Writing the Midwest: On developing small inspirations

July 18th, 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 developing small inspirations:

Nafissa Thompson-Spires: Often I just have a line or an image in my head. With the titular story [in the collection Heads of the Colored People], the first line came to me, and I pursued it, to figure out who this Riley character was. Sometimes, I have an idea of the shape of a story I want to write, but often the story reveals itself to me during the drafting. There has to be space for both the discipline and organization (outlining, etc.) and the more metaphysical, subconscious parts of writing.

Rebecca Berg: Every piece of writing demands its own process. In one case, that might be a kind of quilting: piecing the story together by laying out lots of fragments and deciding what goes next to what. In another case, a voice tumbles out of me. In the case of “Taki’s,” I woke up at two in the morning, suddenly obsessed by memories of a restaurant. I thought I’d jot a note about it and go back to sleep. Three hours later, I was still writing.

Bruce Johnson: When I start a new story, it often feels like I need to forget everything I thought I knew about writing and figure out a new process that will work for that particular story. Sometimes I have a clear idea of what a story is about before I start it, other times I just have a first sentence I want to play with. Sometimes a story demands a quiet room to write in, other times weird industrial music playing in my headphones. And inspiration can come from anywhere; I have a long list of story ideas written down in my phone, and I don’t remember where most of them came from. I can’t say I experience writer’s block much, though. I’m always writing. It’s not always good, but throwing out bad work is part of the process.

Writing the Midwest: On what writers wish they’d known

“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 what writers wish they’d known:

Rae Meadows: This is not one thing but these all relate to a lack of confidence: no one has it figured out; no one cares if you write or not so you better write for yourself; trust your gut; it’s not a race; the day your book comes out is the same as the day before; when you finish a book you have to start again and write another one.

Peter Grandbois: What I didn’t realize, and what I wish someone would have said—though I probably wouldn’t have listened—is to remember that there is no rush. There’s so much pressure now to get your work out into the world, to publish so you can get into grad school, to publish so you can get a job, etc. I think that’s created a tendency to flood the market with a whole lot of work that isn’t as good as it could be. I work as senior editor for Boulevard, one of the top literary magazines in this country, and, I should say, one of the most important Midwestern magazines, as it’s based in St. Louis. In my work as an editor, I see lots and lots of good stories that don’t quite make it because the writer didn’t take enough time to make it a great story, i.e. to make it work on every level: language, character, subtext, etc. Writers settle for finding a cool voice or an interesting idea and think that’s enough to make a great story, and it isn’t. So, I would say, slow down. You’re building a model ship. Take your time. Make sure each piece is in place. I know this is easier said than done, especially coming from someone who is now on the other side with a tenured position, but slow down. It’s about the work. Making it as good as it can be. Listening to it even when you thought you were done listening to it. There are few things in this world that mean a lot. Capitalism has demeaned so much of our humanity. Great writing still means everything. At least to me. It’s not about writing a million copy best seller. It’s about saying something true and saying it well. It’s about reaching just one reader. To do that, you’ve got to slow down.

Gary Amdahl: I wish I had known that it was more important, and healthier for both body and soul, to write what I could write, and not worry about what I couldn’t write.


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Writing the Midwest: On place

“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 place:

Tania James: Setting is often central to my stories, in that my characters are often bumping up against their environments, trying to come to terms with the worlds and communities in which they find themselves. And in life, as in fiction, place often informs the people we become—the jobs we take, the friends we make (or don’t).

Marisa Silver: I think character is inextricable from the place in which that character lives. Decisions a person makes about small things such as what to wear on any given day, and big things like what kind of work will he find to support his family, as well as a character’s sensory experience of his or her body in is utterly affected by place. So when I develop characters and stories, I must know how people respond to the place in which they live.

Laura Donnelly: I know that living most of my life in the Midwest has influenced my writing, but the how and why of that is tricky to pin down. Because the Midwest is never one thing, much too big for that, I worry that I fall upon stereotypes when I talk about it. (And that itself feels paradoxically Midwestern, that hesitation to make large assertions.) I see its influence in my tendency towards quiet. Towards listening. A desire not to assume too much, which I sometimes have to work against. I think it’s there, too, in my interest in what happens behind the quiet of the small town’s façade. Both the beauties and horrors we find there. And then the landscape floods its way through, not so much the flat cornfields of the Midwest, but the lakes and dunes and snow of Michigan.


