Contributor Spotlight: Brian Pals

September 1st, 2015

Brian PalsBrian Pals’ story “Gen-Mods” appears in Midwestern Gothic Issue 18, out now.

What’s your connection to the Midwest, and how has the region influenced your writing?
I was born and raised in Waterloo, Iowa, and have lived here much of my adult life. I seldom think about my writing as being specifically about place, since my immediate concerns have more typically to do with character, but perhaps that’s just the point: rural Middle America is, to me, the kind of non-place one takes for granted, where people seem larger and more fully dimensional against the surrounding landscape. I like to think that we flatlanders tend to be attuned to both geographic and interpersonal subtleties.

What do you think is the most compelling aspect of the Midwest?
‘Compelling’ is a funny choice of word, considering the above, but upon reflection, it’s exactly the right one. What’s compelling about my Midwest— I’m not talking about Chicago here—is that we tend to consider it not as a destination, but a point of departure. Young Midwesterners think of their home territory as a place to outgrow, to get away from. That’s compulsion.

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?
Surroundings and memories are a writer’s raw material, but I’m certainly not digging into that stuff in any Proustian sense. When I was a boy we used to go on family outings to a place called Split Rock, in Chickasaw County, where the defining features were a little human-made lake and a big boulder, about the size of a Volkswagen bus, which had been deposited by some glacier and cloven in two by some monstrous geological force. You could walk between the halves of it. Now, if I were to write a story using Split Rock as a setting (and now that I think of it, I just might), I’d be strongly tempted to utilize that boulder in some metaphoric sense, like a couple breaking up. That’s the role that place and memory tend to take in my writing: the arbitrary assignation of narrative meaning, more assemblage than reportage.

Discuss your writing process—inspirations, ideal environments, how you deal with writer’s block.
Ideally, it’s 4:30 in the morning, just as the birds begin to chirp, and I feel utterly alone. I’m pacing around and muttering to myself, happy that nobody is awake or around to see me acting so crazy. Writer’s block is my natural condition, the rule rather than the exception. I have to work myself into a state that allows the voices to come out.

How can you tell when a piece of writing is finished?
I edit as I proceed, setting down a paragraph or even just a sentence, then re-reading and tweaking the whole thing to make sure the tone and the narrative add up to that moment before I can move on. It’s a laborious process—a method I’m trying to change—but it does mean that I get to enjoy that ‘ta-da!’ moment when I arrive at what I feel to be the plot-line’s stopping point.

Who is your favorite author (fiction writer or poet), and what draws you to their work?
I’ve never been accused of overthinking it: favorite team, Yankees; favorite voice, Aretha; favorite movie, Oz; favorite building, Taj Mahal. So my favorite author is the guy who wrote this: “Men must endure their going hence, even as their coming hither. Ripeness is all.” What draws me inevitably back to Shakespeare is, of course, the great pleasure I derive from reading him, the engagement with something timeless, with a voice that proceeds not just from some authorial sensibility, but from humanity. Among contemporaries, I admire Michael Chabon, Nicholson Baker, Alice Munro. My favorite piece in the new MG is “Billiards” by Justin Carmickle—really great, open-hearted, democratic writing.

What’s next for you?
I just wrapped up my MA at Northern Iowa, and have a few months now to buff my CV while applying for PhD programs. Meanwhile, I’m working on writing that utilizes some of the conventions of the yarn or the folktale—trying to tap into a more Shakespearian mode, not to overstate it.

Where can we find more information about you?
I’m easily friended on Facebook, and I tweet haphazardly @brnpls. There’s a narrative poem I’m rather proud of here: http://wlajournal.com/wlaarchive/26/Pals.pdf.

Contributor News

Randy Brown, who had work featured in Issue 17 (Spring 2015), recently had a selection of poems under one title, “10 haiku about a state fair,” published in The Corn Belt Almanac by The Head & The Hand Press. He also recently received the inaugural Madigan Award for humorous military-themed writing from Negative Capability Press, for his essay “Coming Home on a Bungie Cord,” which you can read here.

Emily Corwin, who has work coming up in Issue 19 (Fall 2015), recently had her chapbook, My Tall handsome, selected for publication by Brain Mill Press.

Matthew Fogarty, who had work featured in Issue 9 (Spring 2013), had his book of short fiction, Maybe Mermaids & Robots Are Lonely: Stories, selected for publication by Stillhouse Press, and is forthcoming in September 2016.

