Contributor Spotlight: Andrew Bode-Lang

September 27th, 2016

Andrew Bode-LangAndrew Bode-Lang’s story “Body and Soul” appears in Midwestern Gothic Issue 22, out now.

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

Though I now live in central Pennsylvania, I identify firmly as a Midwesterner. My family moved from the Pittsburgh area to Dubuque, Iowa when I was very young, and after another stretch in Pittsburgh we moved to southwest Michigan, where I lived for ten years. I went to college there, fell in love, got married — it’s where my adult life began. And that included writing. Most of my stories are still set in Holland, Saugatuck, Kalamazoo, Chicago (where my family now lives), or in little towns between towns, like Plainwell, MI, where I went to high school. When I write, I find myself standing on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, searching the horizon for the next thing to appear, even if it’s just the up-lit glow of Milwaukee and Chicago on the low clouds once the sun goes down.

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

The Midwest holds broad vistas — a stubbled cornfield in midwinter or a Great Lake — and small details you notice only by living with them daily — the barn that lists a little further with each passing year, the aluminum rowboat marooned deep in the woods, the little red sign with white letters along the roadside that reads only “The Little Red Sign with White Letters.” I always appreciated Harry Callahan’s saying that since he didn’t have grand landscapes to photograph, he had to train his lens down — on people, on debris washed up on the lakeshore, any small thing that could be composed. As much as I love taking in a vast expanse, I love even more that the Midwest taught me to notice everything small. The small is where the stories are. Not in a whole life, but in a moment in an afternoon, or a series of those moments.

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?

If I write a house into a story, it’s a specific house — one I lived in, a friend lived in, or one that for some other reason I visited often. I’m sure I could write some original architecture, but the houses are there waiting for my characters to move in, just like the towns or country roads where the houses stand. I might not always name a specific place, but it’s specific to me all the same. I most often begin a story with both a place and the people in it, and those almost always have some relation to the world I know, even if it isn’t my own world.

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

I need to look out a window — just to be able to look up and see something beyond what I’m putting on the page. That helps me to pause so I can keep going. My hope is always that I can keep up with the story, the characters, and their lives and do my honest best for them all as I draft and revise. If I don’t feel I’m doing that, I might walk away for awhile and come back to a story — days or even years later.

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

I don’t really treat anything as finished till it’s been accepted for publication, and I’ve occasionally kept on revising a published story, but I do consider myself “done” with a story if I feel like I’ve told the truth of it and done so to the best of my ability. When it takes a while to find a home for a story, I figure it must not be done, it must not ring true yet, and keep going back to it to see if I can do the job better. This often means that it simply takes me time — maybe a long time — to get a story where it needs to go.

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

If I have to pick one, Carson McCullers. No one does a better job of writing from a child’s point of view with all the richness and humanity the characters deserve. Also, she has the best titles. If I can pick a second, John Le Carré — because even the most lyrical story needs a structure, and there’s no better teacher.

What’s next for you?

My fiction chapbook, Field Trips with Exceptional People, is forthcoming from Red Bird Chapbooks, of Saint Paul, MN, in summer 2016. It’s a collection of short-shorts including such adventures as “Traveling by Hot-Air Balloon with Robert Downey, Jr.,” “Washing Skyscraper Windows with Janet Reno” (this one takes place in Chicago), and “Record Shopping with Arnold Palmer.” I’m working on a full-length collection of the same title as well as writing other stories that do not include celebrities as characters.

Where can we find more information about you?

I’d like to know the same thing. It’s why I write stories, and I hope if I write them well enough, I’ll find out.

Contributor Spotlight: Laura Misco

Laura MiscoLaura Misco’s story “Exorcising Mike” appears in Midwestern Gothic Issue 22, out now.

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

I’ve lived in the Midwest for most of my life — in its rural areas, villages, college towns, and large cities. The different fabrics of those places — the culture, customs, landscape, weather, food, people — have informed the way I view everything.

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

The Midwestern Sensibility: resilient, fun-loving, diligent, fair-minded, true.

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?

As a reader, I love nothing more than to be transported by setting — understanding characters and plot as filtered through place really resonates with me. I keep that in mind when crafting my own backdrops, especially when they’re connected in some way to an actual location or experience. Borrowing the most authentic, singular details matters most.

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

My ideal writing environment is in the dead middle of night, but that doesn’t tend to jive with normal life. Like most, I think, I have to fight for the time. As for writer’s block, the notion of it became a convenient cover for procrastination, so I decided many years ago that it didn’t exist. I’m writing or I’m not, and either way I have to live with it.

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

When I’ve exhausted all opportunities to tinker, it’s done. The goal is to stop messing with a piece before I strangle it to death.