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Writing the Midwest: On learning from students

“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 learning from students:

Judith Claire Mitchell: My grad students turn me on to new writers and blow me away with their work, but I’m truly inspired by my undergrads, who are not always the best writers in the world (at least not yet) but who are so brave about exposing their imperfect work to their classmates and me. I often begin undergrad workshops by writing this quote by Thomas Mann on the board, “A writer is someone for whom writing is more _________ than it is for other people.” I ask the students to guess the missing word, which is “difficult.” I deeply believe this. Writing is supremely difficult. But my undergrads often suggest that the missing word is “fun.” That’s an important lesson, too. That’s how most of us began. Not for publishing contracts. Not for prizes. Not for tenure or recognition or movie deals or to be the best or even to change lives the way literature can. No, we originally did this incredibly difficult thing—often with full knowledge of how difficult it is—for fun. My undergrads remind me of that.

Gretchen Marquette: One thing I like about being an instructor is that I get to keep learning. It’s true to some extent that teachers “take” their own classes, and so I’m always thinking (and reading) as both a student and as a teacher. I’m an adjunct, so I teach many different classes at several different schools. This means that I have lots of different experiences, not just as a teacher, but as a thinker and writer too. When I’m teaching creative writing in the BFA at Hamline, for example, there is a lot of great discussion about craft and form. Listening to my students talk helps me think about my work (and all creative work), both in terms of how it’s made, and how it works, but also in terms of how it finds an audience.Other classes have their own benefits. I’m teaching composition this semester at Anoka-Ramsey Community College, north of the Twin Cities. I’m also working on a collection of essays. The essay collection is tough, because I’m in the early stages, and my inner critic is convinced I’m taking a great idea and royally screwing it up. During our first unit, my comp students and I read Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts” and talked about the barriers to getting that first draft (the “down” draft) done. During that in-class discussion I realized something I should have realized years ago, which is that the book I imagine in my head always falls short of my expectations, because the first time I see it, it’s in its first draft, and the books that I’m holding it up to, hopefully as peers, have made it through many drafts, and have seen an editor’s attention, etc. It’s such a simple concept, but honestly, it didn’t stick for me until the discussion with my students this fall. They were struggling with writing their personal essays in exactly the same way I was struggling. It’s a good example of how, in a lot of ways, being a working writer makes me a more empathetic writing teacher, and being a writing teacher makes me a more productive writer.

Callista Buchen: Teaching writing gives you the opportunity to talk about writing a lot—I’m constantly thinking about writing and how best to discuss it with my students, how I can help them find their way in this field. All this thinking helps me stay engaged with my own writing. After all, I’m a working writer honing her craft, just as they are. Plus, I love reading and responding to student work—they’re brilliant and challenging, and they keep me reaching to do better.


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Writing the Midwest: On writing different experiences from your own

“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 writing different experiences from your own:

Tom McAllister: Once I found the rhythms of [How to Be Safe main character] Anna’s voice, I still resisted it, because I was very afraid of totally screwing it up. I’ve read and loved many books by and about women, but wasn’t sure I could do it myself. When I’m deep into a project, I talk to my wife about it a lot, and in this case, I often ran scenarios by her to understand how she might perceive a situation differently than I would. When we walk into a crowded room for a party, what things does she notice right away (especially things that I might miss or take for granted)? But also, the most important thing was Twitter, and social media in general. Just logging in every day, following smart and funny women, resisting the dumb urge to constantly respond to them, and just listening. Learning about the various indignities most women face day to day. Especially listening when they shared stories of male writers totally misunderstanding the internal lives of women.

Laura Hulthen Thomas: I think it’s dangerous for any writer to be afraid to write about something they haven’t personally experienced or known. We wouldn’t have fiction, journalism, poetry, or nonfiction without writers figuring stuff out, inhabiting other perspectives, in their mission to bring full stories to the page. Sometimes writers get the facts wrong, or don’t capture an experience authentically; sometimes tone undermines integrity, and intent. That’s the breaks—writers make mistakes, and some published writing is in poor taste, whether intentionally or not.

Jay Baron Nicorvo: My process for this is simple if not easy: read everything. I immerse myself in a subject until I lose myself in it, literally. You’ve got to reach the saturation point where you’re drowning in primary source material. Then you write your way to the surface, and you do that partly by working hard against stereotype. Once you’ve reached the surface, once you’ve polished that surface to a shine and are reasonably sure that beneath the surface lies some significant depth, then seek out a reader who’s experienced what you’ve written about. She’ll call you on your bullshit, and you revise with her opinions in mind.


