Interview: T. Geronimo Johnson

July 2nd, 2015

T Geronimo Johnson author photo (1)Midwestern Gothic staffer Hannah Bates talked with author T. Geronimo Johnson about the the sense of community in the Midwest,  high fructose corn syrup, inspiring personal reflection, and more.


Hannah Bates: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

T. Geronimo Johnson: For about five years I was a student and teacher in the Midwest, so the connection is defined by academic umbilicalism as well as rugged, secular terrestrialism.

HB: The Midwest is known for its farmland and its factories, its family values and its regional pride. How does your writing reflect the intersection of grittiness and the strong sense of community that exists here?

TGJ: Funnily enough “the intersection of grittiness and the strong sense of community” also describes center city black neighborhoods and Daron’s white hometown of Braggsville, so perhaps it’s true when reviewers says my writing highlights “universalist class values.”

WELCOME TO BRAGGSVILLE final hcHB: Your second novel, Welcome to Braggsville, uses dark humor and satire throughout. What attracts you to these methods?

TGJ: Show me a kid who, once exposed, is not morbidly addicted to a jack-in-box.

HB: How can humor and satire be an effective tool in order to comment on serious issues like racism in America?

TGJ: I’m waiting to find out. As the eminent Daniel Garrison Brinton, professor of linguistics and anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania and president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science said in his outgoing speech to that esteemed organization: The black, the brown, and the red races differ anatomically so much from the white, especially in their splanchnic organs, that even with equal cerebral capacity they could never rival the results by equal efforts[1]. Tell me this, dear reader, what is a splanchnic organ? If you know the answer, doth not the quoted passage whet thy appetite for nettled guffaws?

HB: Why do you think it’s important to write in a way that could inspire social change?

TGJ: It isn’t. It’s important to write in a way that will inspire personal reflection – on both sides of the page. Whether that will lead to social change I cannot say.

HB: What advice would you give to other writers who tackle similar projects?

TGJ: Stop asking for advice. Stop asking for advice. Stop asking for advice and write.

HB: In Welcome To Braggsville, you portray academia with an air of elitism. As a product of higher education, what about the culture do you find problematic for writers?

TGJ: The sugarcoated horse pill of politically correct language once seemed a good idea, but so did high fructose corn syrup.

HB: Welcome to Braggsville spends a lot of time dabbling its characters in stereotypes about identities — geographical, racial, generational and national. Which of your identities do you resonate with most? 

TGJ: None. At least that’s what I want to say, though, I am quite aware of which of my identities other people notice first. So this question of resonance is a question of socialization, which is a question of psycho-socio imposition, and clearly the most obvious thing about me is that I’m a tall black dude. Fortunately I haven’t turned my back on a cop lately.

HB: Has your time in the Midwest shaped you or the identities of your characters?

TGJ: Candice is from Iowa and brings to the “Four Little Indians” progressive sensibility without the oft attendant hypersensitivity.

HB: Has your writing process changed between your first novel, Hold It ’Til It Hurts, and your second novel, Welcome to Braggsville?

TGJ: No, but I’m hoping the third novel will put me in a position to hire a ghostwriter.

HB: From where—physically, emotionally or otherwise—do you draw inspiration for your writing?

TGJ: I’m a life-plagiarist, so I doodle more than draw.

HB: What’s next for you?

TGJ: Bison jerky.


Born in New Orleans, T. Geronimo Johnson received his MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and his M.A. in Language, Literacy, and Culture from UC Berkeley. He has taught writing and held fellowships—including a Stegner Fellowship and an Iowa Arts Fellowship—at Arizona State University, the University of Iowa, UC Berkeley, Western Michigan University and Stanford. His first novel,  Hold it ‘Til it Hurts, was a finalist for the 2013 PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction Johnson is currently a visiting professor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.  He lives in Berkeley, California.

Issue 18 is here!

issue18Midwestern Gothic Issue 18 (Summer 2015) is here! Grab some shade and an afternoon to spend with new fiction and poetry from the Midwest’s finest literary voices.

