Contributor Spotlight: Scott Dorsch

August 27th, 2018

Scott Dorsch author headshotScott Dorsch’s story “Holes or Tunnels” 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?

Although I was not born here, Michigan has been my home base since I was five. I grew up on the westside, near Grand Rapids, in a city squalled by industry, called Muskegon. If one was to overlook the severe divide of race and class in the inner city and the shuttered windows along the main drag, a beautiful wilderness of sand and choppy, massive waters exists there. A Great Lake, rivers, muskeg, dunes, and mixed coniferous forests dominate the area. This is where I was found fishing, frogging, and noodling for turtles when I was young. It is this cultural and geologic yin-yang of failing commerce backset by lake breezes and shade trees that both defines the region and my writing. This and the smiling faces that persist the six-month winters above the 45th, like the mailman who has helped me out of my snowed-in driveway more than once, the sun bathers on beautifully empty beaches, the hard-capped workers sandblasting and repainting the Mackinac Bridge, the sign-holding homeless, the seasonal songbirds, the swollen beer enthusiasts, and the orchardists hoping for a better year—they, too, influence my writing. And it was all there in my hometown, just as it is in the Midwest.

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

Big water, sand, and the long lake-effected winters backset by the streams of commerce. This and the folks that love it no matter how cold and snowy Spring will be.

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?

The setting always comes to me first. Not the central character, not the plot, not the lede (although helpful), and certainly not the theme, but the place and the images therein, inspire me to put pen to paper. It’s typically a casted image from my time spent in the woods and dunes of the Midwest, or flashes from my days in the Cascades and Rockies that pique an idea, and it is from there that everything else clumsily falls into relative order.

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

I’m a pen guy. Sometimes a pencil person, but I start by manually scribbling stories out. I do not outline, and I do not plan. I use the Goldberg approach to preliminary writing (as in Natalie Goldberg and her wonderful guide, Writing Down the Bones).

As Goldberg suggests, I just go for the “jugular” and let the script out feverishly. From which point I take the shards of what could be a story and distill it down like white whiskey by typing it out and editing along the way. Also like whiskey, I let it rest and age before I come back to it, print it out, and work pencil to paper again a hundred times before it feels almost ready. From there, my gatekeeper, Julianna, looks at it and says, “I liked it, but…”. I take her suggestions and repeat the previous process until I get so sick of looking at it that I send the story out to some poor unsuspecting volunteer reader, who gives it a “maybe” and moves it along to the editor with well wishes. (Thank you, readers!) During the feverish stage, I require no particulars from my working environment. However, in the editing stage, I must be working in a well-lit, quiet, tidy space with a full stomach and lots of water nearby. That is ideal.

Just like all hard things in life, I find writer’s block to be a condition of a bad attitude. When stuck or upset about my progress, I lower my expectations, sip some water (because I’m likely dehydrated), slam down my laptop or pen, and then walk while listening to the New Yorker Poetry Podcast. Preferably the Ellen Bass, “What Did I Love” episode on repeat. I love that poem.

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

Like most art, stories never feel finished. Not to me anyway. It never feels quite right or good enough, which is a curse in a way. However, this undone feeling can also be a blessed motivator when I’m done giving a damn. It’s only when I can’t even stand to hear the title read aloud that I know it’s done for me. Unlike a painting in the Louvre, there’s always a chance to rework lines in future editions or collections, or to just digitally burn a story with a firm touch of the delete button.

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

No one has changed my approach or inner dialogue like Annie Proulx. I will never be the same after reading The Shipping News. There’s a particular grace, meter, conceptual genius and abrasiveness to her work that keeps me smiling and crying through her stories. Place more than anything is central to her work, and I just can’t resist it. She almost exclusively writes in third-person, yet the narrator is often my favorite character in her work. I can’t stand a sanitized narrator in fiction anymore because of Annie. Did I mention meter? She’s got rhythm in her bones.

With that said, poetry was my first love. Billy Collins was there for me early on when I worked alone in an amusement park parking booth in my late teens, but my favorite writer is a Michigan poet named Bob Hicock. Bless you, Bob, for telling it however the hell you please.

What’s next for you?

With much gratitude and luck, I am heading to Idaho to study fiction as a candidate in the University of Idaho’s MFA program. There I will work on a collection of short stories and keep chipping away at a novel based on my short, “Holes or Tunnels.”

Where can we find more information about you?

I’ve been reviled by my family and friends for not having a social media outlet to date. Unfortunately, I cannot be found on the book of faces or Twitter or the like. I will be launching a website in the near future.

Summer 2018 issue is here!

School may be starting soon, but we’re still clinging to the memory of summer, and you can too: the Summer 2018 issue of Midwestern Gothic is here!

With cover art by the uber-talented Chris Bigalke, we’re thrilled with how this issue turned out!

