Tell Me How It Was is here!

March 27th, 2015

Tell Me How It Was From 826michiganLast Saturday not only saw the 2nd annual Voices of the Middle West festival, but the newest title from MG Press, Tell Me How It Was: An Anthology of Imagined Michigan Histories, was officially released!

Created in partnership with the non-profit writing center 826michigan, this historical fiction anthology features the work of the eight-grade writers at Scarlett Middle School in Ann Arbor, Michigan, as they explore new perspectives on history through fiction.

Rebecca Scherm (whose interview with MG you can read here) was kind enough to write a foreword for the anthology, saying: “These young writers are doing that hard, rewarding, and sometimes sublime work of imagining lives outside their own.” We are so excited with this final product, and so happy for all the young writers whose voices we get to showcase in this anthology.

Pick up a copy of Tell Me How It Was

Interview: Rebecca Scherm

RebeccaScherm-1bw- large webMidwestern Gothic staffer Jamie Monville talked with author Rebecca Scherm about about the inspiration for her novel Unbecoming, her reading habits, writing advice, and more.

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

Rebecca Scherm: I moved to Michigan in 2010, when I was 25, for graduate school. Before that I’d lived in the south and in New York City, and I’d never spent any time in the Midwest at all! Now it is my home.

JM: You have worked in various different writing modes/genres from short fiction, essays, interview, criticism, and most recently, novel. What is your process for working on/with so many different forms – do you focus on one for a while and then move onto another or are you constantly switching back and forth?

RS: For me, working on a novel structures the rest of my writing time. It’s the boulder everything else must flow around. When I’ve finished a novel draft, whether the very first draft or the seventh, I take a proportional break (sixty days after the first draft, a week after the seventh) to work on other writing, and I do not look at the novel at all during that time. But a first novel draft is a such a long, hard process that I work on other writing when I need to “get away” or when I have an idea that won’t wait around for years! Few ideas will.

JM: Your debut novel Unbecoming, is a heist story deeply entangled with questions about constructing identity, and the beauty and terror of deceit. What is it about these questions that draws you in as a writer?

RS: Well, everything. I was interested in huge, borderless question I had about the ways people interpret “truth” and “lie” and “real” and “fake” very differently, often very flexibly. So much of what people say and do and believe falls somewhere between those two poles, and that gray area is dangerous and fascinating to me. I wanted to understand this character by looking at the way she—someone very flexible with the idea of “truth”—sees herself, the world.

coverJM: What was the inspiration for Unbecoming? At the beginning was one aspect, character, situation, etc. pulling you forward and the rest developed alongside or after that initial preoccupation? Or was it more of a simultaneous collage of ideas that you arranged and rearranged while continuing to develop?

RS: I had several ideas that I realized all at once fit together in a strange, unsettling, irresistible way. One was about the “femme fatale” type I knew well from reading and watching noir as a teenager, and my dissatisfaction with the limits of that type. Another was about feminine performance, my childhood obsession with Grace Kelly, and my sense that girls in the South, where I grew up, are raised with an emphasis on charm and lovability in a way that I find constricting, sad, and in the case of Grace, dangerous. The third was my interest in heist news stories and my consistent, irrational rooting for the perpetrators of those crimes, as though I confused reality with a caper movie. I wanted to investigate that, to push myself and the reader to test the limits of our sympathy. All these ideas kind of bonded together as I worked out the characters and the story.

JM: You’ve written that your main character Grace and you are so different and that while writing it was very important to remember that she was not you. What goes into creating a character that makes decisions or choices that you never would make. How do resist the urge to as the old adage says ‘write what you know’?

RS: I think it helps to ask yourself what you would do in a situation, what you would advise the character to do, and then ask how she is different! I had to do that a lot in the beginning, until she became fully real to me.

I find “write what you know’ simplistic and unhelpful. I write to learn, to find out what I don’t know.

JM: Do you have a favorite genre to read? And how does that influence what you write?

RS: No, I read widely, but when I’m starting a new novel, I tend to read other books that I think are in conversation with the one I’m working on. In the beginning of Unbecoming, I reread Hammet, Highsmith, and Ruth Rendell, but also less obvious choices—novels that deal with long-held secrets, with persuasion, with deceit in families and relationships, with romantic obsession, with women’s ideas of femininity. I’m happy to absorb influence, but I’m also reading to argue, to push back on the ideas I encounter. Those private arguments a reader has with a writer help me later, as a writer, refine my own ideas and arguments.

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

RS: I’m glad I knew as little as I did! No writer needs to hear how many pages she’s going to throw out, how many drafts it’s going to take. I guess I would like to tell myself that I will always find a way out of the woods, for those moments, and I know I’ll have plenty more of them—when you just sink to your knees and think ‘I am lost, and this will never work.’ It will work. You will find your way out.

JM: What’s next for you?

RS: I’m working on my second novel, Beta, which is set in the near future, about an American family who goes to live on an experimental private station with other scientists and entrepreneurs and people who don’t know what the hell they’re doing.

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Rebecca Scherm is the author of Unbecoming (2015, Viking). Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Jezebel, The Toast, and elsewhere.  She lives in Michigan.

