Interview: Marisa Silver

April 27th, 2017

Midwestern Gothic staffer Kristina Perkins talked with author Marisa Silver about her book Little Nothing, the importance of place, the elasticity of time in fiction vs. film and more.

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Kristina Perkins: What is your connection to the Midwest?

Marisa Silver: I was born in Cleveland, Ohio and lived there until I was seven.

KP: You’ve spent much of your adulthood in Los Angeles; in fact, The New York Times has called you “one of California’s most celebrated contemporary writers.” How has your understanding of place — be it the Midwest, Southern California, or elsewhere — influenced your identity as a writer?

MS: Place functions as more than mere scene setting. For me, place is a component of character. We exist in places, we are formed, in part, by particular environments. Our behavior is often inextricably linked to where we are. How we negotiate a street, drive in the car, walk on a path, how we experience rain or heat, how we respond to the prevailing cultural norms of any given location — all these can provide clues to character that can make someone come alive on the page. In my newest novel, Little Nothing, the village, city, and country are not defined, but the characters exist in specific environments. The main character, Pavla, begins her life in a rural village. Indoor plumbing is a new thing. Her father is the village plumber and she is born a dwarf and so is small enough to crawl beneath homes and help him with his work. Her experience of the underneath, of tunnels and darkness, and her sense of her size in relation to the larger world, become key components to her identity.

KP: Before becoming an author, you worked as a successful screenwriter and film director in Hollywood. What, to you, is the relationship between stories on the screen and stories on the page? How does your experience as a screenwriter inform your prose — if at all?

MS: The differences are many, but one of the most significant is that a novel allows you to dwell in the consciousness of a character by giving language to interiority. Film offers the image, the close-up, and the particular performance of an actor or actress to describe interior feeling, but I would argue that a viewer’s access to unspoken thought is more limited in film than in fiction. The dialogue in film may suggest thought, but seldom does a film allow for a character to have the chance to describe the minute shifts of his or her consciousness. Another significant difference is the way time is treated. By and large, films are linear and move in one direction — forward. For the most part, they do not show the way in which we are continually circling back in our minds and in our memories so that the past is very much a part of the present. Time in fiction is a more elastic element that can more closely address the way in which we really experience the way time is layered and repeated.

Little Nothing

KP: Over the past fifteen years, you’ve written four novels and two short story collections. How do you feel you’ve grown as a storyteller between and among these publications? What was the greatest challenge of your most recent novel, Little Nothing?

MS: Unlike my previous work, Little Nothing ventures into the realm of the fantastic. At the same time it is grounded in a recognizable reality. My intentions for the novel were that it reflect recognizable conditions of our lived experience. So the challenge of the novel was to find a way to use the surreal not as a portal to the absolutely unbelievable, but to activate it as a kind of boomerang, so that, as far out of the realm of our known experience the plot ventures, it returns us to something we recognize. In order to do this, I had to make sure that the transitions Pavla goes through, as uncanny as they might appear, were undergirded by a kind of emotional and experiential truth. No, we don’t morph into wolves, but on the other hand, there might be some undeniable part of our natures that we recognize in the wolf Pavla temporarily inhabits.

KP: In previous interviews, you’ve called Little Nothing an “existential fable.” What makes you say this? What does the space of the fable offer — both to the reader and to the writer — that other forms of fiction do not?

MS: This goes back to the previous question. Fables function not because they are patently unrealistic, but because, through the lens of the surreal, they shine a light on something deeply true within the psyche. The story of Pavla and her strange transformations has to do with the way in which we change throughout our lives, in ways big and small, sometimes naturally, through maturation, sometimes unnaturally, because of the pressures of external influence, which can often be violent or negating. The book is very much about the experience of women and their bodies. Pavla’s is stretched and changed and brutalized and hunted. Through it all, she has to continually reconnect with her identity. The more her external physical markers are stripped away, the more she becomes something that is essentially her.

KP: Fables are known for their layers of meaning, challenging readers to navigate the space between the “plot” and the “moral” of the story. What is the relationship between the literal and the symbolic in your prose? Do you tend to privilege one above the other? What would you say to someone who asked you to identify the “moral” of Little Nothing?

MS: When I write, I don’t think about meaning or moral or the overall thematic intentions of the work. I think about story, about characters who are rich and alive, about finding surprising yet inevitable actions. When a piece is finished, it is a reader’s privilege to discover what he or she sees in the work, and those discoveries can be as varied as readers are varied. The old fables may have been written with moral intent (although I don’t think all of them are) but that is not the way I work, even as I used some of the tropes of fable. The idea of a moral implies morality, that a work is teaching us what is “right” and what is “wrong”. I don’t think that fiction should act as moral legislator. Fiction should expose the complexity of life, not reduce it.

KP: The protagonist in Little Nothing, Pavla, endures torture, enslavement, and objectification, surviving by moving between human and non-human forms. Despite these themes of violence, you’ve noted that the novel is, in part, a story about “endurance and transcendence.” When writing, how do you envision the relationship between these emotional extremes — between, for example, the pain of violence and the hopefulness of love? How does Pavla’s liminal identity complicate this relationship?

