Robert Stapleton is an author and the Editor-in-Chief of the journal Booth, which is published out of Butler University. He talks with us about the Midwest, his views on nostalgia, and the most interesting thing he’s ever done.
First things first, tell us about your Midwestern roots.
Almost none. First thirty-three years in Southern California. Moved to Indianapolis ten years ago. My mother’s from Wisconsin. Father grew up in Arkansas. He settled in Los Angeles after a stint in the Navy.
What do you think defines this place?
I think Springsteen had it right: “Lights out tonight/Trouble in the heartland/Got a head-on collision/Smashing in my guts, man/Caught in a cross fire/I don’t understand.”
One of the big things we focus on at Midwestern Gothic is how overlooked the region is, both from a cultural and literary perspective. Agree? Disagree?
Disagree. The Midwest has a bit of an inferiority complex, and that leads to some terrible politics (lack of regulations for fear that industry might move elsewhere, etc.), but terrific artists and work have come from all kinds of funky places in the center (Vonnegut, Dylan, etc.), not to mention all of the great work focused on the region (Thomas Hart Benton and so on).
What’s the most interesting thing you’ve done or seen in the Midwest?
When I was around twenty, my brother and I and a couple of our best friends spent a month wandering the country and sleeping in the back of a pickup hung with a camper shell. Well, four young men in a small pick-up night after night got old real fast. So one night I grabbed my sleeping bag and plopped under the stars in some spinning wheat field in Kansas. An hour later a cruiser pulls up and an officer shines his high beam on me. I lay still, totally freaked. The officer comes over and shimmies my leg with his boot, asks if I’m okay. Turns out somewhat had called in to report a dead body not far from the interstate turnoff. That was me, all dead and shit.
What’s your favorite thing to come out of the Midwest? It can be a person, book, movie, anything.
I love how Capote depicts the intersection of the Midwest and a new America teeming with violence in In Cold Blood. Also, his establishing shot of the Midwest on page one is incredible in its marriage of Midwestern aesthetics and classical tragedy: “The land is flat, and the views are awesomely extensive; horses, herds of cattle, a white cluster of grain elevators rising as gracefully as Greek temples are visible long before a traveler reaches them.”
What do you think will define the region going forward? Are there any cultural shifts or movements happening that could tip the scales?
I’ll tell you what I see in Indianapolis: exciting new small presses focused on terrific and substantive literature, new bookstores dedicated to community service and giving back, guerilla art projects happening in neighborhoods that empower historically underrepresented citizens, more and more independently-spirited film festivals and art spaces. As someone with a young family, I’m only sorry that I can’t make it to all of the cool things going on.
Tell us an interesting story from your childhood.
When I was twelve I ate a bad hopper at little league practice and busted my lip open. Blood stained my shirt, and my mouth swelled up like an apple. This was, of course, before cell phones. So I sat around for an hour holding my shirt against my upper lip while Coach Pretkus hit infield practice. Then I waited for my mother to pick up me from practice, wondering if I’d be in trouble or what, and she didn’t come. The other players all got picked up. Coach waited with me, asking where my mother might be. Then he suggested we run across the street to the A & W stand to get root beer floats. Unlike the other little league coaches, Pretkus didn’t have any kids. He cussed and had only three fingers on one hand–so we thought he was awesome. I went along with the float idea, though it didn’t seem like a good notion at the time–and not only because my lip burned too much for me to be interested creamy pop.
We drove across the street in his Buick, but not before he cussed at some Mormons on bikes. “Fucking Mormons,” he said. I later told my older brother this line and we would quote it often like we did so many other things that we didn’t understand. So Coach and I were standing outside at the A & W counter when I see my mother’s yellow Datsun hatchback pull into the elementary school where we practiced. This was the first time I felt that my life was something I was watching happen, outside of my imagination, and something that I might have to reckon with if I wasn’t careful.
Mom wasn’t happy to see Coach Pretkus and I pull up in his LaSabre, hoisting waxy cups of pop and ice cream. When she scolded me in the car, I felt it was a little unfair that I didn’t get to also scold her for being late. The evening ended in the ER where, after receiving a morphine injection in my upper lip, everything just seemed to melt away in a bloodstained bliss.
When you’re an adult, there are no limits, and you get to do all sorts of things no kid could dream of doing. Why do you think so many people still yearn for their childhood?
Nostalgia is chemically wired in the brain. I can’t think of any other reason that I look back fondly on my high school experience, which I knew at the time to be maybe the most miserable stretch of my life. The only immovable benefit to youth is the promise of a better tomorrow. The needle on that drops as you age.
Robert Stapleton is the founding editor of Booth. His writing has appeared in Word Riot, Everyday Genius, Stymie Magazine, Bathhouse, OCWeekly, Orange Room Review, and elsewhere. He teaches at Butler University and lives in Indianapolis with his wife and daughters.