Contributor Spotlight: Brendan Williams-Childs

November 20th, 2014

036Brendan Williams-Childs’ story “Outside New Knoxville” appears in Midwestern Gothic Issue 15, out now.

How long have you been writing?
It feels like it’s been a long time! But really, I’ve only been writing seriously for the last three years. Before that, it was all high-school and middle-school stuff about vampires and robots. I still write about robots, but, you know, better robots.

What’s your connection to the Midwest?
I have a lot of family that comes from the Midwest in round-about ways. My paternal grandmother is from Ohio, actually not too far from where I set my piece. My mother and all of her family are from Flint, Michigan. My roommate is from Minnesota and one of my best friends from high-school went to college in Northern Ohio. I’ve been a frequent visitor to the Midwest, and I’ve been living with Midwesterners all my life in some way or another.

How has the Midwest influenced your writing?
Being from Wyoming, I’m used to the idea that, for many writers on the coasts, the West is a place of legends. It has a legendary kind of status. But for me, I grew up with the Legends of the Midwest. Spending time with my mother and her family in Michigan, hearing from my father about “summers in Ohio” when he was growing up… All of these things created a kind of mythic Midwest for me. I try to capture the kind of myths I grew up with, while also trying to get the details right about the time I’ve spent in the Midwest as an adult. The Midwest is different for everyone who comes from it or goes to it, so finding the peace between the idea and the lived experience is what drives 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?
Well, the South is one thing and the West Coast is another entirely.

Southern Gothic, as I’ve experienced it, arises from the deep and visceral need to express pain. The pain of the Civil War and the struggles that came after that etc. John Counts, who was a contributor in Issue 14 of Midwestern Gothic, said that the conflict and aftermath in the South was “downright biblical” and I think he hit the nail on the head with that comment.

And I don’t know how to best express how I feel about West Coast lit. While there’s certainly the element of disillusionment that you’ll find in its mysteries and dramas, I always get the sense that it’s very proud of itself. Which isn’t a bad thing, but when you think about, say, California, you always think about the end of a long journey. For pioneers to aspiring actors etc, it’s very much a place that feels like it deserves to be celebrated through the struggles. Of course, California doesn’t define West Coast lit. I’m just tragically unfamiliar with works about Oregon or Washington.

Anyway, I think for a long time that, because the Midwest was seen as part of a journey and not a destination, people didn’t feel comfortable writing about it the same way they would write about the South or the West Coast. But, and I know a lot of other contributors have said this, I see a huge push against this now. Everyone I know from the Midwest is very proud of their home states or has a better vision of where they’re from, and they want to share it. And with the internet, there’s no reason that a writer has to move to New York or Los Angeles and write about those places to be considered legitimate. Thank goodness.

How do you feel about social media to promote your writing, and do you use it?
I wish I was better at it! But right now I don’t feel totally confident in trying to promote myself on any social media sites because I’m still so new to the game. Eventually, I think, I’ll set up a little CV or a blog, but for now I use social media recreationally. Although I do have a LinkedIn.

Favorite book?
It’s a very real three-way tossup between Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories (which I know isn’t really a book, more an anthology), Joyce Carol Oates’ The Rise of Life on Earth and Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho.

Favorite food?
My favorite regional food is anything with elk but my favorite anytime food is definitely macaroni and cheese with hotdogs.

If you could have coffee (or tea or a beer) with any literary figure, alive or dead, who would it be?
I used to think Hemingway, but I don’t think I could keep up if I tried to get drinks with him. I’d have to say either Ray Bradbury (“The Martian Chronicles” has really inspired a great deal of my speculative fiction work) or Joyce Carol Oates, who I actually met at the National Book Festival last year, which was really neat. She seems like a very nice woman, and I feel like she would have great things to say about regional literature.

Where can we find more information about you?
Right now, maybe on Twitter? I’m trying to get better at using it, but I get a little overwhelmed by the sheer number of great small presses and news orgs that I follow. Anyway, you can tweet at me at @bwilliamschilds or, until May of 2015, you can e-mail me at amlitmag@gmail.com which is the e-mail of the undergraduate literary magazine I’m running on campus.

Autoplay is now available!

Autoplay by Julie Babcock

We’re so excited to announce that Autoplay, our very first poetry collection by the excellent Julie Babcock, is officially available for your purchase and reading pleasure!

With glowing advance praise from acclaimed poets like Marianne Boruch, Mary Biddinger, and Sean Thomas Dougherty, we couldn’t be more excited to share Julie’s work with the world.

You can buy the book as a paperback or eBook from major online booksellers. Shop for Autoplay Now.

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Contributor Spotlight: Cal Freeman

Freeman photo skazatCal Freeman’s poem “Massasauga” appears in Midwestern Gothic Issue 14, out now.

How long have you been writing?
I’ve written poems and stories since middle school, so about 20 years.

What’s your connection to the Midwest?
I grew up on the west side of Detroit (Warrendale neighborhood) and studied in Detroit and Bowling Green, Ohio.

How has the Midwest influenced your writing?
The Great Lakes basin has influenced my writing both by showing up directly as a source of setting but also in terms of inspiring a sense of marvel at the ways water works and shapes things; here I feel like I’m always considering the geological past and the way it has in many ways dictated the trajectory of culture and industry. There also seems to be a straightforward way of talking and doing things here; it isn’t always nice, but it isn’t pretentious either (hope I’m not engaging in too much geo-piety, but I tend to romanticize Michigan, Detroit/Downriver specifically).

