Interview: John Keyse-Walker

January 19th, 2017

John Keyse-WalkerMidwestern Gothic staffer Megan Valley talked with author John Keyse-Walker about his novel SUN, SAND, MURDER, writing a book he wanted to read, writing as a second career, and more.

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Megan Valley: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

John Keyse-Walker: I grew up in rural Ohio, in a township just west of Cleveland. Except for a stint at Duke Law School in Durham North Carolina, I have made my principal home in the same county where I was born, Lorain County. I practiced law for thirty years in Lorain County and even after retirement, spend the majority of the year there.

MV: You have lived in Florida as well. How has each region influenced your writing?

JKW: My mysteries are set in the British Virgin Islands, which I think have a very small-town Midwest vibe. In the BVI, everyone knows everyone, people are friendly, and it’s hard to have secrets – all of which reminds me of Ohio, just with better weather and a more exotic setting. So I can say that the BVI I write about could, with a few changes to the stories, as easily be about Ohio or someplace else in the Midwest. As for Florida, it has instilled in me a love of the sea, the beach, and fishing, all of which figure significantly in my writing.

MV: For thirty years you were a lawyer. Did always know writing was something you wanted to do?

JKW: Writing was something I did, daily, as a lawyer but it was very different from the writing I do as a mystery writer. Did I always want to write fiction? I am an avid reader and I think every reader has at least passing thoughts of writing someday but it certainly was not a passion or a lifelong ambition for me.

MV: Why did you set SUN, SAND, MURDER in the British Virgin Islands?

JKW: Toni Morrison said “If there’s a book that you want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” I had visited the BVI a number of times and grew to love the island of Anegada there. I wanted to read a crime novel set there, so I had to write it. It is the perfect place for a mystery – lots of quirky characters, a lush tropical setting that is almost a character in and of itself, and such a low crime rate that a murder there is truly a shock.

SUN, SAND, MURDER

MV: Would you say you approach writing as a hobby?

JKW: I think it fits into the category of being a really fun second career for me now. What better career than one with flexible hours, an opportunity to research interesting topics, a modest amount of notoriety, and the ability to do the work sitting on my back deck overlooking Lake Erie or on the beach on Pine Island, in Florida?

MV: What was the inspiration for Anthony Wedderburn, “De White Rasta?”

JKW: There was a fellow I saw a few times on Anegada who inspired the look that Anthony has. He was a white guy, sported blond dreadlocks, and just drifted around the island. I never spoke to him, so the whole backstory of Anthony is pure invention. Indeed, Anthony was not intended to be a significant character when I started writing. He was simply going to find a body on the beach. But when I started writing his part, I liked him, so he took on a more prominent role in the book.

MV: After a career as a lawyer, your first novel is – fittingly – a crime novel. Do you stick to this genre?

JKW: It’s interesting that you would think it’s fitting for a lawyer to write crime fiction. Actually, my legal career was all civil cases, so criminal law almost never entered into my practice. But, to answer the question, I have no intention of writing outside the crime/mystery genre. It’s what I love to read, so it’s what I love to write. I think the genre is one of the most effective at providing the reader with pure entertainment and that, to me, should be the first objective of a writer.

MV: What’s the best piece of advice about writing you’ve ever received?

JKW: Write what you love. You are with the story, setting and characters in a novel for a long time, many hours spread over months and years. If you are not writing about something you passionately love, the topic or setting or characters will become tedious. None of us do good work if the work is tedious.

MV: What’s next?

JKW: I have completed the second book in the Special Constable Teddy Creque series, and it is currently with my agent. I have ideas for at least four books in the series, so I hope to complete at least that many. And I am currently working on a stand-alone murder mystery set on a German ocean liner on a round-Africa cruise in the days before the outbreak of WWII. The stand-alone is a project I really love because it is based on a cruise around Africa that my grandparents took aboard the North German Lloyd Line’s SS Columbus in 1939. Imagine visiting ports like Casablanca, Dakar, Cape Town, Mombasa, Zanzibar, Port Said, Villefranche, and Gibraltar in the pre-war era. Then couple that with a group of international passengers in an era of significant tension in the world, and isolationist sentiment in the U.S. I am having a great deal of fun writing it, and hopefully readers will have as much fun reading it.

