Flash Fiction Round 3 Runner-up: “Coasting” by Izabela Babinska

August 17th, 2018

Midwestern Gothic Summer Flash Fiction Series 2018
 

During the summer of 2018 we continued our annual Flash Fiction Contest series, inviting authors to respond to three different picture prompts. You can read more about the series here. Round 3 submissions responded to our photo prompt with the following criteria: here.

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Round 3 runner-up: “Coasting” by Izabela Babinska
 

The wind came whipping south, skimming the icy, white-capped surface of Lake Superior. Hurtling like a wild thing escaped from the Arctic’s captive grip, it danced a primal, wicked dance across the water’s steely surface, the steps inherent, irreplicable.

Entangling itself in the steady flurry that fell from the heavy, pregnant clouds, it propelled them both forward, a squall, colliding harshly with a shipping vessel that braved the dangerous late-winter waters. It drummed an ancient, war-like beat against the ship’s hull that echoed, a chill, through the sailor’s bones. Rolling off the starboard side, it galloped, sprinted, flew towards mounds of broken blue ice, alien as the surface of Neptune. Lost beneath, obscured, the division between water and land, indecipherable where ice ended and shore began.

Weaving through the sabers and spears of the ice caves, plucking at them like the teeth of a comb, the wind continued its menacing melody along the coast, pounding on tightly shut windows and whistling down chimneys like a ghost. Here startling a grey-haired grandmother bundled by a window with a book, there enveloping a stranded car in a cyclone of snow. It laughed and jeered and charged down a lantern-lit Main Street, rocking wreaths and shop signs and blinking yellow stoplights.

Coming upon an empty schoolyard, it tried all the swing seats and caused a stir in the pickup lane—naughty—obstructing dozens of desperate wipers. Turning away from town, it tripped over itself to gleefully slap the faces of bundled skiers on ill-groomed slopes before rustling the tops of pines on long, uninterrupted wooded stretches.

It relaxed some, untangling, loosening like a knotted string, finally ripped free. In the honey waning sun it could almost be termed a breeze, its howl subsiding to a steady hum. Settling onto the outstretched wings of an owl, it coasted, surveying the forests that broke to fields where it brushed the snow across the empty canvas and painted stripes on the long narrow roads. It would play among the cornfields there in a few short months. A wink, a lifetime.

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Izabela Babinska was born in Poland and grew up in Michigan. She has a BA in Professional Writing from Michigan State University and an MBA in Nonprofit Management from Cleary University. A technical writer by day, she lives in Petoskey, Michigan with her husband, Derrick, and Australian Shepherd, Devereaux. She’s learning to get along with the snow.

Flash Fiction Round 3 Winner: “Spirals” by Steve Fox

Midwestern Gothic Summer Flash Fiction Series 2018
 

During the summer of 2018 we continued our annual Flash Fiction Contest series, inviting authors to respond to three different picture prompts. You can read more about the series here. Round 3 submissions responded to our photo prompt with the following criteria: here.

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Round 3 winner: “Spirals” by Steve Fox
 

Along with the Mayan concept of Time as cyclical, so too, Emm said, goes the notion of place. And space. Like the great Mayan Calendar, the Earth is also round. A circle. A circle with a circular moon. And together they travel in a circle (sort of) around the sun, in a predicable loop that closes every 365.2422 days.

I agreed most people would find comfort in the idea of a renewal of place. And space.

But maybe not here in the Dakotas Bar, where above a window a sign reads, Not the end of the Earth… but you can see it from here.

The broad window overlooks a desolate, snow-capped wheat field that sprawls beyond the Earth’s curve. Could be Superior, its dwindling horizon fragmenting into frozen Lake, Lake into sky.

The Pabst-impaired discussion of the Mayan concept of Time spun into one of swine flu. Here’s how: The bartender mentioned Happy Hour pork hocks. But I heard pork shanks, Emm pork stents, which I corrected to swine shunts and she yelled swine stents! Cause of the greatest outbreak of swine flu ever!

I said now hang on a minute, and she hollered, Ja, like I figgered, you always second guessin me. No, no, I cried, no. These were doctors doin all this stuff, not some yahoos like you and me, and she hissed doctors, yes, but nineteen-eighteen doctors, not today’s doctors with their new technologies and even the Maya knew you could get sick from certain pig things.

