A Farewell from Midwestern Gothic

October 6th, 2021

Dear MG Community:

It’s been a minute, hasn’t it? Wherever you are, we hope you’re doing well and taking good care.

We started Midwestern Gothic and MG Press because we loved this big ol’ beating heart middle of the country that we felt had been overlooked for too long. We wanted to create a space to showcase your stories, to really see what makes the Midwest sing.

Quite frankly, when we announced our hiatus back in 2019 we intended on it being a temporary one. The MG staff was going through many life changes, and we had wanted to regroup, refocus, and make sure we were serving y’all as best we could. Amidst the pause, we continued to hold discussions about what would be next for MG and how we could continue to support the brand. While it was hard to admit, we came to realize over time that while we love, beyond measure, working with authors, helping to publish your work, and curating this space, we became concerned with our ability to put the proper time and effort into the journal and the press to give the authors and their work the devotion they deserved.

The hardest thing we have come to realize is that, while we love this brand and have poured years of our lives into it, we believe, sadly, its time has come to an end.

We survived all these years because of the generosity of our staff and all of you. To everyone who volunteered time, sent us their words, read the work we published, supported us with a tweet…we are eternally grateful. More than we could ever really say. Ultimately, working on MG has helped us deeply appreciate our home, our stories, our shared experiences, and our beautiful differences.


So, what’s next?

Our plan is to keep issues of Midwestern Gothic and our MG Press books on sale through the 2021 calendar year. After that, we’ll remove our books/issues from various platforms. For now, for the foreseeable future, we’ll keep our website up and running, so you will still have access to our content.

We know this isn’t the best news, but we hope you’ll understand. We are heartbroken, yes, but we also recognize this is what’s needed. We can’t say this earnestly enough: it has been a helluva ride; there really aren’t words to express our gratitude and love. Thank you. And, as we’re fond of saying in the Midwest to express our truest affection: Drive safe, watch out for deer.

♡ Jeff and Rob


After 11 years, there are so many people to thank, but we felt like there needed to be some special shout-outs. A humungous, can’t-possibly-say-it-all-in-words thanks to the following fine folks:

  • Christina Olson, our poetry Editor Extraordinaire who elevated everything she touched.
  • Allison Reck, our Digital Marketing Director, a true leader and visionary.
  • Lauren Crawford, whose aesthetic and design talent was unmatched.
  • Laura Thomas, who helped create and design and plan our Voices of the Middle West literary festival, a true friend to literature and the Midwest.
  • Jon Darga and Katie Marenghi, our very first interns who set the bar.
  • Our editors and interns and copyeditors who, undoubtedly, carried us through it all: Cam Finch / Marisa Frey / Rachel Hurwitz / Mackenzie Meter / Sara Moore Wagner / Giuliana Eggleston / Sydney Cohen / Lauren Stachew / Ariel Everitt / Henry Milek / Jo Chang / Jamie Monville / Kelly Nhan / Biz Dokas / Kate Cammell / Laura Dzubay / Kathleen Janeschek / Stephanie Bucklin / Audrey Meyers / Maya Hausammann / Claire Denson / Lauren Stachew / Megan Valley / Kristina Perkins / Ally Wright / Hannah Bates / Hannah Gordon / Morgan Dean / Benjamin Ratner / Nate Zachar / Michelle Torby / J. Joseph Kane
  • Our MG Press authors for trusting us with their exquisite work: Eric Shonkwiler / Kali VanBaale / Scott Dominic Carpenter / John McCarthy / Keith Lesmeister / Julie Babcock / Anna Prushinskaya / 826michigan
  • Our mighty readers: Graham Dethmers / Benjamin Rosenstock / Jordan Kern / Nellie Stansbury / Carla Barger / Melissa Durante / Marjorie Robertson / Rebecca McKanna / Randy Magnuson / Rachel Horn / Elle Gover / Kaity Teer / Taylor Grandinetti / Brian Rocha / Erin Campbell / Leah Von Essen / Jackie Charniga / Sarah Dougherty / Elizabeth Boyle / Adam Theisen / Emily McGill
  • To our *many* journal contributors: We love you, we existed because of you generously allowing us to publish your work, and we love how we were able to paint such a vivid portrait of the Midwest because of you and your marvelous work.
  • To our *many* readers: A publication is only as good as the folks who pick it up, read it, devour work by brilliant writers.

