Beyond the Lake Prize: “Boots on the Ground” by Tyler Barton

March 15th, 2017

We asked the winners of the 2016 Lake Prize (featured in our Winter 2017 issue) about their work and the inspiration behind their stories. Read about all of the fiction finalists and the poetry finalists.

Fiction runner-up Tyler Barton discusses his story “Boots on the Ground.”

Tyler Barton: I began working on “Boots on the Ground” in the way that I most prefer to begin working on stories – with a line I just couldn’t get out of my head. The line was: “I’m in the wrong house.” It seemed like such a perfect place for a story to start. It’s like: the character has already fucked up, and now you have to watch as they make things even worse. As I began to work on it, I knew that I’d have to figure why the character ever entered the wrong house in the first place, and, more importantly, why – emotionally and psychologically – this character needed to be in the wrong house.

The first was a fun and easy problem to solve. Having spent my first winter in Minnesota, I had gotten used to walking backward from campus to the parking lot. The wind here is insane. I’d hide my face from the wind by putting my back to it. So this is the practical reason I used for the character ending up in the wrong home – it’s a blizzard and he wasn’t looking where he was going. The second was tougher, and took a lot of writing, learning, listening, and thinking through depression.

An interesting revision note is that I wrote about 5 pages of this story in first person before I decided it needed to be 3rd. 3rd is hard for me. But I think it helped me get the proper distance on this screwed-up character. Being directly in his head was too dangerous, and was making things less funny.

Lastly, I’ll say that my favorite part of this story is when Ryder, standing above Fitz, yells “We’ll put you in a bowl of rice!” and I don’t know why. Every time I think of this story that is the first thing that pops into my head.

Purchase a copy of the Winter 2017 issue of Midwestern Gothic.

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Tyler BartonTyler Barton is one half of FEAR NO LIT. He lives in Mankato, Minnesota where he serves as a fiction editor for The Blue Earth Review and a host of the local radio show, Weekly Reader. His fiction has appeared in NANO Fiction, Smokelong Quarterly, Hobart, Monkeybicycle, and others. Find his stories at tsbarton.com. Find his jokes at @goftyler.

Contributor Spotlight: Elizabeth O’Brien

Elizabeth O’Brien’s piece “How the City Percolates at Dawn” appears in Midwestern Gothic Winter 2017, out now.

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

I moved to Minneapolis in 2012 for the MFA program at the University of Minnesota, and have stayed on since I finished in 2015. I’ve moved a lot in my life, but I’ve noticed that I tend to really start thinking about a place only after I’ve left it – so I’ve actually started writing about New England – where I moved here from – a lot more since I moved to the Midwest. Though local Minneapolis landmarks like the Walker and the many bridges crossing the Mississippi have started creeping into my work, too.

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

Honestly, I think a lot about time since I’ve been here – both in terms of the time change between Eastern and Central time, and in terms of the Westward expansion of the US and how this part of the country is “younger” than New England in terms of statehood – and somehow time feels more relative, like more of a construct than it did before.

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 think the sense of dislocation from moving and the yearning for “home” as an abstract idea probably play more of a role in my work, or in creating a kind of emotional urgency for my work than any specific place does, although of course, I am haunted by and attached to specific places in the world, and they do tend to crop up in my work over and over again. And I am interested in the idea of place as a kind of pseudo-character, the way Baltimore is for Anne Tyler, or DC is for Edward P Jones. But I think my own grasp on feeling that I am “from” somewhere specific has always been a bit tenuous, so I don’t really use geographic places in that way very often.

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

My writing process is messy and slow, but constant. I almost always have a huge pile of unfinished projects I’m working on – usually a mix of poems, book reviews, stories, essays, and fragments, and I kind of just pick away at whatever happens to be capturing my interest at a given moment, and eventually the majority of the things I start do get finished.

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

I don’t know – sometimes you just know. And sometimes pieces that seemed finished before start to seem unfinished again, which is terrible.

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

I have so many. Favorite poets – Elizabeth Bishop, because she is so smart and innovative and precise, Larry Levis and Leonard Cohen because their poems make me cry (for very different reasons), and Diane Seuss, because of the exuberant force of her long lines. Aracelis Girmay, Walt Whitman, Frank O’Hara – I could go on and on. Favorite fiction writers – Alice Munro, Kelly Link, Richard Brautigan, Donna Tartt, Ken Kesey, Anne Tyler, probably a dozen more. Favorite nonfiction writers – Ta Nehisi Coates and Matt Tiabbi, Amy Leach, Joan Didion, James Baldwin, Eula Biss. I read pretty much everything I can get my hands on, so the list of books I love just keeps growing.

What’s next for you?