I said that makes no sense whatsoever, and we then said the terrible, awful things you’re only capable of saying to those you love most.

Next thing I know I’m drivin off to Rin Dinger’s one town over, thinking what the hell am I doin drivin at all and then just like that I’m spun out on the side of the road wondering if the morons among us have it right that Time and the world truly end in mayhem where the Mayan calendar stops instead of spiraling around, folding back upon itself like them anthropologists say is what the Maya actually meant.

The spin-out knocked me out. And while I slept, a fresh snowfall drifted in all around my car. Now I’m awake. Drunk and stuck in a cold, dead car.

Longing for Emm. I do love her—It’s… I mean I knew she was mean when I married her… Yet, I’m willing to press into this nasty wind for three miles to get her back.

Maybe Love is the loop, not Time. And the collective unconscious of the Maya grasped something bigger than Time itself, more vast than this ocean of white wheat. And it’s Emm at the point where my timeline coils back and begins anew. Stranded on the edge of an icy somewhere, exactly in the middle of a snowy nowhere. A place with The End always in sight, but always the chance to turn it around. And renew our loop.

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Steve Fox earned a Master’s Degree in Spanish from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is currently an active member of the the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences & Letters and the Wisconsin Writers Association. Presently, Steve studies Creative Writing at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. This year his story “These Are My People” was shortlisted for The Masters Review’s Annual Anthology, and two of his stories were awarded first and second place, respectively, in the fiction category of the Wisconsin Writers’ Association Jade Ring Competition. After years of living, working, and studying in Spain, Argentina, Brazil, and New Zealand, Steve currently resides with his wife and three boys Hudson, Wisconsin, where he holds down a job as Senior Software Engineer. Which is to say he gets up Monday morning and goes to bed later that day on Saturday night.

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Interview: Lillian Li

Lillian Li author headshotMidwestern Gothic staffer Henry Milek talked with author Lillian Li about her book Number One Chinese Restaurant, her opinions on MFA programs, family, & more.

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Henry Milek: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Lillian Li: I grew up in Maryland, but I was actually born in Ann Arbor, Michigan. My dad was getting his PhD at the University of Michigan. So twenty-some years later, when I moved to Ann Arbor to get my MFA at the Helen Zell Writers’ Program, it did feel like a sense of coming full circle. Which, when you’re a dork about narrative, is very cool.

HM: You’re originally from the D.C. metro area. How does living in the Midwest compare to that? Has your move here influenced your work in a notable way?

LL: Well, my hometown has a very large Asian population, so my first encounter with the Midwest was one of shocking whiteness. In some ways, though, I hadn’t realized that I’d grown up in a place where being Asian was practically the norm. I looked up the numbers recently, and apparently North Potomac, where I spent most of my childhood, is 1/3 Asian. That’s a jaw-dropping statistic. But it had never occurred to me that I’d had the privilege of a childhood spent without the feeling of total otherness that most people of color experience living in America. Living in the Midwest has given me an essential distance to see what makes my hometown strange and specific, and how it might operate almost as its own character in my work.

HM: How did you initially decide to pursue an MFA at the University of Michigan? What was your experience like with the program? In what ways has the program helped you grow as a writer?

LL: I suppose I’m someone who likes having a plan, even when it comes to something as nebulous as becoming a writer. In many ways, pursuing writing as a vocation goes against the control-freak side of my personality—it’s deeply uncomfortable and probably very good for me in the long run to stick to something that has no guarantees and no set mile markers for “success”. But in any case, at the time, an MFA seemed like the sturdiest path to becoming a writer. I realized pretty quickly, though, that an MFA is best approached when you already see yourself as a writer. So I guess the program helped me grow in the most basic way, which was to understand that only I had the burden and the privilege of making myself, and calling myself, a writer.

I think that MFA programs work best at teaching writers how to rein in their talent. How to drive the car they already own, in a sense. When I look at my older work, I see a lot of good, but I mostly see chaos. I had no control over my writing because I didn’t understand the basic schematics of, say, a short story. For example, I never wrote scenes in my old stories. They were almost 95% in exposition. No one ever taught me not to write entirely in summary, and I certainly wasn’t deconstructing stories in my free time to figure it out myself.