Scott Koertner, who recently had work in Issue 15 (Fall 2014), recently saw his story “What Doesn’t Kill You” published by the journal Extract(s), which you can read here.

Alex Mattingly, who had work most recently in Issue 18 (Summer 2015), is now volunteering with a nonprofit in Indianapolis called Second Story, and contributed to an anthology called Mythic Indy, the proceeds of which will all go toward supporting the organization. You can read about it, and help support it, here.

Brian Petkashis, who won the 2014 Lake Prize in fiction, has been shortlisted for the Novella Award, a collaboration between Liverpool John Moores University and Manchester Metropolitan University, as well as partners Sandstone Press, Time to Read, and NAWE.

Congrats to all our contributors!

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Contributor Spotlight: Brenna Womer

Processed with VSCOcam with a7 presetBrenna Womer’s story “Patsy Sings For Me” appears in Midwestern Gothic Issue 18, out now.

What’s your connection to the Midwest, and how has the region influenced your writing?
I was 15 years old when my family moved from Alaska to Missouri after my dad retired from the Air Force. We followed my mom’s parents who had uprooted their lives in San Diego some years before, leaving their home of over 20 years and building on a quiet plot of land in Cape Fair. Even after six years—the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere—I still have trouble calling Missouri home, but it is ceaselessly charming and mysterious to me.

More than any other aspect of the Midwest, the people influence my writing the most. Perhaps it’s because I spent so much of my life hopping from coast to coast and country to country, but I am taken with the lives of those who were raised simply and continue to live in the same way, finding partners, raising families, never traveling far, if at all, from the state lines. Many of the small towns here function as microcosms of the Midwest—often underrepresented and overlooked, in my opinion.

What do you think is the most compelling aspect of the Midwest?
The simplicity of the Midwest is what compels me most. There is a quietness, a silent wisdom, that seems to dwell in the land and its inhabitants.

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 currently working on a memoir piece about my experiences growing up on military bases. They are this web of interconnected worlds with their own hierarchies, social structures, and customs. I didn’t realize it at the time because it was all I knew, but, as I’ve now spent almost a decade living off-base, I can see how unique a lifestyle it really is.

Discuss your writing process—inspirations, ideal environments, how you deal with writer’s block.
I need a relatively quiet, distraction-free environment to write, so I get my best work done sitting alone in a near-empty coffee shop or at home during the day. My greatest inspirations come when I’m not trying to think of a story ideawhen I’m stuck in traffic, walking the dog, eating some late-night Waffle Housethat’s often when lightning strikes and I think, “I should put this in a story.”

The notepad in my phone is filled with random scenarios, quotes, ideas, and such, and if I’m ever at a loss, I refer to those. I’ll pick something out and find a way to incorporate it into what I’m working on to keep the story moving.

How can you tell when a piece of writing is finished?
I’m a very feelings-based person, so most of what I do and the decisions I make are based on how I feel. (Yes, this gets me into a lot of trouble in the real world.) Writing, both fiction and creative nonfiction, is extremely cathartic, and I feel an almost immediate sense of calm and release when I’m satisfied with a piece.

Who is your favorite author (fiction writer or poet), and what draws you to their work?
Aimee Bender will forever be a favorite of mine, specifically her collection Girl in the Flammable Skirt. I’m taken with her portrayal of women attempting to deal with major losses and changes, and also with her exploration of sex and sexuality as a means of control and escape. Her writing is whimsical, but the subject matter she deals with is rarely so lighthearted. She strikes an enviable balance and I’m always captivated.

What’s next for you?
I’m gearing up for my second year of grad school at Missouri State University and working on my creative thesis, which will be a mix of fiction and memoir. I’ll be applying for Creative Writing PhD programs in the fall, and who knows where that will take me! As long as I’m teaching and writing I’ll be happy.

Where can we find more information about you?
Well, I don’t have a website, but if you’d like to read more of my writing, I have a short, “Chimera,” published online in NEAT Issue 7. Otherwise, you can find me on Instagram (brennawomer).

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Interview: David Shields

Author photo of David Shields, 2012.Midwestern Gothic staffer Stephanie Mezzanatto talked with renowned author David Shields about his influences, creating a dialogue book, his interest in a “Midwestern take” on things, and more.

