Writing the Midwest: On balancing research and imagination

March 19th, 2019

“Writing the Midwest” is a recurring series featuring writing advice from today’s most prolific authors. Whether it’s dealing with writer’s block, knowing when a piece is finished, or how and where to find inspiration, we’re delighted to present to you the very best guidance to help you and your writing. You can find links to the authors’ full interviews below.

On balancing research and imagination:

Kathleen Rooney: If a novel is too faithfully adherent to the facts of whatever really happened in its real life inspiration, then it probably won’t have the depth of character, the psychological realism, or the plot momentum to keep people reading. You need to give yourself the space to get imaginative and make stuff up, rather than merely novelizing actual events.

Rae Meadows: I find that I have to recreate a place in my imagination, even a real place that I have known, to have it work for me as a fictional setting. This was especially true for Salt Lake City in my first novel. It became an almost mythical place for me after I had moved away. For I Will Send Rain, although I did a lot of research about the Panhandle in the 1930s, I chose to visit the town I fictionalized only after finishing the novel. I think I have a fear of being hemmed in by the actual details of a place, not being able to separate the minutiae from telling details…. Probably the most difficult part of research for me is knowing when to stop, and then knowing what to leave out to make a period seem authentic without it feeling like a staged set.

Tracy Chevalier: It requires a huge amount of research to get the “feel” of the period right. But I love the research, as it gives me ideas as well as the time during which to develop the story and characters. It’s crucial though not to think that I am educating people about a certain people. Story and entertainment come first; the historical background is just that—background. Sometimes I’ll discover some juicy historical detail but can’t use it because it doesn’t add to the story I’m telling. It’s no good showing off all the research; I just have to absorb it so that the reader feels confident in me knowing what I’m talking about, even if I don’t spell it out. It’s a balancing act.


Interview: Elliot Reed

Midwestern Gothic staffer Ariel Everitt talked with author Elliot Reed about his debut novel A Key to Treehouse Living, the importance of creativity to children and adults, and the myths we live by.

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Ariel Everitt: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Elliot Reed: In 2005, my family moved to Columbia, Missouri, so my mother could take a job at the University of Missouri. I entered the eleventh grade there. I stayed through college. I paddled in the Ozarks and fell in love with those streams. I paddled the Buffalo River. After college, I moved out to the country with a friend and we tried to grow vegetables. I lived in a barn. The thunderstorms of the Midwest loved that barn. Then we moved into a double-wide trailer off the two-lane blacktop south of Columbia right before the road descends, becomes gravel, and runs right along the banks of the Missouri. I wrote most of this book in that trailer. I have seen the great clouds of fireflies that frequent the bottoms in summertime.

AE: You grew up in both the American Midwest and the Czech Republic. How have both of these places influenced your writing?

ER: In Prague, where I lived between 2000 and 2005, I experienced a linguistic and cultural alienation that made me want to write. Missouri made me a naturalist. The Midwest is much more beautiful than most people know. I live in Washington State now. I miss being in a sea of foreign language. I recently experienced the linguistic alienation on a beach in Cape Town, where my wife is from, and it was great. There are many languages in Cape Town. I miss living in a place where communication is an adventure.

AE: Your debut novel, A Key to Treehouse Living, takes the unique form of a sort of glossary of the terms, ideals, and myths of an abandoned boy’s life. What strategies did you use to make this experimental form function so beautifully as a narrative?

ER: It was easy and it was not easy to maintain the conceit of this book—that it is an actual utilitarian document, an actual glossary—and this being a novel. I worried about what it was for a while and in retrospect, I’d say that not knowing what it was was a good sign. Donald Barthelme has an essay called “Not-Knowing” that sheds light. Lynda Barry’s What It Is is also good here. I needed to write a story because these places and characters kept coming back. I like writing about things in a glancing way. Each entry bends away from what you could call plot, then bends back in a recursive way. Maybe it’s like a recurve bow. I knew I couldn’t completely digress from a center because I wouldn’t be able to keep writing that way. You have to have a bend, you have to have something made of wood, you have to have the creak of the string tightening, and then, sometimes, you have a release.

