When we started Midwestern Gothic and MG Press, our goal was simple: to showcase the immense pool of writers and poets in the Midwestern United States, as well as to show the world that we are an unique place with unique stories and mythologies worth taking a look at. MG Press’ first publication, the collection of shorts This Jealous Earth (to be published on January 15, 2013) and its author, Scott Dominic Carpenter, fit the bill perfectly, and we couldn’t be more thrilled to share it with readers everywhere.
Today, we’re happy to present part 1 of a recent interview with Scott, where we dig in deep, talking candidly about the collection, his background, inspirations, and, of course, how the Midwest has influenced him over the years.
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Midwestern Gothic: Where are you right now, and did anything interesting happen along the way to where you are right now?
Scott Dominic Carpenter: At the moment I’m sitting in an apartment overlooking the rooftops of a residential neighborhood in Copenhagen. I’m teaching in Denmark for a few months—mostly a class on creative travel writing. I’m rather surprised to have ended up here at all. Frankly, I’d never felt drawn to Scandinavia. But it’s like everything else: familiarity breeds fascination, and now I’m trying to learn all I can.
MG: Does travel figure prominently in your writing?
SDC: Almost always. Several of the stories in This Jealous Earth deal, in one way or another, with travel. Not so much in a tourist-let’s-go-see-the-sights kind of way. But for me, travel means disorientation and dislocation. It’s the encounter with difference and difficulty. In that respect, writing is always about some kind of voyage, even when you don’t go anywhere geographically.
I firmly believe that you can only understand your own language and culture by learning another. In this way, I’d say that my travels have taught me a great deal about the US.
MG: Are you interested capturing the spirit of different places?
SDC: Somewhat. I have a novel coming out in June (Theory of Remainders) that takes place in France, and in that book the setting is quite important. But I find locations less interesting than people. In This Jealous Earth, the stories are always about relationships. The places and cultures represented are significant, but only insofar as they’re expressions of the characters.
MG: You live in the Midwest. Do you think that connection has influenced your writing?
SDC: Everything influences my writing! The lumpiness of my pillow, the strength of my coffee, the way I nick myself with my razor. So yes, naturally, my time in the Midwest has influenced me.
I was afraid you’d ask that question. It’s hard to be specific. My connection to the Midwest is imperfect and sporadic. I moved around a lot as a kid and remained mobile as an adult. I’ve lived abroad for several years. However, the Midwest has been a hub, a kind of home base. Because I draw on whatever is handy when I’m writing, I pluck scenes and dialogue and plot elements and characters out of my environment and experience. So, many of my stories are set in a vaguely Midwestern background or are peopled with characters that hail from the Midwest—even though they may be displaced in the context of the story.
MG: What do you think defines Midwesterners? Their most endearing quality? Their fatal flaw?
SDC: Well, of course the Midwest isn’t as uniform as it once was. There’s a lot of cultural, ethnic and racial mixture, which enriches Midwestern communities at the same time that it challenges them. Overall, I’m impressed with Midwesterners’ ability to get along with one another, despite very different backgrounds. But sometimes I worry that “getting along” isn’t enough. That leads to the second part of your question. What is our most endearing quality and our fatal flaw? Just one answer for both: our niceness.
MG: Do you think the Midwest is a place that’s overlooked culturally? What about from a literary perspective? Why do you think that?
SDC: I suppose some people think of the Midwest as cultural “flyover country,” but mostly readers don’t know where authors come from. Hemingway was born in Illinois, but who thinks of him as a Midwestern writer? How about Saul Bellow (the Chicago connection)? Or Toni Morrison (Ohio)? I don’t know if this little collection of Nobel Prizes will convince anyone of the prominence of the Midwest, but it should. Much of the best writing in America comes from the heartland.
MG: What inspires you when you’re writing?
I wish there were a formula. Sometimes it’s an anecdote I overhear. Sometimes it’s a single image that unravels into a story. Let me give you an example. One day I was in a kitchenware shop, and a well-dressed, middle-aged woman came in to purchase two little table ornaments. The manager of the store looked her straight in the eye and said, “Is that to go with the two others you stole earlier?” Accusations and denials flew, and in the end the woman paid for the missing items, although she never confessed to taking them.
The manager told me afterwards he had it all on film and he could have turned her over to the police. I got to wondering: what makes a person like that steal—someone who clearly has plenty of dough? That incident turned into “Thrift” [one of the stories in This Jealous Earth].
MG: You spend a lot of time in France, an ocean (and many different cultures) away. What’s something that might be surprising to someone who doesn’t spend a significant amount of time living in many different places? Something they might never think of?
SDC: I always like to see how different cultures operate by different rules, most of which are unconscious and invisible. A simple example is when you see two people standing together speaking. Americans are used to having a lot of space, and even at a cocktail party, they’ll stand far enough apart that they have to shout back and forth, and they could practically pull out the baseball gloves and play a game of catch. In France people stand much closer, like diplomats or lovers whispering back and forth. Put an American and a Frenchman together for the first time, and one will constantly back away from the other, who, in turn, tries to fill the gap.
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For more on This Jealous Earth, including how to pre-order for only $1, click here.