Which is to say, MFA programs aren’t necessary to becoming a good writer, but they take some of the guesswork out of the process, and, like most higher education, force you to learn something you could have learned on your own if you had the time or willpower.

HM: In an MFA program, you obviously must spend a lot of time with other young writers in the same program. What are the benefits of having access to this community? Are there any downsides?

LL: It was amazing to suddenly be around all these other writers for the first time. And to experience how different writing could be. I had multiple classmates whose work I simultaneously did not understand and thought was genius. I have no doubt that reading and responding to their short story and novel drafts stretched my imagination of what was possible to do with my own work, while also, I think, centering me more solidly in my personal voice and preoccupations.

I would say my cohort was very close. I still visit two of my cohort pals on a frequent basis in their new cities, have long-distance chats with two others, have movie nights with the two still in town, and have recently squeezed the fantastic cheeks of another’s new baby. Four of my cohort-mates fell in love and married each other (so, two married couples, not one married quad)! What am I trying to say here…we’re very lucky we found each other.

Downsides? Well, the first year we all drank too much. But we settled down by the second and third year when we didn’t need to be lubricated to socialize, or at least not as lubricated.

Number One Chinese Restaurant book cover by Lillian Li

HM: Your new novel, Number One Chinese Restaurant, explores themes of familial bonds and relationships. What interests you about these particular relationships? These are obviously common themes in literature and art, so how do you approach these ideas in a unique and distinct way?

LL: If you ask any of my friends, or the barest of acquaintances, they’ll probably tell you I’m obsessed with my family. A college friend once told me that when we met, I used to “begin every sentence with, ‘My mom says…’” Joke’s on her—I still do that.

And because I think that all works of fiction begin, on some level, inside the person writing the fiction, it feels only right that whatever I’m obsessed with in the every day will translate into what I write on the page.

This might be an experience shared by children of immigrants, but I grew up feeling like my family was its own island. Because we straddled two nations—China and America—it felt like we had our own language, culture, history. Actually, all families have this to some degree, but it felt more urgent to me because my family didn’t fit anywhere except inside the home we’d made together.

So I approach the themes of family with this idea of cobbling something out of what’s available, as well as the idea of inclusion forged out of exclusion. I look at how this method of accumulation and patchwork, insecurity and security, creates a deeply layered structure impossible to replicate. In Number One, you’ll notice that all the characters in the makeshift family of the Duck House (as well as the blood family of the Hans) are both incredibly knowledgeable and incredibly ignorant about each other. But all together, they create a total portrait of their family, one that no outsider would ever fully see.

HM: Number One Chinese Restaurant is your debut novel. Has anything surprised you about the publication process? What are some particular challenges to publishing a book that you didn’t foresee?

LL: I didn’t realize how important, and how impossible, a sense of scale and perspective would be. It’s been interesting trying to navigate the process of putting a book out because you have all these concerns and you’re trying to figure out which concerns are real and which ones are just because you’ve never done this before. So, for me, there was a lot of newness, and a lot of figuring out what are actual problems I need to address and what are simply anxieties that I need to process.

HM: Writing a novel is certainly a long and arduous process, often taking years. What were some of the greatest challenges you faced in seeing Number One Chinese Restaurant to completion?

LL: Honestly, the gift of this first novel was that I didn’t know what was challenging until it was over. I was too stupid to be afraid, too naïve to understand what I was signing up for, and it’s only now, as I approach the idea of writing a second novel, that I’m scared. So that’s the greatest challenge, how not to let the irritating voice of hindsight infect the next project, and how to relearn that blind optimism that cushions the everyday grind of novel-writing.

HM: Why is the novel important as a form? What benefits does it have over short-fiction and other mediums? Has this importance changed at all in the digital age?

LL: I think a novel stands apart from other mediums because to read a novel is to actively experience the passing of time. You can’t, after a certain point, read a novel any faster. To finish a three-hundred-page novel, you need to devote at least a day’s worth of time (even when I was speed-skimming class books during college, I couldn’t finish faster than that). I don’t think any other medium requires that much time to experience, and that much concentrated effort. A TV series, for example, might take as many hours to consume, but you do that consumption passively.

