oh-let’s-just-see-what-happens applications to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and damn if I didn’t get in. I said to Don, “Now what do we do?” and he said, “We’ll list the pros and cons and discuss them carefully and then you’ll quit your job and we’re moving to Iowa.” We did exactly that.

RH: It seems that your teachers weren’t very supportive of your writing growing up. Now as a teacher yourself, how would you say those perspectives have affected you and the way you interact with your students?

JCM: I have to say that most of my teachers were hugely supportive of my fledgling, student efforts, but, yes, there was that one college professor who told me that my work was superficial and glib, and just in case I hadn’t gotten it, added, “When people tell you your work is good, I want you to remember me telling you it isn’t.” I had the self-esteem of a dead houseplant back then, and those remarks just flattened me.

As you can imagine, I’m not a fan of the “knock ’em down and see if they get up” school of pedagogy. My feeling is that we all get knocked down plenty in this life, and a teacher or mentor just might want to try to create a haven instead, a space where students aren’t coddled or lied to, but where they can feel safe enough to expose their work, good or bad, without fear they’ll be humiliated. I think my students would tell you that I don’t shy away from pointing out every single infelicity on their pages, but that I do so in a way that makes them eager to continue onto revision and to their next story, rather than mortified that they ever put pen to paper. That’s my goal, in any case.

RH: Similarly, what is the greatest thing you’ve learned about writing through teaching?

JCM: My grad students turn me on to new writers and blow me away with their work, but I’m truly inspired by my undergrads, who are not always the best writers in the world (at least not yet) but who are so brave about exposing their imperfect work to their classmates and me. I often begin undergrad workshops by writing this quote by Thomas Mann on the board, “A writer is someone for whom writing is more _________ than it is for other people.” I ask the students to guess the missing word, which is “difficult.” I deeply believe this. Writing is supremely difficult. But my undergrads often suggest that the missing word is “fun.” That’s an important lesson, too. That’s how most of us began. Not for publishing contracts. Not for prizes. Not for tenure or recognition or movie deals or to be the best or even to change lives the way literature can. No, we originally did this incredibly difficult thing—often with full knowledge of how difficult it is—for fun. My undergrads remind me of that.

RH: History and how the past influences the present plays a large role in A Reunion of Ghosts and The Last Day of the War. Why is the history of Vee, Delph and Lady’s family and so crucial to the novel and why are they so obsessed with it?

JCM: I’m interested in the way Americans relate to their origin stories. Americans are so attached to their pasts, and we use those pasts in such strange ways—sometimes to celebrate our families and ourselves, but too often as a means of establishing hierarchies or marginalizing one another. Both of my novels examine the ways Americans define themselves in terms of their origin stories. In The Last Day of the War, Armenian-Americans who could, if they’d wished, ignore the old country, instead become enmeshed in the aftermath of the Armenian genocide. In A Reunion of Ghosts, the three main characters allow their origin stories to play an outsized role in their self-identity.

But also—I myself was obsessed with Fritz and Clara Haber’s lives and the lives of their descendants. Their family story is one of suicide, alcoholism, blind patriotism, and exile, but also one of brilliance, perseverance, and proto-feminism. So a simpler and equally true answer to your question is that Vee, Delph, and Lady were created as vehicles to give voice to my own obsession with the Habers’ story, and, once created, the sisters took on lives of their own.

22638315RH: A Reunion of Ghosts is harrowed by many as a truly funny book, with puns and jokes galore. How did you balance the wit of the book with its dark undertones?

JCM: The conceit of the novel is that it’s a suicide note written jointly by three sisters. That means it’s the sisters’ collective voice that propels the narrative forward. I knew right away that the voice would be laden with jokes and puns and wisecracks. I did a lot of research on the way Jews have used humor throughout the centuries, including during the Holocaust. The humor connects the sisters to their heritage.

At the same time, the humor came pretty naturally. It’s not as though I’d write a passage about Vee’s breast cancer and then think, well, that’s pretty dark; I guess I need to add three witticisms to lighten the mood. The voice just came out. If a pun occurred to me, I used it. I didn’t struggle or reach for the jokes. Humor tends to emerge from the unconscious fully formed. A funny remark just comes out of your mouth and people either laugh or they don’t. It was the same in writing these sisters.