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John Keyse-Walker grew up in Columbia Station, Ohio, the son of a vegetable greenhouse operator and a stay-at-home mother. Much of his youth was spent exploring the fields, woods, and rivers near his rural home, or fishing and swimming in Florida, where his family had a modest second home. While he enjoyed reading, books took a backseat to outdoor pursuits. He attended the College of Wooster, in Wooster, Ohio, majoring in political science. He went on to obtain a law degree from Duke University School of Law (Go Blue Devils!), where he met a fellow student and Southern belle, Irene Walker, who became his wife. After law school, he took the Ohio bar and began a practice in Elyria, Ohio. For the next thirty years, he had a diverse practice consisting mostly of trial work, and for many years served as his firm’s managing partner. In 2012, he retired, planning to devote time to travel, fishing, tennis, kayaking, and volunteer work. When he found those pursuits failed to fill the hours in the day, he began to write. After two years of on-and-off efforts, he completed his debut novel, SUN, SAND, MURDER, which won the Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Award.

Submissions Opening February 1st

We’re excited to announce that submissions are opening in just a couple weeks for Midwestern Gothic‘s Summer 2017 issue!

From February 1st until March 31, 2017, send us your fiction, poetry and nonfiction inspired by the Midwest!

Never submitted before? Please read through our Submissions Guidelines—it only takes a few minutes and they’ll fill you in on what Midwestern Gothic is all about. Or you could check out one of our previous issues to get a sense of our aesthetic.

Please make sure you submit through Midwestern Gothic‘s Submittable page. (All the relevant details are there, too.)

We can’t wait to read your work!

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Contributor Spotlight: Lacey N. Dunam

Lacey N. Dunam’s piece “Where You Come From is Gone” appears in Midwestern Gothic Issue 23, out now.

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

As the country western singer Lefty Frizzell croons in a song famously covered by Johnny Cash, I was born in Saginaw, Michigan. My hometown, however, is about forty miles east in the “thumb,” and I lived there until I left for college.

I think where you grow up shapes who you are, and this is true for my writing.

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

Well, I do miss Tim Horton’s.

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 rich ground for writing because the complexity of place, when you pull back the layers, reveals a significant degree of tension and conflict and deep characterization. Where I live now is in direct tension with where I grew up, and this tension contributes directly to my writing. As noted in my piece published in the magazine, my hometown’s per capita income is $17,000 annually. Compare that to $74,000 annually in Washington, DC (a number that isn’t reflective of areas of the city where the per capita neighborhood income is $10,000), and one begins to recognize how the structures of socio-economic class, for example, influence, build, and shape people and place.

Another example: Donald Trump received 65% of the votes in my home county. In Washington, DC, he received 4%. This significant difference speaks to how and where I grew up and how and where I live now, and the necessary channels and rifts I have to constantly navigate. However, I’m lucky that where I grew up and where I reside now are deeply and fundamentally different. I think it shapes my awareness and understanding in important ways. Homogeneity is homogeneity, whether it’s based in race, class, or sexual identity. Or political affiliation. I think ignorance and exposure are opposite sides of the same coin. People in my family have used racial slurs unthinkingly, and people in my DC social and professional circles have used insulting and offensive language in relation to class. Just because one group of people is labeled “conservative” instead of of “liberal” doesn’t mitigate the responsibility to own one’s ignorance.

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

Most of my writing starts by hand. I revise and edit by hand, too. The connection to physical paper and the act of slowing down forced by the handwritten process is important to organizing my thoughts and pushing through the mind-clutter.

I have a demanding daytime job, so most of my writing happens in the morning before work. I get up around 5:30am and write for as much time as I can squeeze in. After work I’m often too distracted by the events and responsibilities of the day to sit still at a desk. The evening is when I seek release within the natural world and the outdoors, by movement. And reading.

My desk straddles the wall space between two sets of windows. I can look south towards the Embassies of China and Syria, or I can look west towards the crows’ nests in the pines and oaks. There’s a Cooper’s hawk that has frequently been about, and I like to stand with my binoculars observing it.

I write in silence. I hate the distraction of noise and music. I rarely write or revise fiction in a coffee shop or other public space.

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

I more often know when a piece is not finished. I recognize it still has needs, that it is not yet singing.

I require lots of space between drafts and will sometimes work on a piece, put it aside when I can’t quite make it work, and wait months or years for when my writing skills are stronger before I pick it back up. I think the initial draft of “Where You Come From Is Gone” was written in 2007 or 2008. That original draft is nearly unrecognizable from the published, “final” version.

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

I don’t play favorites, but there are authors I seek out everything they’ve written. I read mostly literary fiction and short stories and I dabble in reading poetry. Narrative and personal essays. Books about the natural world. Books that forge new connections between disparate ideas or things in my mind.

What’s next for you?

I would like to write a fictional modern satire set in my current city of Washington, DC, but I’m not a very funny person, so this might be impossible.

Where can we find more information about you?

I’ll be at AWP (and on a Friday panel), but so will ten thousand of your best writing friends, so you can also find me at @bookbent on Twitter or at www.laceyndunham.com.

