Interview: Jim Krusoe

April 28th, 2016

Jim KrusoeMidwestern Gothic staffer Giuliana Eggleston talked with author Jim Krusoe about his novel The Sleep Garden, the underground, the reality of loose ends and more.

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Giuliana Eggleston: What’s your connection to the midwest?

Jim Krusoe: A long time ago wrote that to grow up in the Midwest: “…was to watch a glass of milk turn sour. Slow. Inevitable. Reputedly healthful,” and by the Midwest I meant Cleveland, where I was raised. Cleveland later resurfaced as the location of my novel, Erased, and it is the Midwest that I have to thank for my almost pathological need not to be bored, having gotten enough of that unhappy feeling in my first seventeen years there to last a lifetime. I suppose in a way I’ve been running from the Midwest in one way or another ever since.

GE: In you new novel, The Sleep Garden, you write several different interweaving stories following five main characters. What were the challenges, if any, in making their stories fit together?

JK: The characters In The Sleep Garden actually were conceived only after I had figured out what the central images of the novel (holes in a lawn, the burrow, a crossbow, the horrible sixties sitcom, “Mellow Valley”) had to do with each other. Unraveling that question took a couple of thousand pages: false starts, trying things out, testing other images I hoped might replace them. Finally, after creating a literary space fit to host characters, these particular ones stepped up surprisingly quickly and began to tell their stories.

Sleep Garden

GE: How did you first conceive of the idea of “the Burrow,” the underground apartment building where your characters reside?

JK: The Burrow itself took some time to emerge, although, like Poe, I’m drawn to things that happen underground—basements, caves, and cellars—the literary equivalent of the subconscious. The first incarnation of the Burrow was actually a building called “The Snail Museum.” It was to be a novel about a young girl, or maybe about the guy who ran it, I couldn’t decide. That draft, along with a dozen other attempts, fell through, but in the end I was left holding a building that was basically a lump, like a snail’s shell. I also thought about Kafka’s “In the Burrow,” Emily Dickenson’s “swelling in the ground,” the legend of the Seven Sleepers, and of course Tolkien, whose references to burrows were important to push away from the minds of readers. Also, there’s a great Indian Burial Mound in Moundsville, West Virginia, that I visited a long time ago and left an impression, mostly of seediness.

GE: What inspired you to write about this unique story concept? What do you hope your readers take away from this narrative about life, death, and everything in between?

JK: Of late I’ve become interested in the permeability of my life. By this I mean that my dreams, the things I’ve done, the stories I’ve read and heard, what I’ve witnessed and what I’ve been told I witnessed, as I’ve gotten older, all seem to take on an equal authority and an equal weight in my mind. In this way, my memories of a friend and the actual friend who might be standing in front of me become almost the same. And then, should my friend die (something that happened in the course of this book) I have to ask how much really, has been taken away and how much remains.

GE: An interesting quality of this novel is its lack of closure for some of the characters. How do you feel the loose ends play into the greater meaning of the novel?

JK: In certain ways the lack of closure allows a story to continue after the book is finished. If you were to ask me about my life, I can’t think of a single instance where closure exists, where something is over and done with. Nor should that be the case. I know that Jesus said, “It is finished,” but obviously he was being optimistic.

GE: Your characters are all very unique, from a retired sea captain to phone-sex worker writing a children’s story. How did you go about crafting each distinct personality?

JK: One of the pleasures of writing a novel is that the writer gets to spend a fair amount of time with each character and so find out more about who they are. Characters for me never start full-blown, but build themselves up over the course of months and years until they are revealed as if they exist wholly outside me. Only later comes the surprise that they’ve been a part of me all along.

GE: What aspect of your novel did you most enjoy writing?

JK: I’m ashamed to say it was probably the silliest part: the six episodes of “Mellow Valley,” a sitcom about a pot farm in the sixties. I had been carrying that idea with me, for no good reason, a long time, and then, when I started to write it down, new parts added themselves to the story. For a long time I couldn’t decide whether or not to cut it. But then I decided to wait and see if it had anything to do with the rest of the novel that had yet to be written, and I was surprised to see that it did. Also—and this is important to me—the world is made up of many levels of seriousness and unseriousness; to leave any one of them out is not a true representation of the world, or at least my world.

GE: Have any authors inspired your writing?

JK: I wouldn’t say writers inspire my writing exactly, but they inspire me with their courage, and inventiveness, and their sense of care. And by inspire I mean that they remind me how far I have yet to travel and the impossibility of my ever getting there. On the other hand, the best I can do is make my writing as good as it can be for me.

GE: What’s next for you?

JK: I just finished a novel I had high hopes for but threw out, so I’m back to struggling with images, trying to unlock those I can’t shake and then find some kind of common concern they represent and to discover what they are trying to tell me. Or what I’m trying to tell myself. It’s an interesting state of mind, one where everything we see can be important or significant, part ecstasy, part paranoia, and part frustration. It’s the first step in creating.

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Jim Krusoe has published five novels and two books of stories, Blood Lake and Abductions. His first novel, Iceland, was published by Dalkey Archive Press in 2002. Since then, Tin House Books has published five novels: Girl Factory, Erased, Toward You, Parsifal, and in 2016 The Sleep Garden. Jim teaches writing at Santa Monica College as well as in Antioch’s MFA Creative Writing Program. He has also published five books of poems.

Contributor Spotlight: Kate Wisel

10356772_3005177408477_4205155109034242339_nKate Wisel’s story “The Account” appears in Midwestern Gothic Issue 21, out now.

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

I moved to Chicago from Boston just this year to attend Columbia College’s MFA program. In both a personal and public sense, Boston is steeped in history. Because the stories I write are mainly set in Boston, moving to the Midwest, a place that’s vast and open, has allowed me to see Boston independent from myself. Since I moved I’ve met new characters, wrote from different points of view, and explored the kind of subject matter that I don’t know I would have discovered if it weren’t for the distance.

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

I’ve never eaten a deep-dish pizza I didn’t like.