Issue 18 is available in hardcopy ($12) and eBook formats ($2.99), including Kindle, iPad, Nook, and PDF. Pick up a copy

Issue 18 features work from Dave Barrett, Monica Berlin, Meredith Boe, Justin Carmickle, Grady Chambers, Marianne Chan, Jenelle Clausen, DeLeon DeMicoli, Chris Drabick, Jessica Duncan, William Engelhart, Wil Gibson, Jason Marc Harris, Stephanie Heit, Steve Henn, Joseph Horton, Coop Lee, Greg Loselle, Katie Kalisz, Alex Mattingly, Courtney Elizabeth Mauk, Christopher Merkner, Lia Swope Mitchell, Alex Mouw, Brian Pals, Casey Patrick, Catherine Rankovic, Dale Patterson, Robyn Ryle, Shane Stricker, Matt Weinkam, Alexander Weinstein, and Brenna Womer.

Shop for Midwestern Gothic Issue 18 (Summer 2015)

(And don’t forget we offer some great deals on subscriptions too!)


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Lake Prize 2015 submissions are open!

The Lake Prize from Midwestern Gothic
We are so excited that submissions for this year’s Lake Prize are now open!

The Lake Prize offers annual awards for fiction and poetry that best represents the Midwest. The prize seeks to reward those who see the beauty of the region, whether that be quiet forests, gutted industrial wastelands, small towns or vibrant urban neighborhoods.

This year’s judges are Charles McLeod (Fiction) and Marcus Wicker (Poetry). Winning pieces (Fiction and Poetry) will receive $500 each + publication, while two runners-up in each category will receive $100 each + publication.


  • Writers should have lived in the Midwest at some time, and contest entries should be set in the Midwest.
  • $5 fee per entry (one story or group of up to 3 poems). Stories should not exceed 5,000 words.
  • All entries should be submitted through Submittable.
  • One entry per person. Judges will be reading and ranking finalists blind to determine the winners and runners-up.
  • Prizes awarded on publication.
  • Each category will award a single 1st prize and two finalists. Poetry will be awarded to a single poem in your submission.
  • Simultaneous submissions are welcome, but please notify us as soon as possible if a submission is taken elsewhere.
  • Friends, family and close associates (including students) of Midwestern Gothic editorial staff, contest readers and judges are ineligible. If you aren’t sure if you qualify, send us an email and ask.

For additional details, plus all guidelines, please visit the official Lake Prize page.

Looking forward to reading your work!


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Contributor Spotlight: Marianna Hofer

Marianna HoferMarianna Hofer’s piece “Every Family has that One Story
that Drives Someone to Steal” appears in
Midwestern Gothic Issue 17, out now.

What’s your connection to the Midwest, and how has the region influenced your writing?
I’m a native Ohioan—born and raised in Cuyahoga Falls, and then I made my way to Findlay, Ohio.  The landscape and small towns I’ve enountered come up a great deal in my work, as do the people and that rural Ohio sensibility in those spaces. I’m also a photographer—for several years I obsessively photographed old abandoned farmhouses [I work in b&w film]—I think I see things vanishing, like those houses, and want to hang on to them either in words or visuals.

What do you think is the most compelling aspect of the Midwest?
The beauty in the small towns and rural areas, the people in those areas, who are often very kind and take you in. How even when things are a bit faded or outdated there’s still a beauty to them.

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?
In particular, my aunt and uncle’s dairy farm in Blachleyville, down outside of Wooster, Ohio, where I spent a decent amount of time until they sold it when I was 12. My aunt was my father’s favorite sister, and when he was younger he’d worked on their farm—he and my uncle were both silent men who liked to walk through the countryside.  My father married late, so by the time I was old enough to stay[about 7] on the farm with my aunt and uncle, their kids were grown and on their own. So I’d help milk, slop hogs, all that stuff. I loved the farm, the house with all it’s strange little rooms, but knew I’d be a bad farmer. I’ve written a decent amount of poems using that farm and that time in some way.

Discuss your writing process — inspirations, ideal environments, how you deal with writer’s block.
I usually start with a visual—I’m not good starting with ideas—the visual or moment leads to the idea. Lately that’s been everything from garden clippers to the abandoned belongings of someone moving out in the dead of the night on a small street that’s part of my walk to work. Or someone says something. My  research for ideas is to just go through my day being aware, cheesy as that sounds. I do a lot of my writing in a small studio I have downtown on the second floor of an old building—there are about 20 artists there with studios. I’m the only writer, which can be hilarious some days. I do the first ‘draft,’ which is really just dumping words on the page, and then the real first draft or two, by hand in a journal—I keep an electric typewriter up there to work on when I get more focused on the poem. Eventually I get to the point where I start working on it at home on the computer—I sometimes like fiddling with line breaks more on the computer.