My first chapbook is coming out from ELJ Editions sometime in 2017, so that’s exciting, and then I’m endlessly revising the first full poetry manuscript – so right now those are by two big consuming things. I also just finished a 6-month stint as a blogger for Ploughshares, so I’ll be on the lookout for someone else to write for sometime again soon.

Where can we find more information about you?

Eventually, at ELJ Editions’ website – I think they’re still pulling 2017 author pages together – and in the meantime, I’m on Twitter pretty regularly, as @elzbobri.

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Beyond the Lake Prize: “Preserved Embryos” by Anita Koester

We asked the winners of the 2016 Lake Prize (featured in our Winter 2017 issue) about their work and the inspiration behind their stories. Read about all of the fiction finalists and the poetry finalists.

Poetry winner Anita Koester discusses her piece “Preserved Embryos.”

Anita Koester: About a week before I wrote this poem I visited the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago with my nephews. We spent a considerable amount of time inside the room that explains the process of fetal development. I hadn’t been to that exhibit since I was a child, and I was thrown emotionally into this in-between space – remembering being a child and seeing actual embryos and fetuses for the first time, and watching my nephews walk up to these glass cylinders and ask their mother what had happened to these babies. My sister, who was studying to become a nurse at the time, took her boys through the exhibit from the beginning carefully explaining to them the journey from fertilized egg, to embryo, to fetus, to baby. I marveled at her calm explanations, both scientific and maternal, while I could barely put together a sentence, the room felt overwhelmingly sacred and haunted. A place where you either stay quiet or sing.

In the adjoining room there is a immersive video where you feel what it might sound like and feel like to be inside of a womb, listen to your mother’s heartbeat, and the voice-over explained that it wasn’t total darkness in the womb but that there was light. This idea made me tremble, paired with the information that embryo meant “to swell,” I knew I had to write a poem about this moment. I remember my youngest nephew not wanting to leave the room where it sounded like being inside the womb, it was almost like he could still remember. And just before we left, my oldest nephew asked his mother how all these embryos and fetuses had died, and this is what I had been wondering quietly. I’d already been writing about the female body, about uteruses and ovaries, and my own longings to have children which was coupled also with my fears. But this experience gave me a new framework to process those feelings. A week later, I arrived at a residency in Michigan with this poem already brewing inside of me and I locked myself away in a room on the first day and wrote “Preserved Embryos.”

Purchase a copy of the Winter 2017 issue of Midwestern Gothic.

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Anita Olivia Koester is a Chicago poet. She is the author of the chapbooks Marco Polo (Hermeneutic Chaos Press), Apples or Pomegranates forthcoming with Porkbelly Press, and Arrow Songs which won Paper Nautilus’ Vella Chapbook Contest. She is the poetry editor for Duende. Her poetry is published or forthcoming in Vinyl, Tahoma Literary Review, CALYX Journal, Pittsburgh Poetry Review, and elsewhere. Her poems have been nominated for Best New Poets and a Pushcart Prize, and won the Jo-Anne Hirshfield Memorial Poetry Award as well as the First Night Evanston Poetry Contest. She is the recipient of the Bread Loaf Returning Contributors Award and her writing has been supported by Vermont Studio Center, Art Farm, and Sundress Academy for the Arts. Anita is also an artist and photographer, her work is published or forthcoming in SKY+SEA Anthology, Paris Lit Up, Photographer Forum’s Best of Photography 2016 and elsewhere. Visit her online at www.anitaoliviakoester.com.

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Midwest in Photos: Nursing Home Resident

“When every inch of the world is known, sleep may be the only wilderness that we have left.” – Louise Erdrich, The Blue Jay’s Dance: A Birth Year.

Photo by: John Kirsch

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Interview: John Yohe

John YoheMidwestern Gothic staffer Audrey Meyers talked with author John Yohe about music influencing writing, experimenting with storytelling, books that continue to speak to him and more.

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Audrey Meyers: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

John Yohe: I lived most of my remembered childhood there, mostly in Jackson. After college, I escaped for many years and lived out west, but then came back to try teaching, which I liked, and which I felt good at, so I ended up staying for seven more years. Then I escaped again. Narrowly. With my life.

AM: How has teaching at Midwest universities influenced your writing?

JY: I taught at Eastern Michigan University while in grad school, as a GA, but most of my teaching (including now, again) has been at the community college level. I teach mostly “composition” and developmental writing, with some creative writing classes and I think teaching the comp classes has re-influenced me, or my writing, to be simple and accessible, to use accessible language somehow, because most people, those outside the MFA programs and New York and the Language poetry movement, they want stories, language, that they can understand and relate to. A lot of contemporary writing, especially poetry has sequestered itself behind these walls of incomprehensibility, wherein the writers sit smugly satisfied with themselves for being elite, then they wonder why people are reading less.

AM: How did being born in Puerto Rico and then moving to Michigan impact your life?

