The Space Between: Happy e-Pub Day to Kali VanBaale’s Novel!

June 12th, 2018

The Space Between book cover by Kali VanBaale

Today is the day! Kali VanBaale’s first novel, The Space Between, has been digitally re-released by MG Press – perfect for doing some summer reading without the hassle of carrying around a heavy book. You can download this incredible story on any e-reader via iBooks, Amazon Kindle, Nook, or whatever you prefer.

This riveting story touches on a very real, very current subject in the lives of Americans today. In it, VanBaale examines the aftermath of a modern nightmare with a clear-eyed dramatic precision that will leave readers wondering what does indeed lurk in the dark, unknowable spaces that exist between even the most loving of family members.

The novel was originally inspired by the Columbine tragedy, but recent events have made this story incredibly, and unfortunately, relevant. We hope that Kali’s contribution to the discussion is something that inspires meaningful changes in whatever way it can; she is a phenomenal writer, and this novel won an American Book Award in 2007, so we couldn’t be prouder to be helping her continue to share her voice with the world. If you enjoyed The Good Divide, you’ll quickly devour this book by MG Press alum Kali VanBaale.

Be sure to grab a copy for yourself – you’ll find the book page with more information here.

About the Author

Kali VanBaale The Space Between author headshotKali VanBaale is also the author of the novel The Good Divide. She is the recipient of an American Book Award, Eric Hoffer Book Award, an Independent Publisher’s silver medal for fiction, and a State of Iowa major artist grant. Her short stories and essays have appeared in Midwestern Gothic, Numéro Cinq, Nowhere Magazine, The Milo Review, Northwind Literary, Poets & Writers, The Writer and several anthologies. Kali holds an MFA in creative writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is a faculty member of the Lindenwood University MFA Creative Writing Program. She lives outside Des Moines with her family.

Contributor News

Guinotte Wise (Midwestern Gothic Winter 2018 issue) recently published a second poetry collection, Horses See Ghosts. Check out more information here.

Rebecca Berg (Midwestern Gothic Winter 2018 issue) has a story forthcoming in the Chicago Review this spring.

Brooke White (Midwestern Gothic Winter 2018 issue) recently had an essay that appeared in Swamp Ape Review‘s Spring 2018 issue and was reviewed by New Pages.

North American Stadiums book cover by Grady ChambersGrady Chambers‘s (Midwestern Gothic Issue 18) manuscript, North American Stadiums, was selected as the winner of the Max Ritvo Poetry Prize and was recently published by Milkweed Editions. Learn more about the book and preorder here.

Amy E Weldon (Midwestern Gothic Issue 21) has a novel Eldorado, Iowa, being published by Bowen Press Books in December 2018.

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Contributor Spotlight: Ian Stoner

Ian Stoner author headshotIan Stoner’s story “The Egg Collection” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Winter 2018 issue, out now

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

I was born in a small town in central Ohio but only remember fragments; my family moved to California when I was eleven. I came to the Twin Cities (via New Mexico) for graduate school, grew fond of a particular Minnesotan while studying for my PhD in philosophy, and have settled in Saint Paul. For my first few years here I stood in mute horror at the punishing, endless winters. Over the last decade I’ve made some progress acclimating and now concede the locals were right all along: Minnesota is stuffed full of subtle charms. (For outsiders, including those who have made some progress acclimating, these charms are best glimpsed during the stretch between the first crocuses of June and the last harvests of August.)

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

The generalization I’m about to make, like all cultural generalizations, fails to hold of individuals more often than not. But still: the most compelling aspect of Minnesota is its cultural code discouraging the display of emotion. The Coen brothers portrayed the Minnesotan blank demeanor in “Fargo” and Howard Mohr made a whole thing of it in “How to Talk Minnesotan”. Some people call the blank demeanor things like “stoic” and “down to earth,” but I’m pretty sure that’s not right. For many Minnesotans, overt displays of emotion are plain uncomfortable.