I’ve never been good about writer’s block—I used to walk around town imaging myself a willow in a thunderstorm when I had it, but now I know better and just wait it out by reading other poets’ work and trying not to bother my friends with it.

How can you tell when a piece of writing is finished?
There comes that moment when I find myself in that state of extreme pickiness. I’ll shift a line break back and forth maybe 7 or 8 times, and realize I’m not improving anything, just being self annoying. At that moment I just stop. Sometimes, after a poem’s been rejected 3 or 4 times, I’ll take a look and poke at it some more, but that state of annoying myself is usually a good indicator of done.

Who is your favorite author (fiction writer or poet), and what draws you to their work?
I have to say two, sorry. Jared Carter and B.H. Fairchild. I met Jared years ago when his first book came out; I was in grad school and realized here was someone talking beautifully about the midwest, which is what I wanted to do in my work. His images were so sharp, and his use of narrative—that relaxed, yet alert voice, just got to me. I discovered Fairchild when Art of the Lathe came out, and his use of narrative—and his focus on a specific time and place and people—again, just drew me in. I read and reread both of them a great deal. Both of them write about places and people I know—I sometimes use them as models to get something in my work sorted out for me.

What’s next for you?
I’ve got a second full length manuscript, Perplexed, traveling around to presses, and at least one poetry chapbook—Small Beauty, Potential Heartbreaker—it’s a series of poems about a character known as the apprentice photographer who photographs a lot of abandoned farmhouses, among other things [it is sort of autobiographic]. To keep writing, keep sending work out.

Where can we find more information about you?
I have a website— Unfortunately, not being the most tech focused person in the world, it doesn’t get updated as it should. But there are some poems and photos and such there.


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Reminder: Summer Flash Fiction Series – Prompt #1

Midwestern Gothic Flash Fiction Series
Don’t forget: We’re running our very first Summer Flash Fiction Series. Prompt #1 is below – be inspired by the image and write fiction 500 words or less.

Details here, and prompt #1 ends on July 1!



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Interview: Laird Hunt

Laird HuntMidwestern Gothic staffer Hannah Bates talked with author Laird Hunt about what makes historical fiction successful, exploring gender roles in writing, rural Indiana, and more.


Hannah Bates: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Laird Hunt: My family has owned a farm in Clinton County, Indiana, since before the Civil War. I lived on the farm with my grandmother during junior high and high school and went to Indiana University.

HB: What about the Midwest inspires your writing?

LH: When it comes to my writing I don’t generalize about the Midwest: my central subject tends to be rural Indiana, and in particular the flat central portion of the state that is rich in both soil quality and relatively unsung history. It is not lost on me that this could be said about large swathes of the Midwest!

HB: Ash Thompson, the heroine in your most recent novel Neverhome, was formerly a housewife and farmer from Indiana named Constance. Despite the obvious geographic constraints of the Civil War, why does Ash have to leave the Midwest? Do you think the name Constance serves an allegorical purpose regarding the characteristics of the region?

LH: Well, Ash wants and to some extent needs to enlist, and the regiment she signs up with is heading to the eastern theater of the war—so she doesn’t have any option if she wants to fight but to follow along with them. Many thousands of Indiana soldiers, whether they were taking steps to disguise their identity or not, of course fought far away in the great battles of the war. There is certainly an allegorical aspect embedded in Constance’s name – and it does speak to her deep and unalterable love of the land she comes from, even if she has difficulties with some of the people that surround her there!

HB: Your previous novel Kind One, a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner award in 2013, is also a praised work of historical fiction. What are the elements that make historical fiction successful for you?

LH: The best historical fiction takes me to the past by evocation rather than explanation. In other words I look for an experience (like the kind offered in Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell novels or Edward P. Jones The Known World) that expend relatively little energy in telling me what kind of buttons were on the general’s uniform during such and such a battle, or how many times a month the queen bathed, or whether or not a character’s boot was hobnailed. The past comes alive to me when the language is alive, when the speech patterns are unlike ours, when a character, whose worldview is quite foreign, feels nonetheless compellingly familiar.

HB: What makes setting so important to historical fiction? Do you find it easier to write about places that you’ve experienced?