AE: Treehouses are, of course, very important to the narrator of A Key to Treehouse Living, young William Tyce. What role did treehouses play in your own childhood, if any?

ER: I fell out of the tree I was climbing just outside a little-league baseball diamond in Roanoke, Virginia, when I was maybe six years old. I had the wind knocked out of me. That was the first moment I understood that one day I was really going to die. When I write well, it’s because I’m writing with an awareness of death. Grace Paley said something like, “Write what you’d die if you did not write,” and this captures what I’m trying to say about mortality and fiction and getting up in trees to find a view.

AE: Did any pieces of fiction or other texts particularly influence your experimental take on the format of this novel?

ER: Padgett Powell’s The Interrogative Mood had a definite impact. I’d also been reading lots of inane internet content like, “THE BEST WAY TO EAT AN APPLE,” or, “FIVE MAJOR SURPRISES ABOUT COOKING BEANS,” and this stuff was really getting me excited. I adopted the imperative mode, at first, with one foot in satire. The first entry was “BUGLING,” and there was William’s voice talking about how one plays the bugle.

AE: Early in A Key to Treehouse Living, some examples of “teaching” the reader how to read the book are clear, such as in the section “ALPHABET,” in which we learn to read this novel as a list in relatively alphabetical order, as well as a sort of progression of development (that a child learns things out of alphabetical order because he is developing). What other methods do you employ early on in your work to “teach” the reader the “rules” of an unconventional piece of fiction?

ER: Hard to say. I knew I had to promise the reader there would be a point, or something like a story, that emerged from these entries. I had to make some connections between entries. Few people would sit down and read through a two-hundred-page, alphabetical glossary of terms relating to a nonexistent source text, but this book might prove that a lot of people would actually come pretty close to doing exactly that. Readers are very surprising. They are deeply suspicious and creative. Give them more leeway and agency than you think they need, but never intentionally obfuscate what you know if you actually know it. Don’t come up with random ways of saying something simple. Write without knowing.

AE: The myths William lives by are incredibly unique, and as a very independent child as well as a sort of orphan, he has had much freedom to decide which cultural beliefs he accepts or even likes. For instance, he dismisses the Christian story of Easter as a boring old myth that has been replaced by that of the more interesting Easter bunny. And certainly, an incredibly fascinating, enriching series of beliefs arises from this child’s freedom to think for himself. How might we hope to give ordinary children and even adults such intellectual freedom, and such space for creativity?

ER: Good question. Give them food to eat and someplace safe to be for a while. Give them free time and give them art. Give them a library card. Make them travel. I could go on and on! I don’t think there is a formula for creativity. Be nice to children and keep them safe, but also let them run around barefoot all the time and live with the wolves. I’ve never had children and I was not the best babysitter but the kids I babysat seemed to like me.

AE: How did you keep such an introspective and instructive narrator from overwhelming the story and weighing it down? Is this perhaps related to how the narrator says it’s hard for him to write about an abstract concept like boredom without “getting distracted by telling something interesting?”

ER: This is a hard question to answer because I find it hard to paraphrase the story of this book—what exactly would he weigh down? There’s a lot of story in this book, and it goes in a few different directions. William can’t really weigh anything down if the book is the testimony he gives in order to stay afloat. I don’t want this answer to sound like a dodge. I don’t mean it to be a dodge. This narrator isn’t going to bore himself when he’s writing. Do you bore yourself when you’re daydreaming? Deborah Stratman, one of my all-time favorite filmmakers, quoted another person, who I don’t know and whose name I can’t remember, who said, “I don’t know what it is to be happy, but I know what it is to be curious.”

AE: A Key to Treehouse Living maintains a gorgeous, dreamy, sweet, and consistent atmosphere, while also hiding and unveiling secrets and evolving as a narrative. Do you have any advice on keeping a consistently wonderful vibe in a story while also surprising the reader?

