Midwest in Photos: Ozarks Beauty

April 14th, 2018

“Spring. The green dance, from the smallest roadside plant in a vertical upsurge, to trees bursting in leaf, swaying to morning skies woven in rainbows of returning birds, from the mystical white transformation of ice and snow in bays to the miracle and movement of water. I am stillness, I am dance; I am death, I am life. Know this for what you are. Everything moves.” – Norbert Blei, Door Way.

Ozarks Beauty by Amy White

Photo by: Amy White

Interview: Tom McAllister

Tom McCallister author headshotMidwestern Gothic staffer Elizabeth Dokas talked with author Tom McAllister about his novel How to Be Safe, media interactions with tragedy, social media and online life, and more.

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Elizabeth Dokas: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Tom McAllister: I lived in Iowa City for two years when I was in graduate school. Prior to that, I had only been as far west as Gettysburg by car, and had once skipped over the rest of the country to go to California with my parents.

I have fond memories of my time in Iowa City, though I was personally not doing well then: I was just out college, and in a long-distance relationship, and still not over my father’s death, and I was not emotionally prepared for any of it. Mostly what I did when I was there was drink cheap pitchers of beer and talk about what I would do with myself once grad school was over.

But I also got engaged in my Iowa City apartment, and I made a lot of great friends there, and I learned so much that didn’t actually register with me until years later, when I was ready to start listening.

I haven’t been back since, though I’d love to go. I have been to Wisconsin on four different occasions in the past three years, and have found it to be a really wonderful place.

ED: Your newest novel, How to Be Safe, is set in a small town. From a writer’s perspective, how is crafting a distinctly small town setting distinct from a larger city or even a slightly larger town?

TM: I grew up in Philly, and have always identified myself as a Philly guy, though I’ve lived in the New Jersey suburbs since 2006. My town isn’t small, but it’s small enough that I see a lot of the same people around now, and I wonder whether they notice me, or why they would even care. There are still enough people here that I can disappear and blend in, which is a relief for me.

When I was writing the small (fictional) town of Seldom Falls, PA, I was thinking about a place on an even smaller scale than this. Because I was beginning with a school shooting, one thing I wanted was for it to be in a place that’s small enough that everybody knows everybody. Or they think they know everybody. Or they know just a little bit about most of the people. It doesn’t make the event any more tragic than if it happened in a major city, but it feels even more weirdly personal to the people there. It wasn’t just some teenager who died, but Sara, the girl you know from around the corner, whose mom is nice and works at the deli. I really liked the idea of integrating these little bits of biography into the book, and I think that’s an essential part of a small town’s character.

How To Be Safe book cover by Tom McAllister

ED: How to Be Safe revolves around many modern political and social concerns, with gun violence at a school taking center stage. Did you have a particular situation in mind when exploring this type of gun violence (school shootings), or did you want to separate the narrative arc from real life occurrences? Why?

TM: I started working on this just after the Sandy Hook shooting, but I didn’t want to hew too closely to any specific event. I read Columbine by David Cullen and One of Us by Asne Seierstad, and I had always closely watched the real stories of mass public violence. They all tend to follow very similar patterns, which we sadly know so well by now. I didn’t want to too closely imitate any specific news story, but they all influenced it. One non-shooting story that had a big impact on this book was the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, when people on reddit tried to solve the case by zooming in really closely on blurry photos, and nearly ruined some poor kid’s life by declaring he was probably the bomber. That really helped me to find the entry point to the novel, as Anna is falsely accused, for no good reason, of being involved in the shooting at her school.

ED: Much of this book also explores how issues of gun violence in society interact with the media, often butting up against issues of representation, skewing of facts, and victimization — of actual victims or not. What about media interactions with tragedy felt integral to you in portraying that tragedy?

TM: This ritual we go through is insanity. It’s incrementally worse every time. As I type this, a prominent conservative media figure is being boycotted because she taunted a literal child on Twitter because she’s angry at him for protesting guns. But even before David Hogg made gun people lose their minds, the media cycle was destroying us. There’s this desperation to churn content as quickly as possible, so after the shooting, the media descends and just chews people up and moves on the second there’s a new tragedy. They look very serious while they’re doing it, but they’re picking the bones of the town clean. It’s horrible to watch. I wanted the novel to address that dynamic clearly and directly, not to blame the media for the crimes, but to really dig into the ways our media culture is ruining our brains.