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

I love a million writers and don’t have a favorite. For the authority, economy, imagery, and subtle humor, Rebecca Lee’s recent collection Bobcat is about as perfect as one can get.

What’s next for you?

I’m at work on a novel about a Goth teen looking for a do-over.

Where can we find more information about you?

At Foundation in Riverwest.

|

No Comments

|

Midwest in Photos: Red, White and Blue

“Like many buildings in Detroit it had been deserted, left to rot, taking with it a storied history as part of the Arsenal of Democracy.” –Lori Tucker-Sullivan, “Detroit, 2015,” Midwestern Gothic Issue 19.

JawniLundgren-Red, White and Blue - Colchester, Illinois, 2011

Photo by: Jawni Lundgren

|

No Comments

|

Interview: Lawrence Coates

Lawrence CoatesMidwestern Gothic staffer Lauren Stachew talked with author Lawrence Coates about his book The Goodbye House, how his time at sea prepared him to become an author, unsettling characters through specific settings, and more.

**

Lauren Stachew: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Lawrence Coates: I’ve lived in Northwest Ohio since 2001, in the center of what was once the Great Black Swamp, and I’ve grown to understand Midwestern seasons and landscapes. I’ve also grown to understand something of the culture of this part of the world, in part through my creative writing students. The graduate program recruits nationally, and even attracts international students at times, but there is still a regional flavor to it. And the undergraduate program is made up almost entirely of Ohioans, so the stories I see and the discussions we have about them have given me insight into what it’s like to have roots here.

LS: You grew up in California, and all of your novels are set in Northern California. Now that you live in Bowling Green, Ohio, how did your perception of the Midwest change when you left the West Coast?

LC: It’s true that my novels are set in California, but I have written some short stories set in the Midwest, including “Bats,” which won the Barthelme Prize in Short Prose. I didn’t know much about the Midwest before moving here; I hadn’t spent much time in the region, outside of several trips to Chicago.

I’ve noticed one real contrast with the West since moving here. People who live in the Midwest seem to have settled near where they grew up, whereas people in California have come from around the world. And in the West, there seems to be a restlessness, more inclination to move. Perhaps it’s because of the landscape, the undeniable expanses of open and empty spaces in the West, and the dramatic mountain ranges that beckon people to move on, whereas the landscape here seems more cozy or confining.

And yet, the cultural understanding that one ought to belong and be content in a place can conceal a repressed feeling of estrangement. I think that’s one of the themes running through the work in Midwestern Gothic, and one of the reasons I enjoy the journal. In the short fiction I’ve set here, I’ve usually placed something strange or incongruous into a setting of utmost normality and tried to use that to explore what’s below the surface.

LS: Recently, you received an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award, as well as an Olscamp Research Award from BGSU. Congratulations! Could you tell us a bit more about these awards? How does this impact your current or future writing?

LC: Thank you. The Olscamp Research Award is really quite an honor. It’s the top research award at the university, and it’s given for scholarship or creative work over the previous three-year period. I applied for it because my work had received a lot of recognition during that span – to a certain extent, that’s just because the stars aligned, and I had a book out in 2012 and two books out in 2015. And the Ohio Arts Council recognition was also very gratifying. Ohio supports the arts in many ways, and I was very pleased to be named along with some other writers whose work I admire, such as BGSU alum Amy Gustine.

Some of my work is historical, and so the funds received from both awards will help finance travel to a couple of archives that are important to me. But what I really hope is that any awards and recognition I receive helps the work find readers. It’s more important to me that somebody reads and enjoys my work than to have a plaque on the wall.

LS: You spent four years as a Quartermaster in the Coast Guard and four more in the Merchant Marine. What led you to become a writer and professor?

LC: I did spend some eight years aboard a series of ships, from the North Atlantic to the South Pacific to the Indian Ocean. But I think I always wanted to be a writer, including during those years when I was at sea.

I was a sailor in the days before the Internet, before smartphones, before DVD’s, and the men I sailed with – and it was 95% men – were great readers and storytellers. I used to stand the midwatch, which means I was on the bridge of the ship between midnight and four a.m., and I remember those long hours under the stars out at sea hearing tales of every sort. And I met all kinds of people aboard ship, people I probably never would have encountered otherwise. On one ship, I bunked with a man who had sailed on ammo ships across the Atlantic during World War II and had been sunk by a U-boat. On another ship, I shared a forecastle with an ex-con who had been in prison for attempted murder, and yet when I knew him he wanted mainly to talk about his grandchildren. I sailed with many veterans of the Vietnam War who had never quite found their footing afterwards, and with a man who lost his job selling Winnebagos during the 1973 Oil Crisis, and then lost his marriage. We swapped books we liked. Lots of thrillers and detective stories, but also the stray Vonnegut novel. I remember one shipmate who loved Ray Bradbury and insisted I read Dandelion Wine. In many ways, my time at sea was great training for a writer.