It makes for a fascinating cultural environment for those who hope to write characters with believable inner lives. Mohrian Minnesotans do have emotional and mental states—I know this for sure—but it takes a constant effort of empathic imagination to guess after what those states might be. Living here turns out to be a kind of perpetual practice in characterization.

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 have some vision impairments that have lead me since childhood to be more attuned to sounds than images. Before moving to Minnesota, all my stories were un-placed, at least with respect to the visual environment.

Minnesota has a wider variety of edible weeds than the other states I’ve lived in. In late springtime you can find wilds at the edge of parks and fill grocery bags with stinging nettle, garlic mustard, curly dock, and make an easy meal you can’t get at a grocery store or restaurant. It took me a few years to learn what plants I can eat and where I can find them, but that effort woke me up to my natural surroundings more generally. I’m still annoyingly unobservant most places, and I can’t seem to shake that. But thanks to Minnesota’s weeds, I’m more alert to the outdoors than I once was. Ten years ago I couldn’t have written a story as specific in its natural setting as “The Egg Collection.”

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

I’m a philosophy teacher by day. (By night, too.) Since I started teaching, I’ve found I’m able to write fiction only when I’ve had the time to calm down for a few weeks, to let creative energies re-claim some skull space from the usual residents, which fret furiously about prep for classes the next day. Mental calmness can only happen in the summers, now, and even then it takes some effort to achieve. When I succeed in making peaceful time for creative writing, the process always goes like this: binge on re-reads of stories that approximate the tone or voice I want to target. Draft long-hand on a legal pad with a Uni-Ball Vision fine-point pen, preferably in the morning and outside. Type up the draft on an IBM Model-M keyboard attached to a blocky desktop running GNU/Linux. Rewrite a lot.

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

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.

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

When I was 18 I found dilapidated copies of T.C. Boyle’s story collections in a bookshop in Santa Fe. I have no idea what prompted me to buy Descent of Man and Greasy Lake when I’d never heard of them (or him) before, but those early Boyle stories changed the way I thought about literary fiction. They are proof that lit fic can care about language and character and flashes of emotional truth while still striving to entertain readers. Boyle made me want to write. Not long after that I discovered Margaret Atwood’s short stories– the proper stories, yes, but also the oddball miniatures collected in Good Bones and Simple Murders – which had a similar effect. All my early attempts at fiction were shameless attempts to imitate one of those two.

More recently I’ve been amazed by Anthony Doerr. (The title “The Egg Collection” seemed obvious from the beginning, but I especially like thinking of it as a nod in the direction of Doerr’s “The Shell Collector,” a story I spent a lot of time marking up in an effort to figure out what makes it so good.)

More recently still I’ve been re-establishing my childhood love of science fiction. There are SF authors out there worthy of the serious attention of the lit-fic set. The short stories of Octavia Butler, Eileen Gunn, and Ted Chiang have made me think more these last five years than most of the lit fic I’ve read.

What’s next for you?

Next comes more teaching and a push to finish a few philosophy papers. I’m keeping after fiction as best I can, but my folder of sketches, notes, and outlines has for years grown faster than my folder of drafts-in-progress. I have a couple of Midwestern ‘80s pieces in the works: one about a Minneapolitan post-punk band in 1982 and one about a traveling former warlock in Ohio in 1983. I’m also having a go at writing science fiction in the literary mode. At my current rate of production I’ll finish one story every three years…

Where can we find more information about you?

I’ve thrown in the towel on social media. Please have a look at my old-fashioned website: www.ianstoner.com It is unmonetized.

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Midwest in Photos: Potrait Shop Window, Grinnell, IA, 1970s

“When I look at my old pictures, all I can see is what I used to be but am no longer. I think: What I can see is what I am not.” – Aleksander Hemon, The Lazarus Project.