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Interview: Aaron Hamburger

Midwestern Gothic Assistant Editor Marisa Frey talked with author Aaron Hamburger about his new novel, Nirvana Is Here; the trap of nostalgia; writing trauma; and more.




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

Aaron Hamburger: I was born in Detroit and grew up there. Also, I went to the University of Michigan, which in so many ways affected my life. I studied creative writing there with wonderful writers like Eileen Pollack, Thylias Moss, and many more, and found my voice as a writer. And as a human too.

MF: Ari, the main character of your new novel, Nirvana Is Here, is a white Jewish boy from the suburbs of Detroit. He and Justin, a Black, non-Jewish boy from the inner city, develop a relationship when they are in high school together. Both are curious about the other’s culture, and the difference is a factor in their bonding and eventual dissolution. Why was it important for you to highlight and compare the Jewish American experience and the Black American experience specifically?

AH: To write about Detroit and to not write about race, in my mind, is science fiction. It is to me the key story of the city, and by extension, of our country.

Personally, I grew up in a largely Jewish suburb of Detroit, so much so that when I was young, I thought Jews were the majority in the country and Christians were the minority. I attended a Jewish school for much of my life and knew very few people who weren’t Jewish.

Then when I went to a secular high school, I experienced this wave of diversity in so many ways and it was incredibly exciting to me, and in some ways a relief. I had never really felt comfortable in this community where I was supposed to feel comfortable because everyone was alike. Now had the chance to get to know other people from other backgrounds, and I felt that I fit in better with that kind of environment, a diverse one. I wanted to capture that experience in fiction.

MF: Nirvana Is Here deals with sexual assault and harassment in the ‘90s and the present, in which the #MeToo movement factors in. Did the movement change the way you wrote about the experiences in the book, particularly how Ari thinks about the assault he experienced as a teenager?

AH: I started working on the book well before the #MeToo movement got into full swing. I was working out a lot of these issues on my own in terms of my own #MeToo experience, which I had kept hidden from most people in my life, and I was challenging myself to write about them in fiction. Then as I was finishing the book, this movement blew up in the media. It’s a strange coincidence and I wonder if there’s a connection, something brewing in the culture that made so many people ready to speak out.

One thing I will say is that I think the discussion could allow more room for male survivors of assault to also speak up. To some extent it’s been happening, but for example, recently there was a piece in the Times about how fiction has responded to the #MeToo movement and it didn’t mention even a single book with a male victim. Interestingly, a big part of the experience of being a male victim of sexual assault is this false idea that your experience doesn’t count or isn’t possible.

MF: Nirvana and its frontman, Kurt Cobain, come to be as much, if not more, of a religion for Ari as Judaism. As a teenager, he often asks himself what Kurt would do in his situation, and adopts several of Kurt’s beliefs about life as his own. Do you think the term religion can apply to the bond a person makes with something like music, or is limited to organized practices like Judaism?

AH: That’s a really interesting concept, and I like it. I was talking the other day with a writer friend who’s not into organized religion and I asked if he had any spirituality in his life. He said his daily writing practice felt to him like a religious ritual, and I immediately identified with that idea. When I write, I too often feel as if I enter a kind of meditative state that helps me center myself and focus my thoughts. So, yes, I do think that the arts, music, literature, etc. can become a kind of spiritual or religious experience for people.

By the same token, however, it’s not always that way. Think of Richard Wagner, brilliant composer, horrible anti-Semite. D.W. Griffith, great filmmaker, made The Birth of a Nation, a skillfully made yet terribly racist movie. Being a great artist did not make them better people. But then again, there are many very religious people who also treat people terribly.

In the end I’d say, many paths, same destination. Religion, art, so much more, any vehicle human beings can find to learn to be kinder to each other is fine by me.

MF: Why Nirvana?

AH: I wrote a piece about this for the Washington Post. Kurt Cobain was known for many things, but maybe not so known (and should be) for his consistent support of gay rights. (Feminism too.) He stood for people being different and finding their own voice, and while he may have been an imperfect messenger in some ways, he had the right message for the right time.