Yet I wouldn’t have become a writer, I don’t think, unless I had decided at last to go to college and study literature. And once I began my studies, I found such a deep pleasure in it that, in some ways, I never left. For a time, I focused on contemporary Latin American Literature. In graduate school, I originally intended to write a dissertation on Don Quixote before deciding to change to a program at the University of Utah that would allow me to write a novel for my dissertation. In the course of my studies at Utah, I read and studied American Literature, and I found those themes in the novels of Melville and Faulkner that still form the core of my work.

I always enjoyed the teaching that was a part of graduate studies, and I’ve been fortunate to find a good position. I think it’s something of a privilege to teach in an MFA program, and I enjoy working with the talented young writers who come to Bowling Green for two years and then go on to write and publish fine works of fiction.

The Goodbye House

LS: Your most recent novel, The Goodbye House, is set in the aftermath of the early-2000s dot-com bust in San Jose, California, and follows the narratives of three characters whose lives are all affected by this changing landscape. What led you to write about this specific time in recent history?

LC: To some extent, writing about this time period grew naturally from my previous work. My first novel was entitled The Blossom Festival, and it took place in the region around San José in the twenties and thirties, just as the region was beginning to change from an agrarian, orchard-based economy to a more urban economy. The Santa Clara Valley, at one point, was known as The Valley of Heart’s Delight; now it’s known as Silicon Valley. And my first book tried to capture that time when things are beginning to change, even though the characters in the novel might be unaware of what is happening around them.

Setting a novel in the same region in the early 2000s let me explore again a time of great change. I was able to depict the suburban developments that had replaced the orchards, and also link up the last of the World War II generation with the new generation that was coming of age after computers had become commonplace – though a little before the rise of Facebook, Snapchat, and smartphones.

2003, specifically, meant that the novel was set not only in the aftermath of the dot-com bust, but also in the aftermath of 9/11. It was a time when many established verities were being called into question, and that allowed me to unsettle my characters in ways that forced them to act and reveal themselves.

I know that many works of fiction are set in a somewhat undefined present, but I prefer to place novels in specific years because I want to show that the characters are part of a larger world, and that the larger world influences their lives, even though they might not realize it.

LS: You’ve spent nearly twenty years teaching creative writing, both as a professor and a director of the MFA Program at Bowling Green State University. How has the experience of teaching taught you about your own writing?

LC: Teaching creative writing, particularly at the graduate level, has taught me to be very conscious of craft. Because I am frequently reading and responding to works that are in process, I’ve had to develop a vocabulary to describe what is being workshopped. And that vocabulary of point of view, dramatic irony, narrative arcs, the sense of an ending, has inevitably come into my own composition process.

Let me say something briefly about teaching that comes from John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist. One of the marks of a bad workshop, he says, is that the teacher tries to “coerce his students into writing as he himself writes.” So when I say I’ve developed a vocabulary to describe work, I don’t intend for that description to be a judgment that something is good or bad. I look at it as a way to help young writers see what the work is doing and allow them to understand for themselves whether it is fulfilling their intent. I think, in the past, I was more judgmental in workshops, and I hope I’ve left that behind.

But to your question – being aware of craft has allowed me to consciously choose an aesthetic stance for a particular work. One of my literary heroes is Virginia Woolf, in part because she was a writer who seemed willing to reinvent herself for each work. So the writer who created To the Lighthouse or The Waves, those shimmering works that depict the individual consciousness of characters, could also create Orlando, a crazy novel that takes place over several hundred years and has a narrative voice not too dissimilar from that used by Henry Fielding in Tom Jones.

In my own work, I chose a more distant omniscient voice for The Blossom Festival, suitable to the epic sweep of the book. In The Master of Monterey, the narrative voice is clearly also a character, sometimes addressing the reader directly. In Camp Olvido, the point of view is more objective, painterly, without judgment, suitable to the deep moral ambiguity at the heart of the book. The Goodbye House, on the other hand, is a more comic novel, and the narrative voice feels free to comment on the characters’ flaws and foibles. It’s a point of view I’ve sometimes called “smart ass omniscience,” very good for comic writing.
So teaching has made me very conscious of craft, and I hope that has served me well in the works I’ve published.

LS: You mentioned in a previous interview that you write on a manual typewriter. What made you choose this method, and why do you feel it’s a better option than the modern computer?

LC: Using a manual typewriter is partly just a personal preference. I like the feel of the keys, and I like the sound of the type hitting the platen. And there’s something nice about a pile of pages that grows a little taller, day by day. It’s much more satisfying than seeing the size of your file go from 48 KB to 52 KB.