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Voices of the Middle West 2015 wrap-up

This past Saturday, March 21, was our 2nd annual Voices of the Middle West literary celebration, and we are so unbelievably thrilled with how it turned out!

The goal of the all-day festival is to present a forum to discuss the Midwestern voice in literature, the way it is presented, as well as to showcase the diversity of presses, publishers, readers and authors who call this place home. We were delighted to have partnered with the Residential College at the University of Michigan to put this on, and the turnout was absolutely incredible—better than we ever imagined!

Thank you to everyone that stopped by, to all of our wonderful exhibitors who shared time with us at the bookfair, to our presenters who wowed us with their panels, and this year’s keynote speaker, Stuart Dybek, who delivered an inspiring, poignant talk.

For those who couldn’t make it, we’ve copied a few of our favorite photos below, and we hope to see you in 2016!

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Contributor Spotlight: Justin Brouckaert

Brouckaert HeadshotJustin Brouckaert’s piece “Saginaw Poem” appears in Midwestern Gothic Issue 16, out now.

How long have you been writing?
I started writing sporadically—both poetry and fiction—after taking my first undergraduate creative writing class in the spring of 2011, but it was mostly a hobby until early 2012. That’s the year I started taking it more seriously, writing more regularly, thinking of myself as a writer and not just someone who wrote. I’m still young, but I’ve always felt like I got a later start than I should have, and I’ve always been plagued by the frantic feeling that I need to catch up. That feeling has been, on the whole, more helpful than harmful—probably a good thing since I’m beginning to realize it might never go away.

What’s your connection to the Midwest?
I was born and raised in a suburb of Detroit and did my undergrad at a small public university in mid-Michigan. When I was growing up, my family split our time between the downstate suburbs and rural northern Michigan, where my father was building a house near where my mother grew up. I’m out of state—and region—now, but I still have family in both Metro Detroit and northern Michigan. I visit once or twice per year, and think of the Midwest much more often.

How has the Midwest influenced your writing?
To be honest, this is a question I’m still figuring out, having only moved from the region for the first time a year and a half ago. If nothing else, I’ve discovered that the settings of my childhood have directly fed my interest in decay. Decay of cities, decay of beaches, decay of peace and purity, of relationships, of “natural” landscapes and city streets. It’s interesting: in rural northern Michigan—the “pure” in “Pure Michigan”—we seem to define decay as the introduction of the urban, of commercialism and tourism, rich city folk forcing their way in and “ruining” the view. In Detroit, though, decay is marked by the rise of the natural world—outsiders are obsessed with “ruin porn,” the many city blocks that are abandoned and reclaimed by nature.

Of course, decay isn’t inherently Midwestern—it is also Western and Eastern and especially Southern—but there does seem to be a type of decay endemic to formerly prosperous Midwestern cities like Detroit or Saginaw, or to tiny northern Michigan towns like Levering or Pellston. My work often features characters dealing with the effects of that decay, or characters that are privileged enough not to have to.

Why do you believe there has never really been a regionalist push for Midwestern writing in the past like there has with the South or even the West Coast?
Well, I don’t know. I’m really the wrong guy to ask. But if I’m going to take a stab at the question, I guess I’d say that the Midwest has a (mostly wrong) reputation for being boring—starting, of course, with landscape—and I think that bias comes into play with writing, especially when people consider which settings are “interesting” and which are not. As someone who spent his first twenty-three years in the Midwest, I can certainly understand the sex appeal of oceans and mountains and Redwoods and swamps. I wonder: are people in the rest of the country equally as fascinated by cornfields and lakes? Probably not.

Of course, the Midwest is as beautiful and complicated as any other region, and there’s no shortage of writers who do it justice. Still, stereotypes prevail. We link landscape to the stock characters who, we’ve been taught, inhabit them: racist hillbillies in the South, cowboys and surfer bros out West. In the Midwest: stoic bearded men shoveling snow. Yawn.

Don’t get it twisted: the Midwest is definitely sexy. But maybe there’s never been a “regionalist push for Midwestern writing” because the sexiness of the Midwest is just not as obvious to folks in different parts of the country. Maybe the Midwest appears simple to them. And maybe the job of Midwestern writers is to show that it’s not.

How do you feel about social media to promote your writing, and do you use it?
I use social media more to discover and connect with other writers, but yes, I do link my stories on Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr, and it is nice to hear feedback there. I keep an eye out for lots of other writers’ publications, too—social media is the main way I discover new work.

Favorite book?
Since this is an impossible question, I assume you won’t mind if I cop out by listing a bunch of books instead of just one:

Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven was the book that made me want to be a writer. Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad is the one book I come back to more than any other, each time for something new. Susan Steinberg’s Spectacle and Donald Ray Pollack’s Knockemstiff (speaking of the Midwest) are two somewhat recent collections that completely rocked the way I think about fiction. Donald Barthleme’s Sixty Stories is a not-so-recent collection that completely rocked the way I think about fiction. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 are the classics I love best. Jamaal May’s Hum, Sam Amadon’s The Hartford Book and Zachary Schomburg’s The Book of Joshua hold the poems I read to rediscover the many possibilities of language. And Eula Biss’s Notes from No Man’s Land is packed with so much truth, it hurts. She teaches the right way to ask questions.