JY: I can’t say that it did, too much. I am a Michigander. I did feel an obligation to go back and learn Spanish, which has allowed me to travel and live in Spanish-speaking countries, and to read books in the original Spanish. I’ve only ever read Roberto Bolaño in the original Spanish. And I can re-read Jack Kerouac’s On The Road in Spanish, which works well. I think all writers should learn at least one other language to near fluency: I didn’t really ‘get’ how English worked, until I started learning another language. For example, I didn’t know, or understand what a direct object or indirect object was. Or, we know, we use language naturally, but having an awareness of the building blocks helps build a certain confidence later. But I’m kind of a language nerd, I’ve been teaching myself Latin lately, just for fun.

AM: How have your various jobs (wildland firefighter, deckhand/oiler, runner/busboy, bike messenger, wilderness ranger) impacted you as a writer?

JY: I’m not sure if they all have at the same level. At first I was going to say that being a bike messenger didn’t at all, but it did in the sense of that time period: I had just moved to New York City to earn my MFA in Poetry Writing from The New School for Social Research, knew I needed some kind of job, but after having worked as a wildland firefighter for years by then, and being outside all the time, I just couldn’t even conceive of working in an office staring at a screen all day. So I was like, what else could I do? And I saw all these cool people zipping around the streets and went, hmmm. So, I think that’s kind of been my thinking process my whole life, for good or bad. I say bad because who knows, everyone else in my program was working in the publishing industry — I may have missed out on all the networking I could have done, all the people I could be contacting now!

I think too that my job ‘choices’ have reflected my writing influences: Gary Snyder and Ed Abby for the firefighting and fire lookouts stuff, and Charles Bukowski for the runner/busboy stuff, all of the jobs that are on the fringes. Being a teacher was the first job I had were I felt serious, and an adult, which was pretty far along in my life!

AM: Your tone of voice is very distinctive and unique. How have you defined your tone as writer?

JY: I’d be curious to know what you meant specifically, some specific examples, but in general I think having a unique and distinctive tone/voice is what every writer strives for, builds towards. For example, you can take random sections of text from most ‘good’ (versus famous) writers and know who they are, in the same way you can hear a piece by Bach or Jimi Hendrix and know immediately it’s Bach or Hendrix. Like, you could give me a paragraph or two from Cormac McCarthy or Marguerite Duras and I’d know it was them. Ditto Kerouac or Ginsberg. I’m not sure people could do that with Stephen King though (and confession: I’ve read a lot of Stephen King — Salem’s Lot scared me so much when I was a teenager that I had to read the whole thing in one night. That’s some kind of powerful writing!)

But I think our tone/voice comes from emulation: We’re a conglomeration of our influences, of the writers we really liked, especially when younger somehow. So I’ve got Hemingway (and all the writers influenced by him, like Duras and Bukowski) and Frank O’Hara and Kurt Vonnegut, et cetera. But I guess I’ve always been drawn to ‘clear’, minimalist writers. And mostly men, I guess, though The Color Purple by Alice Walker is one of my favorite novels of all time.

So, it’s weird, we come from our influences, but we’re somehow drawn to certain styles to begin with?

AM: Your website bio also mentions you’re a bass player. Has music influenced your writing, and if so, how?

JY: It influenced me in work ethic, for sure: When younger, when music was my main thing, I played/practiced bass every day, took lessons, went to a music school, but also put the work in on my own, so when I consciously switched to writing as my main creative outlet (which might be another long story) I knew I needed to do all those things: to study formally in classes, but also to read widely, just as I’d been listening to all kinds of different music, and also to do it every day, and to work on my own. Also to emulate my heroes, and read everything. Like, if you love Hendrix, you listen everything he recorded, even the not so great stuff. Likewise, if you love Bukowski, you read everything, even the not so great stuff. But if it’s someone you love, even the not so great stuff is still somehow great, to you. To me. But it’s stuff most general readers wouldn’t read, or even like, yet it’s part of the study, the emulation. To study what really works in an artist, versus what only works for the hardcore readers.

I’d also say I’ve been influenced by songwriters, starting with the Beatles, up to Leonard Cohen and our most recent Nobel Laureate, Bob Dylan. Again, good songwriters who I think have that simple, accessible language. And, say, Cohen’s joining of sexual love and spiritual love. I’ve been experimenting with that in some of my poetry.

AM: Did you always know you wanted to be a writer? What or who inspired you to become one?

JY: I think I did pretty early on. I remember trying to write a mystery novel after reading some Hardy Boys books. I got to, like, two pages, but still. Those were the first novels I’d been reading. Also, I was reading comic books way early on, and I drew my own. I wasn’t a good artist so stopped! But, I was experimenting with storytelling in that way. And I always loved the opportunities I had in early grade school and middle school to write stories. I’m damn lucky I got those. Also, I remember seeking out the poetry in our school books, even though we never talked or read about them in class. Which, back then (and, I suspect even now) meant “The Raven” or “The Charge of The Light Brigade.” But there was something about poetry I was drawn to.