In terms of this book, the idea of “nirvana” refers not just to the band, but the idea that nirvana is here at every moment. We have what we need right here, right now, in every moment, if only we can learn to call upon that. And that’s true in every moment. This book is not meant to be about a nostalgia trip, but rather about learning to appreciate the beauty of each moment we find ourselves in. This is true for even moments that are painful, because those moments are inevitable in our lives, and they have the potential to teach us so much. Or even if they don’t, we are lucky because they always end. It’s like if someone punches me in the gut, as soon as that happens, it’s over. Isn’t that wonderful? Now I don’t have to be punched in the gut again unless I do it to myself in my own mind by reliving it and dwelling in it. Which is not to say I want to deny that it happened, but rather, to acknowledge the painful episode without having to feel the pain of it the way I did the first time.

MF: In school, Ari directs some of his frustration toward Mr. Wentworth, a teacher who is gay but not out. Mr. Wentworth is patient with him, but his fear of others finding out he’s gay fuels Ari’s frustration. Can you discuss your inspiration for Mr. Wentworth’s character and his importance to the story?

AH: Yes, I can. I had so much trouble with Wentworth at first. I just didn’t want to sympathize with him at all. I don’t even know why. And then I played a little Jedi mind trick. I renamed him after one of my favorite characters in fiction, Mr. Wentworth in Jane Austen’s Persuasion. (I wrote about this for Craft Literary, talking about how to name characters.) And it was as if a veil had lifted, and I could see how Wentworth was in pain, a different kind of pain from Ari’s, but still in pain.

I also thought of my own experience as a teacher, with students I’ve had whom I’ve wanted to reach out to and help, not because they were gay, just to help with their writing, and they were resistant to my efforts. I felt so helpless in those situations. I wanted to say to them, I’m really just trying to be of service here. Is there something else I could be doing or saying to help you? (If you are such a student and reading this now, I sincerely say I’m sorry I wasn’t more helpful to you!)

In any case, I channeled that spirit into Wentworth and I liked him a lot more.

MF: Nirvana Is Here has a braided narrative, with one storyline in the ‘90s and one in the present. Ari is a medievalist in the present narrative and tends to live in the past. How do you deal with learning from the past without letting it take over, both in writing and in life?

AH: The trap of nostalgia is that it recreates the past by distorting it, by erasing the negative parts. And then we compare that rosy distortion to the present, with all its ups and downs, and the past seems like a much better option.

As a medievalist, Ari is well aware that our view of the past is tinged with all kinds of errors, and yet his view of his own past has left him a bit stuck. It isn’t until he reconnects with a figure from his past that he sees how that old romanticism is a trick of mind. I think the key is, once again, in the title. Nirvana Is Here. Every moment has something important for us to experience, but we can only experience it if we are present in that moment as it’s happening.

I tell my creative writing students all the time, have you ever been trying to recapture some past episode in your life and you wished that you could go back in time to visit it to remember what the flowers smelled like, what color the carpet in that room was, who was there, all the details that you’re struggling to come up with now? You can’t do that. But you can be more present from this moment forward, so that when you’re in the future trying to look back, you’ll be able to call up those details because you lived them more fully as they happened. Or even if you’re not interested in using your life as fodder for fiction, you’ll still be happier because living more fully means living more happily. It’s very simple, actually, which is why it’s so damned hard to do!

MF: What were the challenges and rewards of writing Nirvana Is Here, which is semi-autobiographical, as a fictional story?

AH: I think the things people will assume are autobiographical are the things that are not and vice versa, as often happens when people write fiction. (And when we write non-fiction, readers will say, did that really happen or did you make it up?)

One thing I learned was that in terms of writing trauma, there’s a real art in how you write about it and where you place it in a story. In an early draft of the novel, I started out with a detailed rape scene. That presented a big obstacle for readers to clear before getting to the love story. (In part I was inspired by Tess of the D’Urbervilles‘s structure.)

As I rewrote, I did two things. First, I built up to that traumatic scene in small flashes, the way a trauma survivor might re-experience it in memories. Then, I waited until the climax of the book to present the scene, and I did so with a few telling details. That approach was important because first, I didn’t want to create “rape porn,” where I inadvertently titillate the reader with a scene of violence, and second, it’s often how we experience trauma as it’s happening, in flashes, not in a logically coherent way.

Personally, I found writing about this trauma could be quite challenging but ultimately liberating. I can’t imagine going back to being the person I was, who was always trying to erase this story from my life. It feels powerful to confront it. And I’ve found it’s allowed me access to a new emotional depth in my work.

MF: You’ve previously published two books, a novel, and a story collection. How did the experience of writing Nirvana Is Here compare to the experience of writing those? What did you learn?

