Interview: Anne Valente

May 28th, 2015

Valente-PhotoMidwestern Gothic staffer Hannah Bates talked with author Anne Valente about her collection By Light We Knew Our Names, realism versus fabulism, what attracts her to short fiction, and more.

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

Anne Valente: Though I’ve lived in Ohio for the past couple of years and also did my MFA here at Bowling Green State University, I grew up in St. Louis and still feel the Midwestern pull most acutely from my childhood and adolescence there. It’s a place that I visit as often as possible, to see my family but also to revisit a city I love inordinately.

HB: Your collection of stories, By the Light We Knew Our Names, blends realism and fabulism. How are you able to do this successfully? Is there a place for these two opposite genres to coexist in fiction?

AV: My hope is that they coexist successfully in the collection due to the lens through which realism is viewed: regardless of whether a story includes magical elements, I hope that a sense of the world’s inherent magic permeates the book. I consider magic in fiction to be not only magic realism and fabulism but also sorcerous sentences, curious syntax, and uncovering the oddities and strangeness of our very real, very mysterious world. For this reason, I didn’t think too hard about whether each story was fabulist or realist. I appreciate a blurring of boundaries in fiction between real and not-real, and I hope these seemingly opposite sensibilities can coexist in fiction as well.

HB: What are your favorite elements of magical realism to include in your work?

AV: More and more, I’m interested in magical realism that builds upon the natural world. There’s so much that is strange to me about our planet and universe – that Saturn has so many moons and every one of them so unimaginably far away, that octopuses have three hearts, that the starlight we see is hundreds of years old and just reaching us now. For me, it isn’t much of a leap to create magical fiction from just how extraordinary this world can be.

tumblr_inline_na640iigx61qegvnlHB: You grew up in St. Louis and have used the city as a setting in your story, “Tell Us You Were Here,” which will appear in the forthcoming May issue of One Story. Why do you both consider and not consider yourself to be a Midwestern writer?

AV: That’s a great question, and one that I’m still piecing out. I guess I’ll address the not first: I think regional writers are understood to be those who write exclusively about a specific region, and though I’ve been writing a great deal about St. Louis lately, I don’t foresee continuing that trend for my next projects. I’m interested in writing about the Midwest but also about other places, situations, locales, world events. However, I do consider myself a Midwestern writer because I’m very proud of where I’m from. There’s so much here, and being from the Midwest, I never would have even thought that the most interesting things in fiction happen elsewhere – on coasts or in other countries or in America’s biggest cities. I’m just as interested in writing about the Midwest as I am in writing about other places, if not more so. But first and foremost, I consider myself a Midwestern writer because of the way that growing up here has so deeply influenced my sense of sound and rhythm. I think the soundscape I grew up with – thunderstorms and cicadas and Midwestern highway hums – have embedded themselves in the sound of my fiction. So whether I’m writing about the Midwest or a completely different place, that sense of acoustics is rooted in who I am as a writer.

HB: What attracts you to short stories?

AV: I like that stories allow me the excuse to indulge my curiosities, of which there are many. Novel projects are great for delving into a topic in depth, but stories are an excellent means of tackling even more topics for shorter periods of time. Whether interesting histories, strange facts, particular personalities or specific landscapes, short fiction provides me the opportunity to really delve into a fascination before something new comes along to occupy my interest.

HB: Your debut novel, Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down, is due out in 2016. Are there elements of the Midwest represented in your the novel?

AV: Absolutely. The novel is set entirely in a suburb of St. Louis that has been broken apart by a mass high school shooting. Though the shooting and its aftermath take the forefront of the novel, the Midwestern setting is paramount. I wanted to revisit St. Louis for the length of a novel, but even more so, I wanted to explore a Midwestern sense of community and how it shifts and bends beneath the weight of grief.

HB: How has the process of writing a novel surprised you? Have there been major differences in the process of crafting a novel as opposed to a collection of stories?