RH: The family tree for the Alter sisters is based upon the real scientists Fritz and Clara Haber. The Last Day of the War also features glimpses of historical characters. Do you normally find your inspiration in history or is this just coincidence? Is there a specific mindset or place you need to be in to write in such a way?

JCM: It’s definitely not a coincidence. If someone had told me during my early days at grad school that my first novel would center on historical events (the aftermath of the Armenian genocide), I’d have told them they were confusing me with someone who knew something about history. But I wound up enjoying the research I did while writing The Last Day of the War, and I also wanted to continue to explore the genocides of the 20th century, so it was clear even before I finished the first book that history would play a role in the second.

At the same time, while I do find the historical settings interesting in and of themselves, they also work as narrative engines and, above all, as metaphors, by which I mean the past is always an oblique way of talking about the present.

In terms of a “mindset,” I do find it a bit difficult to move back and forth between the world of my story to the world of department meetings and classrooms and doing the laundry. Once I’m in 1939, I like to stay in 1939. So I’m the sort of person who likes to go off by myself to write. Retreats, coffee shops… Once I rented a hotel room in a summer resort during January. It was like a ghost town. I had a room with a king-size bed, and I’d spend the days writing while sitting on one half the bed and the nights sleeping in the other half. It was very lonely, but it was also the most productive writing week of my life.

RH: What’s next for you?

JCM: I’m working on a new novel that is also historically based, though not quite as much as the first two books. I’m also consumed with running my creative writing program. I’m also trying to remember to have fun. Life really is much too short. You may quote me.

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Judith Claire Mitchell is the author of the novels The Last Day of the War and A Reunion of Ghosts. She teaches undergraduate and graduate fiction workshops at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she is a professor of English and the director of the MFA program in creative writing. She has received grants and fellowships from the Michener-Copernicus Society of America, the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, the Wisconsin Arts Board, and Bread Loaf, among others. She lives in Madison with her husband, the artist Don Friedlich.

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Interview: Naomi Jackson

n.jackson_headshotMG staffer Giuliana Eggleston talked with author Naomi Jackson about her debut novel The Star Side of Bird Hill, summers in Barbados and Antigua, understand her characters’ obsessions, and more.

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Giuliana Eggleston: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Naomi Jackson: I spent two years as a graduate student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in Iowa City, Iowa. I also spent a fair amount of time while I was at Iowa in Chicago.

GE: Your novel The Star Side of Bird Hill has a strong emphasis on female characters, all in different stages of life. What was your purpose in exploring these aspects of womanhood?

NJ: I wanted to tell the story of one family from the perspective of several women at different stages in their life – Hyacinth, 63 years old, Phaedra, who’s ten when the book opens, and Dionne who turns sixteen that summer on Bird Hill. I also spend some time with the girls’ mother. I thought this multi-faceted way of telling the story allows for a richer experience for the reader, and is quite satisfying as a writer – getting to know more than one character intimately is quite rewarding.

GE: How did you create the world of 1989 Bird Hill, Barbados in The Star Side of Bird Hill? Was any research required?

NJ: Well, the book started out with mining some personal experience through the summers I spent in Barbados and Antigua, where my mother and father are from, as well as an eventful trip to Jamaica, where my stepmother’s from. I spent the summer of 2012 in Barbados researching the book. This was my first extended trip to Barbados as an adult (I’d been there often over the years, but for short trips focused on family). This trip allowed me a different, important vantage point from which to tell this story. It helped me better understand the island and incorporate its texture into the writing process.

51T6EkMTIlL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_GE: Your characters are incredibly real, due to both your lyrical writing and vivid descriptions. That being said, what do you think is the most difficult part of making a character come alive? How do you go about creating your characters?