ER: This book was a gift. William was a wild baby left on my doorstep in the middle of the night. He came with a personality. Still, the book didn’t come out perfectly, and it took a lot of work to keep the thing readable. Tons of people helped me. A fiction workshop at the University of Florida responded very positively when I didn’t know if I had something like a novel. I might not have finished this book had it not gotten a positive response that day. I had more good readers after that, and very good editors. I think I write surprising fiction because otherwise, I’d get bored. It’s also very easy for me to get bored of surprises.

AE: William says it’s important to be able to tell the difference between a good idea and a bad idea. How can you tell if your story ideas are good or bad ones, or is fiction a bit different that way?

ER: I recently heard this one poet say, “When your work has value, you will know it.” You can’t learn how to know the value, thank god. Lifestyle choices can affect your taste, moment to moment. Certain moods or states of mind could improve or degrade your ability to pass judgment on your own work. I write sober.

AE: William says he once knew a kid who “called grass ‘skin’ and rotting wood ‘slug’ and I don’t remember much else but it was a really good language and I sometimes wonder if his language is still alive somewhere, but I don’t hold out much hope.” What do you do to keep your own language alive and uniquely your own? What value do you find in technically incorrect or bizarre usages of language?

ER: Deliberate misuse of language in the service of flair is usually bad writing. I say usually but I can’t really think of an exception. I’m sure there is one. Maybe Gertrude Stein? Even she is not misusing language or using it technically incorrectly—she’s using it perhaps in a bizarre way. Consciousness is paper-thin. Language is that plant-based fiber from which self-consciousness is woven. According to Strunk and White, every word should tell. I don’t know if I possess my language, but I can add to a collective language when I communicate.

AE: How did you approach the order in which events of William’s life come out in this not-quite linear narrative? How did you integrate these events into entries so smoothly, without making it feel forced?

ER: When I knew what was happening to William—rather than what he was trying to define at that moment—I let him describe what had happened. Sometimes he describes it in a glancing way, or as a side note in whatever it was he was interested in thinking about or explaining at that time. This changes about halfway through the book.

AE: In A Key to Treehouse Living, William draws inspiration from many books, including the glossary of one called FLYNN’S GUIDE TO WOODY TREES AND SHRUBS, EIGHTH EDITION. WITH ADDITIONAL FLOWCHARTS AND EXPANDED GLOSSARY. What are a few of the terms might you include if you wrote a guide to writing in such a glossary format—a REED’S GUIDE TO WRITING FICTION—and what lessons might you impart?

ER:

WILD-DOG ATTACK: A lie you once told to a friend, about a friend you had in common being attacked by wild dogs on his way home from a party. He was never actually attacked. Fiction is not supposed to be lies. Fiction is not supposed to hurt anybody, but it’s supposed to hurt.

EDITOR: A person who seems to understand what you’re trying to do 85% of the time. You only understand what you’re trying to do 10% of the time. Nobody understands what you are trying to do 100% of the time. Nobody should ever understand.

THE HOLY GHOST: A celestial entity made from a black hole and some puppies that got dumped off in the woods by a family who didn’t want them. This celestial entity understands that you do not understand, and can never understand, the extent to which your editor or readers understand your work: the chasm is impossible to bridge. Only the Holy Ghost can cross it.

READER, GOOD: A person who understands what you’re trying to do some of the time, but by no means all, and who will tell you something helpful some of the time. Mostly, this reader will not tell you things that are unhelpful.

MOUNTAIN CARIBOU: There are very few of these majestic animals remaining in the inland rainforests of the Pacific Northwest. Scientists describe these caribou as “wilderness dependent.” Find them and observe them from a distance. They do surprising things like migrate to higher elevations when winter comes on. Find your mountain caribou and observe it from a distance. It is on the verge of extinction. Do something to save it, and have fun while you’re at work.

COLE-SLAW STORY: Narrative that has the look and texture of cole-slaw. Sometimes it is too sweet. This story can be the perfect kind of salad.

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Elliot Reed received his MFA from the University of Florida in Gainesville and is currently living in Spokane, Washington.

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Writing the Midwest: On utilizing ambiguity and the reader’s uncertainty

“Writing the Midwest” is a recurring series featuring writing advice from today’s most prolific authors. Whether it’s dealing with writer’s block, knowing when a piece is finished, or how and where to find inspiration, we’re delighted to present to you the very best guidance to help you and your writing. You can find links to the authors’ full interviews below.