MS: Life is a big stew. Pain, love, humor, darkness, loneliness, comfort — everything exists in a single breath. So the violence Pavla endures is inextricable from the love she occasionally experiences and the love she engenders. Little Nothing is a kind of love story, but an unusual one, perhaps. Pavla incites love in the young man, Danilo, who then spends the story coming to a realization that love can exist outside its object, that it is something more mystical than tangible. Pavla’s “liminal identity” — a wonderful phrase to describe this — one in which she changes and ultimately transcends the body entirely, allows for this kind of more metaphysical consideration of love.

KP: As a seasoned and prolific author, what advice would you give to young writers, both those who are writing their very first stories and those who are seeking publication?

MS: Writing is a practice. It needs to be attended to diligently if you are to improve. Write a set amount of words each day. Don’t skip a day. Don’t let yourself off the hook because you are tired, or because you don’t feel inspired, or because the blank page is frightening. Just write one word. Then the next, and the next.

KP: What’s next for you?

MS: I’m making my way into the territory of a new novel through reading and research. And I’m writing something each day. Not necessarily something I’ll use or publish. But I’m putting words on the page.

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Marisa Silver is the author, most recently, of the novel Little Nothing. Her other novels include Mary Coin, a New York Times Bestseller and winner of the Southern California Independent Bookseller’s Award, and an NPR and BBC Best Book of the Year, The God of War, which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for fiction, and No Direction Home. Her first collection of short stories, Babe in Paradise, was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and was a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year. When her second collection, Alone With You, was published, The New York Times called her “one of California’s most celebrated contemporary writers.” Silver made her fiction debut in The New Yorker when she was featured in their first “Debut Fiction” issue, and many subsequent stories have been published in that magazine. Her fiction has been included in The Best American Short Stories, the O. Henry Prize Stories, as well as other anthologies. She received her MFA from The Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. She is a visiting Senior Lecturer at the Otis College Graduate Writing MFA Program and is a member of the fiction faculty at the Warren Wilson MFA Program.

Interview: Jay Baron Nicorvo

Midwestern Gothic staffer Kathleen Janescheck talked with author Jay Baron Nicorvo about his novel The Standard Grand, raising chickens, writing his way to the surface, and more.

Jay will be appearing in Michigan to promote his book next week and the week after! Stop by the following locations to hear him talk about The Standard Grand:
April 26th, Wednesday 7:00 PM at Bookbug in Kalamazoo, MI (details)
May 3rd, Wednesday 7:00 PM at Literati in Ann Arbor, MI (details)

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Kathleen Janescheck: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Jay Baron Nicorvo: For a few of my earliest years, my family lived in a Chicago suburb while my parents’ marriage collapsed. They’d been together for more than a decade, right out of high school, when they decided to have kids — I’m the oldest of three boys, the Dmitri, you might say, if you’re a Brothers Karamazov fan — as a way to maybe salvage their relationship, or to distract themselves from it. No such luck.

I still have stark memories of my earliest Illinois days: harvesting red clay in the surrounding undeveloped lots; the collective fear of a confirmed child molester trolling through the neighborhood in an old orange Volkswagen, soliciting kids; coming home from an outing with the family next door to find my mom, eight-and-half-months pregnant, unconscious on the floor of her bedroom, phone off the hook beside her. (I’m realizing my father’s in none of these recollections.) I don’t think these experiences are particularly Midwestern; they’re more typically suburban American.

After my youngest brother arrived, my mom moved us back to the Jersey shore, where I’d been born. My mom’s as “Jersey Girl” as they come — the song not the movie, and more the original, raggedy-ass Tom Waits version than the smoldering Bruce Springsteen rendition. Five years later, when she got sick of Jersey once and for all — sick, really, of the gray, rainy winters cooped in a duplex with three feral boys — she and her sister relocated us to Florida so we could run wild in the temperate December sun. I spent the next twenty-five years shuttling up and down the Gulf and East coasts — Sarasota, Boston, St. Petersburg, New York City.

My wife and I — she’s also a writer, Thisbe Nissen — bought our first house in the foothills of the Catskills of New York. Outside a little village called Saugerties a few miles from Woodstock. We lived there for a couple years and commuted insane distances for our city jobs. When we determined to have a child, our situation felt impossible. Thisbe was offered and accepted a full time teaching job at WMU in Kalamazoo, and within days, we conceived our son. After he was born, we relocated to Bedford Township, north of Battle Creek, aka Cereal City. We’ve been in Southwest Michigan for six years now. It’s not without flaw — we’re in the sticks, Trump country, woefully outnumbered and outgunned — but we love our home.

KJ: As a transplant to the region, do you think that the Midwest has seeped into your writing?

JBN: There’s a certain Midwestern sensibility to be found in my writing, to be sure, and I’m hoping that — with the publication of my first novel and the readings I’m doing in the region — some of my writing even seeps into the Midwest. They both tend toward the sincere and the heartfelt, as I understand them. They avoid irony, value intimacy and privacy. They’re hardworking; they’re earthy. There’s an unnamed tension under the surface and, oh yeah, there are guns.

Maybe it’s due to growing up poor on the East Coast and then in the South, raised by a pair of working-class Jersey girls who could both be vividly sarcastic and caustic. (I can look back, fondly, on all the times my mom told me, in all sincerity, to get bent.) But at some point in my early twenties — after my requisite snide adolescence — I became supremely earnest, and earnest I’ve remained. That strikes me as particularly Midwestern.

