Contributor Spotlight: Nick Caccamo

Nick Caccamo author photoNick Caccamo’s story “Transubstantiation” 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?

Born and raised in Rockford, Illinois, a mid-sized Rust Belt city in seemingly perpetual decline. Despite its flaws, I have fond memories of it from growing up. My family still lives there, so I visit often. I’ve lived my whole life in Illinois; undergrad at University of Illinois in Champaign, grad school in Chicago. I work in downtown Chicago and live in the suburbs. My wife and her family are from Illinois as well. I suppose it’s influenced my writing because it’s all I’ve ever known—the places, the people. I can’t imagine living anywhere else. Everything I write is set in the Midwest. Trying to write a story set in California or New York would be as difficult for me as writing science fiction.

What do you think is the most compelling aspect of the Midwest?

I find many things compelling about the Midwest. I think most people tend to view the Midwest as pretty homogeneous, but there are many extremes in the Midwest, in terms of people, climate, geography. We have major metropolitan areas like Chicago, which can be indistinguishable from the large cities on the coasts. But drive an hour or more outside of the major cities, and you’re surrounded by flat, empty, desolate nothingness (and corn). We have oppressively hot, humid summers, and brutally cold winters. In the large cities, you’ll find incredible diversity among the population, while in the exurban and rural areas, the people tend to be more reminiscent of the “stereotypical” Midwesterner.

I also find it compelling that the Midwest is the only region in the U.S. where the population is actually shrinking. Each year, populations decline in both urban and rural areas. Midwesterners are fleeing the Midwest for the South and the coasts. Houses and buildings become abandoned and fall into disrepair, businesses fail, industry shutters. The region as a whole, to me, feels as if it is slowly decaying or receding, becoming deserted. What will it look like twenty to thirty years from now? I hope to stick around and find out.

But what I find most compelling is that while an outsider may view the Midwest as being the “real America” that politicians refer to, having “small town” or “main street” values, there’s a lot more under the surface. Drive through any typical small Midwestern town and you’ll find the local diner, hardware store, mechanic, bank, and friendly people who seem to exemplify the good, honest, hard-working stereotype of the Midwest. But spend enough time there and you’ll find the darker aspects as well—Midwestern small towns suffer from meth and opioid addiction, chronic joblessness due to the local industry closing up shop, and depopulation, I always think back to the opening scene of the David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, which opens with long shot of a perfectly manicured suburban lawn, but then slowly zooms into the grass to ultimately reveal an insect infestation. I find it symbolic of the social rot underlying some of small town Midwestern America. I think most of my stories tend to focus on this aspect of the Midwest—something off or sinister or grotesque beneath the wholesome outward appearance.

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?

Most of my stories are based on something I’ve observed, witnessed, or experienced, at least tangentially. Chicago is a setting for many of my stories, and places that I frequent or neighborhoods where I used to live often play a role in my writing. That doesn’t necessarily mean that a story has autobiographical elements; it could be a simple image that I encounter which may inspire a story. Something as simple as an ice cream truck on a suburban street on a hot summer day near my home can be an influence, as with my story in the current issue of Midwestern Gothic. The experience or memory doesn’t need to be profound or significant. Sometimes just the image or memory itself is enough to conjure something much more.

Discuss your writing process—inspirations, ideal environments, how you deal with writer’s block.

I’m not sure there’s really any “process” involved. Between work and chasing my four-year-old son around, there’s very little time for writing. I write whenever I can find time. Sometimes early in the morning while I’m on the train on my way to work, struggling to type a few sentences on my phone screen. More often, I write very late at night after my wife and son are in bed, usually after midnight, maybe for an hour or so, sitting in the dark. Preferably, I will have a beer or two while I write, and will be listening to some sort of ambient/drone/noise music at ear-bleeding levels on my headphones (lately, the album Going Places by Yellow Swans) in order to establish the appropriate level of existential dread necessary to create the best fiction.

I don’t really stress out about writer’s block. I don’t give myself deadlines to finish a story, so I am fine whether it takes me a week or two years to finish a piece. It is not unusual for me to go months without writing, followed by a couple weeks or a month where I will write every night. I write when I feel like I have good ideas. If I don’t have good ideas, I simply don’t write—I never try to force it.

How can you tell when a piece of writing is finished?

For me, it’s finished whenever I get tired of trying to “finish” it. I think any writer probably has the same problem of feeling like a story is never really finished or polished enough. And personally, I hate editing and refining my work, even though I recognize that the story needs it. By the time I’m done putting the words on the page of the first draft, I’m often ready to be done with it. I force myself to edit and distill what I’ve written, but it’s a slow, painful process. Eventually, I just decide I’m done once I’ve had all the reworking that my stomach can stand.

Who is your favorite author (fiction writer or poet), and what draws you to their work?

My favorite authors of all time would be David Foster Wallace, Don DeLillo, and Donald Barthelme. Each of them had such a unique style and could craft the most ingenious and beautiful sentences. As for more contemporary authors I’ve been reading recently, I really enjoy Blake Butler’s work—like the other authors I mentioned, his way with language and the way he constructs his stories is endlessly impressive (and unrelentingly dark). Ben Lerner’s 10:04 is one of the best novels I’ve read recently—he seems like the rightful heir to DeLillo. I also recently finished Does Not Love by James Tadd Adcox, which I read in just a couple sittings. The fragmented vignettes coupled with the sparse and clinical dialogue perfectly suited the story, and I can’t wait to read whatever he puts out next.

What’s next for you?

Well, I’ve got the weekend off, and then I go back to work Monday through Friday, for the foreseeable future, probably for the next 40 years or so. Over the span of those decades, I’ll probably have a beer or two, watch the Cubs game, mow the lawn when I have to, catch a movie, and will inevitably disappoint, impress, annoy, excite, and frustrate certain people every once in a while. Maybe I’ll write another few stories along the way and attempt to get them published here or elsewhere.

Where can we find more information about you?

I suppose I am destined to remain obscure and mysterious for now. This is the first piece I’ve published, so I have no other prestigious literary journals to which I can refer you. I have no website or blog. I have a Facebook page where I post a presumably excessive amount of photos of my son, a Twitter handle that I never use, and an Instagram that I don’t do whatever it is one does on Instagram. Otherwise, you can probably find me chasing my son down the street as he learns to ride his bike faster than I can run.

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