On utilizing ambiguity and the reader’s uncertainty:

Dan Chaon: I’m tolerant of a lot of ambiguity and uncertainty, but a lot of readers aren’t. There have to be little nuggets or bread crumbs along the way that make them feel like they’re making progress in putting the puzzle together, or folks get frustrated. I have to hope for a reader that, like me, enjoys a certain level of suspension that may not ever fully be answered. Otherwise, “tension” feels mechanical, like one of those first-person shooter video games from the 1990s, where you’re just on a single path through the level on your way to the big battle with the boss. But for me, the questions have to be bigger and more compelling than any one solution.

Jacquelyn Vincenta: [It] seems to me that one of the most essential and yet most difficult elements in crafting a compelling mystery is to bring the secrets at play within the story as close to the surface as possible without anyone fully understanding them for what they are until the end. When these motivating, disruptive energies are present but not revealed they should give rise to words, behavior, and intriguing events that drive the story logically forward, even without the full truth of them being available to the reader… and yet we feel them there so that when the facts are all made clear, they resonate back through the tale. One of the deepest pleasures of reading a mystery is that experience, as you complete it, of reviewing the tale with newly enlightened eyes.

Lee L. Krecklow: I love blind spots, both for readers and characters. We’re most intrigued by the things we can’t see. One of the techniques I use to achieve this is an intimate but alternating third person perspective. The reader has close, internal perspectives from each of the players, but never at the same time, so one doesn’t have access to certain characters’ thoughts or emotions during key moments. The reverse is that the reader has certain pieces of information that the characters don’t, information which might help the characters or their relationships. Hopefully that creates tension and urgency. I’m also not above allowing some actions to take place off the page, so that a reader needs to keep reading into the future in order to understand what took place in the past. That’s just another form of blind spot.


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Writing the Midwest: On crafting realistic dialogue

“Writing the Midwest” is a recurring series featuring writing advice from today’s most prolific authors. Whether it’s dealing with writer’s block, knowing when a piece is finished, or how and where to find inspiration, we’re delighted to present to you the very best guidance to help you and your writing. You can find links to the authors’ full interviews below.

On crafting realistic dialogue:

Matt Young: Understanding passive aggression has also helped me harness sarcasm and wit and snappy dialogue. It’s also a good way to build tension and complicated characters. I’m sure the way I think and write and the words I use and the images I focus on are all informed by how and where I grew up in some way as well.

Sophfronia Scott: When I write fiction it’s like I’m planting seeds. I have some sense of what I’m planting and in the writing process I see what grows and how it grows. I know, for example, that I must write a dialogue scene between two characters. I approach that work knowing some of what they will say to each other but leaving room for surprises as well. All this discovery can take place within one writing session.

Amanda Kabak: I think of the inevitable gulf between what we think and what we do, what we intend and what actually happens. I write about people who want to be quality human beings but who make decisions that undermine themselves and hurt other people. I drive through dialog past what I intend to where someone says something wholly unanticipated and game-changing. And I get it wrong for about twelve drafts (during which time I think I get it right several times before realizing I’m deluded) until I find the contradictions and idiosyncrasies that make characters fully-realized people. Once that’s in place, when they interact with each other, those interactions will ring true.


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Writing the Midwest: On utilizing humor

“Writing the Midwest” is a recurring series featuring writing advice from today’s most prolific authors. Whether it’s dealing with writer’s block, knowing when a piece is finished, or how and where to find inspiration, we’re delighted to present to you the very best guidance to help you and your writing. You can find links to the authors’ full interviews below.

On utilizing humor:

Matt Mason: I love humor because it helps draw people in, disarms them, they come closer to you and don’t notice the mallet you’re holding behind your back until it’s too late.