Writing the Midwest: On making characters feel real

“Writing the Midwest” is a recurring series featuring writing advice from today’s most prolific authors. Whether it’s dealing with writer’s block, knowing when a piece is finished, or how and where to find inspiration, we’re delighted to present to you the very best guidance to help you and your writing. You can find links to the authors’ full interviews below.

On making characters feel real:

Lee L. Krecklow: They all need to experience some emotions that I can connect with. I need to understand why everyone does what they do; that’s the only way to own them. I’m an excessively empathetic person, one who can see both sides of most arguments, so this isn’t usually an issue for me. That doesn’t mean I’ve experienced or agree with everything my characters do. Far from it. But I can extrapolate my own experiences, push them further emotionally, in order to understand the people I write. A line I’ve used conversationally: I’ve never been punched in the face, but I’ve accidentally walked into a wall, so it’s not a stretch for me to understand taking an unexpected blow to the head.

Bryn Greenwood: I love the way every character brings their own experiences and their own biases to a story, so even when I know I won’t have a place for a particular character’s narrative, I like to investigate how they see things. In case they have some important insight that I don’t…. Where I was dealing with characters who were of similar backgrounds, I had to make much finer distinctions. For example, I had two working class men from the same small Kansas town, both with middle school level education, both mechanics by trade, one older and widowed, one younger and unmarried. I had to look closely at word choice and speech patterns to distinguish them by age, by personality trait, and even religious beliefs. On a surface level, they have similar voices, but they swear differently, they have different conversational tactics, they have differing outlooks on such amorphous things as hope, faith, love, friendship.

Mo Daviau: I say that writing a novel is like doing a long improv scene in my head over the span of years. I suspect that their relationship developed in some of the scenes that I ended up rewriting or cutting from the novel altogether. Even when I’m not actively writing, I think about my characters doing things like shopping together or having a fight over something trivial. A lot of this comes from my years of improv comedy training. If you want to write really solid characters, take an improv class.


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Writing the Midwest: On patience and taking your time

“Writing the Midwest” is a recurring series featuring writing advice from today’s most prolific authors. Whether it’s dealing with writer’s block, knowing when a piece is finished, or how and where to find inspiration, we’re delighted to present to you the very best guidance to help you and your writing. You can find links to the authors’ full interviews below.

On patience and taking your time:

Ian Stoner: I’m prone to tinker, and eventually the tinkering gets so trivial that I start to resent the story, at which point I put the draft in a drawer. The next summer I open the drawer, read the story, and if I like it I try sending it out. This doesn’t happen often. Usually, after a year away I can see that the piece needs fundamental rewriting, which I do. And then I tinker, turn resentful, put it back in the drawer for another year, and so on.

Jamel Brinkley: I write first drafts slowly, asking lots of questions, nitpicking my way from sentence to sentence, but I try not to think too much about issues of craft or the kinds of things that usually come up in workshops. If I’m not under pressure from a deadline, when I’m done with a draft I let it sit for a while. When I look at it again, I start thinking more deliberately about craft: scene, point of view, dialogue, etc. I find Robert Boswell’s transitional drafts method helpful. Finally, I try to make sure I haven’t “crafted” the life out of the story. If I feel stuck, then I have trusted readers I can turn to.

Terese Mailhot: You have to give it time, because sometimes it feels finished for now, and then you wait a few months, or a year, and you can go back and see if you’re right. That’s kind of how I work.


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Writing the Midwest: On developing small inspirations

“Writing the Midwest” is a recurring series featuring writing advice from today’s most prolific authors. Whether it’s dealing with writer’s block, knowing when a piece is finished, or how and where to find inspiration, we’re delighted to present to you the very best guidance to help you and your writing. You can find links to the authors’ full interviews below.

On developing small inspirations:

Nafissa Thompson-Spires: Often I just have a line or an image in my head. With the titular story [in the collection Heads of the Colored People], the first line came to me, and I pursued it, to figure out who this Riley character was. Sometimes, I have an idea of the shape of a story I want to write, but often the story reveals itself to me during the drafting. There has to be space for both the discipline and organization (outlining, etc.) and the more metaphysical, subconscious parts of writing.