Portrait shop window, Grinnell, IA, 1970s by John Kirsch

Photo by: John Kirsch

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Interview: Madeline Miller

Madeline Miller author headshotMidwestern Gothic staffer Elizabeth Dokas talked with author Madeline Miller about her book Circe, exploring new portrayals of classic characters, giving voice to a character who has been silenced, and more.

Elizabeth Dokas: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Madeline Miller: I was lucky enough to live in Chicago for a year of graduate school. I attended the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought.

ED: What about Chicago do you find distinct from other cities—what makes it distinctly Midwestern to you, and how did that influence your college career or your writing?

MM: I loved Chicago’s incredible opportunities. The Field Museum, The Art Museum, The University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, Robie House (which was right near me, since I was in Hyde Park) were all terrific, as were things like Lookingglass Theater (where I saw a fascinating production of The Arabian Nights by Mary Zimmerman), The Chicago Shakespeare (ditto, a production of Edward II), The Second City, The Lyric Opera, and more. Chicago felt like it was bursting at the seams with offerings, large and small, and while I was there, I packed in as many as I could. When I moved to Chicago, I was taking a break from The Song of Achilles, having become frustrated with my most recent draft. But while I was there, I started working on it again, and I credit the city’s art and theater as partial inspiration.

Then, of course, there were also the classes I took at the University of Chicago. I studied ancient Indian literature with the renowned Wendy Doniger, which made for a fascinating compare-and-contrast with ancient Greek literature. I loved my courses in the Classics department, and am particularly grateful for a tutorial on Vergil’s Georgics. It got me interested in ancient agriculture and botany, which fed into Circe’s witchcraft.

ED: You studied at the Yale School of Drama and specialized in adapting classical myths and fairytales to a modern audience. What about writing a novel did you find different or challenging from adapting plays?

MM: With theater, there are actors and designers to help you bring the story to life. With a novel, the writer must play all those roles, building the whole story from scratch. When I write, I often imagine the scene as if it were playing on a stage before me. I want my readers to feel like they are right there too, immersed in the novel’s life.

ED: Circe is the second in an installation of novels about Greek mythology. What do you find relevant in Greek mythology to aspects of today’s society? Or, in other words, why revisit it at all?

MM: In the centuries since these stories were created, culture has changed, but human nature hasn’t. We don’t fight in chariots anymore, we don’t sacrifice bulls to appease the gods, but we still wage war, still worship, still love and grieve, hope and hate. They are wonderful and exciting adventure stories, but they are also filled with humanity. For all of its monsters and angry divinities, the Odyssey is a story about a care-worn and desperate man, yearning to get home to his family.

ED: Circe as a character is traditionally demonized in Greek mythology, though in your book she is converted into a fierce force to be reckoned with. What inspired you to revisit this classical character and explore new portrayals?

MM: Circe had been kicking around my head for a long time—since I was thirteen, in fact, and read the Odyssey in English class. In Homer’s poem, she’s a figure of both menace and benevolence, but also intense mystery. We know nothing about why she turns men to pigs, how she came to her powers, or what draws her to Odysseus. Her character is entirely subordinated to the male heroic story—first she represents an obstacle for Odysseus to overcome, then something like a reward for his cleverness. But Odysseus has had a lot of air time over the years—I wanted to turn the camera on Circe and make her story the center of its own epic narrative. Who is this powerful, frightening, passionate woman? As I dove into the myths surrounding her, I discovered that she had a whole backstory that had nothing to do with Odysseus. She’s the aunt of the Minotaur and Medea, she’s cousin to Prometheus and numerous other notable ancient divinities. She’s a maker of monsters, and the first witch in Western literature. I was interested in how she was able to carve out an independent life for herself in the ancient world, which is notoriously hostile to women holding power.

ED: In writing Song of Achilles, you describe a moment you had where the first line of the novel just “popped into” your head, and you started writing from there. Did Circe come about in a similar way, building off a specific line or theme, or where you inspired in different ways to write this novel? Rather, do you find you often start works the same way, or does it tend to vary?