NJ: Thank you. Writing realistic characters is difficult but incredibly fun when it comes together. I usually start with trying to understand my characters’ obsessions by letting them talk. It’s almost like taking them for a walk around the neighborhood and seeing what they remark upon, and how they talk about the things they see, listening for what they pause on, what bothers them. I let the characters speak and act, and then harness it into a story, though sometimes that kind of corralling doesn’t work and the characters have another idea for the story than you do.

GE: The Star Side of Bird Hill was your debut novel. What surprised you most about writing a novel? How did it differ from the essays and stories you previously wrote?

NJ: The biggest difference between this novel and the poems, essays, and stories I’d written before was just how much stamina was required to see this book through many stages of revision, and then the completely foreign process of production, and then the process of building an online presence for myself and book promotion. I learned so much in these last few years, it’s hard to land on one thing.

GE: When did you realize you wanted to be a writer? Was there a significant moment that pushed you to writing? Did you always want to be a writer?

NJ: I was always threatening my family members to write about them, but I didn’t start taking myself seriously as a writer until I was in my early twenties and began taking writing workshops and the like.

GE: What type of literature do you prefer reading? Has any writer or writing had an impact on your own work?

NJ: I love reading. Jamaica Kincaid is one of my all-time favorites, and has a huge impact on my work.

GE: What’s next for you?

NJ: I’m working on a historical novel set from the 1930s to the early 2000s about a Caribbean-American family in Brooklyn, called Behind God’s Back.

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Naomi Jackson is the author of The Star Side of Bird Hill, published by Penguin Press in June 2015. She studied fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Jackson traveled to South Africa on a Fulbright scholarship, where she received an M.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Cape Town. A graduate of Williams College, her work has appeared in literary journals and magazines in the United States and abroad. She is the recipient of residencies from the University of Pennsylvania’s Kelly Writers House, Hedgebrook, Vermont Studio Center, and the Camargo Foundation. (Photo credit: Lola Flash)

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Grady Chambers Featured in Independent Best American Poetry

Independent Best American Poetry 2016 Congratulations to Grady Chambers, whose poem “Another Beauty I Remember” was recently featured in the 2016 edition of Independent Best American Poetry.

The poem originally appeared in Issue 18 (Summer 2015).

The collection was edited by Steve Fellner, whose second book of poems The Weary World Rejoices was published last year. His first book of poems Blind Date with Cavafy won the Thom Gunn Gay Male Poetry Award. His memoir, All Screwed Up, focuses on his relationship with his ex-trampoline champion mother.

Independent Best American Poetry 2016 is available to read online

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Midwest in Photos: Empty Chair

“We were pretending at being friends when we failed at love.” –Devin Kelly, “Bill’s BBQ-Closed,” Midwestern Gothic Issue 16

photo (6)

Photo by: RJR

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Interview: Eliot Treichel

EliotTreichelPic2MG staffer Hannah Bates talked with author Eliot Treichel about his new YA novel A Series of Small Maneuvers, Pinterest, high school writing workshops, and more.

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Hannah Bates: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Eliot Treichel: I grew up near Appleton, Wisconsin, along the Fox River. Later, I moved north to a little town called Langlade, Wisconsin, which consisted of a four-way stop sign, a tavern, a gas station, and a ten-room motel. I’ve now been in Oregon for fifteen years, but I still consider Wisconsin my home. I probably always will.

HB: Your collection of short stories, Close is Fine, tackles what it means to live the simple life in a rural, blue-collar town. How did growing up in northern Wisconsin affect your vision for these stories?

ET: Well, when I was about nineteen, I actually lived in a farmhouse way out in the middle of some potato fields, and one of my roommates was this somewhat sketchy older dude who ended up getting sent back to jail for violating his parole, and the whole thing turned very surreal very quickly. Later, I also spent a lot of time at this classic northwoods bar where the owner’s father had apparently trained the bear who would become Gentle Ben. And one time, while I was driving around on the back roads up there, I swear I saw a life-size fake cannon made out of discarded wooden cable spools that was displayed in front of some guy’s trailer home. If you’ve read the collection, you know these details are all major elements of the book. Close Is Fine is a love song, albeit it a kind of sad one, to the place I came from. It’s me trying to explain to the world how precious that place is to me.

