Michael Fischer’s nonfiction piece “The Spelling Bee” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Summer 2017 issue, out now.
What’s your connection to the Midwest, and how has the region influenced your writing?
My father was born and raised in Chicago. My sister went to college here and never left; she got married and has a two-year-old. I moved here right after my niece was born so I could be near her, so now my father, my sister’s family, and I all live in different parts of Chicago.
The Midwest’s influence on my writing—as someone born and raised in the spin machine of the West Coast—has been to allow me to make a mess, so to speak. For me, the Midwest is about dispensing with the bullshit, the inauthentic, the illusion of the tidy life with the tidy ending. That makes it a great nest to write from.
What do you think is the most compelling aspect of the Midwest?
The weather. I like the fact that a generous slice of the population would never live in the Midwest because they either can’t stand the summer, can’t stand the winter, or can’t stand either. It’s a place for people who want to be here, who are stubborn and don’t care whether the landscape is trying to spit us out or not. The Midwest pretty much says, “Look: If you want to be here, great. Be here. If you don’t, then get the fuck out.”
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 write a lot about my time in state prison, so my memory and experience of that very specific place is the spine of that work. It’s a fascinating challenge because I’m dealing with an environment of enforced boredom, a monochromatic life in every way. But it still has to have vitality. The setting insists that I learn how to stretch what I have to work with on the page—which is exactly what prison life forces a person to do, in order to survive.
Discuss your writing process — inspirations, ideal environments, how you deal with writer’s block.
When my family would come visit me in prison, it almost felt like being in a one-man show. I didn’t want them to be scared or sad for me, so I would list words down my arm—short phrases, just to jog my memory—that would remind me of the stories I wanted to tell them. I would just sit there and spin these prison yarns for my family’s sake, so they would have a decent time at the visit and go home feeling like things were more or less okay.
So when I write, 90% of the time I’m writing for my sister or my parents. I’m trying to write what I think they would find funny or entertaining. The spelling debate that takes place in my piece for Midwestern Gothic was my sister’s favorite story from my time in prison. She thought it was hilarious, even at the time. So I wrote the essay for her.
I write while sitting on my bed. No distractions or music, and no one else can be around. I also never force myself to write. If I’m not feeling it, I don’t do it. I’m very streaky. I won’t write for weeks and then I’ll write twelve pages in a sitting—things like that.
How can you tell when a piece of writing is finished?
I’ve only been writing for about a year, but I read for two literary journals, so I’m getting pretty tuned in to what a piece needs. It’s never going to be perfect obviously, but I just revise until I can’t see any glaring holes. Then I put it away for a while, and if I still don’t hate it when I revisit it, it’s gone as far as I can take it in that moment in time.
Who is your favorite author (fiction writer or poet), and what draws you to their work?
This is an impossible question but I’ll say Julian Barnes. I love The Sense of an Ending especially, but all of his work—fiction and nonfiction—has an unflinching emotional life and some of the sharpest diction I’ve ever read.
What’s next for you?
Being a full-time student, twice over. I’m in a low-residency MFA program, but I never graduated college. I want to go back and clean that up, so while I’m starting the second year of my MFA this fall, I’ll also be finishing up my bachelor’s degree at a different school. I want to fill that gap and keep my educational doors open, in case I decide to move on to a PhD, etc.
I’m also a Luminarts Fellow for this coming year, and I’m very excited and proud to be a part of that. It’s a great foundation that supports artists under thirty who live within 150 miles of the Chicago Loop. I’m hoping to get everything I can out of being involved.
Where can we find more information about you?
I don’t have a website and I don’t have any social media except Twitter, so…Twitter.