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?
Goddammit, I cannot believe this.

How do you feel about social media to promote your writing, and do you use it?
I post most of my poems and essays to Facebook. I like it because it expands your readership, letting people who might not buy one of the quarterlies in which your writing appears read what you’re up to. I also get to keep up with my writer friends and read their work, often drawing ideas on where to send, so it strikes me as a good thing. My following on Twitter is pretty pathetic (@calfreemanpoet).

Favorite book?
John Berryman’s Dream Songs.

Favorite food?
Chicken schwarma sandwich.

If you could have coffee (or tea or a beer) with any literary figure, alive or dead, who would it be?
I’d love to have a shot of vo and a beer with Jim Harrison at the Dunes Saloon.

Where can we find more information about you?
I play music in the Detroit-based folk/Americana band the Codgers (thecodgers.bandcamp.com) under the pseudonym “John Freeman.” I don’t have an author website.

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Contributor Spotlight: Laura Hulthen Thomas

LH Thomas photoLaura Hulthen Thomas’ story “Sole Suspect” appears in Midwestern Gothic Issue 15, out now.

How long have you been writing?
Like a lot of writers, I’ve always been writing and don’t really remember a time when I wasn’t. My first story was called “The Thursday Elephant” and I wrote it when I was six. It was about a shy elephant that would only come out of its hiding place on Thursdays. Clearly I was both a shy and a superstitious child! I mean, why only on Thursdays? The times when I have stopped writing loom much larger in my memory. It’s scary to quit, especially for any long stretch of time. I’ll do anything now to capture time to write and avoid that terror. The worst days writing are worlds better than the best days not writing.

What’s your connection to the Midwest?
I have lived, gone to school, and worked in Michigan and Wisconsin for much of my life. But I was born in New Hampshire, a transplant from the East Coast, the daughter of decidedly Yankee parents. Navigating between Yank directness and that unique Midwestern firewall of cheerful distance has made for some interesting cultural collisions. Yanks have an opinion on everything right down to the angle of that day’s sunset and will tell you so straight and true, not always with a mind to spare your feelings. Midwesterners find some weird subterranean ways to tell you exactly what they think while smiling and thanking you for taking the time to listen. I still don’t quite have that gap figured out. With the Yanks I leave a conversation knowing a bit more than I aimed or even wanted to know, but days later I’m sometimes still trying to figure out what the Midwesterner has really just told me. Then I married a Southerner. Everything and nothing gets said in the course of a typical day. Kind of like my writing process, come to think of it.

How has the Midwest influenced your writing?
Because I am such an uneasy Midwesterner, tethered here but always a bit of an outsider by temperament and family history, early on I was drawn to other outsiders. I formed my closest friendships and deepest fascinations with the kids of the Eastern European immigrants to my small town. As this was the late seventies and the eighties, these families had fled repressive regimes and very hard lives. The things I found perplexing about the Midwest these immigrants found easy, and freeing. The farm landscape of Southeastern Michigan that I thought dull compared to the White Mountains or the Atlantic felt familiar to the Romanian, Polish and Yugoslavian émigrés who had left rural villages behind. Owning a bakery, or working on the line at GM or Ford for union wages that paid for a house and car, was pure liberation. As they were accustomed to not speaking freely in their home countries, they were perfectly comfortable with the Midwestern friendly reserve that says much by saying little. And my Yank self felt at home with that Eastern European opinionated gusto and passionate curiosity in ways I didn’t feel at home in Michigan. So the Midwest first influenced my writing by inspiring me to write about other places to find my own sense of belonging. Many of my stories are set in Russia, and right now I’m at work on a novella set in St. Petersburg. But these immigrants also taught me to think of the Midwest as a place of freedom, peace, and a healthy sense of privacy. When I do write about Michigan, which is nowadays mostly where my fiction is set, my characters are often Midwestern “lifers” who don’t fit in, usually because they are behaving badly and don’t realize it until the damage is done, which I guess is another Yank influence.

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?
Why the Midwest has been late to define what makes its literary art unique to the region is perhaps a question of perception. I think readers view the Middle West as fundamentally American, representing the whole, rather than a distinct part, of our country. Our great Midwestern authors of the past, like Hemingway, Dreiser, Richard Wright, Twain, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and even a writer like Zane Grey, an Ohio native, live in the public literary imagination as capturing a quintessential American experience. While New England lit and Southern lit evoke specific regional associations, we talk about these Midwesterners as telling American stories. Their characters are Chicagoans or Michiganders rather than Southerners or Yanks, their stories tied less to regional histories and demons and more to the joys and terrors of their American places and times. I see this view of Midwestern places as America’s places in my own experience of writers I admire. When I make literary pilgrimages to New England, I visit the writers’ homes—Louisa May Alcott’s and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s houses, Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond. My Midwestern pilgrimages are to the places of fiction—Hemingway’s Big Two-Hearted River on the way to where my husband grew up in the UP, Dreiser and Stuart Dybek’s Chicago, Jeffrey Euginedes’ Detroit, Laura Kasischke’s Benton Harbor. I’m drawn to find the Midwestern writers’ mysteries and hearts where their stories live rather than in the spaces where they work.

