Contributor Spotlight: Dan Giloth

Dan Giloth’s story “Outlier” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Winter 2017 issue, out now.

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

I was born in South Bend, Indiana, and have lived in Chicago most of my adult life. My mother was from LA, and my dad from New York City, but my dad quit ROTC at Notre Dame and got caught up in the local civil rights movement, and they got committed and stayed. Growing up in a small rust-belt city, I think I’m haunted by these kind of rusty ghosts. South Bend was Studebaker’s flagship plant—the UAW had a founding convention there. Studebaker closed the year I was born. We’d break in and played in these huge old plants. We’d find beer cans in holes in the walls of beers that aren’t made anymore, like Drewry’s. May Day was created in Chicago. The American Dream lived and died here. South Bend is an extension of the Chicago rust belt. Workers still come here from all over the world, trying to work their way into the Dream. A central character in my second novel, Humboldt Park, is a immigrant day laborer woman from Mexico.

The other ghost is white flight. Growing up in black neighborhood, I thought South Bend was bad, segregation-wise. My siblings and I were freaks for living where I did as a white kids. But when I first rode the Green Line El through the west side of Chicago in 1986, I couldn’t get over it, how clear the lines were. You go under a viaduct, and everybody changes—poof! Like magic. My first book, Move, dealt with all this—two boys growing up in a white-flight neighborhood.

I don’t think we’ve reckoned with what happened yet—and what’s still happening—which is this betrayal of the American Dream by class and race. I try to honor those ghosts in my writing because, like Faulkner said, “The past isn’t dead; it’s not even past.” We just got a cold-water shock reminder of that. First, Obama gets elected and some folks claim we’re post-racial. A few years ago, friendly readers of my first book told me, “Dan, nobody wants to read a historical novel about a black kid and white kid in the civil rights movement caught up in a police killing.” Then Trayvon Martin, then Michael Brown, then Black Lives Matter. And now Trump. Nobody says that anymore. Now we got to reckon—writers, too. And the Midwest is in the middle of it, especially Chicago, with Laquan McDonald, and gun violence. I think these realities ground, and these ghosts haunt, the writing.

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

That’s hard for me to get a handle on, because I’ve never lived for more than six months outside the Midwest. But I think it’s the kind of space you have in the Midwest, and I think it’s something that affects the writing from beneath consciousness. Between the cities, there’s all this space—flat, green space, hundreds and hundreds miles of it. But even in urban areas, even in Chicago, even with gentrification, you get that sense. Like in the west side neighborhood of Austin, where I work, where there’s all these vacant lots and abandoned factory sites from closed plants like the old Brach’s Candy site. There’s still a ton of the space left blank by capital flight. And it’s verdant space: black, fertile soil—maybe a little more sandy in places like western Michigan. South Bend, where I grew up, used to be a swamp. Nature is always trying to take the vacant lots back. You see it when you fly in; how green the Midwest is.

It’s negative in the capital flight way—desolate, abandoned. But there’s still also this positive quality, a sense of spaciousness and possibility, like a writer’s blank first page of a new book she’s about to start. Or an unfinished story, that looks like it’s going to have a sad ending, but who knows? There’s room here to dream and imagine.

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?

Washington Street in South Bend haunts me. We were one street south, on Jefferson, which was ninety-five percent black by the time I was five. This was a ‘flight’ neighborhood—white flight and factory capital flight. They’re all over the Midwest: Flint, Joliet, Kankakee, Racine. Except our family was moving in the opposite direction, trying to re-integrate, for faith and political reasons. So it was also a very heady time—all kinds of movements and pride. There was this one area on the black west side they called ‘the Block,’ the intersection of Washington and Olive Streets. The ‘Groceteria’ was there and the barbeque joint, and the tin-ceilinged civil rights newspaper store front, that used to be a tavern and still smelled of beer, where my father volunteered as an editor. And in the middle of the Block, this old Polish bar called ‘Nykos’, hunkered down like the Alamo, with all these barred windows—even though nobody ever messed with anyone there.

Anyway, this is the setting for my first book, Move. The same kind of suffering and ugliness you find anywhere: racism, poverty, and young men coming back from Vietnam all torn up, but all this beauty and love and heroism, too. Crossing the color and class line every day to go to a white Catholic school, was like moving between two worlds. Especially, when I was about ten, and my father got essentially blacklisted by employers, and we ourselves became poor. It was race and class. You could see the flaws and virtues of both sides, but mostly it made me realize at how seriously privileged white folks take themselves—they honestly couldn’t see how exotic they seemed—we seem, to poor people of color. And I wouldn’t been able to see in that dual way, either, if I hadn’t lived where I did, and constantly crossed the lines. There’s this whole sense of humor about it that’s deeply egalitarian, that goes right at the goofiness of pretension. Now I live in Oak Park and work on the west side of Chicago, and it’s the same thing. My second book, Humboldt Park, is about the parallel class and race worlds of west side Chicago. I’m haunted by that gap, in an anthropological and literary way, and I try to write to help bridge it, at least from the white side. Of course, only writers of color can and should tell a lot of the stories. But I try to add my ‘truth’ too, because it’s a piece of the puzzle. Shawn Shiflett gets at this same theme in his recent novel, Hey, Liberal! , which is very compelling. What happens when you cross the lines on principle—however naively? What’s the cost? How does privilege work then? Reality is always more complex, not simply black and white, and movement people know this.