AV: In contrast to writing the stories in By Light We Knew Our Names, which had many eyes on them across the years of putting together a collection – through trusted colleagues, workshops or even through publication – the process of writing a novel definitely turned me into a lone wolf. No one saw the draft at all until it was complete, and even then, only three people read it (and one of those people was my husband). I worried that if someone read it before it was done, I would be completely derailed. I needed to get it out in one concentrated burst of year-long writing before anyone saw it. Novel-writing is also a lot of time alone just plodding, plodding even more, and mapping everything out in big, visual diagrams. At times it was isolating and frustrating, but there’s also something satisfying about the marathon and making your way.

HB: You have received many honors and awards, which include winning the Dzanc Books Short Story Collection Competition and several Pushcart Prize nominations. When did you first consider yourself to be a successful writer?

AV: I don’t know that I’ve ever really thought of myself as a successful writer, but I can definitely pinpoint when I began to think of myself as a professional. After I finished my MFA program, I was working full-time with a very heaving teaching load and knew that if I was going to get any writing done at all, I’d need to schedule the time and stick to it. That’s when I began to think of myself as a professional writer. Since then, I’ve stuck to a routine of getting at least 500 words written a day (or 1000 in the summer when I’m not teaching). Not every word ends up being useful, but writing is my job – just like any other job. Because it’s my job, I treat writing like I would any other profession in terms of spent time.

HB: You recently visited Ann Arbor, Michigan, for the Voices of the Middle West festival hosted by Midwestern Gothic and the University of Michigan’s Residential College. As one of the panelists for the Midwestern Fabulism panel, what advice can you give to those who aspire to write in the genre but don’t know where to start?

AV: Voices of the Middle West was truly an amazing conference and weekend – thank you again to everyone at Midwestern Gothic and the University of Michigan’s Residential College for such an impressive festival celebrating Midwestern writing! I’m honored to have participated on the Midwestern Fabulism panel with Matt Bell, Alissa Nutting, Laura Kasischke, and Elizabeth Schmuhl, and to have the chance to hear everyone say such smart things. For those starting out with Midwestern magic, I’d say pay attention to what’s magical and strange about your specific corner of the Midwest. Whether it’s an odd piece of history or town legend, or whether it’s the eerie way the wind whistles in spring or how the rain blankets the windowpanes during storms, there’s magic in the details – and in the particular details of a certain town or city. For me, Midwestern magic is setting, and it’s also local history, legend and custom.

HB: What’s next for you?

AV: While working on the novel, I wrote a string of St. Louis stories to unstick myself in the drafting process, and also to get more rooted in the novel’s Midwestern setting. Now that the novel is complete, I have ten short stories about different aspects of St. Louis history, culture, flora and fauna, so my plan is to round of a new collection of short fiction. I hope to start a new novel later this year too. I’m also readying to leave the Midwest for Santa Fe, where I’ll be joining the creative writing faculty at Santa Fe University of Art and Design this fall. Though I’ll undoubtedly bring along my Midwestern sensibility of soundscape, I’m looking forward to exploring a new landscape with its own rhythms and a rich setting for fiction.

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Anne Valente is the author of the short story collection, By Light We Knew Our Names (Dzanc Books, 2014), and the forthcoming novel, Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down (William Morrow, 2016). Her fiction appears in One Story, Ninth Letter, Hayden’s Ferry Review and The Normal School, and her essays appear in The Believer and The Washington Post.

Contributor Spotlight: Lindsey Steffes

Lindsey Steffes_photo-3 (1)Lindsey Steffes’ story “Gichigami” appears in Midwestern Gothic Issue 17, out now.

What’s your connection to the Midwest, and how has the region influenced your writing?
I was born and raised in Baraboo, Wisconsin – a glorious small town known for Al Ringling circus origins, Devil’s lake and currently, the indie band PHOX. Though our claims to fame may be few, we overcompensate with sincerity, pride and zealous goodwill. Baraboo was a place that spurred both my interest in writing and my imagination. As a child, I rewrote fairytales inspired by the mysteries of the Midwest and shortly after, turned to writing short stories in college at Madison, not far from home. After college, finding myself with an English degree but without a job, I moved to Bayfield, a 400-person town on the shores of Lake Superior, and worked at a vaguely-haunted Victorian Inn. Now, living in California and studying writing at University of California Riverside, I am more Wisconsin than ever and so is my writing. No matter how many times I try to write from a different setting, I am always drawn back home, to the land I know.

