Contributor Spotlight: John Yohe

November 7th, 2017

John Yohe author photoJohn Yohe’s piece “The hunter down the road” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Summer 2017 issue, out now.

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

I grew up in Jackson, Michigan. It’s a quiet place to grow up, but has no economy, like Michigan in general, so people have to leave, economic refugees. I’m not sure regions influence us so much as just appear in our work because that’s what we know.

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

If you mean the land, then the Great Lakes. Or the snow. The quietness after a big snow, the burrowing inward. If you mean something else… I’d say the Rust Belt and all that implies: the abandoned factories, the general dismal economy.

How do your experiences or memories of specific places—such as where you grew up, or a place you’ve visited that you can’t get out of your head—play a role in your writing?

You of course write about places you know. Interestingly, I tend to write about places after I’ve left them. But I travel a lot, move a lot. The poem you’ve accepted was written in New Mexico. I think. Or Oregon? Not Michigan though.

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

Just reading a lot inspires me. Writers should read a lot. I tend to write in spurts: I can’t work on something for years, even longer stuff like a novel: If I’m inspired I try to knock out the rough draft quickly, though then may let time go by. Poems too: The general draft comes out quickly, then I’ll spend time tweaking. Though I think you have to let stuff sit away for at least a little while, in order to come back to in with fresh eyes/ears.

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

I’ll tweak things for years, but really I just go on with other stuff. After a while, you just have to think “good enough” and move on. That said, there are poems of mine from fifteen years ago that I still like (not all, just some) even with their imperfections. But I also realize that I get better as a writer as I go on, everyone does. But I’d say only about fifteen to seventeen years ago was where I really started to keep works, to feel I was someone good enough. And, I still write crap….

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

Charles Bukowski. For his poetry and his fiction. He’s from the Hemingway lineage of clear language, but also has an irreverence I love, and need. I feel joy when I read him, and his whole attitude towards the so-called American Dream, which is that it’s a lie.

What’s next for you?

Survival. Finding a job that’s meaningful and not time-consuming. But if you mean writing, I’m working on a novel about the metal scene in ’80s Jackson. I continue to seek either an agent or a publisher for some books of poetry and some novels. That goes in spurts—I get energized, then feel despair and stop. It’s hard, knowing the Big 5 publishers probably don’t want my stuff, and that the indie publishers are inundated with writers like me, so why would they even notice? But the process of writing is interesting, powerful, and I guess I have enough ego to keep thinking people might like my stuff. I get individual pieces accepted on a regular basis, and that’s gratifying. Still, it’s madness… all of it….

Where can we find more information about you?

www.johnyohe.com

Interview: Kristen Radtke

Kristen Radtke author headshotMidwestern Gothic staffer Meghan Chou talked with author Kristen Radtke about her book Imagine Wanting Only This, visiting ruins around the globe, the unique genre of graphic memoir, and more.

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Meghan Chou: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Kristen Radtke: I grew up in Wisconsin, went to college in Chicago, and went to grad school in Iowa. I’ve spent a lot of time in the Midwest.

MC: Imagine Wanting Only This tells the story of your travels to visit the ruins of places around the world from the killing fields of Cambodia to the empty streets of Burma. Along the way, you stopped by Gary, Indiana — a boom-bust city that is nearly abandoned. What did you hope to convey about the lives of the Midwesterners near Gary, Indiana, and what sort of lessons did you learn from exploring those ruins?

KR: This is a tough question. I didn’t set out to convey much—or anything—about the lives of Midwesterners near Gary. My experience there was so limited—I went there as a college student and had no understanding of the city’s past or present economy or challenges. I wandered through the town like a tourist looking for experiences I could grab for myself. I was 19, and I didn’t understand yet how flawed and wrong that was. I can’t honestly say I learned anything from exploring the ruins or the town. That learning came years later, in retrospect.

Imagine Wanting Only This book cover by Kristen Radtke

MC: What was your motivation for going on this worldly adventure? What were you searching for?

KR: Restlessness? Boredom? Being young? I’m not sure. The world is big, I want to see it.

MC: You researched and wrote Imagine Wanting Only This after the death of your uncle. Over the course of your travels and creating the book, how did your understanding of why we are here, and what we leave behind change?

KR: If it did change, it just became more complicated.

MC: Imagine Wanting Only This falls in the unique genre of graphic memoir. How do drawings enhance and add another dimension to the story?

KR: Images are just another entrance point into the work. I think the book could have been written in straight prose, too, but this is just the medium and form that made the most sense to me.

MC: The artwork in Imagine Wanting Only This is entirely black and white. Why did you choose to use only black and white illustrations throughout rather than color? Was this a metaphor for grief?

KR: It wasn’t. Can I claim that it was? Black and white just made sense to me for this project—I can’t say that it was a conscious choice at all.

MC: When creating this graphic memoir, in what order did you formulate the many elements such as the plot, dialogue, and drawings?