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 a talent for conjuring times that don’t exist anymore, also known as chronic nostalgia. I think a lot of people recognize the essence of the past or are comforted by its definitive qualities. Nostalgia can be a great tool for stories if you can turn the essence of a time period into the present and represent these strong, achy feelings as conflicts. The story always turns out to be about something lingering in your subconscious.
I have this memory of my mom waking my brothers and I up in the middle of the night. It was winter and she would put coats on over our PJ’s then buckle us into the van. We’d drive past the Citgo sign, lit up in the dark, and the Charles River. We’d wait for my dad in the back parking lot of his restaurant where I’d see sous chefs sitting on milk crates and smoking. When he finally came out he would come into the car smelling like onions and flour.
I had to write a story about this memory because it felt so sad to me and so important. I figured out the parents in the story were going through a divorce, and had to go through the motions of their marriage to keep their family together. This is not what happened in my own life. It’s not that you solve the past, but by representing it you figure out an alternate version of why it was so distinct and the many ways in which it could have been or gone.

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

I just read Stephan King’s On Writing and his process seems like it would be intimidating to anyone besides himself. I guess I’ve taken the Virginia Woolfe approach by creating a space for myself, literally and figuratively, that feels exciting to stay in for long stretches of time. I just recently painted my white desk turquoise and rearranged the books by the windows. I have my mentor Jenn De Leon’s story that she sent me in a wooden shelf along with some comics from a writing conference I went to. I have my pens and pencils in a washed out salsa jar because that’s what makes me feel good. It’s like nesting. As far as writer’s block, I’ve learned to look at it is as an opportunity. If I’m feeling blank, maybe something is shifting and I need to take a new approach. One of my favorite exersizes is flipping through ten books and writing down the first lines of each story. I just did it now, and found “I worked at the baby store for nine months.” Where’s the writer’s block now?

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

If I knew it would be easier to answer this question. It’s a weird dance where the story knows more than the writer and you’re constantly getting at something. At least for me, once I feel like I’ve caught up to the story and I finally know what it’s about, I then know exactly how it should end, which causes me to go back and sort of redecorate the story so that everything is telling of this one particular theme.

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

I think Mary Gaitskill perfectly writes about feelings as if feelings are even comprehensible. No paradox goes unobserved. She creates a language for what we don’t know how to say, or what stays inside of us that we can’t say.

What’s next for you?

I’m writing linked stories for a collection that deals with female fixations and the extents of certain obsessions. I think people, girls in particular, break apart to become whole again, and I’m interested in the breaking.

Where can we find more information about you?

Some of my stories and poems are online. You can also find me on Twitter @Katewisel.

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Interview: Rich Fahle

Rich FahleMidwestern Gothic staffer Allison Reck talked with Rich Fahle about his involvement in the Midwest Literary Walk, coming up on Saturday, April 30th from 1-5pm in downtown Chelsea, Michigan.

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Allison Reck: The Midwest Literary Walk, which you currently help organize, is hosted in Chelsea, Michigan. As a region, what significance do you believe the Midwest has to the literary tradition?

Rich Fahle: Not only is the literary tradition of the Detroit / Michigan region rich—including the likes of Pulitzer Prize winner Jeffrey Eugenides, the great Elmore Leonard, American treasure Joyce Carol Oates, Pulitzer Prize winner and former U.S. poet laureate Philip Levine, and others—but the new talent emerging from the Midwest are some of the most exciting voices in literature. Look at the list of authors and poets living or writing about the Midwest today: Matt Bell (Scrapper), Kyle Minor, David Giffels (The Hard Way on Purpose), J Ryan Stradal (Kitchens of the Great Midwest), Angela Flournoy (The Turner House), Bonnie Jo Campbell, Emily St. John Mandel (Station Eleven), and (for the time being, at least), Roxane Gay. Plus, we can’t forget icons Jane Smiley (Last Hundred Years trilogy), Louise Erdrich, and Marilynne Robinson, a trio of literary lionesses.

Of course, the list of authors at this year’s Midwest Literary Walk are also a fine collection of the writers who either live here or write about the region – Detroit poet Jamaal May, University of Michigan Helen Zell Writers’ Program professor Claire Vaye Watkins, Cleveland native and New York Times bestseller Paula McLain, and National Book Award finalist Christopher Sorrentino, who has written his own Elmore Leonard-infused novel of the Midwest, The Fugitives.

AR: This event has quite an established history, celebrating its 8th year later this month – what was the inspiration to begin the Midwest Literary Walk?

RF: The Midwest Literary Walk was created in 2009 by the prolific Detroit poet M.L. Liebler, who at the time was Chelsea District Library’s Artist-in-Residence. With M.L.s early guidance and a Chelsea Library team that believed that the event could expand and attract more book lovers from around the state, the event grew. Since then, Midwest Literary Walk has consistently featured a thoughtfully selected lineup that celebrates the talents of distinguished Michigan writers and poets, along with writers of national prominence.

Each year, the Midwest Literary Walk builds and expands, attracting larger audiences to multiple venues throughout Chelsea, a town so many in Michigan know as the home of Jeff Daniels’ Purple Rose Theater and the iconic Jiffy plant.

Last year’s event included Angela Flournoy on the cusp of her huge literary year for The Turner House and Edward Hirsch for his beautiful work of poetry, Gabriel: A Poem, and others. This year is no different, with perhaps the Walk’s best lineup ever.

Full lineup can be found here: http://midwestliterarywalk.org/?page_id=914

AR: This event is meant to highlight “the power of literature and poetry in everyday life.” What does this ‘power’ mean to you?

RF: Books, literature, poetry – all have an uncanny ability to shine a light on the issues we struggle with and think about every day: Family, heartbreak, social issues, cultural divides. For me, books have always been the doorway to other cultures and ways of life, to the experiences and perspectives of people I would likely never otherwise see; to issues of the heart that connect more deeply through the written word than other media. Like so many readers, through books I find myself asking questions I wouldn’t know to ask otherwise, and learning I’d probably not discover anywhere else. For me, books provide a place to be thoughtful and mindful, in a way that is more engaging and immersive than any other form of communication.

AR: What has been the most exciting part of coordinating this event for you over the years?

RF: The Midwest Literary Walk team is wonderful and my favorite part about scheduling and working the event – book-loving passionistas all. The team and gang at Chelsea District Library make it most fun. Beyond that, there is a great personal thrill that comes after opening an email that confirms YES, the 2015 National Book Award winner for Poetry Robin Coste Lewis will come to Chelsea, MI to read and discuss her groundbreaking work of poetry. That’s pretty exciting, too.

Midwest Lit Walk

AR: What are you most excited about for this year’s Literary Walk?