Favorite food?
Coffee.

If you could have coffee (or tea or a beer) with any literary figure, alive or dead, who would it be?
Donald Barthelme, without a doubt. It wouldn’t be much of a conversation, though. I’d just buy him a beer and listen to him talk.

Where can we find more information about you?
I tweet about writing and fantasy football @JJBrouckaert. I also keep a list of my publications over at justinbrouckaert.tumblr.com.

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Interview: Stuart Dybek

Stuart Dybeck Voices of the Middle WestMidwestern Gothic is honored to have acclaimed author and poet Stuart Dybek as this year’s Voices of the Middle West keynote speaker. This conversation between Mr. Dybek and Midwestern Gothic co-founder and editor Robert James Russell took place over the month of March, leading up to the event.

For more information on Voices of the Middle West, as well as Mr. Dybek, click here.

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Robert James Russell: You’ve spent most of your life in the Midwest. What is it about this place that you find inspiring? What is it about this place that draws youand other writersto it? We are in the midst, I believe, of a Midwestern artistic Renaissance…folks openly and gladly talk about their bucolic lives, their small-town upbringings…and there seems to be a trend towards this in the literary world. Why do you think this region, the types of things that really represent Midwesterners, is so appealing now?

Stuart Dybek: It’s true that I’ve spent most of my life in the Midwest. There were stretches in Michigan and Iowa, and now I’m back in Chicago where I was born and raised. (The most time elsewhere was and continues to be islands—the Caribbean where I taught school and the Florida Keys.) You mention bucolic lives and small towns and I certainly did experience that in Iowa, a place I loved living in. You could drive out through a genuine Grant Wood landscape smelling of corn and hogs and buy milk and fresh produce from farms. I had a pet chicken and a garden I loved and I’ve written a little about it—a story called “Midwest,” and poetry. But given that writing is the reason for having this conversation, I don’t think my generalizations about the Midwest—whatever or wherever that is—are so much the target. For a writer, place means first and foremost where his imagination resides, that landscape and dimension that can be traveled to and inhabited only through the art itself, made up of the present and memory, the objective and the subjective. Think of a Van Gogh starry sky: it stretches overhead but only on canvas.

I’m writing this just days after the death of Phil Levine, a friend and a poet I deeply admire. Phil’s Midwest is Motown. The Rust Belt. A Tower of Babel built with the Whitmanesque horizontal sprawl of a production line rather than the Miltonesque verticals of a tower. My Midwest is inner city Chicago. I’m an urban writer. The bucolic for me is a great green sea rolling in from maybe Nebraska and washing up against the housing projects rising from the South Side of the City. It’s the city Sherwood Anderson came to during another Renaissance. His being there helped to make it a Renaissance. He lived in a cheap hotel in sight of downtown and wrote stories about the people he met there with their secret nocturnal lives and then in a stroke of genius he set those people and those stories in a small American town in Ohio and that remains today one of the most seminal books about the Midwest ever written. That’s what I mean about where a fiction writer really lives. He lives in a fiction that defines reality.

Robert James Russell: That’s interesting, and I see that in your work, absolutely. Coast of Chicago, for example, is so real it hurts. We live those pages even if we never have lived those lives. And there really is so much to mine from real life. While not taking anything away from long-form fiction or poetry, short fiction seems to really be a fantastic avenue to explore the real world in this way, dipping in and out of characters’ lives. Do you find this to be the case? Why do you think you spend so much of your energy writing short fiction? What magic do you think it has?

Stuart Dybek: I read as much poetry as I do fiction. A remark I’ve heard or read more than once—I have no idea who it might be ascribed to—is that the short story is closer to the poem than to the novel. Of course that depends on who is writing the story. There’s no way of proving or disproving a statement like that. The claim it’s making is that compression has been historically important to both genres.

There’s a pronounced lyrical side to several of the story writers I most admire. Some of my favorite books of stories have both that lyricism and a sense of form—of a fragmented wholeness—that isn’t linear. I’m thinking of books like Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry and Odessa Tales, Joyce’s Dubliners, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. Notice how three of them have place in the title. I always been attracted by how the story in sequence, whether one calls it linked stories or the novel-in-stories, can create a sense of unity that doesn’t demand a rise and fall of action, or a plot. It’s more as if moments have been attracted to orbit around the gravity of that central image we call place.

Place doesn’t have to be the unifying element. I deeply admire Welty and Flannery O’Conner. They’re both writers of the South and place is at their core, but it seems to me to be more of an organizing principle in Welty than in O’Conner. In O’Conner there’s always something beyond place, something burning on the other side. It’s that quality not so much of story but of stories—of how they come together—in Borges of Kafka or Hemingway into a sense of nonlinear unity that I most love about the form. That idea of story orbiting place goes back to your first question about the Midwest.

Robert James Russell: It’s very telling, I think—given your own catalog—these authors and specific books you mention as inspiration; these are stories, nearly all, not of plot, but of people. Stories where we discover that it is people that are inherently interesting. I find that, in my work as an editor and publisher, this is a big thing that tends to get overlooked by writers—the characters. You can have the most interesting plot in the world, but if there’s nothing behind it, no real characters for us to read, to understand, then it mostly fades away from memory. Would you agree that it’s not actually Chicago or the Midwest that’s inherently interesting, but rather the people that make it up? That the geography itself is fascinating, but only in relation to the mythos the reside here?