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Interview: Christopher Bowen

Christopher BowenMidwestern Gothic staffer Audrey Meyers talks with author Christopher Bowen about his book, When I Return to You, I Will Be Unfed, making life work for oneself, life lessons from the publishing industry, the complexities of writing about mental illness and more.

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Want your own copy of When I Return to You, I Will Be Unfed? We’re giving away three copies of the book — find any of our posts about the giveaway on Twitter and retweet to be entered to win. Only one book will be awarded per person, but feel free to RT as many times as you want to get multiple entries! Deadline is Saturday, 1/14 at midnight. US only please.
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Audrey Meyers: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Christopher Bowen: Well, I was born in Cleveland in 1980. My father entered med school when I was 7 or 8 and my family was literally living on a string then, though I never knew it from all the love we had. We moved to Toledo, Detroit and back to the Cleveland suburbs throughout his career.

I suppose that’s where all my love of road trips first came from. That and Kerouac, ha. But I’ve also often felt so entitled to the land, to the ruggedness of its people. So much of the Midwest, the rustbelt even, is so hard earned.

So, I suppose, in another lifetime I would’ve graduated at four years with an English degree and gone on from that. But I didn’t. I had to make life work for me, for the environment around me, and those awkward mistakes I would make over time. That, specifically, meant graduating with my culinary degree in 2013 at a community college in Cleveland at thirty-three.

AM: In your previous interviews, you mention your many travels throughout the country. Which of these journeys have impacted you the most and how does it compare to the influence of your home base – the Midwest?

CB: I travel so much mainly because the cost of living here in the Midwest is so low, it affords me to. Last year though, I went to Arizona to visit family and we camped in the Superstition Mountains. I also read for the Flash Fiction Festival in Denver. Both really made me fall in love with the west, with mountains. Even just the picture of them and what they represent in life.

Though I saw some when I travelled the coast with my friend Jane (also an author), I am thinking of maybe settling in Colorado or the Rockies somewhere someday.

AM: In addition to being an author, you are the founder of Burning River, a publishing press. What are the greatest lesson you’ve learned from starting your own publishing press?

CB: The best answer to this, the one thing I’ve learned, is nothing shorter than a lesson in life. I mean, something you can only get from living life and not necessarily ‘publishing.’ To remain humble and honest. It’s something that’s carried me through my career as a chef, something a lot of people sometimes note once they’ve met me or get to know me more in person. There’s a hard earned character to that and a lot of hard mistakes made.

Have you ever seen the movie, The Big Kahuna? The best picture I can paint is Danny Devito’s ending monologue about regret and having made mistakes that you haven’t even realized yet.

So, yeah, I published journals, chapbooks…ran my own blurbs or reviews of others’ books over the years on my blog. I paid for the physical design of the books through school grants and even, sometimes, there we made mistakes. But I started it because I wanted the mistakes as much as the experience, as hard as that is to say. Most importantly, I was able to grow through those people I met as I worked with them and meandered through small publishing.

I’d like to think those same people would appreciate me as the growth of a person and man, and not necessarily that of a writer.

AM: Your book, When I Return to You, I Will Be Unfed, treats the difficult topic of mental illness. What made you want to write about mental illness? And how did you cope with covering this complex topic within a short and compact book?

CB: I wrote about mental illness because of the world’s stigma and my own personal experiences with it. How limited we make our lives or perspectives, not only in judging people or unseen illnesses, but also in forgetting to share that part of ourselves with other people we meet in life. That these are missed chances, missed conversations, that deeply connect us to each other as human beings.

It originally began as a project for NaNoWriMo years ago before I’d even finished school. After so long, I realized it had become much more personal and not only had to see print and be read, but that it was my duty to do that for others’ sake, whether facing something similar or simply because of my habit of being so honest in my writing.

AM: When I Return to You, I Will Be Unfed features an interesting narrative style with multiple viewpoints. What are your reasons for switching point of view throughout the story?

CB: I really just wanted to show an ‘inside’ and an ‘outside.’ Inside a hospital, outside the world, or a society. This included friendships that at that age are really critical to identity. I suppose that’s why it became such a narrative of Rob and Jim’s friendship, but mostly Jim.

AM: You’ve written a number of short stories. Where do you find inspiration for starting new work?

CB: Patience and free time, honestly. If I really think long and hard about a concept, a relationship, a predicament, I really just want that person explained to other people: their wants, their hurts, desires. The story ends when my gut tells me it does and I walk away from it as ‘finished.’

AM: What do you wish you had known before you began writing?

CB: When I was younger, I read so much and became the quiet kid in school for a lot of reasons, but mostly the moving we did. I was a good observer and I always wrote creatively, but a small part of me, a small sliver, dreamt of being some great, dead author and that some small part of me, my writing, would persist through my own personal life and death.