Rebecca Adams Wright: Humor is such a natural defensive response. We’re all aware of when we’re laughing so we don’t cry, and we talk all the time about “black comedy” and “gallows humor.” I think humor plays a similar defensive role in fiction. Satire, especially, keeps violence and anger and grief just palatable enough that we won’t turn away. My most humorous stories are almost always the darkest, probably for that blade-dulling effect. It’s a balancing act for sure. The writer needs to be sure the humor is appropriate to the situation, keep a story funny enough to avoid melodrama or simplified pathos without overwhelming the emotion behind the comedy. I think about this balance while in the process of revision. Not so much while I’m drafting, because humor has to bubble up naturally. Force it onto the page, think about it too much, and you’ve already failed.

Kathryn Harrison: I don’t know how anyone without a sense of humor puts one foot in front of the other. I don’t know any reader who would put up with unleavened difficult-and-dark. And I’m the first among them—the first person I want to amuse is me. Because sometimes I have to laugh at what’s happening to me, on the page if not in the moment.


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Writing the Midwest: On rejection

“Writing the Midwest” is a recurring series featuring writing advice from today’s most prolific authors.
Whether it’s dealing with writer’s block, knowing when a piece is finished, or how and where to find
inspiration, we’re delighted to present to you the very best guidance to help you and your writing. You
can find links to the authors’ full interviews below.

On rejection:

Richard Russo: I’m not sure you ever really do overcome rejection or failure. Sometimes it’s possible to accept them and learn from them. Mostly they’re beside the point. You failed? So what? It happens. In fact, it’s supposed to happen. They didn’t like your story? Okay, write another. Maybe they’ll like that one. You internalize what you know to be true across the entire spectrum of the arts; the more you practice, the better you get. (“I can’t go on; I’ll go on.”)

Jamel Brinkley: Try not to get too bent out of shape about rejection. My book was rejected by the vast majority of publishers who looked at it. If possible, try to choose an agent and an editor whom you instinctively trust, who push or nudge you as necessary but always show respect for you and your work and understand what you’re trying to do. Have people in your life who are also going through the same process you are, or who have gone through it. They will understand the very particular challenges and anxieties involved in the process. Regardless of what is happening, good or bad, keeping writing and reading so you stay connected to the fundamental joys that made you want to be a writer in the first place.

Kodi Scheer: 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.


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Writing the Midwest: On unconventional techniques and approaches

“Writing the Midwest” is a recurring series featuring writing advice from today’s most prolific authors. Whether it’s dealing with writer’s block, knowing when a piece is finished, or how and where to find inspiration, we’re delighted to present to you the very best guidance to help you and your writing. You can find links to the authors’ full interviews below.

On unconventional techniques and approaches:
Dan PopeWhen the coffee shop closes for the evening, I have another, very odd, method of composition. At home, I turn on my piece-of-crap 2005 computer and call up a blank Word file. Then I turn OFF the monitor and take my keyboard (with a 30-foot extension) into the next room. By going into the next room, I can avoid (1) the awful humming of the computer and (2) the spectral appearance of the words on the screen and the concomitant temptation to change or erase said words. Then at some point, maybe an hour later, I’ll go back to the computer and push print and examine the words that spew forth. There will be many misspellings, of course. I’ll mark up those pages and send them off to that same typist [an individual, who types that material into his or her computer for a fee, then emails it to me for corrections, additions, etc.] for proper word-processing. You’d think that this would be a huge waste of time, but try it! Try sitting in a room with just a keyboard and your thoughts. I find it to be freeing and fruitful. If I had the screen on, I would be able to see what I was typing, of course, and I would be tempted to mess up a good sentence or paragraph. Instead, I just keep going forward. Is this weird? I’d be surprised if there is anyone else in the same hemisphere who works this way, with his or her screen off. I’m willing to admit that this is all very strange and ridiculous behavior.
Halee Kirkwood: I keep a notebook near me whenever I read. If a writer is doing something I admire, I attempt to pin down how exactly they astonished me, and then make a writing prompt for myself based on the techniques I noticed, whether that be on the micro or macro level. I don’t always make it to the prompt immediately, but I know it is there for me to try if I ever do hit writer’s block. I’ve also consulted my humble Tarot deck for inspiration on plot or theme or character development—there’s a wonderful book out there called The Creative Tarot by Jessa Crispin that revolutionized the relationship between creativity and intuition for me. Highly recommend!