Stuart Dybek: That’s beautifully said, about geography and its resident mythos. So far as plot, it can seem, especially in pop lit, that plot is synonymous with story, not unlike the way that melody can mistakenly seem like the whole of music. I hasten to add I love a good melody, who doesn’t, but besides melody in music and plot in literature there are so many other essential elements. In the narrative arts there’s style, tone, mood, and, of course, characters, just for starters.

Character have to be essential in those particular books I listed because a special quality of linked stories and/or the novel-in-stories is how that seemingly fragmented form lends itself to braiding individual stories into a sense of community. In fact that form can accomplish that braiding even without place at its center. It is how Tim O’Brien’s classic The Things They Carried creates the powerful sense of a platoon. And that sense is at work to various degrees (that is there’s more emphasis on individuals than community) in brilliant collections such as Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son or Leonard Michel’s I Would Have Saved Them If I Could, or Grace Paley’s Enormous Changes At the Last Minute to name just a few.

Robert James Russell: And I think this brings us—nicely—full circle: talking about community. You are the Midwest: your voice and your stories are representative of what we have here—our hopes, our desires, our mythos. Being a lifelong Midwesterner myself, I think the number one description of the Midwest we get from folks not only from here, but also who just know of the region from the outside, is this sense of community. An example: Acquaintances from New York who, after traveling to Michigan for the first time, were amazed that people say hello to you on the street—strangers!—and that everyone, just out and about, looks you square in the eye. Obviously, there’s more to us than that, but I do think that sums up the Midwest nicely, and it does play into what you’ve been talking about. As we approach Voices of the Middle West—this is, perhaps, part of our Voice. A big part. What do you think about community in the Midwest—do you think that’s our defining characteristic—and why it shows up so much in our art here? Do you think that’s an okay representation of our swathe of the United States…something we should keep embracing as we explore our voices and our place in the world?

Stuart Dybek: I agree, especially having lived in a town like Kalamazoo, Michigan with its wonderfully generous Kalamazoo Promise that makes a college education affordable every kid going through the secondary school system. I noticed that same sense of community in Iowa, when I lived there, and that “square in the eye” quality was evident to me as well and something I’ve remarked upon often.

We’re generalizing now about the experience of living in the Midwest and as I said at the start of the interview those kinds of generalizations, genuine as they are, are not the same as writing about it, of making it up on the page. Philip Levine’s Midwest in They Feed, They Lion, Sinclair’s Midwest in The Jungle, Algren’s in The Man With a Golden Arm, are much harsher visions. Not the beautiful bucolic sense one gets in Ted Kooser, whose work I also love. Unlike Kooser, they are all urban Midwest writers, but if we look at say, Sherwood Anderson’s classic, Winesburg, Ohio you can see him taking that idea of community in the American small town and standing it on its head. Does one vision negate the other? Absolutely not. Part of what literature does is allow the contradictions and complexities to be expressed.

Robert James Russell: Because I’d be remiss not to ask: do you have any writing or craft advice for writers just starting out, or even folks who have been doing this for a while?

Stuart Dybek: Remember that when you explore the gifts you’ve been given to work with, that a writer’s gifts include more than the essential ability to treat the medium of language in the way a painter treats paint. Gifts are also the places in your personal history where stories have been given to you—family history, the sense of place you’ve made your own, racial and ethnic histories, personal experience, which includes intellectual experience, and of course, imagination.

Unlike the other arts, writing does not come through the senses. The medium is abstract. So your tools are not paints or cameras or acetylene torches and chisels, saxophones, or even the human body. Nor are your tools computers, typewriters, pencils, paper, clay tablets, papyrus. Your tools are abstract, too, and you need to master them—metaphor, scenic construction, dialogue, figurative language, etc. We all use language for everything really—legal documents, shopping lists, advertisements, tweets, personal ads on dating sites…But using language in those utilitarian ways often essential to survival is not the same as making art.

To bring poems and stories to life you need to learn the craft.

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Stuart Dybek, author of two new collections Ecstatic Cahoots and Paper Lantern, were published simultaneously by FSG in 2014. His previous books of fiction are Childhood and Other Neighborhoods, The Coast of Chicago, and I Sailed with Magellan. He has also published two volumes of poetry, Brass Knuckles and Streets In Their Own Ink. His work is widely anthologized and appears in publications such as The New Yorker, Harpers, The Atlantic, Tin House, Granta, Zoetrope, Ploughshares, and Poetry. Dybek is the recipient of many literary awards including the PEN/Bernard Malamud Prize for “distinguished achievement in the short story”, a Lannan Award, the Academy Institute Award in Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Writer’s Award, the Harold Washington Literary Award, two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, and four O’Henry Prizes. His work has appeared in Best American Poetry and in Best American Fiction. In 2007, he was awarded both a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship and the Rea Award for the Short Story. He is the Distinguished Writer in Residence at Northwestern University.

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Contributor Spotlight: Brandon Rushton

unnamedBrandon Rushton’s story “Diadromy” appears in Midwestern Gothic Issue 16, out now.