MM: This novel was born out of a passionate impulse to give voice to a character I thought had been silenced. The Song of Achilles came from a similar impulse—to tell a story that I felt hadn’t been told enough, the love between Achilles and Patroclus. In both cases, there was a sense of balancing the scales, of bringing to light something that had been overlooked.

When the first line of The Song of Achilles popped into my head, I was already five years into writing. I had a similar experience with Circe, of finding the voice after about five years. It’s a mysterious process that I don’t totally understand myself, other than that apparently I need a lot of time spent exploring blind alleys before I find the true path.

ED: What advice do you have to successfully translate older texts to a modern context without losing the integrity of the story?

MM: Actually, I think that the integrity of the original story isn’t what matters. What matters is the integrity and the coherence of the writer’s vision. I can think of adaptations of ancient works that are quite far afield from the original, and which totally succeed (for instance, Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey). I can also think of books who hew closely to the original but don’t have any spirit of their own.

My best piece of advice is to think very seriously about what you are trying to do, and what you want from the ancient text. If you’re departing, why are you departing? If you’re following exactly, why? There has to be some sort of internal consistency, some guiding principle for what you include, and what you change. For me it’s always a dance—I move away from the text, and back towards it, and away again.

ED: Similarly, what advice do you have to successfully translate formats of a text (i.e. from a play to a novel) without losing integral parts of the original portrayal?

MM: I always like to start with being fairly completist—if I’m transferring something to the stage, I will start off keeping almost everything in. It’s of course much too long, but something about putting it all together is incredibly clarifying. Suddenly I start seeing the pieces that can be cut or combined. I also think you have to take into account the medium. In a novel you can do wonderful things—have six-headed monsters, and cyclopes, and magic. On stage these things can either be budget-busting or cheesy. In general, I think minimalism is the best way to go. Shakespeare’s plays had only rudimentary special effects when they were first produced, and it didn’t matter. If your put your energy into the emotions and story, the audience will follow.

ED: What’s next for you?

MM: There are two stories which I’m thinking about—one is loosely inspired by Shakespeare’s Tempest, and one by Vergil’s Aeneid. Shakespeare and Vergil are the other two great literary loves of my life, so whichever it ends up being I’m happy with!

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Madeline Miller was born in Boston and grew up in New York City and Philadelphia. She attended Brown University, where she earned her BA and MA in Classics. She has taught and tutored Latin, Greek and Shakespeare to high school students for more than fifteen years. She has also studied at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, and in the Dramaturgy department at Yale School of Drama, where she focused on the adaptation of classical texts to modern forms. The Song of Achillesher first novel, was awarded the 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction and was a New York Times Bestseller. It has been translated into over twenty-five languages including Dutch, Mandarin, Japanese, Turkish, Arabic and Greek. Madeline was also shortlisted for the 2012 Stonewall Writer of the Year, and her essays have appeared in a number of publications including the GuardianWall Street JournalLapham’s Quarterly and NPR.org. Her second novel, Circe, was an instant number 1 New York Times bestseller. She currently lives outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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Contributor Spotlight: Justin Hamm

Justin Hamm author headshotJustin Hamm’s piece “Carrying Home the Feast” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Winter 2018 issue, out now.

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

My connection to the Midwest as a person and an artist is a powerful one. I’ve developed into an unashamed regionalist. I’ve lived in Illinois and Missouri my whole life, soaking up all the ragged beauty and frustration that implies. This region is Home with a capital H to me, setting and background to all my most vivid memories and formative experiences. My imagination developed here. When I first started writing poetry seriously, I made a conscious choice to pay attention to region because I had always avoided it—instead emulating southern writers. But “bringing it all back home,” as Dylan might put it, led to a flood of ideas I didn’t even know were inside of me. It’s been almost ten years since that change, and now I’m not always even conscious of the ways that Midwestern imagery or concerns arrive in what I’m working on. They just seem to be there as I follow the direction the poems suggest.