Check out the Summer 2018 issue with fiction from Marc Allen, Gail Aronson, Nathaniel Blaesing, Eimile Campbell, Michael Cebula, Scott Dorsch, Jen Ippensen, Laurence Levy, Sophie Paquette, Scott Onak, Jeremy John Parker, Chloe Seim, Aurore Sibley, and Alyssa Striplin.

Plus poetry from Erica Anderson-Senter, Nancy Botkin, Kai Carlson-Wee, Sanda Moore Coleman, Nicole Connolly, Savannah Cooper, Brian Czyzyk, Carthryn Essinger, Lara Frankena, Rae Hoffman Jager, Michael Kriesel, Gerry LaFemina, John LaPine, Lizzy Petersen, Samuel Piccone, Joseph Pritchard, Sara Ryan, and Josh Weston.

And nonfiction from Stephanie Anderson, Laura Dorwart, Stacy Boe Miller, Claire Moran, Cassandra Morrison, and Elisabeth Giffin Speckman.

You’ll also find photography by Steve Frosch, Alec Josaitis, David McCleery, and Kevin Yuskis.

Shop now for the Summer 2018 issue of Midwestern Gothic.

As a reminder, the Summer 2018 issue will be our last issue before we go on a temporary hiatus, so this is an issue you won’t want to miss!

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Interview: Ruth Joffre

Ruth Joffre author headshotMidwestern Gothic staffer Ariel Everitt talked with author Ruth Joffre about her collection Night Beast, her preference for similes, her ways of finding inspiration, & more.

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Ariel Everitt: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Ruth Joffre: I lived in Iowa City for three years while earning my MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and working on my short stories. It was the second stop in my slow move westward, which saw me move from Northern Virginia to upstate New York, from upstate New York to Iowa City, then from Iowa City to Seattle. Each move corresponded to a major personal milestone, so for me the Midwest will always be the place where I came into my own as a writer. It was a formative time, and I often think wistfully of the snow and the bitter cold. Seattle’s weather is incredibly mild.

AE: Your new collection Night Beast is full of living, breathing characters whose minds are easy to dip into while reading, but whose true darkness we can only glimpse in their pursuit of human connection. They range from homeless women escaping abuse in the Midwest to college students counting down the seconds until they find love in upstate New York, just as you have lived in both the Midwest and upstate New York. How has your experience in various places across the country influenced your writing?

RJ: More and more, my work is rooted in place. I think moving around as much as I have has shown me how differences in geography and climate can dictate our pleasures, our politics, and our ways of life. For instance, the culture of the Pacific Northwest is so focused on health and fitness, on hiking and fresh fish and trying to ignore the fact that the rest of Washington is a red state, that the people who grew up here think about the world completely differently. Coming from the frozen plains of Iowa, my response to Seattle’s idea of winter was, “You haven’t really suffered.” I associate Seattle so much with white privilege and shocking economic disparity that now whenever I sit down to write I have to consciously push away the safety (however modest) that my life in Seattle has afforded me as a queer writer. Living in so many places has taught me not to write from the emotional, physical, and social spaces I currently inhabit but to instead write from the space that best fits the story.

Night Beast book cover by Ruth Joffre

AE: Is there a significant difference between writing your Midwestern characters and writing your characters from other parts of the country/world?

RJ: Unfortunately, the Midwest was the place where I felt least safe as a queer fat Latina, and even though Iowa City was fairly progressive my time there was marred by the verbal abuse I suffered because of my identity. My Midwestern characters are primarily queer or otherwise marginalized in some way, so that same darkness and lack of safety hangs over them, affecting their ability to connect with others. In “Night Beast,” for instance, the narrator flashes back to a memory of the Iowa cornfields at night and of being advised by her brother to hide her sexuality. This is not to say that my characters that live on the coasts don’t struggle with their sexuality; it’s just that they do so from a place of relative safety (a progressive college campus, for example).

AE: In the story “Go West, and Grow Up,” you write about an unemployed mother and daughter who leave behind an abusive husband/father to live out of their car and struggle to survive this way, kept afloat by hopes of reaching the West. There is working-class literature, which is underexplored itself, but these characters are even a step farther. Was there a personal significance to you, of writing characters in this underexplored socioeconomic class?

RJ: There was a time in my life when I came very close to being homeless, just like these characters. That was in high school. We were moving around a lot, outrunning evictions. My father couldn’t hold down a job, and money was always tight. I escaped very narrowly, but I’ve never forgotten what that was like or where I came from. I think there is very little fiction today that addresses what it’s like to slip through the cracks of society, to move around so much that Social Services can’t find you, and to be abandoned by your government and your country. Increasing economic disparity is only exacerbating the problem, making it even harder for children to escape poverty. Meanwhile, our society’s desire for escapism has made it difficult for stories like these to reach the public.