How long have you been writing?
I’ I’m sure there is a correlation between the time I started writing and the time I realized I was bad at numbers and standardized tests. So, in that sense, it feels like forever.

What’s your connection to the Midwest?
I grew up in Mid-Michigan. Worked as a truck driver in Flint, Michigan. Did my undergraduate work in Saginaw, Michigan. Left Michigan in 2012 to pursue an MFA at the University of South Carolina.

How has the Midwest influenced your writing?
In the same way it has influenced my life. My familial lineage was forged on an assembly line and, like the rest of my predecessors, I too found myself committed to a life of putting pieces together. The Midwest is its own universe of images and I was lucky to grow up taking them in. Whatever the reason, the Midwest immerses you in physical and psychological landscapes that ask you to do something with them.

Why do you believe there has never really been a regionalist push for Midwestern writing in the past like there has with the South or even the West Coast?
Probably because the critics can’t maneuver the cornfields to find us. It feels like there has always been this false perception of the Midwest, that there is a consensus among those living there of opportunity existing elsewhere, that the people of the region are engaged in a continual process of leaving which, obviously, is just not the case.

This is probably where I should say something about the vast diversity of voices and experiences, but I’m sure it’s economic, right? That whole manifest destiny, that whole reason we rode our wagons west. The coasts tend to function as the capitals of consumption and conceit. Attention and visibility belong to those regions and hotspots of selfishness. A false sense of cultural richness belongs to the regions that broadcast that “richness.” The Midwest isn’t concerned with projection and broadcasting. It isn’t so self-centered. It doesn’t mind being left out, and because of that, it is.

But, what do I know about economics or migration? I just use credit cards and watch geese fly, you know?

How do you feel about social media to promote your writing, and do you use it?
Sure, I’ll post links to my publications. Anything more than that feels excessive. There’s nothing more annoying than writers.

Favorite book?
All of my favorite poetry collections stapled together.

Favorite food?
By the time I remember to eat I’m a pretty big fan of it all.

If you could have coffee (or tea or a beer) with any literary figure, alive or dead, who would it be?
I’d be awkward so I’d need a group setting to lessen the pressures of communication. In that group, though, would be Williams, Niedecker, Sexton, and two non-literary figures, Jonathan Winters, and Miguel Cabrera.

Where can we find more information about you?
I guess Facebook or on Twitter @brandonrushton. Though, the latter is used primarily for photos of the things I’ve planted in my small section of Carolina soil.

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Contributor Spotlight: Angela Mitchell

unnamedAngela Mitchell’s story “Deeds” appears in Midwestern Gothic Issue 16, out now.

How long have you been writing?
I was one of those annoying kids who wrote poems and stories for contests and such in school and displayed an obvious preference for the language arts from an early age. Then I left home and went off to college at the University of Arkansas where I dreamed of writing fiction (inspired, no doubt, by the presence and reputation of the MFA program there), but, somehow, I lost my daring in those years of early adulthood. Throughout my twenties, I kept a journal of story ideas, titles, characters, but it wasn’t until after the birth of my first son that I managed to get my nerve up to really try my hand at writing fiction. I was 30 when I took it up as a serious discipline and, since then, learning the art of fiction has been a constant for me. That was 13 years ago.

What’s your connection to the Midwest?
My childhood straddled the Mason-Dixon, so I have a foot in the door of two regions. My dad is from northeast Arkansas and my mom is from the same place I am: southern Missouri (as the crow flies, 50 miles from the Arkansas line). In fact, my mother’s family settled in that part of Missouri, on the farm on which I grew up, in the 1830s. I am part of the eighth generation to live there and, sadly, the first generation to move away; my sisters and most of my cousins have left, as well. Being from the Ozarks is, in general, an exercise in being a little bit midwestern and a little bit southern. Add into that a certain western, cowboy flair (when I was a girl, it was the norm for men to wear dress cowboy boots and hats with their suits on Sunday morning), and you’ve got a group of people fairly schizophrenic in their cultural identity.

How has the Midwest influenced your writing?
People like my family were happy to stay put in the isolated hill country of the Ozarks for generations and, as a result, I’ve found that I have a rather high tolerance for being alone. This is a great quality to have as a writer. I also grew up in a culture that loved storytelling…and gossip. The small town where I attended school is like most small towns anywhere you go and the best, most beloved entertainment is talking about each other. People may seem sort of quiet and laconic on the surface, but get them started telling what so-and-so did last night or last week or last century and a certain knack for the dramatic comes out. That’s been an incredible influence on me, that notion of a story rising up from some odd, unexpected place.

Why do you believe there has never really been a regionalist push for Midwestern writing in the past like there has with the South or even the West Coast?
Like the middle child of any family, the Midwest can easily be overlooked. We take care of ourselves and our drama tends to be more internal than external. On the surface, we just don’t come off as being as exciting as our louder, flashier siblings on the coasts or in the South. (Am I a middle child, you ask? Yes. Yes, I am.) I think we aren’t a culture that likes to draw attention to itself–somehow, that feels like poor form. Also, though, the Midwest is quite a varied region. A midwesterner from, say, Minnesota or South Dakota doesn’t have a lot in common with a native of the Ozarks like me or one from southern Indiana or Kentucky (another one of those half-Midwestern, half-Southern places). And unlike the South, we aren’t a region that has been shaped in large part by conflict, an essential element of fiction. But we’re deceiving, aren’t we? Our struggles with ourselves and our environment are every bit as deep and cutting as those in other regions, including that highly literary South we all sort of envy. Still waters run deep and that’s how I see us here in fly-over country and its what I love about the writing that’s produced here. There’s so often an understated quality to our work, but beneath the calm is a world of love and meanness and compassion and violence that just takes your breath away.

