Interview: Stephen Kiernan

November 22nd, 2017

Stephen P. Kiernan author photoMidwestern Gothic staffer Meghan Chou talked with author Stephen Kiernan about his book The Baker’s Secret, researching World War II, finding lightness in tragedy, and more.

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Meghan Chou: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Stephen Kiernan: My connection to the Midwest is that I am an American. We may not act like it these days, but we are still part of a larger whole.
Also I lived in Iowa for several years in the 1980s. For a while I taught in the Artists in the Schools program, which introduced me to people and places all over the state. I loved it there.

MC: The Baker’s Secret follows a young baker, Emma, in the small seaside French village of Vergers the day before D-Day. Why did you decide to focus the novel on the course of only one day? What are the advantages and disadvantages of such a condensed timeline?

SK: The job of the novelist, to my mind, is to tell the richest possible story in the shortest possible duration. My effort was to attempt to capture all the suffering and triumph, oppression and cunning, of an occupied people not through a portrayal of the years they were forced to live that way, but in the course of a single exemplary day. The fact that the occupying army is uncovering Emma’s network throughout the day, and that the reader knows an invasion is coming but the characters do not—to me these are potent sources of suspense.
Think of it this way: If the story were even one day longer, wouldn’t it be cumbersome and slow?

The Baker's Secret book cover by Stephen Kiernan

MC: Every day, Emma decides to sneak the villagers two loaves of bread made from the flour rations meant for German occupying troops. How does this small act of rebellion from an ordinary woman sustain hope for the community that help will eventually come?

SK: “There are no great deeds. There are only small deeds done with great love.” — Mother Theresa

MC: Emma learns her craft from Ezra Kuchen. However, since Ezra is Jewish, the Nazis arrive to take him away at gunpoint. How does Emma’s relationship with her mentor, Ezra, and the Germans’ treatment of him influence her decision to rebel?

SK: Emma begins the novel as powerless as a person in that time could be: female, young, unarmed, unparented, her fiance conscripted, her mentor Uncle Ezra taken away, a grandmother with dementia her endless responsibility. She is the least likely heroine. Yet it turns out she has learned generosity from Uncle Ezra. She has learned kindness from the vulnerability of her fellow villagers. She has learned stubbornness from that same difficult grandmother. Her entire life has been preparation for the role she assumes in her village.
One other factor came from my research. France lost so many young men in World War I (the equivalent loss today in America would be about 17 million people) that the male population had not recovered by 1944. Men who did remain were either conscripted, put to forced labor, or killed. Therefore many of the heroes of World War II in France were women. Emma exemplified the courage and determination of the French people to withstand and survive the occupation.

MC: Despite the hope Emma gives her community, she herself remains pessimistic about the chances of an Allied forces invasion to end the dark times in Vergers, France, and the rest of Europe. Does the oxymoronic idea of pessimism creating optimism play a role in other parts of The Baker’s Secret? What does this say about the human spirit?

SK: A large section of the novel is called “Want.” The lesson Emma learns in that time is that wanting something makes you vulnerable. She loves Phillippe, for example, so the young man is forced to work in a foreign factory. Therefore she steels herself against her own wants, denying what the reader can see she actually desires with every cell of her being. Even when help arrives, she can barely believe it.

MC: The events of World War II are dark and troubling, yet The Baker’s Secret contains moments of humorous reprieve, such as when the Nazis do not search a pigpen due to the odor. How do you bring light moments naturally and appropriately into a story that takes place in a dark time in history?

SK: I have spent the last 18 years working in end of life care—hospice, palliative care, advance directives—stemming in large part from my first book, a nonfiction study of the subject, called Last Rights. Over and over I have been delighted to find that even the most tragic circumstances include moments of hilarity, or lightness at least. It makes sense to me that the absurdity of Nazism would likewise be comical. (I also joined a long tradition: The Enormous Room, E.E. Cummings’ sparkling novel of World War I captivity; Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut’s dark comedy about the firebombing of Dresden; Catch-22, Joseph Heller’s hilarious World War II farce.)

MC: How did you research the time period, specifically to accurately portray the dialogue?

SK: I began my research by reading deeply about D-Day, its events and context, and there is a rich literature on the topic. The best work I encountered was D-Day by Stephen Ambrose. His book relied on oral histories from the day’s soldiers archived at the Eisenhower Center in New Orleans. I read translations of French diaries, histories and novels written during the war (a dependable source for the tone of dialogue). I interviewed a veteran of the Omaha Beach invasion (a man so humble and dismissive about his heroism, by the end of the conversation I felt about one inch tall). I visited the International Museum of World War II in Massachusetts, which enabled me to hold every one of the weapons that appears in my novel, to feel their heft and size. And of course, I went to Normandy and visited the places where history was made, to see and smell and touch the setting of my novel. (This in itself was a moving experience, which I chronicled in an essay “The Instruments of War” that appeared in Electric Literature recently: https://electricliterature.com/search?q=stephen%20kiernan&ref=opensearch)

MC: Other authors have addressed the topic of World War II and the invasion of Normandy, as is the case with much historical fiction. How did you distinguish The Baker’s Secret from other novels in the genre in order to let your originality show through?