Now I actually see a strong push towards defining our regional literature in journals and in the national arts media, as writers such as Kasischke and Bonnie Jo Campbell step into national literary influence with their excellent work. Midwestern Gothic is a wonderful “push”, and literary festivals like the Voices of the Middle West festival MG organizes with the University of Michigan’s Residential College are bringing the region’s literary vision to wider public attention and conversation.

How do you feel about social media to promote your writing, and do you use it?
Since I teach in an undergraduate creative writing program devoted to community, I do use Facebook—Twitter too, but less often—to promote writing events, including my own. I was a late-comer to social media because I feared the time and care it takes to be active in a meaningful, non-obnoxious way on those platforms. I had mixed feelings before using social media, but there’s no doubt that Facebook reaches more writers and readers than any other media I have access to, and helps enormously with getting the word out. Now I’m happy to use social media to reach students and readers. Drawing more readers to book stores and other intimate reading spaces is wonderful for literature, especially for the independent voices who do not have a big publishing house to promote their work.

Favorite book?
Impossible to answer! I’m embarrassingly indiscriminate in my reading, which I think helps me as a writer; keeps me open, accepting, exploring. I’m often in love with whatever book I’m reading at the moment. I just finished teaching Giovanni’s Room to my university freshman seminar and was so moved by the students’ excitement over this book. Every single line breathes. Baldwin captures enormous physical and emotional experiences in intimate, precise detail. So at the moment, this gem is my favorite. I’m a few chapters in to Louise Erdrich’s The Round House. By next week I’m betting it will be my new favorite.

Favorite food?
You’ll think I’m saying this just because it’s a Michigan thing, but I love cherries. My son Bennett’s Pepper Pasta Sauce with his homemade meatballs made from an old family recipe is the hands-down winner of food I love. I follow this meal with my favorite dessert, my son Nathan’s Oreo cake. Yep, Oreo cake tastes as good as it sounds.

If you could have coffee (or tea or a beer) with any literary figure, alive or dead, who would it be?
I would have tea with Ivy Litvinov, an English writer who married the Russian revolutionary Maxim Litvinov. Maxim became an ambassador under Lenin, and then Stalin’s Foreign Secretary. Ivy married Maxim and moved to Moscow in the 1920s after they were both a part of the radical Bolshevik movement In England. As Ivy was both an Englishwoman and a Jew I find this decision remarkable. Moreover, she had two young children and was pregnant at the time she traveled to Moscow. She miscarried on the voyage, and faced a very hard life in the Soviet Union. It’s this time I’d love to ask her about, the point at which what you believe in and whom you love inspire you to change your life so drastically. While in Moscow, Ivy wrote novels and stories, as well as translated Chekhov and other standards of Russian literature. Although Maxim Litvinov figured prominently in the Bolsheviks’ early agitations and crimes and was the architect of the Soviet Union’s foreign policy, Ivy never wrote of her life as a prominent political figure’s wife. The stories she finally published late in her life, in The New Yorker in the late 60s and early 70s, were set stubbornly, some thought, in the English countryside of her youth. Although publishers repeatedly hounded her to write an autobiography of her tumultuous Russian life, until her death Ivy insisted that her original home was her real story.

Where can we find more information about you?
I’m the low-profile type, so the best place to find out more about me is through the Residential College website or our RC writers’ website: http://sites.lsa.umich.edu/rcwriters/

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Read “The Tender Knife” at Joyland

We’re delighted that acclaimed journal Joyland has decided to feature “The Tender Knife”—a story from Scott Dominic Carpenter’s collection This Jealous Earth (MG Press). From the Joyland site:

Occasionally, Joyland‘s Midwest section highlights great small presses based in the Midwest. This story is part of the collection This Jealous Earth published by MG Press, the micro-press affiliated with the journal Midwestern Gothic. More on the collection below the story.

And here’s a sample from the story:

The night before the killing, Walter plucked silverware out of the dishwasher and thunked it into the drawer. Next to the slotted tray, other utensils caught his eye—the steak knives, the paring knife, the chef’s knife, the cleaver.

Read the entire story here.

For more information on This Jealous Earth, including how you can get yourself a copy, click here.

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Interview: Naeem Murr

Naeem-Murr-color-(c)-Alan-CrossMidwestern Gothic staffer Kelly Nhan talked with author Naeem Murr about the interaction of racial identity and place, derelict houses, being haunted by your characters, and more.

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Kelly Nhan: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Naeem Murr: Though I was born and brought up in London, with a few years spent as a child in Beirut, I’ve lived for extended periods in various parts of the Midwest—Michigan, Missouri, and Illinois.  I’ve been living in Chicago for close to ten years now.

KN: Your most recent novel, The Perfect Man, is set, in part, in the small town of Pisgah, Missouri, where the protagonist, Rajiv, finds himself by way of London in the 1950s. How does racial/national/ethnic identity interact with place, specifically the small town setting, in your work?