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

I started writing for mental health reasons—my organizing work is very conflictual and I work with people who are at the very margins of the economy, experiencing stuff I have to sometimes leave out of my writing because nobody would believe it. And we’re often moving fast in the organizing; it can be warlike. So I don’t have the time in the moment to really appreciate people. So I’ll circle back in the writing and create a character or composite character that honors them—their courage or integrity or just hard choices. An immigrant Mexican day laborer woman who escaped her abusive husband and lived for two weeks with her five-year-old daughter in Humboldt Park—the actual park. Amazing people. If you’re trying to create merciless choices for characters, there’s a wealth to draw on. Tons of inspiration. I honestly haven’t had writer’s block—yet anyway, because I’m always running to catch up with stuff I witness. I feel compelled to get it out, so that whatever local heroism I’m privileged to witness isn’t lost.

I would say Dunkin Donuts—and Paris—are my ideal writing environments. I wrote two-thirds of my first novel—which I’m editing to publish now, at a Dunkin Donuts on Cermak Road in Berwyn, this blue-collar suburb outside Chicago, where we lived at the time. Half the folks spoke Spanish and everybody worked with their hands or if they were white collar, it was at the local Boost mobile store. I tried writing in the local Starbucks, but it’s a different vibe. You order a ‘medium’ and they correct you to ‘grande.’ Corporate folks setting up remote offices and talking loud on the phone. That kind of thing. For me, it’s a real spell-breaker. The ironic thing is that Starbucks actually treats its workers better, offers its part-timers insurance. Dunkin workers are joining Fight for 15 to get some justice. But Dunkin keeps you honest in the telling of the story. Some folks say a desk in a windowless room, but I prefer a buzz, I guess, which is a common thing, too.

And then I totally bought into the whole mythology of writing in a Paris. Finally, a couple of years ago, I was privileged to go with my wife and daughter, and they gave me the birthday present of letting me stay behind an extra week to write. And I found it just like the stereotype. I stayed near the Place de la Nation, further out, and it was more working class, with a lot of immigrants from Mali. I paid $400 in a week of rent in a small studio, and just wrote. The waiters work off wages, not tips, so they don’t care if you sit there all day, because a lot of folks do it—I heard cafes are like the living rooms because folks’ apartments are so small. A couple of times I went to worker demonstrations, and I was amazed at the lack of police. Not at all like Chicago, where they try to punk you out with tons of robo-cops before you get started. I was finishing my second novel, about day labor workers in Humboldt Park, and actually finished it early, it was such a good environment. Of course, it’s a bubble. The Parisian suburbs are where the real grit and oppression and hardship are, and there’s good art coming out of that world. But Paris might be the best of the bubbles.

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

People tell me. Also, internally, it’s a negative thing—the absence of a sense that I’ve cheated on the truth. Maybe I was clever rather than true. It’s that ‘first thought, best though’we talk about in Zen. If I come back to it fresh, I pay attention to the first gut feeling I have. I may not be satisfied, but I know I’ve honestly tried—I haven’t shortcut to be too MFA or NPR ‘on the nose’ or because I’m afraid of the emotional truth of going deep enough. Also, if my writers group is finding line flaws, rather than the meta-stuff, I know I’ve resolved most problems. I can’t imagine writers who write without a writers group. The more they dig into that surface stuff, the more I realize the underlying stuff is solid—they’ve run out of stuff at that level to critique because it’s mostly working.

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

I really admire Nelson Algren, because he wrote about the Chicago people who didn’t get written about. And his writing is really angry, in a cool-anger way that Malcolm X talked about. He never got over the injustice; he stayed mad. And for a long time, I said Nadine Gordimer, the South African writer who just died a few years ago. She wrote all the way from the start of the apartheid era in 1948 through the Mandela presidency. She’s out of political favor now, but I’ll defend her to the end. She had this uncanny ability to cross race and class lines in her fiction, and capture the movements, and was banned for a good stretch. Her Burger’s Daughter, about the daughter of a imprisoned radical white doctor was like a godsend to me, since I’m kind of a missionary kid, too. Now I’d say Vasily Grossman, the Soviet Jewish journalist who reported from Stalingrad and the liberation of the camps, between writing fiction and being persecuted by Stalin. His Life and Fate has been called the the 20th Century War and Peace, and I think it’s justified. He depicted and condemned both Stalinism and Nazism from a deeply humanist place, but could write chapters that read like Chekhovian short stories. On the American side, it’s Junot Diaz and the Toni Morrison of Beloved. I really like Philip Meyer’s American Rust, too. Beloved is the horror of slavery from the marrow out. I mean, could anything but fiction hit that hard? I’m a political and justice animal, so I like stuff with political themes and a real big picture, that embodies it all with good characterization and stories.

What’s next for you?

I’m working with an editor at a Chicago publisher to tighten up the story line of my first novel, Move, which I hope will be published in the coming year. It’s about two boys, one white and one black, coming of age in the civil rights movement of a Midwestern river city in 1967-68. Of course, it’s got a lot of autobiography in it. After that, I’m going to work to publish my second novel, Humboldt Park, which is about day labor agency workers in Chicago in the 2000s. And, of course, I putting more short fiction out there.

Where can we find more information about you?

Check my dad’s FBI file. Just kidding. The only other public stuff is on the Zen Life and Meditation Center in Chicago, where I teach. But I should be launching social media in the coming year. But please be on the lookout for my novel, Move, too, which I hope will be out in the coming year.

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