SK: All of the books I read had certain things in common: They emphasized the battle, they were about soldiers, and they neglected the French people. At the very start of my research, I learned that 5,200 Americans died that day—an incredible feat of courage and sacrifice—and that 11,800 French people died. More than double. I saw an opportunity to tell an untold story. My novel has about four pages of battle in it, and only two Allied soldiers even have a name. This is a novel about the occupied people, and the courage and sacrifice that they showed too.

There’s a larger point for me, as well. The deeper I researched, the more I became convinced that D-Day was an unusual and exceptional day from all of human history—but the experience of the occupied people echoed many many instances of oppression before and since. I believe there was an Emma in Leningrad during the long siege. I like to hope that there is an Emma in Aleppo today. That is why I removed all references to Germany, France, Nazism and even the year. It is the reason aspects of the novel, particularly the language, move toward the realm of a fable. There may be a universal human experience which showed brilliantly on D-day, but that transcends even that spectacular day and time.

MC: What’s next for you?

SK: I am knee-deep in a new novel and just finding momentum. At the moment I can’t say much because I don’t know much. But I do know that the central character is a keen and determined woman, that it is an adventure story of a swashbuckling sort, that it includes a love story with more sex than all my prior books combined, and that it spans the entire planet.

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As a journalist and novelist, Stephen P. Kiernan has published nearly four million words. His newspaper work has garnered more than forty awards—including the George Polk Award and the Scripps Howard Award for Distinguished Service to the First Amendment.

Author of the novels The Hummingbird, The Curiosity, and The Baker’s Secret, he has also written two nonfiction books, Last Rights and Authentic Patriotism.

Stephen was born in Newtonville, NY, the sixth of seven children. A graduate of Middlebury College, he received a Master of Arts degree from Johns Hopkins University and a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He has chaired the board of the Young Writers Project, served on the Vermont Legislative Committee on Pain and Palliative Care, and served on the advisory board of the New Hampshire Palliative Care Initiative.

Contributor Spotlight: Kali VanBaale

Kali VanBaale author photoKali VanBaale’s story “The Girl in the Pipe” appears in Midwestern Gothic’s Summer 2017 issue, out now.

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

I’m a born and bred Midwesterner and I’ve lived in Iowa my entire life, for better or for worse. Having grown up on a farm, my emotional connection to the land is strong and definitely comes through in my writing. Once a farm kid, always a farm kid, wherever I go. But I’m also influenced by what I live with and see every day—Midwestern attitudes and complexities, that mix of hard work, generosity, and polite passive aggression.

We’ll talk all kinds of shit behind your back but if your house burns down we’ll be there first thing in the morning with hammers and nails to help you rebuild it. And probably bring you some kind of casserole, too.

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

For me, the most compelling aspect of the Midwest is the space. No doubt it drives some personalities crazy, everything so far apart and landlocked, but my personality needs room to breathe, stretch my legs, hear my own thoughts in silence. I can look out the back windows of my house and see nothing but sky. My strange soul often craves isolation, I think, because the vast horizons and quiet fields of my childhood still run in my bloodstream.

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?

Sense of place permeates every aspect of my writing because place has been such a powerful force in shaping who I am today. I grew up on a farm far from any towns, let alone cities. I learned from an early age how to entertain myself and to value the combination of hard work and imagination. I also learned what it means for your life to literally be dependent on the ground beneath your feet and the sky above your head to put food on your table and clothes on your back. That powerful thread creeps into my writing often—the primal relationship humans can develop with an environment.

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

I write every morning, Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m. to noon, without fail. I’ve always said that my discipline and tenacity are far stronger than my actual talent. I don’t experience writers block because I’ve trained my brain that at 8 a.m., when I close the drapes, turn on my lamp, and sit down at my desk, it’s time to write. No excuses.

I also teach creative writing online in the same office, at the same desk, so when I break for lunch, I turn off the lamp and open the drapes back up. That way my workspace looks different during the afternoon teaching time. It’s a good trick.

As for writing process, I’ll say upfront that mine is horribly inefficient. I tend to start with vague story ideas—a character, moment, or scene that interests or haunts me—and write my way into it. It can take dozens of 50- to 100-page drafts and false starts just to figure out what it is exactly I’m even writing about.

I write the majority of my first drafts long hand in spiral notebooks, and they’re very messy and skeletal, full of scribbles and arrows and notes in the margins. I then type my handwritten pages on the computer and clean up as I go. Once I have a somewhat working typed first draft, I go back in and pretty much dismantle it. Rewriting, revising, moving around, cutting, adding. In my current work in progress, I cut 20,000 words and two whole characters at one point. My stories come to life in the revision stages, for sure, so I’ve learned to embrace revising, no matter how many drafts it takes or how messy it gets.

How can you tell when a piece is finished?

Honesty, I can’t. I’m never done. Thank God for deadlines, otherwise I could revise a single story for the rest of my life. If I have some kind of deadline in place, then I have an end point to work towards.

I hate reading any of my published work for that very reason. I still see things I want to edit and change. I have to constantly tell myself that was the best story you could write that day for who you were in that moment, and just let it go.