ED: How do you write a narrative about political issues that doesn’t devolve into political caterwauling, or a rehash of your own political views?

TM: This was really hard for me. Because I didn’t want to write a book that amounted to propaganda. I wanted it to be complex and compelling and difficult and all the other things you want from a novel. But also I have really strong feelings on all these issues. For me, the solution came in centering on this one specific voice, this woman who is specific and weird and funny (I hope) and angry. It let me channel some of my own anger and anxiety through her, but also forced me to shape the story around her and focus on narrative. I had to get deeply into her story and be faithful to it, wherever it took me. I don’t think I could have pulled that off if I’d gone with an omniscient narrator; I needed some constraints to make it work.

ED: Much of How to Be Safe explores how feminism and misogyny function in our society, and the main character, Anna, is a woman. As a man, did you find writing a female main character difficult? Did you find writing about experiences she had specifically as a woman difficult?

TM: It took me a long time to settle on the POV character and the voice for this book. Once I found the rhythms of Anna’s voice, I still resisted it, because I was very afraid of totally screwing it up. I’ve read and loved many books by and about women, but wasn’t sure I could do it myself.

When I’m deep into a project, I talk to my wife about it a lot, and in this case, I often ran scenarios by her to understand how she might perceive a situation differently than I would. When we walk into a crowded room for a party, what things does she notice right away (especially things that I might miss or take for granted)?

But also, the most important thing was Twitter, and social media in general. Just logging in every day, following smart and funny women, resisting the dumb urge to constantly respond to them, and just listening. Learning about the various indignities most women face day to day. Especially listening when they shared stories of male writers totally misunderstanding the internal lives of women.

ED: What did you find important about writing a female character to experience these conflicts? What was more potent, to you, than featuring a male main character in the same setting?

TM: It took me a long time to realize that school shootings alone aren’t the thing that’s upsetting to me; it’s a question of vulnerability. It’s about power and helplessness and being afraid in public. I’m a member of a lot of privileged groups, and so, even though I feel that vulnerability, I experience the world differently than lots of other people. I thought a women’s perspective would give me more access to this conflict, and also be a more honest telling of the story.

ED: What were your inspirations for this novel? Are these issues that bother you personally, or did you pull it more from what the larger public is concerned with? How do those inspirations affect your writing?

TM: This book is a big bundle of my obsessions and fears rolled into a weird little ball. Parts of the How to Be Safe chapters were pulled from an essay I’d worked on and abandoned years ago. The stuff about gun violence has always driven me crazy, especially since I teach at a large state school where something like this could happen any day. The randomness of a public attack (with a truck, gun, bomb, whatever) is terrifying to me, and I can’t find a way to feel okay about it. And the overheated rhetoric of the book, the push toward absurdity, comes from spending my life immersed in the hot take cycles of online life.

ED: What’s next for you?

TM: I have about 11 pages of a Word document written on something I’m refusing to call a novel until it turns into something else. I’ve struggled with it so far; it’s one of those things where I had a basic idea, but every time I try to get it started, it’s just not working. It’s also possible I’m avoiding seriously working on it because I don’t want to commit to another big project again.

I would really like to be able to write a book of nonfiction, but a) I only have the vaguest ideas for the focus of it, and b) I’m not sure anyone will let me do it. But I really enjoy exercising that part of my brain, and it’s been a while since I’ve worked seriously on longform nonfiction.

This is an unsatisfying answer, I realize.

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Tom McAllister is the author of the novels How to Be Safe and The Young Widower’s Handbook, as well as the memoir Bury Me in My Jersey. His shorter work has been published in Best American Nonrequired Reading, The Millions, The Rumpus, and Hobart, among others. He co-hosts the Book Fight! podcast, and is nonfiction editor at Barrelhouse. He lives in New Jersey and teaches at Temple University.

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Contributor Spotlight: Kathryn Drew

Kathryn Drew author headshotKathryn Drew’s story “Winter Afternoon at Big Boy” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Winter 2018 issue, out now.