LH: I spent time during the research process for Neverhome in visiting battlefields and other civil war monuments in Maryland and Virginia. I also returned multiple times to Indiana and our farm. Such on-site research is crucial to the kind of relatively near history writing I have been doing (19th century as opposed, say, to 5th century) but still can never provide anything more than partial access to the landscapes of the past. We are so good as a species at altering the way our world looks and the world itself too is pretty good at shifting the location of forests and changing the course of its rivers. Reading period documents that describe the landscape you are interested in can go some distance to bridging the gap. I read many a journal and collection of letters home from ordinary soldiers and they talk a lot about the weather and what they were eating and what they wanted to eat and couldn’t. Sometimes they give a sense of what the world around them looked like as well. And all of that was invaluable.

HB: What compels you to write about war?

LH: I wrote about war because my character had a story to tell that involved the war. In other words I didn’t set out to write something about the Civil War: I was moved to tell a story that was set before, during and after that conflict. As someone who didn’t serve I would be most hesitant to write about one of our contemporary wars, but as the descendant of people who served in the Union Army, and as someone passionate about the past, I felt I had a way in to talk about that particular terrible event.

Hunt.NeverhomepbHB: Neverhome explores gender roles by depicting the main character as neither truly feminine nor masculine. How did writing in the first person reflect this ambiguity?

LH: Writing in the 1st person was crucial – the story only ever reveals a part of the truth that Ash is hoping and trying to communicate and that feels very human to me. She is groping toward revelation and we grope along with her. And her sense of self is highly fluid. She is very much both a fierce combat veteran and a farm widow. In my mind, there is zero contradiction between those two things. Had I written in 3rd person, no matter how much time I spent in Ash’s mind, I would have had an overview that altered that interior sense of blur. Ash, like all of us, lives inside of herself. And our interior truths are complex.

HB: As an award-winning author, how do you begin the process of writing something new?

LH: Even as I am finishing one project I have already started on another. Sometimes on more than one thing. It is an old habit and works well for me. That way I am never, or almost never, without something I care about to work on.

HB: What’s next for you?

LH: Still thinking about America, still thinking about the past. One novel I am deep into takes up the infamous and abhorrent 1930 lynching in Marion, Indiana, and another goes deeper into American history, and deals with witchcraft.


Laird Hunt is the award-winning author of a book of short stories, mock parables, and histories, The Paris Stories (2000), originally from Smokeproof Press, re-released by Marick Press, and five novels from Coffee House Press: The Impossibly (2001), Indiana, Indiana (2003), The Exquisite (2006), Ray of the Star (2009), and Kind One (2012), which was a finalist for both the 2013 Pen/Faulkner Award and the 2013 Pen USA Literary Award in Fiction and the winner of a 2013 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Fiction. Neverhome will be published in the United States by Little, Brown and Company and by Chatto in the UK. Hunt’s translation of Oliver Rohe’s Vacant Lot was published by Counterpath Press, which also published his co-translation with Anne-Laure Tissut of Arno Bertina’s Brando, My Solitude. He is published in France by Actes Sud, and his novels have either been published or are forthcoming in Japan, Italy, Spain, Germany, and Turkey. His writings, reviews, and translations have appeared in the United States and abroad in, among other places, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, McSweeney’s, Ploughshares, Bomb, Bookforum, Grand Street, The Believer, Fence, Conjunctions, Brick, Mentor, Inculte, and Zoum Zoum. Currently on the faculty in the University of Denver’s Creative Writing Program, where he edits the Denver Quarterly, Hunt has had residencies at the MacDowell Colony and the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France, and was in residence at Marfa (Lannan Foundation) this past summer. He lives with his wife, the poet Eleni Sikelianos, and daughter in Boulder, Colorado.


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Contributor Spotlight: Sean Trolinder

Sean TrolinderSean Trolinder’s story “Candy Cane Man” appears in Midwestern Gothic Issue 16, out now.

How long have you been writing?
I began drafting screenplays in high school, since film has always been my first love. However, I didn’t begin writing short stories until I was in college. I first saw short stories as a way to write treatments for screenplays, but as my style and craft evolved, I began focusing a lot more on fiction. I’d say that I have been writing for nearly fifteen years now.

What’s your connection to the Midwest?
I lived in Newton, Kansas during my early teenage years. However, I moved to Texas in the tenth grade and eventually to Florida. Later, I returned to Kansas to receive my M.A. in English from Kansas State University. In my opinion, my experiences in Newton, Kansas and Manhattan, Kansas were quite different, but I sometimes attributed it to living in the state during two very different periods of my life.