However, I also like the fact that I never lose a word or a phrase. There is no delete key. When I type something that I want to revise, I cross it out in pen and continue typing. Then, during revision, my initial impulse is there and present. I tend to complete a draft of a chapter and then enter it into the computer from the typescript. So re-typing the entire manuscript also becomes a part of my revision process.

It’s not something that’s right for everyone, though I sometimes mention that Cormac McCarthy wrote Blood Meridian and all his other works on a portable Olivetti that he bought for fifty dollars at a thrift store. That seems to get people’s attention.

LS: Which author or authors have had the most influence on your writing?

LC: At the top of any list of authors important to me would be William Faulkner. His deep engagement with a particular region and the way the burden of history weighs upon the lives of characters remains a north star for me. Gabriel García Márquez, a writer himself influenced by Faulkner’s work, has been important for me. I decided to learn Spanish in part because of wanting to read One Hundred Years of Solitude in the original. Toni Morrison is another author who consciously places her stories within a historical context that haunts her characters – sometimes literally, as in Beloved.

Ernest Hemingway famously said that all American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. I couldn’t disagree more. There has always been a counter-current to Twain in American literature, exemplified by the strangeness of writers like Hawthorne and Melville who found it impossible to represent America through the narrow canons of European realism. And I hope to write work that shares some quality of strangeness with the writers I most admire.

LS: What’s next for you?

LC: I’m working on a novel that takes place over fifty years in an invented city that hovers on the border between Silicon Valley and the Great Central Valley of California. There will be ghosts. That’s about all I can say for now.

**

Lawrence Coates has published five books, most recently The Goodbye House, a novel set amid the housing tracts of San Jose in the aftermath of the first dot com bust and the attacks of 9/11, and Camp Olvido, a novella set in a labor camp in California’s Great Central Valley. His work has been recognized with the Western States Book Award in Fiction, the Donald Barthelme Prize in Short Prose, the Miami University Press Novella Prize, an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction. He is currently a professor of creative writing at Bowling Green State University.

|

No Comments

|

Contributor Spotlight: Chelsea Voulgares

Chelsea VoulgaresChelsea Voulgares’ story “Midnight Walk, 1993” appears in Midwestern Gothic Issue 22, out now.

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

I grew up in a rust belt town in Ohio. I spent every Friday night at a football game, and my best friend lived the next street over, just two houses down. We snuck wine coolers and rented horror movies from the mom and pop video store. So as a kid, I had the quintessential Midwestern experience. I went to college near Cleveland, grad school in Columbus, and moved to Chicago when I started working. I’ve lived my whole life in the Midwest.

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

The diversity of the people, especially in the larger cities. People tend to think of the Midwest as bland, white bread. There’s some of that. But the Midwest is also a place where you can eat at a sushi restaurant that used to be an Old Country Buffet, with camo-clad deer hunters to your right, a Cuban-American family on your left, and a professor from Uganda across the aisle from you.

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?

I set most of my stories in Chicago, because that’s what I know, what I see every day. When I write about teenagers, though, they end up in small Midwest towns. The micro-fiction published in this issue of Midwestern Gothic is a good example of that. These kids are wandering around a back road in a crumbling town, exploring a local legend and trying to entertain themselves. That kind of environment is integral to my writing because it’s what formed my psyche. Every Ohio town has a ghost or legend, and it’s the job of the young people who live there to investigate those myths.

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

I try to write every day, usually at home in my office. I’ve written in coffee shops too, but I work best when the room is quiet. I don’t suffer from writer’s block because I almost always have a new story I’ve been waiting to write, or an old piece I can revise. I keep a notebook of ideas too, so if I do ever run out, I can pick one from that list.

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

I think most stories are never finished — there’s always something to tweak or hone. But it depends on the piece. Some things feel finished after a second draft, but I have one short story I’ve been working on for three years. I’ve been working on my novel for two.

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

There are too many: Atwood, Bukowski, Hurston, Ishiguro, Poe… I read two books this year that are new favorites: Han Kang’s The Vegetarian and Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce. I was drawn to those novels by the contrast between the beauty of the language and the violent and desperate lives of the protagonists. Both are about women fighting to maintain a sense of self, and I’m not sure either of them triumph. They’re both devastated by the world around them, yet each book is gorgeous, transcendent. I hope to one day write something as good as either of those books.

What’s next for you?

I have a novel I need to finish. I have a second novel idea I’d love to start. I’ll keep writing flash fiction. I have a short story idea I want to begin, and I have a couple of stories I need to place in journals.

Where can we find more information about you?