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

My parents were both from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and I was born there. A few years later they settled in Bettendorf, Iowa, where I grew up. The Midwest strongly influences my writing, both consciously and unconsciously, as I think place does for most writers during the formative years. It “forms” us. We can’t escape it. I grew up in Iowa, on the Mississippi River, in an area referred to as The Quad Cities: Davenport, Bettendorf and across the river Rock Island and Moline. It may be the Quint Cities now as I think there is also an East Moline. I attended the University of Iowa and then moved to California where I’ve lived here most of my adult life. Growing up in the Midwest has informed just about every aspect of my life, and especially my writing. Probably half of what I write has some kind of connection to the Midwest. In fact, one of the reasons I write is to try and figure out what it means to have grown up in that time and place, and why I ultimately had no choice but to leave. I was torn between the two places (California and Iowa) for a long time, and in the beginning I traveled back and forth in an attempt to gain some clarity closure with my decision to leave. At the time, my parents were still alive, though divorced, as well as my sister, brother and friends. I think I felt some kind of guilt about leaving, as though I was abandoning my family, especially my mother who was not happy with my decision.

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

One of the defining characteristics of the Midwest, I think, is the integrity of the people. I didn’t recognize it growing up but as an adult, it’s very clear to me that by and large the people are reliable, down to earth, and have a kind of no-nonsense approach to life.

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

I write best in the early mornings, before my head gets cluttered with the little details of the day, before I start thinking too much. I am trying to trust my unconscious more, and sometimes this works better when I am not fully awake. I can’t write for very long periods, which is one of the reasons it takes me so long to finish anything. That, and the fact that I revise endlessly. It’s a problem for me, knowing when something is done. I’ve worked on some stories for years. When I’m stuck or blocked, I find that movement helps–going for a walk or a drive; sometimes vacuuming or other routine household chores helps to loosen ideas without consciously trying to think.

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

Favorite author, that is a difficult question! There are so many writers I admire. Usually it’s whomever I am currently reading. I read a lot of contemporary women writers; a few who stand out for me are Donna Tartt, Ann Patchett, Kate Atkinson, Elena Ferrante. I love the brutal honesty of Ferrante’s writing. She’s amazing. As far as the most perfect novel ever written – F.Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. I paid homage to him on a visit to St. Paul last summer.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on a novel that takes place in the Midwest during the 70s. It’s a sort of coming of age novel about a girl with a troubled home life. The first chapter has been published as a short story.

Where can we find more information about you?

More information about me? I make my living as an English teacher, and have three wonderful children. I live a quiet life in Sonoma County, California.

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Contributor Spotlight: Brooke White

Brooke White author headshotBrooke White’s piece “Study of Hands” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Winter 2018 issue, out now.

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

Growing up, I spent most weekends in the car with my parents, driving to Ohio to visit family. Now I’m in the driver’s seat. I make the trip when I can. Those sweeping soybean and corn fields, property lines dotted by saplings along I-75, that’s my idea of home and the Midwest. I write nonfiction, and the Midwest informs everything I say.

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

Some say the Midwest is boring because it’s flat. That’s a big criticism of Ohio. Still, the flat terrain is my favorite part of this region. There’s something instinctively calming about an expanse of land, seeing the ground embrace the sky and staring at the line that divides them until it’s indistinguishable. The seasons, an abundance of trees and those fields the Midwest is mocked for make this place beautiful. The shimmering lakes in Michigan, big and small and everywhere, the sound of trains howling, cicadas chattering in the summer, of leaves bumping into each other like people on the subway in Chicago.

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 want to know what defines a home, and why we become attached to the places we live. Between my parents’ divorces, foreclosures and then college, I’ve lived in nearly twenty homes and apartments. The places I lived as a child, and the houses of friends are featured in my writing as lifestyles I’ve experienced or wanted, the ways of living I’ve had access to and been denied.

I live in Dearborn now, where I race Detroit Metro airplanes on my way to work, pass Ford’s World Headquarters, the largest mosque in North America, and a surreal collection of historic homes (Greenfield Village) filled with actors and artifacts.