Ira Sukrungruang: I’ll let you in on a secret: sometimes, if I’m really into my writing, I need to have something over my head. Like a hoodie, or a blanket, or if I’m home, I pull my shirt over my head and look at the screen though the head hole. Don’t mess with me then. The outside world is white noise. My brain is on the page.


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Contributor Spotlight: Kai Carlson-Wee

Kai Carlson-Wee author headshotKai Carlson-Wee’s piece “Splitting a Forty With Ant B” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Summer 2018 issue, out now.

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

I grew up in a small town in Southern Minnesota, called Northfield. There was a railroad yard and a river downtown. My neighbors sold antique cars and flew POW flags in their yards. It was sort of this historic town that had an air of Americana. During high school my family relocated to Fargo, North Dakota, which was a much different vibe. Very conservative, blue-collar, and extremely cold in the winters. In my imagination, the prairie around Fargo became synonymous with depression and diabolical forces, while the rolling hills and cornfields around Northfield became symbolic of a rosy nostalgia. Most of the poems in my first book are written as a kind of elegy for the Midwest, but the elegy is two-sided, and there’s a ton of tension around leaving and returning home. One part of me loves the Midwest and will always consider it home, but another part is still bitter about the way I was treated there and associates the landscape with conservative attitudes, god-awful winters, and mental illness.

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

I love the subtlety of the Midwest. When my friends come to visit they have this impression of “Minnesota Nice” and assume everyone is sweet and earnest and maybe a little bit slow. They’ll leave a party saying how nice people were, how hospitable, and I’ll be laughing inside because, while it’s true that Midwesterners can be nice, they can also be the shrewdest, most cutting motherfuckers you’ve ever met, and will be cursing your firstborn child with a casual smile or a subversive compliment while you chew your lefse. If you don’t know the culture, you’ll assume everyone is being generous, but if you know how to read innuendo you realize everyone is communicating in myriad ways below the surface. As a writer, this is great material and it’s equally thrilling and terrifying to watch.

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?

Place is usually a kind of anchor in my poems. I like to think of poems as short films or photographic compositions. You have establishing shots and background elements to conduct a mood, the way painters use under-painting to convey dimension and depth of character. Landscapes are sort of like under-paintings for me, but I’m not super interested in what people call “poetry of place” or “regionalism.” The style here can quickly become list-heavy and reliant on catch-words that are supposed to signify authenticity. Being from Minnesota, I might use descriptions of cornfields, lakes, loons, laddy slippers, cheatgrass, etc., and the poems are supposed to feel more ‘real’ and ‘lived-in.’ I write autobiographically about the places I’ve been and things I’ve done, but I don’t write to make a record, I write to transcend reality. What’s interesting to me about poetry is the energy created between lines, turns, and swervings. Wild combinations and contrasting desires. I use landscape in poems as a point of departure, an illusion of reality the poem is always trying to escape from.

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

Traveling is my main inspiration. It doesn’t matter if I’m hopping trains or just biking around the city, I get stoked on movement. I like poetry that has energy and feels urgent. When I travel and describe things as they’re happening, what some people call “immersion poetry,” or “documentary poetry,” the language has a quality of momentum. When I started writing Rail, I made a conscious decision to create a voice that was young and on the move, always leaning a little bit forward. If I ever run out of things to write I just take photographs, film some stuff, go on a little vacation. If you write entirely from your imagination, or if you imitate other writers, there’s a chance you can run into writer’s block, but if you write from experience and pay attention to your own voice, I don’t see how you can ever run out of things to say.

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

Everyone has their own way, but for me, writing feels finished when it doesn’t stick. I’m always writing toward a specific feeling, and the flow of a poem is very important to me. I want the feeling to build and gather momentum as the poem unfolds, and I want this to feel inevitable, like water gathering speed before a cliff. If this is happening effectively, the rhythm keeps moving and rolling forward. It doesn’t matter how long or short a poem is, I just keep working until I can read it effortlessly and there’s a feeling of weightlessness at the end. I want a feeling of gravity, like a river gathering speed and going over an edge.