KR: I often start with a script, but I try to move back-and-forth between text and image as fluidly as possible. Once I’m deep into a project, they start working in tandem, and the ideas start coming to me in both mediums at once.

MC: What’s next for you?

KR: I’m working on an essay collection about loneliness and a graphic novel. I like working on more than one thing at once. When you’re stuck with one you can move to the other.

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Kristen Radtke is the author of the graphic nonfiction book Imagine Wanting Only This (Pantheon, 2017). She is the art director and New York editor of The Believer magazine. Find her on Twitter @kristenradtke.

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Midwest in Photos: Reflecting Pool

“We tried to outpace the thing that chased us, that said: You are nothing. We tried to ignore it, but sometimes we caught ourselves repeating what history said, mumbling along, brainwashed: I am nothing. We drank too much, smoked too much, were abusive to ourselves, to each other. We were bewildered. There is a great darkness bearing down on our lives, and no one acknowledges it.” – Jesmyn Ward, Men We Reaped.

Photo by: Robert Norton

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Interview: T. C. Boyle

T. C. Boyle author photo

Photo credit: Jamieson Fry

Midwestern Gothic staffer Meghan Chou talked with author T. C. Boyle about his book The Terranauts, climate change, reality TV, and more.

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Meghan Chou: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

T. C. Boyle: I discovered it on Route 80 after crossing the Hudson for the first time in my life. I was twenty-five at the time, with a girlfriend, a dog and two cats. We settled in Iowa City for five and a half years, where I earned my M.F.A. and Ph.D. degrees.

MC: How did your time in Iowa at the University of Iowa and Iowa Writers’ Workshop influence you as a writer?

TCB: While I haven’t written much about my time there, it was formative. Not only were the bars and music scene lively beyond compare (Duck’s Breath Mystery Theatre was doing its thing at Gabe & Walker’s then), but the intellectual ferment just began to produce a fine ripe old vintage deep inside me. I saw most of my heroes onstage—Lenny Michaels, Kurt Vonnegut, William Styron, Ray Carver, Stanley Elkin, Grace Paley and a hundred others—and plunged deep into the literature of the nineteenth century. See my essay, “This Monkey, My Back,” and, more recently, my short story, “The Night of the Satellite” for the flavor of Iowa.

MC: In The Terranauts, a group of individuals agree to live in a contained biodome in Arizona. E2, the nickname for this isolated dome, is a social and scientific experiment, testing alternative habitats should the climate change problem escalate. What real-world experiments did you draw inspiration from for The Terranauts?

TCB: The Terranauts jumps off from the actual Biosphere II experiment of the early 1990s. It was meant to last one hundred years, but only made it through two and a half. That’s where I stepped in.

The Terranauts book cover by T. C. Boyle

MC: What message does The Terranauts convey about how we as a world and country should approach climate change?

TCB: The message is for the reader to interpret. Novelists do not explain; they entertain and provoke. That said, I like what Elizabeth Kolbert had to say about the latest Mars venture—that is, while it is all but impossible to recreate a self-sustaining environment that has had millions of years to evolve, it shouldn’t be quite as hard to pay more attention to the one that sustains us.

MC: The inhabitants of E2, deemed the Terranauts, follow the motto, “Nothing in, nothing out.” How is this theme echoed throughout different aspects of the book and in the real world with regard to climate change?

TCB: Obviously E2 is a microcosmic world. Our water can take years to percolate through the ground and wind up in our glasses; in E2, it takes days. Similarly, no artificial scents or products were allowed inside, because the Terranauts would be absorbing them in their tender cells much more quickly than that process happens out here.

MC: Not only does the omniscient Mission Control observe the inhabitants of E2, but cameras also broadcast their daily activities to the greater public. How does this constant surveillance and high-profile publicity affect the behavior of the characters in E2 and the way you chose to examine human nature?

TCB: In some ways, Biosphere II was the original reality TV show. I exaggerated Mission Control’s oversight for my own purposes. Big Brother, indeed. Hello, God!

MC: This constant surveillance and the public’s obsession with the happenings of E2 sounds similar to the setup of some reality television shows. What truths did you want to bring to light about the business and attraction of reality television?

TCB: Again, we must leave interpretive questions for the audience. I do find it interesting that the scenarios I’ve written about in the past are now codified as reality TV (see “Peep Hall” and the naked-in-nature section of my global-warming novel, A Friend of the Earth).

MC: Three characters narrate The Terranauts: Dawn Chapman, an environmental scientist; Ramsay Roothorp, a flirt; Linda Ryu, a candidate not selected for the mission. What perspective does each narrator bring to the story? How do you, as a writer, decide how many narrators are needed to best tell a story?

TCB: I am always trying to do something different with any given narrative. In this case, I have experimented with three first-person narrators. If the experiment works, I believe it brings great intimacy to the narrative—each character is essentially soliloquizing to the reader and each has a very different perspective from those of his colleagues.