But I did also love music, still do, and playing in a rock band was much more glamorous, more chance that girls would actually like me, so I went with that. And I was immediately experimenting with (very bad) lyrics. And by college, when I was keeping a notebook, the rhyming stuff began to be joined by non-rhyming stuff, lines, images.

I think, too, that growing up in the Midwest influenced all this, or at least growing up in Jackson, which, if only a half hour from Ann Arbor, was a whole ‘nother world, versus even someplace huger like New York City. Jackson is and was a conservative town in all kinds of ways. There just were never any good book stores, the best I had growing up was a Walden Books in the mall, in which I sought out and paid for on my own the only book of poetry I think they had, which was some anthology of British Romantic poetry, or something. But I have wondered what growing up in Ann Arbor might have been like, where the original Border’s was, and where college kids were out in the streets, and poetry was happening, writers visiting, if I would have latched onto writing earlier. Or, who knows, the music scene was bigger there too, maybe I would have gone more into music.

AM: On your website, you provide the books you’ve read at least three times. What do these books represent for you? Why do you like them so much?

JY: I think when you re-read a book that there’s a certain feeling of nostalgia that gets added on, a remembering of what it meant to you back then, but in all the books I list there’s what I call a mythical level, which I got from my teacher, the poet Diane Wakoski. By that I mean, I think, that the characters embody some kind of mythical character, some kind of almost timeless character that ‘speaks’ for us, us Americans or even us humans. For example, in Cormac McCarthy’s cowboys, but also Dean Moriarty in Kerouac’s On The Road is a Legba/Kokopelli trickster type character, and he and Sal are also a nod back to Don Quixote and Sancho, mythical characters themselves. Though I think all of these mythical characters ‘work’ or resonate because they’re on the verge of a changing world, they show a lost time that’s about to pass? Maybe?

So, writers like that are ‘wrestling with the gods’, wrestling with what being human means. Which I guess all art is doing, but these books seem to resonate, or re-resonate with me after some years. I’ve grown and changed, and they somehow keep speaking to me, in a different way, at a different level, even if – just like in the case of McCarthy – I’m consciously thinking about why they appealed to my younger self. Like I can think, ‘Oh yeah, I liked The Crossing because it’s about a lost boy leaving a home, and I was and am a lost boy leaving home, continually.’ But also after living in the southwest for years, recognizing that landscape (which is the landscape of your heart).

I just re-read McCarthy’s The Crossing again this summer!

AM: How has being a teacher of writing impacted you as writer?

JY: It’s a constant reminder of what I mostly like in writing: story. I place myself in the school of Composition Theory called ‘expressionist,’ which had its heyday back in the 70s and 80s, with Peter Elbow and Wendy Bishop. That kind of got crushed in the 90s by the thinking that students need to learn more practical and logical types of writing that will benefit them in future classes. So for example, the dreaded research paper, and ‘formal’ argument papers. I hate that shit. I can teach it, and when I do, I change it, try to make it fun, incorporate humor and narrative, but I’m really only curious about my students’ stories. And I find that students generally love to share stories about themselves. Not in an ego way, but that they like to think about important times in their lives, that they get into reflection, which is how we grow and learn: we reflect back on our own stories. There are more wild theories, like that we are all only stories, that our interactions with each other are only really us telling each other our stories. Which I totally agree with. So, what I’m curious about in my students’ writing is what I’m curious about in my own life.

AM: What is it like being a Midwesterner on the west coast? What’s the same and what’s different?

JY: There are many of us here! Many economic refugees! The part of Oregon I now live in, Salem, has lots of farms and low rolling hills, and is lush, so at times feels a little like Michigan. Until you get in to the woods and the huge trees. And you can drive out to the ocean in an hour, though the ocean has the same feel as the Great Lakes to me. The Lakes don’t have the salt tang, but that space, to have your bare feet in the sand and hear the waves and wind and stare out at all that space.

Rural Oregon feels like rural Michigan, the people and culture. The winters are mild, which I love. I was never a fan of Michigan winters, though they may be responsible for my reading so much.

I liked living in Portland for a while. It’s book country. Home of Powell’s Books. Living there, I never felt odd about loving to read books, read poetry. Or wearing lots of black. Portland is like a giant Ann Arbor. Unfortunately, I got a little priced out, rent-wise, and couldn’t seem to find a good job. Everyone and her sister has a masters degree in English there. But the love and support of arts is nice. I’ve been living the last two winters (in the summer I go off and be a fire lookout in the southwest) in Salem, the capitol, a smaller college town, which is more my speed.

AM: What’s next for you?

