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Caitlin Hill’s nonfiction piece “Living Where No One Wants To” 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 was born and raised in the farmlands of East River South Dakota, and for a long time the region influenced my writing in the form of a background, haunting villain. I’ve been continuously moving farther and farther west over the past six years, and during much of this time I would write in terms of the Midwest culture being the driving force of my exodus. I keep going farther west because I keep wanting to write about the West and my attraction to its offerings. But as it turns out, the more distance I put between myself and the Midwest, the more I am drawn to it in my writing—to pull my childhood and youth in the region apart and analyze just exactly what I think I’m running from.
What do you think is the most compelling aspect of the Midwest?
Its stigma. Or, maybe better put, its legend. Every U.S. region has its socially ingrained quirks and stereotypes, but I think there’s something particular about how the rest of the world views the Midwest. Or, perhaps, it’s not exactly how the rest of the world views the region, but the impossibility of the existence of their perceived image. People picture corn fields and Minnesota Nice when asked to picture the Midwest. Which isn’t exactly wrong, but nor is it absolutely correct. What the Midwest is is a boiling pot of the rest of the regions—you can find southern hospitality and Wild West mentality and East Coast hard-headedness. The middle of anything is where everything comes together, and the middle of the country is no exception.
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 have always considered myself to be a place-based writer. Location is continuously the core of anything I write. And right now, where I grew up is everything in my writing. The essay that is appearing in this issue, “Living Where No One Wants To,” is an essay that opened up an entire essay collection project for me in terms of exploring my personal history with my hometown of Veblen, South Dakota. I’m working out what this place means to me—means to who I was and who I am and who I will eventually become—as well as what it means to an entire generation of people. There’s something special about Veblen that is also not special at all—something that extends to any tiny nearly-ghost-town throughout the entire region. And what that something special is is the resilience of memory keeping the place alive when the evolution of time wants nothing more than to kill it. And what I’m working on right now is unearthing those memories and preserving them—both the good and the bad—in order to better understand this complicated part of the world and its connection to my current actions. And it’s about time that I do.
Discuss your writing process—inspirations, ideal environments, how you deal with writer’s block.
I have an entire cabinet full of scented candles. To any outsider it would look like I have certain candles for certain seasons (and a little bit of an obsession), but in reality, I have certain candles for certain writing moods I want to encapsulate my space with. I’m burning a sea grass candle right now because I’m starting an essay on the Veblen dairy farms. I switch it out with black cherry Merlot when I jump to working on a piece about Veblen’s street violence. Just as places are pivotal to my writing, place is pivotal to my writing process—I can spend upwards of an hour working to create the perfect setting for my writing before actually writing a single word. My go-to fix for writer’s block is to move somewhere else, because obviously the place isn’t fitting the story.
How can you tell when a piece of writing is finished?
Does anyone actually know? I would like to talk to that person.
I’m a chronic reviser. I hate drafting. But when a generally complete full draft is done, I could spend possibly an entire year revising and revising and revising. I have journalism roots, so sifting through words and memories and events to find that perfect story is something that’s just in my blood. I think the closest I get to knowing something is finished is when it’s reached a point where it’s taught me something new about myself, my world, and someone I love (or hate). I never start an essay that I already know all the answers for in regard to the context. I write to explore, to investigate, and to learn. So when I have achieved that goal, I would say my writing is complete.
Who is your favorite author (fiction writer or poet), and what draws you to their work?
Meghan Daum. It’s one of my biggest dreams that I can somehow have a conversation with her before I die. Beyond the fact that she is one of the masters of the personal essay, she is a master of adopting place studies into the personal essay. I just spent my summer reading everything I could get my hands on by her, and Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House is full of so much of what I’m working on right now in terms of place aesthetics of the rural versus the urban. Also, I think she is the only person on the planet who loves dogs as much as I do.
What’s next for you?
Thesis, thesis, thesis. I am just beginning my second year as a nonfiction candidate in the MFA program at the University of Idaho, and I’m currently answering these questions within a pile of essay drafts and Thorstein Veblen books. It’s my hope to get my thesis as close to a publishable draft of an essay collection as possible because I want to share my experiences with those who’ve lived similar lives as well as those who find the Midwest a completely foreign concept. There’s something to study here, and a whole lot to learn from.
Where can we find more information about you?
You can visit my website, caitlinhillside.com.