In person, I can’t really stomach sarcasm. Irony annoys me. I’m repelled by people who mean the opposite of what they say, even in jest. Or don’t take time to consider what they mean. I’m afraid I sound humorless, but I love humor. It’s biting wit that I don’t care for — I suppose I’m witless!

And it occurs to me that I’m really railing against everything our president represents. Trump’s just about as anti-Midwestern as they come. He’s East Coast privilege of the worst sort. Snarky. A particular brand of mean amorality. Self-serving, vindictive, materialistic, cynical and faithless. He’s a douchebag. (Can I say that in a wholesome, albeit gothic, Midwestern journal? Can you see I don’t fully belong to the Midwest?) Our menstruphobe president is a douchebag — it’s worth repeating — who gives douchebags a bad name, and the one thing I hold against Midwesterners — the knock on earnestness — is it makes you an easy mark for hucksters and conmen. A number of you — Michiganders and Ohioans especially — got conned last November, and royally.

But the thing is, when creating characters — and our president is nothing if not a character, a Dickensian Scrooge, flat to a fault — those with attitude steal the show. Same holds true for modern politics, where snark wins votes, and in reality television, where the wrecks increase ratings. In writing dialogue, like in a debate, meanness and wit score points. They create dramatic tension. The mother who shouts at her son, “Get bent!” is far more striking, and compelling, than the mother who says, “Be nice to your brothers.” But I’ve gotten distracted — what was the question again?

KJ: Though you have not personally experienced war, your novel, The Standard Grand, focuses on characters who have. What is your process for writing about things you haven’t experienced?

JBN: No, I have not experienced war, but I’ve experienced trauma and depravation. Phil Klay has a killer essay about some of the parallels. That said, my civilian traumas are not wartime traumas. The differences are exponential. And yet any hardship opens you up to empathy, and empathy, coupled with an abiding interest, can get a writer convincingly into a character. But I don’t believe I have the right to write from any point of view I choose; I believe I must earn that right every time I sit down to write.

My process for this is simple if not easy: read everything. I immerse myself in a subject until I lose myself in it, literally. You’ve got to reach the saturation point where you’re drowning in primary source material. Then you write your way to the surface, and you do that partly by working hard against stereotype. Once you’ve reached the surface, once you’ve polished that surface to a shine and are reasonably sure that beneath the surface lies some significant depth, then seek out a reader who’s experienced what you’ve written about. She’ll call you on your bullshit, and you revise with her opinions in mind.

This is to say that I don’t place much stock in writers who tell you, “Write what you know.” It’s more important, and more interesting, to know what you write. It’s writing as a way to come to know something you didn’t before. I’m striving to make difference feel intimate. If I do that well, maybe I’m able to drag the reader along on a strange, new ride and, on the way, maybe some of our overlooked similarities reveal themselves. We might even end up becoming more than we were when we started out.

KJ: The main character in your novel was inspired by your former sister-in-law. How has working on this novel shaped your thoughts on her?

JBN: Outside of that initial inspiration, which I’ve written about elsewhere, it hasn’t, not really. I try to maintain separation between actual people living lives in the real world from the characters those people might inspire me to write about. There’s always a disconnect in fiction, especially, but even in nonfiction. The “mom” I’ve described above — ostensibly in a truthful way — bears little real-world resemblance to my actual mother, whose complexity, beauty, and humanity far exceed my capacities to capture her in language.

So while writing and reading about my main character taught me loads about women and soldiers, generally, Specialist Smith hasn’t taught me much specifically about my former sister-in-law. For that, I’d have to track her down and reestablish a relationship, which isn’t my place. That would be a violation of my devotion to, and my love for, my brother. Besides, both of them have moved on. They’ve both remarried. Both have children with their new spouses. My brother is far happier, and far better off, and his ex-wife appears to be, too.

KJ: Reality informs fiction. Do you ever find fiction–either writing or reading it–informing reality?

JBN: Sure, all the time, and I wouldn’t write fiction, or read fiction, if it didn’t inform reality. Our best fiction shapes our sense of reality; hell, the best fiction sometimes feels realer than reality. It helps us define and understand the world, the people, and the creatures in it. And we now know fiction, the reading of novels, offers a kind of empathy exercise. For my money, there’s no better way to inform reality.

KJ: You’ve spoken in the past about how the military dehumanizes the enemy, and in turn, leaves soldiers un-empathetic. Has this detail shaped your characterization of Specialist Antebellum Smith?

JBN: Less Specialist Smith than some of the other characters in the novel. Smith maintains a significant capacity for sympathy, and I think that’s partly her emotional undoing. The US military does an incredibly efficient job getting our soldiers ready for conflict. All attention is paid to the front end. We’ve got it down to a science. A good portion of modern combat training is Pavlovian conditioning; the world’s largest employer of psychologists is the U.S. Army Research Bureau. But we do a godawful job on the backend. We do next to no reconditioning when our soldiers come home. We’ve got to get better at re-humanizing, and my novel, in an astoundingly inefficient and obscure way, tries to offer some means that we might, as a nation, go about helping soldiers de-escalate conflict. But very specifically, and cost effectively, we can help to re-ready vets for civilian life by getting them to exercise their empathy muscles. Vets should read more novels. We all should.