Who is your favorite author and what draws you to their work?

Twenty years ago, I read a novel called The Book of Ruth by Jane Hamilton, and it stands as the book that made me want to become a writer. I can’t explain why, or what it was about that book in particular, I just loved it. And I’m a crazy huge fan of Jane Hamilton the person. She’s a super cool lady. Smart, funny, and incredibly insightful. I’ve met her a few times at conferences and she’s always so generous and only a tiny bit afraid of me when I have super fan freak outs.

I also love the works of Sherwood Anderson and Richard Yates. Revolutionary Road knocked me sideways and I return to that novel often whenever I’m struggling without something in my own writing.

I have a long list of friends whose writing I really admire, too. At the top would be Donald Quist for his complex and insightful world views, and Mathieu Cailler, who always somehow manages to convey his joy of writing in his writing. Plus, he’s figured out some secret sauce to publishing short stories I’m still trying to get my hands on.

What’s next for you?

I’m hard at work revising my fourth novel, which partly involves the real-life abductions of Des Moines paperboys Johnny Gosch and Eugene Martin in the 1980’s. As soon as it’s finished I’ll turn it over to my agent. She also represents my third novel, The Cure for Hopeless Causes, which is currently out on submission with editors. Eek.

I’ve also been chipping away at a short story collection for several years and have vowed to finish it once and for all within the next year because I’m sick of looking at it.

And finally, I teach fiction and nonfiction workshops for the Lindenwood University MFA in writing program, and craft workshops for various writing conferences and organizations, like the Iowa Writers’ House.

Where can we find more information about you?

I have a website, www.kalivanbaale.com, I’m on Facebook as Kali VanBaale Author, on Twitter @kalivanbaale, and Instagram @kaliprocrastinating.
And that’s exactly what I’m doing whenever I’m on social media: procrastinating.

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Midwest in Photos: Frozen Lake Michigan – Madison, Wisconsin

“As for the coldness, I have never seen it like this. I mean, coldness that makes like it wants to kill you, like it’s telling you, with its snow, that you should go back to where you came from.” – NoViolet Bulawayo, We Need New Names.

Photo by: Sarah Weinman

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Interview: Michael Bazzett

Michael Bazzett author headshotMidwestern Gothic staffer Marisa Frey talked with author Michael Bazzett about his work The Interrogation, the fluid nature of identity, learning to incorporate humor, and more.

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Marisa Frey: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Michael Bazzett: I was born in Chicago. My family moved to Minnesota when I was in first grade. I’ve lived in various towns in Minnesota for roughly 40 of my 50 years, the last 17 in Minneapolis.

MF: How does living in the Midwest influence the way you approach writing?

MB: There’s a lot that remains unspoken in Minnesota. The way people talk has been informed by a Scandinavian reticence, and conversations often have subtext. Wry understatement is big. That’s definitely shaped my aesthetic, and probably explains why I’m drawn to Polish poets like Wislawa Szymborska and Zbigniew Herbert: their Cold War aesthetic that responded to repression by saying things sideways and telling it slant.

Yet what is said is usually pretty direct and plainly said, which I think has informed my diction and my approach as well, as I favor a certain kind of transparency in my language. I don’t mind difficult poems, but I do mind difficultly for the sake of difficulty. That feels Midwestern to me, that natural wariness toward pretension and feeling at home in sardonic humor.

MF: The Interrogation explores one man’s different ages and desires, resulting in multiple, sometimes contradictory facets of the self. What was your process for writing and thinking about this?

MB: The short answer would be that I asked a lot of questions, hence the title. I was interrogating what it means to keep it real amidst the late-stage capitalism we’re marinated in, asking what it means to live an authentic life amidst so much artifice and virtuality, wondering to what extent we carry our childhood with us forever, what it means to be vulnerable, what it means to be a man, what it means to be white, what it means to be human and humane.

I think our identities are much more fluid than we generally think. The idea of a stable self has some utility, true, and thus it persists. Yet we literally shed our skin every seven months or so. We’re remarkably relational creatures: change our context and we change. It’s not just a metaphor, it’s bio-chemistry. We’re rivers and filters and mirrors as much as we are self-contained things, and that’s why somewhere along the line, someone used a verb to name us: we’re human beings (or humans being.)

The Interrogation book cover by michael bazzett

MF: What is a key question you were hoping to answer or offer some insight on in The Interrogation?

MB: How to embrace the pain & wonder of wide awakeness.

MF: While your collection projects a darkly fantastic world—a man with no mouth speaks, an older and younger version of the same person sit down for a conversation—the simplicity of the lines creates a conversational tone. What draws you to this style?

MB: I know my poems can sometimes come across as a bit strange, yet I’m being as honest as I can. The truth is usually weird. And a lot of the work stems from asking “What if?” Maybe you feel like your voice is lost in the cacophony of the world? Make it literal: the man has no mouth. Once the imagination has done its work, the weirdness needs grounding, so I try to make the writing as clear and hard as glass. I want it be, as Seamus Heaney once said: Exact. Truthful. Melodious.