NM: Rajiv Travers is a mixed-race but dark-skinned Indian boy who spent part of his infancy in India before being shipped off to unwelcoming British relatives in London.  There he’s subject to particular racial tensions in regard to immigrants from the sub-continent—being called a Paki and so on.  He then ends up in a small Midwestern town in which he becomes a series of confusing signifiers.  While he’s dark-skinned, which suggests—negatively—African-American to some of Pisgah’s inhabitants, he has a plummy English accent, which brings with it other preconceptions.  Since there’s only one of him, he becomes something of a curiosity rather than a threat, though the color of his skin still excludes him from such things as joining the school’s sports teams.  Some characters, such as Nora, see him as a romantic figure, connected to the Old World, garden parties, and maharajas.  Others see him as a “little nigger.”  The novel has an unusual form.  Many who read it think of Rajiv as its protagonist, which is reasonable given his place in the book, but we never enter Rajiv’s point-of-view until the final two chapters. (Indeed the prominent and significant characters of the book are two women, Ruth and Annie.)  Until those last two chapters, Rajiv exists as a kind of trickster figure, onto which all the people of the town project different conceptions.  All this interpretive confusion comes to a head, of course, when one of the girls in the town develops an attraction for him.

While I was writing the novel, it never occurred to me how close Rajiv’s experience was to my own.  My father, who died when I was very young, was Lebanese-Palestinian, my mother Irish.  I grew up in London, maintaining contact with both my Lebanese and Irish families, two cultures that are as surprisingly similar to one another as they are distant from the British culture.  In order to save my brother and I from the kind of racism that in England was focused on the Irish (the English tell jokes about dumb Paddies) my mother taught us to speak with something of an upper-middle class English accent.  However, we lived in a big working-class block of flats, which meant that this synthetic posh accent made us outsiders there.  So I grew up in a world and culture that in some ways was alien, even inimical to me.  Not Lebanese, not Irish, not English, neither upper nor lower class (and in England class is everything), I was without an identity—an outsider, an imposter.  The massive block of flats in which I grew up was a place in which children were beneath notice and were constantly in and out of people’s homes, often witnessing adult interactions that would today be considered highly inappropriate.  It was a fenestrated world, and a world to which I was highly sensitized, since I was trying to understand what it was to be a part of it—to be human.  It was only after I’d finished The Perfect Man that I realized how faithfully the world I had grown up in had been refracted through a place I’d never known—this small town in Missouri in the 1950s.  Pisgah, like the block of flats in which I grew up, in which everyone knew everyone else’s business, was full of people living hard-scrabble lives, full of strong women and bad fathers.  Rajiv, in this place, is the skin he’s in and the accent with which he speaks.

738293KN: What was your inspiration behind The Perfect Man? Considering how centered the novel is in its respective time period and geographical place(s), did you do research while writing?

NM: The answer to that is place.  I was living in Columbia, Missouri, and was taken by that landscape, particularly the flood plains and the bluffs over the river.  When I explored the countryside I’d often come across derelict houses, almost swallowed up by the woods, a few of them looking as if their inhabitants had been subject to some kind of rapture, their possessions—crockery, shoes, and children’s toys—still scattered about.  For me, as I think is true for many writers, there is an urge to re-populate the past.  It was, in part, this urge that brought the world of Pisgah, Missouri to life in me.  Once the place had established itself in my imagination, the people—the characters—followed, one after another, to populate it: Annie, Ruth, Nora, Alvin, Lewis, all, so to speak, walking out of the river, and woods, and flood plains toward me.  Rajiv, the trickster emerged then as the spine and focus of the book, coming to meet them, inaugurating that ancient narrative of the stranger who comes to town.

Of course I did a great deal of research, both into the time period and into voice.  The most important thing is for people to sound as if they’re from that place and time.  I don’t believe in excessive research.  In the end the world one creates as a writer is an imagined one, with its own dream life and dream coherence.  You need to do enough so that readers are not thrown out of the book, but too much research, in my experience, weighs a book down, and can even kill it (I think of George Eliot’s Romola.)

KN: The Perfect Man tracks the coming-of-age of the young Rajiv. How did you prep yourself for writing in this voice?

NM: For me, living in the lives and voices of others is what it is to be a fiction writer.  It’s often argued that there’s a divide here (a false one, like most such divides) between writers.  On the one side lies someone like Joyce Carol Oates, who speaks of being possessed by her characters, and missing them after the novel is done; on the other side is someone like Nabokov, who asserts total control.  It’s easy to criticize or even mock both, the medium versus the ventriloquist.  This is a spectrum, and each writer lies at some wavering point along it.  One controls even as one is controlled, is inhabited, haunted by one’s characters, even as one inhabits and haunts them—they dream of you as you dream of them.  At the heart of every work of fiction is a sacred trilogy: reader, writer, character.  A work comes to life by the balanced presence and input of these three, separate but indivisible, each filling the book with his or her life.

KN: Who are some writers who have influenced your own work?

NM: This is always a tough question for any writer to answer, since there are so many.  On some level it can also be true that engaging deeply with the art and craft of writing can make a conventional reading experience—in which one loses oneself in a book—difficult, if not impossible.  There is some truth in claiming that I was probably most deeply touched—in terms of my reading experience—by the books I read as a child.  It’s also true that what I’m looking for in any particular work of fiction is often contingent on particular interests and obsessions that have grown out of whatever project I’m currently engaged with, including the specific elements of craft I’m looking to develop.  This means that a book that was once important to me may not engage me in the same way (though it will perhaps again at some point in the future).  In my university years, when I was studying, unhappily, to be an engineer, I read a lot of European writers, especially the French existentialist writers—Gide, Camus, Sartre, with Gide’s The Counterfeiters, being one of the most memorable of these books.  Later I devoured the Russians, loving Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Babel, and Sholokhov, learning a great deal in particular from Tolstoy in regard to how to bring characters to life on the page, how to write a shapely chapter, and how to structure a long book with multiple significant characters.  I loved George Eliot, particularly Middlemarch.  Here is a random sample of books I return to: The Transit of Venus, Shirley Hazzard; Because They Wanted to, Mary Gaitskill; Absalom, Absalom! William Faulkner; To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf;  Bleak House, Charles Dickens; The Patrick Melrose Novels, Edward St. Aubyn; The Coast of Chicago, Stuart Dybek, Island, Alistair McLeod; Going to Meet the Man, James Baldwin.