AE: The tender, tenuous loves your characters forge with one another recreate the complicated feeling of falling in love through language, especially in the stories “Nitrate Nocturnes” and “Night Beast.” Do you employ any particular strategies to help your readers feel all the complexities of what the characters are feeling? And how do you temper the character’s own internal chaos to allow the reader freedom?

RJ: I’m a big fan of simile, more so even than metaphor, and I like creating similes that feel fresh and innovative while also being true to the character’s experience. Many writers use metaphor to make sweeping generalizations (“Love is [x]. Happiness is [y].”), but I like to avoid such direct statements and instead filter them through a character’s point of view. It’s not as tidy, and I’m sure there are some readers who would rather I state things plainly, but that’s not my style.

AE: What’s your personal favorite of the stories in your collection Night Beast, and why? Were there any stories you wanted to include that you didn’t, and, if so, why?

RJ: My personal favorite is probably “Night Beast,” though “Nitrate Nocturnes” and “Weekend” are close. I love “Night Beast” for its exploration of desire and its hostilities. I wanted to include “Some of the Lies I Tell My Children,” which appeared in Nashville Review, but my editor and I ended up choosing the flash pieces that make up “Two Lies,” instead. Those two stories come from a series that explores the same concept in a different style, playing on the idea of fairy tales. Ultimately, the strangeness of the stories seemed to fit better with the other stories in the collection.

AE: How do your stories start (for instance, with an image, a feeling, a line), and at what point do you tend to discover what they’re really “about”?

RJ: Most often, they start with a collection of images (cupcakes at a wedding, the cornfields at night) and expand from there. Rarely do I start with a line. Language comes later, after the images have accrued enough emotional matter to become a story. Most of the time, I know from the start what the story is “about” and where it’s going, but not how to get there. Each line, each paragraph is a surprise that moves me incrementally closer to my destination.

AE: Can you talk a little about how your stories tend to change over the course of revision, and your personal approach to revision?

RJ: I’m a fan of slash-and-burn revision. “Weekend” had a second middle section that I cut entirely. “Night Beast” had a frame story. These pieces are both stronger for their revisions, and it didn’t hurt to make those cuts, though I did resist them for a time. I write so methodically that it can be hard to part with sentences I labored over so long; but it must be done. I come from a workshop background, so when it comes time to revise a story I conduct a lengthy private workshop in my head, interrogating the piece, questioning whether what I wanted to convey is coming across. It sounds crazy, but it works.

AE: Your stories in Night Beast vary greatly in length. For instance, your strange, gorgeous story “Two Lies” is only about four pages long, while “Nitrate Nocturnes” and “Night Beast” are up around thirty. What advice would you give any writer trying to vary the length of their stories? What strategies do you employ in very short stories, and how are they different from those you employ in very long ones?

RJ: When I write long, I usually take every opportunity to expand on the story, to diverge from the primary narrative and delve into a character’s past, but when I write flash fiction I don’t do that. I avoid that detour. I pass that rest stop. With flash fiction, I always keep an eye on my mileage so I can make the trip as beautiful and efficient as possible. So my advice would be to pay attention to your writing habits and identify those places where you would naturally expand on a narrative. Once you’re conscious of that, then you can choose when and where you do it.

AE: What’s next for you?

RJ: Right now, I’m working on a novel called Blood and Sweat. It’s about a drag queen trapped in a massive quarantine in New York City and how he fights back against the oppressive conservative regime. I hope people will have as much fun reading it as I’m having writing it.

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Ruth Joffre earned her MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop and is the recipient of the Arthur Lynn Andrews Prize for Fiction and the George Harmon Coxe Award for Creative Writing. Her work has appeared in the Kenyon Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, Prairie Schooner, The Millions, Mid-American Review, The Rumpus, and The Establishment. Ruth currently lives in Seattle, where she teaches writing and literature at the Hugo House.

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Contributor Spotlight: Sara Ryan

Sara Ryan author headshotSara Ryan’s piece “13 Horses in Michigan” 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 have lived in the Midwest most of my life, and though I’ve left and returned and left again, it will always be somewhere I revisit, literally or through my writing. My family’s history is here—the landscapes and people I’ve loved and let go. These extinctions—everything I’ve lost and found again—comes back to life in my poetry. The geography of the Midwest is important, too: the animals, the lakes, the sand dunes, the small towns, the crumbling cities, the farms that stretch out for miles. I will always love the Midwest, and I will always come back.

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

For me, the most compelling thing about the Midwest is the survival that persists here. The seasons are brutal, the lakes are stunning and vicious, and the land is unforgiving but also gives so much. The people, because of these things, are, more often than not, kind, humble, and hard-working. There is a endurance that exists in the Midwest, and I think that’s what makes it so special.

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?