MC: What’s next for you?

TCB: My new collection, The Relive Box and Other Stories, hatches in October. I am two-thirds of the way through the next novel, which I hope to finish by the end of the year. Since it is about the early days of LSD, I am hoping my publisher will include a tab of blotter acid on the title page of each copy.

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T. Coraghessan Boyle is the author of twenty-six books of fiction, including, most recently, After the Plague (2001), Drop City (2003), The Inner Circle (2004), Tooth and Claw (2005), The Human Fly (2005), Talk Talk (2006), The Women (2009), Wild Child (2010), When the Killing’s Done (2011), San Miguel (2012), T.C. Boyle Stories II (2013), The Harder They Come (2015) and The Terranauts (2016). He received a Ph.D. degree in Nineteenth Century British Literature from the University of Iowa in 1977, his M.F.A. from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1974, and his B.A. in English and History from SUNY Potsdam in 1968. He has been a member of the English Department at the University of Southern California since 1978, where he is Distinguished Professor of English. His work has been translated into more than two dozen foreign languages, including German, French, Italian, Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, Russian, Hebrew, Korean, Japanese, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Lithuanian, Latvian, Polish, Hungarian, Bulgarian, Finnish, Farsi, Croatian, Turkish, Albanian, Vietnamese, Serbian and Slovene. His stories have appeared in most of the major American magazines, including The New Yorker, Harper’s, Esquire, The Atlantic Monthly, Playboy, The Paris Review, GQ, Antaeus, Granta and McSweeney’s, and he has been the recipient of a number of literary awards, including the PEN/Faulkner Prize for best novel of the year (World’s End, 1988); the PEN/Malamud Prize in the short story (T.C. Boyle Stories, 1999); and the Prix Médicis Étranger for best foreign novel in France (The Tortilla Curtain, 1997). He currently lives near Santa Barbara with his wife and three children.

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A Woman Is A Woman Until She Is A Mother Release Date

We’ve been incredibly busy over the past few weeks putting the finishing touches on MG Press’s upcoming release, the essay collection A Woman Is A Woman Until She Is A Mother by Anna Prushinskaya, sending out advance review copies and spreading the word for the debut on November 15, 2017.

That being said, we wanted to take a moment and fill you in on all the latest news! In particular, that the collection is set to release in just a couple weeks on November 15th!

Preorder A Woman Is A Woman Until She Is A Motherfor $1 and Save 20%

About the Collection

In A Woman Is a Woman Until She Is a Mother, Anna Prushinskaya explores the deep life shifts of pregnancy, birth and motherhood in the United States, a world away from the author’s Soviet homeland. She plumbs the deeper waters of compassion, memory and identity, as well as the humorous streams of motherhood as they run up against the daily realities of work and the ever-present eye of social media. How will I return to my life? Prushinskaya asks, and answers by returning us to our own ordinary, extraordinary lives a little softer, a little wiser, and a little less certain of unascertainable things.

Advanced Praise

“Motherhood is an encounter, a shadow in mirrors, a beast lying low in the grass in the field,’ writes Anna Prushinskaya as she grapples with the strangeness of pregnancy and birth. Russian-born, she swoops across the frontiers of country and motherhood as she contemplates the nature of language, pain, compassion, and the power of a woman’s story. Meditative, curious and intriguing, these essays help us consider whether ‘the things that come with life are worth it.”
Toni Nealie, author of Miles Between Me

“You are lucky to be holding this book, because in ten or twenty years, you will be able to say, “Anna Prushinskaya? I have the original edition of her first book,” which will impress all your friends because by then Prushinskaya will have won all the awards and prizes, and will have taken her well-deserved place in the canon of early 21st Century literature. But more than that, you are lucky to be holding this book because Prushinskaya is one of the few writers out there who possesses a wholly unique vision: her writing is as concise as it is poetic, her outlook as tender as it is analytical. This is a beautiful book.”
Juliet Escoria, author of Witch Hunt and Black Cloud

Put A Woman Is A Woman Until She Is A Mother on Your “To-Read” List
For the folks who like keeping score on their reading list at home and sharing what they’re reading with friends and family, you can now find A Woman Is A Woman Until She Is A Mother on Goodreads:

Find AWIAW on Goodreads

Anna Prushinskaya
And last but not least, if you want to follow along with Anna, learn more about her work and just see what she’s up to in general, you can find her on Twitter or request to follow her on Instagram!

And don’t forget! You can still preorder A Woman Is A Woman Until She Is A Motherfor $1 and Save 20%

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Contributor Spotlight: Michelle Webster-Hein

Michelle Webster-Hein author photoMichelle Webster-Hein’s piece “The Mail-Order Bride” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Summer 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 rural Michigan, and, besides volunteer stints in Georgia and Lithuania, I’ve lived in the Midwest all my life. So the region has formed me. It’s in my bones and in my blood, especially the Michigan countryside. Now, when I drive out of the city and the buildings fall away, my body releases. It’s like the rest of me knows I belong there, even if my brain has other ideas.