Rebecca Berg: Every piece of writing demands its own process. In one case, that might be a kind of quilting: piecing the story together by laying out lots of fragments and deciding what goes next to what. In another case, a voice tumbles out of me. In the case of “Taki’s,” I woke up at two in the morning, suddenly obsessed by memories of a restaurant. I thought I’d jot a note about it and go back to sleep. Three hours later, I was still writing.

Bruce Johnson: When I start a new story, it often feels like I need to forget everything I thought I knew about writing and figure out a new process that will work for that particular story. Sometimes I have a clear idea of what a story is about before I start it, other times I just have a first sentence I want to play with. Sometimes a story demands a quiet room to write in, other times weird industrial music playing in my headphones. And inspiration can come from anywhere; I have a long list of story ideas written down in my phone, and I don’t remember where most of them came from. I can’t say I experience writer’s block much, though. I’m always writing. It’s not always good, but throwing out bad work is part of the process.


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Writing the Midwest: On what writers wish they’d known

“Writing the Midwest” is a recurring series featuring writing advice from today’s most prolific authors. Whether it’s dealing with writer’s block, knowing when a piece is finished, or how and where to find inspiration, we’re delighted to present to you the very best guidance to help you and your writing. You can find links to the authors’ full interviews below.

On what writers wish they’d known:

Rae Meadows: This is not one thing but these all relate to a lack of confidence: no one has it figured out; no one cares if you write or not so you better write for yourself; trust your gut; it’s not a race; the day your book comes out is the same as the day before; when you finish a book you have to start again and write another one.

Peter Grandbois: What I didn’t realize, and what I wish someone would have said—though I probably wouldn’t have listened—is to remember that there is no rush. There’s so much pressure now to get your work out into the world, to publish so you can get into grad school, to publish so you can get a job, etc. I think that’s created a tendency to flood the market with a whole lot of work that isn’t as good as it could be. I work as senior editor for Boulevard, one of the top literary magazines in this country, and, I should say, one of the most important Midwestern magazines, as it’s based in St. Louis. In my work as an editor, I see lots and lots of good stories that don’t quite make it because the writer didn’t take enough time to make it a great story, i.e. to make it work on every level: language, character, subtext, etc. Writers settle for finding a cool voice or an interesting idea and think that’s enough to make a great story, and it isn’t. So, I would say, slow down. You’re building a model ship. Take your time. Make sure each piece is in place. I know this is easier said than done, especially coming from someone who is now on the other side with a tenured position, but slow down. It’s about the work. Making it as good as it can be. Listening to it even when you thought you were done listening to it. There are few things in this world that mean a lot. Capitalism has demeaned so much of our humanity. Great writing still means everything. At least to me. It’s not about writing a million copy best seller. It’s about saying something true and saying it well. It’s about reaching just one reader. To do that, you’ve got to slow down.

Gary Amdahl: I wish I had known that it was more important, and healthier for both body and soul, to write what I could write, and not worry about what I couldn’t write.


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Writing the Midwest: On place

“Writing the Midwest” is a recurring series featuring writing advice from today’s most prolific authors. Whether it’s dealing with writer’s block, knowing when a piece is finished, or how and where to find inspiration, we’re delighted to present to you the very best guidance to help you and your writing. You can find links to the authors’ full interviews below.

On place:

Tania James: Setting is often central to my stories, in that my characters are often bumping up against their environments, trying to come to terms with the worlds and communities in which they find themselves. And in life, as in fiction, place often informs the people we become—the jobs we take, the friends we make (or don’t).

Marisa Silver: I think character is inextricable from the place in which that character lives. Decisions a person makes about small things such as what to wear on any given day, and big things like what kind of work will he find to support his family, as well as a character’s sensory experience of his or her body in is utterly affected by place. So when I develop characters and stories, I must know how people respond to the place in which they live.

Laura Donnelly: I know that living most of my life in the Midwest has influenced my writing, but the how and why of that is tricky to pin down. Because the Midwest is never one thing, much too big for that, I worry that I fall upon stereotypes when I talk about it. (And that itself feels paradoxically Midwestern, that hesitation to make large assertions.) I see its influence in my tendency towards quiet. Towards listening. A desire not to assume too much, which I sometimes have to work against. I think it’s there, too, in my interest in what happens behind the quiet of the small town’s façade. Both the beauties and horrors we find there. And then the landscape floods its way through, not so much the flat cornfields of the Midwest, but the lakes and dunes and snow of Michigan.


