Brad Felver’s story “The Era of Good Feeling” appears in Midwestern Gothic Issue 20, out now.
What’s your connection to the Midwest, and how has the region influenced your writing?
I’m an Ohioan in my bones, and though I’ve lived other places, I think I always remained an Ohioan. But it took living elsewhere to realize what a sturdy Midwesterner I truly am.
The most profound way that the Midwest has influenced my writing is through general work ethic. Because look around. Midwesterners know how to work! Honestly, I like to work, probably because I was raised by people who taught me—true or not—that there’s as much goodness in hard work as there is in accomplishment. So I work a lot, which is good because I’m in this world populated by people who are, quite frankly, a lot smarter than I am. Working hard is the only way I can keep up. When I slack off, I feel guilty. (That’s probably the one-two punch of being raised Catholic in the Midwest—all guilt, all the time.)
From the standpoint of story, though, all this means there is conflict at the very heart of the Midwest: it simply can’t exist without lots of people doing hard, thankless, important work. So, lots of my characters have these quietly deep-seeded resentments that they just let brew in them for their entire lives. Unraveling those is fascinating work, and they help infuse the stories (I hope) with an undercurrent of conflict.
What do you think is the most compelling aspect of the Midwest?
Understatement. Everything is understatement here. Even the landscape is understated in its beauty. (I used to live in Colorado, and I loved it, but I don’t think for a minute that Colorado and Ohio would know how to talk to each other.) There’s just no trace of swagger to the Midwest, all meat and potatoes, and I’m a meat and potatoes kind of guy. I live in northwest Ohio now, a place that is just oppressively flat, but there’s a sort of austere beauty to it. These flat, green fields spread out in every direction until they get eaten up by the horizon. It’s not traditional beauty, but maybe we grade on a curve around here.
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?
There’s a little patch of land in Mercer County, OH where our old family homestead sits. That’s home for me even though I never actually lived there. I still smell that farm every day. It’s the place where I learned to love the natural world, where I learned how to drive, how to shoot a gun, how to cast an open-bale. It’s where I learned to loving tinkering in the garage. Fifteen years ago, I set my first-ever story there, an earnest but truly terrible bit of writing, and I still frequently return to dramatized versions of it.
My family had to sell the farm a few years ago. It had been in the family for 151 years. Now when I think about it, happiness and sadness mix together into some strange nostalgia cocktail.
Discuss your writing process — inspirations, ideal environments, how you deal with writer’s block.
I try to write every day, and I usually fail. I used to be much better about it, but I have a young son, and spending time with him always wins out. I also teach and have a wife I like to see. Most days, the hours just seem to evaporate right in front of my eyes. I’ve had to re-train myself to pick away at stories in between things, and I’ve found it makes me so grateful—and so ravenous—for even two or three hours of uninterrupted writing time. After 3 hours, though, I’m totally bushed. I know people who can go on these marathon sessions for eight, ten hours, and I find that generally insane and impressive. I’d rather do wind-sprints for ten straight hours than write for ten straight hours.
How can you tell when a piece of writing is finished?
The first thing the clues me in is that it moves me emotionally in some way. If I’m drawn to reading it again and again, especially the ending, that’s a good sign. That tends to mean I’ve cinched together all the dramatic and thematic threads into something coherent. I also like that thing Twain supposedly wrote in a letter’s post script: “I’m sorry this letter is so long. I didn’t have time to make it shorter.” For me, that means I’ve taken the story I want to tell and distilled it down to its absolute smallest, most efficient essence. By the time I’m done, the ABV in a story has to be very, very high. Moonshine high.
Who is your favorite author (fiction writer or poet), and what draws you to their work?
The first person who comes to mind is Marilynne Robinson, so that probably means something. I adore everything she’s ever written, from fiction to her essays on Calvin, but I go back to her novel Home most often. She always has these perfect gestures that extract profundity from the ordinary. Home has this shattering power in part, I think, because of its restraint. Her characters always leave something unsaid, but the reader realizes it’s unsaid even if the characters don’t. Dramatic irony of that sort is so hard to manage, but she makes it look easy. I’ve found that her words often manage to break the plaque in my brain free.
What’s next for you?
I’m trying to finish a novella that takes place on a little island in Galway Bay at the moment. It’s giving me fits, but I’ll figure it out eventually. I’ve found that if I just keep working on something long enough, solutions tends to just emerge. I’m also picking away at stories and essays that are in various states of disrepair. I hop around on projects often, which I used to avoid. Now, I don’t. I think it’s just part of my process, and I think there are positives to be found. If nothing else, it means I’m always working on the project that has me the most jazzed, and I think that helps me avoid vanilla prose. (The downside, of course, is that I probably put off writing really difficult bits.)
Where can we find more information about you?
Oh, I suppose the Google Monster is the best place to start if you’re really curious. I’m pretty awful at self-promotion. I had a website but then forgot about it, and I guess the Internet ate it.