Contributor Spotlight: Brian Zimmerman

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Brian Zimmerman author headshotBrian Zimmerman’s story “The Lucky Ones” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Summer 2018 issue, out now.

What’s your connection to the Midwest, and how has the region influenced your writing?

I was born in California, but my parents—both Midwesterners—moved us back to the region when I was two. I was raised in central Illinois. After spending a few wayward years in Florida in my early twenties, I returned to the Midwest to finish my undergraduate degree at Kansas State University. I went on to receive my MFA in fiction writing from Columbia College in Chicago. I continue to live and work in the city.

On a practical level, the region has deeply influenced my writing in that I most often put my characters in areas where I’ve lived. Sometimes I give myself license to write in settings outside my personal experience, but most often I feel compelled to revisit the places I know well.

I like to think of my writing style as simultaneously terse and generous. That’s also how I like to think about the Midwest.

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

This depends on how one chooses to interpret “compelling.” The weather is certainly compelling in terms of variety—we get heat waves, blizzards, and everything between. In terms of American storytelling, I think the Midwest is especially compelling as it serves as a sort of metonymy of the nation as a whole. As Barack Obama told Ta-Nehisi Coates: “Illinois is the most demographically representative state in the country. … If you took all the
percentages of black, white, Latino; rural, urban; agricultural, manufacturing—[if] you took
that cross section across the country and you shrank it, it would be Illinois.”

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’ve touched on this already, but there are some experiences in my life that I don’t feel I’ve fully wrestled with until I’ve probed them through fiction. There are also people I’ve met whose lives and personality I find incredibly interesting—I can’t help but write about them.

However, these are not simple recreations of people I’ve know on the page, but rather exaggerations with elements of one’s personality or circumstances amplified or ignored. I’ve been accused of “thinly-veiled autobiography” in the past, but I wouldn’t describe my work this way. There is more of a distance there. It’s more like removing pieces of me or those I’ve known and mixing them in a petri dish filled with other materials and seeing what happens. What comes out is never what actually happened in anyone’s life—most of the time it’s not even close.

Sometimes I ignore my past experiences and instead try to create characters from whole cloth (which I’m not certain is even possible). But even then, I mostly set these stories in places I’ve been. I admire writers who can fabricate entire worlds, but I just don’t think I’m up to, or interested in, such an endeavor. I tried to write a novel set in 1960s Chicago once. I know Chicago well, but just that change in timeframe made me feel untethered every time I sat down to write. I think some relatively strong writing came out of it, and I may return to the material someday, but I’m not sure I’ve earned the creative license to write about an era I never lived in. Research is one way to give yourself license, but it’s hard to manage when you’re working a nine-to-five that requires a lot of computer time and hours of research almost every day. One day…maybe.

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

I write on my lunch break at work and during the weekends. There’s a small room in my apartment that serves dual purposes as storage closet and office—it is my ideal place to write. My best advice for dealing with writer’s block is to just sit down and write anyway, even if it sucks or feels crappy. You’ve just got to lean in and write through that stuff. What I encounter more often than writer’s block is losing faith in a project. I often sit down to write and spend too much time invalidating, not revising, what I’d written the day or week before. It’s a challenge, but I try to trick myself into thinking whatever I’m working on, whether it’s bad or not, is worthy of the effort. Otherwise, nothing would ever get finished.

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

For short stories, I tend to write really long, meandering first drafts. Once I’ve got it condensed to a reasonable length, I send it off to a couple of friends whose work I admire, get feedback and revise from there. My rule is I have to be able to read through the story without cringing once before I can submit. But this isn’t full proof. Knowing when a story is done is primarily a visceral experience. You have to believe that you can’t possibly make the draft any better than it is. It will never be perfect, but you should feel that you’ve exhausted your writerly abilities trying to bring it to perfection.

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

This is such a difficult question. I’ll limit this answer to short story writers. I love the stories of Denis Johnson, Edward P. Jones and Amy Hempel for varied distinct and overlapping reasons. Hempel for her ability to punch you in the heart when you’re not looking; Johnson for his portrait of the human experience as shambling, tragic, and hilarious; and Jones for his ability to weave place and history seamlessly into character. There are so many other reasons I love these writers, but I’m not sure my vocabulary of admiration is sufficient or even accurate.

What’s next for you?

I’m currently working on a crime novel set in Chicago inspired by an experience I had visiting the trauma unit of one of the city’s safety-net hospitals on a work-related assignment. I’m also working on a short story set in Hannibal, Missouri—a place I’ve never lived but visited once as a child. Not sure how either will pan out.

Where can we find more information about you?

I’m an admitted social media luddite. I’ve recently—with great anxiety—entered the Twittersphere. Here’s the link (gulp).

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