What do you think is the most compelling aspect of the Midwest?
The mythology of the Midwest is an untapped force in fiction. We have strong narratives of the south and of places like NYC and LA but rarely do we get stories from the Midwest, which is why Midwestern Gothic is so necessary in the world of publishing. Because of the isolation, the stark landscape and never-ending winters, the Midwest has a mythology all its own – one of magic and mystery, inherent in the landscape and in the people, who are fascinating characters in their own right.

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?
Lately, I’ve found myself obsessed with the frozen islands of Lake Superior. I’m absolutely haunted by the lake’s depth, danger and mystery. It seems to be one of the few wild places left in America. The severe conditions, combined with the history, the shipwrecks and the isolation make the Apostle Islands an incredibly rich and elusive world. Currently, I’m working to expand my short story “Gichigami” (published in MG’s Issue #17) into a novel. It’s the tale of fourteen-year-old Marta, a courageous, wild and oftentimes, brash young girl stranded with her father on the snow-covered Madeline Island.

Discuss your writing process — inspirations, ideal environments, how you deal with writer’s block.
Writer’s block is a real struggle, so now I set daily word count goals to force myself through. I also self-motivate with ice cream (highly recommended).

How can you tell when a piece of writing is finished?
I wish I could tell. For me, nothing ever feels finished. As an MFA student, I’m workshopping and revising constantly, so it’s really hard to let go of a draft even if it’s draft number six or seven.

Who is your favorite author (fiction writer or poet), and what draws you to their work?
It’s a tie between Breece DJ Pancake and Marilynne Robinson – two very different authors but both strongly tied to a sense of place and home. I find myself drawn to the spirituality of their work, to the sacred quality of the land and the sincerity of the people. There’s loneliness there, as well as resilience and character. I consider their work to be the most honest writing, and honesty in writing and in life is what I’m always reaching for.

What’s next for you?
Hopefully publishing a book. After I graduate, I hope to publish a collection of short stories and the novel that I’m working on. I also hope to buy a dog and name him George.

Where can we find more information about you?
I can be easily reached by email at Lindseymariesteffes@gmail.com. Also, my bio and contact information are listed on the UC Riverside MFA website. Feel free to reach out if you’re interested in stories, Wisconsin, small talk or ice cream.

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Issue 17 Reviewed at The Review Review

Midwestern Gothic Issue 17 (Spring 2015) was recently reviewed by Allison Pinkerton over at The Review Review! Here’s an excerpt:

Midwestern Gothic is a literary journal that delivers on its promises—it is a journal filled with work that focuses on flawed characters in complicated, real-life situations. The characters in these pieces engage in interpersonal struggles and inner struggles between the light and the dark inside each of us. As Nick Ostdick wrote in his short story published in this issue, “It’s the pinch in my chest that cripples me as the dawn starts showing golden and pink in the water below—all this goddamn water and no short way out.”

Read the full review here.

And pick up a copy of Issue 17 here.

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Welcome summer interns!

We’re excited to welcome our new summer interns, Morgan Dean, Hannah Gordon, and Michelle Torby! Each will be doing some incredible and exciting things over the next few months, and you can get to know a little about each of them below!


Morgan Dean loves chai bubble tea and archery. She is a senior at Oakland University, studying Cinema and Creative Writing. She yearns to spend her days playing with kittens, traveling the world, and watching anything with James Cagney. She loves fantasy adventures, has an intimate relationship with food, and adores anything British. Her hope is to one day work for Disney/Pixar, fabricating brilliant and timeless stories, all while advancing the portrayal of women. She is currently working on her first feature length screenplay and continuing her fabulous lifestyle as a broke filmmaker.