Memory plays a huge role in my writing. I think memory, and the sometimes imperfect reconstruction of it, is so important to the stories that I weave into my poetry. It’s often difficult to return to the many places I’ve lived and visited and loved but, as often as I can, I make it a point to drive towards one lake and away from another. Last summer, I drove around the entirety of Lake Michigan, visiting the graves of family members and the cities and towns that keep them.

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

I can write pretty much anywhere (I write a lot and I write very quickly), but I prefer to write in a quiet coffee shop with a jumbo chai latte. I try to follow the “rule” of not editing as I write, but that doesn’t always happen. I don’t really believe that writer’s block exists, but that’s mostly because I don’t believe in writing when I have nothing to write about. I write when I have an idea and I don’t when I don’t! I try not to force the process of writing; I’d rather just experience the joy of it. I always try to keep a book of poems next to me while writing, for inspiration, for motivation, for the word that might be escaping me.

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

I’m bad because sometimes I write a poem and immediately submit it. I love revision though, and I can endlessly pick away at a poem. After I “finish” a poem, I read it to myself approximately 20 times, and if I don’t hate it by the 20th time, it might be finished.

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

It’s hard to just have one favorite author, but I love Ada Límon’s work. Her work is raw and honest and feminine and brutal, and it incorporates the natural and the animal in such a beautiful and vivid way. I’m so excited to read her new book, The Carrying.

What’s next for you?

I just graduated with my MFA from Northern Michigan University. At the end of the summer, I’m moving to Texas (!!!) to pursue my PhD in Poetry at Texas Tech University. It’ll be an adventure, and I’m excited for the change in landscape. Also, my first chapbook, Never Leave the Foot of an Animal Unskinned, a hybrid collection on the strangeness of taxidermy, will be released by Porkbelly Press in early July.

Where can we find more information about you?

My website is sararryan.com, and I tweet @SaraReneeRyan.

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Flash Fiction Round 3 Runner-up: “Coasting” by Izabela Babinska

Midwestern Gothic Summer Flash Fiction Series 2018
 

During the summer of 2018 we continued our annual Flash Fiction Contest series, inviting authors to respond to three different picture prompts. You can read more about the series here. Round 3 submissions responded to our photo prompt with the following criteria: here.

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Round 3 runner-up: “Coasting” by Izabela Babinska
 

The wind came whipping south, skimming the icy, white-capped surface of Lake Superior. Hurtling like a wild thing escaped from the Arctic’s captive grip, it danced a primal, wicked dance across the water’s steely surface, the steps inherent, irreplicable.

Entangling itself in the steady flurry that fell from the heavy, pregnant clouds, it propelled them both forward, a squall, colliding harshly with a shipping vessel that braved the dangerous late-winter waters. It drummed an ancient, war-like beat against the ship’s hull that echoed, a chill, through the sailor’s bones. Rolling off the starboard side, it galloped, sprinted, flew towards mounds of broken blue ice, alien as the surface of Neptune. Lost beneath, obscured, the division between water and land, indecipherable where ice ended and shore began.

Weaving through the sabers and spears of the ice caves, plucking at them like the teeth of a comb, the wind continued its menacing melody along the coast, pounding on tightly shut windows and whistling down chimneys like a ghost. Here startling a grey-haired grandmother bundled by a window with a book, there enveloping a stranded car in a cyclone of snow. It laughed and jeered and charged down a lantern-lit Main Street, rocking wreaths and shop signs and blinking yellow stoplights.

Coming upon an empty schoolyard, it tried all the swing seats and caused a stir in the pickup lane—naughty—obstructing dozens of desperate wipers. Turning away from town, it tripped over itself to gleefully slap the faces of bundled skiers on ill-groomed slopes before rustling the tops of pines on long, uninterrupted wooded stretches.

It relaxed some, untangling, loosening like a knotted string, finally ripped free. In the honey waning sun it could almost be termed a breeze, its howl subsiding to a steady hum. Settling onto the outstretched wings of an owl, it coasted, surveying the forests that broke to fields where it brushed the snow across the empty canvas and painted stripes on the long narrow roads. It would play among the cornfields there in a few short months. A wink, a lifetime.

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Izabela Babinska was born in Poland and grew up in Michigan. She has a BA in Professional Writing from Michigan State University and an MBA in Nonprofit Management from Cleary University. A technical writer by day, she lives in Petoskey, Michigan with her husband, Derrick, and Australian Shepherd, Devereaux. She’s learning to get along with the snow.

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Flash Fiction Round 3 Winner: “Spirals” by Steve Fox

Midwestern Gothic Summer Flash Fiction Series 2018
 

During the summer of 2018 we continued our annual Flash Fiction Contest series, inviting authors to respond to three different picture prompts. You can read more about the series here. Round 3 submissions responded to our photo prompt with the following criteria: here.

