Rachel Hall’s story “Jews of the Middle West” 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 born in Iowa City and grew up mostly in Columbia, Missouri. I attended college and graduate school in Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, which is a good portion of the Midwest. Who knows, maybe I’ll retire to Cleveland or Ann Arbor? Then I’d have it pretty much covered, depending on where one draws up the borders. At present, I live in Rochester, NY, which my husband, (a South Bender) calls the Far East of the Midwest. For me, the Midwest is home, but my family isn’t from there. We don’t have deep roots there, and that sense of being an outsider has informed my writing.
What do you think is the most compelling aspect of the Midwest?
For me, one of the most compelling aspects of the Midwest is the landscape. I’m moved by the fields of corn or soy stretching for acres or the wild dogwoods’ sudden lacy white in the woods along Indiana’s back roads or the blue-grey bluffs along the Missouri river–and always the big sky. I’ve always thought that Midwesterners are reserved and taciturn in response to the openness and exposure of that immense sky.
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?
We’re influenced so much by place, it seems to me. A place’s rules and codes shape us and define us. For me, place or setting is almost inseparable from character. I’m always mining the past and places I know for stories. Seeing a particular place over time has provided material for me too. We’re always confronting change and transition in life—a downtown in decline, for example, or an old garage turned into a upscale grocery store, a boarding house razed for a parking lot—and it’s essential to fiction. I’m also aware that when I read a story that is rich in detail of place, those details feels like gifts from the writer. I know about the Ottawa Valley from reading Alice Munro or rural Pennsylvania from John Updike. And I want to be as generous as these writers are.
Discuss your writing process — inspirations, ideal environments, how you deal with writer’s block.
Lately my best work gets done away from my house and its many distractions. My story in MG 21 was written in the lovely library at the Rochester Colgate Divinity School, which is basically next door to me. I love being away from wifi and in a place where others are writing or creating too. Mornings are best for generating new work and early, difficult revision, but I can sink into polishing anytime and almost anywhere.
I’ve used the Pomodoro Technique with success when I’ve felt stumped or blocked or unmotivated. This method has you write without stopping for 25 minutes. Then you take a 5-minute break to get up and stretch, get a cup of tea, whatever. Then you write again for another 25 minutes. This breaks down my resistance, because after all 25 minutes is nothing. I learned about this from Magnolia Mind, Karin Gillispie’s blog about leading a literary life. She points readers to http://www.pomodorotechnique.com
How can you tell when a piece of writing is finished?
I have trusted readers who I send work to for feedback when I think it’s done—or if I can no longer tell if I’ve accomplished anything with my editing and fretting. If these readers give me the go-ahead, I know it’s done. I think it’s really difficult to know when a story is done without this help.
Who is your favorite author (fiction writer or poet), and what draws you to their work?
Alice Munro is my all-time favorite writer. There’s so much I love about her work—her understanding of human nature, her complex characters, the honesty about relationships between parents and children and husbands and wives. I also love how she breaks all kinds of rules, but does it so gracefully that we don’t notice initially how innovative she is. I think, too, her girls and women, are not unlike a lot of Midwesterners I knew growing up—The descendants of German and Irish immigrants, reserved and hardworking, suspicious of those who put on airs. I feel at home in her stories.
What’s next for you?
My collection of linked stories, Heirlooms, of which “Jews of the Middle West” is part, was selected by Marge Piercy for the G.S. Sharat Chandra book prize and will be published by BkMk Press (another Midwest connection!) September 15, 2016.
Heirlooms follows a French Jewish family from the eve of WWII to the American Midwest. I’m also working on a new collection of stories about teenagers and technology and playing around with a novel, which also has a Midwestern setting.
Where can we find more information about you?
More information about me is available at rachelhall.org