Hannah Gordon is a senior studying Communications and Creative Writing at the University of Michigan. She enjoys writing (obviously), reading (obviously), and watching funny videos of cats on the Internet. She is interested in going into book publishing and hopes to someday write her own books, but until then, she’s going to read, write, and watch cat videos.

Michelle Torby is a senior studying English and Museum Studies at the University of Michigan. She has a passion for the novel Jane Eyre, feminist theory, and anything purple. Michelle can often be found in small bookstores or wandering through museums. She hopes to enter the publishing field after graduation.




READERS

Jon Michael Darga
Melissa Durante
Graham Dethmers
Benjamin Rosenstock
Ally Wright

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Contributor Spotlight: Matt Tordoff

Matt T photoMatt Tordoff’s story “A Recruit’s Dream, US Navy Boot Camp, Chicago, Wanting Out” appears in Midwestern Gothic Issue 16, out now.

How long have you been writing?
I have been writing poetry off and on since I was a teenager. I have been writing more seriously—every day—for the past five years.

What’s your connection to the Midwest?
I was born in South Dakota and grew up in Minnesota. I currently live outside the Midwest, in the United Kingdom, but my family are spread out between Michigan, Minnesota and South Dakota, so I try to make it back to the Midwest as much as possible.

How has the Midwest influenced your writing?
As a poet, I believe that the image orchestrates its own soundtrack. I often use the imagery of the Midwest in my poetry, whether the piece is on the whole about the Midwest or not, and regardless of whether I am writing in a metrical form or in free verse, I often hear a Midwestern music, and hope that my readers hear that too.

In Minnesota there is a saying “Minnesota nice” which stands for the deference and empathy we have for each other. I think that in writing, especially when you are satirizing or suggesting that things need to change (which I sometimes do) , you have to remember to deliver that message with that deference and empathy, or it will otherwise appear bitter. I think the culture of the Midwest traditionally has a lot to teach us in this respect, and I try my best live up to this standard in my writing.

Why do you believe there has never really been a regionalist push for Midwestern writing in the past like there has with the South or even the West Coast?
There has always been this pragmatic stoicism about the Midwest which comes from its experience. Where I come from in Minnesota the settlers just did their thing—dug their sod houses and their farms. Then the blizzards, tornadoes, grasshoppers, etc. came. Through disaster and difficulty the community just got on with it and started over, stoically. I think in line with that virtue, the literary culture is much the same. Yes there is a Midwestern literary culture but it just kind of does its thing, gets on with it without fanfare. It is good to see literary journals like Midwestern Gothic working to promote a regionalist push though.

How do you feel about social media to promote your writing, and do you use it?
I think it’s a great tool, I have started doing it more, and will be using Twitter and other social media with a greater frequency.

Favorite book?
This changes constantly. If I get into something, it becomes my favorite book, and I have a long list. Some works that frequently reappear on my list of favorites are Phillip Levine’s The Simple Truth (poetry) , Carl Sandburg’s Cornhuskers (poetry), Ole Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth (novel) and Stuart Dybek’s The Coast of Chicago. All of these of course, Midwest works.

Favorite food?
Ice cream of any kind, but especially Rocky Road, Pistachio and when I get back to the Midwest, I always go looking for Blue Moon.

If you could have coffee (or tea or a beer) with any literary figure, alive or dead, who would it be?
Definitely Wallace Stevens, and I hope the coffee shop offers refills, because I would have a lot to ask>

Where can we find more information about you?
Via twitter @Matt_Tordoff. I will shortly launch a web site with some of my other work.

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Interview: Kodi Scheer

Scheer_(c)_Myra_KlarmanMidwestern Gothic staffer Jamie Monville talked with author Kodi Scheer about giving back to the community, non-human animals as foils, the weirdness of human nature, and more.