KJ: Your characters are often either receiving or dispensing violence. What makes you want to write about violence?

JBN: Well here, I suppose, is one way a writer can’t escape writing what he knows. I had a violent upbringing. My mom was as loving and as affectionate as could be, but she wasn’t protective. Partly, she was parenting according to the uniformed times — more lead in the gasoline! dumb down a whole nation! to hell with the seat belts! — but mostly she was working seven days a week at a 7-11. She often wasn’t around to keep the wolves in the woods. And her second husband, come to find, was lupine, and a lunatic. But, make no mistake, I don’t want to write about violence. My writing involves the poor, and poverty — in my experience in our country in this day and age — breeds violence.

KJ: What has running a small farm taught you about writing?

JBN: Defunct farm is more like it. We grow a garden, and we have a couple dozen chickens at any one time. But we don’t run a farm; our farm was long ago overrun! I will say, though, that my most influential writing teacher, Sterling Watson, was a fan of the Southern Agrarians (sometimes called the Fugitive Agrarians), Robert Penn Warren and John Crowe Ransom among them — O, the patriarchal pretension of all the sad lettered men placing small bets on the name trifecta! — and Sterling talked often about needing to let the land lie fallow for a time after working it hard. Otherwise, you sap it of all nutrients and it won’t produce. I hold fast to that metaphor during my downtime, when I’m struggling for days to steer the walk-behind tiller, or splitting and stacking firewood for weeks, or wrestling our old tractor to a bloody-knuckle draw, or helping to raise an organic six-year-old child.

KJ: Which of your chickens is your favorite?

JBN: Good parent that I try to be, I play no favorites, but sometimes I can’t help myself. And each of our hens is her own person. They all have names, and if someone ever tells you chickens are stupid, that person’s an idiot. People are stupid. Or, people are so closed-minded and obtuse as to render themselves stupid.

To overcome our stupidity — the human bias in our pattern recognition; we can’t see the chicken for the brood — Thisbe and I won’t raise two chickens of the same breed. This way, we can tell them all apart. If you can tell them apart, you can overcome the idiocy of your prejudice. You have an easier time seeing them as individual and you’re able to observe, appreciate, and understand each chicken, who’s got her own attitude and sentience, make no mistake. This is another brand of empathy exercise. It’s also speaks to building character — both in fiction and in ourselves.

Of our newest brood, all year-old hens, there’s one who, from two-days old, was very interested and invested in us. We named her Punny Chunny Conghi, after a figurine dubbed by our son, Sonne. We kept a list of his toddler’s names for things and neologisms, and that’s one place we draw names for our chickens. There’s O’mahdee, Sonne’s mishearing of “Molly-O,” the Steve Earle song; Old Bang Bones, something Sonne called his favorite washable marker; and Huggeen, Sonne’s name for a carrot he was especially fond of.

But Punny Chun. When she was in the horse trough in the dining room with the other chicks, we’d peek our faces over the lip. She was always the first to make eye contact — usually with her left eye, which may be her dominant — and she kept that watchful orange eye trained on us. She was eager for handouts and unafraid. We handle them a lot when young, and I’ve taught them to come when called. Punny Chun, who’s a Dorking, a breed believed to date back to the Roman Empire, has these pink five-toed feet at the end of squat little legs. She looks like a big dove, coos like a dove, and is loving as a dog. She follows us around to be picked up and petted, but don’t mess with her. She is, after all, a little dinosaur, and she’s already worked her way toward the top of pecking order. She lords it over most of the other hens, even our mean menopausal eight-year-old, Bluebeard.

KJ: In reviews, your work has been likened to Delillo, Pynchon, and others. Do you consider any of these authors to be an influence?

JBN: Yes.

KJ: What’s next for you?

JBN: Backgrounded by my window on the Midwest are some of the key ingredients. I’m refining the recipe, making a terrible mess in the kitchen, and hopefully someday it’ll yield something palatable.

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Jay Baron Nicorvo is the author of a novel, The Standard Grand (St. Martin’s Press, 2017), and a poetry collection, Deadbeat (Four Way Books, 2012). He lives on an old farm outside Battle Creek, Michigan, with his wife, Thisbe Nissen, their son, and a couple dozen vulnerable chickens. Find Jay at www.nicorvo.net.

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Contributor Spotlight: Tyler Barton

Tyler Barton’s story “Boots on the Ground” 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 moved from Lancaster, Pennsylvania to Mankato, Minnesota a year and a half ago for grad school, and before that my only connection was that once, in college, the 90’s frontier emo band Cap’n Jazz announced a reunion show in Chicago and me and all my friends bought tickets, but we never discussed who would drive the ten hours there and back for the concert. When the week of the concert rolled around, each of us explained with mechanical precision the reasons why our cars wouldn’t make it. It was like a competition to prove who had the worst vehicle. We argued. We didn’t go.

Minnesota has changed my writing by helping me to get up early and work every morning. I didn’t do that before. Maybe it’s just grad school, but I’d like to attribute that new writing habit to the beauty of the purple-pink sky outside my window nearly every morning. I swear it’s different than Pennsylvania.