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

It’s hard to answer a question like this. The different visions of masculinity in the Midwest are particularly interesting to me. I think about that a lot and my poems definitely reflect it. But increasingly I’m also intrigued by simple landscapes. I’ve begun to put more time and effort into photography. I spend a lot of time staring out car windows at barns and fields and rusty things, and somehow that seems important right now. I’m sure at some future point my poems will reflect that, too.

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?

They do more than play a role—these experiences and memories are nearly always the catalyst and often the whole reason my poems exist. Childhood memories are especially powerful for me because I feel like I own that version of the world completely. I can write about it with authenticity. For example, I have a series of poems that all revolve around the idea of “First Lessons,” and they borrow heavily from my first memories of realization. Where meat comes from. What wars do to soldiers. The fact that all lives are essentially fleeting. So many of the images I’ve carried around since childhood end up coming out in these poems—mixed, of course, with adaptation and invention.

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

When I am writing consistently and well, I’ll write in my head all day and spend an hour or so right before bed scribbling into notebooks, a little longer on weekends. I work on two or three poems at a time, sometimes trading lines between them, until one seems to demand full attention. I’ll scan through old notebooks for discarded lines or stanzas that might spark something in the new poems. I generally only go to the computer when I have a draft that seems close to locked in, formwise. There I can tweak it until I get sense that the thing is as done as I can make it.

I’m inspired by just about anything. Music, paintings, old family photos, novels and magazine articles and other people’s poetry. American history. The field behind my house, a time I said something really terrible to someone, the books my mother read when I was a child—really, truly anything.

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

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.

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

There are so many, in so many genres. God, I love every kind of writing if it’s good, and I don’t understand people who discriminate based on genre. Neil Gaiman, Larry Brown, Annie Prouxl, John Irving, Cornelius Eady, John Prine, Chuck Berry. But there are two poets who sort of ground me whenever I lose my aim. One is Linda Pastan and the other is Raymond Carver. They’re both poets of personal experience. They’re both readable and richly rewarding. Many of Pastan’s poems deal with the passage of time, directly or indirectly, and I study her reflections on time not only to improve my poems but to learn something about how to live.

With Carver, it feels like the poet is right in the room with you, chatting you up and confessing in his own voice, sharing every possible vulnerability. I love the everyday nature of his poems, how they morph into something so profound. Reading them when I’m lost, or when my words are all blocked up, reminds me that poems should feel like they came from the heart of a real human being.

What’s next for you?

The new book came out early this year, and I’m still trying to con people into reading it. While I’m writing and trying to publish new poems, I’d like to do a book of Midwestern photos in the next year or so. I’ve had some luck selling prints and had even had a solo exhibition recently here in Missouri. I’d like to see if I can find a press who’d want to do a book of them. I also have a weird idea for a children’s book that exists in the earliest stages. I don’t know if it is next, but I’m going to pursue it one day.

I read in The Next Weather series in Columbia, Missouri, recently, and one of the things the host, Marc McKee, asked is that we read something brand new. I had exactly one new poem, half-revised, that represents the direction I’m working toward now. It’s raw and kind of angry. I want to challenge myself to go there again, to find out if that’s the voice of my next book. In fact, I think it’s important for me to go there. But the truth is it takes a while to write a lot of poems like that. I can’t go to that place every day, or even once a week. That’s why it is so important to have photography to turn to. I can be more patient as I wait for these new poems to arrive at the pace that is best for them without going nuts.

Where can we find more information about you?

My website is justinhamm.net. You can find information about my individual publications, books, and photographs there. I’m also on Facebook, Twitter (@MWscribbler), and Instagram (jdhammphotography).