(Photo copyright (c) Myra Klarman)

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Jamie Monville: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Kodi Scheer: I was born in Iowa City and raised in rural Iowa. I had to pay my own way through college, so I was very fortunate to receive academic scholarships to the University of Iowa. There, I wrote an honors thesis in cognitive neuroscience and short fiction on the side. Eventually deciding against med school, I had a wonderful experience completing my MFA at the University of Michigan. I love to travel abroad, and do so at least once a year, but I’ve called Ann Arbor home for almost nine years now. Which is a really long way of saying I’ve been a lifelong Midwesterner.

JM: You were recently in Bulgaria as a fellow of the Sozopol Fiction Seminars. What did you learn there, from the place, the people, or both that you’ve brought back with you?

KS: Bulgaria was a dream—both familiar and foreign in all the best ways. Things I learned: Bulgaria is a lot like the Midwest in terms of literary and cultural significance. That is, flyover country. And people were so friendly and down to earth. Bulgaria certainly isn’t as flashy as some of the former Iron Curtain nations, but there’s a lot of great literature emerging there. Americans don’t read enough literature in translation! And there’s not enough being published, but some small publishers are now recognizing that. I’d recommend Alexander Shpatov, Virginia Zahariera, Zachary Karabashliev and Georgi Gospodinov. Read them and thank me later.

JM: You have won the Dzanc Prize for Excellence in Literary Fiction and Community Service and are currently a writer-in-residence for the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center. How do you see your work as a writer connected to your commitment to community service?

KS: Giving back to the community helps me get out of my own head. I spend so much time with imaginary people that it’s important to remember there’s an outside world. Even as a true introvert, I recognize the significance of meaningful human interaction. Writing can be very therapeutic, and it’s almost magic when you’re giving reading recommendations or writing prompts based on a patient’s interests, and the next week they come back and say how much the exercise really resonated or helped them make more sense of their illness.

JM: How has your time at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center influenced your writing?

KS: It’s been both heartbreaking, humbling, and exhilarating. It’s much like my time as a volunteer counselor at a women’s clinic in Iowa City. I just listen and try to guide people toward the direction they were already headed. I feel fortunate to be part of the land of the healthy, at least for the time being, and I give signposts to people who are in the land of the ill. We’re all in these temporary spaces, and at some point, we’ll all transition into the other space. I’m just trying to smooth the transition.

INCENDIARY GIRLS - Final Cover - Hi-ResJM: Your recent collection Incendiary Girls seems most interested in the real in combination with the fantastic, and how characters, when put in unexpected and often tragic situations, utilize fantasy to try and recreate their reality. How do you see the medical aspects of your book connected to the fantasy elements?

KS: I think the medical elements are inextricably related to the fantastical elements—they’re all connected to the body (of humans and animals). For example, in “No Monsters Here,” the protagonist is a young military wife who hasn’t fully understood her position. Her mental illness (OCD) doesn’t allow her to comprehend her husband’s experience. If he comes home, he will be missing pieces of himself. She’d rather think him dead while she’s perseverating and performing compulsive behaviors, and then she finds his body parts all over the house. She wants closure but refuses to acknowledge the most difficult emotion for her: hope.

JM: Animals are also a huge element in many of the stories in Incendiary Girls. You have said previously that “Non-human animals make great foils, I think, to human character” Why do you think that is?

KS: I think non-human animals possess multiple intelligences that we’re just starting to figure out. I mean, scientists just discovered that dogs can read our facial expressions—that’s incredible. And hogs (pigs to city folk) have some of the cognitive abilities of a three-year-old human child. Mind blowing. I think science is way behind on this front and I look forward to further studies showing the sentience of non-human animals. I consider my non-human characters just as important as any of the others.

JM: You’ve said previously that your first drafts you “follow the weirdness without any regard to character or theme.” When it comes time to revise, how do you determine what to scale back and which elements to push forward? At what point in your process do you find what makes the story indicative of human nature, regardless and sometimes because of it’s ‘weirdness’?

KS: After the first draft, I have to put it away for a while so I can get some distance. Then I rely on trusted readers—most from my awesome MFA cohort—to tell me where to scale back. They also get me thinking about potential themes. And that’s when I start finding the human connection. It was always there but sometimes I can’t find it by myself.

