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Carol Dunbar’s story “The Boy Who Lit in the Bleeding Tree” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Winter 2018 issue, out now.
What’s your connection to the Midwest, and how has the region influenced your writing?
Never before moving to the Midwest have I been so concerned with the weather. I arrived to the Upper Midwest just weeks before the great Halloween Blizzard of 1991, and that was when I realized people weren’t joking when they told me Minnesotans plugged in their cars. I came here to go to school and stayed because I fell in love. In the summer of 2002 my husband and I moved off the grid where we continue to be at the mercy of the elements. Because we’re outside all the time, weather has become a major preoccupation of mine. It is the foundation for the structure of my first novel, and this region of northern Wisconsin where I live is in many ways a character in the book. I’ve become interested in how using weather and the environment in writing can help heighten/color/deepen the intense or even subtle emotional states of characters living on the page.
What do you think is the most compelling aspect of the Midwest?
Growing up I had the privilege of experiencing many different climates. I was born in Guam, attended schools in Georgia, Rhode Island, Hawaii, and Texas. What I find most satisfying about this region are the extremes and subtleties of the seasons, the heat and the cold, the dormant versus the lush, and the dynamics of process in between. We go from ground frozen with eighty-below wind chills and mounds of snow, to ninety-degree days of sun and rain with so much drenching, my woods often feel like a rain forest. These extremes suit my mood and temperament because, like the weather, I also find that my creative life has cycles, and I really appreciate the reminder that it’s all a process with dormant times, stormy times, and other times when you’re full to bursting.
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?
You know, it’s funny, but for the longest time I was afraid to write about place. I thought that because I wasn’t really from anywhere, I didn’t have the right to speak with any authority about a place. That kind of bummed me out. Then I figured out that I didn’t have to write about the definitive experience of a place; I only had to write about my experience, or a character’s experience. The conscious decision to validate these experiences seemed to unlock my memories, so now I have no problem accessing them. I rely on them constantly when writing, enjoy sensory details, and often compare one place to another. A writing colleague once told me, “It’s because you aren’t from this place that you can write about it,” and I thought that was really interesting and really appreciated her saying that.
Discuss your writing process — inspirations, ideal environments, how you deal with writer’s block.
My process today has evolved quite a bit from my process of the past. Before having kids I had no schedule, no discipline, no process. During the early stages of motherhood, I had no room of my own and relied on headphones for privacy. I wrote whenever I could—a stolen hour here or there, often in the middle of the night. Also, because I live off the grid, there was always this problem of powering up the computer. But always I wrote, and I’m so glad I did. Now, I have an office and a laptop with an EnergyStar monitor and a view of the trees. I write every day, usually when it’s still dark. Inspiration comes from dreams, conversations, the daily news. I’ve never had writer’s block; my biggest problem is time. I tend to want to obsess on something until it’s done, but my life doesn’t allow for that. I learned from a friend who is a music teacher how to make marked progress during 20-minute sessions, and I’m so grateful to her for that lesson.
How can you tell when a piece of writing is finished?
When I’ve taken a piece as far as I can go, I bring it to my writing group, or give it to a trusted reader. It is the feedback and questions from readers that helps me with the last 20 percent, or if I’m stuck before I even get that far, they can help me identify what a piece is really about. I also don’t submit anything until after I read it out loud, because doing that suddenly brings the reader/listener into the picture in a way that doesn’t happen when I’m just looking at the page. I listen to these recordings and that’s how I go through the final editing process.
Who is your favorite author (fiction writer or poet), and what draws you to their work?
I just discovered—through a colleague in my writing group—Elizabeth Strout. I’m drawn to her aesthetic and what she chooses to show us through the scenes she puts together. Her writing isn’t flashy; the art is in her ideas and the way her characters breathe on the page. I’m studying how she manages to write with such compassion and candor, evoking empathy for her characters, without ever being sentimental or grandiose.
What’s next for you?
I’m working through the edits on my novel, and next is fall of 2018 when my agent will shop it around for a publisher. Meanwhile, I’m working on a collection of short stories about waitresses and people who serve. One of those stories, “Last Gleaming,” will appear in the fall issue of South Carolina Review.
Where can we find more information about you?