Natalie Teal McAllister’s story “If There Was Ever a Time” 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 connection to the Midwest manifests in a photograph of my great grandparents standing in front of their claim shack: just a one-room structure constructed rock by rock, the family smiling in front of it, a dog at their side. My grandfather told me stories about his father, who was a traveling Methodist minister in the panhandle of Oklahoma in the 1920s, and stories about growing up in a land where there was either too much or not enough water. Toward the end of his life, my great grandfather allegedly gave up religion by proclaiming to his family that he could worship just as well in outside in nature as he could in a church. He handed off his love of the outdoors to my grandfather, who in turn handed it off to my father, and of course, to me.
My dad and I moved to Kansas when I was 10, and although I’ve lived in Kansas City for seven years, I’m still drawn to the landscapes that are more sky than earth. Despite common belief, my corner of Kansas is far from flat. The line in If There Was Ever a Time about the hills like curled up coyotes–I’ve been thinking about that for a long time. I find that so much of my writing involves how people interact with the land they live on as well as how they interact with the history–the memories–of the place.
What do you think is the most compelling aspect of the Midwest?
I’m fascinated by the lack of physical barriers here. And the wind, which never, ever stops. I actually spent my early childhood in the mountains of North Carolina, and it was a little disorienting to move to a place where you didn’t feel the landscape cradle you. The prairie as a landscape is punishing but full of color and movement. You see this in paintings and photography, too–it’s a landscape of sky, not earth. But this makes for an interesting backdrop to stories. How can characters survive the emptiness, the brutal weather, the persistent wind?
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?
They are everything in my writing. I’m obsessed with dirt and memory. A friend of mine calls my writing historical recursion, and I love that term. I’m interested in the ways we keep repeating what has already happened, and I mean this in big and small events. We tend to do the things our parents did, and their parents did, and so on. And I wonder how much of this is genetic memory and how much of it is a record player of sorts. In that regard, does the land hold memories, too? I’d like to know. Maybe that’s what we think of when we think of ghosts.
Discuss your writing process — inspirations, ideal environments, how you deal with writer’s block.
I need a place before I can do anything. If I can’t see the place I’m writing, I can’t put characters on it. I tend to start with a mental image of something strange–maybe a dog running down the road or in the case of If There Was Ever a Time, someone told me their dying horse had been spooked by their neighbor’s motorcycle. I work backward from there. How did that dog get on the road? What does it look like when a dying horse spooks?
How can you tell when a piece of writing is finished?
This isn’t helpful, but it’s a feeling. That. That’s the word that comes to mind, anyway, when I know the story is where it wants to be.
Who is your favorite author (fiction writer or poet), and what draws you to their work?
Can I say something really cliche? I’m completely enamored with Hemingway’s short fiction. He has absolutely mastered the art of writing stories about nothing–like a cat in the rain–that are packed with sorrow and hope and humanity. And he makes it seem so simple. As for contemporary writers, I’m deeply in love with Denis Johnson’s work. I’m not sure I can point to a writer who can write a more beautiful sentence about the underbelly of society. I’m heartbroken there isn’t more from him to come.
What’s next for you?
I would love to find a home for my first novel, which is a book about three brothers who may or may not have been involved in the death of a young girl. The core of the novel is their mother–like so many mothers before her, she’s forced between protecting her babies and accepting the consequences of what they’ve done. I have two small children, and the subject of motherhood is really raw for me right now. I’ve been working on flash fiction pieces about some of the more trying aspects of mothering.
Where can we find more information about you?
Twitter is a great place to follow my musings. I’m a marketing director by day under my married name–Natalie Jackson. It’s kind of like having an alter ego.