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

I like places and people with something to prove.

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

The strongest place-based memories I have are the things I can never write. Or, at least, I can never write them well. I once saw this rain (here we go again) move across a lake. The rain came from a cloud that broke over the opposing mountain. I stood on the shore shirtless with my friends. We watched it start as a blurriness atop the far shore (about a half mile away). The wall of rain approached slowly but surely like a birthday. I didn’t cry but I wanted to. This was in Pennsylvania. Jim Thorpe, PA. This memory is too beautiful to ever get right through writing. So, what I’m trying to say is that the best memories of place are unwritable. My settings are often places I don’t know well at all, places I visited for a few days and that’s it. If I know the place to well I’ll constantly be disappointed in how it doesn’t feel real enough.

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

I have to create habits. What I’ve learned in grad school so far is how important it is to always look for new habits, invent different routines, and question and break my own habits as soon as they feel stale. In short, I like to write in the mornings at home and in the afternoons at cafes.

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

Never. The last three times I got an acceptance, I had to immediately email the editor to say “Hey, can you look at the newest revision of this piece?” Some magazines take up to six months. I can’t go half a year without making changes to a piece. I can’t read a published piece of mine without thinking of better words to use or lines to cut.

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

All time is Vonnegut because of humor. Right now, it’s probably Lindsay Hunter because of energy–her stories never settle and every sentence is urgent.

What’s next for you?

I’m creating a flash fiction podcast called SHOW YR WORK. I’ll be interviewing a lot of writers at AWP 17 for this project. I’ll probably start releasing episodes this summer. Also, FEAR NO LIT, the literary organization I started with my partner Erin Dorney, will be launching a prize called the Submerging Writer Fellowship. It’ll provide one struggling writer with an honorarium, a chapbook, a release reading at AWP 18, and travel money to attend AWP 18.

Where can we find more information about you?

www.tsbarton.com / @goftyler / www.fearnolit.com

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Midwest in Photos: Mansfield Prison

“Me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.” – Toni Morrison, Sula

Photo by: David J. Thompson

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Interview: Brian Volck

Brian VolckMidwestern Gothic staffer Audrey Meyers talks with author Brian Volck about his book Attending Others, finding beauty in the ordinary, juggling a career in medicine with one in writing, and more.

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

Brian Volck: The Midwest is my home, or was until very recently. I was born in Cincinnati, left for St. Louis to attend college and medical school, and did my pediatric residency in Cleveland. After residency, my wife and I lived and worked for five years in Tuba City, Arizona, a town on the Navajo Reservation. We loved the work, the people, and the place, but we also wanted our kids to see their grandparents more than once a year. That’s why we eventually moved back to Cincinnati. That was a real homecoming: our Cincinnati house was less than two miles from the hospital where I was born. We stayed put for twenty years, but life takes strange turns. We currently live in Baltimore, Maryland, because of my wife’s job and to be near my aging in-laws. Family trumps place once again. Well, not entirely. All three of our children still live in Cincinnati, and I return often to work at the Children’s Hospital, visit family and friends, and attend writing-related events.

Living in Baltimore and still working, however irregularly, in Cincinnati makes for a complicated life. I also return often to the Southwest to work on Native American child health issues. For now, however, Maryland is my current physical home, the Southwestern desert is the landscape of my heart, and the Midwest is my true homeland.

AM: You’ve spent a lot of time with diverse communities from all over the country, what aspects/values of the Midwest do you carry with you to these places?

BV: I like to think I carry a Midwestern ordinariness with me. I have a bad habit of taking myself too seriously, so it helps to remember the plainness of my origins. There are more powerful and cosmopolitan cities, more astonishing and beautiful landscapes, more eventful and consequential histories to be found elsewhere. But that’s not all bad. It gives Midwesterners a sense of place, however apologetic we may be about it. We have to look harder to find beauty or worldly consequence in what others call “flyover country.” In a land of moderate terrain, second-growth forests, and cultivated fields, or where bland, lookalike suburbs sprawl from aging cities, one either develops a practice of attention or fails to see the subtler beauties and quiet suffering around them.

Karin Bergquist and Linford Detweiler, the couple who make up the band Over the Rhine, moved some years ago from Cincinnati to a farm in Highland County, Ohio. The songs that have grown out of that experience name the beauty and suffering lurking in the ordinary: clouds at sunset, a tupelo tree set against the ironweed, scarred mountainsides, stray dogs on an urban street. Karin and Linford are lifelong Midwesterners who pay attention to the ordinary and find it wonderful. I try to carry some of that with me wherever I go: rural Honduras, a hospital room, a barren hillside on the Navajo Nation.

There are, to be sure, other ways of understanding Midwestern ordinariness. To other regions in the US, our part of the world looks rather homogeneous, and it’s easy to misconstrue the Midwestern “ordinary” as grim demographic uniformity. Some of that talk resurfaced in the wake of the recent presidential election. There are parts of the Midwest where that may well be true, but there’s nothing uniquely Midwestern about that. And if change comes more slowly to the heartland than the coasts, change has always been coming.

