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K. Chess’s story “Milk and Cookies From the Other Side” appears in Midwestern Gothic Issue 20, out now; the story was awarded First Prize for the 2015 Lake Prize.
What’s your connection to the Midwest, and how has the region influenced your writing?
My parents are both from Michigan, and most of my extended family lives there. Though I grew up in the Northeast, my mom, who has a great deal of regional pride, always emphasized to me how different things were in the Midwest. Sometimes I felt like my people were from some exotic land! Maybe this is why the characters in my stories so often seem displaced, in one way or another. Now I’m finishing my MFA in Illinois, and I see that it really is distinct from other parts of the country.
What do you think is the most compelling aspect of the Midwest?
Yesterday, I stood in the rain to watch a parade. The marching band from a high school one hour west approached in their ill-fitting, decades-old uniforms, looking bedraggled, but as the woodwinds blended with the brass and the drums kicked in, the band members joined in a surprisingly well-coordinated dance, advancing in time, swaying with their instruments, and a woman in front of me who’d been stooping with her kids to pick up candy yelled out to them, “Yeah, you get it! Y’all are gettin‘ it!” Without a doubt, there are many cool people in this region, but I like the enthusiasm and respect for the corny that thrives here unchecked.
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 an appealing sense of lonesomeness around the Great Lakes. You can walk for miles alone across desolate sand dunes or along the shore; deer flit across the two-tracks, momentarily illuminated by your headlights, and kids party around isolated bonfires in the dark woods. It’s like the end of the world up there. I’d like to write about that.
Discuss your writing process—inspirations, ideal environments, how you deal with writer’s block.
Right now, I enjoy writing in a room with my friends, who are also writing. I put on my headphones and we set a timer and I have to be typing furiously until it goes off, of course, or else I’ll embarrass myself. Then, after we talk for a bit or get another cup of coffee, we reset the timer. I’m lucky to have this community. Of course, I also spend a lot of time alone at my kitchen table in my pajamas with the shades pulled down.
How can you tell when a piece of writing is finished?
I put it away for a few months and then, when I go back to it, I have a better idea about whether it needs major revisions or minor ones. That’s the theory, anyway.
Who is your favorite author (fiction writer or poet), and what draws you to their work?
Can I say two? My favorite Midwestern writers are Louise Erdrich and Tom Drury, both of whom create imaginary interconnected constellations of ordinary people. Erdrich is wise about the world, and wisely tolerant, I think, of its mysteries and ambiguities. The precision of her prose is beautiful. Drury, who is less well-known, draws me in with his humor. He has a way of exposing his characters’ secret thoughts and most crucial screw-ups without ever stripping them of their dignity.
What’s next for you?
I’m finishing up my MFA at Southern Illinois Carbondale this spring. I don’t know what’s next for me vocationally, but I hope to finish my novel-in-progress — which is about immigrants from a destroyed alternate universe — and write more short stories!
Where can we find more information about you?
Follow @kchessok on twitter or check me out at kchesswriter.com.