MF: How has your writing changed over time, in form and content?

MB: I used to stare at trees and consider how they are the lungs of the hillside and then strive to capture that in some spare, meditative lines. There are more people in my poems now, and the work has gotten weirder, which is another way of saying I’ve gotten more honest. It’s also funnier. I didn’t used to allow myself to do that, to use humor’s blade in that way, but comedy can be very transgressive; you can say things you can’t say elsewhere. And it creates a new entry point into a poem, a different doorway that might swing open a little more readily for some readers. I love it now when people refer to my work as a gateway drug to the hard stuff, i.e. real poetry.

MF: Do you think poetry—or writing, more broadly—should respond to the political and social climate of the moment?

MB: If poets are taking their task of undeceiving the world to heart, I don’t see how it can’t. Calling things what they are is a radical act. Facts have become so destabilized in today’s world, poetry is the place to look for truth. We need to imagine ourselves some new realities.

MF: What’s next for you?

MB: I have a book length translation of the Popol Vuh, the creation epic of the Maya, coming out the spring of 2018 from Milkweed Editions, and I’m currently working on some new poems that derive all of their energy directly from the sun, via photosynthesis.

If at all possible, I’d also like to go troll hunting in Norway.

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Michael Bazzett is the author of The Interrogation (Milkweed Editions, 2017), Our Lands Are Not So Different (Horsethief Books, 2017), and You Must Remember This (Milkweed Editions, 2014), which received the 2014 Lindquist & Vennum Prize for Poetry. Bazzett has received the Bechtel Prize from Teachers & Writers Collaborative and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. He teaches at The Blake School and lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Learn more at michaelbazzett.com.

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Interview: Edward McPherson

Edward McPherson author photoMidwestern Gothic staffer Meghan Chou talked with author Edward McPherson about his book The History of the Future: American Essays, shaping an essay collection, the multiple perspectives of history, and more.

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Meghan Chou: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Edward McPherson: For the past five years I’ve lived in St. Louis, where I teach at Washington University. (I married someone from Missouri, so before that I had visited the state a fair amount.) I also spent four years in Minneapolis. But I moved there after eight years of living in New York City, and I was born and raised in Texas, so my connection with the Midwest remains that of a curious outsider.

MC: The History of the Future features seven essays, each set in a different city of the United States: St. Louis, Gettysburg, Los Angeles, New York, the Trinity site, North Dakota, and Dallas. How did you decide which cities to focus on and what significance does each hold to you personally?

EM: I wrote the book one essay at a time, desperately hoping the whole thing might cohere into something greater than the sum of its parts. I started out wanting to write about Dallas, my hometown, because I hadn’t written much about it and I thought it was interesting that they were rebooting the famous TV show (Dallas) just as the city was nearing the anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. Who shot JFK/Who shot JR? (Alienation, anger, conspiracy… How do we handle history that refuses to stay in the past?) From there, I just followed my nose to whatever place felt most compelling. Not every idea worked out, but soon a pattern emerged: I was interested in the ways that the past might intrude (unexpectedly, uncomfortably) into the present. The subject matter kept shifting, obviously—the book is a collision of disparate topics—but in all the essays, I was either returning to a place I knew well (and had a personal connection to: Dallas, Gettysburg, New York, St. Louis) or posing as a tourist (as problematic as that is) in order to see something I felt I needed to experience firsthand (the site of the first atomic detonation, the oil fields and man camps of North Dakota, doomsday bunkers in Los Angeles, etc.). So I baby-stepped my way to a book; it took five years and got darker as things in this country seemed to take a grim turn.

The History of the Future book cover by Edward McPherson

MC: In order for a collection to work as successfully as The History of the Future, the essays need to hold a common theme or connection. What connections did you want the reader to follow between the seven essays, specifically with regards to the presence of violence and oppression in each of the cities?

EM: I’m a fan of this quote from Ben Greenman that I’ve tacked up over my desk: “A book of essays can be a constellation. Individual pieces shine like stars, but to see the whole project as a unified thing requires a mythology. You need faith to make out a shape around all those dots of light, to believe in the bear or the swan.” I was always writing a book—not just individual pieces for publication—so I knew I wanted the essays to converse, to complicate and perhaps even contradict each other, in places. But you can’t just repeat yourself and you can’t hit a theme too squarely on the head (else it becomes trite). You have to have faith that your aesthetic/artistic/intellectual/moral preoccupations will bind the thing together while also creating some friction. In terms of violence and oppression, that wasn’t hard—scratch any surface in America and you’ll find it. What I became interested in was a kind of American amnesia, how trauma in the past was being forgotten or sanitized—for political purpose, or simply due to distraction or nostalgia or what-have-you)—and yet you couldn’t understand our current reality (or imagine where we might be going) without really trying to look at those past wounds.

MC: You spent time at the University of Minnesota as both a student and teacher, but Minnesota is not one of the states represented in The History of the Future. Why did Minnesota not fit well with the greater collection and the reflections you wanted to express?