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

Larry Levis. I could name a few favorites, but Levis is up there. He opened a door for me when poetry was feeling predictable and limited. In his later work he developed this expansive style of riffs, ruminations, stories, and voice. It’s like T.S. Eliot grew a heartbeat, started writing fiction, and took psychedelics. You can lose yourself in a Larry Levis poem the way you can lose yourself in films by Tarkovsky and David Lynch. His poems create ripple-effects that widen as themes develop and even as a whole collection develops. Other folks I would mentioned would be some Minnesota heroes like Robert Bly, Bob Dylan, and the photographer Alec Soth.

What’s next for you?

I recently put out my first book of poems, Rail, so I’m touring for the next couple years with that. I’m also working on a series of short films based on the poems in the book and I’m starting a book of nonfiction.

Where can we find more information about you?

You can check out my website (www.kaicarlson.wee) or follow my Instagram.

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Contributor Spotlight: Scott Onak

Scott Onak author headshotScott Onak’s story “L3 Loves Hudson” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Summer 2018 issue, out now.

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

I was born and raised just outside of Chicago, went to school in mid-state Illinois, and have spent the majority of my adult life in the city—as have my parents, and their parents. The region has given my writing, more off the page than on, its earnestness, its humility, and its quiet, stubborn endurance.

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

One aspect, at least around Chicago and a large part of Illinois, is the lack of elevation, and how it would change your mindset to live among mountains instead of prairie, or to be able to look down on towns. I sometimes think that’s why Chicago rose, and why cities rise in flat places, to give us some high distant mark to focus on. What an anomaly, especially when flying into and out of O’Hare, to see this abrupt assembly of buildings.

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

I went out West for grad school, and there I was able to write about Chicago and discovered from that distance what visuals remained, for whatever reason: driving up the entrance ramp onto Lake Shore Drive, heading downtown, when the skyline is lit in a wall before you, the lake on the left in total darkness. Or the beach on summer evenings when the air still remains so hot, in the soft aftermath of sunset. These found their places in the novel I was writing at the time.

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

Where the writing gets done varies, but I usually seek out noise, coffee shops, just enough distraction around me to create a private sphere. Consistency is best, routine essential, but I give myself the room not to force it, to know when I need to recharge. Reading helps with blocks. Often if nothing is happening on the page I realize my reading has slackened, and I need to replenish the store.

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

Feedback from a trusted reader + putting a draft away (a week, a month, longer) + the continuing experience and practice to develop a sense of when I’ve reached the core of a story, when it’s had its say.

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

One of them in Virginia Woolf, for her audacity, because her books grow more and more ambitious, constant challenges to herself, and for her exploration and sensitivity to time, both as a device and subject, which also occupies a lot of my own work: the passage of time, the longing inherent, the inevitability.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on a new novel set in San Francisco and very much enjoying the process, which is different from the previous one. I’m also writing a short story set there, though it’s a historical piece, which is new for me. I spent some time in San Francisco years ago and apparently I need and am ready to write about it.

Where can we find more information about you?

www.scottonak.com

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Interview: Joe Kapitan

Joe Kapitan author headshotMidwestern Gothic staffer Marisa Frey talked with author Joe Kapitan about his collection Caves of the Rust Belt, how to link the fantastical and the real, what “caves” are to him, & more.

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

Joe Kapitan: Um, pretty much everything. Other than four years spent in the military, my entire life has been spent here in the Midwest—most of it in the Cleveland area, plus my college years in South Bend, Indiana.

MF: The stories in Caves of the Rust Belt are character-centric, diving into one person’s experience in each story. What was important to you about approaching the writing this way?

JK: I try to keep Tim O’Brien’s advice in mind when I write. He said that good fiction has both imagination and emotional gravitas; that it must engage both the mind and the heart. And the only way to the “heart” is through characters, whether likable or unlikable, heroines or villains. In a lot of my stories, especially the stranger ones, characters become the link between the fantastical and the real. So many great writers do this: Aimee Bender, Karen Russell, Kelly Link, Colson Whitehead, George Saunders. Saunders’ classic novella Pastoralia is a great example. The outrageous premise of the bizarre amusement park only works because it’s tethered to the real world through the normal human problems of the characters: getting along with difficult co-workers, and being the parent of a sick or drug-addicted child.