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Contributor Spotlight: Carol Dunbar

Carol Dunbar author headshotCarol Dunbar’s story “The Boy Who Lit in the Bleeding Tree” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Winter 2018 issue, out now.

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

Never before moving to the Midwest have I been so concerned with the weather. I arrived to the Upper Midwest just weeks before the great Halloween Blizzard of 1991, and that was when I realized people weren’t joking when they told me Minnesotans plugged in their cars. I came here to go to school and stayed because I fell in love. In the summer of 2002 my husband and I moved off the grid where we continue to be at the mercy of the elements. Because we’re outside all the time, weather has become a major preoccupation of mine. It is the foundation for the structure of my first novel, and this region of northern Wisconsin where I live is in many ways a character in the book. I’ve become interested in how using weather and the environment in writing can help heighten/color/deepen the intense or even subtle emotional states of characters living on the page.

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

Growing up I had the privilege of experiencing many different climates. I was born in Guam, attended schools in Georgia, Rhode Island, Hawaii, and Texas. What I find most satisfying about this region are the extremes and subtleties of the seasons, the heat and the cold, the dormant versus the lush, and the dynamics of process in between. We go from ground frozen with eighty-below wind chills and mounds of snow, to ninety-degree days of sun and rain with so much drenching, my woods often feel like a rain forest. These extremes suit my mood and temperament because, like the weather, I also find that my creative life has cycles, and I really appreciate the reminder that it’s all a process with dormant times, stormy times, and other times when you’re full to bursting.

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?

You know, it’s funny, but for the longest time I was afraid to write about place. I thought that because I wasn’t really from anywhere, I didn’t have the right to speak with any authority about a place. That kind of bummed me out. Then I figured out that I didn’t have to write about the definitive experience of a place; I only had to write about my experience, or a character’s experience. The conscious decision to validate these experiences seemed to unlock my memories, so now I have no problem accessing them. I rely on them constantly when writing, enjoy sensory details, and often compare one place to another. A writing colleague once told me, “It’s because you aren’t from this place that you can write about it,” and I thought that was really interesting and really appreciated her saying that.

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

My process today has evolved quite a bit from my process of the past. Before having kids I had no schedule, no discipline, no process. During the early stages of motherhood, I had no room of my own and relied on headphones for privacy. I wrote whenever I could—a stolen hour here or there, often in the middle of the night. Also, because I live off the grid, there was always this problem of powering up the computer. But always I wrote, and I’m so glad I did. Now, I have an office and a laptop with an EnergyStar monitor and a view of the trees. I write every day, usually when it’s still dark. Inspiration comes from dreams, conversations, the daily news. I’ve never had writer’s block; my biggest problem is time. I tend to want to obsess on something until it’s done, but my life doesn’t allow for that. I learned from a friend who is a music teacher how to make marked progress during 20-minute sessions, and I’m so grateful to her for that lesson.

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

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.

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

I just discovered—through a colleague in my writing group—Elizabeth Strout. I’m drawn to her aesthetic and what she chooses to show us through the scenes she puts together. Her writing isn’t flashy; the art is in her ideas and the way her characters breathe on the page. I’m studying how she manages to write with such compassion and candor, evoking empathy for her characters, without ever being sentimental or grandiose.

What’s next for you?

I’m working through the edits on my novel, and next is fall of 2018 when my agent will shop it around for a publisher. Meanwhile, I’m working on a collection of short stories about waitresses and people who serve. One of those stories, “Last Gleaming,” will appear in the fall issue of South Carolina Review.

Where can we find more information about you?

www.caroldunbar.com.

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Midwest in Photos: Tracks and Time and Summer

“All the lives I could live, all the people I will never know, never will be, they are everywhere. That is all that the world is.” – Aleksander Hemon, The Lazarus Project.

