A lifelong Midwesterner, Susan Taylor Chehak is a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers Workshop, and the author of five novels, including Smithereens, The Story of Annie D., and Harmony. She talks with us about what the term “Midwestern Gothic” means to her, the inspiration behind her projects, and starting her own small press.
Midwestern Gothic: Tell us about your Midwestern roots?
Susan Taylor Chehak: I grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, born into a family with deep Midwestern roots. My husband is also from Cedar Rapids. In fact, our grandparents and parents were friends there. Tom and I went to preschool together and then on through high school. We didn’t really date until college, at the University of Iowa, where I was in the Writers Workshop (Paul Engle, who started the workshop, was an old family friend; he was my grandmother’s paper boy back in the early 1900s) and Tom was studying film. Eventually we moved to Los Angeles, where he wrote for television and I began writing novels. Sharing many of the same childhood memories with my husband has been a huge inspiration to me as a writer and maybe that’s why all of my books are set in the Midwest, in the fictional town of Linwood, Iowa, a faint shadow of Cedar Rapids, built from memories and dreams. I haven’t lived in the Midwest for a long time, but my family is still there and I go back regularly, especially in summer, to teach in Iowa City. I always have a car and I still spend hours driving around on back roads, listening to music, getting happily lost in the Iowa landscape, the fields and farms and small towns. I never get tired of this, ever, even though I live in the mountains now.
MG: A few of your projects really push the boundaries of storytelling. Tell us about What Happened to Paula and your experience bringing that together.
STC: A girl I knew in high school went missing in the summer of 1970. She was beautiful, tall, blonde, sweet—everybody knew her and liked her. She wanted to be a model; she had two boyfriends, one white and one black; she had a secret life that her friends and family say they knew nothing about. Four months later, her remains were found in a ditch near the river. Her hands and feet were bound and her body had been wrapped around a utility guy wire stake. There wasn’t much of an investigation and the murder was never solved, although rumor had it that she’d died of a botched abortion—she bled to death and then they dumped her in the woods.
After I’d begun publishing books, this story kept coming back into my head and I was thinking maybe I could make something of it. I went back to Cedar Rapids and was able to get a court order releasing the police file. I went through some rigmarole getting it photocopied, but eventually came away with the whole file, plus all the photographs and other documents that went with it. On the plane home, I thought: I’ve found my life’s work. Because in that story of Paula Oberbroeckling is every story I’ve ever wanted to tell.
This was in 1999. I did use it for one novel (called The Deep Eddy; it’s as yet unpublished), but the true story is what really caught me, because it’s such a complicated mystery, a real rabbit hole into the (sometimes hidden) world of that particular time and that particular place. No one knows what really happened to Paula, though everyone has a theory, and every theory has a hole, and it’s the willingness to forgive the hole in the story that often turns out to reveal something about the belief system behind the theory and the storyteller’s worldview.
I couldn’t sell the project as a book—my agent complained that 1. It takes place in Iowa and 2. It happened such a long time ago… so, who cares? In 2008 I brought a film crew to Cedar Rapids and we began to make a documentary film about the case, gathering interviews and photographs and newspaper articles and other documents, which I then put together into an 800 page manuscript that I was calling “An Anatomy of a True Crime.” I didn’t know what to do with that, and we’d run out of money for the film, so I built a website and put everything up there, with the idea of creating a collaborative investigation, inviting people who knew Paula and who were there when she died to come forward with what they know or heard or saw. We tied this in to Facebook, as well as to a couple of other websites featuring unsolved murders in Iowa, plus my own blog about my personal involvement in the case. This has generated a lot of interest, and now my husband and I are developing the whole project into a TV series with a production company in Canada. I have some other ideas for it floating around, too, including another novel and an art installation, where all the bits and pieces would be on display for people to ponder.
To me it’s always been about storytelling. This unsolved crime. And the holes in the stories that people are so willing to forgive. And turning it into a transmedia project has been a way to get other writers and artists involved.
MG: How long have you been interested in Midwestern Gothic (as a genre, not our journal)?