JY: The next big plateau for me as a writer is to get my books published. I have three collections of poetry (including one centered around Michigan called In the Solitary Confinement of My Mind) and a few novels, one of which is about Jackson, called RUST all of which I’ve been shopping, both to literary agents and to smaller presses. I’ve been lucky to have had many poems and short stories (and essays and book reviews) published in the last few years. In that sense Portland has been good for me. I think all any writer wants, or would like, is to make some money, make any kind of living at their art. But, I’ve read that only about 100 writers in American can do that. And I’ll never be Stephen King or J.K. Rowling.

I resist the self-publishing route. I tried it for a book of poetry once, when I was living in Ann Arbor, and though I learned a lot from the process, I didn’t sell any copies at all. I learned that while some writers are good (and/or lucky) at selling their own books, I’m not one of them. Plus, I resist the ego-ness of self-publishing: I need to know that someone, some complete stranger values my writing enough to take a chance on publishing me. Though I doubt enough to wonder if that’s even viable thinking any more.

But, I try not to worry about all that. I’ll put intentions towards it, make time to submit stuff. But I have to remember that I love to write just for itself: it makes me happy. It’s interesting. So the real questions is, how do I live my life? How do I live in voluntary simplicity (i.e. poverty) and still be able to do the things that interest me, like writing, but also traveling. So, I would teach full-time again, if offered, and I put some energy to that as well. But maybe I’ll just be a fire lookout for the rest of my life, and sit on mountains in the summer. Still, I feel there’s something else I should or could be doing. I’m trying to figure out what that is.

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Born in Puerto Rico, John Yohe grew up in Michigan, and currently lives in Portland, Oregon. He has worked as a wildland firefighter, deckhand/oiler, runner/busboy, bike messenger, wilderness ranger, and fire lookout, as well as a teacher of writing. A complete list of his publications, and poetry, fiction and non-fiction writing samples, can be found at his website: www.johnyohe.com

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We Could’ve Been Happy Here Reviewed by Kirkus Reviews

We’re so proud to say that We Could’ve Been Happy Here by Keith Lesmeister just got a stellar review from Kirkus Reviews!

Here’s what Kirkus Reviews had to say about the forthcoming MG Press title:

“But for a first-timer, Lesmeister has developed an admirably concise style and a knack for capturing people during difficult coming-of-age moments or dispiriting processes of decline. Like the amateur cowherds in the title story, they’re recognizing that life is often disorderly, with help hard to come by. A gritty, emotionally sensitive clutch of stories.”

Read the full review.

For more information about We Could’ve Been Happy Here, click here.

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Contributor Spotlight: Ronald Rindo

Ronald Rindo’s story “The Botanist” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Winter 2017 issue, out now.

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

I was born and raised in southeastern Wisconsin, and while I’ve spent some time in other places (North Carolina, Alabama), I have lived in Wisconsin for over fifty years and have traveled throughout the Midwest, particularly in Minnesota and Michigan. With the exception of some of the stories in my second book, which are set in Alabama and reflect the wondrous estrangement I felt living there, my work is set in a Midwest I know well and love deeply. If it’s true that where you are is who you are, the Midwest is inextricably part of my identity, and its temperament and idiosyncrasies a prominent part of my work.

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

I love the force of our four seasons, our Canadian-gifted winters; New-England-esque autumns; moist, blistering summers; and glorious springs, announced by the arrival of Canadian geese, headed north to nest in the arctic. I am also inspired by our vast tracts of land and water, lakes and rivers, farm fields, prairie, and northern forest.

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?

Many of the stories in my first book were set in or around my childhood home. Since then, most of my work is set in other places I know and love, such as the Brule River, the Chequamegon National Forest, the city of Milwaukee. In many of my stories–“The Botanist” is one of them, set in the Chequamegon–I burrow deeply into place and connect with it, almost like a badger or a woodchuck might. Something switches on when I’m in the woods—E.O. Wilson would call it biophilia—and it happened to my character, too.

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

I write in the mornings and around my teaching, grading, and committee meeting schedule, and at least one day/week I write all day. I am always working on five, or six, or even seven different projects at the same time, usually stories and essays. If I find myself stuck on Project A, I simply move on and let my subconscious figure out Project A while I work on Project B or C. This way, I never have writer’s block. It’s probably not the most efficient way of writing, but writing is not an efficient process even under the best of conditions. I tell my students if you want efficiency, go to McDonald’s drive-thru.

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

This is a tricky question, for sure, since every story comes together a little bit differently. I have always agreed with Russell Banks that the process is where the magic is, that I am far more perceptive and able to make connections between things, and so forth, while engaged in the intense level of concentration required of the creative process. And every time it happens—and I’ve been doing this for over 30 years—I am still kind of shocked and surprised and then also worried I won’t be able to do it again. Some stories I finish in a few weeks or months, while others—about half the time–take a few years. Usually when I think I’ve “finished” something, I’ll set it aside for awhile. Maybe I’ll share it with a writer friend or my wife to see what they think. Eventually I’ll go back to it with fresh eyes, and I’ll usually be able to tell both if it’s done and if it’s any good. Hopefully it’s both, but sometimes it’s neither.