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Writing the Midwest: On learning from students

“Writing the Midwest” is a recurring series featuring writing advice from today’s most prolific authors. Whether it’s dealing with writer’s block, knowing when a piece is finished, or how and where to find inspiration, we’re delighted to present to you the very best guidance to help you and your writing. You can find links to the authors’ full interviews below.

On learning from students:

Judith Claire Mitchell: My grad students turn me on to new writers and blow me away with their work, but I’m truly inspired by my undergrads, who are not always the best writers in the world (at least not yet) but who are so brave about exposing their imperfect work to their classmates and me. I often begin undergrad workshops by writing this quote by Thomas Mann on the board, “A writer is someone for whom writing is more _________ than it is for other people.” I ask the students to guess the missing word, which is “difficult.” I deeply believe this. Writing is supremely difficult. But my undergrads often suggest that the missing word is “fun.” That’s an important lesson, too. That’s how most of us began. Not for publishing contracts. Not for prizes. Not for tenure or recognition or movie deals or to be the best or even to change lives the way literature can. No, we originally did this incredibly difficult thing—often with full knowledge of how difficult it is—for fun. My undergrads remind me of that.

Gretchen Marquette: One thing I like about being an instructor is that I get to keep learning. It’s true to some extent that teachers “take” their own classes, and so I’m always thinking (and reading) as both a student and as a teacher. I’m an adjunct, so I teach many different classes at several different schools. This means that I have lots of different experiences, not just as a teacher, but as a thinker and writer too. When I’m teaching creative writing in the BFA at Hamline, for example, there is a lot of great discussion about craft and form. Listening to my students talk helps me think about my work (and all creative work), both in terms of how it’s made, and how it works, but also in terms of how it finds an audience.Other classes have their own benefits. I’m teaching composition this semester at Anoka-Ramsey Community College, north of the Twin Cities. I’m also working on a collection of essays. The essay collection is tough, because I’m in the early stages, and my inner critic is convinced I’m taking a great idea and royally screwing it up. During our first unit, my comp students and I read Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts” and talked about the barriers to getting that first draft (the “down” draft) done. During that in-class discussion I realized something I should have realized years ago, which is that the book I imagine in my head always falls short of my expectations, because the first time I see it, it’s in its first draft, and the books that I’m holding it up to, hopefully as peers, have made it through many drafts, and have seen an editor’s attention, etc. It’s such a simple concept, but honestly, it didn’t stick for me until the discussion with my students this fall. They were struggling with writing their personal essays in exactly the same way I was struggling. It’s a good example of how, in a lot of ways, being a working writer makes me a more empathetic writing teacher, and being a writing teacher makes me a more productive writer.

Callista Buchen: Teaching writing gives you the opportunity to talk about writing a lot—I’m constantly thinking about writing and how best to discuss it with my students, how I can help them find their way in this field. All this thinking helps me stay engaged with my own writing. After all, I’m a working writer honing her craft, just as they are. Plus, I love reading and responding to student work—they’re brilliant and challenging, and they keep me reaching to do better.


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Writing the Midwest: On writing different experiences from your own

“Writing the Midwest” is a recurring series featuring writing advice from today’s most prolific authors. Whether it’s dealing with writer’s block, knowing when a piece is finished, or how and where to find inspiration, we’re delighted to present to you the very best guidance to help you and your writing. You can find links to the authors’ full interviews below.

On writing different experiences from your own:

Tom McAllister: Once I found the rhythms of [How to Be Safe main character] Anna’s voice, I still resisted it, because I was very afraid of totally screwing it up. I’ve read and loved many books by and about women, but wasn’t sure I could do it myself. When I’m deep into a project, I talk to my wife about it a lot, and in this case, I often ran scenarios by her to understand how she might perceive a situation differently than I would. When we walk into a crowded room for a party, what things does she notice right away (especially things that I might miss or take for granted)? But also, the most important thing was Twitter, and social media in general. Just logging in every day, following smart and funny women, resisting the dumb urge to constantly respond to them, and just listening. Learning about the various indignities most women face day to day. Especially listening when they shared stories of male writers totally misunderstanding the internal lives of women.