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Stephanie Mezzanatto: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

David Shields: I lived in Iowa City from 1978-1983, and my wife, Laurie, is originally from Lake Forest, Illinois (we met at the Ragdale artists’ colony in Lake Forest in 1986). I’m extremely interested in a “Midwestern” take on things, which I define in one essay this way: “Hemingway’s hometown of Oak Park is about twenty miles southwest of [Bill] Murray’s hometown of Wilmette; both men have or had a gimlet-eyed view of the disguises the world wears. It’s more broadly Midwestern, though, than only Hemingwayesque, I think. Dave Eggers, who grew up in Lake Forest, has it. So does Laurie, who grew up in the same North Shore suburb. Johnny Carson, who was raised in Nebraska, and David Letterman, who was raised in Indiana, also have it—a quality of detachment that’s a way of not getting sucked in by all the shit sent your way, of holding onto some tiny piece of yourself that’s immune to publicity, of wearing indifference as a mask.”

SM: I Think You’re Totally Wrong: A Quarrel cleverly explores the two differing viewpoints of you and your longtime friend and former student, Caleb Powell, on a variety of important issues, including religion, marriage, sex, literature, art, politics, and life, in an entertaining and thought-provoking way that engages the reader, and calls for a thorough examination of one’s own views. Were there any challenges you both faced while bridging the gap between having a open debate with a friend and targeting a larger audience in text?

DS: Thanks, Stephanie. Glad to hear you find the book thought-provoking. You’ve captured the dilemma well; Caleb and I are talking to each other, but we’re also trying to create a book. The original transcript was perhaps five times longer than the final book, so the conversation went into every nook and cranny, whereas the book is a curation and transformation of the raw transcript.

SM: Do you think your time at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop influenced the views you hold today, that we see represented in I Think You’re Totally Wrong: A Quarrel?

DS: I would say a lot of my work over the last twenty-plus years has been in rather direct opposition to the Workshop aesthetic of traditional, linear, realistic fiction. I learned a lot at the Workshop, but mainly 51XrZ8vFcfL._SX346_BO1,204,203,200_what I learned was to reject what I was learning.

SM: You co-authored I Think You’re Totally Wrong: A Quarrel with Caleb Powell, and throughout your career you have written both solo and collaboratively. How is the experience of co-authoring a book different for you from writing on your own?

DS: I don’t see that much difference, to be honest; when I’m writing a book solo, I argue against myself; when I’m collaborating with someone (such as Caleb), I’m arguing against him. I like the way collaboration creates a tension in me—a demand for new writing every time I get a fresh email from my collaborator.

SM: What inspired this unique book-in-dialogue? Did the idea for writing I Think You’re Totally Wrong: A Quarrel come after the trip with Powell to the cabin in Washington’s Cascade Range, or did you both have the idea in mind when you began your retreat and the conversational debates that occurred while there?

DS: I wanted to create a dialogue book; I’ve always loved the form—from Plato’s Dialogues to Car Talk. I tried a few people and finally found traction with Caleb; we drive each other crazy, but we share a grammar and rhetoric. We went to the cabin specifically to write the book. We knew from the beginning it was a debate about life and art.

SM: Where and/or how do you find inspiration to write? What advice would you give to budding writers?

DS: My inspiration is that as a kid I had a horrible stutter; I relish the chance to be able to talk, now, on the page.  Advice? Write about what you can’t shut up about (to paraphrase Gordon Lish).

SM: What author(s) have had the greatest influence on your own style and your journey as a writer? Who are your currently reading?

DS: Influences: Heraclitus. Pascal. Rousseau. Cioran. Adler. Augustine. Bernhard. Barthes. Bennett. Biss. Bouillier. Borges. Burton. Calle. Carson. Castle. Cheever (journals).Coetzee. Connolly. Daudet. Ernaux. Fusselman. Simon Gray. Spalding Gray. Hunt. Kelman. Leiris. Manugso. Markson. Montaigne. Nelson. Nietzsche. Pessoa. Patterson. Rochefoucauld. Schopenhauer. Sterne. Wenderoth. Currently Reading: Heidi Julavits (The Folded Clock) and Hervé Guibert (Mausoleum of Lovers).

SM: What’s next for you?

DS: Just out: That Thing You Do With Your Mouth (McSweeney’s, June 2015). Also working on film version of my book Black Planet. The film version of Totally Wrong is done and will be, I hope, distributed nationally next year.

