Michael A. Van Kerckhove’s essay “How to Be” appears in Midwestern Gothic Issue 19, out now.
What’s your connection to the Midwest, and how has the region influenced your writing?
Both of my parents grew up on Detroit’s East side, and my three younger brothers and I grew up in the northwest corner of the city. My dad liked the abundant green space on our side of town. I’ve lived in Chicago since 1998 minus the three years my husband Ernie (who is also from the Detroit area) and I lived in South Bend, Indiana. I appreciate the change in perspective that South Bend gave us. I’ve spent time in various Michigan college towns: Kalamazoo and Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti. My family also had property “Up North” in Manton near Cadillac where we’d camp or stay at this little motel called the Irish Inn. Detroit (and Michigan as a whole) used to be a place that wasn’t quite cutting it, a place for me to get away from. But since I’ve entered my 40s, I feel firmly planted in both cities. Maybe that means I’ve finally grown up?
Our four distinct (most of the time…) seasons for sure influence my writing—they offer four solid settings to work within. I was born into the Scorpio side of a Michigan October, which may contribute to my penchant for the haunted nature of our existence. That and my dad taking my brother and me into the woods near our house at night where he’d try to convince us he just saw the Headless Horseman.
What do you think is the most compelling aspect of the Midwest?
The Midwest to me has its particular brand of clashing ideas. Our first house on its huge corner lot with its towering blue spruce trees, and the woods, polluted Rouge River, and field across our streets made it like growing up in the country within the city. Michigan is filled with political and cultural extremes, socio-economic differences, its struggling urban centers and brilliant rural splendor, and this whole other peninsula that may as well be another planet to us Detroit kids. In South Bend, our side of the street was part of the Historic District, while the other side was not—and you could tell. And Chicago is several cities in one with all its different neighborhoods. This all makes life interesting, and hopefully at least on a subconscious level gives my fictional characters and the ways I approach true stories an edge and complexity.
How do your experiences or memories of specific places—such as where you grew up, or a place you’ve visited that you can’t get out of your head—play a role in your writing?
I’m active in Chicago’s vibrant live lit storytelling (nonfiction) scene, so I’ve covered many true-life places in my work: the aforementioned Detroit backyard playing guns with my friends; a darkened dorm computer room, chatting away in the early hours of the internet, the outside blanketed in West Michigan snow; the basement of my friend Bill’s house looking at his dad’s Playboys before Cub Scout meetings. These places have made it into my fiction as well: my South Bend and first Detroit streets; the Detroit freeway connecting my house to my grandparents’ houses. Whether it’s fact or fiction (or both), place is the launching pad for all the people stuff: desires and conflicts, relationships and emotions, triumphs and crises.
Discuss your writing process — inspirations, ideal environments, how you deal with writer’s block.
I like to brainstorm ideas by hand first, particularly with a nonfiction piece. Often, the shows I’m in are themed, so it’s a good way for me to riff on the theme and figure out my angle. If I have typed printed pages (whatever the genre) I’ll attack them with a BIC Cristal blue pen (the only pens I edit with) and then go back to typing. Show deadlines and the DePaul University Writers Guild (where I graduated from the Writing & Publishing MA program in 2013) keep me in check and offer always-needed workshopping opportunities and camaraderie. I like to write at home in the morning, or back on campus after work. Or a couple favorite coffee shops. I wish I could say I have a vigorous daily schedule, but I do always have things in the works. If I get stuck on something, or need to put something down, I can always pick something else back up: I have my hoard of ideas from life moments, images, dialogue, all that. I have many projects in various states of progress. Sometimes it may take a while, but I’ll get back to them eventually (the Writers Guild is a great opportunity to dig through the archives!) I wrote the first draft of the story that will appear in Issue 19 fifteen years ago just after the events took place, and I’ve been flirting with it off and on ever since. Now all that work is paying off.
How can you tell when a piece of writing is finished?
The short answer is, when it’s “brilliant enough.” At least that’s when a draft is finished and I can’t deal with it anymore without time away and/or feedback. Sometimes it’s the night of the show (or other deadline) so it has to be finished. For now. Even when I think something is finished, I’m sometimes mistaken. With Fiction, I tend to think epically. I love short stories, so I always need to focus on the heart of the story. I have to remember to stop at the right time, or decide if it’s no longer a short story…
Who is your favorite author (fiction writer or poet), and what draws you to their work?
I love John Irving for his epic life journeys and how, in addition to the main character(s), he beautifully threads in the lives of his minor characters (all those orphans in The Cider House Rules!); I owe a part of my soul to Owen Meany. Tobias Wolff’s short fiction never fails to take me to unexpected places; he’s economic without being too sparse. Kelly Link’s magical realism reminds me that I don’t have to explain everything to satisfy—sometimes you have to let the magic just be. For CNF, a shout out to Sarah Vowell’s “American Goth” essay and her overall take on American history.
What’s next for you?
I’ll see about participating in more shows this fall and into the new year. I also want to gain more traction on my fiction.
Where can we find more information about you?
Everything at michaelvankerckhove.com. On Twitter @mvankerckhove.