And so I think that because a novel requires this participation and stamina from its readers, what it can communicate as a form can go much deeper. Novels can sweep you away while at the same time forcing you to work your imaginative and empathic muscles. To read a truly good novel is to live, for a time, an extra life that runs parallel to the one you’re already living.

Even once virtual reality technology gets to a place where it actually feels like entering a new reality to put on those dumb goggles, it’ll never replace that dual experience of living through a novel at the same time and adjacent to living your own life.

HM: What advice would you pass onto other young writers? What are some of the major choices you made that got you where you are today?

LL: I always encourage my students to figure out the kernel of personal preoccupation that has them wanting to write the stories they’re writing. When I think of good writing, I think of oysters and pearls. So, when an oyster accidentally gets some kind of irritant, like sand, stuck inside it, it starts producing this material, called nacre, to cover the irritant. Layers and layers of nacre form around the irritant, and that eventually becomes what we call a pearl. I think the same thing applies to writing—we do our best writing when we’re writing from a place of preoccupation, of being stumped or angry or both. I’d rather see a mess on a page that comes from a writer actively working through a question than a polished piece that asks nothing risky of its author.

HM: What’s next for you?

LL: I don’t have much yet, but I’ve been interested in writing more about where I grew up in Maryland. So far, I’ve got the idea to follow a group of childhood friends as they grow up in this sheltered community, and what happens when they each leave, at different times, to enter the greater world. There’s no plot, but the characters are feeling realer every day—I take that as a good sign.

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Lillian Li received her BA from Princeton and her MFA from the University of Michigan. She is the recipient of a Hopwood Award in Short Fiction, as well as Glimmer Train’s New Writer Award. Her work has been featured in Guernica, Granta, and Jezebel. She is from the D.C. metro area and lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Number One Chinese Restaurant is her first novel.

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Flash Fiction Round 2 Runner-up: “Spam Can” by Kate Garklavs

Midwestern Gothic Summer Flash Fiction Series 2018
 

During the summer of 2018 we continued our annual Flash Fiction Contest series, inviting authors to respond to three different picture prompts. You can read more about the series here. Round 2 submissions responded to our photo prompt with the following criteria: here.

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Round 2 runner-up: “Spam Can” by Kate Garklavs
 

We called it the Spam Can, though it didn’t have that familiar anvil shape, because Spam Can was friendlier than its actual name.

“Fallout shelter,” Gram explained when we were young — six or seven, the age of juicebox innocence. “People go there to be safe in cases of emergency.” She stood at the stove, stirring, her legs an unnatural beige from her compression stockings.

“Stay away from there, you hear?” Gram said this grimly. “It’s been empty for years. You might step on a nail.”

“Yes, Gram,” we said, in unison or close to it.

For a while, we’d obeyed. We were busy with swim lessons, 4H. Then our parents decided they couldn’t tolerate each other, not for appearances or anything else, and the money dried up. With it, the extracurriculars. We spent evenings and weekends with Gram, who, though she valued our safety, also valued her private time before Grandpa returned from the lake or the plant or Clooney’s.

In middle school, the Can was our fort. Mason and I planned to clean it up, transform it into a control room, though what we’d be controlling was unclear. We swept the dirt floor, smeared the windows with Windex-soaked paper. Laid with our backs to the dirt and speculated on our parents’ whereabouts, psychic and otherwise.

Mom: Always sad.
Dad: Maybe Ohio? Nebraska?
Dad: Maybe joined up as a carny to live the road life he always wanted?
Mom: Always here, still sad.

In high school, Mason got his license, a Camaro he brought back from parts. Nights, he cruised the strip. I retreated to the Can with my boyfriend, Boone’s Farm, whip-its. We’d huff ourselves into momentary white oblivion, imagine the steel roof opening into boundless sky. When the whip-its ran out we drank, regrounding. Greg, the boyfriend, was a solid-B student, quiet, pimply. Not my prince charming, but I wasn’t his first-choice girl. We pawed each other’s bodies, not fully knowing what to do, until one of us got bored or got off. Then we went our own ways through the shadowed woods, neither looking back at the other dark, retreating form. It wasn’t satisfying, this routine, but it was something: mine.

The Can was demolished when I was in college.