How has the Midwest influenced your writing?
A few of my stories have been influenced by my experiences while living in Newton, especially when I describe plains and brick roads. In fact, the house I lived in was located next to a red brick road, which was a type of structure that I had not quite seen outside the state, so it somehow enters my drafts every now and then, even if the Midwest is not the intended setting.

In terms of my experiences from Manhattan, Kansas, some of the setup of Aggieville inspired the early drafts of “Candy Cane Man,” for sure. Aggieville had many bars, bistros, and a few quirky shops. It is quite a bit different in “Candy Cane Man,” since the quirky shop that the original draft stemmed from became a candy store, which seemed more appropriate as the story developed.

The bullies in “Candy Cane Man” were definitely inspired by some of my own bullies from my days in Newton.

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 think it comes down to population, honestly. The West Coast his saturated with big cities and writers who grew up in them, so I felt like that element was tough to ignore. As for the South, another region of the country that I’ve spent a big portion of my life in, there seemed to be a ton of odd settings and voices that inspire such fiction. However, the South has its own subcultures that are linked to bigger cities, too. For instance, I’ve noticed that a lot of my favorite books take place in New Orleans, which seems to be romanticized in a way that New York City and Los Angeles are in some works of fiction. While getting my M.F.A. at Texas State University, I noticed a lot of work that was shaped by Austin, Texas.

When it comes to the Midwest, I think publishers might stereotype the region as a bit slow, mundane, and unfamiliar, which impacts their ability to take some risks. Perhaps there is a perception that the audience for Midwestern fiction is limited; however, from my experiences living in Kansas, I believe the Midwest is the best place to find drama. In my opinion, there are many small towns where everyone knows one another, so the potential for true character development and lessons on identity are rich and diverse, so the perception that the region is slow and nothing happens is false and should be reevaluated by publishers.

How do you feel about social media to promote your writing, and do you use it?
I don’t think it is a bad thing at all. The times are changing and if we as a society are to prosper, then we should learn to embrace the future as well. The same applies to writers. In fact, I think social media has opened up many more doors for writers to have their voices heard now more than ever.

As for myself, I haven’t had too many stories published, but I do send links on my Facebook page every so often when I have a new story published online or in print. In the past, some of my friends have admitted to buying a copy of the journal in which my work had appeared in, so it only helps these journals even more.

Favorite book?
Empire Falls by Richard Russo

Favorite food?
Roast beef, mashed potatoes, and brown gravy.

If you could have coffee (or tea or a beer) with any literary figure, alive or dead, who would it be?
Tough question. I have met and even studied under some of my favorite literary figures, but the one that I’d like to have a beer with is Don DeLillo.


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Interview: Tara Ison

Ison author photoMidwestern Gothic staffer Hannah Bates talked with author Tara Ison about being an author and a screenwriter, blending autobiographical elements into her work, who inspires her, and more.


Hannah Bates: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Tara Ison: The summer I was seventeen, a friend and I drove cross-country, the first time I’d ever been outside California – what a  revelation! I couldn’t believe the expanse of all that vast, open land. But what hit me the most was the weather. Rain in summer? It made no sense to me. For me, rain meant Los Angeles winter, which is a flat, chilly gray. Warm rain was surreal. Warm, pillowy grayness was surreal. The thunder and lightning were surreal. I’ve driven cross-country three or four more times since then, and each time I’m still fascinated by the shift in the air – I always feel so unsettled. Unnerved. Definitely a “Gothic” feeling!

HB: You’ve taught creative writing and screenwriting at many different colleges and universities in nearly every region of the country, including three from the Midwest. How has your time in the Midwest influenced your writing?

TI: Yes, I’ve been fortunate to teach at Ohio State University,  when I was a Fellow at the Thurber House, and Northwestern University, and Washington University in St. Louis – all the “Midwest,” but they were still so different from each other. I spent only a fall semester in Ohio, but that was my introduction to Autumn with a capital A – my first time to live among changing leaves, and the texture of that was amazing. Northwestern had the sense of nearby ocean I was used to in LA, where you’re always sort of aware it’s there (although Lake Michigan doesn’t have the salt tang), but the big-city bustle of Chicago took me aback. And St. Louis, again, had this very gray but blistering heat, unlike anything I’d ever experienced – it seems to be the weather that always disorients or unsettles me the most.

