Midwest in Photos: The Building That’s Always Been Empty

May 27th, 2017

“In the end, it wasn’t death that surprised her but the stubbornness of life.” – Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides.

Photo by: Symanntha Renn

Keith Lesmeister Interviewed on Iowa Public Radio

WE COULD'VE BEEN HAPPY HERE by Keith Lesmeister book coverMore wonderful news about We Could’ve Been Happy Here by Keith Lesmeister, the MG Press book available now!

Keith Lesmeister was interviewed on Iowa Public Radio where he read an excerpt from the title story of We Could’ve Been Happy Here, talked about his “boring” life and writing what he doesn’t know, and discussed finding humanity in his characters.

Here’s what Iowa Public Radio host Charity Nebbe had to say about We Could’ve Been Happy Here:

Iowa Public Radio logo - Keith Lesmeister Interview

“They are intimate, personal stories that give glimpses into what may be going on below the surface.” – Charity Nebbe, host of Iowa Public Radio

Listen to the full interview here.

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Interview: Tracy Chevalier

Midwestern Gothic staffer Kristina Perkins talked with author Tracy Chevalier about At the Edge of the Orchard, writing in a historical context, being an immigrant in England, and more.

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Kristina Perkins: What is your connection to the Midwest?

Tracy Chevalier: I am an East Coast gal – grew up in Washington DC – but I went to Oberlin College in Ohio in the 1980s, and that seems to have found its way into my writing. Possibly that’s because since graduating from Oberlin I’ve lived in England, so when writing about the America I know, I have naturally reached out to Ohio.

KP: Much of your newest novel, At the Edge of the Orchard, is set in Ohio’s Black Swamp during the early 1800s — a landscape filled with tension, disease, and poverty. How do you imagine the relationship between the novel’s depiction of life in 1800s Ohio and your understanding of contemporary Midwestern values?

TC: In many ways the Midwest and 21st-century Americans are very very different from our ancestors who settled the country. Pioneers had hard lives, whether in Ohio or Missouri or California or Florida. Grueling lives spent trying to feed and clothe and shelter themselves. Most of us now don’t live off the land, almost entirely self-sufficient. We don’t spend most of our time outdoors; we’re warm and dry and ridiculously well fed and well rested, and we have plenty of time for leisure. In some ways Ohioan lives in the early 1800s are almost unrecognizable from ours. But humans are humans, and certain traits and values remain in the Midwest. Ohio in the 1800s was often not the destination, but the gateway to a destination, i.e. to the West. Yes, people settled. But lots passed through from the East Coast on their way to the wide open freedom of the West. Ohio was not and definitely is not like the East Coast. While it is no longer so transient as it was in the 19th century, it (and I think the rest of the Midwest) also does not shout loudly about itself the way the coasts do. It is more solid, more realistic maybe. It makes perfect sense to me that Ohio has always been seen as the state a presidential candidate has to win to be elected – though perhaps not 2016, an election where all bets were off!

KP: At The Edge of the Orchard is your eighth historical fiction novel. As a writer, what is most compelling about historical fiction? What are the limitations of the genre, and what strategies do you use to grapple with these challenges? How do you navigate the space between teaching history and telling a story set in a particular historical moment?

TC: I kind of fell into writing historical fiction, then discovered I preferred it because it allows me to get away from myself and my daily life. It also stretches me, makes me think about the world and my place in it in much broader terms. Of course it does have its limitations. It requires a huge amount of research to get the “feel” of the period right. But I love the research, as it gives me ideas as well as the time during which to develop the story and characters. It’s crucial though not to think that I am educating people about a certain people. Story and entertainment come first; the historical background is just that – background. Sometimes I’ll discover some juicy historical detail but can’t use it because it doesn’t add to the story I’m telling. It’s no good showing off all the research; I just have to absorb it so that the reader feels confident in me knowing what I’m talking about, even if I don’t spell it out. It’s a balancing act.