Here is a link to the trailer for the film: https://www.google.com/#q=trailer+shields+powell+franco

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David Shields is the internationally bestselling author of twenty books, including Reality Hunger (named one of the best books of 2010 by more than thirty publications), The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead (New York Times bestseller), and  Black Planet (finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award). Forthcoming are War Is Beautiful (powerHouse, September 2015), Flip-Side (powerHouse, 2016) and Other People (Knopf, 2017). The recipient of Guggenheim and NEA fellowships, Shields has published essays and stories in the New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, Esquire, Yale Review, Village Voice, Salon, Slate, McSweeney’s, and Believer. His work has been translated into twenty languages.

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Contributor Spotlight: Lia Swope Mitchell

Lia Swope MitchellLia Swope Mitchell’s story “Sunfish” appears in Midwestern Gothic Issue 18, out now.

What’s your connection to the Midwest, and how has the region influenced your writing?
I’ve lived in Minneapolis all my life, with the exception of a couple years in Wisconsin and a year in France. So the influence is deep and probably present in ways I don’t even recognize. But what stands out to me is a certain aesthetic of understatement, a pragmatic and self-deprecating attitude that attempts to keep emotions restrained—stuffed in a box under the bed, maybe—with occasional, spectacular failures.

What do you think is the most compelling aspect of the Midwest?
The world is so changeable here. Minneapolis in winter is an entirely different environment than Minneapolis in summer, or spring or fall. Cycles of life and death are going on all around us, all the time. There’s a certain humility that comes from that. A certain awe.

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?
Like a lot of city people, I have these pastoral fantasies about an idyllic life in the country, either on a farm or in the wilderness. Pretty absurd, I’m sure. My family has a vacation house in northern Minnesota, near the Boundary Waters, and my story in Midwestern Gothic, “Sunfish,” comes from trying to imagine, more realistically, what it might be like to grow up in that region.

Discuss your writing process—inspirations, ideal environments, how you deal with writer’s block.
I’m pretty erratic, but I try to show up at the computer daily, turn the faucet on, see what comes out. Sometimes I’ve got a few pages in me, sometimes I’ve got nothing. I keep an idea bank, a list of phrases or story seeds for when I’m not sure what to write about, and sometimes that helps. If I’m really blocked, though, I don’t push it. There’s plenty of other work I can do.

How can you tell when a piece of writing is finished?
I start agonizing over really minor things. Should this be an em-dash or a semi-colon? What about a period? No, semi-colon’s better—no, em-dash—wait, what about… And that’s when I need to set the story aside for a week or so, revise it one more time, and then send it off.

Who is your favorite author (fiction writer or poet), and what draws you to their work?
Narrative voice is what attracts me to a story most. I love sharp, interesting, individual voices, and mixtures of poetry and prose. So for favorite authors, I’d list Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, Chuck Palahniuk, maybe Cormac McCarthy.

What’s next for you?
I’m planning to finish my PhD in Spring 2016. After that—conquer the world, I suppose. I wish I knew.

Where can we find more information about you?
I have a website at liaswopemitchell.com and I post my random thoughts on Twitter @lswopemitchell.

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MG @ Poets & Writers Editors Panel 2015

Midwestern Gothic co-founder Jeff Pfaller was invited to participate in an Editors Panel in Chicago put on by Poets & Writers Magazine. Hosted by P&W associate editor Melissa Faliveno, the panel featured editors of literary magazines and small presses talking about the work they publish, advice for writers, and how to establish successful working relationships with editors.

It’s a great watch, and we hope you’ll check it out!

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Interview: Amy Butcher

Author1Midwestern Gothic staffer Stephanie Mezzanatto talked with author Amy Butcher about her memoir Visiting Hours, our life narrativeswriting in solitude, and more.

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Stephanie Mezzanatto: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Amy Butcher: The Midwest is where I first began to take writing seriously. And by this, I mean not only the acquisition of a certain skill set (as a graduate student at the University of Iowa), but the acquisition, too, of the idea that a piece of writing is less a product than a process, that one shouldn’t be so easily satisfied with quick work. In my early twenties, I still saw revision as a very much one-and-done process, maybe two-and-done, but as a graduate student, I was afforded the time to write and rewrite and continue rewriting until I was satisfied, a timeline that I found stretched gradually longer and longer. I began to see it as a craft, as art. Now I feel much more patient with my work and the time it takes to do the work I want it to.