I think anytime you move to a new place and open yourself up to the sensual differences in the environment and your awareness of a world outside the familiar, you have an opportunity to channel that back into your work, and I’ve tried several times to capture that feeling of disorientation. I’ve set two stories specifically in the Midwest – “Needles,” which is about yet another cross-country drive I took, and “Fish,” inspired by a visit to the koi pond at the St.  Louis Botanical Garden (both stories will be in my forthcoming collection.) And the one poem I’ve ever published was also about a drive cross-country, trying to outdrive tornadoes, and the “unstable air” and “blackening red sky.”

HB: Your recent collection of essays, Reeling Through Life: How I Learned to Live, Love, and Die at the Movies, touches on how cinema can affect a person’s identity by allowing them to see other realities. Do you think writing falls short in this respect? Why use a collection of essays to articulate the impact of film as an art form?

TI: I do feel film can offer a slightly more visceral experience than literature – it skips over one level of processing information (the interpretation of language) and goes for an almost pre-verbal absorption of experience. (I can’t help but think of the difference in how we metabolize different drugs/chemicals – smoking vs. oral ingestion vs. injection, to use a slightly creepy example…)

I felt the essay was the best form for what I was trying to explore/capture, which was, as you say, how cinema can affect aspects of identity, and get under our skins in such a powerful way – I needed to blend some objective, critical analysis with the recreation of my immediate emotional and/or subconscious experience watching these films, and create the synthesis of both. The personal essay form allowed for that, which is why I love reading them, and enjoy writing them – the best essays work as inquiry on multiple levels, both intellectual and experiential.

41Ja9A23TTL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_HB: How did you manage to blend the autobiographical elements with film analysis in Reeling Through Life?

TI: It started out a bit technically. First I made lists of films, or mere moments from films, that have stayed with me over the course of my life – sometimes it’s the narrative arc of the character, sometimes just a single image or a line of dialogue, etc.  Then I listed the most meaningful or memorable moments/experiences of my life, and I looked for nexus between the two lists, the points of connection where I could see the direct impact of film on my expectations, my hopes, my understanding of how life works.

A good example would be in “How To Lose Your Virginity” – in my mid- to late teens I was extremely aware of the “loss of virginity” scenes from Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Little Darlings, and that directly affected my behavior. (I waited until I was twenty years old!)  Some films had a more subconscious influence – such as how I expected death to look (Love Story, Harold and Maude, Dark Victory), and the subsequent shock of watching my grandmother die – I didn’t understand the disconnect in the moment, but I see it now, how film fantasies of death had ill-prepared me for a harsh reality.

There  are many films I adore or are very memorable to me that didn’t have such a strong direct or subconscious effect, so I left those out; similarly, there are significant moments of my life where I didn’t see the link back to film, so I didn’t include those autobiographical details in the book. I only wanted to explore the clear relationship between “film lessons” and “life lessons,” and that helped me focus the essays, and structure the overall book.

HB: Are there any “Midwestern” movies that have impacted your life?

 TI: I’ll go back to high school, to start with my English teacher showing us The Grapes of Wrath – Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell’s faces are so powerful and haunting, so unforgettable. And then Paper Moon, for the extraordinary depiction of a little girl I’d never seen in film before or since. I’ll add The Last Picture Show, too – perhaps not technically the Midwest (how exactly is that defined…?), but also very powerful, especially in its study of human longing and missed connection. And all three are in black-and-white! That must have something to do with their power, the starkness and nakedness of those images.

HB: What is it like to be both an author and a screenwriter? What modifications are necessary when writing for the screen, as opposed to the page?

TI: It was a hard transition for me – basically, a screenplay is a story told in images, whereas fiction is told in language – and the words on the page have come to fruition, that’s all they need do. It’s the main reason why I’m no longer a screenwriter – I much prefer playing with language!

I discuss this in the “How to be a Writer” essay, when I was struggling to learn about screenwriting (as opposed to writing fiction):

“…I had to learn the screenwriter’s rules: you force your fine prose into screenplay format (which as a form is more rigid and less organic than a sestina); you don’t overwrite description  (i.e, leave a lot of white space so the exhausted, overworked reader doing coverage can make it a quick read); you only write what the camera sees, capture the externals, reduce human existence to slug lines (INT. JACK’S BEDROOM  – DAY, EXT. MEXICAN RESTAURANT – NIGHT) and make sure characters speak with an eye toward their dialogue margins on the page.