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

When a piece of information, a story or memory keeps coming back to me- in the shower, while I’m cooking, driving, then I know it’s something with a deep emotional resonance, something I need to explore. A professor of mine once said that emotional topics are a gift to writers and are worth mining. I’ll start with that thought and free associate, writing stream of consciousness for my first draft. Later, I’ll scour the draft for patterns and connections between the words, images, themes. After I find the shape of the story I shake it through a mental sieve, omitting clunky phrasing and irrelevant details. I do this again and again until the story is easy to read aloud, makes sense, sounds lyrical and feels meaningful.

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

Writing is never finished. More years and experiences provide a new perspective or the skills to better tell the story. In Stephen King’s On Writing he says most writing benefits by being locked in a drawer for weeks or months, resurfacing when the writer’s mind is clear and they can look at it again with fresh eyes. That being said, I think it can be healthy to put a pin in your work, to treat that piece of writing like we do pictures. That story is a snapshot of you, how you felt at that time about that particular experience or idea.

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

Recently, I’ve been obsessed with Hanif Abdurraqib’s essays. His Midwestern background makes many of his stories feel familiar. He once wrote “I learned to write in the Midwest, To the Midwest, For the Midwest.” Abdurraqib’s work is honest. When writers reveal everything about themselves, no matter how it makes them look, that’s captivating. I’ll always be hungry for honest writing.

What’s next for you?

Hopefully an MFA program and work at a university. In the past, I worked as a writing consultant and English tutor. I really enjoyed sharing what I love– writing and reading- with students and helping them feel more confident about their capabilities. No matter what, I plan to travel and keep working on my craft.

Where can we find more information about you?

Twitter: BrkTheWriter
Facebook: Brooke White, BrkTheWriter
Instagram: brkthewriter

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Midwest in Photos: September Sunset

“Nothing happens unless first a dream.” – Carl SandburgWashington Monument at Night.

September Sunset by Sera Hayes
Photo by: Sera Hayes

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Interview: Jesse Ball

Jesse Ball author photoMidwestern Gothic staffer Kate Cammell talked with author Jesse Ball about his book Census, real work, the importance of contradicting oneself, and more.

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Kate Cammell: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Jesse Ball: I live in Chicago and teach at the School of the Art Institute.

KC: Coming from New York to Chicago, how have you found living in a big city that’s also Midwestern? How is it different than other big cities.

JB: Many awful things about the United States that exist but are hidden or kept quiet elsewhere are quite obvious and visible in Chicago. These include problems of race, problems of wealth disparity, problems of corporate influence, problems of gerrymandering and political malfeasance. It is in this way a most American city.

KC: Your latest novel, Census, was just released in early March. It’s received extensive praise, with one of the greatest champions of its excellence being The New York Times. In the Times book review, the author said of your novels: “They don’t distract from the specter of suffering; they insist upon – and help in – its contemplation.” This exposition and meditation on suffering feels like it’s connected to a sense of writer’s duty. When you’re writing your novels are you aware of this sense of duty, or do you find it to be something more innate that is simply attached to the act of storytelling in general and; therefore, something that doesn’t quite announce itself to you as much as exist?

JB: It is a property of real work. The thing that’s difficult is to find the opportunity in life to make one’s real work, whatever it might be. It need not be a thing of books, or music, or film, art, etcetera. It can be anything one does with a full heart.

Census book cover by Jesse Ball

KC: Census tells the story of a widower father who is terminally ill and seeking care for his son who has down syndrome. The book was inspired by your own brother, Abhram, who had down syndrome. How did growing up with your brother influence the way you wanted to approach writing this book?

JB: This is a matter the book answers better than I do.

KC: You’ve published a wide range of work including children’s books, poetry, and novels. Is there one genre you find particularly rewarding to write?

JB: It is rewarding to write poetry, but people believe they cannot read it.

KC: Do you have a specific process for you writing, like the time of day or place where you work? If so, does the process vary between genres?

JB: Yes, I have a process, but I have gone into it at length elsewhere, so I won’t do so here. The main thing is to have it matter to you a great deal to say a particular thing and then to find a way, any way, to say it.

KC: As a teacher at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, you have opportunity to influence budding writers. Is there a piece of advice that you give your students that you wish a teacher would have shared with you back when you were a student?

JB: I had some wonderful teachers and I’m not sure I heard all the remarkable things they said to me. I would not necessarily want for them to have said different things. But I do think it is important for artists to feel comfortable trying on many masks with the work they do, and contradicting themselves at every opportunity.