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Round 3 winner: “Spirals” by Steve Fox
 

Along with the Mayan concept of Time as cyclical, so too, Emm said, goes the notion of place. And space. Like the great Mayan Calendar, the Earth is also round. A circle. A circle with a circular moon. And together they travel in a circle (sort of) around the sun, in a predicable loop that closes every 365.2422 days.

I agreed most people would find comfort in the idea of a renewal of place. And space.

But maybe not here in the Dakotas Bar, where above a window a sign reads, Not the end of the Earth… but you can see it from here.

The broad window overlooks a desolate, snow-capped wheat field that sprawls beyond the Earth’s curve. Could be Superior, its dwindling horizon fragmenting into frozen Lake, Lake into sky.

The Pabst-impaired discussion of the Mayan concept of Time spun into one of swine flu. Here’s how: The bartender mentioned Happy Hour pork hocks. But I heard pork shanks, Emm pork stents, which I corrected to swine shunts and she yelled swine stents! Cause of the greatest outbreak of swine flu ever!

I said now hang on a minute, and she hollered, Ja, like I figgered, you always second guessin me. No, no, I cried, no. These were doctors doin all this stuff, not some yahoos like you and me, and she hissed doctors, yes, but nineteen-eighteen doctors, not today’s doctors with their new technologies and even the Maya knew you could get sick from certain pig things.

I said that makes no sense whatsoever, and we then said the terrible, awful things you’re only capable of saying to those you love most.

Next thing I know I’m drivin off to Rin Dinger’s one town over, thinking what the hell am I doin drivin at all and then just like that I’m spun out on the side of the road wondering if the morons among us have it right that Time and the world truly end in mayhem where the Mayan calendar stops instead of spiraling around, folding back upon itself like them anthropologists say is what the Maya actually meant.

The spin-out knocked me out. And while I slept, a fresh snowfall drifted in all around my car. Now I’m awake. Drunk and stuck in a cold, dead car.

Longing for Emm. I do love her—It’s… I mean I knew she was mean when I married her… Yet, I’m willing to press into this nasty wind for three miles to get her back.

Maybe Love is the loop, not Time. And the collective unconscious of the Maya grasped something bigger than Time itself, more vast than this ocean of white wheat. And it’s Emm at the point where my timeline coils back and begins anew. Stranded on the edge of an icy somewhere, exactly in the middle of a snowy nowhere. A place with The End always in sight, but always the chance to turn it around. And renew our loop.

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Steve Fox earned a Master’s Degree in Spanish from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is currently an active member of the the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences & Letters and the Wisconsin Writers Association. Presently, Steve studies Creative Writing at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. This year his story “These Are My People” was shortlisted for The Masters Review’s Annual Anthology, and two of his stories were awarded first and second place, respectively, in the fiction category of the Wisconsin Writers’ Association Jade Ring Competition. After years of living, working, and studying in Spain, Argentina, Brazil, and New Zealand, Steve currently resides with his wife and three boys Hudson, Wisconsin, where he holds down a job as Senior Software Engineer. Which is to say he gets up Monday morning and goes to bed later that day on Saturday night.

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Interview: Lillian Li

Lillian Li author headshotMidwestern Gothic staffer Henry Milek talked with author Lillian Li about her book Number One Chinese Restaurant, her opinions on MFA programs, family, & more.

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Henry Milek: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Lillian Li: I grew up in Maryland, but I was actually born in Ann Arbor, Michigan. My dad was getting his PhD at the University of Michigan. So twenty-some years later, when I moved to Ann Arbor to get my MFA at the Helen Zell Writers’ Program, it did feel like a sense of coming full circle. Which, when you’re a dork about narrative, is very cool.

HM: You’re originally from the D.C. metro area. How does living in the Midwest compare to that? Has your move here influenced your work in a notable way?

LL: Well, my hometown has a very large Asian population, so my first encounter with the Midwest was one of shocking whiteness. In some ways, though, I hadn’t realized that I’d grown up in a place where being Asian was practically the norm. I looked up the numbers recently, and apparently North Potomac, where I spent most of my childhood, is 1/3 Asian. That’s a jaw-dropping statistic. But it had never occurred to me that I’d had the privilege of a childhood spent without the feeling of total otherness that most people of color experience living in America. Living in the Midwest has given me an essential distance to see what makes my hometown strange and specific, and how it might operate almost as its own character in my work.

HM: How did you initially decide to pursue an MFA at the University of Michigan? What was your experience like with the program? In what ways has the program helped you grow as a writer?

LL: I suppose I’m someone who likes having a plan, even when it comes to something as nebulous as becoming a writer. In many ways, pursuing writing as a vocation goes against the control-freak side of my personality—it’s deeply uncomfortable and probably very good for me in the long run to stick to something that has no guarantees and no set mile markers for “success”. But in any case, at the time, an MFA seemed like the sturdiest path to becoming a writer. I realized pretty quickly, though, that an MFA is best approached when you already see yourself as a writer. So I guess the program helped me grow in the most basic way, which was to understand that only I had the burden and the privilege of making myself, and calling myself, a writer.