KP: In a recent piece in The Telegraph, you note that “you need to be an outsider to write.” For you, what is it about being an “outsider” that lends itself to writing? How might your own mobility — namely, your migration from the United States to England — relate to the sort of westward expansion described in At the Edge of the Orchard?

TC: I have lived in England as a foreigner all my adult life, and that has set me somewhat on the sidelines of the culture and society here. From there, however, I have a perspective that maybe makes me a little more objective than I might be if I were English, or were living in the US. When you’re in the middle of something, it’s often hard to gain any perspective on it. On the sidelines, you see things differently. With At the Edge of the Orchard, I played with that outsider status and mobility a bit with the characters, who are immigrants themselves. My being an immigrant in England made it easier to write about immigrants in the US, and that decide to move to find a better or different life. I understand that feeling, as well as the accompanying disappointment when you realize finally that moving doesn’t necessarily get you away from your problems – they often follow you, because they are in you.

KP: You’ve openly discussed the path of your career as a writer, describing the progression from bookish child to uncertain teenager to best-selling author. Given this experience, what advice would you offer to young writers seeking first-time publication? What might you say to teenagers who question their ability to become authors?

TC: I have two pieces of advice for teenagers – and everyone, really – who are looking to write and publish. 1. Only pursue it if you love books. I mean, REALLY love books. You should be always reading a book, always in bookstores, always reading reviews and book blogs. You should always be wanting books as presents. You should always be asking people what they’re reading rather than what they’re watching or listening to. You should be obsessed. Because if you aren’t, then you won’t have the drive to write. That point may seem obvious, but I’m amazed at the number of people I meet who say they’re writing a book, but when I ask them what they’re reading at the moment, say, “Oh, nothing, I don’t have time.” What?! That’s like a musician not listening to music, an actor not going to the theater or the movies. It makes no sense. 2. That old adage that writing is 10% inspiration, 90% perspiration? Totally true. If you want to write, you have to sit down and do it, day after day, confront the blank page and fill it. It’s hard, it’s boring sometimes, and it goes on and on. You have to do it anyway.

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Tracy Chevalier was born in October 1962 and grew up in Washington, DC, moving to England after graduating with a BA in English from Oberlin College (Ohio). For several years she worked as a reference book editor, while writing short stories in her spare time. In 1993 she quit to do an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia (Norwich, England). Afterwards she juggled freelance editing with writing until eventually she was able to write full-time.

Tracy lives in London with her English husband and son. She’s written 8 novels and edited 2 short story collections. Her second novel, Girl with a Pearl Earring, sold 5 million copies worldwide and was made into a film starring Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson. Apart from writing, she’s curated three shows in art galleries/museums.

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More We Could’ve Been Happy Here Reviews and Interviews

We’re so thrilled to say that We Could’ve Been Happy Here by Keith Lesmeister just got a stellar review from Sabotage Reviews, and Keith was interviewed by Fiction Writers Review!

Here’s what Terry Melia from Sabotage Reviews had to say about the MG Press title:

“These are deceptively quiet stories that display a talent for wit and lightness sprinkled alongside a heap of angst…I found all of them a mixture of brutal and a laugh out loud. Delving each chapter and new character was as comfortable as an old pair of slippers. This is an author to watch out for.”

Read the full review here.

Plus, check out Keith’s interview with Barrett Bowlin of Fiction Writers Review where he talks writing schedules, “raw, naked vulnerability” and more!

Here’s a bit of what FWR had to say on Keith:

“If you’ve been reading any number of literary magazines the past five years, you’ve no doubt come across some stunning work by Keith Lesmeister…Lesmeister has been exceptionally busy writing, publishing, and becoming an author whose impressive body of work creeps up on you like an early autumn frost.”

Read the full interview here.

Buy your copy of We Could’ve Been Happy Here now!

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Contributor Spotlight: Kelsey Ronan

Kelsey Ronan’s story “The Union Makes Us Strong” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Winter 2017 issue, out now.

