Midwestern Gothic staffer Sydney Cohen talked with author Mike Harvkey about his book In the Course of Human Events, Midwestern masculinity, the role of the cliché, and more.
Sydney Cohen: What’s your connection to the Midwest?
Mike Harvkey: I was born and raised in rural northwest Missouri, about an hour from Independence (birthplace of Harry S. Truman) and spent the first two decades of my life in a pretty small town, surrounded by farmland and chicken coops. Several generations of my family lived in the Midwest, mostly in Missouri, but my father’s mother was born in Alabama. My mother’s mother was born in Missouri but her culture —e specially when it came to food — was pretty southern. We had biscuits and gravy every Sunday, okra, black-eyed peas, ham and beans, and this dish everybody just called “Grandma’s noodles.” Years later, when I lived in California, I went to a soul food restaurant for lunch one day and ordered chicken ‘n’ dumplings, which I’d never had. As soon as I took my first bite I thought, Grandma’s noodles! So my Midwest has a lot of the South in it. And the southern end of the state and the northern end are worlds apart, as are the western side and the eastern; Kansas City and St. Louis might as well be in different states. Once I learned more about Missouri’s history it all made sense. So it’s this view of the Midwest that fuels my writing. It’s complicated, conflicted, even puzzling in many ways. Not everything makes sense no matter how long you look at it. No matter where I live I’ll never really leave it as a source of inspiration.
SC: Your debut novel, In the Course of Human Events, explores the gritty underside of the American Midwest, set in a “town the American Dream forgot.” How would you describe the duality of the Midwest, and how does your novel complicate the idea of the American Dream?
MH: That duality is almost the defining feature of the Midwest for me. Just like I find Missouri both Midwestern and Southern, I find most of the men I knew growing up both tough and sensitive, hard and soft. Of course the soft side was typically only shown to the women in their lives. That’s a difference, as I see it, between the Midwest and the South. The Southern men I’ve known have a far greater access to their hearts and aren’t afraid of showing their hurt — even to other men; especially to other men. A lot of the men I knew in Missouri hid their sensitivity through exaggerated masculinity — bigger trucks, fewer words, a tougher mask on their faces. A friend of mine once said that you couldn’t tell by looking at my face what was going on inside — no matter what it might be. I said, “that’s just how men are where I come from.” My dad and uncles and brother and many of my friends — these are laconic, blue collar guys, often with a military background, who look about as rough as concrete but are more often than not very sensitive and caring individuals. This duality was something I was always aware of growing up. And I slotted right in. I was highly sensitive but did everything possible to appear tough. The masculine culture surrounded me like a mob — you either join in or suffer the consequences.
When it comes to the American Dream, I wanted to investigate how the Dream, like any mythology, is pure unto itself but in someone’s hands easy to corrupt. The vision of the Dream that is embraced by this family of white supremacists is as true to them as the vision of the dream embraced by my uncle who retired from the Ford plant.
SC: In the Course of Human Events is also preoccupied by the mentor-apprentice dynamic, specifically with the characters Jay and Clyde. In the novel, Jay leads Clyde through a series of increasingly intense challenges that strengthen Clyde’s mental resolve, but also move him deeper into a world of criminality and extremism. How does your novel complicate the mentor-apprentice relationship? Is Jay a dangerous or righteous character?
MH: As much as my ego would like to think that my novel complicates the mentor-apprentice relationship I think it’s more honest to say that it just reveals it. The dynamic between Jay and Clyde goes back to the samurai age, when obedient and subservient “seconds” served their masters in life and death. A lot of people don’t know that when a samurai committed seppuku, the ritual disembowelment, his second would stand right behind him. After making the cuts across the gut, the samurai would hand the second his sword, and the second would cut the samurai’s head off — leaving a small sliver of skin on the neck so that the head would remain with the body. Then the second would kneel behind his dead master and commit seppuku himself. I guess his head got to stay on — a more agonizing death. I guess for me this, too, comes down to a system of practice or belief that can be interpreted and corrupted. Jay certainly abuses that existing structure to manipulate Clyde to become something useful to him. This happens every day on a large scale. The military is a system of belief and practice that exists to shape malleable young people, physically and mentally, according to the interests of someone else. The mentor-apprentice relationship has a long history of abuse, as far as I see it.