STC: It’s funny… I didn’t know I was interested in Midwestern Gothic until someone else told me that’s what I’d been doing all along. When Rampage came out, Booklist described it as “darkly evocative Midwestern Gothic” and Doubleday started using the phrase to describe me, with copy that began: “Hailed as a master of the Midwestern Gothic…” I had to go look it up to try to understand what that meant, and when I did I realized it was true!
When I was a kid I had these book club copies of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights and Edgar Alan Poe stories that included terrifying woodcuts by Fritz Eichenberg, and I gazed at those pictures and read those stories over and over again, scaring myself silly with them. When I was older, my mother gave me Rebecca and I followed it up with contemporary gothic romances by the likes of Mary Stewart and Victoria Holt.
Later, when I was published and people were labeling the novels “Gothic” I wanted to know what that meant, so I went back and read all those old Gothic novels again: The Monk and Ann Radcliffe and everything else I could find, including some lit-crit, like Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel.
I found this, in Nightmare on Main Street by Mark Edmundson: “Gothic is the art of haunting… [it] shows time and again that life, even at its most ostensibly innocent, is possessed, that the present is in thrall to the past. All are guilty. All must, in time, pay up.”
And this, from Chris Baldick’s introduction to The Oxford Book of Gothic Stories: “For a work to be Gothic, it should combine a fearful sense of inheritance in time with a claustrophobic sense of enclosure in space, these two dimensions reinforcing one another to produce an impression of sickening descent into disintegration.”
I already understood how the European Gothic worked these themes, with complex architectural structures of castles and mazes and secret documents, to be puzzled out. And Southern Gothic, with complex familial structures of characters and grotesques, where the gargoyles are living human beings.
Grant Wood, who painted the famous “American Gothic,” is from Cedar Rapids and was also a friend of my family. That iconographic painting begins to approach what we might mean by Midwestern Gothic, I think: the portrait of those plain people, stoic, solid as a rock, seemingly simple in their appearance and attitude, but also, in their way, closed off. The man’s face, daring you to ask him any questions. Her sideways look, avoiding openness. There is a tangle of secrets there behind those faces, symbolized by the Gothic design in the window of the house behind them. To me, that Gothic window represents the complex nature of the inner life, both conscious and unconscious—filled with secrets daring to be bared.
We get a hint of that complexity in the story of a guy like Ed Gein in Wisconsin, the original psycho killer, explicated in Deviant by Harold Schechter: “…for all their very real friendliness and hospitality, Midwesterners tend to be a reticent bunch, regarding certain personal matters as inappropriate subjects for conversation or examination. They also have a pronounced—and very American—tendency to take people at face value and to pay as little attention as possible to the darker side of human nature.”
This defines Midwestern Gothic, for me. It’s a hidden (or repressed) psychological complexity of character plus the tangled structure of a narrative maze (or fortress or house), in which a basically simple, flat, rolling, open, clear (as in the Iowa landscape itself) narrative takes place.
Now, when people ask me what kind of novels I write I use the term: Midwestern Gothic. And describe it as “love and death in Iowa.”
MG: What do you think defines this place?
STC: The flatness (though it isn’t really flat) that makes it seem as if you can see everything and see forever. And yet, so much is hidden, sometimes willfully so, I think. This friendliness that hides something else. This rich soil that hides something else. Limestone caves and thick woods, shadows, closed doors, pulled shades, old barns, abandoned buildings, fertile fields.
MG: Do you believe the Midwest has affected your writing?
STC: Of course, completely, it’s right here in my soul, it’s who I am. I’ve tried (and been encouraged) to write about other places. Los Angeles, for example, where I lived for so many years. Toronto, same. But those places are, for me, too… real. And seem almost cliché to me, they’ve been done so many times, in so many ways. Where the Midwest, because I’m not there, has this memory/dream reality that seems more easily imagined and then rendered into language and image, if that makes any sense?
I think, though, that the Midwest of my imagination doesn’t necessarily jibe with the Midwest of reality, and that worried me for a while. I go back to Cedar Rapids and see how it has changed. I look for the old places and mostly they are gone (those people love to tear down old buildings and replace them with new ones), but they are still here in my mind and I use those. In fact, I’ve been creating a whole fictional world: Linwood and its environs, based on the Cedar Rapids of my memory and my imagination. It’s filled with characters and their stories, told through a group of linked novels, called The Julia Set, complete with an encyclopedia of people and places that inhabit a world I call Foreverland.