“About time,” Gram said, hacking. She was on oxygen now, planted at the kitchen table. She hated carrying the tank.

“Dangerous,” I agreed, though the I imagined the steel was sturdy as ever.

I hadn’t been back since graduation day. I was headed out of state, far from Mason and Gram and still-sad mom, the pickups and bait shops and and heat-weary maples. I wasn’t exactly sad, but as I stood in the room’s center, tracing patterns in the dirt with the toe of my pump, a queasiness overtook me. I lit a clove, dragged and dragged and exhaled. My smoked breath filled the Can, clouding the windows, making me invisible to the passing world.

“Dangerous,” I repeated, though what I really meant was “Goodbye.”

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Kate Garklavs lives in Portland, OR. Her work has appeared in Journal, Tammy, and The Airgonaut, among other places. She earned her MFA at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and her first chapbook (Diffusely Yours) is forthcoming in August 2018.

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Flash Fiction Round 2 Winner: “Transport” by Jeffrey Ricker

Midwestern Gothic Summer Flash Fiction Series 2018
 

During the summer of 2018 we continued our annual Flash Fiction Contest series, inviting authors to respond to three different picture prompts. You can read more about the series here. Round 2 submissions responded to our photo prompt with the following criteria: here.

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Round 2 winner: “Transport” by Jeffrey Ricker
 

Sometimes it was a diving bell carrying them down to the bottom of the ocean. In the summer the stifling heat meant their oxygen was running dangerously low, and the sweet gum balls dinging against the roof were the tapping of some never-before-seen creature looking for a way in until they escaped to safety at the water’s surface.

Sometimes it was a train compartment ferrying them across a wasteland as an unseen murderer picked off the other passengers one by one. When only the two of them remained, one was revealed as the villain, and they squared off on the roof as the train careened out of control toward an abyss.

Sometimes in winter it was a space capsule, and the cold seeping in was the indifferent vacuum of the universe threatening to freeze them as it hurtled through the void, transporting them light years from the small world and the small life where they felt everything existed beyond the five-mile radius of their town and nothing existed within it.

One time, it was a bomb shelter fifty feet underground, shielding them from destruction as the world came to an end overhead. They only played that game once. It left them unsatisfied.

In this way years passed. Childhood passed.

The last time, it was merely what it was, a hulk of metal whose provenance no one could remember, just that it had been sitting at the back of the property rusting into the ground longer than the brothers had been alive. When their dad finally paid the scrap dealer to haul it off, they watched it get hoisted onto a flatbed and disappear down the dirt road leading away from their house. They couldn’t have said what else they were losing, but they were left with the feeling that they would never escape now.

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Jeffrey Ricker‘s stories and essays have appeared in anthologies and magazines including Foglifter, Phoebe, Little Fiction, The Citron Review, UNBUILD walls, and others. A 2014 Lambda Literary Fellow and recipient of a 2015 Vermont Studio Center residency, he has an MFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia. He lives in St. Louis.

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Flash Fiction Round 1 Runner-up: “Perseids” by Madeline Anthes

Midwestern Gothic Summer Flash Fiction Series 2018
 

During the summer of 2018 we continued our annual Flash Fiction Contest series, inviting authors to respond to three different picture prompts. You can read more about the series here. Round 1 submissions responded to our photo prompt with the following criteria: here.

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Round 1 runner-up: “Perseids” by Madeline Anthes
Janey was easy to worship. She was spindly and freckled in a way that made her look sea-born. Ethereal. I was spindly and freckled in way that made me look malnourished and uncared for.

Mama was working late down at Diner 22, and I hadn’t seen Daddy since fall. I clung to Janey because we were 13 and it was summer and she was knobby kneed and wild. I had holes to fill and a needy heart, and she clung to me too.

Janey and I needed each other.

Every night I cut through the cornfields that connected our houses. You can never weave through them as easy as you can in the movies. The stalks are close and interweaving, and you have to be careful not to break the stems. Those ears are worth more than your own, Daddy used to say. Farming was a hard business. We all knew that.

On an August night we laid a blanket in her backyard and watched the Perseids. Her daddy kept all kinds of junk outside: rusted watering cans, bins of weed killer, a cracked bathtub, a few tireless Chevys. He swore he’d sell it all one day, but Janey always said he just liked seeing all his stuff on display as though it was jewelry. We had to move a few hub caps and clunky lawn mowers to make room for our blanket.