RF: I know I sound like a fanboy here, but every hour of this year’s Literary Walk will be spectacular. As I mentioned, Robin Coste Lewis will share her National Book Award-winning book of poetry, The Voyage of the Sable Venus, but even more exciting, she’ll do it in conversation with Detroit poet Jamaal May, one of the most exciting voices in poetry today—and himself the author of a much-buzzed new collection, The Big Book of Exit Strategies (3 pm). Paula McLain will delight the huge number of fans who have read her bestsellers – The Paris Wife and most recently, Circling the Sun (4 pm). And Claire Vaye Watkins – a National Book Award “5 Under 35” honoree, Ann Arbor native now and author of one of the most talked about novels of the past year, Gold Fame Citrus will be wonderful (2 pm). And one of my favorite books of the festival is The Fugitives by Christopher Sorrentino—a National Book Award finalist himself for Trance. I’ll be interviewing Christopher on stage for his portion of the event (1 pm)

AR: Can you tell us more about how you choose which authors and books to feature each year in your event?

RF: Our criteria for which authors to invite to the Midwest Literary Walk is broad. In general, the Midwest Lit Walk team looks for authors that either live or work in the Midwest, or that write about the region—though we do occasionally invite other authors and artists to the event as well. That’s the case with National Book Award winner for Poetry, Robin Coste Lewis, who was born in Compton, CA and raised in New Orleans, but whose work is vital and relevant to all readers. In Robin’s case, we asked Detroit poet Jamaal May to interview Robin as part of her Midwest Literary Walk event, discussing the power of poetry and the role of poetry in our society.

AR: What is your connection to the Midwest?

RF: I’m a born-and-raised in Detroit suburb kid (Grosse Pointe mostly.) I left and lived in Washington, DC for a dozen years, but returned to Michigan to work in the Borders home office in Ann Arbor, leaving a year or so before the sad ending eventually came for Borders. I’ve lived in Chelsea, MI since returning and have been continually impressed with the Chelsea District Library, which sponsors the Midwest Literary Walk.  The Chelsea Library has created a model for small libraries all over America, driving literary culture, creating events and opportunities, and staying nimble and experimental.

AR: You also hold the position of Executive Producer and host of Book View Now on PBS, and are the founder and CEO of Astral Road Media. You clearly have a strong interest in the subject, but what do you think is the most compelling aspect of literature as a whole?

RF: My own life and work is an example of the transformative power of books and literature. Working with books has literally changed the course of my life.  Each day in my work with authors, booksellers, and publishers, I find so many other examples and stories of books helping educate & inform, open doors, reveal hidden secrets, create new life path, or provide a hint of inspiration to keep pushing forward. For me, the most compelling aspect is the absolute truth that books change lives.

AR: Is there anything else you would like people to know about the Midwest Literary Walk?

RF: Yes! With the Midwest Literary Walk, the idea of literary tourism is alive and well. Besides the actual Midwest Lit Walk events in Chelsea which runs from 1 – 5 pm (totally free and open to the public) we have also created a special event for people in and around Detroit who wish to participate in the Midwest Literary Walk in a different way.

For those people, we’ve put together a very special Detroit Literary Bus Tour, which begins in Detroit at 11 am and includes the last two events of the Midwest Literary Walk in Chelsea.

Detroit has a fascinating literary history featuring some of America’s finest and most decorated writers, a list that includes many of the writers we’ve mentioned previously—Jeffrey Eugenides, Elmore Leonard, Joyce Carol Oates, National Book Award finalist Harriette Simpson Arnow, the Pulitzer Prize winner and former U.S. poet laureate Philip Levine, Robert Hayden, the first African American U.S. Poet Laureate, and one of America’s top-selling authors, crime writer Donald Goines.

Anna Clark, editor of A Detroit Anthology and author of Michigan Literary Luminaries, will host the bus tour, which also includes lunch at 1917 American Bistro before heading to the Midwest Literary Walk events with Robin Coste Lewis / Jamaal May and Paula McLain.

The Midwest Literary Walk is completely free, but the Detroit Literary Bus Tour does have a $53 fee, which covers the lunch portion and transportation to and from Detroit, in addition to the Detroit Lit Tour with Anna.

You can sign up or find out more about the Detroit Literary Bus Tour here: http://midwestliterarywalk.org/?page_id=914

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Rich Fahle is the Executive Producer of PBS Book View Now, providing national coverage of book festivals and other major literary events for PBS. He’s formerly VP Content and Entertainment for Borders, where he produced digital content with authors and musicians. Prior to Borders, Fahle oversaw media relations and communications as chief spokesperson for C-SPAN, the iconic public affairs network where he helped launch BookTV, and was a long-time manager and bookseller at Kramerbooks, the thriving independent bookstore in DC’s Dupont Circle neighborhood. He is also the founder and CEO of Astral Road Media, a media marketing and distribution company focused on authors and writers. He volunteers as one of the organizers for the Midwest Literary Walk in Chelsea, MI.

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Interview: John Wray

John WrayMidwestern Gothic staffer Rachel Hurwitz talked with author John Wray about his book The Lost Time Accidents, time travel, representing mental illness, and more.

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Rachel Hurwitz: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

John Wray: I spent five years in Ohio, attending Oberlin College and then just hanging around. I was one of those questionable characters who had so much fun in college that they didn’t want to leave.

RH: You’re a citizen of both the United States and Austria. How do you think this has affected your writing style and what you write about?

JW: I think it’s had an effect on pretty much every aspect of my life and personality, to be honest. It made certain things more difficult, growing up—I had a hard time separating English and German, as a small child, and was in the remedial reading group in school until the third grade—but having seen that there places outside of the United States where people had very different ways of looking at things encouraged a critical view of America (and, of course, of Austria as well) from a very young age. Once I’d gotten over my confusion, that is.

RH: Additionally, what made you choose to attend Oberlin College to study biology during your undergraduate career? Because of this, what does the Midwest mean to you?

JW: Buffalo, New York, where I was raised, has more in common with Chicago, for example, than with New York City, culturally speaking—once I’d moved to Ohio, I began to see my hometown as a curious extension of the midwest. (Later I learned that this was largely due to the flow of trade via the Great Lakes to the Erie Canal back in the city’s heyday.) To be honest, I chose Oberlin because Oberlin chose me—I was a terrible student in high school, a very depressed and angry kid, and was incredibly fortunate to be accepted there. I’m not sure what or where I’d be today if I hadn’t had that stroke of luck. Oberlin had an enormous influence on every aspect of my worldview, from politics to aesthetics to my taste in pop music. I can’t praise it enough. No wonder I had such a hard time leaving!

