Sarah Stonich is the author of the novels These Granite Islands and The Ice Chorus. Her new book,Vacationland, is out now from University of Minnesota Press. She talks with us about her Midwestern roots, the thriving literary scene in the Twin Cities, and the importance of “place” in her work.
Midwestern Gothic: Tell us about your Midwestern Roots?
Sarah Stonich: I’m from a small railroad town, a bedroom community of Duluth, where the railyards and roundhouses started at the end of our block. I still love the sounds of trains . We spent summers at the cabin when cabin meant cabin (no running water, but a two-seater outhouse) It was only forty miles north but it seemed to take forever, as did the days in the tiny Catholic school I attended.
MG: What do you think defines this place?
SS: Is there any defining it? The Midwest is so varied—at least in the physical—the plains, the lakes, farm country, Northwoods, our own cold sea of Lake Superior. But as far as the character of the place—it seems like the middle child it is—eager, sometimes gullible, fairly honest for the most part, often humble and not too ‘judgey and sometimes sensible’ and other times a bit slow and sometimes quite stupid, or not forward thinking (when it embraces copper mining, fraking, bad farming practices, lack of public transportation.) I’m proud to live in a ‘Blue’ state, although there is no explaining the anomaly of Michelle Bachman. It’s an easy place, surely easier than the East, with fewer aspirations, yet not as relaxed as the West.
MG: How long have you been writing?
SS: Close to twenty years—I was a late blooming writer, and not the product of a writing program, so that makes me a bit like the red-headed stepchild at places like the AWP (A conference I just attended.)
MG: Do you believe the Midwest has affected your writing?
SS: Deeply. If I was writing without this region as a stage or setting, my work would drift anchorless. I’m a big believer in writing place, any setting that gives characters opportunities to reveal themselves through their reactions and responses and impression of where they are, the culture they live in, what they see, smell hear.
MG: What was the inspiration behind Vacationland and the experience behind writing it, getting it published, etc.?
SS: The setting is inspired by those mom and pop resorts that are mostly gone—I wanted to feature a place and have it be as much a character as the parade of visitors that pass through the place, or the protagonist tied to the place like one is often tied to family – by love and nostalgia and legacy, though not always by choice.
Getting it published was a little fraught. My agent had it for a year and couldn’t sell it to the big houses because they didn’t like the sales numbers for my second novel. I sold it myself to the first place I brought it, The University of Minnesota Press, where I have a great editor and the team is wonderful—high standard and professional than the big NY publisher of my first two novels.
MG: In publishing Midwestern Gothic, we’ve discovered unexpected hotbeds of literary talent in the Midwest, Minneapolis being one of them. Can you talk about the literary scene in the Twin Cities and how it came together over time?
SS: There’s so much more going on here than the old guard of Garrison Keillor, Louise Erdrich and Robert Bly, but most of America defines us by their work. In reality, we have a far greater range, and rafts of up and coming novelists, poets, YA writers. Peter Geye, Lightsey Darst, Todd Boss, Matt Batt to name only a fraction. People in the literary community here are being bold, starting magazines like Revolver (launched in a boxing gym, with contributors actually boxing) and Thirty Two, modeled a bit like The New Yorker. We’ve got impressive publishers and great cross-culture bridging art, music, literature, spoken word, etc. We’ve got The Loft; a lively book club Books and Bars which brings lit to more fun venues. Literary Death Match was born here. Local authors are doing things a little differently. My launch for Vacationland is in a bar and billed as a Book Launch Neo Polka party, with eight of the local literati all reading different sections, with musicians helping out; the giveaway are beer coasters embossed with the book cover. Minnesota is good to its writers and there’s growing excitement to promote our position as a great literary state.
MG: University of Minnesota Press is also re-publishing These Granite Islands in tandem with Vacationland—can you tell us how that came about?
SS: These Granite Islands was a big book when it came out and had lots of translations and attention, but oddly it wasn’t as widely promoted here as it was in the markets and abroad – so while it was bestseller in Germany and Italy it didn’t get much traction here, mostly because all the publicity was coming from NY and they seemed to know little about our Midwestern markets. I’d say more people in Denmark read the book than Minnesotans. The U of MN Press saw the potential in bringing it out again—it was an unexpected bonus of signing on with them.
MG: These Granite Islands came out in 2002, and it was almost six years before your next book was released. During that time, the publishing industry went through a bit of a sea change. What changes did you go through as a writer during that period? How was the experience of publishing your second novel different?
SS: Actually I had a novel in 2005, The Ice Chorus, which got better reviews than These Granite Islands, and was admittedly a better book, but factors like a terrible jacket design and Little Brown & Co.s promotion budget for that year going mostly to a David Sedaris title. A lot of mid-list authors got jacked during that era, when big publishing concentrated on big names, and the puppy-mill mentality of publishing mostly first time novelists but not supporting them through another book or two. I’ve spent a lot of my time reinventing myself and doing what so many are having to do, becoming a social media wonks. Big publishing has dropped the ball in so many ways that savvy small indies and university presses are picking up authors who jumped the sinking model of publishing who would rather go down than change. The prevailing attitude seems to be but we’ve always done it this way. To which a lot of writers are responding, “Yeah, how’s that working out for you?”
MG: What’s next for you?
SS: Lots. I have a nom de plume, Ava Finch (avafinch.com) and ‘she’ is writing a series of “thinking women’s chick lit”, edgier prose with more voice and attitude (and me clinging to my youth) I’m hoping she’ll help support my literary half—I have one big, rangy, opus-style novel in the works, one of those five-year monsters. And, of all things, a western, inspired by reading The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick DeWitt.
MG: Sum up the Midwest in 100 words or less?
SS: If I think of the increasingly mall-like atmosphere prevailing in the US, I imagine the food court represents our different regions. The Midwest is the corner diner where you can count on the pale tomato on the iceberg lettuce and the decent burgers and the waitress that looks like your aunt. But every once in a while, it has an awesome special.