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

I love many, many writers, and my tastes are really eclectic, so I have no pure favorite. I love Jim Harrison’s novellas; Toni Morrison’s novels; Emily Dickinson’s poems; the short stories of Andre Dubus, John Updike, and Alice Munro, just to name a few. And of course each draws me to them for different reasons. Dickinson sends me inside her head and my own head, “where the meanings are,” as she says; Harrison gives me the visceral facts of life and death in a harsh world; Munro charts the subtle ebbs and flows of love. As a reader, getting any of those things in literature is a gift.

What’s next for you?

I have “finished” a fourth story collection and will begin sending that out soon; about a half-dozen of the dozen stories in it have been published. I’ll also be writing more stories and essays. I’ve been working on an essay about learning to play gypsy jazz—my musician son, who is currently teaching in China, taught me. Though I’ve played guitar for 40 years, gypsy jazz is like learning the instrument all over again, and I’m trying to capture that process in language, and it’s been tough sledding.

Where can we find more information about you?

I’m not much of a social media presence, I’m afraid, though I’m on Facebook now so I can see my son’s photographs of China. If you Google me I’m sure you’ll find some things, which is always a little strange and surprising.

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Midwest in Photos: Bishop Hill

“Joe tucked the day away too, differently. He hid it among the soft pine needles and fallen leaves of the hills surrounding his family’s farm. There teh day lay, like a Judas kiss or a done deal, until another Sunday, two years on, when he gathered it up and disappeared for good.” – C. R. Resetaris, “Sunday Outing,” Midwestern Gothic, Issue 22.

Photo by: Kevin Yuskis

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Interview: Jung Yun

Midwestern Gothic staffer Megan Valley talked with author Jung Yun about her novel Shelter, the jarring act of immigration, her novel’s tangled generational and cultural differences, and more.

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Megan Valley: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Jung Yun: My family and I immigrated to the U.S. in the seventies, so I spent my childhood in North Dakota (ages 4-18) and still return regularly to visit. The connection is more than just childhood memories, trips to see family, or marrying a fellow Midwesterner though. Growing up in North Dakota instilled a deep fondness and appreciation for certain qualities in people — kindness, humility, perseverance — which is not to say these qualities are exclusive to the Midwest, but I think there’s certainly a Midwestern brand of them that I recognize and am genuinely happy to see in others.

MV: While you now live in Baltimore, you were born in South Korea and grew up in North Dakota and lived in places like New York City and New England. What has each place taught you about writing?

JY: Living in lots of places over time has given me so many different types of people to observe. And that’s so much of the hard work of writing — the work I happen to enjoy most, which is trying to create characters who live and breathe as real people do. Every move has provided a lot of raw “data” that makes me think about how people can be so similar and different, complex and simple, human and inhumane.

MV: Your first novel, Shelter, follows Kyung, a first-generation Korean immigrant, who alienates himself from his wife and son while trying to come to terms with the physical and emotional abuse his parents inflicted on him. Where did the title come from and how does it tie to the theme of imperfect parenting that runs throughout?

JY: My manuscript had at least three other titles before Shelter, and none of them felt quite right, which my editor at Picador picked up on right away. (When I first spoke to her on the phone — this was before she bought the rights to the manuscript — she asked if I’d be willing to consider changing it, which I was). Shelter was the result of brainstorming with her and my agent over three agonizing weeks — agonizing because it was so odd not knowing what to call the manuscript I’d been working on for 3+ years. We came up with several terrible possibilities before arriving at Shelter, which instantly clicked given its connotations of safety, something that Kyung never had in his home as a child and is desperately trying to create in his adult life, ill-equipped as he is.

MV: You’ve said in a previous interview that while growing up in North Dakota, your family was the only non-white one for “miles.” How did that influence how you viewed your Korean heritage as a child and adolescent?

JY: I was certainly aware that my family and I were different. And of course, there was that awkward adolescent period when I tried to tamp those differences down (think blue eye shadow kits and large-barreled curling irons). I was reasonably quick to recognize how futile those efforts were and my parents were great about letting me figure out how to be different and proud in my own way and on my own timeline. Nowadays, I look back and just have to shake my head when I see some of my old school pictures, with my hair so permed that I looked like a broccoli crown. I wish I could tell my younger self that being Korean-American will one day feel like an absolute gift that grounds my identity in real and meaningful ways.

MV: You began working on Shelter more than ten years ago. What’s the biggest difference between your first thoughts about the premise and the final book?