How do you feel about social media to promote your writing, and do you use it?
I admit, I love social media and I can’t seem to stay away from it. It’s my favorite time killer. Learning to promote myself has been more difficult, though, as it feels like bragging. (Remember what I just said about drawing attention to one’s self being poor form? There’s my trouble.) But promoting one’s work through social media really isn’t bragging–it’s simply a necessary part of marketing. I’m using Twitter more and more (which I love for its quick bursts of information) and I enjoy the networking aspect available there. In my real life, I’m a rather private person, just as happy to listen to other people talk than to talk myself, but there’s no point in being that way when it comes to writing. What’s the point of working and working to create your best stories and then go through the trouble to submit to journals if you don’t want other folks to find and read those stories? Writers also owe it to our good and generous publishers out there (like MG) to promote those journals and magazines and presses. It’s not fair to them to not push our own work. It may be a little uncomfortable, but it’s part of the job.

Favorite book?
Man, this is hard. A book I try to read about every decade or so (I have now read it three times) is The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty. For me, that book is timeless and it always hits me in the gut. I read it when I was 18, again when I was 30, and once again when I was 42. Those are three very distinct stages in my life and at all three, I saw something different and fresh in Welty’s novel. Other books I’ve revisited are Mystery Ride by Robert Boswell (I love his way with time), Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry (how in the world did he manage all those characters?), and Shiloh by Bobbie Ann Mason. Shiloh was probably my biggest inspiration for writing short stories; Mason’s work helped me see that seemingly quiet, unsophisticated characters can reveal a story dramatic and true.

Favorite food?
Anything Tex-Mex. Specifically, I could eat tacos three times a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. And no degree of heartburn can keep me from enjoying salsa with extra jalapenos. I also don’t want to live in a world without ice cream. It is essential to my happiness.

If you could have coffee (or tea or a beer) with any literary figure, alive or dead, who would it be?
I read not too long ago that Eudora Welty really loved a good party (and a good drink and slab of beef), so she’d be on that list, but I’d also have to add Bobbie Ann Mason. The conversation would be awkward, of course, because I’m absolutely pitiful when it comes to meeting my idols, but I’d still love a visit with her. I think we’d have a lot in common.

Where can we find more information about you?
You can follow me on Twitter at @amitchellSTL or check out my very occasionally updated website at www.angela-mitchell.com. I’m slow with keeping good content up, but I’ve got a lot going on (kids, work, a small beef farm), so be patient with me and check back often. Comment and I’ll talk right back to you. Promise.

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Contributor Spotlight: Sara Quinn Rivara

FullSizeRenderSara Quinn Rivara’s piece “Animal Bride” appears in Midwestern Gothic Issue 16, and was the recipient of the first annual Lake Prize award in poetry.

How long have you been writing?
I began writing as a child—stories, mostly. Mostly terrible. I wanted to write a fantasy novel when I was in fifth grade, and probably got about 25 pages in in a little composition notebook. Mostly, what I wanted to do was describe things—I have never once been able to figure out plot, so it’s best that I eventually gravitated toward poetry. I was, and am, always fascinated by the way that the language we use helps shape the way we see the world. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a house that was bilingual, and the nature of language itself was fractured. We grew up speaking English and because one of my sisters is Deaf, we also spoke sign language. What I mean by a fracturing of language is evident in the way we describe speaking—one language was an utterance, the other language was physical. There was always a gulf between what one language could describe that the other could not; there was always the gulf between language and experience. And back in the 1980s, we weren’t considered bilingual in the same way that ASL is now accepted as its own language. But that frisson, between uttered language and manual language was at the core of the way I approached both written texts and oral language.

I didn’t discover poetry, really, until college when I had the privilege of working with Diane Seuss, who’s the Writer in Residence at Kalamazoo College. It was in her classes that I realized that space between experience and language, the inherent failures of language and the power of image and music to point the reader toward that gulf of not-knowing, was where my heart was going to reside, as a writer.

What’s your connection to the Midwest?
I spent almost all of my life in the Midwest, up until this past January when I moved to the West Coast. I discovered early on that the landscape itself was the locus for my emotional understanding of the world—the flat, doe-brown fields of late winter, November trees like frayed nerve endings, thick-aired summer storms that flash the silver underside of oak and maple leaves. The way the air is heavy and redolent; the two-note drone of cicadas in late summer, the way that fields were overtaking abandoned factories and farm silos.