But what I’ve come to learn is that writing is second-hand. That being heard and read and published and remembered are all a great feeling, but that you, the person, your family, your friends, your experiences are so much more that matters in this lifetime. It’s honestly one of the biggest reasons I travel much anymore, to put that faith to the test. To test the boundaries of my own life experience.

AM: What’s next for you?

CB: I’ve whittled a small story down to bare bones and am planning on expanding it. It will likely expand again, then I may retract it more. But a lot deals with the complexity of the father-son relationship, masculinity, even the deeper meaning of simply ‘water’ in our world, fluidity. I suppose a lot of the inspiration comes from reading Robert Bly’s Iron John and my own relationship with my father.

I’m also considering working on a text about an inspirational musician for me, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. After all, the band’s name is a play on the French for ‘Good Winter.’ And in all honesty, I’m hoping it will be.

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Christopher Bowen is a Midwestern chef and the author of the books We Were Giants and When I Return To You, I Will Be Unfed. He blogs from Burning River.

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Midwest in Photos: Godsholy Mountain

“And I was clean even as God wrenched his own name from my throat.” –Brian Clifton, “His Body Like Water, His Bones Like Oil,” Midwestern Gothic Issue 20.

Godsholy mountain by Gail Jeidy

Photo by: Gail Jeidy

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Interview: Christopher Barzak

Christopher BarzakMidwestern Gothic staffer Lauren Stachew talked with author Christopher Barzak about his novel Wonders of the Invisible World, the socioeconomic reality of the Midwest, the importance of reading as a writer and more.

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Lauren Stachew: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Christopher Barzak: I grew up on my grandfather’s beef farm in northeastern Ohio. In a town of around three thousand people, where everyone knew one another, where my graduating class was around sixty, and where, whenever you happened to look up and notice a plane etching white trails in the sky above, you were reminded that you lived in that broad landscape others dismissively call Flyover Country, it was a quintessential Midwestern upbringing, including 4-H, the semi-crazed fervor of deer hunting season, and Homecoming parades. The works.

LS: You spent a few years abroad teaching English in Japan. How did your perception of the Midwest change once you returned to the U.S.?

CB: While I was living in Japan, after enough time passed for me to be able to look over my shoulder and see how far away from home I was living for a still unknown period of time to come, I began to look homeward to the Midwest and to see the things I hadn’t known I liked about it. Some of the smallness of small town Ohio had qualities that were great comforts to me as a child, even though the more I grew into adolescence and adulthood, the more it grew to feel too tight a fit for who I was becoming. Some qualities of the seeming unchangingness of small towns in the Midwest, though, warm me on the coldest days. Sometimes the tightness of a small community isn’t restrictive so much as embracing. Being able to know and be known in your community is often, especially in literature, viewed as parochialism and inherently limiting to a person’s development into broad-mindedness. That’s not necessarily true, though it can be. Something positive about a small community, though — even maybe even a small community that’s extremely remote — is that you don’t necessarily fall through the cracks and chasms that make up large and anonymous-making environments, which tend to produce narratives about people who, despite living among millions, feel incredibly disconnected and lonely among others.

LS: Your most recent novel, Wonders of the Invisible World, blends a small-town Ohio setting with LGBT topics, magical realism, and the discovery of family secrets. When and how did the origins for this story come about, and how did you manage to weave these ideas together?

CB: I began writing the novel right before I moved to Japan, the summer of 2004. But when I moved to Japan, all I wanted to write about was Japan. So I did that, and put the opening of Wonders of the Invisible World aside for the time being. Two years later, when I was finished with the book I wrote in Japan and back home to see my first novel, One for Sorrow, be published, I looked at the opening material I’d created and immediately wanted to go back to it. The material I had created happens to be a chapter that comes toward the early middle-half of the novel, which is a section that takes places a hundred years prior to the narrator’s contemporary present, in which his great-grandfather in hubristic fashion makes a decision that delivers a curse onto the narrator’s family. To see that family line wither and for the men in it to die untimely deaths, which they do afterwards. Until the narrator, Aidan Lockwood, in the present begins to unravel the threads of the past that have been obscured by other forces, in an attempt to save his family from the eventuality of dying out completely. It was all of about thirty pages that I had to work with, and I discovered more than figured out the magical aspects of the story as I felt my way forward and began to develop the history of the family as well as its present status. In many ways, it can be read as a story that charts the withering of the Midwest itself, and the efforts that so many of us here put into saving it from further reduction.

