Bill Derk’s nonfiction piece “Angle Road” appears in Midwestern Gothic Issue 19, out now.
What’s your connection to the Midwest, and how has the region influenced your writing?
I was born in Fremont, Michigan: the Gerber Baby Food Capital of the World!!—not a huge place, really. My favorite place there is the Admiral Gas Station with 35 cent Shasta colas. I refuse to shop at Wal-Mart. Other than that I’ve lived and worked in factories in Grand Rapids, attended Western Michigan University and lived on Mackinac Island for a few summers selling tickets and mixing drinks. I now live in NYC, but I find it difficult to use New York as a setting. In NY no one buys cases of Busch Light while driving dune-buggies with their babies riding shotgun. No one contemplates loneliness while washing dishes and looking across the street at the county tractor pulls. Also with so much natural beauty in the Midwest—the vast fields, fresh water, isolated dunes and islands—in my writing, I like to describe a character who will never leave his or her hometown but will always wonder what lies beyond it.
What do you think is the most compelling aspect of the Midwest?
I suppose it’s what the setting of the Midwest instills within the nature of the people that compels me to write about it. There are fewer people per square mile in the Midwest, let alone millionaires. In that sense the idea of work and employment are held in different esteem because it’s not so much where you work, it’s, ‘are you working?’ What I mean to say is, you don’t need to know what types of cheeses are paired with Chardonnay in the Midwest. I wouldn’t know where to find a job in Michigan where that information would be helpful. A better ability would be that of changing a tire or roasting a pig or winterizing a pontoon boat. Also, I never heard of the term Sabbatical until I moved to NY. To a Midwesterner a Sabbatical means you broke your leg on the job or won 30,000 on a scratch off, so now you’re on Sabbatical. In the big city companies actually give their long-standing employees months, maybe even years off from work to do whatever the hell they feel like, and then allow them to come back. That idea is very strange to a Midwesterner. Twenty years ago my parents started a video store/tanning salon/black hills gold jewelry store/taxidermy depot in one. You do what you have to do to make money, to survive where resources are scarce. Thankfully, the idea for a business like this seems a little less odd to a Midwesterner. Then, because I like using real settings accompanied with strangeness in writing, it’s a win win for me when beginning a story involving porno movies and boiling deer skulls. After that I just have to find a place to introduce Cloyce, the man who digs up V-8 engines from his front yard and sells them for 500 a pop to send his disabled daughter to college.
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?
Memories and specific places are usually where I start with writing. I suppose that derives from moving around alot within the Midwest. When you do that, you meet people who you care deeply for: friends, lovers, enemies, all of the above, and you can never get those moments back once you’ve moved away from them for the tenth time. Yes, I know. People move apart. That’s life, but will I always remember a line in a Tim O’Brien story where he states that, through writing, he could bring the dead back to life. On the page he said it was the only time he could talk to these old friends and have them talk back. This idea moved me greatly and it is one I usually try to employ. A small example: I lived on Mackinac Island which is a great place to help describe strangeness because cars aren’t allowed and town is so small everyone knows each other—fudge shops workers and bicycle mechanics. I met a friend there who, like many others during the winter, liked to take his snowmobile onto the ice of Lake Huron. But with my friend, as a few others who did the same, one late night, he disappeared along the ice, and he, nor his snowmobile were ever seen again. Since I was only 18 at the time of meeting him, and living there was so pivotal for my growing into a writer without television or cellular service, those people had a profound effect on me no matter how many years had passed between knowing them and now. I swear, the present moment never seems as crucial as those I have once lived, so therefore, I’ve been writing stories about those people, or moments, which I have lost in one way or another. I start by thinking of the place, which is real, so it’s easily described, but I tend to put the people I once loved, or do love, into that setting as fictional characters. They talk like the real people. They have the same jobs and habits, but it’s the conflicts and dialogue I have to make up. It’s as if I say to myself, ‘If Bobby fell through the ice that night, was it a suicide or an accident, and if the answer isn’t clear, like most answers aren’t, I fictionalize where he might have been beforehand and the actions that led to that end. ‘What was he thinking?’ I’d ask myself. ‘Did he get in a fight with someone at the bar? Did his daughter call? Did his ex-wife? Was he simply fed up? A how drunk was he? If Bobby were to stay true to the character that I know him to be, he was extremely drunk. But why would that night be different? Begin story.
Discuss your writing process — inspirations, ideal environments, how you deal with writer’s block.
Writer’s block is fear manifested into inaction. When we sit in front of a blank page we are fearful that we will write something bad, something nonredeemable, so we don’t write at all and call it ‘writers block’. However, the redeemer of this fear is that I know without a doubt I will more often than not write badly, so will you, so it’s best to just keep writing. Pretty soon, with the proper amount of reading and talking to people and noticing things in the world, the act of writing will become better…with practice, of course. What I also know is this; the difference between where I am now and success is hard work; and the difference between where I am now and failure, is doing nothing. Reading someone you love will inspire you. So will trying your damndest at life. By all means, stick your neck out and get it chopped off and write about it afterward. After all, we all enjoy characters who want something but lack the skill to obtain it. I admire those types of people. It’s the ‘You will never fail if you never quit’, type of attitude I love to practice. Writers block? Is your arm broke? All joking aside (sort of) I would say to have fun, make yourself laugh, tell the world who you are on the inside by showing us, tell them how wicked you are by detailing the weird, depraved shit you can come up with. Use the phrase Fuck and make it a work of art. That’s something that I always try to do…use my dirty, blue collar vocabulary to my advantage and think, yes, by the end, I’ll show the reader that these people should be taken seriously. Maybe we are all Fuck-ups in the end of things. I suppose making that more than one sided is the real trick.
How can you tell when a piece of writing is finished?
If, when reading through it, it builds upon itself. Also, if I am entertained enough not to cringe. I fix many cringe-worthy sections in the editing process. Also, I like the reader to feel something by the end. If at the end of a story my heart thumps one good turn as if to say, ‘huh, no kidding, I actually did a decent job and that makes sense toward what I set out to create,’ that’s what I’m looking for.
Who is your favorite author (fiction writer or poet), and what draws you to their work?
There is one author that, if I read something I don’t feel connected to, I always go back to immediately. That’s Sherwood Anderson. He is the Godfather of connected short stories. Through the use of small towns and small town characters he tells of what lingers in all of us. Also, the language of the ‘groteseque’ as he calls it (which has now become a literary term) speaks multitudes about the people of the Midwest who have heart-wrenching stories but are somehow always overlooked by a publishing populous. These are the people I live to talk about—the mechanics, the factory workers, the construction types, the people who give zero shits about propriety and the utterly lonesome who would strip naked to escape their skin and show the world, if only for ten minutes, who they truly are.
What’s next for you?
Living…. At the moment of writing this I am sitting in a public library after a job interview. Last week I walked out of two jobs that were absolute shits shows, and I wanted better, so I interviewed at a fancy hotel, today. Luckily, there are options in NY. Other than that I know I will write, yes, somewhat poorly at times, but one day I will hit something, and then I will hit on something again, until ten years from now I will win an award. I don’t know what that award will be yet—a Nobel, a Pulitzer, a gift certificate to Wal-Mart, but it will truly be something if I keep at it. Self-fulfilling prophecies work in both directions. Believe, baby. That’s how it all starts.
Where can we find more information about you?
On twitter, @billderks2