To me, Jay’s righteousness is what makes him dangerous.
SC: The novel also deals with radical extremism and passionate anger towards the government. How does your novel humanize the process of radicalization? Furthermore, how can your novel be read as a social commentary on radical extremism as a response to politics? How does satire reinforce this social commentary?
MH: I think In the Course of Human Events humanizes radicalization by popping the hood and allowing the reader to see the way the engine works. That process is the book’s plot, really. At some point in writing it I realized that I’d been toying around unconsciously with many of the steps involved in radicalization, and once I realized that, I was able to actually investigate the process fully and use the various steps along the way to increase causality. There are a lot of different processes of radicalization —from love to competition to the slippery slope concept — and I used them all. I really piled it on. Once I did that the book opened up to me and I could see how it could work. Clyde, the main character, is the beating heart of it all; the book’s point of view is his and we’re right there with him every difficult step of the way. I needed him to be a highly sympathetic character, pulled in two opposite directions—toward Jay and extremism and simultaneously toward his family and friends, good people who still believe in the Dream. At some point I realized that Clyde’s gripes had to be accessible, recognizable to readers. It couldn’t just be that he was racist. Racism is not only uncomfortable to write about; it’s difficult to understand in a dramatic sense that works in the kind of book I wanted to write. I didn’t want some clichéd “answer” to the question of these characters’ problem. Once I figured that out, the only question and answer was the economy. Maybe it’s a cliché. I saw an interview with the Coen Brothers talking about No Country for Old Men. Joel says that Carla Jean Moss’s character works at a Walmart. Then he says, “I don’t know if that’s a cliché but at least people know what we’re talking about.” So I see it like that, I guess. It’s not always the right thing to do to completely avoid the familiar. The familiar — or some familiar elements — can be a pathway into the book for some readers. A lot of people I’d known had been hit pretty hard by the downturn and it just made sense to use the factory moving overseas as the foundation of Clyde’s gripe. My brother worked in a Mr. Longarm factory and that factory did eventually close down and I just used those facts for my fiction. I hoped that by creating a recognizable foundation under the extremist position, the reader would be able to sympathize with it. In sympathizing, they become complicit, and then the reader connects in a very charged way with the characters.
Satire’s tough. I didn’t even understand that I was writing satire until quite late. And the book is complicated in this regard because some things are handled satirically and some aren’t. I couldn’t write about Walmart without making fun of it. Maybe that makes me a dick, I don’t know. But satire is another way to play around in the familiar. It’s like a shared wink between me and the reader — another way of laying a complicity trap. From the beginning I knew that I wouldn’t judge these characters, the white supremacists. I didn’t want to write a book with authorial judgement, where the reader could be let off the hook by a God-like intruding voice telling them that these characters were ridiculous and they didn’t have to take any of this shit seriously.
SC: What elements of your characters would you describe as specifically Midwestern? How would your novel be different if set in another region of the U.S.?
MH: Literally every aspect of these characters is typically Midwestern, from their haircuts and clothes to how they decorate their homes, to what they drive and where they shop and how they eat. And karate. When I was growing up karate was everywhere in the Midwest. I trained Shotokan for a couple years as a teenager with a guy called Machine Gun Mapes in Lee’s Summit. One of his black belts opened his own school in the Masonic lodge in my hometown and I trained there with him. There were guys I knew running classes out of their basements. It was everywhere. Clyde and his Uncle Willie share that tight-jawed laconic approach to conversation and that desperate suppression of feeling. Jay and his family are less like that, and J.D.’s manic style, which is a deflection technique, comes from a guy I know who spent a decade in prison. It’s a defense mechanism. I don’t think I would’ve been able to write this novel in a different part of the country. That would’ve required me to get to know an area in a way that I just don’t think I would’ve been able to know, for this subject matter. But I guess I could see a different version of this novel set in the south where all the men share their feelings, drink too much, and cry a lot. That could’ve been fun.
SC: In the Course of Human Events is your debut novel. What surprised or challenged you about the writing process? If you could do anything differently, what would it be?