In Attending Others, I explore several lessons I learned growing up in an all-white suburb. Some of those lessons needed to be unlearned. I hope attentive readers can see that happening in my encounters with people whose circumstances are very different: an African-American boy in Cleveland, a Navajo girl, children in rural Honduras. This unlearning may take a lifetime, but I can see things changing in something as simple as a family photo: my daughter was born in Guatemala, my sister in law’s grandparents came from China, and my sister’s children are Indian-American. The suburb I grew up in is no longer exclusively white. I hear languages spoken at the Children’s Hospital that my younger self didn’t know existed. The ordinary is, as always, being redefined.

Attending Others

AM: How has the Midwest impacted your extensive list of passions, from teaching medicine to advocating for children and families in poverty?

BV: That’s an interesting question. While the Midwest didn’t create my passions, it certainly shaped them. I come from a family riddled with visual artists, musicians, and even a few medical professionals. I grew up in a house full of books. Though my father was in business, he sang in various choirs and taught night courses at a local university. My mother also sang, played piano and organ, and was a grade school teacher. They showed – rather than told – me not to limit my interests and goals to one part of life.

I’ve had many wonderful teachers whose passion for their subject made me passionate as well. To riff on Mark Twain, the difference between a great teacher and an adequate one is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. Many of those teachers, especially in college, medical school, and residency, were committed to working with and for families – and especially children – in poverty. Our shared interests drew me to them.

Many had a Midwestern sensibility. They never imagined they would save or transform the entire world, but they saw a particular need and responded to it with all the effort and resources they could bring. Some traveled to developing countries. Others worked in the inner city. All remained rooted to the place they still called home. Fidelity outweighed flashiness or fame. It’s not that they were doing unimportant things. Their motivation came less from personal ambition than from a sense of right action. I like to think of my time with them as an apprenticeship, watching how they worked, trying to the best of my ability to do the same. I hope to never forget where I come from, the privileges I have, and the mentors who showed me how to engage the world from a particular place.

AM: How has your profession as a doctor influenced your work as an author? In other words, how does medicine and writing coincide in your life?

BV: It turns out that medicine and writing are both jealous lovers. Each demands a lot of undivided attention and lets you know when they’re not getting it. I wanted to be a doctor and a writer for as long as I can remember, and I had examples of doctors who pulled the thing off: William Carlos Williams, Robert Coles, Richard Selzer, and Lewis Thomas. Today, I’d add Abraham Verghese, Atul Gawande, and the late Oliver Sacks. They made the combination look easy. Maybe it is for them.

For me, medicine is the easier of the two. I do what I’ve learned from long years of training and watch as my patient gets better – or not. I can reassess, rethink, and adjust my diagnosis and therapy in so-called “real time.” Doctors often hear a small voice of self-doubt after a patient they encounter, a lingering worry they may have overlooked something important, that they should have done something more. When doctors lose that entirely, they grow cocky, dangerous. Lives are, after all, in the balance, and if I miss something important, however hidden it may have been, I feel personally responsible. There’s no certainty in medicine except for the final diagnosis, the one everyone gets in the end. A lingering uncertainty – calibrated somewhere between frisson and paralyzing dread – keeps me focused on the patient, makes me return to the basics of history taking and physical exams.

There’s a similar uncertainty, frequently bordering on dread, in staring at the blank page. I tell myself to just put words down, one after another, that I’ll revise later. Each new writing project brings its own little voice, saying “You don’t know how to do this.” The truth is, you don’t, but you go ahead and do it anyway. And if you’re determined enough to write, revise as many times as necessary, and find it sufficiently crafted to share, there remains the uncertainty of how your work will be received. When I publish something, it’s like sending a child out into the world. I want my babies to be loved, but it will be awhile before I know if anyone even notices, much less likes them. All that’s beyond my control. For too long, I let the short-term rewards of medicine outweigh the uncertain outcome of writing. I needed to write, but I had to overcome my fear of failure. It still takes longer to finish writing anything – short or long – than I’d like, but I’ve learned how to distract the inner critic long enough to get words, however inadequate, on the page.

That said, there are deep similarities in the practices of medicine and writing. Doctors listen to a patient’s story, from which they fashion yet another story: the “history and physical.” Good clinicians and writers attend to the telling detail: the tremor in a lip or hand, the stain on a sleeve, the uncomfortable silence between a question and its answer. The best in both professions look for the story beneath the story: not just a diagnosis, but the measure of the person before you, not just a narrative, but an insight into the human experience. Maybe that’s why there are so many doctor-writers, despite all the difficulties.

AM: Your book includes the experiences of your patients and your own personal experiences. In regards to ethics, do you find yourself struggling between these two aspects? Is it difficult being a doctor and writer in order to write personally about your professional life? How do you decide on what to include and leave out from your experiences?

BV: If I understand your question, you’re getting at one of the most contested matters in creative nonfiction: what particulars must go into a nonfiction piece and what should be left out, whether out of propriety, compassion, or fear of litigation. Sharing doctor-patient stories complicates matters. First of all, there’s HIPAA, the federal law that appropriately restricts the sharing of personal health information. That’s not really a problem, as I change the names of patients and family members or alter personal details to protect their privacy. If I write at length about a particular patient, I let the family read and comment on it before making anything public.