Tracks and Time and Summer by Dan LoGrasso

Photo by: Dan LoGrasso

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Interview: Nafissa Thompson-Spires

Nafissa Thompson-Spires author headshot

Photo Credit: Adrianne Mathiowetz

Midwestern Gothic staffer Laura Dzubay talked with author Nafissa Thompson-Spires about her novel Heads of the Colored People, the necessity of empathy for characters, structuring short story collections, and more.

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Laura Dzubay: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Nafissa Thompson-Spires: I came to Illinois when my husband took a job at the University of Illinois, and I also entered the MFA program there. Now we’re both professors at the university.

LD: As a setting for rich relationships and interactions, the Midwest is often underestimated. Are there any qualities or features of the Midwest that you find yourself coming back to, in real life or in your writing? How does it function differently, if at all, from other regions of the U.S.?

NTS: I haven’t really written about the Midwest at all yet. Illinois is particularly flat—geographically—which is a stark change for me as a native Californian. I may be interested in thinking about that someday.

LD: In your forthcoming collection, Heads of the Colored People, the stories illuminate their characters in a variety of different ways, from the mothers exchanging notes via their daughters’ backpacks in “Belles Lettres” to the religious conflict in “Wash Clean the Bones.” How do you investigate the nuances of different perspectives in your work, from the research to the writing itself?

NTS: I try to make sure that each voice I represent feels as real as possible. I’ve also found—and this something that I learned from Jacinda Townsend at Callaloo—that you can’t write well about a character without empathy. When a character feels really flat or one-note, sometimes it’s because we as writers haven’t occupied their perspective well enough and need to search for the empathy. That’s become one of my go-to strategies for revision and characterization.

Heads of the Colored People book cover by Nafissa Thomspon-Spires

LD: How do you go about developing an idea for a short story? Were these stories born in similar ways, or did they all grow out of very different processes?

NTS: Often I just have a line or an image in my head. With the titular story, 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 as 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.

LD: Heads of the Colored People features some recurring characters, such as Fatima, as well as some that are unique to singular stories. In a series of stories that sometimes revisit familiar characters and sometimes introduce new ones, how did you make decisions regarding the structure of the collection? Did the order of the pieces come naturally, or was it something you had to think about a lot?

NTS: The order of the stories was the most difficult thing to figure out. The Fatima stories almost work as a small novella, and ultimately, it made sense to me and my editors and agent to put them together. For other stories, we wanted to vary the tone, not putting too may sad stories next to each other or too many male voices together, etc.

LD: How do your experiences or memories of specific places play a role in your writing?

NTS: I have strong visceral memories of many regions in California. I grew up in the Inland Empire (an hour east of Los Angeles), but commuted half an hour to private school every weekday. So I saw and passed through several cities on the commute. California is somewhat unique in that you can drive twenty minutes to an hour and be at the ocean, the mountains, lakes, or the valleys. I feel like the many different climates and natural sights I’ve encountered are part of the California experience, and I try to capture some of that in my attention to setting—though I could do a better job of it.

LD: In the past, you’ve written short fiction as well as essays and journal articles. How accurately does this experience reflect the types of genres you usually read? Do you prefer reading any genres over others, and do you find that what you’re reading influences your writing style?

NTS: I was trained as a literary critic though my PhD research, and still love and value that kind of academic writing. But my preference is for fiction—both the writing and reading of it. My work is in conversation with both other fiction and criticism. But nothing moves me the way that fiction does.

What I’m reading can influence my writing. Other writers have said this (someone recently in Lit Hub; I can’t remember who), but reading backward into older centuries can have an especially useful effect on writing style and make it more unique. If you only read other contemporaneous writers, you’ll likely sound just like them and less unique.

LD: What is your writing routine like? Do you have any specific environments or habits you like to come back to?

NTS: At its best, my routine is quite disciplined, and I write on the days when I’m not teaching. I believe in the importance of messy first drafts and space for revision. I try to write what I can when I can and not worry too much about how it will take shape or the order. That’s what revision is for.