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

If the Midwest was a person, I think it would be an unassuming one—kind of humble, maybe a little bumbling, and reticent with its gifts. I’m always more drawn to people and places who don’t announce themselves, who don’t claim themselves so much. It’s the Midwesterner in me, I guess.

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?

Though I live now in a city neighborhood, my fiction springs from a town I’ve renamed “Esau,” the small village where I attended school and church until I turned eighteen. It’s got all of these places that only now strike me as wild—the fundamentalist Baptist church, the antique organ museum, the abandoned art gallery. Stories, stories, stories.

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

I don’t know that I believe in writer’s block. I think it’s just the same old resistance anyone encounters when trying to create. I don’t wait until I’m inspired. I write at the same time every day, which, with small children, is way too early in the morning. That being said, my goal when I wake up is not actually to write, but to sit with my notebook and pencil and do nothing else. Sometimes I have to wait a while for the words to come. Very rarely I have woken up and waited for two hours and not written anything. But for me waiting is also the work; it’s just as valid as putting down words.

As far as inspiration goes, I always start with some vague, compelling curiosity. I wrote “The Mail-Order Bride” because I’d just read about how Sherwood Anderson, one of my favorite writers, had abandoned his wife and young children. I kept on thinking, “How would someone get to a point where they’d do such a thing?” I couldn’t get the question out of my head, so I wrote a story to try and answer it.

When I’m not writing, I’m raising my daughter and son, which is an inspiring complement to the writing life. There’s a lot of tears and laundry, of course, but there are also reading sessions and painting on the porch and long, aimless walks in the woods where the kids keep stopping me and reminding me to look at things. They take nothing for granted. They slip constantly into that enviable zone of slow wonder. And I get to be close to them—and close to that—every day.

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

I can’t. I think Raymond Carver said that you’re done when you start putting in commas and then taking them back out again, which sounds like good advice. I generally take my work as far as I can on my own, and then I ask trusted readers for their feedback. I revise A LOT, so it’s a long process. My husband can usually tell me if a piece is done or not. He’s my secret weapon.

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

Sheesh. I think I’ve got to pick Marilynne Robinson. Lila and Gilead are tied for my favorites. Her books are so wise, and her prose is so quietly stunning. Also, her material seems ordinary on the surface, but her exploration of her material reveals how extraordinary the ordinary actually is. I love encountering that in a book. It makes everything around me come more alive.

What’s next for you?

I just signed with my dream agency to represent my first novel Out of Esau, so hopefully that will find its way out into the world in the not-too-distant future. I’m also working on a memoir with a global child psychiatrist about her work with former child soldiers, among other things. And I’ve been playing around with a children’s novel for my daughter, who reads like a house afire. Finally, I’m bouncing around some fragments for a second Esau novel. So my head’s delightfully busy at the moment, though perhaps a little too much so.

Where can we find more information about you?

Someday I will lay my banner down and start a Twitter account, but today is not that day. I try to keep michellewebsterhein.com updated. I try to post updates on Facebook. Feel free to friend me, though if your profile picture involves a shirtless selfie, or if you address me as “Madame,” I may politely decline.

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Midwest in Photos: Traveling the Midwest

“I take my old seat by the window and start rapidly boozing. The lights change colors in ways that suggest I’m going too fast, and that is the speed I want to go.” – Alissa Nutting, Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls.

Photo by: Samantha Navarro

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Interview: Theodore Wheeler

Theodore Wheeler 2 author headshotMidwestern Gothic staffer Sydney Cohen talked with author Theodore Wheeler about his debut novel, Kings of Broken Things, the advantages of youthful perspective, tackling the challenge of writing a novel, and more.

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SC: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

TW: I was born in Iowa and have lived my entire life between that state and Nebraska—mostly in Nebraska. Along the way I’ve lived in a small town (pop. 1500), a college town, and for the last twelve years in the prairie metropolis of Omaha.

SC: Your debut novel, Kings of Broken Things, is a historical fiction piece set in the tumultuous Red Summer of 1919. The novel focuses specifically on the Omaha race riot of 1919 and discusses themes of racial violence, nationalism, and immigration. Almost 100 years later, these themes are still salient in the American sociopolitical landscape. How, if at all, was your exploration of the tensions in 1919 influenced by contemporary instances of race riots and political unrest? How does your novel offer historical perspective on these issues?