KN: Having lived throughout the Midwest, what do you think characterizes the region?

NM: Hard work and modesty.

KN: Much of your work, namely The Perfect Man and The Boy, has been described as literary thrillers. From where do you get inspiration for such dark, haunting themes?

NM: I found childhood very difficult.  I was, I suppose, a sensitive child who saw, given the world in which I grew up, a great deal of the dark side of human life.  For example, though I grew up without a father, I rarely envied any one of my friends his or her father.  These were men who drank, who were emotionally or physically violent, and who often took up all the air in their homes.  The behavior of these men was a function of being poor and powerless, of course, and on some level I understood that also.  My experience of these men emerges in the malevolent organism of that group of men led by Bennet in The Perfect Man, and in general that difficult experience of childhood is inevitably going to be a part of my work.  However, I also hope that I have developed as a writer.  The Perfect Man is more balanced in regard to light and darkness than The Boy—which is not to disparage The Boy, which I’m proud of, and which reflects in a compelling way what was an extremely difficult period in my life at the time I wrote it.  But one should hope and expect as a writer that one’s work will develop and expand in regard not only to its ambition, but also to its emotional scope.  The last chapters of The Perfect Man, though still expressing an awareness of the darkness ever present in the hearts even of the best of us, ultimately constitute a positive ending, in which childhood, that deeply affecting dream that lingers throughout our lives, and from which some never fully wake, has been woken from—at least by Rajiv and Annie.  In part the book expresses what is in me a fundamental belief that people need to grow up; and that people can.

KN: What’s next for you?

NM: I’ve been working back and forth between two long novels for the past decade, both of which are close to being done.

The first, Welcome to the Hotel of Strangers, covers the life, birth to death, of Ibrahim “Redbeard,” who was born in Haifa in what was then Palestine in 1938, and who is relating his story as a seventy-year-old in America in 2008.  His is a rags-to-riches story, from penniless refugee to owner of a multinational corporation.  As with so many of my characters—the eponymous boy, with his numerous aliases in The Boy, the antic and mysterious Amos Radcliffe in The Genius of the Sea, and Rajiv in The Perfect Man—Ibrahim is an elusive character, upon whom everyone projects his or her own notions in regard to his identity.  At one stage he’s arrested, imprisoned, and tortured for being an Israeli spy in Algeria; at another he’s severely pressured to fund Arab militias fighting Israel.  There’s something in him that refuses to be fixed in terms of the cultural, religious, and national identities that have destroyed his world.

For all this, much of the novel is really a family saga, covering Ibrahim’s childhood in Haifa and Lebanon, and the struggle of his family and friends after their exile from Israel; and later, and in particular, focusing on his relationship with his only child, his daughter Aisha, who is brought up in Detroit, but becomes politically radicalized.  It is also, as with most of my novels (and here perhaps is the influence of those early children’s books), an adventure story, a journey in which Ibrahim encounters many gods and monsters.

The second, The Rabbit Game, is set in contemporary Chicago.  The book opens with three murders that have taken place in Chicago just weeks before the arrival in that city of Chase Halliwell, an Englishman who has just inherited his deceased father’s estate.  Chase hardly knew his father, who went by numerous aliases, and discovers that this man has been living in Chicago as him—as Chase Halliwell.  This enables Chase to essentially step into his father’s life.  He quickly becomes involved in the solving of these three murders, which leads him into the horrors of the Vietnam War, into the underworld of cyber-forgery, and into the lives of the wealthy glitterati of Chicago.  Ultimately these mysteries are a kind of hall of mirrors for Chase, reflecting his own troubled life back to him, and offering him the opportunity for transformation and redemption.

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Naeem Murrʼs first novel, The Boy, was a New York Times Notable Book. Another novel, The Genius of the Sea, was published in 2003. His latest, The Perfect Man, was awarded The Commonwealth Writersʼ Prize for the Best Book of Europe and South Asia, and was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. His work has been translated into eight languages. He has received many awards for his writing, most recently a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Pen Beyond Margins Award. He has been a writer-in-residence at the University of Missouri, Western Michigan, and Northwestern University, among others. Born and brought up in London, he has lived in America since his early twenties, and currently resides in Chicago.

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Contributor Spotlight: Danielle LaVaque-Manty

Danielle_LaVaque-Manty_photoDanielle LaVaque-Manty’s story “Salvage Training” appears in Midwestern Gothic Issue 15, out now.

How long have you been writing?

I’ve been writing fiction for about fifteen years. I did a Ph.D. in political theory and felt relieved when that “practical” choice didn’t result in an academic job and I could give myself license to write fiction instead.

What’s your connection to the Midwest?

I’ve lived in the Midwest all my life—Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan and Ohio. I did spend three years in Seattle, where there are hills, and the flowers start blooming in February, but it hardly ever snows, and people think seventy-five degrees is hot. I didn’t miss the Midwest’s flat terrain, but I did miss the extreme weather.