MF: The “caves” in Caves of the Rust Belt are sometimes physical and sometimes emotional—a sinkhole, characters who get laid off from their jobs, murky and unreliable memory. How did you come to the title? What are “caves” to you?

JK: That’s a very insightful point, and one that eluded me for quite a while. I originally sent this collection out in a different form, under a different name, not even labeling it as a collection of Ohio stories. What a mistake. It collected a dozen rejections. Once I decided to repackage and re-brand it, so to speak, it dawned on me that the idea of “caves” was so pervasive in many of the stories, from literal sinkholes and pits and the shifting earth’s crust to metaphorical “caves” of depression and loneliness. That’s what caves are to me: dark and unknown voids, where you’re bound to encounter fears.

MF: Your stories have a gritty edge, often giving off an air of desolation and hopelessness. What was it like to write them?

JK: I believe there is something fundamentally Midwestern about the dogged pursuit of the positive amidst the negative. In my lifetime, Cleveland has battled a polluted lake and a burning river, political corruption and civic bankruptcy, economic downturns, vacant buildings, the vacant faces of addicts and the urban poor, and (until recently) chronically underachieving sports teams. Any glimmer of positive news—young people flocking to the city to live! Hosting a political convention! Cavs win 2016 championship!—is splashed across the front page of the news because we crave it. Q. What gets us through the nasty winters here in Cleveland? A. Knowing how great the summers are here. So to answer your question, it didn’t feel different to write this way. I just felt real, and normal.

MF: Caves of the Rust Belt is a collection of short stories. What appeals to you about this genre?

JK: I guess I love that short fiction is so approachable. I think that’s how most of us experience life each day—as a series of short stories or flash-fictions. When you see an ancient, one-armed man selling hot dogs at the ballpark, or a well-dressed woman standing at the highway exit with a cardboard sign asking for money, don’t you start to build their back-stories in your mind, even subconsciously? I know I do, and I don’t think at novel-scale. I imagine in snippets.

MF: What does your writing process look like?

JK: Disorganized and anemic, mostly. I have a full-time career and a family, so my writing consists of the time-fragments I find in the liminal spaces between those larger spheres of my life. Most of Caves was written during lunch hours at work, over a period of years. It’s a hard way to write, because I feel time-pressured and it’s difficult to find the “zone” under those conditions. I look forward to the day when I can flip the script and set aside dedicated writing time.

MF: You’re also an architect. How does that work its way into your writing?

JK: I’m a very visual person, so my writing ideas often come from visual cues—an imagined scene, or one from a dream. I guess I always look for the structure beneath my writing, too, just like a building. I need to understand the framework of a story and how it will support what I want to do, and those frameworks can be orderly or fragmented, whichever best serves the overall design.

MF: How has your writing changed over time?

JK: The biggest change I’ve seen in my own writing is that I’m now more trusting and courageous about my voice and my choices. Over the past several months, I’ve heard two veteran writers, Benjamin Percy and Matt Weinkam, say the same basic thing—that you need to learn the rules so you can break the rules. That message really resonates with me. It’s like becoming an architect. You must go through a training period and pass a standardized licensure test, not so you become homogenous or an automaton, but so you can learn the appropriate limits of expressing your individuality. So you learn how much you can break the rules before it all comes crashing down around you.

MF: What’s next for you?

JK: I’d love to finish my novel, but at the rate I’m going, it will take another decade. I keep telling myself it’s a marathon, not a sprint. But it’s a marathon I didn’t properly train for.

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Joe Kapitan writes from a glacial ridge line a day’s march south of Cleveland. Besides being a proud two-time Midwestern Gothic contributor, his short fiction and creative non-fiction have appeared or will appear in The Cincinnati Review, Booth, PANK, Wigleaf, Hobart, Notre Dame Magazine, and others. His collection of Ohio-based short stories, Caves of the Rust Belt, will be published by Tortoise Books in October 2018.

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