EM: Oh, I had ideas for Minnesota! But none of them held my interest in the end. (Famous last words—perhaps I’ll write about them in the future?) Plus once the North Dakota essay grew so long (at about 80 pages), I didn’t want the book to get too top-heavy on the upper Midwest. As I was rounding out the collection, I tried for some sort of geographical coverage, though plenty of places were left out. For instance, there’s nothing directly about the Deep South, though of course there’s so much material there. I just couldn’t imagine writing about the south and not addressing racism, which was already the focus on the long essay on St. Louis. Early on, I knew the book could never be complete.

MC: As a follow up, do you observe a cultural disconnect between the Midwest and other regions of the United States?

EM: I think the idea of a disconnected Midwest (“coastal elites,” “flyover states,” “MFA vs NYC,” blah blah blah) is too easy, too simple, particularly given our interconnected daily lives. (Thanks, internet.) People are people; art is art; there’s culture everywhere. So my short answer is a firm “no.” But I also like the idea of places being PLACES, that is, distinct. (Otherwise, why get off the couch? This book is a travelogue, of sorts.) What I’m interested in is getting to know the particular texture of a place, wherever that is. And
I do enjoy the underdog mentality that comes from being a writer no longer living in NYC—we’re outside the rat race, we’re apart from the noise, we can let strange inner lives bloom. And of course there are the fabled creature comforts: access to nature, plenty of parking, a slightly bigger apartment. But obviously artists all over the country are doing vital work—in big cities, in towns, in the wilderness. It’s comes down to personal choice and working method.

MC: As the title, The History of the Future, suggests, time plays an important role in this collection. How do your reflections on the past, present, and future merge in these essays?

EM: I’ve always enjoyed the line attributed to Mark Twain: “History doesn’t repeat itself; it rhymes.” I’m interested in history for the way it not only enlarges our understanding of the past, but opens up new perspectives on the present—which then might give us an inkling of where we might be headed. The title—which comes from a line from Whitman—is a nod to how the book boomerangs between the past and the future (with us stuck muddling through the present). Of course there is no singular “History” with a capital H, and so in my writing I always find myself trying to contend with, make sense of, and/or expand the stories of others who have come before me.

MC: How did you balance historical analysis with personal memoir and what power does each element contribute to the essays in this collection?

EM: The book mixes journalistic attempts with more personal essays, but ultimately the power is the same for each—narrative drawn from life. I’m telling stories, trying to put myself (and the reader) under the sway of an empathetic imagination. I think “analysis” suggests too stark an objectivity. I don’t pretend to any such completeness (I’m suspicious of any tale told too easily). Each essay is a container for doubt. Hopefully the reader gets caught up in a widening kind of investigation that doesn’t end too easily (if it ends at all). Then the next move is theirs to make.

MC: What’s next for you?

EM: I’m currently mulling over my next nonfiction project—which will be a single subject that I approach episodically (but more through chapters than in individual essays—in other words, the connective tissue will be a bit stronger, more apparent). How’s that for being thematically vague? I’m too superstitious in the early stages of a book to talk too much about the idea, else I lose interest. I also plan to revise a collection of short stories that I’ve been returning to over the years.

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Edward McPherson is the author of three books, including The History of the Future: American Essays. He has written for The New York Times Magazine, The Paris Review, Tin House, The American Scholar, The Gettysburg Review, Salon, The Southern Review, True Story, Guernica, and Talk, among others. He has received a Pushcart Prize, the Gulf Coast Prize in Fiction, and a Minnesota State Arts Board grant. He teaches creative writing at Washington University in St. Louis.

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Happy Pub Day to A Woman Is a Woman Until She Is a Mother

A Woman is a Woman Until She is a Mother book cover by Anna PrushinskayaWe’re so excited to announce that A Woman Is a Woman Until She Is a Mother is available now! Please join us in saying happy pub day to the incredible Anna Prushinskaya and her nonfiction collection about motherhood and its complexities!

A Woman Is a Woman Until She Is a Mother has received praise from the likes of v (The Miles Between Me), Helen Phillips (Some Possible Solutions and The Beautiful Bureaucrat), Amber Sparks (The Unfinished World and Other Stories) and Juliet Escoria (Witch Hunt and Black Cloud), among others. The collection has been hailed as “a frank, courageous, and beautiful meditation on the strange alchemy of migrating from one identity to another.” Trust us, it’s a must read with stories that are “meditative, curious and intriguing…[and] help us consider whether ‘the things that come with life are worth it.’”

In A Woman Is a Woman Until She Is a Mother, Anna Prushinskaya explores the deep life shifts of pregnancy, birth and motherhood in the United States, a world away from the author’s Soviet homeland. Drawing from inspirations as various as midwife Ina May Gaskin, writer and activist Alice Walker, filmmaker Sophia Kruz and frontierswoman Caroline Henderson, Prushinskaya captures the inherent togetherness of motherhood alongside its accompanying estrangement. She plumbs the deeper waters of compassion, memory and identity, as well as the humorous streams of motherhood as they run up against the daily realities of work and the ever-present eye of social media. How will I return to my life? Prushinskaya asks, and answers by returning us to our own ordinary, extraordinary lives a little softer, a little wiser, and a little less certain of unascertainable things.