But beyond that, perhaps no place has shaped my sense of self greater than the Midwest—those vast and fluidly green fields, that enormous sky, the way it builds and turns before a storm. It’s hard to put it into words, but there’s a terrific Iowan artist, Kathleen Rash, whose wonderful storm series captures this concentrated sense for me. I live now on what I sort of consider the precipice of the Midwest, in central Ohio, but I find I venture farther west several times a year just to remember that expanse and my own woeful smallness set against it. It sounds silly, perhaps, but I find the Midwest possesses a daily way of living and processing of the world very different from what I knew growing up on the coast.

SM: In your debut memoir, Visiting Hours: A Memoir of Friendship and Murder, you recount the traumatic event that occurred during your senior year at Gettysburg College, when your close friend Kevin stabbed his ex-girlfriend to death, your fixation with the crime that ensued, and your quest to unravel the truth. What caused you to believe that his crime was a result of his mental illness, when many others turned their backs on him after the event?

AB: I think to a certain extent, naiveté—we want to believe the people we trust and care about are not murderers, are not in fact capable of that sort of permanent and undoable act—but this was also an individual who exhibited no prior history of violence against others and whose emotional disposition had always been inwardly inclined. It simply didn’t make sense. It still doesn’t, in many ways, but when I learned through public documents and mental health evaluations, eighteen months after his arrest, that Kevin had been trying to take his own life, it presented a far more logical and consistent narrative.

41u5sl0AjML._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_SM: In your memoir, you struggle with your own feelings regarding the crime: empathy, grief, anger, and a feeling of guilt that you had consumed yourself with the crime, a feeling that perhaps it was not your grief to feel. What do you hope your struggle and your grieving process might bring to the lives of others whose loved ones may be struggling with depression, committed suicide, or as in Kevin’s case, hurt another who attempted to intervene in a suicide attempt?

AB: In the four months since the book’s release, I’ve heard from a lot of these individuals, many of whom have expressed relief and comfort in knowing they’re not alone. I recently returned to a small Alaskan fishing town, in fact, where I spend a portion of every summer, and while there I met a handful of people still working to process a crime very similar to this one that happened nearly ten years ago. I find this to be quite common. We don’t often talk about the ways in which we struggle, whether mentally or emotionally, and it’s made all the more difficult when someone we care about has done something we simply don’t know how to reckon. But I’ve heard and seen the ways in which this book has helped others feel comfortable in that expression, and because I work with a relatively young demographic—high school and college students—I know, too, that my openness about my own struggle with depression has helped others feel comfortable having similarly necessary conversations. I haven’t yet heard from anyone who has committed a crime, though I imagine I will in time.

SM: Had you ever thought about writing a memoir before this traumatic event occurred? What type of writing had you initially planned to pursue in the master’s program you were set to attend after graduation?

AB: I more or less stumbled into nonfiction writing only after exhausting the fiction and poetry course offerings at my undergraduate institution, so when I applied to graduate school, I did so in all three genres, hopeful the decision would make itself. It did. I arrived in Iowa with the idea that I’d write a collection of comedic essays on overcoming various fears—work in the vein of David Sedaris or Sloane Crosley—but eventually it became evident I was really only writing one very long essay on overcoming one very particular fear, and that eventually became Visiting Hours. Those who don’t understand memoir are quick to criticize the young memoirist, but as Leslie Jamison asserts (far more eloquently than I ever could), the narratives we tell about our own lives are constantly in flux and our perspectives at each age are differently valuable. What we gain from an older perspective must invariably be balanced against the immediacy of youth, the close level of gaze and clarity and unresolved perspective. I don’t imagine I will ever write another memoir, simply because I can’t imagine anything ever eclipsing the content of this book, but I also don’t believe, in any way, that one should feel limited by what those who don’t seem to understand the genre believe it to be.

SM: At what point in your quest did you decided to begin writing a memoir? What sparked that decision?

AB: The book began first as a way of exploring what had happened and justifying my feelings of continued empathy for Kevin and what I believe he had experienced, but it became quickly evident that it was equally an exploration of my inability to move beyond that night—an articulation of an obsession borne from an unresolvable, nonsensical trauma. I felt tethered to that night and that complication, and all of this was further compounded by the idea, asserted more than once, that I had no reason or even right to explore and grieve so openly. There seemed no space to grieve the loss of a friend when that friend committed murder, irrespective of the complicated circumstances that surrounded that murder and that night. The idea in our collective conscious is that unless you knew and were close to the victim, your grief should be private, be secondary. This clearly wasn’t true for me as I suspect it isn’t true for many. And so the exploration of all these ideas and concepts—however uncomfortable they’d prove to be—felt necessary.