AH: This was a book I’ve been trying to write for a while. The key to pulling it off was courage, plain and simple. And a whole lot of faith too. The thing about writing a book is that you can embark on a project for years and not know if anything will come of all that work. Which doesn’t mean that work was a waste, not at all. Going back to your question about faith and religion, if writing is a kind of religion, then we do it for the sake of the process itself, not some product and the imaginary glory we think it may bring. So that’s my advice to other writers: Be brave, be bold, write about the things that scare you.

MF: What’s next for you?

AH: Another novel, set in Cuba in the early 1920s. It’s my first foray into historical fiction of the distant past (rather than recent past, like Nirvana Is Here), and I’m absolutely loving it. I also have a few readings coming up in the Midwest:

Thursday, May 23, 6 pm
Detroit, MI
Pages Bookshop
19560 Grand River Avenue Detroit, MI 48223
(313) 473-7342

Tuesday, May 28, 7 pm
Chicago, IL
Unabridged Bookstore
3251 N. Broadway, Chicago, IL 60657
(773) 883-9119
Reading/Signing with Michael Carroll

Thursday, October 3, 7 pm
Ann Arbor, MI
Literati Bookstore
124 E Washington, Ann Arbor, MI 48104
(734) 585-5567


Aaron Hamburger is the author of the story collection The View from Stalin’s Head (Rome Prize, the American Academy of Arts and Letters), the novel Faith for Beginners (a Lambda Literary Award nominee), and the novel Nirvana is Here. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Crazyhorse, Tin House, Subtropics, Poets & Writers, Boulevard, and O, the Oprah Magazine. He has taught writing at Columbia University, the George Washington University, The Writer’s Center, and the Stonecoast MFA Program.


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Writing the Midwest: On accepting that a piece is finished

“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 accepting that a piece is finished:

Justin Hamm: This is going to sound a little imprecise, maybe even hokey, but for me there’s an invisible latch that kind of clicks shut. I’m not sure if I perceive it through intellect or emotion, but it happens. I can’t always hear it when the poem is on paper, either—though sometimes I can—but when I read it aloud and it’s pretty good, and the ending is fully earned, I can perceive the poem locking into place. That doesn’t mean that it’s perfect or anything, just that I’ve discovered the way that particular poem goes. Once that happens, I might tweak a few words on the computer, but I know that the poem is, for better or worse, whole and as good as I can make it, and it’s time to face the judgement of editors.

Carol Dunbar: When I’ve taken a piece as far as I can go, I bring it to my writing group, or give it to a trusted reader. It is the feedback and questions from readers that helps me with the last 20 percent, or if I’m stuck before I even get that far, they can help me identify what a piece is really about. I also don’t submit anything until after I read it out loud, because doing that suddenly brings the reader/listener into the picture in a way that doesn’t happen when I’m just looking at the page. I listen to these recordings and that’s how I go through the final editing process.

Rebecca Berg: A piece of writing is never finished. Once something is published, I can’t go on revising, obviously. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to.


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Writing the Midwest: On setting attainable writing goals

“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 setting attainable writing goals:

Chad Koch: I’ve found that writer’s block can be cured by changing focus from “I need to write a story” to “let’s just write 1,500 words today.” I was actually against this idea for a while because I thought I’d just be wasting time, but I recently did NaNoWriMo and it helped me finish my novel. In a lot of ways just getting something—anything—on the page moves things forward. Switching to word count also stifles your inner critic because now you measure yourself by a number of words, which is black and white (you either hit your word count or you don’t).

M. Drew Williams: I consider my process to be one long, drawn-out method of combating writer’s block. First and foremost, I try to read for at least two hours every day: The less time I spend reading, the less likely I am to gain the inspiration needed to write anything of merit. Throughout my work week, I try my best to jot down a few interconnected lines (or interesting words). By Saturday, I often force myself to write a poem, and even though I am not always successful in my efforts to do so, the effort itself at least gets me one step closer to actually writing a worthwhile poem.

Danielle Lazarin: Believe in process over product. Don’t obsess over the number of words you put down or publications. Committing the time to the work is the most you can do, the little thing you can control. There’s no guarantee that you’ll produce what you expect in that time, but getting comfortable with being in that chair in a disciplined way is the best you can do, and it’s enough—whatever amount of time that is. Over time, that collective work will end up in your product, even if you delete a lot of the words.