We have copies in paperback and in Kindle eBooks – something for everyone! Be sure to pick up your copy of A Woman Is a Woman Until She Is a Mother now!

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Contributor Spotlight: Milton Bates

Milton Bates author photoMilton Bates’ piece “Tragedy at Presque Isle” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Summer 2017 issue, out now.

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

Though I’ve lived on both coasts and briefly in the South, I grew up in Wisconsin and spent most of my working life there. On retiring, I moved to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where I’ve joined a lively community of writers who both challenge and encourage me.

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

In a word, water. I live on Lake Superior and enjoy kayaking and fishing in the lake. Not surprisingly, the Great Lakes and the rivers of the upper Midwest figure prominently in my writing, including both of the poems I’ve published in Midwestern Gothic.

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?

After publishing several academic books, I asked myself what subject I knew well enough to address in a more creative way. The result was The Bark River Chronicles: Stories from a Wisconsin Watershed (2012), which distills three decades of exploring a single river with my family and learning as much as possible about its natural and human history. That book was my bridge to poetry, the genre in which I’ve apprenticed for the last half-dozen years.

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

There are two kinds of writer’s block. The first is when you don’t know what to write about; the second is when you’ve found a subject but can’t get started. I cope with the second kind by putting words on the page or computer screen until I understand where I should begin and how I should structure the piece.

The first kind of writer’s block is more challenging. Sometimes the answer is immersion, going more deeply into a potential subject until I discover why it’s worth writing about. Other times the answer is escape—through travel, let’s say, or wide reading. Both strategies may be simply ways to distract the conscious mind while the unconscious goes about its work.

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

As a compulsive reviser, I rarely reach a point where I feel a piece can’t be improved with further revision. But it occasionally happens, and I’m grateful for those moments when a poem or a prose passage seems absolutely right and inevitable. (This isn’t one of those moments.)

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

My favorite is William Faulkner, whose best fiction is at once deeply tragic and delightfully comic. Add to that his command of a regional idiom and his willingness to address the big issues—racism, for example, and the devastation of the natural landscape—and you have a writer who inspires me even though I don’t plan to write a novel.

What’s next for you?

When I find a publisher for my current poetry collection, I will move on to the next chapbook or collection. And then the next.

Where can we find more information about you?

http://www.marquette.edu/english/bates.shtml

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Midwest in Photos: Iowa Sunrise

“When things fall apart, the children of the land scurry and scatter like birds escaping a burning sky.” – NoViolet Bulawayo, We Need New Names.

Photo by: Kristina Rust

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Interview: Kathleen Rooney

Kathleen Rooney author headshotMidwestern Gothic staffer Marisa Frey talked with author Kathleen Rooney about her book Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, changing the world through writing, balancing fact and fiction, and more.
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Marisa Frey: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Kathleen Rooney: I grew up in the Chicago suburb of Woodridge, Illinois and went to high school at Downers Grove North. As a kid, I couldn’t stand the suburbs (still can’t) and couldn’t wait to move to the actual city someday. Since 2007 (after quite a bit of moving around), I’ve been living the dream. Martin and I have resided in the far north side neighborhood of Edgewater in Chicago for a little over 10 years now, and living in the city itself is every bit as marvelous as my kidself thought it would be.

MF: Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk takes place in one day—New Year’s Eve of 1984—but is interspersed with scenes from the past. Why did you choose this structure?

KR: Because Lillian is based on Margaret Fishback, the real life highest paid female advertising copywriter in the United States in the 1930s, I needed to find a way to help myself move from the facts of her life and into the realm of fiction. Fishback’s own life and work are fascinating (I wrote an essay about her and helped get some of her light verse on the Poetry Foundation website here, if you’re interested) and I wanted my character of Lillian to be equally so. The key that let me unlock the novel was to give her not just an illustrious past but a really long and incident-filled 10-plus-mile walk across the city she’s known and adored for close to six decades. St Martin’s, my publisher, put the map of her walk on the inside covers, so you could take her walk yourself if you were so inclined.

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk book cover by Kathleen Rooney

MF: Lillian Boxfish is loosely based on Margaret Fishback, a poet and the highest-paid female copywriter of the 1930s. How did she come to be the inspiration for the book?

KR: My high school best friend, Angela, was doing an internship at Duke University for her library sciences degree, and she got to help process the Fishback papers when her son donated them to the Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History. Angela is an amazing person and wonderful friend, so she knew that I’d be intrigued by Fishback’s life and work—her proto-feminism, her pursuit of both a career and a family, her serious publication record as a poet, and on and on. Thanks to her, I was able to learn about, apply for, and receive a travel-to-collections grant to be the first non-archivist to work with Fishback’s materials back in 2007. I was immediately smitten with Fishback and knew I wanted to do something with her story, but it took me a while to realize that it would be a novel.

MF: Several of your works—notably Lillian Boxfish and O, Democracy!—are based on real people or events. How do you balance fact and fiction?