SM: How do you feel that place influenced the writing of this memoir, which was written partially in the Midwest and partially in the East?

AB: As I mentioned in an earlier response, the Midwest provided a place where I felt safe and encouraged to explore the complicated content of this book, however controversial it seemed at times. Moreover, it provided an audience of highly intelligent and curious and varied minds, faculty and students alike, who read various iterations of the manuscript in essay form and offered insight and support and encouragement. For that, I’m forever grateful. It was also helpful, of course—though I couldn’t have known it at the time—to be so far from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, which I certainly have a very complicated relationship with. As a child, Gettysburg was a place of beauty and mystique—it was because of that place that my parents met and fell in love and made everything that followed possible—but it was Gettysburg, too, and its sensationalist dedication to violence, that raised what I feel are very valid questions. In many ways, Gettysburg became a metaphor for the world: there is beauty and light, certainly, but also immense and unknowable darkness. As adults, we learn to navigate this, and it was useful in this way to navigate in a place far removed.

SM: What was your process for constructing a memoir that was both true and raw, as your gripping memoir is, but simultaneously targeted toward a wider audience?

AB: I think the complicated nature of this particular crime invited a wider gaze; it’s impossible to look at this case in the depth that I did and set it apart from ongoing conversations on mental illness and violence in this country. We have one of the highest rates of depression and suicide, and young people, in particular—those 15-24—are the highest demographic of those who suffer. I wanted the book to speak to this, as well as the negative effect of stigmatization, which prevents many from feeling comfortable speaking out or getting help, but I found this came fairly naturally. Certainly facts and statistics prove useful in heightening awareness for those who aren’t already familiar, but I think the personal component, too, invites reflection.

SM: While writing Visiting Hours: A Memoir of Friendship and Murder you spent eight months alone in a cabin in New Hampshire. How do you think that solitude allowed you to reflect on and fully develop your feelings and thoughts surrounding the murder? Do you think this period of solitude was essential to completing your memoir?

AB: Time is always a luxury, but here especially it proved fundamental simply because a book demanding such sensitivity required, I felt, considerable time apart from the rest of life and what one might be doing with it otherwise. I wanted absolute solitude, privacy, time apart. Prior to moving to that rural New Hampshire cabin, I’d also spent a year in an isolated farmhouse ten miles from the nearest village—in upstate New York, as Colgate University’s Olive B. O’Connor writing fellow—and that time, too, was invaluable. I highly prize steady time away from others; I’m far from a city person, and instead seek to be as far as one can get without being altogether alone, which perhaps explains my recent adoration and fascination with Alaska. I think solitude presents its own set of questions that as writers and people more generally we’re wise to answer, and remoteness gives me that insight.

SM: What’s next for you?

AB: I’m working now on a novel and a collection of essays, the latter of which I find a home in far more easily than I do a full-length manuscript. I love the fluidity of essay collections, the breadth and that sense of process. I’m working now on what might be considered a collection of travel essays, pleasant not only in the deviation of form that it presents but also largely in my absence from the material. I’ve spent the past two years hitchhiking in the largest oil field in America (in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska), witnessing the annual migration of nearly half a million Sandhill Cranes, and otherwise seeking out experience, which I think is an indirect but unavoidable result of my friendship with Kevin. There’s a world out there and I feel above all grateful to see and know it.

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Amy Butcher is the author of the recently released Visiting Hours: A Memoir of Friendship and Murder (Blue Rider Press, Penguin-Random House) and an essayist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Iowa Review, Gulf Coast, Guernica, Fourth Genre, The Paris Review online, Tin House online, and Brevity, among others. She was recently awarded the 2014 Iowa Review Award by guest judge David Shields and is a recent recipient of the Olive B. O’Connor Fellowship from Colgate University. She earned her MFA from the University of Iowa and serves as an Assistant Professor of English at Ohio Wesleyan University.

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We’re looking for a new copyeditor

Are you a stickler for grammar? Do you love to read literature?  Then check it out: Midwestern Gothic is looking for a new copyeditor to join our staff!

What exactly are we looking for? People with editing/copyediting experience + a connection to the Midwest.

If you’re interested, or you know someone who is, send us an email (at mwgothic@gmail.com) with a resume and cover letter, making sure to include what your connection to the Midwest is, and we’ll get back to you with more details about the job.

And, as always, let us know if you have any questions!

