Midwestern Gothic staffer Katie Marenghi talked with novelist and television writer Patrick Somerville about the Midwestern landscape, scripting the hit TV show The Bridge, the storyteller’s role, and more.
Midwestern Gothic: Your acclaimed book This Bright River is set in Wisconsin and deals with very Midwestern issues of landscape and family ties. How do you think your writing has been affected or influenced by the region?
Patrick Somerville: My imagination and my sense of people were carved out by Wisconsin, by Green Bay, by Madison. When I first imagine a place, I usually imagine it as cold, snowy, and windswept—the question, somewhere, is, “How will this not be bleak? How can we make this work, and possibly live under these conditions?” I’m good with that as a starting question for any story, and I can’t help it, really. So much of what we end up being comes from what we actually see when we’re children—for me, dirty snow—but I think that holds true in a figurative sense, too, when it comes to understanding what hurts people, what helps people, what motivates them. I find the Midwest to be far more subversive and electric than it seems to be on the surface, or at least a place where people have learned a kind of subversive language and a subversive way of communicating with one another about things that are taboo. A place where truths go unsaid, or can’t be said, is the perfect landscape for a novelist.
MG: The TV show you’re writing for now, The Bridge, is categorized as crime drama and This Bright River has elements of murder mystery, but both are highly praised for breaking conventions in these genres. Both crime and mystery, when done poorly, can easily feel stale or clichéd. How have you been able to make writing in these genres still fresh and interesting?
PS: If I’ve been able to do anything worthwhile in this genre—which feels alien to me, I won’t lie, I feel like an interloper a little—it’s just been to deemphasize the shoe-leather of it all and try to focus on the people, and what it means, say, for a family member to die under mysterious circumstances, what it means when a father comes to realize his daughter was assaulted a decade ago, and he never knew. I think the best crime stories somehow nail all of it—the compelling detective work as well as the human devastation. But it’s a tall order. Nothing I’ve written has done both things quite right. I am still trying.
MG: And, since they appear in so much of your work, what drew you to these genres and dark themes?
PS: I think every writer struggles with the question of consequence, and wanting to write about something that has weight, has the feeling of mattering and has obvious meaning to it. Literary fiction is always in danger of being cute and airy. Maybe it’s a cheat to insert a body, or insert an act of violence, but it’s also a kind of denial to pretend our world isn’t horrifically violent and instead suburban, safe, and purely interpersonal. I have this theory that the rage for postapocalyptic fiction and stories lately isn’t due to a collective sense that we’re about to destroy our world, or that the end is near, but rather due to a collective self-disgust from the privileged and intellectual classes about a grossly inflated quality of life relative to the rest of the world. Or maybe that’s just me projecting. Or fantasizing. It’s just a theory.
MG: You also focus a lot on issues of morality. However, morality isn’t always straightforward; in an interview about This Bright River, you refer to the character Will, a doctor who volunteered in Africa and saved countless lives, as evil. So what makes a person “good”?
PS: I think I bend toward discussing morality because I grew up with no religion at all, and think of my desire to write books, in a private sense, as a long exploration of totally secular, totally atheistic morality. In part because I felt like I started from scratch, in part because I’m fascinated by things like conscience, or the way in which truly bad behavior will follow a person after he or she harms someone else, regardless of ideology. For me, what’s good is tied up with kindness and difficult honesty, but it’s also just what you do, cumulatively, with the many tough choices you’re given in life. Do you trend toward the generous choice or the selfish choice? Do you sit back and consider the consequences of what you’ve done? Do you take or give? Are you too political and not straightforward? That kind of thing.
MG: The Bridge, which is set around both sides of the Texas-Mexico border, draws on issues of border crossing, border politics and race. What do you think is the impact when these issues are raised? Does the show feel a responsibility to further the highly politicized dialogue about the border?
PS: I heard our showrunner Elwood Reid (another Midwestern novelist, by the way) give a great answer to some interviewer about this. Basically, he said that as writers, we would be confused and foolish if we ever thought a TV show was going to solve anything or even have an impact on a difficult, tangled, complicated issue, but if it managed to raise some points and dramatize the conflict in an honest and fair way, provide a place for conversations to happen, that’s a fine thing. Most TV doesn’t.
MG: Do you feel it is the storyteller’s job (in any medium) to discuss and contemplate current events? To offer an opinion or to educate the masses? Or can reading or watching television just be enjoyable?
PS: I have no idea. For me, stories don’t have to do one thing or another. That’s a kind of story, a story that delves into the world and its macro-level realities, but there’s no prime directive. It’s the storyteller’s job to communicate and connect, and to do it with dramatic energy—preferably smoking hot dramatic energy. Different writers get that from different places. As a reader, I don’t care if it comes from the language, the story, the characters, the ideas, whatever. Just that it’s there, and that I can’t stop.
MG: While sharing some similarities, narrative writing, such as novels or short stories, does differ in distinct ways from script writing—for one, performance of language presents an entirely different set of concerns from language on the page; descriptions are externalized through dialogue and visual elements such as sets, props and costumes. How have you found the transition from narrative writing to script writing? Do you prefer one over the other?
I think fiction is at the center of who I am as a storyteller, but it’s interesting to think about the differences. One day I was walking through our set on The Bridge, and I walked past a bunch of painters who were painting all these tiles, which ended up being the tiles on the floor of our police station. And I thought: “Holy fuck, these guys are all imagining the tiny details that I would either have to imagine, bit by bit, or put into a sentence somewhere, or let go entirely.” And the same goes for all the levels on a production crew, as well as for all the actors. You have a massive team working together, bringing many perspectives and noticing things it’s hard to notice if you’re trying to do it all. Actors will come up to you and ask about why they’re doing something on the show, and you sometimes have to step back and say to yourself, “I didn’t think about that. At all.” And so you make it right. Characters in books don’t come up to you at the craft services truck to chat about how you fucked something up. It’s a good reminder that all these people you’re making up really are supposed to have real minds, and that the story is better for it when they do.
MG: What’s next for you?
PS: The Bridge is coming back in January, and I’m working on a new novel, even though it’s going slow. Having a family has changed the way I think about writing. Here’s a good morality anecdote: When I was a little kid in the Boy Scouts, this one month I cheated and tried to lie about how I’d learned to fold the flag, just so I could mark it down in the book and get my badge faster. My mother caught me and made me learn how to actually fold the flag. Somewhere inside of me is a very juvenile need to earn badges for my uniform, and that’s a terrible impulse, artistically. It leads to nowhere. For now I’m trying to go slow, and to be careful. Both things are totally foreign to me, which I take as a good sign. You can’t fake the folded flag.
Patrick Somerville grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin, went to college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and later earned his MFA from Cornell University. He has taught creative writing and English at Cornell and Auburn State Correctional Facility, and currently teaches in the MFA programs for Northwestern and Warren Wilson. His books include two collections of stories—Trouble (2006) and The Universe in Miniature in Miniature (2010)—and two novels, The Cradle (2009) and This Bright River (2012). The Cradle was nominated for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Award. It was also a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers pick for Spring 2009, a Target Emerging Writers pick, and a New York Times Editor’s Choice. This Bright River was a New York Times Editor’s Choice as well, and The Universe in Miniature in Miniature was short-listed for the 2010 Story Prize.
Patrick’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, One Story, Epoch, GQ, Good Magazine, Esquire, Guernica, and Best American Nonrequired Reading. He is a MacDowell Fellow and the winner of the 2009 21st Century Award, given annually by the Chicago Public Library.
Patrick also writes for the FX drama The Bridge and Fox’s 24.