RH: In your newest novel, The Lost Time Accidents, the protagonist, Walter, has been “exiled from the flow of time.” How did this flexibility in location and time lend itself to your creativity in writing the novel?

JW: It was both tremendously freeing—anything can happen! the customary rules and regulations don’t apply!—and more difficult for that same reason. The great challenge to writing a novel in which past and present and future need not follow meekly one after another is to make sure that the experience isn’t confusing or simply frustrating for the reader. It needs to be exciting, liberating—and, above all, entertaining. Time travel should be fun, as well as a little frightening.

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RH: In The Lost Time Accidents it is mentioned “chronology is an illusion, if not a deliberate lie,” which sounds slightly similar to thoughts in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. Did you intend for any similarities between these two novels?

JW: Absolutely. I’ve loved Vonnegut since grade school–the first novel of his that I read, appropriately enough, was ‘Venus on the Half Shell,’ which he wrote pseudonymously, as one of his own characters, the science fiction author Kilgore Trout. Trout was a significant influence on Orson Tolliver, the ‘starporn’-penning character in The Lost Time Accidents—and most of all, the obvious joy Vonnegut took in creating (and, later, impersonating) a cantankerous writer of questionable merit. My novel is many things at once, more or less by design; and one of them is certainly an homage to Vonnegut, among many other beloved authors of my youth.

RH: Your novel Lowboy follows a schizophrenic protagonist through the New York Subway system and mental illness seems to plague the characters in The Lost Time Accidents as well. Why does mental illness play a prevalent role in your works?

JW: One of the aspects of the human experience that fiction can explore most effectively—far more effectively, in my opinion, than film or theater or visual art—is subjectivity. The question, so central to consciousness, of where the boundary between consensus reality and our biased understanding of it lies, is the territory of the novel, and has always been a fascinating one for me. It may be what drew me to fiction in the first place. And madness is, in a certain sense, the most extreme expression of this question.

RH: What is the most difficult facet of the writing process for you? How do you manage or deal with this difficulty?

JW: Dear lord—is it possible to answer ‘everything’? I don’t find any part of the writing process easy, to be honest. My goal is always to write books that feel as though they wrote themselves, but certainly that couldn’t be farther from the case. I’m weeping tears of self-pity as I write this. Boo hoo!

RH: What’s next for you?

JW: The beach! After seven years of writing this book, I need to relearn how to be a human being. Humans like to go to the beach, right?

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John Wray is the author of The Lost Time Accidents, Lowboy, Canaan’s Tongue, and The Right Hand of Sleep. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Award, and a Mary Ellen von der Heyden Fellowship from the American Academy in Berlin, he was named one of Granta‘s Best Young American Novelists in 2007. A citizen of the United States and Austria, he currently lives in New York City.

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Contributor Spotlight: Alina Borger

Alina_resizedAlina Borger’s piece “Family History, c. 1970” appears in Midwestern Gothic Issue 21, out now.

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

I was born and raised in the Midwest, went to college here, and now am raising my family here. I’m not sure I can extricate myself or my work from the Midwest and have anything left.

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

Well, it’s home. But also, it’s practically Eden–lush, fertile, full of rivers and lakes–and just as hidden. And the people here are sturdy and generous and deeply thoughtful and odd in all kinds of beloved ways.

But at the same time, it’s not a monolith. I’m talking now more about Iowa City or Grinnell than I am about Glen Ellyn or Naperville. But twenty years ago, it’d have been the opposite.

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?

Almost everything I write starts with a specific place, actually. That’s maybe even more true in my fiction than in my poetry, since most of my poems lately begin at my mother’s kitchen table. One of the main challenges of writing (for me) is knowing a place well enough to evoke it on the page with just a few gestures in its direction, and the Midwest is really the only place I know like that, know with my eyes closed.

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

Whoa. This is a big question. Most of my work comes from personal experience and emerges into a broader context as it develops. A poem might begin with a memory or a tiny domestic drama, but at some point, I’ll realize I’m writing about something much larger. A central image in the poem might open up into a metaphor or the poem might take a turn that pushes it outward.

As for environments, Most days, I write for an hour or so in my studio, but I’m also perfectly happy to sneak in fifteen minutes anywhere I can. Coffee shops and hotel lobbies and Friday afternoons in the computer lab with the students in writing club.

And about writer’s block, I’m an odd duck. Beginning a piece of writing is never a problem for me—I love new ideas and I find it liberating to look at an empty page, my cursor blinking at me cheerfully. In fact, part of what I love about the poetry component of my work is the potential to start with a blank page each time I begin a new poem.

I save my terror for the middle. Facing a not-quite-there poem or a half-finished fiction manuscript often calls on all my creative tricks and tools—doodling in cafes, writing down my dreams, and keeping notebooks in every conceivable corner of the house. Occasionally when I’m stuck in the muddy middle, I’ll use my affection for the blank page as a tool, dropping the manuscript in a hidden sub-folder and writing new scenes, each as its own new document. Other times, I’ll write an ending that will never work just to get myself out of that middle space, then spend months writing new scenes and working my way up to a real ending.

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

When I desperately want my husband to read it, I know I’m feeling good about it. That’s not to say it won’t need more revision (often a LOT), but that’s how I know I have a revised draft worth its salt.

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

Impossible! My go-to list: Jane Austen, Sharon Olds, Ted Kooser, Elizabeth Bishop.

But I’ve recently come through a phase of reading a lot of Mary Oliver poems. I love the simplicity of her images juxtaposed with really startling, revealing thoughts about our place in the universe.

In fiction, I’m firmly committed to Rainbow Rowell and Jandy Nelson just now. I don’t know any contemporary writers who are doing character better.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on two manuscripts–a poetry manuscript and my third novel. The novel has most of my attention just now.

Where can we find more information about you?

My website, www.alinaborger.com is full of information. But I also tweet pretty regularly @AliBG, and I love making new writer friends there!

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Interview: Andrew Mozina

AndyMozinasmallbyKaitlinLaMoineMidwestern Gothic staffer Rachel Hurwitz talked with author Andrew Mozina about his book Contrary Motion, politeness, the path to becoming an author, and more.