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Flash Fiction Round 3 Finalist: “When the Bough Breaks” by Jayne Martin

Midwestern Gothic Flash Fiction Series
During the summer of 2015, we’re launching a flash fiction series, inviting authors to respond to three different picture prompts. You can read more about the series here. Round 3 submissions responded to the photo prompt found here.

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Round 3 finalist: “When the Bough Breaks” by Jayne Martin

If they don’t get here soon, he is sure he will bust wide open.  The bright yellow lily he’d picked for her this morning was already starting to wilt in the muggy heat of the Iowa noon.

Seems like it was just spring when his father had carried him up the ladder to a thicket of Juniper branches where four tiny spotted eggs rested among the carefully-arranged twigs of a sparrow’s nest.

“It’s no bigger than that right now,” his father explained.

He’d seen babies before, watched as his Aunt Ellen grew large and round as a pumpkin with his cousin Ray.  He knew they took a lot longer to hatch than sparrows.   His mother, too, had grown large and round as a pumpkin.  Some days she could barely get off the sofa.  Her ankles had become thick purple rivers emptying into swollen ponds of flesh that he would rub as she stroked his head and called him her good boy.

“She’s going to depend on you to protect her, you know,” his mother had said.

He could do that.  He was good at protecting things.  When their barn cat tried to climb up to the sparrow nest, he’d chased it away with the hose and it never tried that again.  He would hold her hand when they walked to school bus, and teach her how to tell the good snakes from the bad ones, and when it thundered so loudly that their whole cabin shook and lightning lit up the sky for miles around, he would hide his own fear so that she would feel safe.

By then the baby sparrows had flown off, all but one that he had found lying stiff and cold at the base of the tree.  When he had cried, his father said that was just nature’s way sometimes, and together they had buried it and said a prayer.

He had clung to his mother’s skirt while his father half-walked, half-carried her to their car.  They told him not to worry about the blood that trailed from their doorway.

Soon dusk would begin to cast shadows like ghosts across their land.  Still, he waited.

Nature was especially unforgiving that year.

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Jayne Martin’s work has appeared in Boston Literary Magazine, Pure Slush, and Hippocampus Magazine, and most recently on the #cnftweet page of Creative NonFiction Magazine.  Her book of humor essays, “Suitable for Giving: A Collection of Wit with a Side of Wry,” is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.  Find her at injaynesworld.blogspot.com or on the back of a horse with a glass of fine wine.

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Interview: Scott Blackwood

unnamed (1)Midwestern Gothic staffer Hannah Gordon talked with author Scott Blackwood about writing through the darkness, moving from Texas to Chicago, connection and empathy, and more.

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Hannah Gordon: What is your connection to the Midwest?

Scott Blackwood: I originally moved here from Austin for a job seven years ago, when I was director of the MFA Program at Roosevelt Univeristy in downtown Chicago. I loved the change, the challenge of a larger city. Mostly, in your forties, you look for analogies since the differences between Austin and Chicago are so pronounced. One of the things that struck me right away on a personal level is that Midwesterners are polite, like Southerners. There’s a certain grace to the interactions that I immediately picked up on. That said, Texans and Austinites in particular, tend to be more aggressive and improvisational in their social interactions while Chicagoans are more cautious, more “I’ll decide who I let in over time.” It makes for an interesting dance. I’ve felt very welcome in the Midwest and in Chicago in general and have made some great friends. Also, I love the City of Chicago, a world class city where, despite its problems and various divisions of race and class, it incubates real creativity melded to a sense of history. My ultimate goal would be to spend the winters and springs in Austin and the summers and early falls in Chicago. I also like teaching at Southern Illinois, my colleagues and students, near all the natural beauty of Southern Illinois- a heady mix, again, of the South and the Midwest.

HG: How do you think that moving from Texas to Chicago has influenced your work?

SB: Well, living for a year in Chicago near the Uptown neighborhood 2008-2009 certainly gave me an introduction to the City I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. I walked everywhere, took the train everywhere for over a year. That seeps into your writing, the outsider looking in on a place and the place looking back. And Chicago and the Lake play an important part in See How Small and its sense of place and displacement. And danger. There were a lot of mentally ill people near my Redline stop on the “L”, so there was this constant dis-ease walking near there in 2008. Anything, seemingly, could happen, which maybe mirrors the world the way it really is and not the way we’d like to see it.

HG: Your latest book, See How Small, tells the gruesome, tragic story of three murders that rock a small Texan town. Where did the inspiration for this come from?