Wonders of the Invisible World

LS: Aidan Lockwood, the main character, describes Temperance, Ohio as “not really the sort of place anyone moves back to,” which, although pessimistic, feels like a very quintessential Midwestern phrase. Why do you think this is such a common trope associated with the Midwest, and how does your personal vision differ from Aidan’s?

CB: I think that’s definitely a phrase that’s associated with living in Midwestern small towns. It does feel pessimistic, but it’s also realistic. In the past people were always leaving the Midwest for life in urban centers elsewhere, but many people also stayed and made families, so there was a sort of balance to that equation. But for decades now, people have been leaving in higher numbers and faster rates, mostly to find work somewhere else, to find a better life. The reduction of the various manufacturing industries across the Midwest has forced this sort of work-based exodus, so that in a place like Youngstown, Ohio, where I live and teach, what had once been a population of 175,000 people is now 65,000. So, despite the phrase “not really the sort of place anyone moves back to” seeming a bit negative, it’s also just a socioeconomic reality to much of the Midwest, though I know some places in the Midwest have fared a little better than others. How does my vision of the Midwest differ from Aidan’s on this particular quote? Even though I am someone who moved back to the region where I grew up, I do think it’s just a fairly neutral observation grounded in the reality of the Midwest’s population loss. Some people do move back, and they have a variety of reasons for doing so, but they’re still more in the minority in that particular way.

LS: Besides novels, you have also written two collections of short stories, Before and Afterlives, and Birds and Birthdays. In your experience, how is the process of writing short stories different from that of a novel, and is there one that you prefer over the other?

CB: The process of writing short stories differs from my process of writing novels mainly in only one way: the length of time it takes to write one or the other. There are, admittedly, other considerations that make the forms different, but the most extreme defining difference for me is the period of time it takes to maintain the kind of intensity of focus required to write both. I don’t know that I prefer one form over the other. They both have different qualities that I enjoy and appreciate, both as a reader and a writer, and that make me love them both (as well as the sorts of forms that exist between the two, like novels-in-stories, which is kind of like having your peanut butter and chocolate together).

LS: How do you feel that your writing has evolved with each new novel? Has your style changed, or do you feel drawn to different ideas that you wouldn’t have previously explored?

CB: Each novel requires something different from me. Each one demands I learn how to write it specifically, with its own unique set of challenges for me to figure out. Those challenges might include figuring out the trick of capturing a particular voice, or in figuring out an unfamiliar story structure or perspective, or maybe in figuring out how to write historical narrative, or some other kind of narrative I’ve not yet had experience with as a writer. So each one has given me an opportunity to acquire and develop new writerly skill sets. When I come to a new book now, I do think I can begin to discover it and develop it at perhaps a somewhat quicker pace than I used to be able to, but I don’t think my style itself has changed, mainly because my style has been to develop a style that suits the story being told, more than to impose a particular style on any type of story. I do think each novel feels distinct, though. I think each feels like they’ve been written by the same person, regardless of their differences.

In regard to feeling drawn to different ideas that I might not have previously explored, yes. The ideas I’m drawn to have always been something that changes, simply because I’m a naturally curious person, and when something new captures my attention I tend to obsessively try to learn about it. These things tend to work themselves into my imagination and later become fodder for story.

LS: As a faculty member at the NEOMFA in Youngstown State University, is there a piece of advice you always give to your students?

CB: Yes. My hold steady, bottom line piece of advice is that if they want to write, they need to read widely. To learn from authors whose work they might not even enjoy, or to learn from reading a type of story they generally don’t like, in order to acquire whatever techniques those types of stories may teach them to employ, even if in a wholly different kind of narrative.

LS: How do you know when a piece of writing is finished?

CB: When I feel like I can’t figure out anything else I can do to make it better, even after I’ve had other people read it and tell me what else they think I could do to make it better. I know I’m done when, after a while, I don’t wake up at night with ideas for revision or development, and when I walk away from the work for a long enough while and go back to it and am pleased by what I’ve made, rather than somehow still dissatisfied.

LS: What’s next for you?

CB: I just completed a draft of my next novel, The Gone Away Place, which will hopefully release in Fall, 2017. It’s a story about a town decimated by a natural disaster, and the hauntings the community experiences in the wake of their loss. It’s also, on the small scale, the story of a seventeen-year-old girl who’s suffering survivor’s guilt after her best friends and boyfriend perish.

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Christopher Barzak is the author of the Crawford Fantasy Award winning novel, One for Sorrow, which has been made into the Sundance feature film Jamie Marks is Dead. His second novel, The Love We Share Without Knowing, was a finalist for the Nebula Award and the James Tiptree Jr. Award. His most recent novel, Wonders of the Invisible World, was published by Knopf in 2015, and received the Stonewall Honor Award from the American Library Association. He is also the author of two collections: Birds and Birthdays, a collection of surrealist fantasy stories, and Before and Afterlives, a collection of supernatural fantasies, which won Best Collection in the 2013 Shirley Jackson Awards. Christopher grew up in rural Ohio, has lived in a southern California beach town, the capital of Michigan, and has taught English outside of Tokyo, Japan, where he lived for two years. Currently he teaches fiction writing in the Northeast Ohio MFA program at Youngstown State University.