How has the Midwest influenced your writing?

When I was in high school, my family moved from the suburbs of Chicago to Green Bay, Wisconsin. That was a huge culture shock. Eventually, I realized that many of the differences between these places were about class: the middle-class suburb I came from had a tech-based economy and 98% of the graduates of my public high school there went on to college, while Green Bay’s working-class economy was based on the production of meat, dairy, and paper, and only half of the kids at that high school would go to college. People moved in and out of the burbs all the time. My friends came and went. But everyone I met in Green Bay had lived there their entire lives. This made me feel like I had gone backwards in time, and like an outsider, and for a while I couldn’t wait to get away. But it also made Green Bay visible to me in a way that the suburbs hadn’t been, and made me see the ways in which it had a culture of its own. Most of my short stories are set there, or just north of there, and so is the novel I’m working on right now.

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?

Midwesterners are too humble (or perhaps unsavvy) to push. We don’t see the point running after filet mignon when there’s perfectly good hotdish available. All those other regions will see the beauty in hotdish, eventually.

How do you feel about social media to promote your writing, and do you use it?

Yes, for sure. It’s more convenient than handing out flyers on the street. I’m on both Facebook and Twitter, but I use them differently. Facebook is for friends and family, or at least people I’ve actually met, and being a good Midwesterner, I try not to post too much stuff those folks might see as bragging. I prefer promoting my friends on Facebook instead. I’m fine with bragging on Twitter, though. Nobody knows me over there.

Favorite book?

Well, that changes all the time, of course. My favorite du jour is Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, if I can count that as one book. I love the weave of big questions and rich character development and sometimes crazy language.

Favorite food?

This pasta dish my husband makes with smoked salmon and wild mushrooms and cream sauce.

If you could have coffee (or tea or a beer) with any literary figure, alive or dead, who would it be?

Joyce Carol Oates. She has been one of my favorite discoveries on Twitter, the way she tweets all these mini-essays about art and politics and philosophy.

Where can we find more information about you?

I have a website: daniellelavaquemanty.com. And I tweet: @dlavaque

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Contributor Spotlight: Brian D. Morrison

Me in New OrleansBrian D. Morrison’s piece “A History of Sacrifice” appears in Midwestern Gothic Issue 14, out now.

How long have you been writing?
I started writing in high school, though I thought I could be a songwriter then. Lyrics are strange animals; poems bit far better. I went to Bowling Green State University to learn fiction with the hopes of becoming a novelist. But the first time I wrote “real” poetry, I was hooked.

What’s your connection to the Midwest?
I grew up in Sidney, Ohio. The Midwest has always been a beautiful place to me. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.

How has the Midwest influenced your writing?
Agriculture. I find myself writing more and more about farms and rivers. The things that rivers do for farms. The things farms do to rivers. The life of the rugged individual is absolutely a draw.

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?
This question, in my mind, can’t be addressed without considering David Foster Wallace. His writing is for Illinois what Faulkner’s is for Mississippi (at least for the literary crowd).

How do you feel about social media to promote your writing, and do you use it?
I have so far avoided Twitter, though I do use Facebook to share information about upcoming journal solicitations and publications.

Favorite book?
W. S. Merwin’s The Lice.

Favorite food?
Fried green tomatoes. I spent seven years in Alabama, and my mother is from Tennessee. There was no avoiding these abominations of fruit, but I’m glad to know them.

If you could have coffee (or tea or a beer) with any literary figure, alive or dead, who would it be?
Rainer Maria Rilke. I’ve heard he was kind of a jerk, but his writing is gorgeous. Just knowing the writer who penned some of the things he did would be a great privilege.

Where can we find more information about you?
I have a poem on verse daily with links to some other online work. I can also be found on Facebook. The Ball State University English Department blog is another source.

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Contributor Spotlight: Ken Meisel

IMG_3011Ken Meisel’s piece “Smoke” appears in Midwestern Gothic Issue 15, out now.

How long have you been writing?
I wrote, briefly, in college. Short stories. I won some small awards for those stories in a college contest and then I quit. Then, in 1993, after reading Pablo Neruda’s 20 Love Poems & A Song of Despair (and also Yeats), I decided to revive my writing, this time, in poetry. I’ve been at it ever since.

What’s your connection to the Midwest?
I’m a true blue, Detroit born Irish boy. I grew up on the west side of Detroit & was educated in the Detroit Public School system. I attended under grad and grad school in Detroit. So I think we could describe me as urban Midwest. My father’s people were born here, and my father was a jazz musician here. He went on to play trombone in Les Brown’s Band of Renown, on songs like “Sentimental Journey,” and “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.” Before that, my father played with Sam Donahue’s Orchestra and he co-wrote a tune called “Six Mile Stretch,” which is a street in Detroit. So my connection to Detroit is rooted deep. Detroit is my umbilical cord to the Midwest.