SB: It’s funny how the copy for the book refers to a “small Texas town” when it’s set in Austin, a city of near a million. I think part of it is I’m referencing older sections of town and a time when things weren’t so big, that did “feel” small. The book is inspired by an actual and still unsolved 1991 murder and burning of four teenage girls, ages 13-17,  in an Austin “I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt” shop near Anderson Ln. The wrong men were convicted of it ten years later-one put on death row- and were finally released only five years ago. The case has haunted the city for 24 years and remains a flashpoint. When the book launched, TV and radio stations wanted me to come on to “talk about the murders” when I’d written a novel only very loosely based on the crimes. What could I say? I talked about the human need for resolution that the world itself is sort of indifferent to.

9780316373807_custom-1eda55c6d67b48490af18a06306f857832477fa3-s300-c85HG: See How Small deals with some pretty heavy subjects—not only the torture and murder of the three girls, but the lives of their loved ones afterward. How did you handle writing such an emotionally draining story?

SB: There is a darkness there that your have to pull out of from time to time but there’s also a poignancy to the book, I think, that points to the joy of living, despite everything. We can tell our own story and not be a story told, but it takes great courage to do so. That’s what I imagine the girls and some of the characters doing, telling a story that affirms life, even in the face of the worst things it can offer.

HG: The narration in See How Small fluctuates between the three girls narrating themselves, in a sort of dream-like state, and then an omniscient narrator—how difficult was that to write in comparison to your other works (We Agreed to Meet Just Here and In the Shadow of Our House)?

SB: We Agreed is told in part in first person plural, in the “We” voice from the perspective of a neighborhood. So taking hold of the smaller “we” here of the girls themselves, was less difficult than narrating half a book from the perspective of a neighborhood!

HG: What is the most important thing you learned about yourself as a writer while working on See How Small?

SB: That I could go deep into a very dark subject and come out the other side of it, that you can inhabit these states of mind and offer the reader a way into intense experiences of grief. Experiencing these moments of connection, of empathy, make us more human, I think, and are life affirming. We go on. The other thing I’m most proud of is exploring a new kind of plot-making, an associational plot, more akin to some of my favorite writers like Denis Johnson or the brilliant Alice Munro.

HG: You’re a professor at Southern Illinois University. Do you feel that, in teaching other writers, you become a better writer yourself?

SB: I love my MFA students and their intensity. You’re thinking about story-telling and plot-making all the time and reading great books together. What could be better for a writer?

HG: What’s next for you?

SB: Well, I’ve finished two recent non-fiction narrative books about early blues and Jazz for the musician Jack White, the second volume of which was released in Dec. But I’m hot on the trail of Holis Finger now, the damaged Iraq veteran from See How Small, a kind of prequel to it that’s about mother and son relationships. Another character in it is Cynthia Ann Parker, an Illinois pioneer who came to Texas in the 1850s, whose family was wiped out by comanche. She was abducted and raised as a comanche and had a son who became the last great warrior chief of the comanches at the end of the Indian Wars. The fading of the west. So Illinois, and the Midwest, where the Parkers were from, is still a part of the story!

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Scott Blackwood is the author of the novels SEE HOW SMALL, a New York Times “Editor’s Choice” pick and a 2015 Best New Book selection by both AmaZon and People MagaZine, and WE AGREED TO MEET JUST HERE, which won a 2011 Whiting Writers’ Award, the AWP Prize for the Novel, The Texas Institute of Letters Award for best work of fiction, and was a finalist for the Pen Center USA Award in fiction. The New York Times called his first book, IN THE SHADOW OF OUR HOUSE, “acute, nimble stories, an impressive, accomplished debut.” His short stories have appeared in American Short Fiction, Gettysburg Review, Boston Review, Southwest Review,,Chicago Tribune Printer’s Row Journal and been anthologized in Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing. Scott’s two narrative nonfiction books, THE RISE AND FALL OF PARAMOUNT RECORDS, VOLUMES I & II—produced by Jack White—tell the curious tale of a white-owned “Race record” label that began in a Wisconsin chair factory and changed American popular music forever. Scott was nominated for a 2015  GRAMMY AWARD for Volume I and featured on NPR’s Weekend Edition, Sound Opinions,  and in The New York Times,The Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone and elsewhere. A former Dobie Paisano Fellow and long-time resident of Austin, Texas, Scott now lives in Chicago and teaches fiction writing in the MFA Creative Writing Program at Southern Illinois University.

 

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