JY: The original premise — about taking care of one’s elderly parents — is still present in the final novel. But I knew early on that I wanted the conflict to be more complex than simply familial, intergenerational obligation alone. By introducing a history of violence, a violent crime, financial exigency, as well as characters who withhold so much from each other, I tried to make readers put themselves in the main character’s shoes and really question: if this is the information they had at their disposal, what would they do? What would they feel like they “owed”? Kyung is not a likeable character — I knew that early on too — but I hope readers are able to empathize with him and understand why he behaves as he does.

MV: How do the generational and cultural differences between Kyung and his parents in Shelter influence each other? Can they be separated or are they so intertwined that they might as well be the same thing?

JY: I think the strands are very intertwined, and in some cases, inextricably tangled. For example, Kyung’s father, Jin, has a very traditional view of a man’s role, which is to work and provide for his family. This could describe someone of his generation whether they were born in the United States or Korea. But Jin’s ability to fulfill this role with dignity was greatly affected when he left Korea for the United States. And then there’s Kyung, a “1.5 generation” immigrant, who came to the U.S. at a young age and more or less assimilated, but is still deeply influenced by his parents’ ideas of what men should do, what sons should do, how families should behave, why wealth and status matter so much, etc.

MV: What sort of writers inspire you?

JY: I’m a fan of writers like J.M. Coetzee, whose work has continued to feel urgent and vital over many decades, as well as interesting to me across topics, books, and genres. I admire that kind of creative longevity and evolution, the sense that he’s still exploring through his writing and unwilling to be fixed to any one thing. I’m also inspired by new authors whose debuts just knocked me out, people like Mia Alvar, Clay Byars, Nami Mun, and Jade Chang. I can’t wait to see what they do next.

MV: How did exploring the relationship between Kyung and his parents in Shelter make you think about your relationship with your own parents?

JY: Writing this book truly deepened my admiration for my parents, who were brave enough to leave their homeland and settle down somewhere so different from what they knew. Before my husband and I relocated from Massachusetts to Maryland, we debated the pros and cons of that move for a year. Can you imagine immigrating to the United States in the 1970s with very little money, a decent — but not fluent — command of the English language, and two little kids? Immigration, even under the best of circumstances, is a jarring act, and the origins of many of the tensions in Shelter can be traced back to the Cho family’s arrival in the states. I think the process of writing this book made me much more reflective about what my parents did for us and went through for us. I am always aware that our lives could have been very different.

MV: What’s next for you?

JY: I’m working on my second novel, which I know is such a predictable answer, but it’s also the most honest one. I’m in that early stage when it’s not worthwhile to talk about the premise because it’s still evolving, but I do feel comfortable saying that the book is set in the Midwest.

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Jung Yun was born in South Korea, grew up in North Dakota, and educated at Vassar College, the University of Pennsylvania, and University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Her work has appeared in Tin House (the “Emerging Voices” issue); The Best of Tin House: Stories, edited by Dorothy Allison; and The Massachusetts Review; and she is the recipient of two Artist Fellowships in fiction from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and an honorable mention for the Pushcart Prize. Currently, she lives in Baltimore with her husband and serves as an Assistant Professor of English at the George Washington University. Shelter is her first novel. Visit her at www.JungYun.info.

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Interview: Rae Meadows

rae meadowsMidwestern Gothic staffer Kristina Perkins talks with author Rae Meadows about her novel I Will Send Rain, researching agricultural life in the 1930s, working on a mixed-media project and more.

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Kristina Perkins: What is your connection to the Midwest?

Rae Meadows: My parents are from Chicago and I grew up in a suburb of Cleveland. As an adult I lived in Madison and Minneapolis. The Midwest will always feel like home to me — the big seasons, the landscapes, the cultural traits that I connect to the region. I love to be called a Midwestern writer, despite living in Brooklyn, NY. I think of myself that way.

KP: You chose to set your newest novel, I Will Send Rain, in the fictional town of Mulehead, Oklahoma during the height of the 1930s Dust Bowl. While most consider Oklahoma outside the purview of the Midwest, do you see any relationship between life in Mulehead and traditional Midwestern values?

RM: Most definitely. The characters in the book are hard-working, laconic, humble. They are people who do instead of talk about it. I associate those traits with a Midwestern sensibility. Although the Oklahoma Panhandle is a pretty stark and lonely terrain, there is a rootedness to the people who live there that I was attracted to, a trait I might also ascribe to traditional Midwestern culture. I think farm life is something that I have been drawn to as a writer all along, and the iconic nature of the family farm is something that spans the two regions.

i will send rain

KP: In a recent interview with WNYC, you mention that you’re able to write better about a place if you don’t live there. For you, what about this distance lends itself to good writing?