KC: What’s next for you?

JB: Who knows!?

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Jesse Ball (1978-) Born in New York. His many and varied works of absurdity have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

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Contributor Spotlight: Ken Meisel

Ken Meisel author headshotKen Meisel’s piece “Desultory Refrain for Packard Plant, Detroit” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Winter 2018 issue, out now.

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

I was born in Detroit. I suppose every empty field, every forlorn statue, every city park and every gathering of haggard trees influences me. Every darkened viaduct, every filled cistern and every factory, where time unravels itself, connects me to this region’s odd atmospheric distances. I love abandoned old cars, the way boys shoot hoops in the city parks, and I believe extravagantly in a city’s dusky winter evenings and also in its summertime festivals. The wind carries the pathos and passions of the Midwest. I also love the monotone chromatics of the hidden insects in a dark cornfield. Or along a lonesome river bed. Something about all this makes me slip backward, into imagination. Into a disorganization that makes me collect myself anew.

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

Distance and atmospheric absence. Also, the way people search for one another. People seek one another to touch a sense of lonesome, but vital intimacy. We in the Midwest were formed along hope and opportunity lines. Our temperament is one of being forced together and then scattered or ripped apart, pulled open and wounded and then sewn up again. And we live with one another within a familiar and yet estranged tendency. The culture of the Midwest organizes in a terms of a long-standing economic and socio-cultural permeation. We’re a product of an arranged marriage with one another – all of us – as a Midwest culture. And we clash and separate and we re-unify along permeation lines. To write within such an arrangement is like fighting and making up inside a circumstantial, but filial marriage. The tension, the passion, the sorrow, the breakdown and the other-ache never truly
leaves you.

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?

My memories of living in Detroit during its fall from grace forms much of the interior atmosphere of my writing, especially when I am writing about the city. And that inner atmosphere is one of feeling chosen, of feeling warm and triumphant, and yet cold and misbegotten, like a strange, absorbed catastrophe. Something fervid and forlorn is forged together. My poem, Desultory Refrain for the Packard Plant, is about the absorbing state one finds oneself inexplicably in, when wandering through old, glorious buildings or abandoned factories. One is absorbed fully by oblivion’s muted, impersonal grace.

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

My writing is like wresting myself out of a dark cocoon. I start with a light and then I roll and I tumble into it – into a dark, lost remembering. And when I am fully into it, I remember, and then I write the poem. When I have writer’s block, I refuse to write. Mostly I read philosophy or other poets, or I walk alone through the city or into deep woods so as to clear myself completely out. Writer’s block usually means I’ve been very productive, and I now need to integrate who I’ve been; what I’ve done, what I’ve constructed and de-constructed. And I need to feel my otherness, apart from writing, in order to re-enter writing, and that’s because I mistrust my identity-formation as a poet. I get too attracted or too attached to a particular style, and I confuse myself that I am that style. I tether too easily to a style. Style becomes an approval audience that I am conformed to. So I must escape the style again, in order to get free; in order to maintain my free autonomy. Nothing in my writing process feels secure. I’m intrinsically like a pariah, opportunistic and unfaithful, like an anxious bird.

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

A poem is complete when I feel no irritation at its ending.

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

I have no favorite, but I truly enjoy reading Larry Levis, Mary Oliver, Mark Doty, Galway Kinnell, Pablo Neruda, Rumi, Jack Gilbert, Walt Whitman, Louise Gluck, Wallace Stevens, Robert Hass and Philip Levine. What draws me to their work is their use of liberated color, imaginative discourse, and their propensity to argue for an intelligent and yet, anti-intellectual humanity, and I love their absolute willingness to confront the illusions intrinsic to the ego sense of self. The heart’s leaping into hope and rapture is defended in their work. Here in Michigan, I read Joy Gaines-Friedler, John Rybicki, and Russell Thorburn. Each of these poets’ style of writing wakes me up when I’m stuck.

What’s next for you?

I have a new book entitled “Mortal Lullabies’’ forthcoming from FutureCycle Press in May, 2018. It’s a book of poems about grief, mourning and loss. How the self deconstructs and is constructed once again during loss and its aftermath.

Where can we find more information about you?