TW: Kings of Broken Things was influenced a lot by the current troubles, though mostly in nuanced ways, the most significant being how perspective functions in the novel. When I started working on the novel, Obama had just been elected and there was a lot of discussion about the post-racial age we’d begun. Of course, our days of supposed racial harmony didn’t last long. I worked on the book from 2008 to around 2015, to give a frame of reference. The first drafts focused mostly on how anger and prejudice were directed at German-Americans in the Midwest at the beginning of World War I, as the Tea Party movement was ascendant and the anti-immigrant Minutemen vigilante group was very active. That mantle, Minutemen, has been taken by numerous anti-immigrant groups over the last century, so it was interesting to think about the phenomenon while trying to tie together anti-German sentiment during WWI to anti-immigrant movements now—though that didn’t really hold together as much as I thought it would.

When police killings, race riots, and the BLM movement became prominent while I was working on Kings, I felt it became incumbent on all of us to think about our complicity in this system, so that spurred a lot of changes in what the novel focuses on, after being compelled to think about privilege and personal freedom in uncomfortable ways. The main thing was to stop viewing my main characters as these precious figures who were incapable of committing horrid acts. The race riot and lynching of Will Brown comes at the end of the novel, but it never really felt like the story was done well until I put some of my main characters (in particular, Karel Miihlstein, a teenage boy who was displaced from Austria by the war) right in the midst of the riot and lynching.

Since the book has been out, a few readers have told me they were unsettled by the story because they didn’t know who the “good guys” are, or were caught off guard when a character who they saw as the “hero” of the book did something unforgivable. The point is to unsettle, so hopefully the story helps give perspective on these issues along these lines.

Kings of Broken Things book cover by Theodore Wheeler

SC: Interestingly, you approach the context of your story through the point of view of three young men and women. How does youth offer a unique space in which to explore morality and identity? How would your novel be different if the protagonists were adults?

TW: Oh, good question. In some ways a youthful perspective feels more natural and is more easily consumed because identity is more fluid in children and young adults, and their metamorphoses maybe a little more poignant. Showing young people being corrupted has a little more teeth than showing adults losing their way, like how we see the Eden myth playing out over the course of our early lives, that we all experience a fall at some point.

More specific to the plot, the mob that lynched Will Brown began when a group of teenage boys marched to the courthouse and demanded that he be handed over to them, and many boys were party to the raids that eventually got to Will Brown. Knowing what was coming at the end of the novel, it allowed me to play around with good-old-boy and sowing-wild-oats rituals that invoke more traditional ideas of maturing and juxtapose that with the riot and lynching.

SC: Evie, the only female protagonist, is a kept woman indebted to her male keeper. This concept is both old fashioned and largely prominent today in the form of human trafficking. How did you go about depicting the female condition? What was your purpose in writing Evie’s narrative and how does her experience fit into the larger story?

TW: At the time the story takes place, women had a limited place in society, of course, but there was a lot going on to change that during these years. The 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920 and Progressive Era advances were largely powered by women like Jane Addams, Ida Tarbell, and Ida B. Wells. The headway Evie Chambers makes in the book toward controlling her own destiny is representative of this in some ways. Ruth Rosen’s The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America, 1900-1918, Josie Washburn’s The Underworld Sewer, Jessie Redmon Fauset’s Plum Bun, and Willa Cather’s Nebraska novels were invaluable while depicting Evie. In particular, I was interested in how fallen women were able to rise in society at the time, even though it was rare, as part of a broader preoccupation over who gets to move on after the riot and who doesn’t. Starting from when she’s a teenager, Evie’s life is about gaining will to power with the intention that she will someday have economic freedom and freedom of movement. Everything she does (down to presenting herself as a flighty waif) is actually very practical.

SC: What interests you specifically about the geographical-political intersection of race relations in the Midwest? How does Omaha in 1919 contradict or reinforce your personal relationship with and ideas about the city?

TW: It surprises a lot of people to learn that Omaha has a long history of race troubles, including efforts to drive out Irish and Greek populations that go back to the city’s founding, through several riots in the 1960s and continuing issues with police and lack of economic opportunity today in the traditional African-American neighborhoods on the north side. It’s no secret that Omaha has been the most dangerous city to be black over the last decade, but it’s not something to be talked about in polite company here, and Omaha doesn’t have enough national prominence to matter on a bigger scale. These pervasive, macro issues don’t get a lot of play unless a riot breaks out.

As far as personal relationship with the city and these issues, it goes back to the idea of being complicit in the system. Though I’m not a bad person, you can trust me, I do enjoy my privilege and the spoils that go along with that. A lot of my interest while writing the book—beyond learning the history itself in a deep, meaningful way—was the idea that many people who live in Omaha now have a family connection to the race riot in 1919, whether they’re aware of it or not. This suspicion has borne out in these two months since Kings of Broken Things was released, as there’s usually somebody who steps forward at the end of an event to tell me about their uncle or great-grandparent who participated in the riot in some capacity. Not that I’m walking around the city staring at people and wondering what their ancestors were up to in 1919. Well, I guess that’s kind of what I have been doing after all.