JM: What’s one thing you wished you’d known when you first began writing?

KS: I wish I’d known the amount of emotional resilience required for this gig. If you want readers or strive for publication, which most of us do, the amount of rejection you have to endure is soul-crushing. Yes, writing does take a little bit of innate talent, but mostly it takes perseverance. I know some very talented writers—more talented than I am—who haven’t published because the few rejections they’ve received have been difficult for them. The lows can be tough to deal with, but I can’t imagine doing anything else.

JM: What’s next for you?

KS: I’m working on a novel. I’m weirdly superstitious about discussing it, since it’s so nascent. But I will say it’s very different from my short fiction. I’m stretching my work in new ways, which I hope will prove fruitful.

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Kodi Scheer is the author of Incendiary Girls (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) which was named an Amazon Best Book of 2014. For her work as writer-in-residence at the University of Michigan’s Comprehensive Cancer Center, she was awarded the Dzanc Prize for Excellence in Literary Fiction and Community Service. Her stories have appeared in The Chicago Tribune, The Iowa Review, The Florida Review, Quarterly West and Bellevue Literary Review.

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Contributor News

Meg Johnson, who had work featured in Issue 6 (Summer 2012), recently saw her book The Crimes of Clara Turlington win the 2015 Vignette Collection Award, to be published soon by Vine Leaves Press. Read all about it here.

Alisha Erin Hillam, who had work featured in Issue 16 (Winter 2015), recently had a poem titled “I Slipped Through a Shadow” published in Issue 1.2 of The Tishman Review. In addition, she had a poem titled “If I Had Had Twitter in 1998” featured as a bonus poem with Passages North,

Congrats, Meg and Alisha!

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Interview: Ben Stroud

Stroud, Ben (Bering Photography)Midwestern Gothic staffer Jamie Monville talked with author Ben Stroud about writing authentically, exile, Wes Anderson, and more.

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Jamie Monville: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Ben Stroud: I moved here in 2002 to go to grad school at the University of Michigan for a PhD in English. Except for two years, I’ve been here ever since.

JM: You grew up in Texas, but have spent the past several years settled in the Midwest either in Michigan or Ohio. How does living in two completely different climates and places affect your writing? Do you see any similarities between Texas and the Midwest?

BS: I think the difference between where I live now and where I grew up gives me, perhaps, a better perspective on where I came from. Or maybe better—who knows? But that separation, that “exile,” can be important for writers. The longer I’ve been away, the more I’ve been able to look at Texas as both an outsider and an insider. Likewise, I feel like being an outsider to the Midwest has given me a way to appreciate the Midwest. I like having seasons! OK, it’s early March of the longest winter ever as I type this, but I still hold to that. Similarities? Hmm. Hard to say—maybe I’m too cowed by this winter. But I find it hard to speak in broad categories. One of the things I’ve resisted is thinking of Texan-ness (or Midwesterness) in terms of the stereotypes people often use. Not for any noble cause, but they often break down when you look up close. Which Texas, the Texas of my small town, the Texas of Dallas, the Texas of Austin, the Texas of El Paso? Or the Midwest, which is so rich in variety: Toledo is so hugely different from Ann Arbor. And, say, Minnesota? Minnesota is almost another planet. I guess the only basic similarity I can commit to is that they are both places full of people, with all our contradictions and differences and samenesses.

JM: You received a BA in English and History at the University of Texas at Austin and an MFA in Fiction as well as a PhD in Twentieth-Century American Literature from the University of Michigan. What do you think that your knowledge of history and American Literature specifically brings to the stories that you write?

ByzantiumBS: Well, with history: I’ve always been interested in history. My father is a history teacher at Kilgore College and so I grew up with it. And for me, too, my interests in history have always been wide-ranging: in college I was taking classes on Anglo-Saxon Britain, on Rome, on the Ottoman Empire, etc. That same wide-ranging interest leads me to the stories I write. I’d like to say that my PhD has helped me just by giving me so much time to read, and the opportunity to read through so many periods of literature. I’m one who argues for the classics. And I think in some of the stories I’ve written I’ve been reaching back for older approaches to story, to narration, to voice, to form. I’m attracted to the Victorian moment in many ways—before there was any hard divide made between “genre” and “literary.”