Laura Hulthen Thomas: I think it’s dangerous for any writer to be afraid to write about something they haven’t personally experienced or known. We wouldn’t have fiction, journalism, poetry, or nonfiction without writers figuring stuff out, inhabiting other perspectives, in their mission to bring full stories to the page. Sometimes writers get the facts wrong, or don’t capture an experience authentically; sometimes tone undermines integrity, and intent. That’s the breaks—writers make mistakes, and some published writing is in poor taste, whether intentionally or not.

Jay Baron Nicorvo: My process for this is simple if not easy: read everything. I immerse myself in a subject until I lose myself in it, literally. You’ve got to reach the saturation point where you’re drowning in primary source material. Then you write your way to the surface, and you do that partly by working hard against stereotype. Once you’ve reached the surface, once you’ve polished that surface to a shine and are reasonably sure that beneath the surface lies some significant depth, then seek out a reader who’s experienced what you’ve written about. She’ll call you on your bullshit, and you revise with her opinions in mind.


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Interview: Aaron Hamburger

Midwestern Gothic Assistant Editor Marisa Frey talked with author Aaron Hamburger about his new novel, Nirvana Is Here; the trap of nostalgia; writing trauma; and more.




Marisa Frey: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Aaron Hamburger: I was born in Detroit and grew up there. Also, I went to the University of Michigan, which in so many ways affected my life. I studied creative writing there with wonderful writers like Eileen Pollack, Thylias Moss, and many more, and found my voice as a writer. And as a human too.

MF: Ari, the main character of your new novel, Nirvana Is Here, is a white Jewish boy from the suburbs of Detroit. He and Justin, a Black, non-Jewish boy from the inner city, develop a relationship when they are in high school together. Both are curious about the other’s culture, and the difference is a factor in their bonding and eventual dissolution. Why was it important for you to highlight and compare the Jewish American experience and the Black American experience specifically?

AH: To write about Detroit and to not write about race, in my mind, is science fiction. It is to me the key story of the city, and by extension, of our country.

Personally, I grew up in a largely Jewish suburb of Detroit, so much so that when I was young, I thought Jews were the majority in the country and Christians were the minority. I attended a Jewish school for much of my life and knew very few people who weren’t Jewish.

Then when I went to a secular high school, I experienced this wave of diversity in so many ways and it was incredibly exciting to me, and in some ways a relief. I had never really felt comfortable in this community where I was supposed to feel comfortable because everyone was alike. Now had the chance to get to know other people from other backgrounds, and I felt that I fit in better with that kind of environment, a diverse one. I wanted to capture that experience in fiction.

MF: Nirvana Is Here deals with sexual assault and harassment in the ‘90s and the present, in which the #MeToo movement factors in. Did the movement change the way you wrote about the experiences in the book, particularly how Ari thinks about the assault he experienced as a teenager?

AH: I started working on the book well before the #MeToo movement got into full swing. I was working out a lot of these issues on my own in terms of my own #MeToo experience, which I had kept hidden from most people in my life, and I was challenging myself to write about them in fiction. Then as I was finishing the book, this movement blew up in the media. It’s a strange coincidence and I wonder if there’s a connection, something brewing in the culture that made so many people ready to speak out.

One thing I will say is that I think the discussion could allow more room for male survivors of assault to also speak up. To some extent it’s been happening, but for example, recently there was a piece in the Times about how fiction has responded to the #MeToo movement and it didn’t mention even a single book with a male victim. Interestingly, a big part of the experience of being a male victim of sexual assault is this false idea that your experience doesn’t count or isn’t possible.

MF: Nirvana and its frontman, Kurt Cobain, come to be as much, if not more, of a religion for Ari as Judaism. As a teenager, he often asks himself what Kurt would do in his situation, and adopts several of Kurt’s beliefs about life as his own. Do you think the term religion can apply to the bond a person makes with something like music, or is limited to organized practices like Judaism?

AH: That’s a really interesting concept, and I like it. I was talking the other day with a writer friend who’s not into organized religion and I asked if he had any spirituality in his life. He said his daily writing practice felt to him like a religious ritual, and I immediately identified with that idea. When I write, I too often feel as if I enter a kind of meditative state that helps me center myself and focus my thoughts. So, yes, I do think that the arts, music, literature, etc. can become a kind of spiritual or religious experience for people.

