Midwestern Gothic staffer Lauren Stachew talked with author Lawrence Coates about his book The Goodbye House, how his time at sea prepared him to become an author, unsettling characters through specific settings, and more.
Lauren Stachew: What’s your connection to the Midwest?
Lawrence Coates: I’ve lived in Northwest Ohio since 2001, in the center of what was once the Great Black Swamp, and I’ve grown to understand Midwestern seasons and landscapes. I’ve also grown to understand something of the culture of this part of the world, in part through my creative writing students. The graduate program recruits nationally, and even attracts international students at times, but there is still a regional flavor to it. And the undergraduate program is made up almost entirely of Ohioans, so the stories I see and the discussions we have about them have given me insight into what it’s like to have roots here.
LS: You grew up in California, and all of your novels are set in Northern California. Now that you live in Bowling Green, Ohio, how did your perception of the Midwest change when you left the West Coast?
LC: It’s true that my novels are set in California, but I have written some short stories set in the Midwest, including “Bats,” which won the Barthelme Prize in Short Prose. I didn’t know much about the Midwest before moving here; I hadn’t spent much time in the region, outside of several trips to Chicago.
I’ve noticed one real contrast with the West since moving here. People who live in the Midwest seem to have settled near where they grew up, whereas people in California have come from around the world. And in the West, there seems to be a restlessness, more inclination to move. Perhaps it’s because of the landscape, the undeniable expanses of open and empty spaces in the West, and the dramatic mountain ranges that beckon people to move on, whereas the landscape here seems more cozy or confining.
And yet, the cultural understanding that one ought to belong and be content in a place can conceal a repressed feeling of estrangement. I think that’s one of the themes running through the work in Midwestern Gothic, and one of the reasons I enjoy the journal. In the short fiction I’ve set here, I’ve usually placed something strange or incongruous into a setting of utmost normality and tried to use that to explore what’s below the surface.
LS: Recently, you received an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award, as well as an Olscamp Research Award from BGSU. Congratulations! Could you tell us a bit more about these awards? How does this impact your current or future writing?
LC: Thank you. The Olscamp Research Award is really quite an honor. It’s the top research award at the university, and it’s given for scholarship or creative work over the previous three-year period. I applied for it because my work had received a lot of recognition during that span – to a certain extent, that’s just because the stars aligned, and I had a book out in 2012 and two books out in 2015. And the Ohio Arts Council recognition was also very gratifying. Ohio supports the arts in many ways, and I was very pleased to be named along with some other writers whose work I admire, such as BGSU alum Amy Gustine.
Some of my work is historical, and so the funds received from both awards will help finance travel to a couple of archives that are important to me. But what I really hope is that any awards and recognition I receive helps the work find readers. It’s more important to me that somebody reads and enjoys my work than to have a plaque on the wall.
LS: You spent four years as a Quartermaster in the Coast Guard and four more in the Merchant Marine. What led you to become a writer and professor?
LC: I did spend some eight years aboard a series of ships, from the North Atlantic to the South Pacific to the Indian Ocean. But I think I always wanted to be a writer, including during those years when I was at sea.
I was a sailor in the days before the Internet, before smartphones, before DVD’s, and the men I sailed with – and it was 95% men – were great readers and storytellers. I used to stand the midwatch, which means I was on the bridge of the ship between midnight and four a.m., and I remember those long hours under the stars out at sea hearing tales of every sort. And I met all kinds of people aboard ship, people I probably never would have encountered otherwise. On one ship, I bunked with a man who had sailed on ammo ships across the Atlantic during World War II and had been sunk by a U-boat. On another ship, I shared a forecastle with an ex-con who had been in prison for attempted murder, and yet when I knew him he wanted mainly to talk about his grandchildren. I sailed with many veterans of the Vietnam War who had never quite found their footing afterwards, and with a man who lost his job selling Winnebagos during the 1973 Oil Crisis, and then lost his marriage. We swapped books we liked. Lots of thrillers and detective stories, but also the stray Vonnegut novel. I remember one shipmate who loved Ray Bradbury and insisted I read Dandelion Wine. In many ways, my time at sea was great training for a writer.
Yet I wouldn’t have become a writer, I don’t think, unless I had decided at last to go to college and study literature. And once I began my studies, I found such a deep pleasure in it that, in some ways, I never left. For a time, I focused on contemporary Latin American Literature. In graduate school, I originally intended to write a dissertation on Don Quixote before deciding to change to a program at the University of Utah that would allow me to write a novel for my dissertation. In the course of my studies at Utah, I read and studied American Literature, and I found those themes in the novels of Melville and Faulkner that still form the core of my work.
I always enjoyed the teaching that was a part of graduate studies, and I’ve been fortunate to find a good position. I think it’s something of a privilege to teach in an MFA program, and I enjoy working with the talented young writers who come to Bowling Green for two years and then go on to write and publish fine works of fiction.
LS: Your most recent novel, The Goodbye House, is set in the aftermath of the early-2000s dot-com bust in San Jose, California, and follows the narratives of three characters whose lives are all affected by this changing landscape. What led you to write about this specific time in recent history?
LC: To some extent, writing about this time period grew naturally from my previous work. My first novel was entitled The Blossom Festival, and it took place in the region around San José in the twenties and thirties, just as the region was beginning to change from an agrarian, orchard-based economy to a more urban economy. The Santa Clara Valley, at one point, was known as The Valley of Heart’s Delight; now it’s known as Silicon Valley. And my first book tried to capture that time when things are beginning to change, even though the characters in the novel might be unaware of what is happening around them.
