Contributor Spotlight: Elizabeth O’Brien

Elizabeth O’Brien’s piece “How the City Percolates at Dawn” appears in Midwestern Gothic Winter 2017, out now.

What’s your connection to the Midwest, and how has the region influenced your writing?

I moved to Minneapolis in 2012 for the MFA program at the University of Minnesota, and have stayed on since I finished in 2015. I’ve moved a lot in my life, but I’ve noticed that I tend to really start thinking about a place only after I’ve left it – so I’ve actually started writing about New England – where I moved here from – a lot more since I moved to the Midwest. Though local Minneapolis landmarks like the Walker and the many bridges crossing the Mississippi have started creeping into my work, too.

What do you think is the most compelling aspect of the Midwest?

Honestly, I think a lot about time since I’ve been here – both in terms of the time change between Eastern and Central time, and in terms of the Westward expansion of the US and how this part of the country is “younger” than New England in terms of statehood – and somehow time feels more relative, like more of a construct than it did before.

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?

I think the sense of dislocation from moving and the yearning for “home” as an abstract idea probably play more of a role in my work, or in creating a kind of emotional urgency for my work than any specific place does, although of course, I am haunted by and attached to specific places in the world, and they do tend to crop up in my work over and over again. And I am interested in the idea of place as a kind of pseudo-character, the way Baltimore is for Anne Tyler, or DC is for Edward P Jones. But I think my own grasp on feeling that I am “from” somewhere specific has always been a bit tenuous, so I don’t really use geographic places in that way very often.

Discuss your writing process — inspirations, ideal environments, how you deal with writer’s block.

My writing process is messy and slow, but constant. I almost always have a huge pile of unfinished projects I’m working on – usually a mix of poems, book reviews, stories, essays, and fragments, and I kind of just pick away at whatever happens to be capturing my interest at a given moment, and eventually the majority of the things I start do get finished.

How can you tell when a piece of writing is finished?

I don’t know – sometimes you just know. And sometimes pieces that seemed finished before start to seem unfinished again, which is terrible.

Who is your favorite author (fiction writer or poet), and what draws you to their work?

I have so many. Favorite poets – Elizabeth Bishop, because she is so smart and innovative and precise, Larry Levis and Leonard Cohen because their poems make me cry (for very different reasons), and Diane Seuss, because of the exuberant force of her long lines. Aracelis Girmay, Walt Whitman, Frank O’Hara – I could go on and on. Favorite fiction writers – Alice Munro, Kelly Link, Richard Brautigan, Donna Tartt, Ken Kesey, Anne Tyler, probably a dozen more. Favorite nonfiction writers – Ta Nehisi Coates and Matt Tiabbi, Amy Leach, Joan Didion, James Baldwin, Eula Biss. I read pretty much everything I can get my hands on, so the list of books I love just keeps growing.

What’s next for you?

My first chapbook is coming out from ELJ Editions sometime in 2017, so that’s exciting, and then I’m endlessly revising the first full poetry manuscript – so right now those are by two big consuming things. I also just finished a 6-month stint as a blogger for Ploughshares, so I’ll be on the lookout for someone else to write for sometime again soon.

Where can we find more information about you?

Eventually, at ELJ Editions’ website – I think they’re still pulling 2017 author pages together – and in the meantime, I’m on Twitter pretty regularly, as @elzbobri.

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