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Writing the Midwest: On making every word count

“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 making every word count:

Tatiana Ryckman: My reaction when I see a very thick book is generally, “This must not have been well-edited.” Naturally there are many times when I’m wrong, and I am glad to be. Yet there’s something really wonderful about letting a single moment stand in for significantly more. One can dip into that world and emerge slightly different. There’s something poetic about it—as in poets do this all the time. And I like making words work a little harder, to earn their keep.

Carol Smallwood: Read closely and be curious about word choice. I remember in the second grade the wonder of words came to me when the reading book had the word “suddenly” after all the one-syllable words. It had power, mystery, was grown up, and I couldn’t believe words could have such musical magic.

Samrat Upadhyay: I like tight and lean—and sometimes mean—prose. The expansiveness has more to do with how you are looking (the vision) than what you are looking with (the medium). If your focus is narrow, then even when you employ expansive language, the focus will remain narrow. I do believe that language can empower us to become far-seeing, even though we might be quite nearsighted in real life.


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Interview: Steven Wingate

Midwestern Gothic Assistant Editor Marisa Frey talked with author Steven Wingate about his newest book, Of Fathers and Fire; how we construct our own identities; and the changing landscape of American politics.




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

Steven Wingate: It’s long-standing and complex. For the past eight years, I’ve been living in South Dakota, but I’ve spent much of my life in the eastern half of Colorado—the non-glamorous part without mountains. My teen years unfolded in much the same environment you see in Of Fathers and Fire, though my town was bigger and closer to Colorado Springs. Still, I could look out my back window and see nothing but empty plains that stretched on for six hundred miles to Kansas City. Things were flat and we were not only isolated from coastal influences but very aware of that isolation.

So I’m not a Midwesterner in the way that someone from Ohio might claim to be, but I definitely consider myself a Great Plains writer and feel like part of the “Midwest conversation” on that basis. There’s tremendous overlap between the “Great Plains” and the “Midwest”—just look at a few maps of each geographical construct and see how similar they are. But there’s also a cultural overlap, that sense of separateness from the coastal edges of the nation. Both the Midwest and the Great Plains are part of “flyover country,” and it’s appropriate that this novel is part of the Flyover Fiction series from the University of Nebraska Press. I’ve got a lot to say about the region, and that series—which is dedicated to Great Plains literature—really allows the book to be seen in its rightful context.

MF: You said you took notes on Of Fathers and Fire for ten or twelve years. How did the novel change as you grew as a father?

SW: When I first started in on the material, my oldest son wasn’t even born. Now he’s old enough to fight me emotionally and define himself against me the way young men do, and my younger son is getting into the same territory. Seeing this unfold in my own life has given me a lot more insight into Tommy’s relationship with his fathers. (I make that word intentionally plural, because one father is real and the other imaginary, but both affect him.) Over the years I’ve been able to see how father-son relationships evolve and how sons define themselves both with and against their fathers at the same time. It’s something I missed out on personally, since my dad died when I was young, and I think I had to become a father myself to understand that process.

I’ve grown up in those years too, and my understanding of what fatherhood involves has developed a great deal. When I first started the novel I couldn’t write Tommy’s father, Richie Thorpe, as anything but a monolithic character viewed from the outside. He was a black box, a closed-off creature I could only write about. But as time went on and I had more experience as a father, I could see with his eyes. The thing that truly helped me get the book finished was my kids reaching the age where we could talk about my mistakes and failings. This was absent between Tommy and Richie in earlier incarnations of the novel, and looking back that was a fatal flaw. Only when I got to the point where I could talk with my kids about my own weaknesses could I actually pull off this book.

MF: Of Fathers and Fire takes place in a small, all-white town in Colorado in 1980, during the Iran hostage crisis. How did you navigate writing about xenophobia and why was it important for you to include?

SW: I felt I had to include it because it was realistic to the time, which was quite different from ours demographically and culturally. In 1980, whites accounted for 83 percent of America’s population; now it’s estimated at around 73 percent. Yet even back then, there were people saying they wanted to “take our country back” from the non-white “invasion” that was supposedly overtaking America. There were plenty of white people in my immediate orbit at that time who refused to hang around with “those people”—meaning non-whites—and if whites did hang around with “those people,” they were seen as decidedly inferior by those who held their whiteness especially dear. This kind xenophobia permeated the socioeconomic strata that I’m writing about in Of Fathers and Fire.