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Interview: Lee Martin

lee martinMidwestern Gothic staffer Sydney Cohen talked with author Lee Martin about his novel Late One Night, unreliability of perspective, deepening characterization, and more.

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Sydney Cohen: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Lee Martin: I was born in a farming community in southeastern Illinois, and like many writers, I spent too many of my early years thinking that no one would be interested in reading about what I knew from those farms and small towns. Luckily, I finally figured out that this was the world I knew most intimately, and if I couldn’t make it interesting, I wouldn’t be able to make anywhere interesting. I spent a number of years away from the Midwest. Then, in 2001 I had a chance to return when Ohio State University offered me a teaching position. I’ve lived in Columbus ever since, but I make frequent trips back to the native lands of Illinois. In fact, I’m answering your questions today from the public library I used when I was in high school. Something about that please me very much.

SC: Your new novel, Late One Night, explores the transformative power of rumors and prejudice when searching for the truth, specifically in Ronnie’s attempt to maintain his innocence and discover the truth behind his family’s tragedy. What interests you about the genre of mystery, as well as these elements of unreliability in perspective?

LM: My new novel, Late One Night, is based on a true story that happened not too far from where I grew up. On a bitterly cold winter night, a house trailer out in the country caught on fire, and unfortunately a mother and some of her children died. I started playing the what-if game. I wondered what would happen if the husband was living outside the home on the night of the fire. I wondered what would happen if he was involved with another woman. And what would happen if the fire turned out to be the result of arson. Knowing these small midwestern towns as I do, it was only natural for me to wonder what would happen if rumor and gossip pointed toward the husband as the guilty party. What would that do to him and his fight for the custody of his surviving children? What would it all do to the community? In the story of Ronnie Black, I was interested in using elements of mystery to explore his character. I’ve always been interested in the things people carry with them – things they wouldn’t want known – and how much they can stand to tell at any one time. I use the mystery to put pressure on Ronnie until at the end of the book, he has no choice but to tell the entire truth of what happened at that trailer on that cold winter night. Even though Late One Night has an element of mystery to it, it’s not a traditional whodunit. I think we’re all unreliable narrators of our own lives in one way or another. I use the form of the mystery and the shifts in perspective as a way to highlight that fact. Ultimately, this is a story of community and family and the responsibilites we have to one another.

Late One Night

SC: Furthermore, your characterization of Ronnie attempts to humanize a character that would otherwise be seen as the heartless villain. What inspires you to disrupt this character stereotype, and what is your process in doing so?

LM: My challenge with any character is to see that person as completely as I can. Ronnie is hot-tempered and indiscreet. He makes rash decisions that often lead him into trouble. At heart, though, he wants what we all want: to love and to be loved in return. It’s also important to him, in the aftermath of the fire, that he prove himself to be a good father. In his heart of hearts, he loves his children very much. Yes, he makes poor choices from time to time, but there are other characters in the book – characters considered to be good people – who make poor choices as well in the name of doing the right thing. It’s so hard, this living, and we can cause all sorts of problems even at times when we swear we’re making the right choices. In many ways, to live is often to fail, and that’s what being human is all about. Ronnie is also a product of his place and his time. This part of Illinois is extremely economically depressed, and it’s ravaged by a drug problem and too many people living with too little hope. As a writer, I have to understand all of that just as I have to understand the history that a character like Ronnie carries with him. I often challenge myself to think of all of my characters, especially those like Ronnie, who may not be particularly admirable, as small children. If I do that, I can’t help but have empathy for them and an understanding of how they became the adults that they are. So I challenge myself to think in terms of opposites. I want to hold in my mind the image a character has presented of him or herself to the world, but at the same time, I want to be in touch with the opposing aspects of that character. I want to look for his or her moments of vulnerability and the moments they keep hidden. I want to see the children inside them, and I want to love them for the scars their living has left on them. This is all about deepening my characterizations, so my readers believe I’ve put a real person on the page.

SC: Despite living all over the country, you were born in Illinois and live now in Ohio. How has the Midwest influenced your writing, whether in Late One Night or your previous work? Are there any aspects of your work that you would call distinctly regional?