Second, there’s the necessity for confidentiality and trust between doctor and patient, given the intimate nature of the relationship. Patients tell me things they haven’t shared with their parents, spouses, pastors, or therapists. Third, there’s the need to respect the dignity of others, including their custody over their own stories. Anne Lamott says something like, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories,” but that’s not really true for doctors. I don’t own my patients’ stories, yet they are an essential part of my life.

In Attending Others, it’s precisely those stories that I wanted to share with the reader: stories about what comes from paying attention – “attending to” – patients and families whose lives are noting like mine, who are distinctly “other.” As a physician, I’m privileged to enter those stories, to discover where that otherness can be bridged and sometimes where it can’t. Early in the book, I quote the philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, as saying, “The encounter with the Other calls the self into being.” I learned a great deal about Navajo and Hopi culture in the five years we lived on the Navajo nation. I learned far more about myself, the most important lesson being “I’m not Indian.” In realizing that, I felt compelled to find out who I was, where I came from, what inherited habits and assumptions I took for granted. I hope that ongoing search opens me up to richer encounters with otherness, though I leave it to the reader to decide if I’ve made any headway.

Here’s how I see the challenge. I write my story by showing the reader what I experienced, thought, felt, and did with as much sensory specificity as possible. I also share telling details of my patients to the degree the story demands. To do less is to deprive them of their human complexity. The goal is to make the experience, including my experience of the patient, available without stripping away anyone’s dignity. I hope I come down in that narrow swath of narrative territory where the demands of the story and the dignity of the person overlap.

AM: Who do you write for?

BV: I hope Attending Others is accessible to a broad public, from health care professionals to fans of memoir, but I rarely start anything with a readership is mind. Obvious exceptions would be pieces written at someone else’s request, whether for a specific occasion or periodical. Most of the time, I write because I’m conscious of words or experiences that won’t let me go until I write them. In the past, when fear of failure outweighed my need to write, I let words wither and die, unwritten and mostly forgotten, though they went on haunting me. Unwritten stories, essays, and poems linger in memory and desire, like roads not taken.

When I sit down to write, I hope to discover something I didn’t yet know how to say. If I knew exactly what I was going to say before putting the words on the page, I’m not sure I’d do it. Even if I have the last sentence of a poem or story in mind, I still need to find a way to get there, and in improvising that path, the conclusion itself may change. If I don’t discover something in the writing, why should I expect the reader to do better?

Yet it helps immensely to have someone to whom my writing is accountable, someone to say, “Where’s the work you promised me?” It’s not as though the world would notice something missing if I’d never published a word, but an editor or mentor will. The earliest-written section of Attending Others came some years ago at the request of Robert Coles for the late, great magazine, DoubleTake. A significantly revised version of that essay became the chapter on paying attention. The remaining skeleton of the memoir grew during my MFA. Once I found a publisher, I fleshed out that skeleton with more chapters. Each addition changed the story as a whole, leaving chapters I thought finished in need of revision. With each step, the story grew clearer, like a figure emerging from a slab of marble beneath the sculptor’s chisel. No one ever mistakes someone as clumsy as me for a sculptor, but I’ll stick with the analogy. The surprise was in discovering the real story hidden in the mess of words.

AM: What inspired you to write Attending Others? And what gave the book a sense of purpose for you?

BV: Inspiration isn’t the right word. It was more a matter of awareness, of recognizing the as yet unfinished book forming out of the independently conceived pieces I wrote in the course of my MFA. I didn’t start with a book in mind, but as an MFA student in creative nonfiction, I hoped to find a narrative arc in the episodes from my life rendered on the page. I had previously resisted writing about my life as a doctor – it almost never shows up in my poetry – but once I started, the stories kept coming.

As stories accumulated, I glimpsed a unity I hadn’t seen before: my most important lessons about medicine came after my formal education. More often than not, they came from non-professionals: patients, mothers, grandparents. Once I saw the story beneath the individual stories, the sense of purpose followed. I realized the enormity of my debt to my patients, my family, my mentors, and the students and residents I teach. Children – my own and my many patients – remain my best and most humbling teachers. Maybe that’s true for every medical professional’s relationship with patients, regardless of age, but I’m at my best with kids, mostly because they accept you as you are and can detect phoniness in seconds. Their lack of pretension, their transparent motives and desires helped me see what I was doing as a physician. Those essential practices of history-taking and physical exam I learned in medical school and honed in residency are practices of attentive presence. They were calling me to a heightened attention, not just to the making the diagnosis and prescribing therapy, but to the complex wholeness of the person in front of me.

There were further discoveries as I wrote that kept me going. The final two chapters came after I imagined the book had reached a conclusion. I realized rather late that I was wrong. The story hadn’t even reached a stopping place. True stories about living people can reach a stopping place, but that’s not the same as reaching a conclusion. As life goes on, the past continues to be reinterpreted through the lens of lived experience. Stories, though, need a stopping place, however tentative. The best stopping places also feel like starting places, the story’s momentum not fully spent. Those two final chapters were necessary, but they left the whole book feeling bloated. In the end, I ripped out 18,000 words from the original manuscript, anything that didn’t serve the story. The result, I hope, is a better, leaner book where what words remain don’t take up space, that they truly count.