“Think those reach Earth?” Janey asked, pointing to the meteors streaking the sky.

“Nah,” I said. “They come and go every year so they must stay up there.” I didn’t know if it was true, but I wanted her to think I knew what I was talking about.

Later she would pull out bottle rockets and we’d listen to them scream and crack across the sky. There’d be no one to yell at us for making so much noise, and we’d tilt our heads back and howl at the moon.

But at that moment I reached over and took Janey’s hand and felt prickly spots explode across my chest, like thousands of champagne bubbles bursting under the surface of my skin.

That summer felt like a lit fuse:  we knew an explosion was coming, so we were holding our breaths and holding each other, waiting for the blast.

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Madeline Anthes is an ex-Clevelander living on the east coast. She is the acquisitions editor for Hypertrophic Literary and her writing can be found in journals like WhiskeyPaper, Lost Balloon, Cease, Cows, and Jellyfish Review. You can find her on Twitter at @maddieanthes, and find more of her work at madelineanthes.com.

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Flash Fiction Round 1 Winner: “Uncle Soot” by Joshua Jones

Midwestern Gothic Summer Flash Fiction Series 2018

During the summer of 2018 we continued our annual Flash Fiction Contest series, inviting authors to respond to three different picture prompts. You can read more about the series here. Round 1 submissions responded to our photo prompt with the following criteria: here.

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Round 1 winner: “Uncle Soot” by Joshua Jones

He lives at the edge of the development, on the other side of the creek. You can see his property between a gap in the trees. Overgrown weeds and thistles, and everywhere spiky metal forms: discarded lawnmowers; a rusting tractor; curved blades of iron or steel, like a row of scythes. They say he used one on Davey Jenkins the night he disappeared. Dressed up like the Grim Reaper. This is whispered in the slatted spaces of my treehouse, the one spot high enough to spy into Uncle Soot’s yard. We can just make out the burned husk of his house in the dusky twilight.

Davey’s bike was found half in the creek, they say, its frame a mangled wreck.

Uncle Soot would fix Davey’s bike, not ruin it, I tell them.

They stare at me, rabbit-eyed, and I show them the things I’d found at the edge of the creek, each a secret offering. The clockwork rabbit that hops when you wind it; the wolf that stalks it, its jaws made from an ancient grass whip; the brass-beaked crow that talks, its black eyes watching us appraisingly.

Uncle Soot made them, I say. Uncle Soot can fix anything.

The crow croaks, and they scramble down the ladder, tell my parents they want to go home, that they’re afraid of Uncle Soot. My parents shoot me a look and send me to my room and yell, No more ghost stories. I open my window and listen to the creek murmur and the flapping of mechanical wings.

You believe in ghosts? Uncle Soot asks. He’s sitting at the edge of his yard, filing a long strip of metal that glints even in the clouded day. His hands are blackened, covered in grease, but they never slip.

I’m in the creek, my bare-feet aching from its iciness.

It’s funny; people think you can’t see ghosts, Uncle Soot continues, that they’re invisible. He holds the metal strip up to his eye, tilting it this way and that in the light. He smiles a sooty grin, says, You’ll catch cold in the water. Come up here where it’s warm.

This is the week after they found Davey shivering beneath the bridge, his face and arms covered in black muck, like he’d been dipped in motor oil. He wouldn’t talk about it after school, not even after we sniffed him and smelled the reek of iron and rust. He rode a new bike, crimson-streaked with copper handlebars. He wouldn’t tell us where he got it, wouldn’t talk about the jagged scars sewn along his arms and legs.

Uncle Soot curls the metal strip about a rod. Curls it tighter and tighter until it’s the size of my fist. I take a step closer until I’m only an arms-length away. I ask what it’s for.

Not what, but who, he says, and the metal heart pulses in his hand, ready to come alive.

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Joshua Jones lives in Maryland where he works as an animator. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in CRAFT, The Cincinnati Review, Pidgeonholes, Split Lip Magazine, Monkeybicycle, SmokeLong Quarterly, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter @jnjoneswriter.