KR: Research is inevitably one of my favorite phases of a project because everything at that point is potential energy–you haven’t started really writing yet so you haven’t started making mistakes. For that reason, I could happily dwell in the realm of research indefinitely, but of course that’s no way to get a book written. So when I move from research into writing, I try to be sure that I’ve given myself enough of a plot and enough of a compelling set of characters to sustain the narrative–and hopefully the reader’s interest–beyond the perhaps initially intriguing notion that it’s “based on a true story.” If a novel is too faithfully adherent to the facts of whatever really happened in its real life inspiration, then it probably won’t have the depth of character, the psychological realism, or the plot momentum to keep people reading. You need to give yourself the space to get imaginative and make stuff up, rather than merely novelizing actual events.

MF: What role does this kind of fact-based fiction play in our current cultural environment?

KR: Fiction that’s based on fact ideally calls attention to the fictional aspects of all the things we are encouraged to consider “true.” History, as the cliche goes, is written by the victors, and so good fact-based fiction can offer differing accounts of events that we may think we already know a great deal about. And the fact that fiction has a clear and artificial (albeit hopefully convincing) point of view can in turn emphasize that everything has a point of view–a perspective, an agenda, however you want to put it–and can invite readers to see even real life more complexly.

MF: As a poet, fiction writer, and nonfiction writer, how do you choose what medium to approach a subject with? How do the writing processes differ for you?

KR: Every project needs to find its own best form–you can say things in a poem that you can’t in a novel and vice versa. So I usually know before I even begin writing what genre something is going to be in because form is such a determining factor for content.

And that’s part of why Abby Beckel and I founded Rose Metal Press back in 2006. Our work as editors there has deepened our appreciation of the fact that these genres aren’t really stable and distinct anyway, and that the ones we normally identify are not remotely exhaustive in their description of the forms that creative work can take.

MF: You’re a former U.S. Senate aide—how does having worked in politics shape your approach to writing?

KR: My development as a writer ran in a simultaneous parallel track to my work in Dick Durbin’s office, and I was writing and publishing creatively in the same years as I was working, for instance, as a member of his communications team. (When my memoir Live Nude Girl came out in 2009, they held my job for me while I went on a book tour.) The kind of writing that I was doing in my role as a Senate Aide–speaking as or on behalf of someone else–is vastly different from the creative writing I was doing then and that I do now. Aside from employing basic English language mechanics, the two really did not resemble each other at all.

MF: You’ve said in a previous interview with Chicago Magazine that people can change the world, but not through politics. Do you think people can change the world through writing?

KR: To clarify, I said that people can’t change the world through the politics industry — e.g. working inside a senator or other elected official’s office — because the primary objective in such a situation, especially for a low-level staffer, like I was, is to keep your head down and do what you’re told. Specifically, I said that “Idealists are cannon fodder of the political industry. People most committed to making a positive difference are exploited the most. People who do rise are interested in consolidating their own power.” I think that people can absolutely change the world through politics if by that we mean being politically active–voting, marching, protesting, calling one’s representatives, canvassing and so on and so forth; I believe that being an informed and participatory citizen is part of politics and that you can change the world that way without a doubt.

Writing can change the world, too, yes, for better or for worse. Good writing, hopefully, helps readers develop their sense of empathy for people unlike themselves and for people facing complex moral and ethical situations. But then again, The Art of the Deal came out in 1987 and helped make Trump a household name, and now we’ve got a racist, misogynistic, xenophobic malignant narcissist in the White House and that happened in part because journalist Tony Schwartz helped him write that book.

MF: What’s next for you?

KR: I’m closing in on finishing a World War I novel, which is based on a couple of real-life figures. And I have another novel that’s set in 2016 about a couple of eerie and precocious tween girls in the Quad Cities. Stay tuned.

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Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a publisher of literary work in hybrid genres, and a founding member of Poems While You Wait. Co-editor of The Selected Writings of René Magritte, forthcoming from Alma Books in the UK and University of Minnesota Press in the U.S. next year, she is also the author of eight books of poetry, nonfiction, and fiction, including, most recently, the novels Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk (St. Martin’s Press, 2017), O, Democracy! (2014) and the novel in poems Robinson Alone (2012). With Elisa Gabbert, she is the author of the poetry collection That Tiny Insane Voluptuousness (Otoliths, 2008) and the chapbook The Kind of Beauty That Has Nowhere to Go (Hyacinth Girl, 2013). Her essays and criticism have appeared or are forthcoming in Allure, The Rumpus, The Chicago Tribune, The New York Times Magazine, Salon, the Poetry Foundation website, and elsewhere. She lives in Chicago with her husband, the writer Martin Seay, and teaches at DePaul University. Follow @KathleenMRooney

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Interview: Nick White

Nick White author headshotMidwestern Gothic staffer Meghan Chou talked with author Nick White about his book How to Survive a Summer, exploring nontraditional queer spaces, outsmarting the hurdles to keep writing, and more.

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MC: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Nick White: I’ve called the Midwest home for most of my twenties. I moved to Ohio when I was twenty-three because I had been accepted into Ohio State’s MFA program. After I graduated, I went on to the University of Nebraska to earn a Ph.D.—technically, Nebraska is considered the Great Plains, but I always thought of it as further adventures in “the Middle West.” During my last year, I was offered the teaching job back at Ohio State, which I gladly accepted. The Midwest has become my home.

