Midwestern Gothic staffer Audrey Meyers talked with author Christian Winn about his short story “What’s Wrong With You is What’s Wrong With Me,” following his own advice, the right time to write a story, and more.
You can read his short story here.
Audrey Meyers: What’s your connection to the midwest?
Christian Winn: I am really a westerner, having grown up Eugene, Palo Alto, and Seattle, and then moving to Boise nearly twenty years ago. Boise is the furthest east that I have ever lived. Most of my fiction is set in the west – Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, California – where I feel most comfortable telling the stories right. Boise and Idaho overall are generally considered in the Intermountain West, but I think you can look at Idaho as perhaps the far west of the midwest. I have road tripped through the heart of the midwest a handful of times, can’t claim to know it intimately, but love the vast openness of it all.
AM: How has being a professor at Boise State University impacted your writing? What have you learned from your students?
CW: I really am always inspired by, and learning from, my creative writing students. Teaching fiction writing workshops, I feel, continually helps me evolve as a writer. Introducing contemporary short stories and modern classics to both young and experienced writers, I am constantly learning how to look at the fundamentals of storytelling in new ways because of the fresh takes my students offer to the workshop. As well, I am constantly having to ask myself if I am actually practicing what I preach as a writer. I suppose I can sound like I know what I’m doing most of the time, but I always try and ask myself if I am following my own advice, and the advice of the great writers that we read. Keeps me on my toes.
AM: What are the challenges and the benefits when writing short stories? How does this compare to writing longer forms of fiction?
CW: I love the short story form, in all its many forms. Short stories, I feel, are kind of the underdog of the literary fiction world, and often I equate writing and reading short stories and collections to listening to a slightly underground indie album, that band that not too many have heard of and I feel special to know. Both in writing and reading short stories I often feel like the insider, exposed and enlightened by shorter narratives that, when done well, are as impactful and memorable as any novel. I do love so many novels, and have now written a couple that are hopefully finding a good home soon. But, I have gravitated more to the short story in a manner beyond the novel thus far in my life as a writer, teacher, and reader.
AM: What are your techniques for conveying information to your readers in an efficient but clever way? And how did you utilize these techniques in your short story “What’s Wrong With You is What’s Wrong With Me?”
CW: In “What’s Wrong With You is What’s Wrong With Me” a number of my baseline tenets and techniques as a writer came into play – thorough characterization, sharp and unique voice, vivid setting, true conflict rising into crisis then resolution. In creating the protagonist, Samantha, as a snappy and slightly snarky woman in her early twenties, I was working to deliver a character who was putting up a kind of front in the face of a lingering and very-present tragedy – the loss of her older sister, Mary. I wanted to create an interesting and complex secondary character in her brother, Johnny, who was Mary’s twin and closest friend. As well, I worked to send them on a spontaneous quest – a road trip to their childhood home in Boise in a “kind of” stolen BMW that belongs to Johnny’s wealthy, older boyfriend. Then to ratchet up the tension, I introduced the heightened drama of their old house having been demolished to make way for the building of an apartment complex.
AM: When you get an idea for a story, how do you decide if it is the right time to write it?
CW: I’d say that this is really difficult question to answer for me as a writer because the process of story selection – when to write what – is so often shifting, morphing, evolving. Certain stories at certain times, they ask to be written, they need to be, and I do my best to get them written. But, there is definitely deeply rooted discipline in writing a story that tells you it’s the “right time” to write me. Sticking with those stories is not always easy because you don’t want to let them down, or tell them wrong.
AM: Why was it the right time to write “What’s Wrong With You is What’s Wrong With Me?”
CW: Well, it was a piece that I had begun writing, or at least had the initial idea for, a few years ago when a local church actually did buy a big piece of property and begin either moving, or demolishing these great 100-year-old houses in order to build an apartment complex. It made me think, what if one of those was the house you grew up in, and you returned to try and reconnect with your past only to find that this huge piece of your physical past had gone missing? I wasn’t sure what to do with the story from there until the voice of Samantha started talking to me one day, and the rest came piece by piece, scene by scene.
AM: As a writer, what is it like to see a familiar place through your character’s eyes? Did your perspective on Idaho change when writing “What’s Wrong With You is What’s Wrong With Me?”
CW: Seeing Idaho, and Boise in particular, through Samantha’s eyes allowed me to think about the state and city where I live from the point of view of a person who grew up here (as I did not), but also who has not returned to it for many years. The experience allowed me to take a fresh look at the neighborhood and city I walk, bike, and drive through just about every day of my life these last years. I wouldn’t say this experience opened up a fully “changed” perspective of Idaho, but it offered a few cool new angles.
AM: What did you learn about yourself when developing these characters?
CW: This is another tough question to answer without sounding too corny. But I feel I learned a further sense of empathy and understanding for siblings who have lost one of their own at a young age, another thing that fortunately I have not experienced. I certainly learned how Samantha and Johnny feel about the loss of Mary, and through that I hope that I was able to further understand how we work as humans at a baseline level.
AM: What genre or style of fiction would you label “What’s Wrong With You is What’s Wrong With Me?” Why?
CW: I would consider this story literary fiction, meaning that the characters – their conflicts, their voices, their takes on the world – are what drive the narrative, not simply the plot points, the setting, or the quest.
AM: How do you know when a story is finished?
CW: This definitely varies with every story I’ve ever written, but I’ll just speak to the ending of “What’s Wrong With You is What’s Wrong With Me” here. With this story, which pretty much operates within straight-up realism most of the way through, it wasn’t until I came across a writing moment that shifted wonderfully toward the dreamlike, the surreal, that I knew (or at least thought I knew) that I had my ending. I won’t divulge the specifics of the longer last paragraph that gets a little strange and hopefully poetic, (no spoilers!) but I will just say that Samantha is able to reach a kind of resolution and relative peace in a dream-layered story she will tell herself forevermore about her dead sister, Mary.
AM: What’s next for you?
CW: Well, this September a new collection of four longer stories, with the title story being “What’s Wrong With You is What’s Wrong With Me” will be released from Dock Street Press. As well, I have those two “incubating” novels, and a new collection of short stories I am shopping around. I’ve been writing a lot of poetry as well, and hope to get the poetry collections titled Stories About Girls, By Boys, and Every Day, A Gun out into the world soon. As well, I have the exciting privilege of being the 2016-2019 Idaho Writer in Residence and get to travel around the state giving readings, putting on workshops, and providing literary outreach to under-served communities.
Christian Winn is a writer of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction living in Boise, Idaho. His work has appeared in McSweeney’s, Ploughshares, The Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row Journal, TriQuarterly, Gulf Coast, and elsewhere. His debut collection, Naked Me, is recently out from Dock Street Press who will be publishing his second collection, What’s Wrong With You is What’s Wrong With Me> in September 2017. He is 2016-2019 Idaho Writer in Residence.