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Kali VanBaale Interviewed at Bull and Michigan Quarterly Review

We have some great news to share with you all: Kali VanBaale has not one, but TWO new interviews about her book, The Space Between. Kali talked with Bull and the Michigan Quarterly Review about The Space Between, recently digitally re-released by MG Press.

First, Kali talked with the Michigan Quarterly Review about ‘book quilting,’ asking hard questions, and more:

“I think most literary fiction attempts to not only tell a story, but to also reflect certain aspects of society back at its readers.”Read Cameron Finch’s full interview with Kali VanBaale for the Michigan Quarterly Review.

Next, Kali discusses revisiting a story a decade later, her work to improve mental health treatment, writing about dark spaces, and more with Bull:

“It’s a quiet book. It’s often dark but never gratuitous. It’s a book that’s brutally honest…I think this is part of what I find most necessary about The Space Between: it’s never easy. It’s never trying too hard. It’s never trying to exploit tragedy or violence to sell a book. It’s not trying to fan flames of outrage or score political points. It’s not trying to glorify, vilify, or absolve.”Read Benjamin Drevlow’s interview with Kali VanBaale for Bull.

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If you still haven’t had a chance to get your copy of The Space Between in eBook format, buy it here.

You can also pick up a copy of Kali’s first book from MG Press, The Good Divide, which she briefly talks about in her interview with Bull.

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Interview: Amy Reichert

Amy Reichert author headshotMidwestern Gothic staffer Henry Milek talked with author Amy Reichert about her book The Optimist’s Guide to Letting Go, mother-daughter relationships, optimism, & more.

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Henry Milek: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Amy Reichert: I’ve lived in Wisconsin my entire life. I couldn’t be more Midwestern if cheese and butter flowed through my veins. Actually, I think they might.

HM: To what extent do you feel that your Midwestern identity is reflected in your work? Is there a distinct perspective or style that is only captured from a Midwestern lens?

AR: I intentionally set all my novels in Wisconsin. I believe Midwesterners are special in their politeness, friendliness, and generosity. We are tougher than we look, and live in a place that is rich in beauty and tradition. I’d like to believe that my characters and settings reflect that. My characters do the hard work to solve their problems, keep their friends close, and their family closer. I want people to read my books and want to visit our state. When I wrote my debut novel, The Coincidence of Coconut Cake, one of my goals was to showcase how wonderful the city of Milwaukee is—it’s essentially a love letter to the city. Since then, I’ve expanded the scope to encompass the entire state.

HM: Your new book, The Optimist’s Guide to Letting Go, is your fourth novel. At this point in your writing career, have you developed a strict strategy for long-form writing, or does each new project bring with it new processes?

AR: Every novel is a different experience. With my first, I had as much time as I needed to write, revise, and revise again—which I did well over a dozen times. Since then, I’ve always had deadlines. Sometimes I plan more of the plot before writing, sometimes I write fast and loose, knowing that I’m going to need to rewrite a lot. I’m lucky that through it all, I’ve had a wonderful editor and writer friends who have helped me keep learning how to be a better writer.

The Optimist’s Guide to Letting Go book cover by Amy Reichert (2)

HM: The Optimist’s Guide explores the dynamic between three generations of women. What interested you about these mother-daughter relationships? What complexities did you attempt to capture?

AR: It all started with an article I read several years ago about “Ten Questions to Ask Your Mom.” I loved the idea of this, so The Optimist’s Guide to Letting Go is framed by ten questions—each question is a section with one chapter told by one of the three main characters (a teen, her mom, and grandma). Mother-daughter relationships seem extra fraught. As a daughter, it’s easy to only think of my mom as a “mom,” and not a woman who has had her own dreams and heartbreaks. As a mom, I want my daughter to know that I’m not just the enforcer, cook, maid—but a complicated woman. I make mistakes, I’m always learning and growing. This novel is my attempt to break down those walls and get mothers and daughter talking. I even asked my own mom the questions in the novel, I hope readers are inspired to do the same.

HM: The novel’s protagonist, Gina, owns and works in a food truck. How did your own experience working in the restaurant industry inform your approach to writing her scenes at work? How important is it for writers to have alternative experiences like this to inform their craft?