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

I’ve lived in the Midwest my entire life. I was born in Flint, Michigan when General Motors was closing factories and the city was evolving into that particular Roger & Me, “Murder City” shape it’s recognized for now. I went to grad school in Lafayette, Indiana, where I developed a taste for frozen custard, took many long bike rides through the wind farms, and learned what corn smut is, and that I’m allergic to it. I live now in St Louis—a place that, from certain angles, reminds me of home, but that is very much its own place with its own particular contradictions. My fiction is set obsessively in Flint with occasional jaunts to Detroit. I’m currently finishing a novel-in-stories set in Flint from the 1937 Sit-Down Strike to the water crisis.

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

I’m fascinated by the boom and bust stories, and how the collision of money and politics shapes and reshapes cities, effects people and families. Flint in the 20th Century experienced dizzying extremes. When General Motors took off, the population increased so rapidly that workers camped outside the factories until GM built neighborhoods for them to live in. Though it was very segregated, Flint was a major draw in the Great Migration, and became the first major American city to elect a black mayor, Floyd McCree. By the post-war “Generous Motors” heyday there were 200,000 people in Flint. After decades of white flight and deindustrialization, there’s less than half that now. You feel Flint’s betrayal—by General Motors, by Michigan politicians-in vacant houses and steamrolled factory lots, in the inhumanity of the Flint Water Crisis. But you feel its defiance and resilience, too—the tenacity of people who’ve chosen to stay, who resist the apocalyptic narrative of Flint.

My sister lives in Detroit now, and the last time I visited, when I wanted to drive by the Packard Plant, she teased me about my impulses being so 2010—ruin porn is passé and entrepreneurship and creativity are the new chic. Of course I’m excited to see signs of vitality in the places I love– and I’m a millennial with hipster leanings, so I’m all in for locally-sourced vegan food and yoga studios. But those ruins, those ghostly remains of other people’s homes and livelihoods, still resonate for me. Every time I come back to Flint more of the groceries and coney islands of my family’s westside neighborhood are shuttered, but there’s a wine bar and a creperie downtown. It’s a surreal cusp, between decay and revitalization.

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?

Much of my writing for the last few years has explored Flint’s history, and has been informed more by research and imagination than my own experience. Often I’m struck by some detail– a spooky picture of AutoWorld, an article about Flint’s quickly-extinguished 1967 riot—and I make an imaginative leap from there. For instance, the story in this issue started with a moment on Flint’s timeline — the Sit-Down Strike, 1937- and a very simple question: what would it have been like in Flint at this time for this person? “The Union Makes Us Strong” is (very loosely) inspired by my great-grandparents, who died years before I was born. My great-grandfather was a traveling cookware salesman who supported a wife and nine children through the Depression. I wondered what it would be like to be in Flint during this defining moment, but to be outside the GM payroll. I spent a lot of time listening to oral histories online, walking through Flint’s wonderful Sloan Museum, watching the documentary With Babies & Banners, about the Women’s Auxiliary Brigade, for the umpteenth time on YouTube, reading whatever I could find. I like gathering other people’s memories and perspectives, then letting my imagination play among those voices.

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

In the last year especially, with so much about Flint coming to light, and with all the shock and heartsickness and fear I’ve experienced on a personal level, I’ve felt a great sense of urgency. I don’t have any fussy rituals. Just quiet and time.

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

I get to a place in a draft where I feel a niggling suspicion I’ve expressed an idea as fully and vividly as I’m capable. I find myself reading pages aloud to myself, picking at verbs, worrying over syntax. After I’ve fretted long enough I send it to my friend Natalie Lund, who’s a talented fiction writer and shrewd editor, and usually she points out one of my blind spots and sends me back into another round of revision. But on the rare occasion she tells me a story feels solid, I fret over the sentences a while longer, then I drop a shot of Sailor Jerry’s into my Vernors and hit Submit.

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

I admire writers who are unabashed about their obsessions—writers who return again and again to a certain landscape, a certain theme. I love Zadie Smith’s novels, and how she’s investigated her corner of London from so many angles and perspectives, but always with so much empathy and wit and grace. I go back to Jeffrey Eugenides’ Detroit novels often, for the way they place characters and families against the cityscape so that you feel Detroit as richly as you do the characters. The chapter in Middlesex where Desdemona works for the Nation of Islam is the, ahem, Cadillac of Michigan prose as far as I’m concerned.