You can find me at www.chelseavoulgares.com, or on Twitter @chelsvoulgares.

|

No Comments

|

Contributor Spotlight: James Figy

James FigyJames Figy’s story “Scavenger Hunt” appears in Midwestern Gothic Issue 22, out now.

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

I was born in Indianapolis and lived there pretty much my entire life. My dad’s family is from northwest Ohio, so we’d drive past northern Indiana’s flat cornfields every few months to visit. Now I live in Minnesota, so I drive past Iowa’s relatively hilly cornfields to visit my folks.
As for how the Midwest has influenced my writing, I’m not really sure. Midwestern writers have influenced my writing a lot. There’s Sherwood Anderson and Kurt Vonnegut to name two, though they’re an odd couple.

The lack of hills, by the way, isn’t any Hoosier’s fault. It was those damn glaciers.

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

I love the indefinability of the Midwest. It’s urban and rural, diverse and sort of homogenous, exciting and boring. The region’s borders, which states are included — that’s much more subjective than most people think. Growing up, I always thought it encompassed Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, parts of Iowa, and Louisville, Kentucky — the part attached to that big bridge, at least. But someone from Missouri or Kansas would say that’s ridiculous, that Ohio belongs to the east, and Kentucky’s in the south, and Indiana — well, people are never really sure what to do with us.

The term Middle West, I read somewhere, was coined to describe Kansas and Nebraska anyway. So Indiana’s more Middle East. But we don’t say that because it would make the governor too nervous to be surrounded by us.

I have to admit, though, this isn’t my original observation. It’s something I first became aware of by hearing Michael Martone at a reading and then later reading a passage about it in his book, Michael Martone. However, I have noticed it more and more since I’m in grad school with people from Iowa and Missouri and Minnesota and people from the coasts whose ideas about where the Midwest is and isn’t are interesting in a whimsical sort of way.

There’s only one geographical truth of the region: Every Midwesterner lives at the dead center of the Midwest. No one’s ever on the edge.

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?

Like the protagonist in my story — and the “antagonist,” too, if you want to call him that — I grew up in church. It was a Church of God, to be specific, which began as a sort of anti-denomination designation, a church without labels. It’s the one based in Anderson, Indiana — not the snake-handling counterpart out of Cleveland, Tennessee.

Church was a twice-a-week fixture in my life for about twenty years. And sometimes I’d be there every day of the week, since I was the part-time janitor. I’d go sweep or wash windows for an hour after my regular construction job. It was a community where I belonged for a large percentage of my life. So I write about church and faith and whatnot a lot.

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

My writing process is a joke. I am so bad at setting a specific time to sit down and crank out x-amount of words. Once I wrote on a park bench; I’d recommend it, if the forecast is clear.

Usually, inspiration hits when I think of something totally ridiculous and think about how I could make it more than just a punchline. For instance, a friend recently asked, “Who even goes to exercise classes at five in the morning?” I replied: “Drunk people.” And a narrative started in my head, two friends on a bender decide they want to make a change, get their lives together, and since they stayed awake all night carousing, it’s now five a.m. and they wander into an aerobics class where one drops a barbell on his foot. Now he can say trying to get your life together is harmful.

Something else happens, obviously, and something more, then a flashback to childhood trauma. Maybe the friends will finally realize they’re in love. The End. I haven’t started writing it yet, but believe me, you’ll want to publish it, too.

My best advice for defeating writers block is, ‘Take a shower, then try again.’ At three showers per day, the drunken aerobics story will probably be ready around 2021. Let’s talk more then.

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

Trick question! Writing is never finished. To decide whether a piece of writing is done enough to send out, though, I read through and ask if it’s good enough that I’ll likely be proud of it in ten years. By which I mean: I won’t in 2030 or whenever try to claim somebody published a bunch of garbage under my name as a sick practical joke. My other method is to try to read through a piece without making a single change. But I like to tinker too much.

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

I already spilled the beans, but Kurt Vonnegut is one of my favorite authors. I love how he’s funny and dark yet has something to say, not really a message of hope but definitely with a hopeful bent. There are so many quotable lines in Vonnegut’s work, the “Vonnuggets” as Steve Almond says. One Vonnugget for writers comes from Palm Sunday: “I think it can be tremendously refreshing if a creator of literature has something on his mind other than the history of literature so far. Literature should not disappear up its own asshole, so to speak.” I’ve been thinking a lot about this quote lately. Which, now that I think about it, may mean I missed the point.

What’s next for you?

I have to mow the yard, do my day job, editing, and later I’m going to a Mankato Moon Dogs baseball game. Among other projects, I’m tinkering with a long essay about Winesburg, Ohio.

Where can we find more information about you?