The underlying issue there is the question of who gets to call themselves an American, which never goes away and occasionally forces itself to the head of our national conversation. For me, this is a personal issue. My maternal grandparents came over from Poland in the early 1900s—a time when Poles were reviled here because a Pole assassinated President McKinley in 1901—and they never became U.S. citizens. It bothers me deeply to see the kind of hatred America has for immigrants, but sadly it’s nothing new.

Today’s xenophobia feels much more virulent than it did in the 1980s, and in fact a lot more like it did when my Polish grandparents came to America. I encourage anyone who thinks this level of hostility is unique to the Trump era to visit the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration and see what the headlines had to say about immigrants then. It actually makes today seem tame by comparison. But this current has always been part of America’s identity, and in the novel, I didn’t feel any choice but to look at it straight on.

MF: The political situation in the novel—which takes place in an era that you’ve said introduced the “weaponization” of Christianity—is similar to today’s. Do you think we’ve learned anything from the past?

SW: I wish I could say we’ve learned something positive, but I think what we truly learn from the past is how to perform the same kind of cruelties toward our fellow humans with greater efficiency. We do things tentatively the first time, then back off, then do it with more violence and precision.

Version 1.0 of the weaponization of Christianity—at least in my lifetime, since I’m sure there were other versions before then—came during the “Reagan Revolution,” partly as a backlash to Roe v. Wade. There was a very “us vs. them” attitude among the religious right, a sense that they wanted to “take back America” and return it to its glory days by subjecting it to the moral code of a very punitive form of Christianity.

Flash forward thirty-six years and you have Version 2.0, the “Trump Revolution” if you will, which even stole its main slogan from Reagan’s campaign. “Let’s Make America Great Again” was a Reagan slogan, and Trump simply took off the first word. Version 2.0 of weaponized Christianity has no problem putting kids in cages or relentlessly screwing over the poor people that the Gospels tell us to help. Those with that mindset don’t care if transgendered people kill themselves out of despair or if economic inequality is the greatest it’s been since right before the Great Depression. They simply want “their” country back, and in trying to do that they’ll pull out all the same stops they did during Version 1.0 but go for the jugular this time.

It’s as if 1980 was a dress rehearsal, and today is the real show. Today’s crowd hates the same people as yesterday’s (especially Muslims) and believe fervently that they’re saving America from itself. It’s hard to watch the country I love eat itself alive in the same way twice, but here we are.

MF: Tommy plays the saxophone and dreams of going to New York because that’s what his made-up father did, but he’s able to move elements of the earth and is interested in cars, like his biological father and grandfather, raising the question of how a person constructs their identity versus how their identity is constructed for them. How do you reconcile these?

SW: I could only try to reconcile all that emotional material by writing a novel—I needed all that space because there was no way I could do it more succinctly. The construction of identity is one of the great subjects of fiction, and the bildungsroman tradition (which this novel is a part of) is dedicated to it. Tommy’s adult character is coming into being before our eyes, and that’s fascinating for me to write because there are so many layers to it.

As you mention, there’s that biological layer—who we are even if we think we’re something else, which in the book is embodied in all the similarities between Tommy and the biological father he’s just met. There’s another layer we get by osmosis, simply from absorbing the time and place we live in. And finally there’s the layer of identity we create through identification or opposition with our own families and our cultures, like Tommy’s embrace of bebop jazz or his rejection of the knee-jerk militarism that’s all around him in Suborney.

Often we can’t tell which layer our own attributes stem from. Tommy’s love of muscle cars is almost genetic, yet it’s also the result of his class upbringing and geography. The fact that it’s a little bit of both fascinates me, and honestly, that’s one of the reasons I write fiction. When I was Tommy’s age I used to want to be a primatologist like Jane Goodall, but when I discovered literature I realized that human beings are vastly more interesting because of our identity formation. Showing Tommy’s transition from being the son of an imaginary sax player to the son of a criminal with limited control of the elements was the most fun I’ve ever had writing. 

MF: Of Fathers and Fire is as much about Tommy’s relationship with his mother, Connie, as it is about the one he’s just starting with his father. What was the most difficult part of portraying Tommy and Connie’s relationship?

SW: Not making Connie merely the “bad guy” in the book was my biggest challenge. She’s standing in Tommy’s path and has lied to him in ways that are difficult to forgive, but as misguided as she’s been she’s acted out of love for him.