I have no web site. You can read interviews by me at Geosi Reads and at Midwest Gothic. Or buy my last two books through FutureCycle Press. I donate the proceeds of my book sales to charities and/or worthwhile organizations. I will be donating the proceeds of Mortal Lullabies, my next book, to an organization that educates and provides resources to people regarding the very serious and troubling topic of suicide. It’s called Kevin’s Song, right here in Michigan. Interested parties can read about Kevin’s Song online. Donating my proceeds to an organization such as this one provides an additional, true value outside of just selling my books for a personal profit. It keeps me humble and honest, and full of hope.

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Contributor Spotlight: Tyler Meese

Tyler Meese author headshot

Photo credit: Jordan Henline

Tyler Meese’s story “Roles” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Winter 2018 issue, out now.

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

I’m corn born! And spent 25 years in Michigan and Indiana until I moved west. The Oregon DMV man punched a hole in my expired Michigan license, but let me keep it. My writing’s main ingredient is high-fructose corn syrup: sickly sweet and sort of gross and I don’t want to talk about it but it makes me.

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

The Midwest is massive but discussed in a very small way. I mean, I know maybe four states, but I still address the entire, expansive swath because that’s how it’s divvied. There’s small nuances within the glossed over area though and I love those.

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?

They’re matches to spark or precipices from which to jump. I see a kid in a library with an oversized scratch-off advertisement t-shirt, that’s a start. Or the green shards of a child’s buckets accidentally pushed into a snow mound by a volunteer truck. Or a mommy mouse gives birth to her litter in a live trap.

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

My writing process changes as my routine/obligations change. When I worked hotel swing shifts, I wrote before I went in. I’m on a more standard 9-5 production schedule now and try to write after work, on the weekends. It’s a continual work around work. My ideal environment has a lot of liquids, background music, and isolation. As for writer’s block, I don’t deal, I swim through and hope an island appears before I drown.

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

I can’t. The paint don’t dry in a word doc.

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

There’s too many! And for too many reasons! Here’s a partial list: Nelson Algren, James Baldwin, Bella Bravo, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Peter Ho Davies, Steph Wong Ken, Gary Lutz, Herman Melville, Salvador Plascencia, Wesley Willis, and Leni Zumas.

What’s next for you?

My grandpa asked the same question and our phone call went quiet. I should figure that shit out.

Where can we find more information about you?

Email me at tylermeese@gmail.com and we can have a real conversation! Or I’m @tylermeese on twitter if you want to see the idiot part of my brain.

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Midwest in Photos: The Building That’s Always Been Empty

“If I had to describe the scent of Michigan in spring and summer, it wouldn’t be a particular smell—blooming wildflowers or boat exhaust off the lake—it would be a color: Green.” – Viola Shipman, The Charm Bracelet.

The building that's always been empty by Symanntha Renn

Photo by: Symanntha Renn

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Views from the Heartland: Michelle Pretorius

Midwestern Gothic staffer Carrie Dudewicz spoke with photographer Michelle Pretorius about her creative process, how the Midwest defines her American experience, photographing seasonal changes, and more.

Born and raised in South Africa, Michelle received a B.A. at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein. She has lived in London, New York, and the Midwest. She holds an MFA in Fiction Writing and is a doctoral candidate in creative writing at Ohio University. Her first novel, The Monster’s Daughter (published by Melville House) is an American Booksellers Association Debut Voices pick and was awarded a 2016 FAW Literary Prize. She currently lives in Columbus, OH.

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Carrie Dudewicz: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Michelle Pretorius: I was born and raised in South Africa, but immigrated to the U.S. sixteen years ago. The first city I lived in was Milwaukee. Since then I’ve lived in Chicago, and in Athens, Ohio. I currently live in Columbus. The Midwest represents my new life, my new home in my new country. I’m a city person, and I like how Midwestern cities are a diverse melting pot, while simultaneously having an openness and warmth. I’ve taken so many Lyft rides with immigrants that tell me that (various cities) in the Midwest are the best place to live. I like that.

CD: How did you get started in photography?