MC: Will Dillard, the main character in How to Survive a Summer, is a graduate student from the Midwest who reflects on his traumatic memories at a teenage gay-to-straight conversion camp in Mississippi. Between the South and the Midwest, what regional differences did you explore in How to Survive a Summer with regards to the attitude towards queer youth?

NW: I wanted to set the book in the Midwest and in the South—primarily because both spaces have been home to me, a gay man of a particular age, and because both seem to be unpopular locales to set queer dramas. I think there was this assumption—which is slowly being chipped away at—that if you are gay and from a small town or rural area, then your best bet for a happy life is to get thee to a metropolis. While this migration to urban centers can certainly be beneficial to many of us in the queer community, there are others, myself included, that love living in a small town, or in what people refer to as “flyover country.” I find it exciting to explore queerness in places and spaces that have traditionally been seen as not having room for it.

As far as attitudes toward queerness, the Midwest and the South have some differences. Living in Nebraska, Ohio, and Mississippi, I have spent most of my life in red states. But I never came out while I was in Mississippi—I am not sure if that is because of the place, itself, or because of my proximity to my family, who are very religious and conservative. Either way, I felt safer in Columbus—safe enough, at least, to start facing up to questions I had long since tried to ignore.

How to Survive a Summer book cover by Nick White

MC: Many gay-to-straight conversion camps follow the misguided notion that one can “pray away the gay.” In addition to this aspect, what role does religion play in the telling of Will Dillard’s story and in understanding the cultural differences between the Deep South and Midwest?

NW: The South is home to many evangelical churches, particularly the Baptist Church, which played a huge role in my growth and development. In the book, Will’s journey to Camp Levi, the conversion camp, is one that both he and his father see as a necessary step for him. They are both true believers, as I once was. They believe they know the Gospel and want to do what is “right.” Will is not sent to Camp Levi because his father doesn’t love him; on the contrary, Rev. Dillard loves his son a great deal and feels he is doing his best for him, and that’s what, in my mind, makes the decision to send one’s child to conversion therapy so complicated and fraught. When Mother Maude and Father Drake appear in town, asking for money to help jumpstart their camp, both father and son see this as nothing less than a sign from God. Mother Maude and Father Drake offer what both men have been seeking: deliverance.

MC: The release of a horror movie, called Proud Flesh, triggers Dillard’s search for closure. Proud Flesh draws inspiration from events that transpired at the Mississippi conversion camp, Camp Levi. The gay serial killer central to the movie wears a princess mask, which the gay community around the country begins to wear with pride. Why did you choose a princess mask as the symbol of terror and solidarity?

NW: I think I wanted to illustrate, in some way, the resiliency of queer culture, how many in our community can take something that is deemed offensive (such as this princess mask, or even the word “queer”) and reclaim and repurpose it.

MC: Why did people react to Proud Flesh with pride and not offense? In other words, what about the horror movie brought about feelings of solidarity?

NW: Well, at first, the movie caused much offense, and I don’t know that Bevy ever bought the reinterpretation. I’m not sure that many people reacted with pride, either. When Will and the others see the movie in Memphis, the audience boos at the end. I think the movie becomes, at best, a mild curiosity—something to see with people and cheer and jeer. There’s a campiness to it that many find appealing, a kind of “it’s so bad that it’s good” response.

I tried to be very careful that the book didn’t come down one way or another on it. I wanted the movie to be one of those enduring mysteries that the reader will still ponder about once she has finished reading.

MC: Will’s family appears progressive in some ways—his father is forward-thinking on the topic of race, his mother lived in an all-female woodland community—yet neither can accept their son’s sexuality. How does the portrayal of Will’s parents shed light on the homophobia towards and mistreatment of queer youth?

NW: I didn’t want the parents, particularly the father, to be two-dimensional, flat. I wanted to show him to be a thoughtful and conflicted man. He was very naïve about the depth and breadth of racism in his community, just as he was about his son’s sexuality. I wanted to show that, as the years passed, the father had the capacity to grow and, what’s perhaps the hardest thing for people to do, change his mind. He may never be comfortable with his son’s queerness, but he is determined to stay in his life, no matter what.

MC: What is one piece of advice you give your students at Ohio State University about writing?

NW: Respect the work. What I mean by this is, I think, make sure you remember that the putting of the words onto paper, then revising the hell out of it, is all that matters. There’s so much in our world that wants to keep us from writing, and half the battle, I think, is finding out ways to outsmart the hurdles and get back to the desk. Do it. Do it as much as you can, for as long as you can. Then, once you’re finished with that project, move along to the next one. Don’t look back.

MC: What’s next for you?

NW: I am finishing up a story collection with should be out soon with Penguin, and dabbling with a new novel.

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A native of Mississippi, Nick White currently teaches creative writing at the Ohio State University. His fiction can be found in The Kenyon Review, Guernica, The Literary Review, Indiana Review, Day One, and elsewhere. His debut novel, How to Survive a Summer, was published by Blue Rider Press, an imprint of Penguin-Random House.

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