HB: Close is Fine is also very male-oriented: the stories share details about characters who work in traditionally male professions, who have marital issues, who have relationships with their sons, who are no strangers to failure. How were you able to capture loneliness and hardship among a demographic of small-town folk who are often resilient and proud of where they come from?

ET: I guess it goes back to my last answer. These are the men I grew up around and later worked with, but I’m also no stranger to failure and loneliness myself.

HB: A Series of Small Maneuvers is a young adult novel about 15-year-old Emma who loses her father in a canoeing accident. Why write fiction for young adults? What care and complexities are required in writing for a young audience, especially with such a serious theme?

ET: Why not write fiction for young adults? Young adults need good fiction, too.

514dA9rqohL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_When I started the book, I was working at the public library in Eugene, and I noticed how vibrant the young adult section was, especially in terms of new fiction. I was also in the process of trying to find publication for Close Is Fine, which had taken me a very long time to write, and I needed the next “thing.” I happened to hear a radio interview with the writer Cynthia Kodahata, where she talked about some of her reasons for focusing on YA, and I thought YA might be something worth exploring. I was also bringing home a lot of books from the library for my daughter, who at the time was just entering high school. It was frustrating to see how pervasive the boy-saves-girl narrative was in so many of them. I wanted to try and write something that offered a different narrative. I also wanted to try and write something that would’ve appealed to me in the same way some of Gary Paulsen’s books did when I was a boy, or the way Ed Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang did when I was in high school. My initial intention was to just write an adventure story, but by the end the novel became something else—a story about family and grief and rivers. I think that’s why the book is also resonating so well with adults.

As for what care and complexities were required, I just tried to write an honest book that didn’t talk down to teens. And, at some point, Emma simply took over and started telling me what to say. In the editing process, the press suggested a few changes to bring things inline with a younger audience, but those were all fairly minor. I didn’t read much YA while I wrote this book, so I wasn’t thinking much about the constraints of the genre. I did, however, almost exclusively read novels written by women.

HB: Why is it important to you that a book tour for A Series of Small Maneuvers includes an opportunity to teach workshops in local high schools and libraries? What is most valuable in learning how to write creatively?

ET: There are quite a few reasons why it’s important to me. I want teens to be excited about reading and writing, especially boys. It’s scary to me how little teenage boys are reading for fun these days. To read fiction and to write creatively requires exercising at least some degree of imaginative empathy, and that’s important for young adults. It’s important for everyone. Reading and writing helps us see realities we’d never be privy to otherwise. It allows us to travel in ways different from the Internet. And writing shit down helps. Just the very simple act of writing something down on a piece of paper can be transformative. Learning how to authentically express yourself at a time when so many others—parents, teachers, advertisers, peers—are trying to tell you what to do and to say and to think, is invaluable. Plus, it’s important for teens to know their stories actually matter. It can be life saving.

HB: If you were teaching a writing workshop at a high school, what writing prompt would you choose to teach and why?

ET: I don’t know that I have any super great prompts. Sometimes I hand out blank note cards to students and have them write down a place, a job, and a verb. I collected the cards, shuffle them, and pass them back randomly. The students have to then write a short scene where all three words are used. Those scenes tend to be pretty humorous and imaginative, which gets everybody laughing. I also like taking headlines from The Onion, putting them up on the whiteboard, and then having students write the stories to go along with them. If I was teaching a more extended workshop, where students already had stories they were working on, and maybe the emotional tenor of the classroom was different, I’d use prompts more as a way to get them to rethink their work. Something like having them take a story and rewrite it as a poem. Or maybe a prompt that asks them to apply a bunch of What if? questions to their work—like, “What if the main character does exactly the opposite of what he/she does now?”

HB: Ooligan Press has created a Pinterest board for A Series of Small Maneuvers, and many of the captions to the pins are related to the story. What’s the reasoning behind this? Does this non-traditional outlet appeal to your desired audience? In what ways?