LM: I don’t think of myself as a regionalist, but I do take pleasure in dramatizing the stories of people in rural areas. These people don’t often have a voice in our wider culture, so I’m pleased to do what I can in my work to allow them to have one. I try to capture the nuances of characters living their lives in my little slice of Illinois, and, if I do my job properly, I let readers see that those characters’ lives aren’t all that much different from their own, no matter where they live. We all share the desire for connection, and we often make mistakes as we try to achieve it. I also take great pleasure in seeing the subtle beauty of a landscape that many people who don’t live there often deride for its flatness, its starkness, its agricultural ugliness, its lack of sophistication. The truth is the rural Midwest, no matter what some may think, is a place of beautifully dramatic changes in weather, of nuances of landscape, and glorious contradictions. Just like the people who live there. That’s what I try to capture in my work. If a writer is in touch with the landscape and the culture, he or she can’t help but be in touch with the complexity of the lives lived there.

SC: You have an extensive repertoire of both fiction and nonfiction books. How do your inspirations elicit a novel over a memoir, or vice versa?

LM: When it comes to deciding whether a certain experience will find its shape in fiction or nonfiction, it’s usually a matter of whether I think there’s something important for me to claim and to announce as my own. My first book was a collection of stories, The Least You Need to Know. They were stories about sons in difficult relationships with fathers. Writing that book was a completely different experience for me than the one I had when I wrote my first memoir, From Our House. Writing that book brought me to a level of understanding of what it was to have my father’s life that the stories never quite reached, at least not in a way that was personally significant for me. Patricia Hampl once said that the memoir is never about the past; it is, instead, about the future. If I sense that writing about a certain experience will give me something I need for the future, then I use that material in nonfiction.

SC: Is there a distinct decision process, or does the decision to write a memoir or piece of fiction come naturally?

LM: The decision about whether to use material for fiction or nonfiction is usually an instinctual one for me. The writing will make clear whether I’ve chosen the proper form.

SC: How does teaching influence your writing?

LM: Teaching is a creative activity just as writing is, and if I enter into it with that sort of energy, I usually get a good deal of energy back from my students and their work. I also hear myself say things in workshop that make me think about my own work in a productive way. It’s all part of the ongoing conversation that writing provides, and I’m grateful for it.

SC: What’s next for you?

LM: Next up is a craft book about telling stories and the writing life, plus a new collection of stories coming out from Dzanc Books. I also have a draft of a new novel and a new memoir to get back to.

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Lee Martin is the author of the novels, The Bright Forever, a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction; River of HeavenQuakertownBreak the Skin, and Late One Night. He has also published three memoirs, From Our HouseTurning Bones, and Such a Life. His first book was the short story collection, The Least You Need to Know. He is the co-editor of Passing the Word: Writers on Their Mentors. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared, or are forthcoming, in such places as Harper’s, Ms., Creative Nonfiction, The Georgia Review, The Kenyon Review, Fourth Genre, River Teeth, The Southern Review, Prairie SchoonerGlimmer TrainThe Best American Mystery Stories, and The Best American Essays. He is the winner of the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ohio Arts Council. He teaches in the MFA Program at Ohio State University, where he is a College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of English and a past winner of the Alumni Award for Distinguished Teaching.

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Interview: Jacquelyn Mitchard

Jacquelyn MitchardMidwestern Gothic staffer Sydney Cohen talked with author Jacquelyn Mitchard about her novel Two if by Sea, the intersection of genre and realistic fiction, transporting readers on a global scale, and more.

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Sydney Cohen: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Jacquelyn Mitchard: I’m a Midwesterner, always will be—even if I live in Scotland (I don’t). I was born in Chicago and still have family there; I go back all the time, especially to see my brother and sister and to the Ragdale Foundation in Lake Forest IL, where I love to go to write and am part of the board of curators. Not long ago, someone at a college in Vermont where I teach said, apropos election commentary, “You can trust him. He’s a man of Chicago.” Another guy wanted to know, just what does this mean? A man of Chicago? And the first fellow said, “Well, he’s a straight shooter. And he sounds like Jackie.”

SC: Your new novel, Two if by Sea, intertwines the genre of science fiction in Ian’s telepathic abilities with the rural life of the Midwestern farm. What interests you about the intersection of genre and realistic fiction? How do you blend science fiction into a realistic setting?

JM: I don’t know if it’s science fiction, exactly… but I guess if there is something that is biologically different about this child (a telekinetic gift) that is science fiction. A gifted editor once told me that the best magic realism is more realism than magic, and I tried very hard to make Ian’s extraordinary ability become an everyday thing within the lives of the people in his world — while still making it clear that, if a child like this really did exist — there would be many who would want to exploit him.

Two if by Sea

SC: Two if by Sea takes place on a grand scale, moving across different continents as the focus shifts from Brisbane to the American Midwest to the English countryside. As an author, how do you widen your lens to focus not just on a specific region, but on an entire global section? What are the challenges of this process?