SC: While you have a rich repertoire of successfully published short story fiction, Kings of Broken Things is your first full-length project. How was the process of writing a novel different from writing short stories? What surprised or challenged you about this process?

TW: Not to sound too simplistic, but the main challenge is that novels are a lot bigger. My typical process with a short story is to work from an idea (usually some inciting conflict, a bit of dialogue, or abstract idea) and pound out a first draft over a week or two, then agonize over the key scenes for a few weeks until a voice is established, then rewrite the story in that voice and perspective. It’s pretty succinct, I think, for process, and while it’s somewhat similar for how I write a novel, a part that might demand a couple weeks for a short story demands about a year when it comes to a novel. As an example, it took me about five years of tinkering to figure out what perspective my novel should be told from. There’s an astonishing number of variables that have to be held in one brain to pull a novel together, and constantly that mental process is being assailed and distracted. The surprising thing is how enjoyable tackling this challenge is, once I get over my nerves about being able to finish a book, getting it published, not wasting my life, etc. There are few things more satisfying than tackling that challenge and coming out on the other side with a solution.

SC: In describing your award-winning collection of short stories, you write “the herd can’t always outpace the predator.” What does this mean in the context of the themes present in the book, including domesticity, family, and the human condition?

TW: I think my editor at QFP, Erin McKnight, actually wrote that, to be honest. It’s a nice thematic summation of the book, though, in how many of the characters are overwhelmed by their troubles—whether that’s childhood, illness, mortality, or even a rocky marriage or two. Like most characters in short stories, these are folks on the brink of change. The wolf is already amidst the sheep, so to speak. That’s also literally the case with Aaron Kleinhardt, who reappears throughout the collection to spread his misery and general unsavoriness.

SC: You also report a civil law and politics beat for a news group in Omaha. How has your journalistic knowledge and experience influenced your writing?

TW: I’ve learned solid research skills. My beat mostly involves checking court dockets, searching for a specific type of case, and tracking them down. I’m comfortable in archives now and had to develop the kind of interpersonal skills that appeal to bureaucrats—that is to say, being patient and trying to understand how to make the lives of clerks and librarians more pleasant, rather than just imposing my needs on them. Beyond that, reporting and fiction writing share a lot of the same challenges: finding compelling stories that people will actually read, being able to get at the heart of an issue and effectively communicating why that issue is meaningful. The form and style vary, but it’s all storytelling.

SC: Who are some writers you admire, and how does their work inspire your own?

TW: Specifically for this book, my big influences were Ralph Ellison, to see the politics of race and the eruption of a riot; Marilynne Robinson, for her depictions of quiet do-gooder Midwesterners trying to make small differences in the world; Don DeLillo, for his lyric to the Bronx, both the current one and one that’s disappeared; E.L. Doctorow, James Weldon Johnson, Theodore Dreiser, Willa Cather. Reading Uwe Johnson and Denis Johnson always recharge my batteries and challenge me to be a better writer than I am, mostly just because I love reading them so much. The possibility that somebody could love my work in that same way is intoxicating.

SC: What’s next for you?

TW: Earlier this summer I finished a first draft of a new novel that’s set in Omaha and Chicago in 2008 and deals with loss, family, and a sense that humanism has failed in the decade following the economic collapse, all narrated in the context of a post-9/11 domestic spying campaign. It’s been a challenge to combine some high-concept elements within the smaller drama of a domestic betrayal novel, but I feel like it’s coming together.

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Theodore Wheeler is the author of the novel Kings of Broken Things and a collection of short fiction, Bad Faith. His work has appeared in Best New American VoicesSouthern ReviewKenyon ReviewCincinnati ReviewBoulevard, and Midwestern Gothic Issue 8, and has been recognized with an AWP Intro Journals Award, a Marianne Russo Award from Key West Literary Seminar, and a fellowship from Akademie Schloss Solitude. A graduate of the MFA program at Creighton University, he currently teaches writing at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

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Interview: Callista Buchen

Callista Buchen author photoMidwestern Gothic staffer Megan Valley talked with author Callista Buchen about her poetry chapbook Double-Mouthed, making sense of motherhood, collaborative writing, and more.

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

Callista Buchen: The Midwest is woven into my experience of and view of the world. I’m originally from Wisconsin, and I’ve lived for long stretches in Ohio, Kansas, and Indiana (after a brief stint out west in Oregon). These are my people.

MV: How has teaching writing at Franklin College influenced how you approach your own writing?

CB: Teaching writing gives you the opportunity to talk about writing a lot—I’m constantly thinking about writing and how best to discuss it with my students, how I can help them find their way in this field. All this thinking helps me stay engaged with my own writing. After all, I’m a working writer honing her craft, just as they are. Plus, I love reading and responding to student work—they’re brilliant and challenging, and they keep me reaching to do better.

MV: What’s the most important piece of advice you have for your students?