I think that MFA programs work best at teaching writers how to rein in their talent. How to drive the car they already own, in a sense. When I look at my older work, I see a lot of good, but I mostly see chaos. I had no control over my writing because I didn’t understand the basic schematics of, say, a short story. For example, I never wrote scenes in my old stories. They were almost 95% in exposition. No one ever taught me not to write entirely in summary, and I certainly wasn’t deconstructing stories in my free time to figure it out myself.

Which is to say, MFA programs aren’t necessary to becoming a good writer, but they take some of the guesswork out of the process, and, like most higher education, force you to learn something you could have learned on your own if you had the time or willpower.

HM: In an MFA program, you obviously must spend a lot of time with other young writers in the same program. What are the benefits of having access to this community? Are there any downsides?

LL: It was amazing to suddenly be around all these other writers for the first time. And to experience how different writing could be. I had multiple classmates whose work I simultaneously did not understand and thought was genius. I have no doubt that reading and responding to their short story and novel drafts stretched my imagination of what was possible to do with my own work, while also, I think, centering me more solidly in my personal voice and preoccupations.

I would say my cohort was very close. I still visit two of my cohort pals on a frequent basis in their new cities, have long-distance chats with two others, have movie nights with the two still in town, and have recently squeezed the fantastic cheeks of another’s new baby. Four of my cohort-mates fell in love and married each other (so, two married couples, not one married quad)! What am I trying to say here…we’re very lucky we found each other.

Downsides? Well, the first year we all drank too much. But we settled down by the second and third year when we didn’t need to be lubricated to socialize, or at least not as lubricated.

Number One Chinese Restaurant book cover by Lillian Li

HM: Your new novel, Number One Chinese Restaurant, explores themes of familial bonds and relationships. What interests you about these particular relationships? These are obviously common themes in literature and art, so how do you approach these ideas in a unique and distinct way?

LL: If you ask any of my friends, or the barest of acquaintances, they’ll probably tell you I’m obsessed with my family. A college friend once told me that when we met, I used to “begin every sentence with, ‘My mom says…’” Joke’s on her—I still do that.

And because I think that all works of fiction begin, on some level, inside the person writing the fiction, it feels only right that whatever I’m obsessed with in the every day will translate into what I write on the page.

This might be an experience shared by children of immigrants, but I grew up feeling like my family was its own island. Because we straddled two nations—China and America—it felt like we had our own language, culture, history. Actually, all families have this to some degree, but it felt more urgent to me because my family didn’t fit anywhere except inside the home we’d made together.

So I approach the themes of family with this idea of cobbling something out of what’s available, as well as the idea of inclusion forged out of exclusion. I look at how this method of accumulation and patchwork, insecurity and security, creates a deeply layered structure impossible to replicate. In Number One, you’ll notice that all the characters in the makeshift family of the Duck House (as well as the blood family of the Hans) are both incredibly knowledgeable and incredibly ignorant about each other. But all together, they create a total portrait of their family, one that no outsider would ever fully see.

HM: Number One Chinese Restaurant is your debut novel. Has anything surprised you about the publication process? What are some particular challenges to publishing a book that you didn’t foresee?

LL: I didn’t realize how important, and how impossible, a sense of scale and perspective would be. It’s been interesting trying to navigate the process of putting a book out because you have all these concerns and you’re trying to figure out which concerns are real and which ones are just because you’ve never done this before. So, for me, there was a lot of newness, and a lot of figuring out what are actual problems I need to address and what are simply anxieties that I need to process.

HM: Writing a novel is certainly a long and arduous process, often taking years. What were some of the greatest challenges you faced in seeing Number One Chinese Restaurant to completion?

LL: Honestly, the gift of this first novel was that I didn’t know what was challenging until it was over. I was too stupid to be afraid, too naïve to understand what I was signing up for, and it’s only now, as I approach the idea of writing a second novel, that I’m scared. So that’s the greatest challenge, how not to let the irritating voice of hindsight infect the next project, and how to relearn that blind optimism that cushions the everyday grind of novel-writing.

HM: Why is the novel important as a form? What benefits does it have over short-fiction and other mediums? Has this importance changed at all in the digital age?

LL: I think a novel stands apart from other mediums because to read a novel is to actively experience the passing of time. You can’t, after a certain point, read a novel any faster. To finish a three-hundred-page novel, you need to devote at least a day’s worth of time (even when I was speed-skimming class books during college, I couldn’t finish faster than that). I don’t think any other medium requires that much time to experience, and that much concentrated effort. A TV series, for example, might take as many hours to consume, but you do that consumption passively.