ET: I can’t really speak to the reasoning behind Ooligan creating a Pinterest board for the book. I’m not sure if that particular outlet appeals to a YA audience or not. My social media is very limited. While I’m not on Pinterest, I’ve seen some of the board and many of the photos are great, and I think they work well with the captions linking them to the novel. At the same time, I don’t want the Pinterest board to replace the images that readers would have come up with for themselves. That feels like a shrinking of the imagination muscle. Overall, though, I think there’s an interesting intersection of text and image and social media happening right now. I don’t necessarily participate in it, but I’m fascinated by it. I’m fascinated by the fact that people take scenes from TV shows, break them into still frames with the dialogue as text, and then put them up on Tumblr. And there was just an article in The New York Times about the “new breed” of poets whose best-selling book sales have been driven by the success of their Instagram and Tumblr poems. Suddenly, I feel old.

HB: What’s next for you?

ET: I’m currently working on another young adult novel. My aim was to write a YA stoner rom-com, but I’m not sure if that’s what I’m actually writing. I’ve also been working on a few “male-oriented” stories that are more akin to my stuff in Close Is Fine. One of them, “Quarry Day,” will be online at BULL sometime relatively soon. I have this other thing floating around in my head. It’s not really formed enough where I can even talk about it in any meaningful way. I only bring it up because it’s going to be about ski jumping and Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula.

**

Eliot Treichel is the author of the YA novel A Series of Small Maneuvers and the story collection Close Is Fine, which received the Wisconsin Library Association Literary Award. His writing and photography have appeared in a variety of publications, including Canoe & Kayak, Narrative, Beloit Fiction Journal, CutBank, and Passages North. He’s been awarded a Fishtrap Writing Fellowship as well as two residency fellowships at PLAYA. He thinks riding bikes uphill is fun, sandwiches are better with potato chips, and that no one should go to bed without a cookie. His favorite only dance move is the moonwalk. He cannot parallel park. Originally from the Northern Wisconsin, he now lives in Oregon.

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Announcing 2016 MG Press Titles

We are so excited to announce the expansion to the MG Press catalog in 2016 with the release of three new titles! We hope you’ll celebrate along with the authors, and us! And thanks, too, to Lauren Crawford for the unbelievably gorgeous cover designs!

GHOST COUNTY: POEMS by John McCarthy
Release Date: March 29, 2016
Read more about Ghost County

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In John McCarthy’s debut collection, lifetimes are spent traveling in pickup trucks across the Midwest, exploring spaces between love and its imperfect manifestations. Ghost County drives blue-collar back roads and guides readers through personal meditations about heritage, loss, and the desire to reimagine the past and future. Dateless baseball trophies, the world’s largest catsup bottle, and swivel set televisions illustrate a Midwest that is recognizable and echoes with its own poetry, affirming the traditions and experiences that bind this region to self and self to region.

THE GOOD DIVIDE: A NOVEL by Kali VanBaale
Release date: June 2016
Read more about The Good Divide

The Good Divide Cover Full

In the lush countryside of Wisconsin, Jean Krenshaw is the ideal 1960’s dairy farm wife. She cooks, sews, raises children, and plans an annual July 4th party for friends and neighbors. But when her brother-in-law Tommy, who lives next door, marries leery newcomer Liz, Jean is forced to confront a ten-year-old family secret involving the unresolved death of a young woman.

With stark and swift prose, The Good Divide explores one woman’s tortured inner world, and the painful choices that have divided her life, both past and present, forever.

8th STREET POWER & LIGHT: A NOVEL by Eric Shonkwiler
Release date: Fall 2016
Details: Coming Soon

The follow-up to Shonkwiler’s acclaimed Above All Men!

Samuel Parrish is a heel, tasked with keeping the streets clear of meth and bootleg liquor by an abandoned Midwestern city’s only source of order: 8th Street Power & Light. While he’s tracking down criminals most nights, Sam lives it up others, drinking, fighting, and falling for his best friend’s girl. But when Samuel rousts a well-connected dealer, he begins to uncover a secret that threatens to put the city back in the dark.

Find out more about our MG Press titles here.

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