CB: I tell my students to read and to think about what they read, and to do so with rigor and compassion.

Callista Buchen Doublemouth book cover

MV: Double-Mouthed, your collection of poetry, acknowledges the “collapse of the self that can accompany motherhood.” How does the title reflect that theme of destruction and rebuilding?

CB: This is a chapbook about what happened after I became a mother, and how that experience made me think in new ways about identity and selfhood, and the fragility of what I had once believed to be stable. The title reflects a kind of doubleness that is bound up in contemporary motherhood, this desire to be multi-faceted, what it means to be a mother and an individual and how to be both, and what it means to be a woman and an individual. It speaks to how women have access to/must rely on a kind of double-speak to function in a culture that reduces them, through motherhood (among other social constructions), to objects and containers. But, is also a nod toward women as mysterious and powerful, including the way the female body operates.

MV: Your collection also calls into question how a woman determines her sense of self. How has your perception of yourself changed throughout writing your book?

CB: I composed these poems as I was trying to make sense of this experience of becoming a mother. I’m several years removed now from that initial experience, and while I can recognize the woman I was before (I’d wave to her from across the street), I’m fundamentally different now, both in ways I appreciate and in ways I mourn. Writing the book was an elegiac project, a way to acknowledge the rapid changes in my life and in my relationships and in my body and even in my own understanding of myself, all of which culture pushes us to ignore. In writing poems to understand this, I was able to take more imaginative leaps, to consider wider questions of selfhood and determination, to explore what happens when what one believes is stable is destroyed and rebuilt. My perception has changed in that I recognize myself to be both more vulnerable and more powerful than I previously understood, and this is the paradox of the poems are most interested in.

MV: You frequently write with poet Amy Ash—why is collaboration important to you?

CB: I love working with Amy. Writing with her is good for my soul, both my writing-soul and my person-soul. When we write together, something freeing happens in the process and in the poem. We usually work by alternating lines or phrases, and we often leave one another in the middle of an idea, so I simply trust that Amy will know what to do. It is never what I expect or what I would do, which is wonderful. Our poems are constantly turning from line to line, in a way that is energizing and urgent. Yet, they are still whole (we don’t remember who wrote what and there aren’t two voices in our pieces). There is also intimacy in collaborating. Writing never happens in a vacuum, but the drafting and composing process is sometimes lonely. When I write with Amy, I have a partner, not just a soundboard or a reader, but a true partner. We’re in it together.

MV: Your last book, The Bloody Planet, takes readers on a tour of the solar system, while Double-Mouthed focuses much more closely on a “smaller,” but not less important topic. What is the connection between the two books?

CB: Both books are interested in relationships and relationality, how things and objects and people relate to one another—relationships between lovers, between parents and children, between one and one’s self, between a planet and its moons. The books are, perhaps, different sides of the same coin, with The Bloody Planet turning outward and to the sky to understand the relationships between bodies and the gravities between them, and Double-Mouthed turning inward, toward the universe inside a mother.

MV: How do you know when a poem is done?

CB: I go by feel. I’m looking for complete or contained but not closed. I want poems that have a power that spills past the last line more than I want the final word.

MV: What’s next for you?

CB: I’m putting the finishing touches on a longer manuscript that expands the themes introduced in Double-Mouthed, as well as working on chapbook and full-length manuscripts with Amy.

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Callista Buchen is the author of poetry chapbooks The Bloody Planet (Black Lawrence Press, October 2015) and Double-Mouthed (dancing girl press, April 2016). She is the winner of DIAGRAM‘s essay contest and the Langston Hughes award, with work appearing in Harpur Palate, Fourteen Hills, Puerto del Sol, Salamander, Whiskey Island Review, and many other journals. She teaches writing at Franklin College in Indiana.

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Views From The Heartland: David J. Thompson

David J. Thompson photog headshotMidwestern Gothic staffer Ben Ratner spoke with photographer David J. Thompson about his creative process, being a postcard poet, and more.

David J. Thompson is a former teacher and coach who worked at prep schools in New York, Texas, Florida, and Michigan. He grew up in Hyde Park, New York, and currently spends most of his time in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He loves Spain, Bill Evans, Raymond Carver, and Krusty the Clown. His latest chapbook, It’s Like Losing, is available on Amazon. Please visit his photo website at ninemilephoto.com.

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Ben Ratner: What is your connection to the Midwest?

David J. Thompson: I grew up in New York’s Hudson Valley and spent many years after college in Texas. I moved to the Detroit area in 1997 and left in 2013 although I still visit frequently. That was my first real exposure to the Midwest. In those years I drove all over the Midwest from Youngstown to Sioux City, International Falls to Evansville and most places in between.

BR: What launched you into the world of photography?