JM: In past interviews you have indicated that something that you think a lot about is how much research you need to write authentically from a historical perspective. What are your recent thoughts regarding this question? And how do you go about your own story telling in order strike a balance between authenticity and letting the story dictate its own fate?

BS: I’m constantly rethinking my approach to research, and trying to find what is the best approach for a given story. When Edward P. Jones gave a reading at Michigan, I asked him about his research process for The Known World and he said he didn’t end up doing much research—that he found it got in the way. He knew the basic facts that form the novel (the instance of black people owning slaves in the antebellum South) and invented everything from that: a fictional county, fictional people, etc. In many of my stories I’ve spent a lot of time doing research, but for a recent story—”Jessup,” in the current issue of Zoetrope—I followed Jones’s method. I got the notion of the story from something I’d heard while visiting Mammoth Cave. I thought at first I should do tons of research. But then I thought: make it a fictional cave and focus on the characters, the dialog, and see how it develops.

JM: You have also indicated that world-building is an aspect that you focus a lot on. How do you know what kind of world is appropriate for what story? Do you have a particular idea in mind when you decide to create a world, or does the world come before and shape the story that results?

BS: Sometimes, but not always, I’m drawn to a story because of the world it is set in. This was true for “Byzantium” (7th-century Byzantine empire) and “Traitor of Zion” (a religious commune in the far north of Lake Michigan, based on a real such community that existed on Beaver Island). I’m interested in exploring something in that moment, and so part of the process of crafting the story is finding the character who will take us there. I don’t know that there’s a particular idea. Usually it’s a fascination. Writing the story is the way I figure that fascination out.

JM: What’s one thing you wished you’d known when you first began writing?

BS: When I was in college, Wes Anderson came to talk to us as he was plugging for Rushmore—this was way back before he was “Wes Anderson.” Only a few people showed up. (This Q and A was held off campus, outside his small tour bus, which was parked in a vacant lot—and Jason Schwartzman was there, too.) At the time I planned to be a film major. I asked Wes Anderson what advice he had for young film majors. He thought a moment and then said, “None.” At the time I thought he was a jerk. Only later did I learn that he was never a film major, so perhaps he wasn’t that invested in the question. And only later still did I think there was a lot of truth to his advice. There’s not really any magic bit of advice to be given for people who want to create art, whether it be film or writing or whatever. I was lucky to have good teachers who let me know that being a writer meant lots of work and lots of rejection. That was one good thing to know.

I’m a teacher, so I’m very invested in the notion that there are real things that we can tell beginning writers that will help them. And I believe that. But I also know that being a writer (or anything else) is a complicated, rough journey that each of us experiences in our own way, and so in a way the best thing to know is that there is no magic advice that will fix it for you.

JM: Which writer has most influenced your style?

BS: There isn’t any one writer I could name. I remember an early Richard Ford period. Later, Steven Millhauser, Jim Shepard, Lily Tuck (News from Paraguay was one of the first historical novels I read that blew me away), Hilary Mantel. I could name lots and lots of others—I try to read widely and it all goes in, it’s all fodder for thinking through my own work. For instance, I love Mary Gaitskill’s writing. Is my writing anything like hers? Probably not. But there are things in her work I keep thinking about—and I’m sure it shows up in my own work in some way, even if it’s hard to identify. That’s just one instance—there are a lot of other writers I feel that way about.

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Ben Stroud is the author of the story collection Byzantium (Graywolf), which won the 2013 Story Prize Spotlight Award and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Bakeless Fiction Prize, and was named a Best Book of the Year by the Kansas City Star, Best Summer Book by the Chicago Tribune and Publisher’s Weekly, and a Best Book of the Month by Amazon. Ben’s stories have appeared in Harper’s, Zoetrope, and One Story, among other places, and have been anthologized in New Stories from the South and Best American Mystery Stories. He is the recipient of a 2014 Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award, has received fellowships from Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony, and has taught literature and creative writing at universities in the US and Germany. Currently, Ben is Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Toledo.