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Rachel Hurwitz: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Andrew Mozina: I grew up in a suburb of Milwaukee, went to college at Northwestern, bounced around Chicago, earned a graduate degree in St. Louis, and have lived in Kalamazoo, MI, for the past sixteen years. Except for about four years in Boston, I’ve lived in a Midwestern city my whole life.

RH: How did growing up outside of Milwaukee influence your writing? Has living in Kalamazoo since then changed your view of the Midwest and how you integrate it in your writing?

AM: Two traits that I associate with Midwesterners—politeness and irreverence—have really influenced my writing. I see politeness and irreverence as two sides of the same coin: the more constrained by politeness you feel, the sharper your irreverence might be. It’s no accident that The Onion started in Madison, WI, and Second City grew up in Chicago. I’ve honored these traits by being an earnest smartass: most of the humor in my writing turns into pathos, and most of my pathos is for situations that also strike me as darkly funny. I love a deadpan tone that can tilt either way. Also, I experienced a lot of blowing and drifting snow in Milwaukee, and that’ll certainly harden your sensibility. In fact, even though my new novel is entirely set in the spring, the whole mood of Contrary Motion is of a man in flip flops and shorts standing in a field during a blizzard.

Kalamazoo has reminded me that there are many “Midwests” out there—from the big city midwesternness of Chicago to the midwesternness of places like Kalamazoo and the rural areas around it. As far as the effects of living in Kalamazoo go, well, sticking with the weather, the snow is generally wetter—we’re right on the edge of the lake effect—and less likely to blow and drift. It’s also much cloudier in Kalamazoo, which makes its atmosphere bleaker and suits a small city where a lot of people are hanging on by their economic fingertips. Despite all of its awesome elements, Kalamazoo is an obscure place and a good setting for people running aground or off the rails. I think my second book of stories, Quality Snacks, has a sort of forlorn, rustbelt mood that has some aspects of Kalamazoo in it.

RH: It seems like you have an interesting path into your writing career as you attended Law School for a year before receiving a Master’s in Creative Writing and Doctorate in English Literature. Can you talk about that experience?

AM: I was an econ major and didn’t think seriously about writing fiction until my senior year of college, when I was already admitted to law school. The transition from law student to writing student was fairly traumatic. I was going from a stable career that I was pretty sure I could do to an unstable pursuit that I was wildly uncertain about whether I could succeed at. I ended up getting a Ph.D. in literature in part to fill in my background—I was woefully under-read (and have never really caught up).

RH: How did this lead you to a career as a professor at Kalamazoo College?

AM: Once I got my writing and lit degrees, I looked for a teaching job. Though it sounds cheesy, I really loved the curriculum at Kalamazoo—the senior project, the study abroad program, the emphasis on internships. I like teaching, though it doesn’t leave as much time for writing as I’d hoped when I went into it.

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RH: Your newest novel, Contrary Motion, follows a concert harpist who is working towards an impending audition, while everything in his life explodes around him. Why did you decide to have music be such a critical part of the novel and why does Matthew, the protagonist, play the harp of all instruments?

AM: Like most things to do with writing, it was part serendipity and part intentional. My wife plays the harp, so I was familiar with that world. I’m also interested in the problem of performance anxiety, especially the idea that an extreme drive to do well can be self-defeating. A public performance is inherently dramatic, and music is one of the few art forms that usually depends on a live performance with no do-overs or edits. Focusing on an audition really brought that out. Improv comedy is probably the most vulnerable form of performance, and I decided to work that into the novel as well.

I also wanted to explore gender and sex in the book. A very high percentage of harpists working today are either straight women, lesbian women, or gay men. There are not a lot of straight male harpists like Matt out there, especially in the US. I wanted a sense of Matt going against the grain of gender expectations, of being at odds with things in general, which would be an example of contrary motion and would also accent his issues with sex.

RH: Additionally, what drew you to setting the novel in Chicago?

AM: I’ve lived in Chicago and I love the city, so the details of the place were available to me and it was fun to be there imaginatively. It’s also a really good city for harpists. The principal harpists of the Chicago Symphony and the Lyric Opera are great players and draw a lot of students. There are enough freelance opportunities for a harpist like Matt to scrape by. And Chicago also happens to be a global center for harp manufacturing, with two major harp makers, Lyon & Healy and Venus Harps. I wanted Matt to experience mechanical problems with his harp and to make a visit to a harp factory.

RH: Contrary Motion is your first novel, as your previous works have been short story collections. Was it difficult to switch to a different form of writing for this novel? Did you have any tricks for working with an extended plot such as outlining or pre-working chapters?

AM: Stanley Elkin, a fantastic and under-read writer, said that novels are about chronic characters and short stories are about acute characters, and Matt is a chronic character; his issues as a person are those he’s faced his whole life, and I thought it would take a major movement of action to test whether he’d make any progress on them. I wanted to throw a lot at him—the loss of his father, romantic difficulties, his relationship with his daughter, playing harp at a hospice, and preparing for the audition. With all of the changes and challenges he’s facing, he’s really auditioning for a whole new life. I knew braiding all of that together was a novel-length story.

My guiding tricks were to use the present tense and to confine the action of the novel to roughly the two months leading up to and including the audition. Without doing an outline, I came up with some scenes that I knew I needed and started writing them in chronological order. Eventually I used a day planner for the exact months and year in which the novel takes place and filled it in with the basic events from the novel’s timeline. All that helped me manage the logistics of a long story, but the first draft still had a quiet, short-storyish ending; it took a few tries to come up with a novel-worthy ending.

RH: Similarly, are you the type of author who writes linearly (as in the story comes together chronologically from start to finish) or do you instead work in sections and rearrange the pieces afterwards? Do you recommend one or the other to your students, or do you think it strictly comes down to personal preference?

AM: I knew I was writing toward the audition as the last major action of the book, but the first draft was basically linear. I write recursively, “from the top,” over and over, which means I read over and polish what I’ve already written dozens of times, sometimes hundreds of times, before I extend the story with a new scene. I need to feel what’s already there is reasonably OK before I move on. Once I had a complete draft, the major revisions I did were less linear. I did a lot of adding and cutting throughout the book and some shuffling of incidents.

I’m wary of making process suggestions to students unless the student has gotten stuck. Every writer has their own way, I think. Eventually, you have to make decisions about how things are going to be. If a student is putting off major decisions for too long, I intervene.

RH: What’s next for you?