JM: It was great fun, and I love different settings and the people within them. Often, of course, I write in very finite locations, but the challenges really are the same, and they come down to recognizing that people are generally much like other people in any setting, with the same hopes and fears and beliefs, and only the trappings are different.

SC: What inspires or intrigues you about stories on an expansive geographic plane?

JM: I think reading a story should be an immersion experience, like virtual reality. So, in this way, I’m able to transport the reader to the southern hemisphere, to the English countryside — all while holding safe to the hands of the characters they have come to know and trust.

SC: You have written an extensive collection of novels for adults, young adults, and children. What is important to keep in mind when writing for these different audiences? What components or themes of your work would you say are universal?

JM: I guess the components that are universal are that human experience is diverse only in the details, but the details are what make the story glimmer! When I write for teenagers, I have to remember that their emotional topography is steep and vast, and when I write for adults, I have to remember that it may take longer for a moment of true understanding to come to someone who’s seen more of the world. Even so, the world of the young adult is accessible to me in that it may be true that I was never more alive or more truly my unvarnished self than I was at sixteen.

SC: How has growing up and working in the Midwest influenced your writing? Would you say there are any aspects of your novels that are distinctly regional?

JM: A radio interviewer for NPR once said that there was a “broad streak of Midwestern decency” in my stories. And I would like to think that may be true. There is something that is somehow larger about a story set in landscapes that are closer to the earth, the horizon, subject to the weather… if you think of what people mean by a “New York” story, they may mean something intensely personal, cerebral, focused on the individual. That would be rather the opposite of what I do sometimes. While characters’ individual lives and dreams are at the forefront of every story I write (in that, you don’t write a story about ideas, instead, ideas emerge through the people and the events) the landscape is important, too. You’ve made me homesick for that big sky.

SC: Who are some of your favorite authors, and how does their work inspire your own?

JM: Among my favorite authors is the glorious Lorrie Moore (Birds of America), one of the most perceptive and funny writers of our time, and Andrea Barrett (The Voyage of the Narwahl) who writes about nature and the people who revere it, and the Scots mystery writer Denise Mina, the historical Daniel James Brown (The Boys in the Boat) and every, single word that Elizabeth Strout (My Name is Lucy Barton) ever wrote. If all of these writers have one thing in common, it is their ability to observe and translate the world, including the nature of people. They teach me how to see.

SC: What’s next for you?

JM: Spooky classic ghost story based loosely on the legend of the lost colony at Roanoke, but in a more northerly location. It’s scary. It’s really scary.

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Jacquelyn Mitchard is the number one New York Times bestselling author of nine novels for adults, including The Deep End of the Ocean, the inaugural selection of the Oprah Winfrey Book Club that was also made into a major feature film, and her most recent novel, Two if By Sea. The editor of a realistic Young Adult imprint, Merit Press, she also is the author of seven novels for Young Adults. She has won the Bram Stoker and Shirley Jackson awards, as well as the UK’s Talkabout Prize, and her work also was short-listed for the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction. Mitchard is a professor of Fiction and Creative Non-Fiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts and a frequent contributor to such magazines as Glamour, Readers Digest, and Real Simple. Her short stories and essays have been widely anthologized. She grew up in Chicago, and now lives on Cape Cod with her family.

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CRB Best Poetry Books of 2016: Ghost County by John McCarthy

We are delighted to announce that Chicago Review of Books has selected John McCarthy’s Ghost County as one of the best poetry books of 2016!

Here’s what they have to say:

“A love letter to the Midwest, John McCarthy’s debut collection of poetry Ghost County is the only book this year I’ve finished in one sitting,” says Heather Cox. “McCarthy, who lives in southern Illinois, paints a familiar, blue-collar picture of the Midwest but with a dose of surrealism that enlivens the region and gives it dynamic force in his storytelling.”

Check out Ghost County, and all of the top picks, here.

Pick up a copy of Ghost County here between now and January 20, 2017, and 15% of your purchase goes to 826michigan

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Proceeds to Benefit 826Michigan

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In the spirit of giving this holiday season, Midwestern Gothic would like to give back to the local Michigan chapter of 826National, a nonprofit dedicated to enriching the lives of school-aged students with literature and writing. From December 20th to January 20th, Midwestern Gothic will donate 15% of all sales to 826michigan. So why not spend some money helping a good cause and get some of your holiday shopping done all at once?

Learn more about 826michigan here: 826michigan

So please, help us help this wonderful cause and check out our titles from MG Press or our Issues. Every purchase you make will go towards helping spread the joy of writing to children in your local community.

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