And so I think that because a novel requires this participation and stamina from its readers, what it can communicate as a form can go much deeper. Novels can sweep you away while at the same time forcing you to work your imaginative and empathic muscles. To read a truly good novel is to live, for a time, an extra life that runs parallel to the one you’re already living.

Even once virtual reality technology gets to a place where it actually feels like entering a new reality to put on those dumb goggles, it’ll never replace that dual experience of living through a novel at the same time and adjacent to living your own life.

HM: What advice would you pass onto other young writers? What are some of the major choices you made that got you where you are today?

LL: I always encourage my students to figure out the kernel of personal preoccupation that has them wanting to write the stories they’re writing. When I think of good writing, I think of oysters and pearls. So, when an oyster accidentally gets some kind of irritant, like sand, stuck inside it, it starts producing this material, called nacre, to cover the irritant. Layers and layers of nacre form around the irritant, and that eventually becomes what we call a pearl. I think the same thing applies to writing—we do our best writing when we’re writing from a place of preoccupation, of being stumped or angry or both. I’d rather see a mess on a page that comes from a writer actively working through a question than a polished piece that asks nothing risky of its author.

HM: What’s next for you?

LL: I don’t have much yet, but I’ve been interested in writing more about where I grew up in Maryland. So far, I’ve got the idea to follow a group of childhood friends as they grow up in this sheltered community, and what happens when they each leave, at different times, to enter the greater world. There’s no plot, but the characters are feeling realer every day—I take that as a good sign.

**

Lillian Li received her BA from Princeton and her MFA from the University of Michigan. She is the recipient of a Hopwood Award in Short Fiction, as well as Glimmer Train’s New Writer Award. Her work has been featured in Guernica, Granta, and Jezebel. She is from the D.C. metro area and lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Number One Chinese Restaurant is her first novel.

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Flash Fiction Round 2 Runner-up: “Spam Can” by Kate Garklavs

Midwestern Gothic Summer Flash Fiction Series 2018
 

During the summer of 2018 we continued our annual Flash Fiction Contest series, inviting authors to respond to three different picture prompts. You can read more about the series here. Round 2 submissions responded to our photo prompt with the following criteria: here.

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Round 2 runner-up: “Spam Can” by Kate Garklavs
 

We called it the Spam Can, though it didn’t have that familiar anvil shape, because Spam Can was friendlier than its actual name.

“Fallout shelter,” Gram explained when we were young — six or seven, the age of juicebox innocence. “People go there to be safe in cases of emergency.” She stood at the stove, stirring, her legs an unnatural beige from her compression stockings.

“Stay away from there, you hear?” Gram said this grimly. “It’s been empty for years. You might step on a nail.”

“Yes, Gram,” we said, in unison or close to it.

For a while, we’d obeyed. We were busy with swim lessons, 4H. Then our parents decided they couldn’t tolerate each other, not for appearances or anything else, and the money dried up. With it, the extracurriculars. We spent evenings and weekends with Gram, who, though she valued our safety, also valued her private time before Grandpa returned from the lake or the plant or Clooney’s.

In middle school, the Can was our fort. Mason and I planned to clean it up, transform it into a control room, though what we’d be controlling was unclear. We swept the dirt floor, smeared the windows with Windex-soaked paper. Laid with our backs to the dirt and speculated on our parents’ whereabouts, psychic and otherwise.

Mom: Always sad.
Dad: Maybe Ohio? Nebraska?
Dad: Maybe joined up as a carny to live the road life he always wanted?
Mom: Always here, still sad.

In high school, Mason got his license, a Camaro he brought back from parts. Nights, he cruised the strip. I retreated to the Can with my boyfriend, Boone’s Farm, whip-its. We’d huff ourselves into momentary white oblivion, imagine the steel roof opening into boundless sky. When the whip-its ran out we drank, regrounding. Greg, the boyfriend, was a solid-B student, quiet, pimply. Not my prince charming, but I wasn’t his first-choice girl. We pawed each other’s bodies, not fully knowing what to do, until one of us got bored or got off. Then we went our own ways through the shadowed woods, neither looking back at the other dark, retreating form. It wasn’t satisfying, this routine, but it was something: mine.

The Can was demolished when I was in college.

“About time,” Gram said, hacking. She was on oxygen now, planted at the kitchen table. She hated carrying the tank.

“Dangerous,” I agreed, though the I imagined the steel was sturdy as ever.

I hadn’t been back since graduation day. I was headed out of state, far from Mason and Gram and still-sad mom, the pickups and bait shops and and heat-weary maples. I wasn’t exactly sad, but as I stood in the room’s center, tracing patterns in the dirt with the toe of my pump, a queasiness overtook me. I lit a clove, dragged and dragged and exhaled. My smoked breath filled the Can, clouding the windows, making me invisible to the passing world.