MP: When I was a child, all I wanted was to take pictures with my parents’ camera. I couldn’t wait to get my own. That was in the days of the old point-and-shoot cameras with the film cassettes that you’d just drop in the back. Film was expensive and you had no control over what the end result would be with those cameras. Taking your film in to be developed was always hugely exciting, since you had no idea whether your pictures would actually turn out all right. I’ve always loved taking pictures in natural light and under low light conditions and, let’s face it, those old cameras needed everything to be taken in bright sunlight or with a flash. Which is why I loved the advent of digital. I never went to school for photography. My husband introduced me to more sophisticated cameras and techniques – he used to be an art and wedding photographer – and bought me my first DSLR. From there I started doing gigs as a freelance event photographer. I’m a writer, so I often find myself taking headshots for other writers I know as well. I have recently become interested in digital illustration and the art of photo manipulation. I’m only a beginner in the field, but am planning a project that combines story with digital imagery to explore the form further.

Views from the Heartland - Waves and Fog image by Michelle Pretorius
CD: What are your favorite things/people to photograph?

MP: I love fog, how it makes the familiar strange, and lends an air of mystery to the mundane. When I lived in Chicago, because of the lake freezing in winter and still being extremely cold once the seasons started shifting, we’d get the most amazing fog in the spring. If I woke up in the morning and it was a particularly foggy day, I’d grab my camera and spend hours at the lakefront taking pictures of people and the landscape in the fog. I particularly love that the equipment that can handle the lighting conditions so well and that with a few tweaks in post-production, I can precisely render the image I want to convey.

I also really like taking portraits. Particularly women’s portraits. My experience has been that most women have a vulnerability, a variation in expression, that translates to some amazing imagery. Not to dismiss the guys! It’s just that many of the men I have worked with have trouble relaxing in front of the camera and just letting themselves be. Although, at the risk of contradicting myself, one of the most interesting portraits I’ve ever taken was of a man when I was doing a “test” shot for light, and he let his guard down. So, I guess I love photographing people when they are not aware of me doing it. You run into some trouble with this, obviously. Everybody wants control over their image, so it is harder to do candid street photography, especially now that there are cameras everywhere. The moment the camera comes out, people change. Which is less interesting.

cloud146 - Views from the Heartland Michelle Pretorius

CD: What about the Midwest do you find the most beautiful?

MP: I love the change of seasons here. We have seasons in South Africa, but not as pronounced and extreme. I experienced snow for the first time in the Midwest, and some of the most amazing fall foliage and fog. I have already gushed about my love of fog. I experienced fog while I lived in London, but I was more familiar with Chicago when the fog started becoming really dense and loved how it altered your perception of the city. I still find the weather in the Midwest to be wondrous. I’ve lived in New York City and traveled a lot around the U.S., even as far as Hawaii, but I’ve taken my favorite photographs here in the Midwest.

CD: How do you think literature and photography interact? What benefits do you see in having photography as part of a literary journal?

MP: Usually the two are not symbiotic. When we read, we form images in our mind. I could write a story and not two people would conjure up the same image when they read it. It’s part of the fun of reading, creating these worlds in our mind’s eye. A photograph shows you the exact image and feeling that the photographer intended to invoke. If an image accompanies a story, the reader usually uses it as a reference point. Which may be a great shorthand to place the reader in a specific environment. One place where image and story interact really well is children’s books, and I’m very interested in exploring the possibilities of the form further.

I think that literary journals are about the art of story, in words, yes, but also the story that an image can invoke. I think a journal like Midwestern Gothic, that is focused on a specific place, is enhanced by including the visual expression of the photographers and artists in that place.

ChicagoFog2013 - Views from the Heartland Michelle Pretorius

CD: Is there a certain photo (or photos) you’ve taken in the Midwest that you love? If so, what was the inspiration behind these photos? How do these photos encapsulate the Midwest?

MP: I took a few great photographs of Chicago while I lived there. The city, with its extreme weather and constant change, is full of gorgeous imagery. I’ve included a few I took of the fog and a city scape taken during some interesting cloud formations. Usually I don’t plan a photograph in advance. I tend to go out with a camera and see what happens. The concept and tone usually forms later when I edit the raw photographs in Lightroom or Photoshop.

CD: What’s next for you?

MP: I’m in grad school for creative writing at the moment, and I’m working on my second novel, so I’ve not had a lot of time to spend on my photography — but I’ve been taking classes in digital illustration and am planning a project in which I can combine my writing skills with my photography.

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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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