And a screenplay, as a piece of writing, isn’t a finished thing – a screenplay is only a phase of a story, on its way to becoming its realized existence: a movie. So by definition, it isn’t Art; it’s one embryonic part in the construction of Art, the crude charcoal sketch, the stumbling choreography, the sculpture’s wire armature, the mere tinkering with melodic notes. A screenplay is something the screenwriter creates and nurtures and possesses, briefly, then sends on its way. For other people to turn into whatever kind of thing they want. You wave bye bye from the door and hope it isn’t run over by a bus.”

HB: Your novel Rockaway was featured as one of the “Best Books of Summer” in O, The Oprah Magazine, in 2013. In the novel, you balance lyrical prose with colloquial dialogue. Why was it important to you that conversations remained as realistic as possible?

TI: What a great observation, thank you! I did want Sarah’s inner life to be sort of lyrical, almost impressionistically “visual,” because she’s a painter and views experience through a painter’s eye, rather than depicting her thoughts as direct discourse, or an “inner-monologue,” which would more  reliant on colloquial-sounding language. So to balance that out, I aimed for other details to be as concrete as possible, including the dialogue, so I might ground the reader in a clearer, more  relatable reality. I felt the voice, or style, or lyricism (as you suggest, thank you!) of her introspection would be a bit too much for an entire novel.

HB: Which writers are you most inspired by?

TI: Jeanette Winterson. Andrea Barrett. AM Homes. Denis Johnson. Jim Shepard. Margaret Atwood. Michael Cunningham.  Toni Morrison. Nabokov. Alice Munro. Flannery O’Connor. OK, that’s my brainstorm list in this moment. An hour from now I’d come up with a completely different list. And so it goes…

HB: What’s next for you?

TI: Getting ready for the new book coming out in November, the short story collection called Ball. After that, I have no idea…perhaps back to one of the several barely-begun projects I’ve put away over the years, or I’ll start something entirely new!  I’ll see what’s in the air….


Tara Ison is the author of the novels The List (Scribner), A Child out of Alcatraz (Faber & Faber, Inc.), a Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and Rockaway (Counterpoint/Soft Skull Press), featured as one of the “Best Books of Summer” in O, The Oprah Magazine, July 2013.  Her essay collection, Reeling Through Life: How I Learned to Live, Love, and Die at the Movies, was published in January 2015, and Ball, a short story collection, is forthcoming in November 2015, both from Counterpoint/Soft Skull Press.


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Summer Flash Fiction Series – Prompt #1

Midwestern Gothic Flash Fiction Series
During the summer of 2015, we’re launching something brand new: our flash fiction series!

What is it? Our flash fiction series invites writers to write short pieces in response to photos we post.

How does it work? We’ll supply an image from our photography archive every 3 weeks, and invite writers to respond with flash fiction inspired by the photo, up to 500 words. Each image will be open for submissions for 2 weeks, and we will take a week for reading and balloting—the top 3 entries we feel best represent the photo in question will be published on the Midwestern Gothic website.

How long is the series? We will be doing this throughout the summer with three submission periods (3 photos). The winning entries of each round will be published immediately after the round ends.

You can find all guidlines here, including how to submit (and where!).

We are so excited for this celebration of the visual and literary, a new way for us to experience the landscape, and we can’t wait to read what you submit!

Prompt #1: Take a look at the following photo, and create a piece of flash fiction inspired by it.

Prompt #1 due date: Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Prompt #1 winners published: July 8 – 10




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Contributor Spotlight: Rachel Richardson

RachelRachel Richardson’s story “Dirt” appears in Midwestern Gothic Issue 17, out now.

What’s your connection to the Midwest, and how has the region influenced your writing?
I was born in the great state of Oklahoma, which meant I wrote a lot of anti-Okie propaganda poems as a disenchanted adolescent. Since then, I’ve attended college in central New York, graduate school in coastal North Carolina, and I currently live in upstate South Carolina, but I have felt most at home in the Midwest. Oklahoma is not the Midwest; Oklahoma isn’t anywhere. I Googled Midwest just now and am looking at four separate maps that each delineate a different patch of states. Oklahoma is single-handedly responsible for my obsession with U.S. states and their regions; my identity actually changes depending on where I am relative to Oklahoma. In New York, I spoke for all Southerners, whereas in South Carolina, I definitely don’t qualify as Southern. When I lived on the coast, most the time I felt like a cowboy. Now that I live in the thick of Dixie, I consider myself a product of the Midwest more than anything. Where I once was teased about my drawl, my coworkers now note my flat vowels and chipper phone manners, which they call “Minnesotan.”

