Michelle Webster-Hein’s piece “The Mail-Order Bride” 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 rural Michigan, and, besides volunteer stints in Georgia and Lithuania, I’ve lived in the Midwest all my life. So the region has formed me. It’s in my bones and in my blood, especially the Michigan countryside. Now, when I drive out of the city and the buildings fall away, my body releases. It’s like the rest of me knows I belong there, even if my brain has other ideas.
What do you think is the most compelling aspect of the Midwest?
If the Midwest was a person, I think it would be an unassuming one—kind of humble, maybe a little bumbling, and reticent with its gifts. I’m always more drawn to people and places who don’t announce themselves, who don’t claim themselves so much. It’s the Midwesterner in me, I guess.
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?
Though I live now in a city neighborhood, my fiction springs from a town I’ve renamed “Esau,” the small village where I attended school and church until I turned eighteen. It’s got all of these places that only now strike me as wild—the fundamentalist Baptist church, the antique organ museum, the abandoned art gallery. Stories, stories, stories.
Discuss your writing process—inspirations, ideal environments, how you deal with writer’s block.
I don’t know that I believe in writer’s block. I think it’s just the same old resistance anyone encounters when trying to create. I don’t wait until I’m inspired. I write at the same time every day, which, with small children, is way too early in the morning. That being said, my goal when I wake up is not actually to write, but to sit with my notebook and pencil and do nothing else. Sometimes I have to wait a while for the words to come. Very rarely I have woken up and waited for two hours and not written anything. But for me waiting is also the work; it’s just as valid as putting down words.
As far as inspiration goes, I always start with some vague, compelling curiosity. I wrote “The Mail-Order Bride” because I’d just read about how Sherwood Anderson, one of my favorite writers, had abandoned his wife and young children. I kept on thinking, “How would someone get to a point where they’d do such a thing?” I couldn’t get the question out of my head, so I wrote a story to try and answer it.
When I’m not writing, I’m raising my daughter and son, which is an inspiring complement to the writing life. There’s a lot of tears and laundry, of course, but there are also reading sessions and painting on the porch and long, aimless walks in the woods where the kids keep stopping me and reminding me to look at things. They take nothing for granted. They slip constantly into that enviable zone of slow wonder. And I get to be close to them—and close to that—every day.
How can you tell when a piece of writing is finished?
I can’t. I think Raymond Carver said that you’re done when you start putting in commas and then taking them back out again, which sounds like good advice. I generally take my work as far as I can on my own, and then I ask trusted readers for their feedback. I revise A LOT, so it’s a long process. My husband can usually tell me if a piece is done or not. He’s my secret weapon.
Who is your favorite author (fiction writer or poet), and what draws you to their work?
Sheesh. I think I’ve got to pick Marilynne Robinson. Lila and Gilead are tied for my favorites. Her books are so wise, and her prose is so quietly stunning. Also, her material seems ordinary on the surface, but her exploration of her material reveals how extraordinary the ordinary actually is. I love encountering that in a book. It makes everything around me come more alive.
What’s next for you?
I just signed with my dream agency to represent my first novel Out of Esau, so hopefully that will find its way out into the world in the not-too-distant future. I’m also working on a memoir with a global child psychiatrist about her work with former child soldiers, among other things. And I’ve been playing around with a children’s novel for my daughter, who reads like a house afire. Finally, I’m bouncing around some fragments for a second Esau novel. So my head’s delightfully busy at the moment, though perhaps a little too much so.
Where can we find more information about you?
Someday I will lay my banner down and start a Twitter account, but today is not that day. I try to keep michellewebsterhein.com updated. I try to post updates on Facebook. Feel free to friend me, though if your profile picture involves a shirtless selfie, or if you address me as “Madame,” I may politely decline.