I know for many people on the Coasts, the Midwest is flyover country—trying to explain the Great Lakes to someone who’s never seen them is almost impossible. “Oh, I’ve seen lakes before,” a woman I know in Portland told me. “We have lakes here too.” But not like Lake Michigan, not like Lake Superior. Try to explain to someone, perhaps, who lives near mountains that there is something equally amazing about the soft hills and flatlands of Illinois and the boreal forests of Wisconsin and Michigan, the brutal beauty of Chicago—it’s home. It’s the landscape that shaped my understanding of the world.

How has the Midwest influenced your writing?
The most obvious way, perhaps, is that the landscape itself is central to my poetry. Lake Michigan pushed its wilderness up against my whole life—the mundanity of my childhood suburbs, or the seasonal beach towns of Southwestern Michigan are flush against wave, depth, shipwreck. There are scraps of forgotten woods between factory and river, there are woodthrushes and titmice and grouse and brown creepers.

In a practical sense, the Midwest nurtured me as a writer. I found a remarkable community of writers, artists and musicians in Kalamazoo, Michigan—who didn’t see art as being anathema of practicality; who could sing opera and ride horses, who could write novels and make their own elderberry wine, who made casseroles and knit sweaters and wrote poems and books and supported other writers and artists. There’s a certain personality that comes with being from the Midwest that I think infuses everything I write. A kind of ferocity of spirit. I want to write poems that are earthy and weird and musical but also poems that aren’t afraid of going for the throat, of getting naked and bleeding. I want poems that stand outside the WalMart parking lot and at the lakeshore and that gut a deer and that undo language from the inside out. And there’s also a big part of me that wants to forever write love poems to the place that grew me: the upper Midwest, the beech-maple forests, weeds and possums and city.

Why do you believe there has never really been a regionalist push for Midwestern writing in the past like there has with the South or even the West Coast?
I don’t know, really. Because for me, the Midwest, and Kalamazoo in particular were full of writers and artists and musicians—alongside steel workers and displaced GM workers and farmers. But I think there’s an impression that nothing much happens in the Midwest. Chicago might be the exception, but even there the national narrative seems to be stuck on gangsters in the early 20th century. For me, though, there’s such a deep mythology and magic about the Midwest—steeped in humidity and the juxtaposition of prairie and lake and the opulence of places like Lake Forest, Illinois and abandoned farmtowns and the steel mills along the Amtrak lines between Chicago and Kalamazoo. If there hasn’t been a regionalist push in the past, I feel like there’s one now. There are so many amazing writers from the Midwest making a name for themselves on the national stage right now.

How do you feel about social media to promote your writing, and do you use it?
Maybe it’s the latent, ex-Catholic guilt, but I’m always reluctant to promote myself—and yet, I’m always excited to see my writer friends sharing news of their books, publications, awards. So, I’m working on becoming more comfortable doing so.

Favorite book?
Right now I’m re-reading Loren Eisely, Roethke’s The Far Field, and just finished two remarkable books: Robert Thomas’s Bridge and Lisa Gluskin Stonestreet’s chapbook The Greenhouse. I always return to Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s Song and to Whitman and Dickinson. I’m embarrassingly excited about the new Laura Ingalls Wilder autobiography coming out—as a child I read and reread those books countless times Laura may have been my imaginary friend. Well, her and a blue horse named Jereboam.

Favorite food?
Tomatoes out of my father’s vegetable garden, a good wine, goat cheese and expensive chocolate. I’d probably be happy eating that forever.

If you could have coffee (or tea or a beer) with any literary figure, alive or dead, who would it be?
Sylvia Plath—because one of the things I feel obsessive about is writing from a particularly female point of view. The lyric I, that male gaze that is encompassed in it—doesn’t and has never been the “I” through which I live. So, I’d also (because I’m greedy) like to have a drink with Audre Lorde, bel hooks, Simone de Beauvoir, Edna St. Vincent Millay,–I’d like to have a dinner party with all the women who came before me, who write alongside with me now, who write about babies and sex and the earth and race and trying to find a place where our “I” is as valid and universal as the traditional “I.”

Where can we find more information about you?
I blog somewhat regularly at thelastblueriris.blogspot.com, and am slowly working on an author website.

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Interview: Jared Yates Sexton

author's photo 1Midwestern Gothic staffer Jamie Monville talked with author Jared Yates Sexton about about being a Hoosier in the South, the joys of teaching young writers, taking a stance in his writing, and more.

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

Jared Yates Sexton: As a native of Indiana, a proud Hoosier, I’e found, regardless of where I go, where I move, how I change and how I grow, you can’t remove the Midwest. It’s there in everything I do, everything I say, everything I think. It’s a way of life, for certain, a heritage that can’t be shook.

JM: What do you see as distinct about being a Hoosier? How do Hoosiers differ from other Midwesterners (if they do)?

JYS: Vonnegut was fond of saying that Hoosiers were everywhere and they were good people. I think that’s true. Hoosiers, for better or worse, are trying to do what’s right. A lot of us are confused as to what that is, but I think there’s something inherently earnest in Hoosier folk, though sometimes it does slip toward the wrong-headed and the ignorant. But the intentions are good, mostly I think.

JM: How does it feel to be a Midwesterner living in Georgia? What of the Midwest do you bring to Georgia? How has Georgia influenced your work?