MH: This was a hard novel to write, in part because it was the first novel I’d ever tried to write. It took five or six years, in the end. Some of those years I was working full time and writing only two or three mornings a week before work. Up at 5, write until 8, get going. What surprised me about those years was how much I was able to get done when the clock was ticking. I know the writer Dan Choan sometimes writes with a timer set for 15 minutes. He doesn’t allow himself to pause until that timer goes off. Some mornings once I got going I’d have an hour, hour and a half, and I’d manage 2,000 words. But in writing Human Events, I had to first figure out how to write a novel, then I had to figure out how to write this novel. That’s why it took me six years. When I started I had no idea of the story. It wasn’t even political in the beginning. It was just a domestic story about a passive guy marrying into a dynamic family. At some point early on I realized that that narrative wasn’t enough, for me. Then I remembered an argument I’d had with one of my best childhood friends. He’d just joined a militia and had read the conspiracy theory book, Behold a Pale Horse, which had had an enormous impact on him. He was trying to convince me of this, that or the other and I was pushing back and it ended badly and we didn’t speak for a good few years after that. But that argument had stuck with me, and the fact of this book’s impact on my friend. So another surprise was just about how our experiences and the various ideas that we are floating around with are probably a lot more connected than we might realize. I’m proud of the book. I don’t think it’s perfect. It was as good as I could make it given my abilities at the time. I ran out of steam in the end. The last thing I wanted to do was work another day on that book before it got published. But if I had it to do over again, I would’ve read the whole thing out loud and done another top edit. There are too many words.
SC: Who are some authors that inspire your work, and why?
MH: It used to be Cormac McCarthy until his language seeped its way into my writing and I had to stop reading him, though I love him still. In fact, my wife wrote in the margin of an early draft of my book, “Cormac called, he wants his language back.” Flannery O’Connor was one of the first authors who blew me away. She’s amazing, and the way she evokes place with the perfect detail is astonishing. Barry Hannah, Mark Richard, and Padgett Powell, also. For a while I thought I was a southern author and these people were to blame. James Salter and Christine Schutt both have a breathtaking economy in the way they move through time, just compression and grace and elegance. I’d love to be able to do that but just can’t. The book I would probably want to be buried with is Revolutionary Road. The more I read it the better I see it is. That this was a first novel just pisses me off. How was he able to pull that off? It’s crazy. It’s so, so good.
SC: What is your ideal writing environment — the sights, sounds, and smells?
MH: My wife says I have the nose of a bloodhound and I like comforting smells: pine, cedar, woodsmoke. So either I’ve got an expensive candle or I’m writing in a cabin in the Sierra Nevada mountains. I typically write early drafts by hand so all I need is a small space with a good chair that won’t destroy my back, a little stove, a wall where I can hang the structure and other macro thoughts, a bunch of books, endless coffee, and a footstool. A small desk would be handy but not totally necessary. It’s been tough having the perfect writing environment since I sold the book. My wife and I went traveling for a year before our books came out (her first book, Black Lake, was published a month before mine), slept in 20 different beds that year. Since then we just keep moving. We’ve moved three times in four years. Sometimes I get the spare room, if there is one, and sometimes she gets it. It’s only fair. Right now we’re living in a place that has a basement and I’ve sort of walled off a corner of it for writing. It’s dark and cold but I’ve got blankets.
SC: What’s next for you?
MH: I’m working on another novel set in the Midwest, in a town called Peculiar — which is real. It’s in the early stages and looks like it’s going to be brutal — the book more than the process. I’m also working on a bunch of stories and hope to have a collection together before too long. The last six months I’ve worked harder than I probably ever have doing research and reporting on a James Patterson true-crime book called All-American Murder about the football player Aaron Hernandez. It comes out January 22nd.
Mike Harvkey is the author of the novel In the Course of Human Events and a researcher-reporter for James Patterson & Alex Abramovich’s true-crime book All-American Murder. His writing has appeared in Esquire, Salon, The Believer, Poets & Writers, Nylon, Zoetrope, Mississippi Review and elsewhere. He’s the recipient of fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and Columbia University.