I’m on Twitter (@JAFigy), creating polls about defining issues of our times. For example: “How often do you pour milk on your cereal?” or “How likely are you to respond to this poll?” (Data show that fifty percent of respondents are “Not likely…” to respond.) I also have a sporadically updated website, jfigy.wordpress.com. I like to call it my blague. Okay, enough joking around.

|

No Comments

|

Midwest in Photos: Fisherdog

“Waking at dawn, he was ready to give meaning to simple gestures.” –Claire Tinguely, “Gift,” Midwestern Gothic Issue 13.

Chaunceys_favorite_catch_001

Photo by: Carol Matthews

|

No Comments

|

Upcoming Events – Kali VanBaale / The Good Divide

We have some great events coming up that our followers will want to check out! We hope to see you there!

The Good Divide by Kali VanBaale

The Good Divide Book Tour

Kali VanBaale has a series of events coming up for her latest novel, The Good Divide. Don’t miss out on these opportunities to meet her and hear about the novel that has received rave reviews from Publishers Weekly, Book Riot, and Our Front Porch Journal among others.

Upcoming Events:

September 22nd
Where: Dragonfly Books
112 W Water Street, Decorah, IA
When: 7pm
Details: HERE
This reading will be a pre-event for the Luther College Writers Festival, followed by a Poetry Slam at the Elks Lodge opened with a reading by Kali at 8:30pm.

September 23-24th
Luther College Writers Festival
Where: Luther College Campus, Decorah, IA
When: opening panel begins at 4pm on Friday, Sept. 23rd
Details: HERE
Kali will be judging the LCWF undergraduate writing contest for fiction during this festival, and will be on a panel at 3pm Saturday titled “The Storyteller’s Voice: Reading and Conversation.”

October 8th
Iowa City Book Festival
Panel – Writing With Your Thumbs
Where: Robert A. Lee Recreation Center, Social Hall. Iowa City, IA
When: 1pm
Details: HERE

October 8th
Iowa City Book Festival
Reading with John Domini
Where: Iowa City Senior Center, Assembly Room. Iowa City, IA
When: 2:30pm
Details: HERE

November 10th
Ottumwa Public Library Morning Book Club
Where: Ottumwa Public Library, 102 W 4th St, Ottumwa, IA
When: 10am – 11am
Details: HERE

March 20th, 2017
Des Moines Public Library East Side Afternoon Book Club
Where: 2559 Hubbell Ave., Des Moines, IA
When: TBA
Details: HERE

|

No Comments

|

The Good Divide reviewed at Front Porch Journal

Shannon Perri recently reviewed Kali VanBaale’s The Good Divide at Front Porch Journal, and had this to say:

The complicated and precise construction of Jean’s character, set in a time where the choices for women are stark and few, is what makes this book such a thrilling read. Though my heart broke often, I found myself deeply invested. I wanted so badly to reach into the story and hold Jean’s hand. The social worker in me wanted to provide pamphlets of resources (which of course weren’t available then, if they even would be now). I wanted to do something, for her to be less alone. To me, the mark of a good book is one that makes it impossible not to care.

Read the full review.

And for more information on The Good Divide, click here.

|

No Comments

|

Interview: Martin Seay

Martin SeayMidwestern Gothic staffer Lauren Stachew talked with author Martin Seay about his book The Mirror Thief, coordinating three separate stories into one novel, encouraging empathetic openness through fiction, and more.

**

Lauren Stachew: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Martin Seay: I’m a relative newcomer to the Midwest, having grown up in the western suburbs of Houston. (Specifically in the town of Katy; “the western suburbs of Houston” could plausibly describe an area the size of Connecticut.) My spouse Kathleen Rooney and I bounced around the country for a while — Washington DC, Boston, Provincetown, Tacoma, WA — but we’ve lived in the Edgewater neighborhood on the far north side of Chicago since 2007. Kathleen grew up in the Woodridge–Downers Grove area, and her family hails from Nebraska, so she’s credentialed as a native Midwesterner.

Regional identity — and Midwestern identity specifically — is something that I think about a lot. This is totally unscientific on my part, but I can’t help but think that there’s something in the tension between the natural and built environments in every region that affects the assumptions and the expectations of the people who grow up there, in ways that are so fundamental as to be nearly invisible. I’ve often been struck by how completely domesticated the Midwestern landscape is: just about every square inch of dry land has been shaped and reshaped by human habitation for so long that every space feels like a social space, and therefore one always feels as though one is within the bounds of some society or another here. (In the Pacific Northwest, by contrast, it never felt like we were really part of a society — or at least it felt as though society was something that everyone could exit at will and without much of a fuss.)

LS: In what ways do you feel that living in the Midwest – specifically Chicago – have influenced your writing?