“Dangerous,” I repeated, though what I really meant was “Goodbye.”

***
 
Kate Garklavs lives in Portland, OR. Her work has appeared in Journal, Tammy, and The Airgonaut, among other places. She earned her MFA at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and her first chapbook (Diffusely Yours) is forthcoming in August 2018.

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Flash Fiction Round 2 Winner: “Transport” by Jeffrey Ricker

Midwestern Gothic Summer Flash Fiction Series 2018
 

During the summer of 2018 we continued our annual Flash Fiction Contest series, inviting authors to respond to three different picture prompts. You can read more about the series here. Round 2 submissions responded to our photo prompt with the following criteria: here.

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Round 2 winner: “Transport” by Jeffrey Ricker
 

Sometimes it was a diving bell carrying them down to the bottom of the ocean. In the summer the stifling heat meant their oxygen was running dangerously low, and the sweet gum balls dinging against the roof were the tapping of some never-before-seen creature looking for a way in until they escaped to safety at the water’s surface.

Sometimes it was a train compartment ferrying them across a wasteland as an unseen murderer picked off the other passengers one by one. When only the two of them remained, one was revealed as the villain, and they squared off on the roof as the train careened out of control toward an abyss.

Sometimes in winter it was a space capsule, and the cold seeping in was the indifferent vacuum of the universe threatening to freeze them as it hurtled through the void, transporting them light years from the small world and the small life where they felt everything existed beyond the five-mile radius of their town and nothing existed within it.

One time, it was a bomb shelter fifty feet underground, shielding them from destruction as the world came to an end overhead. They only played that game once. It left them unsatisfied.

In this way years passed. Childhood passed.

The last time, it was merely what it was, a hulk of metal whose provenance no one could remember, just that it had been sitting at the back of the property rusting into the ground longer than the brothers had been alive. When their dad finally paid the scrap dealer to haul it off, they watched it get hoisted onto a flatbed and disappear down the dirt road leading away from their house. They couldn’t have said what else they were losing, but they were left with the feeling that they would never escape now.

***
 

Jeffrey Ricker‘s stories and essays have appeared in anthologies and magazines including Foglifter, Phoebe, Little Fiction, The Citron Review, UNBUILD walls, and others. A 2014 Lambda Literary Fellow and recipient of a 2015 Vermont Studio Center residency, he has an MFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia. He lives in St. Louis.

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Flash Fiction Round 1 Runner-up: “Perseids” by Madeline Anthes

Midwestern Gothic Summer Flash Fiction Series 2018
 

During the summer of 2018 we continued our annual Flash Fiction Contest series, inviting authors to respond to three different picture prompts. You can read more about the series here. Round 1 submissions responded to our photo prompt with the following criteria: here.

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Round 1 runner-up: “Perseids” by Madeline Anthes
Janey was easy to worship. She was spindly and freckled in a way that made her look sea-born. Ethereal. I was spindly and freckled in way that made me look malnourished and uncared for.

Mama was working late down at Diner 22, and I hadn’t seen Daddy since fall. I clung to Janey because we were 13 and it was summer and she was knobby kneed and wild. I had holes to fill and a needy heart, and she clung to me too.

Janey and I needed each other.

Every night I cut through the cornfields that connected our houses. You can never weave through them as easy as you can in the movies. The stalks are close and interweaving, and you have to be careful not to break the stems. Those ears are worth more than your own, Daddy used to say. Farming was a hard business. We all knew that.

On an August night we laid a blanket in her backyard and watched the Perseids. Her daddy kept all kinds of junk outside: rusted watering cans, bins of weed killer, a cracked bathtub, a few tireless Chevys. He swore he’d sell it all one day, but Janey always said he just liked seeing all his stuff on display as though it was jewelry. We had to move a few hub caps and clunky lawn mowers to make room for our blanket.

“Think those reach Earth?” Janey asked, pointing to the meteors streaking the sky.

“Nah,” I said. “They come and go every year so they must stay up there.” I didn’t know if it was true, but I wanted her to think I knew what I was talking about.

Later she would pull out bottle rockets and we’d listen to them scream and crack across the sky. There’d be no one to yell at us for making so much noise, and we’d tilt our heads back and howl at the moon.

But at that moment I reached over and took Janey’s hand and felt prickly spots explode across my chest, like thousands of champagne bubbles bursting under the surface of my skin.

That summer felt like a lit fuse:  we knew an explosion was coming, so we were holding our breaths and holding each other, waiting for the blast.

***
 

Madeline Anthes is an ex-Clevelander living on the east coast. She is the acquisitions editor for Hypertrophic Literary and her writing can be found in journals like WhiskeyPaper, Lost Balloon, Cease, Cows, and Jellyfish Review. You can find her on Twitter at @maddieanthes, and find more of her work at madelineanthes.com.

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