AM: I’m drafting stories that are about various pariah figures—individuals or classes of people the general public judges to be emblematically bad. I’m hoping that one of those stories in particular will turn out to be a novel.

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Andy Mozina is the author of the debut novel Contrary Motion (Random House/Spiegel & Grau). His first story collection, The Women Were Leaving the Men, won the Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award. His second collection, Quality Snacks, was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Prize and other awards. Mozina’s fiction has appeared in Tin House, The Southern Review, The Missouri Review, and elsewhere. He is a professor of English at Kalamazoo College and lives in Kalamazoo with his wife, Lorri, and his daughter, Madeleine.

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Contributor Spotlight: Danny Caine

danny in clevelandDanny Caine’s piece “The Middle West” appears in Midwestern Gothic Issue 21, out now.

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

I was born and raised in the suburbs of Cleveland. I recently moved to Lawrence, Kansas for graduate school, and only after moving away from Cleveland did I realize how much it shaped my worldview. Every landscape of my childhood shaped the way I see the world, from Applebee’s by the offramps to the blighted houses of the East Side. This is my world, and I haven’t really figured out a way to write about anything else.

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

I think it can be best summed up in the experience of cheering for the Cleveland Browns. You know any given season is going to have a pretty high quotient of misery, not to mention ungodly cold weather, but you’re nothing if not proud. This pride-in-misery builds community. The nod from one Browns fan to another is like how Jeep owners look at each other. It’s a Cleveland thing. You wouldn’t understand.

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?

My current project, of which “The Middle West” is a kind of title poem, is an effort to capture the Midwestern landscape as I remember it. It’s a love story, but too often love stories only blossom in the glitzy cities of cinema. How many love stories can you think of that are set in New York or Paris? Now how many love stories can you think of that are set in the strip malls of Cleveland’s southern suburbs? People fall in love out here too. People hold hands in parking lots where gulls perch on light poles over seas of only asphalt. People go on dates at Bob Evans. Their stories are just as lovely.

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

I need a line first. I usually start with that single line which is the pebble that hits the windshield to make the spider crack. For “The Middle West,” it was the line about $2 margarita night. If I can’t think of that line, I listen. Whenever someone says something great, I write it down. I have a list of lines to bail me out of writers block. One of them is “the smell of other people’s backseats in summer.” I haven’t written the rest of that poem yet, but I will someday.

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

I could answer this a few ways. First, when I feel comfortable reading it out loud. Second, when it gets published (and if that’s the measure, I’ve only “finished” a handful of poems). I realize both of those are dependent on outside validation, but I think that an audience really is a part of me deciding when something is done. Once it leaves my hands and I give it to someone else, there’s not much else I can do, is there?

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

Erika Meitner’s newest book Copia is really fantastic in ways a lot of Midwestern Gothic authors would appreciate. She tells these really image-heavy, totally affecting stories that are set in dead malls and Wal-Marts and Detroit and Niagara Falls—places that feel familiar to me but often get ignored for more exotic or “lovely” places. I also read a tremendous amount of fiction, and I’ve recently finished reading everything Elenea Ferrante has written. She’s incredible. I’m drawn to her because her books feel classic and current at once: she’s telling a story for the ages with a keen contemporary eye and ear.

What’s next for you?

I have one more year of my MFA left, then, who the heck knows.

Where can we find more information about you?

My website is dannycaine.com. Twitter: @mistercaine. Instagram: @dannycaine.

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Interview: Diane Seuss

18editcolorMidwestern Gothic staffer Rachel Hurwitz talked with poet Diane Seuss about her poetry collection Four-Legged Girl, the poems inside of us, lushness, and more.

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Rachel Hurwitz: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Diane Seuss: I was raised in small towns along the Michigan-Indiana border: Three Oaks, Edwardsburg, and Niles. I left for years at a time, but when I lived in other regions I always felt like I had vertigo of the imagination. When I lived in New York City, for instance, I could never find the horizon line, and for that reason I felt unreal to myself. As you know, writers tend to have their region, the source of their myths and metaphors. For me, it’s land that many would consider un-beautiful, but many would consider me un-beautiful as well. A writer ought to write from the land where their people’s bones are buried, if they can find them.

RH: You have been on faculty at Kalamazoo College since 1988 and the MacLean Distinguished Visiting Professor in the English department at Colorado College, so educating upcoming poets is clearly a huge part of your life. What inspired you to begin teaching at the collegiate level?

DS: I never really had a life plan. I didn’t live with a focused degree of intention until recently. Both of my parents became teachers in circuitous ways. My father, after serving in the Navy during World War II, got his GED and then a teaching certificate. My mom went to college for the first time after he died young of a rare illness, probably linked to his time on the ship, and she then became an English teacher. It was a profession she knew from watching him and his colleagues, and as she has said, she wasn’t much of a waitress. I grew up listening to my mom typing her college papers about Joyce and Woolf on her old manual typewriter, and then talked with her about her lesson plans and the books her students were reading once she began teaching. I guess teaching is in my blood, given all that. I apprenticed to my parents, my mentors, as my barber grandfather apprenticed at his dad’s side. My graduate degree is in social work, and I worked in domestic assault, community mental health, and private practice for several years before I was asked to teach a course at Kalamazoo College as an adjunct. I’d been writing poems all along, and had started to publish. I’d taught writing workshops for women in the community, alongside my clinical work, for years. My teaching went well at K, and I was asked back again and again. I had ideas about what a creative writing program could look like, how it might be shaped, and after a while there was a program that relied on my presence. I found myself doing social work, teaching creative writing, building a writing career, and raising a young child all at the same time. Something had to give. Ultimately, teaching won (and my marriage lost). I am passionate about the process of students claiming their imaginations and learning how to climb inside a poem. They’ve kept me young and aged me, both at the same time.

RH: What is the most important revelation you have acquired about writing, or life in general, from your students?

DS: I guess I’d say that I’ve witnessed the fact that we all have poems inside of us, and that the work to release them is tough. All of my students have had the capacity to attune their ears to the music of language and to uncage their imaginations. Learning to listen and to self-witness is valuable in and of itself, no matter what the student ends up doing after college. I continue to be surprised by the students’ resilience and by their capacity to create, and also by how “difficult it is to get the news from poems,” as Williams writes, but how much they continue to need that news.

RH: Is there any particular kernel of wisdom or bit of knowledge that you typically give to your students or others who are just starting their literary careers?