What do you think is the most compelling aspect of the Midwest?
The Midwest, to me, embodies the best of America—small towns, corner stores, vast distances and uninterrupted skies. As a kid, I read Ray Bradbury for his spaceships and Martians, but his depiction of fictional Green Town, Illinois in Dandelion Wine has resonated with me for eons. In old Twilight Zone episodes, the Midwest stands in for Anywhere, U.S.A—I can’t prove it, but the monsters on Maple Street had to be in Ohio or Nebraska, and what better place for it? The suburban, vanilla backdrop of much of the Midwest provides a perfect setting for catastrophe and disaster—extraordinary things hiding in the most ordinary of places.

How do your experiences or memories of specific places—such as where you grew up, or a place you’ve visited that you can’t get out of your head—play a role in your writing?
I set “Dirt” in Iowa after reading Methland by Nick Reding, but I feel meth and all of the Midwest are nearly synonymous. I have relatives with homemade prison tattoos and teeth gone gray who will laughingly relate the anecdote of setting their mattresses on fire when they passed out mid-hit. I am grateful to have grown up on a different side of the river, far from any actual danger, but I knew about it, saw it, and have been fascinated by the insanity, violence and neglect that surround meth culture ever since. Breaking Bad helped, too.

Discuss your writing process — inspirations, ideal environments, how you deal with writer’s block.
My writing process is absolutely erratic and yet highly systemic and organized. My current project, State, comprises fifty short pieces, one per state. The spreadsheet I keep for State is a color-coded frenzy full of acronyms, links to relevant articles, and notes even I can’t decipher. Meanwhile, I have a ticker tape file of scribbles, ideas, fragments, and quotes that I keep in various forms—a running Note on my phone, an actual physical notebook that I’m rarely without, and a document on my desktop. I would feel like a lunatic if I hadn’t seen other writers do this same maniacal hoarding; John Jeremiah Sullivan once showed a class of mine his “Log,” where he stored all relevant info for whatever project he was working on. When I have writer’s block, which is often, I tend to play around in my spreadsheets and notes to feel as if I am at least peripherally accomplishing something, but often times I forfeit productivity and go on a walk or read a book, where I end up thinking about new projects and pieces and stories and the terrible, thrilling cycle continues.

How can you tell when a piece of writing is finished?
I know when a story is finished solely because I’ve come to the end of it. For me, that’s very definite—I see a piece’s beginning, middle, and end very early on. As to when I consider a piece finished, pressed, polished, and otherwise ready for its close-up, I can’t say. Some stories I’ve been futzing with for years, others I have banged out on the first go-round. Some I’ve submitted three dozen times, some I only have to submit twice. When a piece is roundly rejected, I retire it for a while until I can look at it afresh, which usually means starting over completely. I edit with a blowtorch, preferring to burn things down rather than re-glue what’s falling apart.

Who is your favorite author (fiction writer or poet), and what draws you to their work?
I have too many favorite authors to count—I love contemporary writers like Jennifer Egan, Kathryn Davis, and Elizabeth McCracken, but I also love Winesburg, Ohio, Wuthering Heights and Rabbit Run. Most recently I’ve read a lot of noir and horror like Chandler and Lovecraft as well as lot of Americana true crime. My current idol is Lynda Barry, the cartoonist, who preaches a kind of messy self-acceptance that I find invigorating.

What’s next for you?
I am working to make State as great as it can be which is both maddening and exhilarating because I am constantly learning something new about some place or some time and then I want to write about it. In the meantime, I am chipping away at the Great American Tulsa novel about retired greyhounds, drag queens, and a liquor store, which I’d really like to finish if only to get that shitty first novel out of the way. Mostly I am enjoying not being in school for the first time since I was six.

Where can we find more information about you?
I am all over the internet in ways I will probably someday regret. I’m on Twitter @pintojamesbean, which is the name of my beloved dog. I keep a blog about other dogs on Instagram and the movies I watch over at, where I also have copies of my large form nonfiction chapbook, Oklamerica with essays about Raymond Chandler, QuikTrip, Modest Mouse, and roller coasters. Stop in, say hi, and stay a while.


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