MG: What was the inspiration behind your new project, Foreverland Fascicles, and the experience behind writing it, getting it published, etc.?
STC: What have become the Foreverland Fascicles began as a pair of novels from The Julia Set, which centers around a girl named Julia Bell who went missing in Linwood in 1961. Until We Meet Again is about a man named Ralph Wendler, who was one of two brothers who discovered Julia Bell’s remains three years after she disappeared. Alma Bell is Julia’s younger sister. The stories cross when Ralph and Alma, each in their own way, disappear, in the summer of 2006.
To be honest, what happened as I was working on these two books is, I got stuck and I wasn’t sure where to go next, with either of them. Rather than just let them sit there, I thought I’d start publishing them in serial form and see what happens. Put a little pressure on myself that way. I’d already written and published a novel (The Great Disappointment) under a pseudonym—Kathryn Dow, who also happens to be a Foreverland character in her own right—and so I decided to give one of them to her and keep the other one for myself. She’s a much more courageous writer than I am, and she’s funnier, too.
When I needed a term to describe what I was doing, I stumbled upon “fascicle”:
1. a section of a book or set of books being published in installments as separate pamphlets or volumes.
2. a small bundle, tight cluster, or the like.
3. botany. a close cluster, as of flowers or leaves.
4. anatomy. a small bundle of nerve or muscle fibers.
And I knew I was on the right track. At the same time, I’d created my own publishing company, Foreverland Press, which started as a way for me to bring my own novels back into print as e-books and has grown to include the backlists of other authors whose work was in danger of being lost. The press has recently published digital editions of the first episodes of the fascicles (available for free download at our website) and will continue to do so on a bi-monthly schedule, with three more episodes to take them through October. Kathryn and I are working hard now to stay ahead of that game…
MG: How do you believe self-publishing impacts writers like you, who strive to create something quite a bit meatier than run-of-the-mill paranormal romance?
STC: The technological possibilities for self-publishing are so rich right now. First, a whole world has opened up for writers like me, who have had some success in the past but now are facing editorial decisions based on marketing and sales constraints imposed on an industry that’s built on scarcity and a blockbuster mentality in search of the next big thing, to pay for real estate (offices, warehouses, bookstore space) and transportation (distribution and returns) that digital publishing is able sidestep altogether. An author who has been able to hold on to the digital rights to her work can now control its distribution and keep the royalties for herself. And a well-received backlist is a goldmine for authors who continue to publish and build their readership along the way.
At the same time, the technology offers a lot of exciting storytelling possibilities that are easy (and inexpensive) to explore, in the form of transmedia aspects, collaborative projects, and stand-alone works like multi-touch books with mixed media elements.
Further, what has been described as “literary” fiction has begun to cross boundaries into what’s been otherwise dismissed as “genre” fiction, satisfying our universal need for great storytelling, packaged in great writing by conscientious authors. And social networking makes it easier than ever for those authors to find their readers—whether that audience is large or small—and for readers to discover and share work they love, without having to wait for some stranger in New York to decide for them what they’re going to want and then make it available to them for a price they’re unable to pay.
MG: What’s next for you?
STC: My alter-ego, Kathryn Dow, is a bit more willing to stretch boundaries than I’ve been (maybe because she still lives in Iowa and dreams of being elsewhere), so she’s working on a piece of speculative fiction about a world in which everyone over the age of 27 has disappeared. And I’m finishing a horror novel in which Kathryn features, as a writer entangled in a murder investigation in Hollow Hill, a part of Linwood where children regularly go missing, on land that’s been in her family for years.
MG: Sum up the Midwest in 100 words or less?
STC: “Beyond the windshield of Bader’s car, the early springtime landscape seems a drab patchwork of brown fields, black soil, sooty snow, and gray trees. The murky loop of a river, the straight white line of a road. The dark splash of a lake, the rough-edged cluster of a huddled town. The cold air, screaming in through the open windows of his car, sucks his breath away and leaves him gasping. The trees that curl toward him from the edges of the highway are brown and bare, their trunks blackened and wet. The sky is steely gray, bruising over into night.” (from Dancing on Glass)