What’s next for you?

I’m currently the Hub City Writers Project writer-in-residence. I’ll be spending the first part of 2017 away from the Midwest for the first time, in Spartanburg, SC.

Where can we find more information about you?

I’m bad at the internet, but there are some things at www.kelseyronan.com.

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Midwest in Photos: Humid Morn

“I had forgotten that time wasn’t fixed like concrete but in fact was fluid as sand, or water. I had forgotten that even misery can end.” – Joyce Carol Oates, I Am No One You Know: Stories.

Photo by: Gail Jeidy

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Interview: Abby Geni

Midwestern Gothic staffer Megan Valley talked with author Abby Geni about her novel The Lightkeepers, the power of an intriguing setting, novels versus short stories, and more.

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

Abby Geni: I’m a Midwestern girl, born and raised. I grew up a stone’s throw from Lake Michigan, and now I live less than a mile from my childhood home. The Midwest is my heart.

MV: At Midwestern Gothic, we’re very concerned with the influence of setting. How does the island setting of your debut novel, The Lightkeepers, shape the story?

AG: The setting is vital to The Lightkeepers. The book takes place on the Farallon Islands, which are a real chain of tiny islets off the coast of California. The archipelago is a nexus of marine life – whales, sharks, seabirds, octopuses – and an incredibly dangerous place for humans. I fictionalized the place a little bit, but mostly I stayed true to the details, which are more fascinating than anything I could imagine. For instance, there’s no pier on the Farallon Islands; the sea is too wild. People have to be transported to shore by crane. The stony ground is eighty million years old and falling apart, so it’s easy to lose your footing, fall, and hurt yourself. There’s near-constant fog and rain. There are malevolent gulls and lurking great white sharks. The islands are also the most rodent-dense location in the world, overrun by mice. In short, the setting of The Lightkeepers is essential to the menace and wildness of the story.

MV: The last time we interviewed you, it was for your debut short story collection, The Last Animal. How has your writing changed since then?

AG: I think I’ve always been a novelist at heart. When I was younger, I felt that I was practicing my craft, writing shorter pieces as I waited to become a stronger writer, to get older and wiser as a human being, searching for a story that was big and strange and potent enough to span an entire book. In The Last Animal, I organized the stories around a central theme – the relationship between humans and nature – to connect them to one another. Even then, I was thinking about how to structure a whole book, rather than individual pieces: how the stories played off one another, how together they told a greater story than themselves. Now that I’ve begun writing novels, I can’t imagine going back to short stories. I’m a marathoner, not a sprinter.

MV: In many ways, The Lightkeepers seems similar to traditional mystery novels. How does this structure work with the theme of how humans interact with nature?

AG: The joy of a good mystery comes from the human tendency to see patterns everywhere. A mystery, when it’s done right, is an irresistible puzzle box. You collect the clues, identify and discard meaningless information, make sense of all the disparate shards, and try to put them together into a whole. You want the solution, but you also want the process itself, the wonderful untangling.

Human beings look for patterns in everything. We see faces in tree bark and shapes in clouds and images in constellations. Nature is inherently chaotic in a way that’s hard for the human mind to deal with. Nature is both scary and wondrous to us in part because it’s so disorderly – no straight lines, no grids, no rules, no logic. It’s all sprawl and growth and tumble.

In The Lightkeepers, I was interested in what a traditional mystery plot would look like in a wild, chaotic setting. Miranda, the main character, is trying to put the pieces together – a suspicious death, a limited set of suspects, a plethora of motives – but she’s stymied by the danger and disorder of the Farallon Islands, the crumbling stone and wild sea and bloodthirsty gulls. Is she seeing patterns that aren’t there? Is she trying to impose a human story on a wild, un-storied place?

MV: What do you read in between your writing projects?