DS: Persist. There are so many talented writers out there (thank God) and often the difference between establishing a literary career and not is dogged persistence and self-discipline, which sounds like a drag but is actually the only form of spiritual practice that ever held water for me. In terms of writing itself, never stop revising your position in relation to language. I’ve used the metaphor of a bead on a string, endlessly gliding between the two ends. Narrative and song, image and diction, wholeness and fragmentation, personality and rhetoric—never get comfortable. Never stop second-guessing whatever you do that is habitual.

RH: Many of your poems have a strong sense of place—a time, a space, even a feeling of location—even if the name of that place is never explicitly stated. How did this arise in your poetry?

DS: The place I grew up, in the rural Midwest, and when I grew up, in the 1960s, shaped how I see and experience the where. As you can imagine, without internet, social media, cell phones, Netflix, with perhaps two TV stations on a good day, and one TV show geared toward children, media was not, for me, a location. There was also no pressure to perform, no awareness that there was something beyond the present tense to aspire to. We lived for a time next to the village cemetery, which became my playground, even the platform for the theater of my imagination. A milkweed pod was a puppet. A horse on the other side of the fence was a god. I was very lucky, in that parents didn’t fear children being assaulted or murdered, and I wasn’t assaulted or murdered. I came to know myself within that setting; I only understood myself as real within a non-virtual landscape. Even when I eventually lived in a vast urban space I was sensitized to the external details that hold us up, whether we see them or not. I see them.

RH: Your latest collection of poems, Four-Legged Girl, has been called “lush as in overgrown, as in erotic, as in drunk. Lush as in botanical, both in content and florid execution” by the literary journal ZYZZYVA. Do you think this is an adequate representation of your work?

DS: I love that review, and I think Maggie Millner, its author, is a brilliant writer. She was right on in her description of what I hoped for in Four-Legged Girl. The longest poem in the collection is called “I can’t listen to music, especially ‘Lush Life,’” and that jazz standard, written in the mid 1930s by Billy Strayhorn, really sets the tone for much of the book. Lushness, in the song, is erotic and swoony, yes, and also refers to the use of the word as a noun for someone who is over-the-edge, a drinker, a person lost to nightlife and shadows. I loved that double-usage, and I think it frames the book’s narrative line and emotional landscape. Its speaker contemplates her life as a lush lush. Hopefully, by the end, she comes to a kind of present-tense lushness that is synonymous with poetry.

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RH: Similarly, your poems seem to range in tone from light and comical to intense and dark. Where do these stark contrasts come from in your inspiration and tone? Do you prefer writing one to the other?

DS: For me, the two are all tangled up in each other—the comic and the dark—like a squash vine and a patch of deadly nightshade. It’s one distinction, I think, of writing from the Midwest. Yes, dark humor is a literary tradition in many regions inside and outside of the U.S., but the Midwest has a particular brand that I’m not sure how to put into words. It’s linked to the Southern Gothic but it has its own flavor, like my southern friends have different recipes for their funeral salads than we do up here. Many in Michigan are from families that migrated up here from the south. We almost remember that particular brand of jackassery, but we’ve lost even the distinction of being southern jackasses. Meteorologists, even if our weather is dramatic, rarely mention the Midwest. We’re a poltergeist region, trapped between areas with actual identities. Mid-career, midlife, middle of the road. That entrapment, that near-invisibility, is part of our tradition of dark comedy and one of its tropes. Also, if a Midwesterner gets too intense they get razzed. And if they get too funny they’re seen as trying to rise above the ranks. That’s a long answer to a good question, and I’m not sure I’ve answered it. (P.S. My mom makes a funeral salad called “Green Gag.”)

RH: Your poems seem to vary greatly in style and form—some are long and structured with clear stanzas, while others, such as “Song in my Heart,” are much shorter and freeform. Do you plan the form prior to writing your poems or is that a natural part of the process? Do you implement your structure in editing or is it present from the get-go?

DS: The skeletons of my poems usually, though not always, emerge as I’m writing the poem, but revision for me is about fiddling with structure. As you can tell, I’m not as much into the architecture of my poems as many contemporary poets are. I see structure as the bones that deliver the flesh, which could be considered a weakness, in both poetry and embodiment.

RH: Who do you consider to be the greatest influence on yourself and your work—either literary or personally?

DS: May I have two? The first is my mentor, Conrad Hilberry, who found me after reading one of my poems when he judged a little contest that I’d entered without realizing it was only for adults. My entry was typed single-spaced, with no awareness of a left margin, on a piece of paper I tore out of a notebook. He came to Niles to do a poet-in-the-schools gig at the high school in town and sought me out at my high school outside of town, which was basically in the middle of a cow pasture. From there, he sent me books, got me help to go to college, including one by Diane Wakoski, called Inside the Blood Factory. He never told me to simmer down or hold my horses. Second, my mom, her voice, her hilarity, her endurance, her solitude, her lack of vanity, her independence, and her funeral salad.

RH: What’s next for you?

DS: My next book of poems, Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl, will be out in 2018 from Graywolf Press. It concerns art with a capital A, specifically, early still life painting, and the connection between still life, which occupied the lowest rung on the art historical ladder, and the rural Midwest, and traditional women’s work, both in the house and on the canvas. It sounds stuffy but it isn’t. Writing that manuscript was the most powerful experience of my life. It pretty much roiled off of me, out of me, like water breaking or gas pouring out of a broken pump. I’m currently in revision mode for that book, and beginning to work on something new that will resemble a memoir, tentatively titled Auto-Body.

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Diane Seuss’s most recent collection, Four-Legged Girl, was published in 2015 by Graywolf Press. Her second book, Wolf Lake, White Gown Blown Open, won the Juniper Prize and was published by the University of Massachusetts Press in 2010. Her fourth collection, Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2018. She has published widely in literary magazines including Poetry, The Iowa Review, New England Review and The New Yorker. Seuss is Writer in Residence at Kalamazoo College.

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Issue 21 is Now Available!

Midwestern Gothic Issue 21 Spring 2016We’re thrilled to announce that Issue 21 (Spring 2016) of Midwestern Gothic has arrived! This issue marks our 5-year anniversary, in addition to new work that explores urban and rural, fractured settings, and nostalgic memories from exciting voices in the region.