By the same token, however, it’s not always that way. Think of Richard Wagner, brilliant composer, horrible anti-Semite. D.W. Griffith, great filmmaker, made The Birth of a Nation, a skillfully made yet terribly racist movie. Being a great artist did not make them better people. But then again, there are many very religious people who also treat people terribly.

In the end I’d say, many paths, same destination. Religion, art, so much more, any vehicle human beings can find to learn to be kinder to each other is fine by me.

MF: Why Nirvana?

AH: I wrote a piece about this for the Washington Post. Kurt Cobain was known for many things, but maybe not so known (and should be) for his consistent support of gay rights. (Feminism too.) He stood for people being different and finding their own voice, and while he may have been an imperfect messenger in some ways, he had the right message for the right time.

In terms of this book, the idea of “nirvana” refers not just to the band, but the idea that nirvana is here at every moment. We have what we need right here, right now, in every moment, if only we can learn to call upon that. And that’s true in every moment. This book is not meant to be about a nostalgia trip, but rather about learning to appreciate the beauty of each moment we find ourselves in. This is true for even moments that are painful, because those moments are inevitable in our lives, and they have the potential to teach us so much. Or even if they don’t, we are lucky because they always end. It’s like if someone punches me in the gut, as soon as that happens, it’s over. Isn’t that wonderful? Now I don’t have to be punched in the gut again unless I do it to myself in my own mind by reliving it and dwelling in it. Which is not to say I want to deny that it happened, but rather, to acknowledge the painful episode without having to feel the pain of it the way I did the first time.

MF: In school, Ari directs some of his frustration toward Mr. Wentworth, a teacher who is gay but not out. Mr. Wentworth is patient with him, but his fear of others finding out he’s gay fuels Ari’s frustration. Can you discuss your inspiration for Mr. Wentworth’s character and his importance to the story?

AH: Yes, I can. I had so much trouble with Wentworth at first. I just didn’t want to sympathize with him at all. I don’t even know why. And then I played a little Jedi mind trick. I renamed him after one of my favorite characters in fiction, Mr. Wentworth in Jane Austen’s Persuasion. (I wrote about this for Craft Literary, talking about how to name characters.) And it was as if a veil had lifted, and I could see how Wentworth was in pain, a different kind of pain from Ari’s, but still in pain.

I also thought of my own experience as a teacher, with students I’ve had whom I’ve wanted to reach out to and help, not because they were gay, just to help with their writing, and they were resistant to my efforts. I felt so helpless in those situations. I wanted to say to them, I’m really just trying to be of service here. Is there something else I could be doing or saying to help you? (If you are such a student and reading this now, I sincerely say I’m sorry I wasn’t more helpful to you!)

In any case, I channeled that spirit into Wentworth and I liked him a lot more.

MF: Nirvana Is Here has a braided narrative, with one storyline in the ‘90s and one in the present. Ari is a medievalist in the present narrative and tends to live in the past. How do you deal with learning from the past without letting it take over, both in writing and in life?

AH: The trap of nostalgia is that it recreates the past by distorting it, by erasing the negative parts. And then we compare that rosy distortion to the present, with all its ups and downs, and the past seems like a much better option.

As a medievalist, Ari is well aware that our view of the past is tinged with all kinds of errors, and yet his view of his own past has left him a bit stuck. It isn’t until he reconnects with a figure from his past that he sees how that old romanticism is a trick of mind. I think the key is, once again, in the title. Nirvana Is Here. Every moment has something important for us to experience, but we can only experience it if we are present in that moment as it’s happening.

I tell my creative writing students all the time, have you ever been trying to recapture some past episode in your life and you wished that you could go back in time to visit it to remember what the flowers smelled like, what color the carpet in that room was, who was there, all the details that you’re struggling to come up with now? You can’t do that. But you can be more present from this moment forward, so that when you’re in the future trying to look back, you’ll be able to call up those details because you lived them more fully as they happened. Or even if you’re not interested in using your life as fodder for fiction, you’ll still be happier because living more fully means living more happily. It’s very simple, actually, which is why it’s so damned hard to do!

MF: What were the challenges and rewards of writing Nirvana Is Here, which is semi-autobiographical, as a fictional story?

AH: I think the things people will assume are autobiographical are the things that are not and vice versa, as often happens when people write fiction. (And when we write non-fiction, readers will say, did that really happen or did you make it up?)