How has the Midwest influenced your writing?
I love Midwest city aesthetics. Rust, ruin, cobble stone streets, old windows with dirty curtains blowing aimlessly, dive bars where folks work in and out of hollowness, the lost vacancies of abandoned dwellings, factories, jazz clubs, fires, sewer steam, errant trees entangled in fences, roses blooming in improbable places. Eyes of longing looking at you on a bus. For connection. I also love the Great Lakes and the flora and fauna growing there. My wife’s people hail from Iowa. So some of my love of the the Midwest centers on the absurdity and the beauty of farms. Of farm life. The fertility and violence that co-exist, side-by-side, there. My connection, given what I’ve written here, seems sensation-based. I’m caught in the reverie of the Midwest ethos. Time and transience blow there. Solids change to vacancies in an instant. Much of my writing about the Midwest comes inside that reverie; that contemplation. Finally, I think there is a tremendous sadness in the Midwest. Call it the sunset on American production and that noble way of life, and even that harsh, violent way of life. Of factory life. But the sadness here seems mixed with a fierce pride co-existing within an enforced, onset of surrender. A surrender of identity and long-range hope and meaning. We are in a vanishing slipstream here. We are what we were, in the American narrative—we’re alive and vibrant; gloried, even—and yet, we are vanishing phenomena. Weird. We’re trapped inside this paradox. Evolving, too, into something else, as we speak. We are survival-based, that’s for sure. It’s in our blood. I’m fascinated by who I become inside this axis of paradox, as a writer.

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?
Hard to say. I wonder if we’re isolated as individual writers—maybe our writing slants toward city lit. I think Midwest Gothic is the long over due answer to this question. I’m honored to be included in this wonderful magazine.

How do you feel about social media to promote your writing, and do you use it?
I like the idea and yet, I’ve demonstrated poor initiative to actually develop and manage a website for myself. It’s certainly in my long-range plans to develop a website. I don’t do blogs or anything like that. To tell you the truth, I’m slightly squeamish about rabid self-promotion. When I publish a book, I tend to identify a charity and I donate the proceeds of the book to the chosen charity. My next book, entitled The Drunken Sweetheart at My Door, which is a book of poems about love, will be published in January, 2015, by FutureCyle Press. I’m donating the proceeds to a women’s charity. So here’s my social media activity push—I’m promoting the book. A ha! But when I donate the proceeds, I feel a larger circle of reciprocity – between me, those who buy the book, and those who actually benefit from the sales of the book. This larger scope of influence keeps me clean inside my personal integrity as an artist.

Favorite book?
The usual answer—too many to answer. I love the kinds of writers who stretch the imagination, elegize, and who aren’t afraid to talk about what violence and love can teach us.

Here’s a few:

Absalom, Absalom – William Faulkner.
Son’s & Lover’s – D H Lawrence
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – James Joyce
My Alexandria – Mark Doty
The Book of Nightmares – Galway Kinnell
New Selected Poems – Philip Levine
Elegy (or The Widening Spell of the Leaves) – Larry Levis

I return to Levine, Kinnell, Doty and Levis often, to wake my imagination up.

In Michigan, I enjoy John Rybicki’s work. And Joy Gaines-Friedler, Jeff Vande Zande, and Russell Thorburn.

Favorite food?
I love hamburgers.

If you could have coffee (or tea or a beer) with any literary figure, alive or dead, who would it be?
First choice, tonight as I sip a whiskey, is William Faulkner. He’s fearless. Unafraid of what violence and love can teach us. He’s unafraid of the worrisome influence of culture, and how it shapes us, bad or good. How it both informs the imagination and blunts it. He’s unafraid of how the brain becomes warped. How it twists and tangles around an aberrant stream of thought. He writes right on through it. Marvelous. I’d ask him to comment about reality TV. I’d love to hear what his answer would be about that. How he’d riff on about it, that is…

Where can we find more information about you?
My website. Coming to a domain near you. :)

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Interview: Rochelle Hurt

Rochelle HurtMidwestern Gothic staffer Lauren Crawford talked with poet and author Rochelle Hurt about the beauty of the Rust Belt, developing a healthy sense of defensiveness, her latest collection The Rusted City, and more.

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Lauren Crawford: First things first, tell us about your Midwestern roots.

Rochelle Hurt: I was born in Dayton, Ohio, but raised almost entirely in Youngstown, which is an old steel city between Cleveland and Pittsburgh. It’s been home to much of my family for a few generations.

LC: In what ways has the Midwest inspired your works and your style of writing?

RH: I didn’t write much about the Midwest until I moved away from it. I felt homesick for a place I had always wanted to leave, and this inspired an interest in the paradoxes and conflicts inherent to Midwestern life. In Rust Belt cities, for example, one might find plants and animals inhabiting abandoned factories. Urban and rural elements mingle in unexpected ways in these towns, often challenging our notions of growth and decay. These juxtapositions create a surreal landscape in the Midwest, so I lean toward surrealism and magical realism when writing about the region.

LC: Detroit and Buffalo have begun to experience mini-renaissances, with newcomers celebrating the beauty of the Rust Belt and paying homage to its rich heritage. Why do you think there’s such a deep motivation to reinvigorate these storied cities?

RH: One develops a healthy sense of defensiveness after growing up with the idea that your hometown is an elsewhere—not New York, not LA, not Chicago, not San Francisco, and maybe not even an idyllic little farm town. In Youngstown, for example, there is a community organization called Defend Youngstown, and I think everyone from Youngstown understands the logic behind the name. It makes sense given the prevailing attitude toward the city. Consider that in my high school, we used a familiar nickname for the local university, YSU: You Screwed Up. It’s actually a good school, but the sentiment among many young people was that college was a ticket out of Youngstown, to somewhere with more money, more jobs, more people, more art.