I also have to write with the television on. Music doesn’t work for me, or I will become very distracted, dancing and singing. But TV—like reruns of the original 90210 or ‘90s talk shows on Youtube—works like a charm.

LD: What’s next for you?

NTS: I’m working on a novel that features Fatima in her mid-thirties, so hopefully we haven’t seen the last of her.

**

Nafissa Thompson-Spires earned a PhD in English from Vanderbilt University and an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). She is the author of the short story collection Heads of the Colored People (forthcoming 2018 with Atria/ 37 Ink in the United States and with Chatto and Windus in the UK) and has a novel under contract with the same publishers.

Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Paris Review DailyDissent, Buzzfeed BooksThe White ReviewThe Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly Journal, StoryQuarterlyLunch TicketEast Bay Review, and other publications. Her short story “Heads of the Colored People…” won StoryQuarterly’s 2016 Fiction Prize, judged by Mat Johnson. She currently works as an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at UIUC and is an alumna of Callaloo, Tin House, and a 2017 Stanley Elkin Scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference.

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Contributor Spotlight: Rebecca Berg

Rebecca Berg author headshotRebecca Berg’s piece “Taki’s” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Winter 2018 issue, out now.

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

Born in Ohio, grew up in Buffalo and St. Louis, and went to college in Ohio.

I’ve always been militantly against “write what you know.” When I started writing fiction, I couldn’t even imagine setting a story in the Midwest. Especially not in St. Louis, which felt absolutely unenchanted to me. I was very wrong about St. Louis, but I needed distance. I had to try my hand at other cities, other countries, other periods of history. After I’d spent many years learning to write from a place of not knowing, I finally brought this habit to bear on St. Louis. And was stunned by the lush, eerie, tragic place that it is.

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

Well, I’m not a booster, but the Midwest in its urban, rustbelt dimension will always be home. It’s compelling because it embodies the paradoxes of memory and time. As I get older, I often feel as if the past is being erased behind me. At the same time, certain physical remnants go on existing (old letters and photos, my own face in the mirror, the childhood houses I stopped living in decades ago). An abandoned warehouse is a ready-made metaphor for what Ursula LeGuin calls “the broken world the conquistadors leave behind.” So it’s personal and psychological, but the resonance also feels broader. It feels as if it’s about capitalism and racism. Sometimes it feels as if St. Louis, with its history of housing discrimination and its swaths of urban prairie encircled by ever-expanding suburban development, is a hole in the heart of the country.

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?

A few years ago, I returned to St. Louis and visited a grade school I attended there. The building was about to be torn down. Its gray-painted steel doors and mesh-covered windows were the same as they’d been forty years ago. I hadn’t noticed them consciously when I was a child, so I’d forgotten them. Now it was as if I’d never stopped standing in that schoolyard. The ancient past was leapfrogging over the recent past; the seven-year-old me felt more immediate than the person I’d been last week. Time felt both circular and implacably linear—because a do-over was not, had never been, possible. I suppose writing is an attempt to get around that iron law.

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

I write longhand. That’s the one constant. Oh, and I revise incessantly. Otherwise, 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.

When I get stuck, I find it helpful to write lying down. Face down. I’ll free-associate words and sentence fragments. That removes the pressure to think in fully formed sentences. I used to write this way all the time. It did a number on my neck! I save it now for times when I’m truly in trouble—when what I’m writing feels shallow or untrue, or when I’ve been relying on my very conventional-minded executive function, or when I catch myself writing out of ambition or a desire for approval.

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

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.

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

It changes, but right now there are two—Marilynne Robinson and W.G. Sebald. They have this in common: limber voice and a not overly engineered approach to narrative.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on a book. It’s part family memoir and part historical novel set in France during the sixteenth-century Wars of Religion. The two things are connected—at least, in my mind they are! Also, sixteenth-century France reminds me a little of the political situation in this country.

Where can we find more information about you?

https://www.lighthousewriters.org/user/24

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