MS: I should confess that the vast majority of my recently-published novel was written before I arrived in Chicago. Since I’ve been living here, most of the writing I’ve done has been essays and criticism of various sorts. (I don’t think this has been a direct consequence of living in Chicago, but rather just of having a full-time office job and an hour-long commute.) I’m about to return to fiction after quite a bit of time away, and I’m interested to see the effect that Chicago has on whatever I end up doing.

One quality of Chicago that has had a significant impact on Kathleen’s and my lives is the vibrancy and openness of the literary scene here, which overlaps in unforced, organic, mutually-beneficial ways with the theater scene, the music scene, the dance scene, the comedy scene, the art scene, etc., and produces a ton of interesting and hard-to-categorize work that lands in the spaces between those more recognizable forms. Beyond the fact that living here has made us aware of a bunch of cool stuff, we have also met a bunch of great people who are very receptive to each other’s pursuits and supportive of each other in creative, professional, and personal terms.

In some ways the fact that many of the city’s most prominent institutions seem to be in danger of collapsing — or of not collapsing, depending on the institution — seems to empower and inspire activities at the small, nimble, independent, subcultural level, which is cool. I think most of us would happily swap some of this great art for a city that’s more just and more functional, though.

The Mirror Thief

LS: Your debut novel, The Mirror Thief, weaves together three separate stories into one novel, all set in three different versions of Venice. Some reviewers have called this skill “almost miraculous.” How did you manage these various threads as you were writing? Did you draw out maps or charts?

MS: It helped a lot that I had the structure first. Before I had any characters, or much in the way of a plot, I knew I would be writing a narrative split evenly between Renaissance Venice, Beat-era Venice Beach, and more-or-less present-day Las Vegas. I also knew that certain locations or people would appear: the Venetian casino, the Guggenheim Hermitage Museum, and a flooded Mormon town in the 2003 chapters; Alexander Trocchi, Lawrence Lipton, and the Venice West Café in 1958; and Giambattista della Porta, Giordano Bruno, a glass factory, and a bookstore in 1592. I came up with plots that would connect all these elements, and then I came up with characters who could follow the paths I had laid out. Consequently I always knew where I was going (although I was a little foggy on how long it would take me to get there).

I outlined backstory more rigorously than I did the three main storylines that run through the book. I definitely used outlines to keep myself straight on the action taking place in the narrative present, but I tried to be sparing with them; I didn’t want the plot to become too functional, or too much of a glide path for the characters. All my best discoveries came as a result of slowing myself down, not speeding myself up.

LS: What made you choose Venice as the unifying “setting” for this novel?

MS: Venice came first: I knew I wanted to write about Venice before I knew anything else about the novel, or even that it was a novel. I had been to Venice for a couple of days in the late ’90s while doing the post-collegiate-tour-of-Europe thing, and it stayed in my head as a place I that wanted to use as a subject and a setting. (I also knew, of course, that a bunch of people had beaten me to the punch—including heavy hitters like Henry James, Thomas Mann, Daphne du Maurier, and my esteemed former teacher Jane Alison — but I decided to think of this as more of an advantage than a problem.)

A lot of things about the city fascinated me (and still do) — aspects that make it different from any other place, and contrast with other European cities in interesting ways: the primacy of canals over streets, the near-total absence of fortifications, and the distinctively light, permeable, curvilinear nature of the built environment, to name a few. The one fact I learned about Venice during my first visit that struck me the most is that it is not, strictly speaking, built on islands: most of its present-day land was constructed by driving masses of wooden pilings through the lagoon’s sandy bottom into the clay beneath, and almost all of its churches, palaces, squares, and streets are (somewhat tenuously) supported by these pilings. The city is literally built on the water. The blankness of the canvas that the Venetian engineers were working with and the necessary deliberateness of their methods — along with Venice’s complex and ambiguous thousand-year history as a functioning republic — led me to think of it as the city that’s most purely expressive of the will and values of the community that created it: a city grown in a Petri dish, basically. Therefore it seemed like a good lens through which to view other cities, and other human undertakings.

LS: Many reviewers have drawn similarities in your novel to the writings of authors such as David Mitchell, Umberto Eco, and Italo Calvino. Were any of these authors inspirations to you?