AR: Most of my restaurant experience came as a server, but I spent a lot of time with line cooks (and even jumped in a few times to help), and owning a food truck is like working the line, just in a smaller space with wheels. A huge component of any restaurant kitchen is organization, and a food truck requires that to the Nth degree. How do you fit everything you need in a small space, make it accessible, but not dangerously cluttered. For Gina, the ultimate list maker, I like to think she enjoyed the process of organizing and planning her truck’s interior.

While it’s nice for writers to have these sorts of experiences to draw from, I think it’s more important for them to do their research. Even if I have personal experience with something, I still do the work—you never know what little piece of information you might uncover that you didn’t know. For example, I learned a lot of about food trucks that never show up in the book—like that you need a certain number of sinks to qualify for certain permits. Rest assured that Grilled G’s meets all the necessary sink requirements.

HM: In the book, Gina struggles to find peace amidst various compounding family troubles. In what ways do you hope that your reader will find Gina’s struggles relatable? How did you accomplish this?

AR: Once of Gina’s biggest struggles is dealing with the loss of her husband. The loss of a spouse is complicated and their is no right way to grieve. Gina deals with it one way, her daughter another, and her mother, who is also a widow, in a whole new way. Grief is personal and different for everyone, and the key is to support that person as they find their way. As a society, we often feel uncomfortable with other people’s grief, filling the silence with (often unhelpful, sometimes insensitive) platitudes. I hope this helps readers find a bit more empathy when confronted with a loved one’s grief.

HM: Part of what makes the characters feel so real is your dialogue. How do you approach writing dialogue? Do you have a strategy or is it more based on impulse?

AR: Thank you! At some point in my process, I always speak my dialogue out loud so it feels more natural. I’m also conscious of cutting out extra words. In real conversations, people rarely speak in complete sentences and usually use contractions, so I try to reflect that. People that know each other well often develop a short hand, and lots of inside jokes. So I try to insert some history that way, too.

HM: As the title suggests, the book explores how someone with an optimistic outlook struggles to find peace in a situation with no ideal solution. Why do you think this is such an important idea to explore today? What do you hope the reader will take away from Gina’s story?

AR: People, particularly women, are pulled in so many directions in our current society. We work full-time, while being expected to volunteer at school if we have kids, or elsewhere if we don’t. We need to take fun vacations that we promptly post about on social media. We need to have clean houses, Instagrammable dinners, interesting hobbies, and be happy while we do it all. And if we do anything wrong, we are judged immediately and publicly. It is too much, and it’s important that people recognize that. Focus should be on what is really important—for my characters (and myself), that is family. I often ask myself what I will regret not doing when I’m on my deathbed. I guarantee it won’t have anything to do with cleaning or Twitter—but it will be about spending time with my loved ones. We can’t control everything in our lives, so we should focus on what matters most and let some of the other things slide. I promise the world won’t end if you work less than 60 hours this week or don’t dust the bookshelves.

HM: What’s next for you?

AR: I’m taking a bit of time to binge read some of my mountainous to-be-read pile and researching my next novel, which is set in the Wisconsin Dells.

**

Amy E. Reichert, author of The Coincidence of Coconut Cake; Luck, Love & Lemon Pie; The Simplicity of Cider; and The Optimist’s Guide to Letting Go, loves to write stories that end well with characters you’d invite to dinner. A wife, mom, amateur chef, Fix-It Mistress, a volunteer baby snuggler, and cider enthusiast. She earned her M.A. in English Literature, honed her writing and editing skills as a Technical Writer for many years, and now serves on her library’s board of directors. She’s a proud member of Tall Poppy Writers.

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Summer 2018 issue – cover and contributor listing

Perfect to help cool you off at the beach, or keep you company under the shade of your favorite reading tree, we are so excited to show off the cover for the Summer 2018 issue of Midwestern Gothic!

Midwestern Gothic Summer 2018 Issue cover - full cover
 

The gorgeous cover art is by Chris Bigalke.

And this issue features fiction, poetry, and nonfiction by an unbelievable line-up of writers:

Midwestern Gothic Summer 2018 Issue Cover - contributor list
 

The Summer 2018 issue will be released on Thursday, August 23, 2018—mark your calendars! This will be our last issue before we go on a temporary hiatus, so this is an issue you won’t want to miss!

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