Writing her love for Tommy wasn’t the hardest part, though. It was finding the ways that Tommy loved her, even after her lies are exposed. In early versions of the novel he simply wanted to punish her. But the longer I spent on their relationship, the more I saw that Tommy genuinely wanted a stronger one with her. He desires honesty for her, a coming clean that she’s denied herself. The easy thing to do would have been to let him simply hate her. The harder but more rewarding thing was to let him love her while being unable to tolerate her. 

MF: You’re an English professor at South Dakota State University. How does teaching influence your writing?

SW: My mindset with my students is a lot like my mindset with myself. The writing process always unfolds much more slowly than you’d like, 95 percent of what you’ll do is make sentences better, and the biggest trick is getting a tale to unveil itself. Every suggestion I give to my students is going to apply someday to my own work. Most of the time what I’m suggesting to them are narrative opportunities—”what-ifs” within a draft that might open up the work further and give it more depth, more chaos. Without chaos, fiction has no engine at its center.

Because I’m always finding ways to push my students’ writing deeper into its chaos, it helps me do the same with my own. Teaching writing and having to articulate that the development process has made me a much more aware writer than I would have been without it. Also, having to say things that are sometimes difficult to living human beings has taught me to be kinder to myself, too. 

MF: What are you reading right now?

SW: One regret I have about the teaching life is that reading for pleasure has really fallen off for me compared to when I was younger. I read for a living, and since most of that work isn’t fully formed, it can require a lot of energy to get through. I spend a lot of time looking at student writing that I can tell from page one isn’t working, then trying to be constructive and encouraging, saying “What could make this stronger?” or “Where’s the real story here?” That means I don’t always have energy or inclination left over to crack open a book.

I was warned about that phenomenon when I went into teaching and advised to develop a reviewing practice to make sure I had some skin in the game of contemporary literature. I followed that advice and I’m usually reading something for Fiction Writers Review, where I’ve been involved for almost a decade, or one of the other venues I work with. Right now I’m reading Cape May, a debut novel by Chip Cheek due out at the end of April, and I’ll interview him for FWR. It’s a great way to get to know other authors—or in Chip’s case, get to know them better—and it really helps to lessen the isolation I feel being in a such a rural environment.

The other thing that helps me overcome that reading gap is audiobooks since they don’t give me the eye fatigue I get from print books. (I love print books, by the way—I’m not one of those “death of the book” people by any stretch.) Audiobooks let me shut off my eyes and listen with my imagination, and I’m usually listening to a horror novel as I walk the dog, do the dishes, and (if I’m lucky) work out. Horror—especially the kind that verges into fantasy) lets me sink into the supernatural elements I love, and I’m learning a lot from Stephen King, Joe Hill, Clive Barker, Victor Lavalle, Neil Gaiman, Andrew Michael Hurley, etc. I’m poking away at a horror novel and consider it all their fault.

MF: What’s next for you?

SW: Now that I’ve tasted the novel, after many years of being a genre nomad who worked in all sorts of forms from poetry to gaming, all I want to do is write novels for a while. The next one coming out of the pipeline is set in eastern South Dakota, which is more properly Midwestern than Colorado. Nobody can argue with South Dakota as part of the Midwest, right? At least the eastern half, without the mountains.

But my characters aren’t Midwestern, which puts a twist on things. While a lot of literature the Great Plains and Midwest is about people who are deeply rooted there, almost part of the soil, my next novel is sort of a 21st-century immigration story. My protagonists are from the coasts—he’s from Boston and she’s from Los Angeles—and they end up in South Dakota like stray dogs to deal with their ghosts and demons: prescription pharmaceuticals, infertility, domestic violence, and an inability to let go of the dead.

I’m putting the finishing touches on this novel as Of Fathers and Fire is making its way into the world, and I hope the new one will also be part of the Flyover Fiction series because my main body of work is so heavily connected to the Great Plains. But I don’t want to talk about it too much for fear of jinxing it, because I haven’t sent it in yet. I think it’s finished, though I need to see Of Fathers and Fire set sail in the world before I can decide if it is or not. I’ll know in a month or two.


Steven Wingate‘s works include the novel Of Fathers and Fire, published by the University of Nebraska Press in April 2019, the digital memoir daddylabyrinth, which premiered at the Singapore Art/Science Museum in 2014, and the short story collection Wifeshopping, which won the Bakeless Prize from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference and was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2008. He is an associate professor at South Dakota State University and associate editor at Fiction Writers Review.


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