Nora Seilheimer’s piece “The Breakup Cat” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Winter 2018 issue, available now.
What’s your connection to the Midwest, and how has the region influenced your writing?
I was born and raised in Saint Clair, Michigan (no, not Saint Clair Shores, that’s a different town entirely) and attended Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Michigan. After graduation I moved to Chicago where I taught high school special education and yoga for eight years before moving to New Orleans for graduate school. Even though my husband and I recently bought a house in the Upper Ninth Ward, I am still consumed by a very strong northward pull. My family is spread throughout Michigan and Wisconsin and my husband’s throughout Illinois. But I think that pull is coming from my Grandpa’s ghost. Save going overseas for the war, my Grandpa spent his entire life in Kalamazoo, and I sense his roots reaching for me often.
I find that my writing hasn’t really found a home in the South yet. This is not to say anything negative about the South, but that is to say that my writing possesses certain qualities that don’t always land with readers here. It’s not as sad as it sounds. It’s valuable to see your writing through the eyes of someone who might not be your target audience- your work’s defining qualities surface much more quickly, giving you a clear idea of what you’re naturally working with every time you sit down to create. I have learned that my writing often tries to do a lot in a small amount of space, not unlike how Midwesterners stuff their summers with vacations, camping trips, music festivals, and the like before holing up for the winter. I’ve also learned that I use humor to connect with my reader, and that my particular brand of humor is often anchored in pain and the honesty needed to realize that pain is just another slice of the human experience, something that connects us all, something that we are not meant to dwell in, but that is meant to be our offering to others. To me this connection is like building lakeside bonfires in the winter with friends and family. How rewarding it can be to stare meaningfully into the flames together.
What do you think is the most compelling aspect of the Midwest?
Now that I have lived outside of the Midwest for almost two years, I think the most compelling aspect of the region is its four distinct seasons and how each one inspires different energies within us. I can’t tell you how many times I have been chilling on a New Orleans front porch donned in shorts and a tank top and it takes me about half a beer to realize it’s January. I keep Chicago, Milwaukee, and Kalamazoo as destinations in my weather app on my phone. I usually finish the other half of my beer as I imagine my Chicago friends layering up for the El in the eight inches of snow it tells me are on the ground there and I am caught somewhere between feeling super lucky to be warm and almost half naked and super jealous that they get to experience winter energy enveloping their bodies regardless of layers of down jackets and Cuddl Duds. They get to relearn the importance of “grin and bear it” while surrounded by a community of folks relearning the same thing.
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 grew up figure skating for the Port Huron Figure Skating Club in Michigan. I find that the ways in which the rink has groomed my outlook shows up in my work as a focus on movement. My workshopmates were the ones who pointed this out to me. My narrator describes the way other characters hold space, whether they stand with feet wider than their hips’ distance or if they make hand gestures closer to their own body or their listener’s face, but she also takes the time to describe what an emotion feels like as it journeys through her own body and how it might change the appearance of her setting. This technique can get trippy at times, so I have learned to balance it out with a focus on sound, whether it be a song I weave into the narrative or sounds coming from the setting itself, to keep the reader anchored. I believe this appreciation for the audible was instilled in me after many years of listening to my dad play guitar through the air vents of our house while writing in my journal. It seems I am always looking for a soundtrack.
Discuss your writing process — inspirations, ideal environments, how you deal with writer’s block.
Coffee helps. So do cats (when they sit still and NOT on the keyboard). If I am feeling stuck in terms of clarity or how to connect research to story, I’ll take my notebook to a place with free live music, preferably open mics. If I am feeling stuck in terms of my heart and the task of writing down what it’s telling me, I’ll take my notebook to a yoga class led by a teacher I trust. I also keep the notes app on my phone open while I sleep in case something comes to me in the middle of the night that I need to record.
How can you tell when a piece of writing is finished?
I’m of the mind that a piece of writing, be it essay or memoir, is never finished because life is always evolving, research is always developing, our perspectives are always shifting. Every piece is like a never-ending road trip and a published version of that piece is just one destination you thought interesting and whole enough to stay there for a while. I suppose you might be happy enough with that destination that you decide to lay down some roots, but you’ll always wonder what a piece might have been if you had incorporated this new study or this new angle you’ve discovered within after gaining some time and space from the matter. This theory might trouble some writers, maybe even ignite their anxiety, but I find it liberating and spacious.
Who is your favorite author (fiction writer or poet), and what draws you to their work?
Eula Biss. She’s such a badass, I can’t get over it. The amount of research that she packs into one paragraph, sometimes even one sentence, is, in the original meaning of the word, awesome.
What’s next for you?
I am currently in the second year of my MFA at University of New Orleans. So I guess what’s next is thesis and comps? After that I will be transitioning from pretending to be a writer to actually being one.
Where can we find more information about you?
Folks can connect with me on Twitter @nslhmr