JYS: I feel like an expat sometimes, I’m not going to lie. There’s a lot the South has in common with the Midwest, for sure, but there are times where the culture’s rub against one another, inform one another. I can’t speak for what I bring to the area, but I can say that this place has changed the way I look at conversations, dialogue, and cultural heritage. This is a place in the world where the past isn’t the past, it’s constantly present, and whoever you’re dealing with you’re also dealing with generations of experience, thought, and struggle, regardless of who you’re talking to.

JM: Your debut collection An End to All Things, not surprisingly, focuses on the idea of endings—oftentimes failures of one kind of another, but not without a sense of scrappiness. What about this drew you in as a throughline to connect a collection of stories?

JYS: The first book found its genesis in the beginning of the Great Recession that really set in in the waning days of 2008. A really astute cultural philosopher or watcher could make the argument that the American Dream came to an end, or at least withered, in the following months, and I think that book lives in that realization. The stories focused, primarily, on relationships that were coming to their fruition, but for the most part they were allegorical, or at least influenced, by the economic realities of the day.

HookHaymaker_frontcoverJM: Your most recent collection The Hook and the Haymaker is described as picking up where An End to all Things left off. How do you see these works as connected? In which ways do you feel like they diverge from each other, if at all?

JYS: They’re related, for sure, though I think The Hook and The Haymaker has, at least, a little bit more hope to it. These people aren’t doing well, and they’re certainly not in the clear, but there’s a chance. It’s a real philosophical departure from the fatalistic reality that An End To All Things lived in. The characters in this new collection are capable of escaping from the orbit of their failures, it’s just a matter of whether that opportunity is cashed in on or if they choose, or lose their way into, I guess, to remaining in that cycle.

JM: I’ve noticed that you don’t use quotation marks for dialogue. What do you think omitting the quotation marks brings to your dialogue, and your stories in general?

JYS: The whole thing started because I hate the look of quotations. They’re so unnatural and they’re so inorganic looking with the text. Eventually that aesthetic choice was furthered when I read that Cormac McCarthy felt like quotes were superfluous and actually weakened dialogue. He was right, coincidentally. We rely on quotes to bail out our dialogue, as writers, and occasionally we get sloppy because of it. In short stories, where there’s such limited space, I like to leave them out in an effort to keep myself and the readers honest. Because stories are shorter glimpses, I want readers to labor over the dialogue, to sip it rather than gulp, to linger rather than race. The novels I’m writing have quotes because, though I have aesthetic tastes, I have to at least be kind in their willingness to stay with me for three to four hundred pages.

JM: How has teaching creative writing at both Ball State and Georgia Southern University influenced the way you write?

JYS: In more ways than I can even count. Teaching young writers has kept me consistently aware of what I write, why I write it, and has made me constantly consider what I’ve always thought to be well-worn, taken-for-granted knowledge. They keep me on my toes, keep me honest, and they keep me fresh.

JM: You have said in interviews prior that you’re “not afraid to say [you] want to take a political stance.” How present is this impulse when you start writing a story. Is the political stance there at the beginning, or does it come out more in later drafts?

JYS: Completely present. I don’t want to write anything, ever, that doesn’t somehow or another converse with culture. Any story that doesn’t have a political ideal or a societal message heart is a wasted opportunity. If you’re writing to write, you’re missing the train, as far as I’m concerned. Engage and change. That’s where it’s at.

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

JYS: That it was going to be as hard as it is. That I could make mistakes and it would be all right. That I could write what I wanted to write, which is something it took years to come to.

JM: What’s next for you?

JYS: Right now I’m about eighty percent done with a new novel about a failed Tea Party candidate and his family and am beginning a novel about a world where all memories, personal and cultural, are spontaneously wiped out. As for the present, I’ve got a crime novel (Bring Me The Head of Yorkie Goodman) coming out with New Pulp Press this summer and another collection, I Am The Oil of The Engine of The World, coming out with Split Lip Press.

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Jared Yates Sexton is a born-and-bred Hoosier living and working as an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Georgia Southern University. He is the Editor-In-Chief of BULL and the author of three short story collections, from Atticus Books and Split Lip Press, and a forthcoming crime-novel from New Pulp Press. His stories have appeared in publications around the world.

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Tell Me How It Was from MG Press and 826michigan

We’re absolutely thrilled to announce our latest book from MG Press, Tell Me How It Was: An Anthology of Imagined Michigan Histories.

Created in partnership with the non-profit writing center 826michigan, this historical fiction anthology features the work of the eight-grade writers at Scarlett Middle School in Ann Arbor, Michigan, as they explore new perspectives on history through fiction.

Tell Me How It Was: An Anthology of Imagined Michigan Histories

The book will be released on March 21, 2015—available through all our usual sales channels—and we’ll also be hosting a release party at this year’s Voices of the Middle West festival that very day at 12:30 PM. So stop by if you can!

We are so excited with how this came together, and it’s vitally important to us to showcase the great work of our community, and highlighting the next generation of Midwestern voices. In addition, Rebecca Scherm, author of the novel Unbecoming, was kind enough to write a foreword for the anthology, saying: “These young writers are doing that hard, rewarding, and sometimes sublime work of imagining lives outside their own.”

Read more about Tell Me How It Was

Reserve a copy for $1 and save 20% off the list price

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