Annah Browning’s piece “Where to Look for Ghosts” 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?
I moved to the Midwest in 2008—first to St. Louis, where I lived for three years, and then to Chicago, where I’ve lived for going on seven years now. I grew up in upstate South Carolina, so moving to the Midwest was a big change for me. The thing that has most influenced my writing has been the winters—I grew up in a place where you’d get snow maybe twice a year, an inch or so, and the world shut down for it because there just wasn’t the infrastructure and machinery in place to deal with it. School was cancelled; grocery store shelves were emptied in panic. It was a cross between the apocalypse and a festival for a kid. Snow always had an element of magic, of a special occasion. So when I moved to the Midwest, it was incredibly strange to me how much more mundane and absolutely more intense the experience of extreme winter weather is here. There’s something both admirable and nuts to me about how little the piles of snow and inches of ice will affect people’s movements, how almost invisible it is. I find this attitude fascinating, and the weather itself beautiful and overwhelming. Looking back over my writing since I moved here, I have accumulated (ha) tons of references and extended metaphors to do with snow, ice, and cold in my work: ways of talking about depression, invisibility, grace, various kinds of ghostliness. The sensory input of the Midwestern climate has changed the physical environment of my poems drastically. The flatness of scope and absolute cold, the variance of textures, the numbness—they’ve all found their way in.
What do you think is the most compelling aspect of the Midwest?
I have a weird love and fascination for the climate, as I wrote above. Seeing snow coming in over Lake Michigan for the first time felt almost religious to me. I also appreciate the particular kind of friendliness I see in the Midwest a lot. As compared to the South, there’s not an over-sweetness or effusiveness; it’s more often a quietness and practicality. I love the instant camaraderie you get with strangers in inclement weather, whether its just a shared expression of exasperation getting on the train out the sleet or a conversation about projected snow totals with an old lady at the bus stop. I love how in Chicago you can meet so many different kinds people, and how on the train you can so clearly feel what the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows calls “sonder,” “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own,” that you’re standing at the fringes of so many beautiful and heartbreaking lives.
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?
The rural landscape of my Southern childhood, the oppressive heat of the summer and its particular range of flora and fauna is absolutely a part of the emotional architecture of my mind, and I think it always will be. I reach for those images in my writing over and over again because they continue to have the depth that comes from being soaked in my first awareness of being a person. Creeks, fields, rats, horses, an endless line of black dogs, glass jars and old wood. Woods and hills you can vanish inside of, and feel your vanishing completely, a rush of both exhilarating fear and creepy freedom. When I find these things again in the Midwest, or something that reminds me of them, on my long walks up the lakefront or in certain neighborhoods, that happy thrum of solitude and its companionate sore spot of loneliness gets switched on in me again, and I want to write.
Discuss your writing process—inspirations, ideal environments, how you deal with writer’s block.
I do whatever works. I write on my phone on the train during my commute. I write on the back of loose assignment sheets on my desk. If I have a period where I’m not able to write much, where my mind is more hushed, I try not to let it upset me too much. I grew up with gardeners and farmers and country cooks. Making good things requires fallow periods just as much as times of frenetic creation. While I am a believer in the stubborn task of putting the work in, I also I subscribe to a crockpot theory of mental artistic life: everything goes in your head, and you give it time to stew. I read a lot, and a lot of strange things, from different genres and historical periods. I follow my hungry interests—what tastes good to me now? What do I really need to read/know/see/listen to, even if I can’t articulate why right now? And somehow, at the end, with enough patience, usually some form of intelligent life rises from this primordial muck. I think a lot of the time what we call writer’s block is actually impatience with the time it takes to really follow our obsessions, to write while trying to put the question of “is this good?” out of mind altogether. (Lynda Barry has written about this latter idea wonderfully in her book What It Is, which I think everyone should go out and get right now if you haven’t already. Reading it is like getting a warm meal from someone who loves you. Here is an excerpt.)
How can you tell when a piece of writing is finished?
Hell if I know. When the bits that poke out stop bothering me? When I’ve sanded down all the parts I can sand down? Short answer: When its existence stops bugging me.
Who is your favorite author (fiction writer or poet), and what draws you to their work?
Shirley Jackson. She is wickedly funny and scary and smart as hell. The way she can hypnotize you with the voice of a character is like no other. And Emily Dickinson is my favorite, too, of course. There’s no other poet that lives in my bones as much, for pure music and inventiveness and unrepentant oddness. Both Jackson and Dickinson have an outsider, wry, slanted view of things I’m very much sympathetic and indebted to.
What’s next for you?
I am in the process of finding a home for my first full-length manuscript, Witch Doctrine, a collection of gothically-influenced poems in the voices of ghosts, witches, and a spirit medium. I’ve also written some new poems that feature spinsters, canines, and a dead woman. We’ll see if they come to anything.
Where can we find more information about you?
I have a website at www.annahbrowning.com. I am also an editor of Grimoire, an online magazine of the dark arts, which you can find at www.wearegrimoire.com. We also have an amusing Twitter and Instagram, both @WeAreGrimoire. Come hang out with us and send us your poems, prose, spells, and chats with your dead influences.