Setting a novel in the same region in the early 2000s let me explore again a time of great change. I was able to depict the suburban developments that had replaced the orchards, and also link up the last of the World War II generation with the new generation that was coming of age after computers had become commonplace – though a little before the rise of Facebook, Snapchat, and smartphones.
2003, specifically, meant that the novel was set not only in the aftermath of the dot-com bust, but also in the aftermath of 9/11. It was a time when many established verities were being called into question, and that allowed me to unsettle my characters in ways that forced them to act and reveal themselves.
I know that many works of fiction are set in a somewhat undefined present, but I prefer to place novels in specific years because I want to show that the characters are part of a larger world, and that the larger world influences their lives, even though they might not realize it.
LS: You’ve spent nearly twenty years teaching creative writing, both as a professor and a director of the MFA Program at Bowling Green State University. How has the experience of teaching taught you about your own writing?
LC: Teaching creative writing, particularly at the graduate level, has taught me to be very conscious of craft. Because I am frequently reading and responding to works that are in process, I’ve had to develop a vocabulary to describe what is being workshopped. And that vocabulary of point of view, dramatic irony, narrative arcs, the sense of an ending, has inevitably come into my own composition process.
Let me say something briefly about teaching that comes from John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist. One of the marks of a bad workshop, he says, is that the teacher tries to “coerce his students into writing as he himself writes.” So when I say I’ve developed a vocabulary to describe work, I don’t intend for that description to be a judgment that something is good or bad. I look at it as a way to help young writers see what the work is doing and allow them to understand for themselves whether it is fulfilling their intent. I think, in the past, I was more judgmental in workshops, and I hope I’ve left that behind.
But to your question – being aware of craft has allowed me to consciously choose an aesthetic stance for a particular work. One of my literary heroes is Virginia Woolf, in part because she was a writer who seemed willing to reinvent herself for each work. So the writer who created To the Lighthouse or The Waves, those shimmering works that depict the individual consciousness of characters, could also create Orlando, a crazy novel that takes place over several hundred years and has a narrative voice not too dissimilar from that used by Henry Fielding in Tom Jones.
In my own work, I chose a more distant omniscient voice for The Blossom Festival, suitable to the epic sweep of the book. In The Master of Monterey, the narrative voice is clearly also a character, sometimes addressing the reader directly. In Camp Olvido, the point of view is more objective, painterly, without judgment, suitable to the deep moral ambiguity at the heart of the book. The Goodbye House, on the other hand, is a more comic novel, and the narrative voice feels free to comment on the characters’ flaws and foibles. It’s a point of view I’ve sometimes called “smart ass omniscience,” very good for comic writing.
So teaching has made me very conscious of craft, and I hope that has served me well in the works I’ve published.
LS: You mentioned in a previous interview that you write on a manual typewriter. What made you choose this method, and why do you feel it’s a better option than the modern computer?
LC: Using a manual typewriter is partly just a personal preference. I like the feel of the keys, and I like the sound of the type hitting the platen. And there’s something nice about a pile of pages that grows a little taller, day by day. It’s much more satisfying than seeing the size of your file go from 48 KB to 52 KB.
However, I also like the fact that I never lose a word or a phrase. There is no delete key. When I type something that I want to revise, I cross it out in pen and continue typing. Then, during revision, my initial impulse is there and present. I tend to complete a draft of a chapter and then enter it into the computer from the typescript. So re-typing the entire manuscript also becomes a part of my revision process.
It’s not something that’s right for everyone, though I sometimes mention that Cormac McCarthy wrote Blood Meridian and all his other works on a portable Olivetti that he bought for fifty dollars at a thrift store. That seems to get people’s attention.
LS: Which author or authors have had the most influence on your writing?
LC: At the top of any list of authors important to me would be William Faulkner. His deep engagement with a particular region and the way the burden of history weighs upon the lives of characters remains a north star for me. Gabriel García Márquez, a writer himself influenced by Faulkner’s work, has been important for me. I decided to learn Spanish in part because of wanting to read One Hundred Years of Solitude in the original. Toni Morrison is another author who consciously places her stories within a historical context that haunts her characters – sometimes literally, as in Beloved.
Ernest Hemingway famously said that all American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. I couldn’t disagree more. There has always been a counter-current to Twain in American literature, exemplified by the strangeness of writers like Hawthorne and Melville who found it impossible to represent America through the narrow canons of European realism. And I hope to write work that shares some quality of strangeness with the writers I most admire.
LS: What’s next for you?
LC: I’m working on a novel that takes place over fifty years in an invented city that hovers on the border between Silicon Valley and the Great Central Valley of California. There will be ghosts. That’s about all I can say for now.
Lawrence Coates has published five books, most recently The Goodbye House, a novel set amid the housing tracts of San Jose in the aftermath of the first dot com bust and the attacks of 9/11, and Camp Olvido, a novella set in a labor camp in California’s Great Central Valley. His work has been recognized with the Western States Book Award in Fiction, the Donald Barthelme Prize in Short Prose, the Miami University Press Novella Prize, an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction. He is currently a professor of creative writing at Bowling Green State University.