AG: While I’m writing, I find it hard to read fiction, since I’m creating fiction and I don’t want another author’s mind and story getting knotted up with mine. So I read a lot of nonfiction and genre fiction while I’m actively creating a new book. In between projects, I read all the fiction I can get my hands on. My recent favorites have been The Houseguest by Kim Brooks, The Nobodies Album by Carolyn Pankhurst, and Stories for Wartime by Rebecca Makkai.

MV: The main character in The Lightkeepers is named Miranda and she’s stuck on an island. This and other aspects of the novel, like her relationship with Galen, are very reminiscent of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Which thematic aspects of of the play were you trying to recall?

AG: I’ve always loved The Tempest, so I’m delighted whenever readers find echoes between it and The Lightkeepers. To my mind, Galen is definitely reminiscent of Prospero, an omniscient, all-powerful deity with a host of magical creatures under his thrall. There’s also the character of Caliban, the fish-monster who lurks around the edges of the play. It’s suggested in The Tempest that Caliban has assaulted Miranda sometime in the past, which is why he’s fallen out of favor with Prospero when the play begins. I remember reading Shakespeare’s The Tempest and being curious about Miranda’s thought processes and mental architecture. In the play, she’s so wide-eyed, so oddly innocent, yet she’s been through terrible things and lived an extraordinary life. Many aspects of her character were in my mind as I was writing The Lightkeepers.

MV: How do you approach writing a novel differently from writing a collection of stories?

AG: A mentor of mine, Dan Chaon, once told me that the vast proportion of novels in the world could have been written as short stories, and that if you have the possibility of writing a short story instead of a novel, then it’s your responsibility to do that.

When I wrote The Last Animal, people would often tell me that they thought certain stories from the collection could have been made into novels. But I knew that wasn’t true, because the stories weren’t big enough. Short stories are all beginning and end. Novels are mostly middle. Writing a novel is about finding a story with enough middle to span a whole book.

MV: What’s next for you?

AG: I’ve been working on a new novel, and I’m about to embark on a major revision with my wonderful editor, Dan Smetanka. I love the editing process, so I couldn’t be happier. The book is called Zoomania, and it should be out in the spring of 2018.

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Abby Geni is a graduate of Oberlin College and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop as well as a recipient of an Iowa Fellowship. Her work won first place in the Glimmer Train Fiction Open and was listed in The Best American Short Stories, 2010 and 2013. Her collection of short stories, The Last Animal (Counterpoint Press), was a 2014 Orion Book Prize Finalist for Fiction, and her debut novel, The Lightkeepers (Counterpoint Press), was released in 2016 to much acclaim. The Lightkeepers was chosen as a Spring 2016 Discover Great New Writers Selection at Barnes & Noble, was the Mysterious Bookshop’s First Mystery Pick for February 2016, was long-listed for the 2016 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, and was chosen by Chicago Magazine as Best Breakout Novel. Abby lives in Evanston, IL, with her husband and young son.

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We Could’ve Been Happy Here Reviewed by Medium

Great news! Another incredible review has come in for We Could’ve Been Happy Here, just in time for the launch.

Here’s what Medium had to say about the newly-released MG Press title:

“Readers who seek a collection with a strong connection to place and setting would do well to pick up We Could’ve Been Happy Here.” —Jen Corrigan, Medium.

Read the full review.

For more information and to buy a copy of We Could’ve Been Happy Here, click here.

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Contributor Spotlight: Kaj Tanaka

Kaj Tanaka’s nonfiction piece “If I Had My Way This Story Would Be a Song” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Winter 2017 issue, out now.

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

My parents are rural Lutheran pastors in Minnesota, so growing up, I heard a lot of small town gossip and Bible stories, which I really enjoyed—I also heard a lot of dirty jokes riding the school bus because we lived a long way out of town. Not that my writing consciously follows in any of those traditions, but that’s how I learned about the conventions of storytelling—where stories begin and end and how to tell them.

