Contributor Spotlight: Sarah Elizabeth Schantz

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IMG_0346_copy2Sarah Elizabeth Schantz’s story “The Calendar of Ordeals” appears in Midwestern Gothic Issue 7, out now.

How long have you been writing?
I started writing when I was a little girl. I was writing before I was even reading—around age four. I drew all the time and the drawings were picture boards—they had characters and a narrative. I talked as I drew to animate the world. I remember going to bed (I still do this) and obsessing over the details of each character, or the twist in plot. I’ve always been an insomniac. I’d work it all out on paper in my drawings the next day. My father claims to have all these drawings somewhere in a trunk.

In the sixth grade I wrote a story about my grandfather that dealt with his death and the brown silk handkerchief I’d given him which he’d been buried with. I read the story out loud and when I was done the teacher told the class there was no way I could have written it and sent me to the hall. I remember sitting there so upset I wanted to run away. Later, my parents came to speak with the teacher. These adults were all sitting in these ridiculously small chairs and there was something about the size of the chairs that magnified my father’s fury. I thought he was going to punch my teacher in the face. My parents literally raised me in a bookstore so obviously they were there to support me. They have always encouraged my writing.

I got serious about writing after my daughter Story was born (she’s almost 12). Time becomes precious with a baby, and any free time was spent reading or writing (instead of housecleaning or cooking). I went to college when Story was two where I was encouraged by a professor, Molly LeClair; she let me do an independent study that focused on publication. I learned to write query letters, submit work, and gave two public readings. I didn’t get published for another few years, but I do remember my first acceptance letter. I keep a trunk of rejection letters. My BA was in Writing & Literature, and I’m almost done with my MFA in Writing & Poetics. I owe a lot to my instructors at JKS—Bobbie Louise Hawkins, Junior Burke, Keith Abbott, Bhanu Kapil, Reed Bye, Sara Veghlan and Elizabeth Robinson—as well as to all my classmates.

What’s your connection to the Midwest?
I was born in Boulder, Colorado, where I now live again. As a child when my parents went out of town to do book fairs, I’d stay with my grandparents in Fort Morgan. While Fort Morgan is still Colorado, it doesn’t really feel or look like Colorado—or at least the Colorado I know well. You can’t see the mountains.

As a youth I lived on the streets, squatting abandoned buildings, sleeping under bridges, hitchhiking and hopping freight trains. Especially on the trains I became intimate with the Midwestern landscapes. Every year, I’d travel to Renville, Minnesota to work the sugar beet campaign for the Southern Minnesota Sugar Beet Cooperative. The pilers look like gigantic praying mantises, and their purpose is to separate the mud from the beets the trucks bring in and therefore get an accurate weight. We worked twelve hour shifts, either midnight to noon or noon to midnight and depending on the weather every day if we were lucky to get the overtime. The season started out hot (the flies were incredible), and then autumn would roll in, sometimes even snow, and it was freezing. I’d make enough money to live for the next year.

I lived in Minneapolis for a few years in the Whittier neighborhood in a house we called the Castle. The house was falling apart, but it was huge. For $500 we had a two story house with two kitchens, two bathrooms, six bedrooms, a yard, and a garage with a forge set up in the corner. It was very different than the predominantly white and very privileged population of Boulder.

How has the Midwest influenced your writing?
The story in this issue is also an excerpt from my novel (same title). THE CALENDAR OF ORDEALS is about a girl named Fig. Fig first came to me four years ago asking me to write her story. Writing is like being a medium—I channel the stories of my characters, and when Fig came, I always knew she lived in Kansas even before I realized I was writing a retelling of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. I just saw her sitting in her window seat looking out at rural Kansas, and because her parents are relatively progressive, I knew they lived close to Lawrence.

The novel I’m working on now is titled Roadside Altars; it begins in Sacred Heart, Minnesota—although the heroine, Krystal Rassat soon leaves. I often stayed in Sacred Heart to work beets, but honestly my Sacred Heart is not the “real” Sacred Heart. I love the name of the town, and I needed the remote location. Krystal has a lump on her left shoulder which is the remains of Vanishing Twin syndrome so it was necessary to have her close to the Twin Cities.

I’m drawn by the aesthetics of the Midwest. I’m currently writing my critical thesis on the evolution of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and how it was the first American fairytale, pertaining specifically to the American dream, and in all its retellings, the American dream has persisted as the theme. I think Baum chose Kansas because it was the Heartland, the center point of the United States, the American core.

I’ve traveled all over the U.S. and I’ve also lived in Tennessee, Philadelphia and California, but when I remember traveling—especially hitchhiking or hopping trains, it seems I’m always watching a Midwestern landscape slip by—both the lake and prairie regions. I recall thinking of this world as America’s true backyard.

Why do you believe there has never really been a regionalist push for Midwestern writing in the past like there has with the South or even the West Coast?
I think of Baum again, and the incredible literary push he made for the Midwest. While Dorothy is first introduced surrounded by a very bleak, dreary and incredibly grey Kansas, the Land of Oz is often seen as the American pastoral paradise. The first Oz book came out in 1900 at a time when technology was advancing—not just the architectural drama of skyscrapers, but the new canning methods which meant it was always harvest. While Baum appreciated technology, I think he’d be in favor of the D.I.Y movement today. His real message was self-sufficiency—to live off the land and make things by hand.

Our consumer culture has outsourced other countries to do the work once was done in the Midwest. Maybe people want to forget about the Heartland? Maybe they feel guilty? I don’t know. But I do know this: I see the work you guys do with Midwestern Gothic or what Jason Lee Brown is doing with Stories from the Midwest, and I believe the push for Midwestern writing is increasing. I think it will come.

How do you feel about social media to promote your writing, and do you use it?
Facebook is the only social media I use. I’ve thought about blogging but I don’t think I could think of an angle that would attract a readership. That said, Facebook has been a wonderful place to promote my writing; it’s a means for me to correspond and track other writers, journals and presses. Facebook mystifies me—the sheer blur of narcissism and voyeurism, but in the end I get contact with people I love. I get to see their kids grow up when otherwise I’d be too far away.

Favorite book?
Such a difficult question to answer but I think I’d have to say To Kill A Mockingbird. Right now, I’m obsessed with Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell, and both of Julie Otsuko’s novels. I also adore Barbara Kingsolver, Jennifer Egan, Jim Grimsley, Angela Carter and Sandra Cisneros. I wonder if anyone ever actually answers this question with just one answer? Really, this is could be a very long list.

Favorite food?
Eggplant Parmesan. Vanilla bean ice cream.

If you could have coffee (or tea or a beer) with any literary figure, alive or dead, who would it be?
I’d drink absinthe with Leonora Carrington, spiked tea with Angela Carter (but no one would know the tea was spiked), a ladled drink of spring water with Flannery O’ Connor, and moonshine with Hemingway (we’d also dance all night).

Where can we find more information about you?
I just won the 2012 Fall Orlando Prize for Short Fiction hosted by the foundation, A Room of Her Own. The Los Angeles Review will be publishing the winning story in the spring, and then the story will be published on the AROHO website afterward. My work has appeared in Third Coast, The Adirondack Review, Alligator Juniper, Bombay Gin, three issues of Hipmama, The Concho River Review, 971 Menu, and soon to be included in the upcoming anthology of New Stories from the Midwest and online as a finalist for a contest hosted by Hunger Mountain. I am also a visual artist and have an Etsy site: You might still be able to dig up some dirt on me—like the underage drinking tickets they say go away when you come of age but don’t unless you pay the courts a lot of money.