Issue 21 is available in paperback ($12) and eBook formats ($2.99), including Kindle, iPad, Nook, and PDF. Buy your copy

Issue 20 features fiction from: Nina Buckless, Carrie Cook, Curtis Dickerson, John Fino, Zachary Gruchow, Rachel Hall, Perry Janes, Gwen E. Kirby, C. William Langsfeld, Matthew Olzmann, Gregg Sapp, John Scaggs, Jill Stukenberg, Amy Weldon, Kate Wisel, and L.L. Wohlwend.

Plus poetry from: Alina Borger, Danny Caine, Fiona Chamness, Andrew Collard, Andrew Malcolm Dooley, Trista Edwards, David Hamilton, Dennis Hinrichsen, Rochelle Hurt, Michael Lambert, Michael Lisieski , Caitlin Pryor, Mark Ramirez, Lee Colin Thomas, and Sarah Ann Winn.

Shop for Midwestern Gothic Issue 21 (Spring 2016)

Or subscribe and save up to 33%!

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Contributor Spotlight: Joseph Johnston

joe johnstonJoseph Johnston’s piece “The Chimney Effect” appears in Midwestern Gothic Issue 20, out now.

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

I was born in Central Michigan and then spent my grade school years in Colorado. I moved back for high school and have lived in Michigan ever since. Went to college in the middle of the mitten and have resided in the Detroit area since 1998. The region has a huge influence on my writing. Nearly everything I write is set here, either overtly or subconsciously. I suppose it’s only natural to have what you consider home inform your writing, but certain areas and buildings in my hometown of Alma, Michigan as well as the back roads of the Upper Peninsula and Thumb region could almost be considered a muse. My mind always perks up and listens when I’m around them.

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

There’s an old-fashioned problem-solving sensibility that many Midwesterners possess, the ability to quickly find solutions to anything that might get in ones’ path, no matter how huge. Hell, we reversed the flow of the Chicago river to solve a typhoid fever problem. Seasonally, things tend to run to the extremes, with massive snowfall and bitter cold on one end followed by intensely hot and miserably humid summers. Getting through these extremes every year toughens up the body and the soul and necessitates a fair amount of problem solving. This can have its drawbacks, however. Physical problems can be solved but often there’s a stoicism to us, an unwillingness to talk about what lies beneath the physical. A stubbornness that can be borderline dangerous. That can be a pain. Ultimately, though, it’s that hardiness and problem-solving sensibility in the people that I find irresistible. I should also mention the landscape. It’s unmatched. We have the whole world within a couple hours’ drive. Forests, sand dunes, lakes that look like oceans, rivers, waterfalls, giant cities both on the move and in decay, farmland, miles of open road, seas of grass, mountains. Everything.

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?

More and more they occupy larger places within my work. I think the longer I exist the easier it is to access the steel trap of a memory I’m cursed with. I find myself mining these archives for story. In fact my story for this issue began with a couple of childhood memories of being on back roads with a bad car battery. I don’t know what caused these memories to start playing like reruns behind my eyeballs but I couldn’t get them out of my head until I worked them into something. The more I do this, the more this happens. Buildings and people and tiny moments and entire seasons of moments will invade my head and I’ll feel like I did when they first occurred or when I first encountered them. Furthermore, my head and heart are constantly open to new experiences and new moments and new events and places and I file them away for potential use down the road. Everything is always wide open. I sometimes wish I could shut it off and just exist, but I wouldn’t know how to.

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

I used to wait and only write during moments I was particularly inspired. As I got older, these moments of inspiration came in fewer and fewer installments and I realized that to be a writer I had to put in more work. I try to discipline myself to write every day, for at least a couple of hours, regardless of inspiration level. I’ll generally have a number of flash-fiction pieces going at any given time, and one or two larger stories, and outlines for the video literature projects I do. I always read stories of the great success other writers have working in the early morning, but I just can’t get myself there. My time is night, late at night, after the kids are asleep and their lunches packed and the laundry folded and dishes washed. And even if I don’t want to, I make myself work. I have a tiny roll-top in the corner of the living room and that’s where I have the most luck. When I’m tired of working at the desk, I have a little tablet with a keyboard that I’ll tote down to the kitchen table or set atop the coffee table or take out to the patio in the summer. I’ve tried the coffee house thing like most writers probably try but I’m always too preoccupied with the people watching to get anything down on paper. The Evernote software has been a huge boon to me. If I have an idea for something while I’m out and about, I can enter it right into the story from my phone and don’t have to rely on napkins or old receipts. I hardly ever use notebooks anymore, sadly. Notebooks are cool! When I’m stricken with writer’s block on one project I can usually just switch to another. If I’m REALLY blocked I’ll generally catch up on e-mail correspondence with old friends or I’ll look up poetry prompts and try to improve my poetic voice. Or I’ll just do more research. Falling into esoteric Wikipedia holes has stirred me back on track more than once. If I’m absolutely flummoxed and the idea of staring at a blank screen is less appealing than jumping in front of a truck, I’ll switch to carpentry or honking on a harmonica out in a field or something.

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

I’m dreadful when it comes time to know when a piece is finished. I’ll revisit a piece twenty times before a submission deadline and then only notice after it’s been submitted that there is a gleaming error or typo or otherwise alternate way I’d like to tell a story. For me, I suppose a piece might never truly be finished. I only get something as finished as it can be before I have to turn it in. However, once a piece has been published I don’t tend to revise it further, no matter how badly I’m compelled. There’s danger in repeating yourself. There is wisdom in letting things go and moving on.

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

I’d have to say Sam Shepard. I majored in theatre in college and in one of my first acting classes I was assigned a scene from Shepard’s True West. I ended up pouring through every Shepard play I could find. I knew Sam Shepard was an actor when I was a young boy, from his role as Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff. Didn’t realize he was a playwright until that acting class. Then in my late twenties I discovered he also wrote fiction, which I also devoured. It was interesting because at each of these stages in my life I was drawn to this one artist, but for entirely different artistic media. His literary focus is primarily the lonely American west and the loss of the American dream, things that resonate with me and my experience here in the Midwest.

What’s next for you?

My brother and I are wrapping up a documentary about the famous Kronk boxing gym in Detroit. It’s part of a series of documentary shorts that will be compiled into a feature of old Detroiters returning home to tell stories. I’m compiling and editing a chapbook of my fiction. And as ever I’m constantly writing and making music which usually results in a piece of video literature once or twice a year.

Where can we find more information about you?

I try to update my website regularly at http://joe-johnston.com and you can always follow me on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/uraniumcity.

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