Nina Buckless’s story, “Jupiter and Venus” appears in Midwestern Gothic Issue 21, out now.
What’s your connection to the Midwest, and how has the region influenced your writing?
I was not born here. I moved here five years ago to attend the Helen Zell Writers program at the University of Michigan. That aside, there is something powerful and irresistible about the Midwest that I can’t well explain. Sometimes it seems like there is a collective awareness that exists in the wind, rivers, landscape and people. It was not until I moved to Michigan that Descartes’s philosophy of “I think therefore I am” began to penetrate a deeper understanding in my mind. It might be the living history of the landscape. The shape of the place is foreign and familiar to me. I can recall moments of putting my feet in the dirt in Ypsilanti and discovering a dense but soft richness in it that doesn’t exist within the earth in any place that I have been to. In that moment it felt like I was at home for the first time in my life. I moved around a lot as a child and young adult. So, that feeling of being settled can be unsettling. I don’t mind that. Once, I went to Prospect Park and heard about children playing dangerously close to the frozen water in the tiny pond there, heard summer stories of rare birds rediscovered or new pollinators arriving. I’d heard that Prospect Park was particularly important to the Odawa, Ojibwe, Potowatomi and Wyandot. Before that, Ypsilanti was a seabed. The entire scape once an oceanic paradise of sorts. The dirt there is brown and dark and holds a lot of water. If one looks close they can find remnants of sand thereabouts. The names of streets, buildings, and abandoned places have made their way into my writing over the past five years. The last novella that I wrote was saturated with influences of the Midwest. I noticed a new element of openness that filtered into every nook and cranny of my imagination and work. I don’t see any mountains here.
What do you think is the most compelling aspect of the Midwest?
If I had to choose one thing it would probably be the light. The way the sun works here is like no place that I have ever been. There is a lot of light in the summer. Very little light in the winter. I can hear the train running by at night. During the winter it might be six o’ clock in the evening when the train rushes by, howling in the wind, but it might as well be midnight because it is so dark. So lonesome. During the summer, six o’ clock in the evening feels like noon. As an artist, this jostles my imagination. It creates a way of interacting with the world that becomes uniquely surprising and overwhelmingly beautiful, at other times it can create a sense of eerie foreboding, as though the night has enclosed itself around the land, covering it with shadows that either bring people together or push them apart. When it stays light until 9:30 pm (during the summer) it sort of feels like time is on my side. I haven’t felt that in any other place.
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?
In the words of Edgar Allan Poe, “While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping. As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.” I liken remembrances of specific places and their influences upon my writing in this way. I don’t know that I would be a writer if I didn’t have such memories of specific places. As I had mentioned, I moved around a lot as a child. I was born in Massachusetts and lived in New England until I was twelve years old. After that, I moved to Los Angeles. There are some spaces in New England that will show up in my writing either in a disguised form or through metaphor. Maine, with all of its dark water and claustrophobic lichen. Memories of navigating the woods as a child. Abandoned churches. Old stone walls. The feeling that my grandfather’s family has been living in New England for hundreds of years. My ancestral ghosts having the ability to choke my personal identity to death. I don’t write about specific events from my own life per say, but the work will be haunted by something born in a specific place somehow.
Discuss your writing process — inspirations, ideal environments, how you deal with writer’s block.
Part of my efforts in writing novels is to attempt to expand time, to put off death. This offers a certain freedom to take the writing at its own pace. On the one hand, there is also a contradictory feeling of urgency, time is going by, time may run out. This feeling pushes me towards productivity and completion. I want to have enough time to take all the time that I need to write my novel. On a basic level, I need my environment to be organized, clean and quiet. When I’m not writing my office is cluttered. But in order to sit down and write I need to clear away all the hindrances. Beethoven required a certain amount of isolation for productivity. Mozart was the opposite, he could write at an opera at a party, and gained inspiration from socializing. Some artists gain, what Nicholas Delbanco refers to as energencia from busy environments, other artists loose their energencia from busy environments. And vice versa. This question of an artist’s energencia is quite intriguing to me. It can’t be seen but when it is there it acts as a driving force. When I say energencia, I mean a certain creative energy, or force that transfers itself and is converted. If I am stuck or feel creatively bogged down, I will read. Sometimes, I go through notebooks to find words of wisdom that I have written down from mentors or teachers. Or, transfer that energy onto something else entirely, like cleaning my house. Usually, I need to feel like I am on a quest for something. I will use anything that I can access in order to fuel my process. Sometimes, everything inspires me. Other times, nothing does. The act of observing in silence might be the thing that I need. Writers have a tendency to feel that they should be focused on what they are looking at; sometimes we forget that the answer is in what we are not looking at. How do we find that thing?
How can you tell when a piece of writing is finished?
I do not mean to give a short answer here but simply put –what’s done is done because I am no longer interested. That means that I have exhausted all the possibilities. I am not saying that a piece of writing is a new shiny toy to be put down after I’m bored. There is a pedagogical philosophy called Reggio Emilia, which begs the question as to how to find a new way to be interested in a project, to push the thinking further. Go to the edge of a cliff and decide whether to jump off of it or not. Find out why I am bored. What is not working anymore. Can I look at it from a different angle? Should I turn in a new direction? And other such questions which point to a critical and independent thinking process. If the possibilities continue to meet a dead end I know that I am done.
Who is your favorite author (fiction writer or poet), and what draws you to their work?
Well, what I love today I may despise tomorrow. My list of beloved writers is extensive. So I can’t name all of them. But if I had to choose one work that I could always go back to and be surprised at or inspired by it would be, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha by Cervantes. It is a funny book. I love to laugh out loud.
What’s next for you?
I am writing a new novel. I am working on something longer, much, much longer. I am obsessed with it lately.
Where can we find more information about you?