DJT: My dad always took lots of photos during family events and vacations, so, for me, photography always seemed very normal. In the early 1980’s I was lucky enough to spend some time in Asia where camera gear was a real bargain, so that’s when I started taking pictures and I did a lot of film photography back then. That ended when I spent much of the 1990’s in graduate school, too poor for travel or photography. I started again when I bought my first digital camera in about 2005 and began a series of photo road trips around the U.S.A. For me, photography is pure fun. Trying to write poetry or prose is work.

BR: What do you think photography as a medium can add to the literary profile of the Midwest?

DJT: As long as the Midwest is viewed simply as “flyover country,” photography can show that there is actually plenty to see in the Midwest. The prairie might not have the immediate dramatic beauty of great mountains or ocean coastline, but I think it has its own unique quiet charm. I love the little farm towns and huge grain elevators and, of course, the prairie sky. You have to get off the Interstate highways and drive country roads. The Interstate highway system is amazingly efficient, but it is misleading. Spend a little time exploring the Ohio River valley and perhaps you’ll better understand the political/social divide in our country.

BR: Your photography of Detroit–which interested readers can find on your website features street art from across the city. Why was this your choice of subject in depicting Detroit? What story do these images convey to you about the city, past and present?

DJT: Well, one reason is because it’s easy. You can’t drive around Detroit without running into great street art. I don’t know why, but I am drawn to outsider art, not just in Detroit but anywhere. I love Carhenge in Nebraska, Salvation Mountain in California and Old Car City in Georgia. I like graffiti and any kind of posters or signage, especially political or religious, and especially if it looks a little worn out. I don’t have anything new to say about Detroit, but I suppose the street art is an expression of resistance to a difficult environment.

BR: We have a few of your photos here that are new to the MG site. Can you take us through the inspiration behind these photos? How did you come across each of these shots and what is it that they convey to you?

David J. Thompson Midwestern Gothic VH photo
 

David J. Thompson Midwestern Gothic VH photo
 

David J. Thompson Midwestern Gothic VH photo
These three photos are from small towns in Indiana or Illinois. If they are effective, it’s because they contain a mixture of humor and sadness. I rarely go out with a specific subject that I want to photograph. Usually I have a destination, but my route will meander and I’ll stop and photograph whatever I stumble upon. Some days are more productive than others and sometimes I encounter local people who are very suspicious of anyone with a camera, and sometimes I run into friendly local people who want to talk my ear off.

BR:You have done a lot of travelling in your day, capturing large swaths of the United States and various countries abroad. How have these voyages changed the way you see the Midwest, both artistically and otherwise?

DJT: That’s tough. I think wherever you go, Prague or Peoria, with a camera you’re trying show what most people don’t notice or, at least, portray things in a new way. That’s, of course, the difficult part. The more you travel, I suppose, the more you appreciate what’s unique about a particular country or region, what makes it special. When I go someplace new, I try not to bring too many expectations. I don’t know if I’ve answered your question, but I guess I don’t think other travel has affected my perception of the Midwest.

BR: It is my understanding that you are a poet who is well-versed in the art of postcard-writing. Would you care to tell us how you came across these skills?

DJT: My family lived in Germany when I was a kid, and we did a lot of travelling. Back then, in the mid-1960’s, postcards were just part of what you did on a trip, so I’ve been writing postcards as long as I can remember. When I got started with digital photography I started using my own photos to make postcards. About ten years ago, I was out of work recovering from a serious illness, and I started sending out daily batches of postcards. I have sent somewhere between 10 and 40 postcards every day that there is mail delivery since then. Seriously, I have. My work can be seen on refrigerators around the country. There are people who have thousands of them. Eventually, I’m sure they’ll be viewed in the same way as Van Gogh’s letters (that’s a joke).

BR: Is there a Midwestern author that speaks to your soul?

DJT: Bob Dylan! Bob Dylan! Bob Dylan! How many times did I listen to “Girl From The North Country” in high school? Let’s not forget that James Dean, Steve McQueen, and Miles Davis are all Midwesterners. They define “cool,” don’t they? I’m wary of the term “soul,” but I loved Jane Smiley’s 1000 Acres and Don Kurtz’s South Of The Big Four before I was familiar with the Midwest. Kenneth Patchen, from Ohio, is one of my favorite poets, but I don’t see much “Midwestern” about his work. I also admire the work of my Midwestern poet friends Don Winter, Steve Henn, Troy Schoultz, and Kaveh Akbar.

BR: What’s next for you?

DJT: Boy, I’m not sure. I’d like to go back to Spain and I’m thinking about going to stay in Paris for a while, but those might just be dreams. Sometimes I even think about getting a job, but that usually passes pretty quickly. We’ll see.

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Our Views from the Heartland series is a new series we started to give some recognition to the incredible photographers who submit their photos to us regularly. In it, we talk with some of our favorite photographers who we feel capture the essence of the Midwest in their incredible photos. Each month, we’ll post a new interview with a photographer in which we discuss their creative process, the intersection of photography and literature, and other fascinating topics.

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