Yet there are countless passionate and creative people in Youngstown. I think once younger residents started realizing this, they decided to try to make Youngstown that place with more money, more jobs, more people, more art. I think the same is happening in Detroit and Buffalo on a larger scale. History is on our side—Rust Belt cities were booming once, so the space is there, the energy is there, the blue-collar work ethic is there. People my age may have roots in these towns that go back several generations, and they know that those roots were often hard-won, so they’re emotionally invested in renewal.

The Rusted CityLC: Your newest collection of poetry, titled The Rusted City, has been garnering critical praise since its release in early 2014. What prompted you to write this collection, and how did you choose the subject of the Rust Belt?

RH: Soon after I moved away from Ohio for graduate school, I started reading a lot of poetry and fiction in translation, particularly fabulist stories and surrealist prose poetry. During a visit home, I realized that some of the elements in the work I was reading were useful for understanding the Rust Belt—its surreal landscape, its hybridity, its conflicting senses of hope and darkness. I knew I wanted to write a book about Youngstown, but I didn’t want to write a simple defense of the city, or a nostalgic tribute to its past.

I wanted this book to be complicated and even a bit difficult—emotionally and intellectually—so I started the book as a hybrid genre project, mixing prose and verse. I also wanted to focus on a subjective experience of the Rust Belt, rather than a historical account, which would necessarily fall short, given the diversity of experiences in the region. In that way, I could only write a narrative of the city through the experiences of one family living there—a fictional family who became the book’s primary subject.

LC: The Rusted City chronicles the experiences of “the smallest sister,” who is trying to understand and internalize a decomposing region and its effects on her family. How did this character come to be, and why is her perspective so important to unearthing the decay around her?

RH: The smallest sister’s smallness stems from that sense of defensiveness I mentioned above. It’s important that she is easily ignored, disregarded, manipulated and neglected, because in some ways she is a mirror for the city—and the city is a mirror for her. She notices things like bugs and leaves—supposedly insignificant things—and she makes metaphors from them. Her adolescent creativity and naiveté is her only avenue for change, and I think that process of transforming forgotten things into new ideas reflects the Rust Belt experience. I don’t think the book can be said to have a happy ending, but ultimately, she does gain some sense of agency, even if only through metaphor.

LC: The Rusted City is described as being a “coming-of-age … novel in prose poems.” Thematically, this blend of Bildungsroman and poetry captivates the reader, and beautifully emphasizes how loss and love are easily tangled. Why did this medium seem fitting for your Rust Belt family?

RH: In addition to capturing a sense of paradox (urban and rural, old and new, growth and decay), I think hybrid forms also allow for the kind of emotional and psychological tangling that you mention. Adolescence is so confusing and intense that the ability to compartmentalize (even in healthy ways) is sometimes lost. It’s a dark wood, and my hope for the book is that nothing emerges cut and dry. The hybrid-genre form is also practically functional, since the fictional narrative I imagined seemed inseparable from metaphor and lyricism.

LC: In many of the poems and vignettes, rust is included as a piece of anatomy—an appendage—that is inseparable from the characters. Why did you choose to present the “rust” of the Rust Belt in such a tangible way?

RH: I wanted this city to be more than a setting that provided an interesting backdrop, which could be exploitative. The life of the city had to be linked to my characters’ identities and to their plight. The book often operates on a metaphoric level, so it seemed natural that the people in it should literally absorb their surroundings.

LC: Sabrina Orah Mark, in her review of The Rusted City, compares its themes and form to those of Baudelaire—a portrait of modernity and of the city—but one that has begun to crumble under its own desiccation. In this light, how would you describe the relationship between the characters in The Rusted City and their hometown of Youngstown, Ohio?

RH: There is a lineage through Baudelaire that connects the prose poem to urban spaces—and perhaps specifically the harsh, dirty, ignored corners of those spaces. It is precisely those kinds of spaces (in a contemporary American context) that help form my characters’ identities, and this is not always a good thing for them. They are members of a working class in a city that was built by and for them, but that now has very little to offer. In this way, the city is a trap. Yet I don’t want to say that they are victims of their environment—I don’t wish to romanticize pastoral spaces as a balm for urban ruin (nor, on the other hand, do I wish to glorify urban ruin). They can’t be simply victims of the city because they are the city. Through their labor, their bodies have merged with the city’s decay, for better or worse.

LC: In many of your poems, the title serves as the first phrase or sentence. How did you develop this unique style?

RH: It started as an accident, but then I found that it helped maintain narrative continuity between poems, whereas more traditional titles might have framed each poem as a separate object. My hope is that each prose poem functions as a tiny chapter in a tiny novel, rather than a single poem in a collection.

LC: What’s next for you?

RH: I’m sending around my second book, which is more of a standard ‘collection’ of poems. I’m also working on a few new projects (which will eventually be books) and completing a PhD at the University of Cincinnati.

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Rochelle Hurt is the author of The Rusted City, published in the Marie Alexander Prose Poetry Series at White Pine Press (2014). Her work has been included in Best New Poets 2013, and she has been awarded literary prizes from Crab Orchard Review, Arts & Letters, Hunger Mountain, and Poetry International. Her poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction have been published in journals like Mid-American Review, The Southeast Review, The Kenyon Review Online, Versal and Image. She is a PhD student in the Creative Writing program at the University of Cincinnati.

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