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MG @ the North American Review Bicentennial Conference

The North American Review, the longest-lived literary magazine in the United States, will be celebrating its bicentennial this June 11-13 with a creative writing and literature conference to be held at the University of Northern Iowa.

In addition to a packed few days of superstar keynote speakers and some absolutely wonderful events, Midwestern Gothic co-founder Jeff Pfaller will be appearing on a panel entitled Many Americas: Discussions on Regional Writing’s Universal Importance along with Eric Boyd, Sarah Shotland, and Jared Yates Sexton. This panel will be on Friday June 12, from 4:15-5:30.

For more information on this panel, and directions, click here.

For more information on the conference in general, click here.

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Contributor Spotlight: Lisa Mecham

Lisa MechamLisa Mecham‘s piece “Deluge” appears in Midwestern Gothic Issue 17, out now.

(photo is Lisa in the Midwest, circa 1977)

What’s your connection to the Midwest, and how has the region influenced your writing?
I lived in St. Louis, Missouri for many formidable life experiences: moved there when I was five, stayed through college and graduate school, got married and started my family there. My approach to writing is influenced by clichéd stereotypes of the Midwest: hardworking and optimistic.

What do you think is the most compelling aspect of the Midwest? 
I’m drawn to the contradictions and complexities of the Midwest. The region is often portrayed as flat and unrefined. An expanse of cornfields and Bud swilling, Fox watching folks. Unfortunately, the right wing has co-opted it for political purposes and whitewashed it as “The Heartland.” True, those aspects of the Midwest exist but it’s also culturally rich, progressive, and diverse. And then there’s Ferguson. As I said, contradictions and complexities. I like to explore the grey areas of my characters as well. Their external selves, internal selves. And the dark places in between.

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?
My piece in this issue, “Deluge,” is directly related to growing up a few miles from the mighty Mississippi River, where it flows past St. Louis’ famous Gateway Arch. The river water—always brown, never clear—is incredibly powerful and smells like a desperate, wet dog. We’d take family trips to the riverfront, stand on cobblestones, and watch the river hurl things swiftly past: bramble and thick tree trunks, long barges full of grain, rotting riverboats. I was repulsed and thrilled all at once.

Discuss your writing process — inspirations, ideal environments, how you deal with writer’s block. 
Each piece I write has a different process. “Deluge” started as a poem I wrote for The Grind Daily Writing Series after stumbling on a Wikipedia page about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. As with many of my poems, I noticed a strong narrative thread and decided to expand it into a short-short story.

How can you tell when a piece of writing is finished?
I know a piece is almost finished when I’m sick and tired of it. I’ve looked at it too long, futzed with all the sentences, words. I might even know something is wrong but I’m too lazy or too entrenched to make the right changes. That’s when I send it to a group of trusted readers I’ve assembled over the years: former teachers, fellow students, writers from workshops I’ve attended. They’ll get the draft back to me with notes and then I give it one final revision.

Who is your favorite author (fiction writer or poet), and what draws you to their work?
Just as I’m an unapologetic Midwesterner, I’m also an unapologetic Stephen King fan. Even though he writes primarily about Maine, I identify him with my hometown because I read so many of his books by flashlight under the covers of my childhood bed. He was always writing directly to me, his Constant Reader, and he made it safe to go to dark places. His writing is clear, honest, and he doesn’t care what the publishing and writing elite think of him. I won’t argue his well-earned literary merits here, I’ll just say that it’s because of his books that I knew I would be a writer one day.

What’s next for you?
I’m working on a prosey-poetic-fictionalized memoir about mental illness in the suburbs. The Shining meets Revolutionary Road.

Where can we find more information about you?
You can follow what I read and write at: lisamecham.com

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