When I was a kid I listened to recordings of Garrison Keillor’s News From Lake Woebegone on cassette tape. I always liked that idea of these little stories surrounding a fictional community, and I’ll defend Garrison Keillor to anyone. He has a lot of detractors these days, but I can’t think of another project of Midwestern fiction that manages to be so big and vivid and focused. I love Sherwood Anderson, Edgar Lee Masters and Welcome to Night Vale too, for the same reasons, though none of those projects hold a candle to the sheer scale of The News From Lake Woebegone.

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

Some of my best memories of the Midwest are from driving across it. I had this job in high school where I needed to drive around Minnesota a lot. I remember, early on, getting tired from just a one or two hour drive. By the time I was in my early twenties I could drive fourteen hours, only stopping for gas. It’s amazing how much space you can cover in that time. It’s difficult to get a sense of the Midwest as a region without traveling across it many times, using various paths.

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’m never sure which of my memories are real and which are imagined. We impose so much weight and significance on certain memories that it’s difficult to know what those places and situations were really like. Writing stories only adds to that confusion because all of my fiction is built on real places and memories, but I’ve altered them in the writing process. Some of my memories I have rewritten so completely that I have lost any sense of what actually happened. Sometimes I reconnect with someone who shares one of those memories with me, and our versions of history are wildly different. I think this is true for all people to some extent, but it’s harder for fiction writers, and I’m particularly bad. People who know me have learned not to consider me a very reliable historian. I have a bad habit of misremembering things.

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

When I am working on a project I write every day until it is done—each day of writing attempts to be a single narrative of some sort. If I leave a story up in the air for too many days I lose track of where it is going and eventually I need to abandon it. Sometimes what I write becomes a novel, sometimes it’s a collection of stories. Everything starts out as a collection of stories. That process lasts for 3-6 months. I know it’s done when I get tired of working on it—when the idea of working on it fills me with dread. Then I go back and try to turn it into something. So much of the work of a large project for me is going over the original draft to understand what I’ve written and what it means. I don’t think much about that stuff during composition, so it’s only after the fact that I allow myself to assign meaning and significance.

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

I can’t exactly, or it’s never finished maybe? I don’t know. I just stop working on a story when I get tired of looking at it.

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

Richard Brautigan. There isn’t a single thing I’ve read of his that didn’t surprise and delight me.

What’s next for you?

I’m starting a new project soon, so I’m trying not to think too much about it right now. I have some general ideas but nothing I want to articulate.

Where can we find more information about you?

My twitter handle is @kajtanaka and my stories are all over the Internet.

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We Could’ve Been Happy Here: Happy Pub Day to Keith Lesmeister’s debut collection!

We Could've Been Happy Here book coverIt’s finally here! Today is the launch day of Keith Lesmeister’s incredible collection We Could’ve Been Happy Here – just in time for your summer reading!

We Could’ve Been Happy Here has received fantastic reviews from Kirkus Reviews, Books, Personally, Nickolas Butler, Benjamin Percy, and others. Still not sold on the collection? Don’t just take our word for it, read more about Keith in his interview with FOLIO, or learn why We Could’ve Been Happy Here was named a “Most Anticipated Book of 2017” here!

In his first collection of short fiction, Keith Lesmeister plows out a distinctive vision of the contemporary Midwest. A recovering addict chases down a herd of runaway cows with a girl the same age as his estranged daughter. A middle-aged couple rediscovers their love for one another through the unlikely circumstance of robbing a bank. A drunken grandmother goads her grandson into bartering his leftover booze for a kayak. The daughter of a deployed soldier wages a bloody war on the rabbits ravaging her family’s farm.

These stories peer into the lives of those at the margins–the broken, the resigned, the misunderstood. At turns hopeful and humorous, tender and tragic, We Could’ve Been Happy Here illuminates how we are shaped and buoyed by our intimate connections with others—both those close to us, and those we hardly know.

Also, be sure to come out and celebrate with Keith at one of his many upcoming events! Support Keith, hear him read from the collection, and enjoy some quality time with the literary community.

You can buy the book in paperback or eBook from major online booksellers. Get your copy of We Could’ve Been Happy Here now.

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