RM: I find that I have to recreate a place in my imagination, even a real place that I have known, to have it work for me as a fictional setting. This was especially true for Salt Lake City in my first novel. It became an almost mythical place for me after I had moved away. For I Will Send Rain, although I did a lot of research about the Panhandle in the 1930s, I chose to visit the town I fictionalized only after finishing the novel. I think I have a fear of being hemmed in by the actual details of a place, not being able to separate the minutiae from telling details.

KP: What draws you to genre of historical fiction? What is the most difficult part of the research process? What do you find most rewarding?

RM: A fear of writing about technology! I think that the immediacy of our world can take away drama in a fictional world. But I also like delving into the past. It’s just fun. I love the research. For this book I read everything I could, including letters written by a woman living on a Dust Bowl farm, farm equipment manuals, Oklahoma state history, and first-hand accounts of life in the Panhandle. But for me by far the most important thing was time spent in the Library of Congress archive of Farm Securities Administration photographs. There are 165,000 photographs documenting agricultural life and its fallout during the thirties. I looked at these photos for hours at a time, particularly the ones of women and children. Probably the most difficult part of research for me is knowing when to stop, and then knowing what to leave out to make a period seem authentic without it feeling like a staged set.

KP: You’ve discussed how you were surprised to learn that the Dust Bowl was largely a manmade phenomenon — a result of over-farming in a region subject to drought and high wind speeds. How has writing about the interpersonal ramifications of environmental tragedy influenced your understanding of current environmental concerns — if at all?

RM: I think people trying to get by and in so doing harming the environment is a complicated interplay, one not easily solved. (Asking industrializing third-world countries to cut their emissions comes to mind.) Writing this book made that more apparent to me than ever. Even if the Dust Bowl farmers understood how they were wrecking the land, what were they supposed to do? It’s not like they could just go out and get a different job. But on the other hand, humans can be stubborn and forgetful and short-sighted. Even now, the Panhandle, which will always have intermittent, serious drought, relies on a heavily depleted aquifer to irrigate its farms. I wish that in writing this book I came to some new understanding, but I think it was more an illumination of how incredibly difficult it is to get people to change behavior.

KP: I Will Send Rain navigates the grim setting of the Dust Bowl through the experiences of the Bell family. When conceiving your plot and characters, how do you find balance — in the form of hope, love, or growth — within a landscape of such overwhelming despair and tension?

RM: This is such a big one for me. I tend to be a dark writer, but I would never want what I write to be bleak. It is essential to me in writing human stories that they don’t come across as hopeless. Take a character like McGuiness, a minor character, who is not by any definition a good guy. I loved writing him because of the glimpses of his humanity that came through. He is not villainous, despite his capacity for doing bad deeds. I believe in allowing for the possibility of hope, love, and growth even if they are not fully realized within the novel. I think the end of I Will Send Rain shows this possibility. If I were to graph it, it would show an uptick. I believe in a window left open.

KP: You’ve spoken about the influence of Dorothea Lange’s famous Dust Bowl photographs in inspiring and grounding your work. As a writer, what are the advantages of having access to visual representations of a given landscape? What, to you, is the relationship between narrative writing and photojournalism?

RM: I love Lange’s photographs precisely for their narrative quality, for their lack of clinical or artistic distance. They allowed me into the Dust Bowl in a different, more visceral way than just reading about it. I think I learned from Lange about showing despair without pity, being unafraid to look at what others were refusing to acknowledge, capturing quiet dignity amidst ruin. One of the reasons I chose not to go to the Panhandle during the writing of the book was because I wanted to use the feeling of those historical images.

After the book was done, I visited the Panhandle with photographer Christina Paige. It was a transformative experience to collaborate on a photo essay — to give a fuller expression of what we wanted to communicate about the people who live in Boise City, the town I fictionalized as Mulehead. Both photographs and narrative writing tell stories, but there’s immediacy to images, and more in-depth analysis allowed in words. I would love to have the opportunity to do a joint project across media again.

KP: What’s one thing you wish you had known when you first began writing?

RM: This is not one thing but these all relate to a lack of confidence: no one has it figured out; no one cares if you write or not so you better write for yourself; trust your gut; it’s not a race; the day your book comes out is the same as the day before; when you finish a book you have to start again and write another one.

KP: What’s next for you?

RM: After spending time in the Oklahoma Panhandle, it became apparent to me that I wasn’t quite finished with it as a setting. I’m working on a novel that takes place in the 21st century, in Mulehead, with Birdie returning as an old woman. Although it will be modern, it’ll flashback to Birdie’s life in the years after the end of I Will Send Rain.

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Rae Meadows is the author of Calling Out, which received the 2006 Utah Book Award for fiction; No One Tells Everything, a Poets & Writers Notable Novel; and Mercy Train, which was translated into multiple languages. I Will Send Rain received starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, and Library Journal. She lives with her family in Brooklyn, NY.

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