One thing I learned was that in terms of writing trauma, there’s a real art in how you write about it and where you place it in a story. In an early draft of the novel, I started out with a detailed rape scene. That presented a big obstacle for readers to clear before getting to the love story. (In part I was inspired by Tess of the D’Urbervilles‘s structure.)

As I rewrote, I did two things. First, I built up to that traumatic scene in small flashes, the way a trauma survivor might re-experience it in memories. Then, I waited until the climax of the book to present the scene, and I did so with a few telling details. That approach was important because first, I didn’t want to create “rape porn,” where I inadvertently titillate the reader with a scene of violence, and second, it’s often how we experience trauma as it’s happening, in flashes, not in a logically coherent way.

Personally, I found writing about this trauma could be quite challenging but ultimately liberating. I can’t imagine going back to being the person I was, who was always trying to erase this story from my life. It feels powerful to confront it. And I’ve found it’s allowed me access to a new emotional depth in my work.

MF: You’ve previously published two books, a novel, and a story collection. How did the experience of writing Nirvana Is Here compare to the experience of writing those? What did you learn?

AH: This was a book I’ve been trying to write for a while. The key to pulling it off was courage, plain and simple. And a whole lot of faith too. The thing about writing a book is that you can embark on a project for years and not know if anything will come of all that work. Which doesn’t mean that work was a waste, not at all. Going back to your question about faith and religion, if writing is a kind of religion, then we do it for the sake of the process itself, not some product and the imaginary glory we think it may bring. So that’s my advice to other writers: Be brave, be bold, write about the things that scare you.

MF: What’s next for you?

AH: Another novel, set in Cuba in the early 1920s. It’s my first foray into historical fiction of the distant past (rather than recent past, like Nirvana Is Here), and I’m absolutely loving it. I also have a few readings coming up in the Midwest:

Thursday, May 23, 6 pm
Detroit, MI
Pages Bookshop
19560 Grand River Avenue Detroit, MI 48223
(313) 473-7342

Tuesday, May 28, 7 pm
Chicago, IL
Unabridged Bookstore
3251 N. Broadway, Chicago, IL 60657
(773) 883-9119
Reading/Signing with Michael Carroll

Thursday, October 3, 7 pm
Ann Arbor, MI
Literati Bookstore
124 E Washington, Ann Arbor, MI 48104
(734) 585-5567


Aaron Hamburger is the author of the story collection The View from Stalin’s Head (Rome Prize, the American Academy of Arts and Letters), the novel Faith for Beginners (a Lambda Literary Award nominee), and the novel Nirvana is Here. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Crazyhorse, Tin House, Subtropics, Poets & Writers, Boulevard, and O, the Oprah Magazine. He has taught writing at Columbia University, the George Washington University, The Writer’s Center, and the Stonecoast MFA Program.


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Writing the Midwest: On accepting that a piece is finished

“Writing the Midwest” is a recurring series featuring writing advice from today’s most prolific authors. Whether it’s dealing with writer’s block, knowing when a piece is finished, or how and where to find inspiration, we’re delighted to present to you the very best guidance to help you and your writing. You can find links to the authors’ full interviews below.

On accepting that a piece is finished:

Justin Hamm: This is going to sound a little imprecise, maybe even hokey, but for me there’s an invisible latch that kind of clicks shut. I’m not sure if I perceive it through intellect or emotion, but it happens. I can’t always hear it when the poem is on paper, either—though sometimes I can—but when I read it aloud and it’s pretty good, and the ending is fully earned, I can perceive the poem locking into place. That doesn’t mean that it’s perfect or anything, just that I’ve discovered the way that particular poem goes. Once that happens, I might tweak a few words on the computer, but I know that the poem is, for better or worse, whole and as good as I can make it, and it’s time to face the judgement of editors.

Carol Dunbar: When I’ve taken a piece as far as I can go, I bring it to my writing group, or give it to a trusted reader. It is the feedback and questions from readers that helps me with the last 20 percent, or if I’m stuck before I even get that far, they can help me identify what a piece is really about. I also don’t submit anything until after I read it out loud, because doing that suddenly brings the reader/listener into the picture in a way that doesn’t happen when I’m just looking at the page. I listen to these recordings and that’s how I go through the final editing process.

Rebecca Berg: A piece of writing is never finished. Once something is published, I can’t go on revising, obviously. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to.


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