MS: Invisible Cities definitely was; I borrowed a passage from it — a fairly cryptic and mind-blowing exchange between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo — as the epigraph of my book. But that’s the only thing of Calvino’s that I’ve read in its entirety: I picked it up shortly after I started The Mirror Thief because I thought it would help me get my head straight about Venice from a conceptual and metaphorical standpoint, which it did. I was drawn to it both because of its unusual engagement with Venice as a subject and because I had recently been interested in the Oulipo, the mostly-European group of avant-garde writers who used various restrictions and quasi-mathematical structures as strategies for generating literature; Invisible Cities comes from the period of Calvino’s participation in the group. (The Mirror Thief didn’t end up being very Oulipian; the only real restriction is the fact that I never used the word “Venice” — or any form of it: no venetian blinds, no Venezuela — in the book. Oulipian novels like Invisible Cities and Harry Mathews’ under-appreciated Cigarettes also inspired me to deploy certain recurring images or concepts as generative and organizing devices — mirrors, mosaics, excrement, pirates, pelicans, mercury, Mercury, the various stages of the alchemists’ Great Work, etc. — but my use of them was not remotely rigorous enough to meet Oulipian standards.)

So far as Mitchell and Eco go, I really enjoyed Cloud Atlas, but it wasn’t an influence: I didn’t read it until after I had finished the manuscript of The Mirror Thief, and it’s still the only thing of Mitchell’s that I’ve read. This is maybe going to sound lame, but although I have definitely been strongly influenced by my idea of what an Umberto Eco novel is like, I’ve never read one: I have copies of Foucault’s Pendulum and The Name of the Rose that I’ve been moving from apartment to apartment with me for years, but I’ve never read either, despite several attempts.

The novels that were probably the biggest influences on The Mirror Thief — to my way of thinking, anyway — are All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy, My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami, Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood, and The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell ended up being something I thought about a lot while I was writing; so did House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. Books by Elmore Leonard, Dennis Lehane, and Alan Furst helped me figure out the genre mechanics of the 2003 and 1592 sections. To nail down some of the cadences and the lexicon of the 1592 sections, I also reread a fair amount of Shakespeare. A few nonfiction books were very inspirational, particularly Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century by Greil Marcus, The Optical Unconscious by Rosalind E. Krauss, and Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters by the painter David Hockney, which sounds like an instructional book but isn’t.

LS: You spent nearly six years writing The Mirror Thief – what was the most difficult part of the writing process for you?

MS: The most difficult and rewarding part of the process was figuring out the three main characters: working out their backstories, but also and especially developing an understanding of how they would uniquely perceive the world.

This is not something that comes easily for me: I’m a concept-driven writer, and plot and character tend to show up late in the game. I reached a point early on where I needed to pretty much stop writing and just spend a couple of years trying to imaginatively inhabit the fictional world of the book, thinking really hard about my characters’ embodied experience of that world: to consider, for instance, not only what walking down the Las Vegas Strip in March of 2003 would have been like, but specifically what it would have been like for a 39-year-old partially-disabled retired U.S. Marine who spent the previous night sleeping in a chair at Philadelphia International Airport.

Of the many great things about fiction, I think one of the best is its capacity to encourage empathetic openness to others, and to do so by modelling that openness. I wanted to honor that capacity by taking the responsibility of depicting my imaginary people seriously.

LS: What advice would you give to authors who are trying to have their first novel published?

MS: If you can keep your manuscript under 700 manuscript pages, I recommend doing so. Trust me on this one.

But seriously…I should probably mention that The Mirror Thief took me a little under six years to write, and a little over seven years to find a publisher for. This was due in large part to the fact that I was circulating the manuscript in the midst of a recession that clobbered the publishing industry, but there’s really never going to be a time when the major trade houses are going to be tripping over each other to hand out seven-figure advances to unknowns with really long first novels, even if those novels do include swordfights (which, for the record, mine does).

I’m hardly an expert on the publishing industry based on my limited and rather atypical experience, so I can’t provide much in the way of practical advice beyond one very general recommendation: it’s a good idea to develop strategies for keeping your head straight when you move from a process in which you have total, godlike control (i.e. the process of writing) to one in which you have approximately zero control (the process of seeking publication). More specifically, I’d suggest that your strength in navigating the latter process will come from your rigor during the former process: you should be damn sure that you’ve written the book you wanted to write, because confidence in your manuscript will sustain you through long stretches of radio silence and help you make productive use of the feedback you receive from agents and editors.

LS: What’s next for you?

MS: Great question! I have a few ideas for new novels that I’m playing around with; if past experience is any guide, I’ll need to live with them awhile before I know which I’ll pursue. In the meantime, I have several criticism projects — writing on music and film — that I’m excited to work on. I’m very fortunate that The Mirror Thief has gotten quite a bit of positive attention, and it seems to be bringing some interesting opportunities my way. So far it’s been rewarding to just remain open to whatever comes along, and enjoy it while it lasts.

**

Martin Seay’s first novel, The Mirror Thief, was released by Melville House in May. Other writing has appeared recently in Electric Literature, Lit Hub, Publishers Weekly, MAKE, and The Believer. Originally from Texas, he lives in Chicago with his spouse, the writer Kathleen Rooney.

|

No Comments

|