AM: Which writer most influenced your style? Or even broader since you work within a multitude of disciplines, who has most influenced your writing style?

BV: The list is long, but the most important influence on my writing as a whole is Wendell Berry, though that may be visible to no one but me. I desire his clarity. I covet his mastery of the natural cadence. I want to stand by my words as resolutely as he stands by his. I envy those clean sentences that prove amiable and challenging at the same time. He’s just like that in real life. There are no visible seams between the way he lives and the way he writes. Other prose influences include Tobias Wolff and Ernest Hemmingway, who showed me the power of short, declarative sentences, and Annie Dillard, who renders complexities in accessible language and reveals the mystery hidden in the mundane.

Poetic influences include Wendell Berry again, and Scott Cairns, who writes in a rather different style, though both render the body in ways I find instructive. B H Fairchild showed me how to tell stories in contemporary poetic form. Howard Nemerov and Emily Dickinson are my exemplars for knotty, gnomic lines engaging immensities. Then there’s Mary Oliver, whom I can’t read often enough. I also draw inspiration from the lyrics of poetic singer-songwriters such as Joni Mitchell, John Gorka, Karin Bergquist and Linford Detweiler of Over the Rhine, and Joe Henry.

AM: What’s one thing you wished you’d known when you first began writing?

BV: That writing is learned by writing, period. The learning is in the doing. Mentors and books on writing provide some helpful tips, but books don’t set deadlines. Mentors do. I’m indebted to my mentors for the nuts and bolts critiques they provided, but their greatest gift lay in their expectations. They wanted the best I could do and they wanted it on time.

The poem, essay, or story in my head is always better than what ends up on the page, where I can see all the joints and seams, the flaws and holes I never fixed to my satisfaction. Yet what’s on the page, unlike the story in my head, exists. It can be read by another person. However perfect the imagined work seems, it doesn’t exist until it’s at least spoken (if it’s short) or written. Waiting for my writing ability to catch up with the story I want to tell is like waiting for a rowboat to grow an outboard motor. Use what you have. Read a lot. If you’re fortunate, someone will show you how to row more efficiently, but you’ll still have to row if you want to get anywhere.

AM: What’s next for you?

BV: With Attending Others published, I’m out of excuses not to write the book I’ve been researching for the past seven years. I hint at it in the last chapter of the memoir. Some of the Navajo children I was privileged to care for had conditions unusually common or unique to the western half of the Navajo Nation. The reasons for this geographical concentration include historical events 150 years ago: the Navajo Long Walk, which has similarities to the better-known Cherokee Trail of Tears. I’m trying to tell the story of the families I know, the doctors, nurses, and researchers who cared for them, and the culture and history behind the Long Walk and events since. I’ve written some of that story, but there’s much to do before the book exists. So you needn’t worry about me. There’s enough to keep me busy and out of trouble for a long time.

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Brian Volck is a pediatrician who received his undergraduate degree in English Literature and his MD from Washington University in St. Louis and his MFA in creative writing from Seattle Pacific University. He is the author of a poetry collection, Flesh Becomes Word, and a memoir, Attending Others: A Doctor’s Education in Bodies and Words. His essays, poetry, and reviews have appeared in The Christian Century, DoubleTake, Health Affairs, and IMAGE.

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Contributor Spotlight: Dan Giloth

Dan Giloth’s story “Outlier” 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 in South Bend, Indiana, and have lived in Chicago most of my adult life. My mother was from LA, and my dad from New York City, but my dad quit ROTC at Notre Dame and got caught up in the local civil rights movement, and they got committed and stayed. Growing up in a small rust-belt city, I think I’m haunted by these kind of rusty ghosts. South Bend was Studebaker’s flagship plant—the UAW had a founding convention there. Studebaker closed the year I was born. We’d break in and played in these huge old plants. We’d find beer cans in holes in the walls of beers that aren’t made anymore, like Drewry’s. May Day was created in Chicago. The American Dream lived and died here. South Bend is an extension of the Chicago rust belt. Workers still come here from all over the world, trying to work their way into the Dream. A central character in my second novel, Humboldt Park, is a immigrant day laborer woman from Mexico.

The other ghost is white flight. Growing up in black neighborhood, I thought South Bend was bad, segregation-wise. My siblings and I were freaks for living where I did as a white kids. But when I first rode the Green Line El through the west side of Chicago in 1986, I couldn’t get over it, how clear the lines were. You go under a viaduct, and everybody changes—poof! Like magic. My first book, Move, dealt with all this—two boys growing up in a white-flight neighborhood.

I don’t think we’ve reckoned with what happened yet—and what’s still happening—which is this betrayal of the American Dream by class and race. I try to honor those ghosts in my writing because, like Faulkner said, “The past isn’t dead; it’s not even past.” We just got a cold-water shock reminder of that. First, Obama gets elected and some folks claim we’re post-racial. A few years ago, friendly readers of my first book told me, “Dan, nobody wants to read a historical novel about a black kid and white kid in the civil rights movement caught up in a police killing.” Then Trayvon Martin, then Michael Brown, then Black Lives Matter. And now Trump. Nobody says that anymore. Now we got to reckon—writers, too. And the Midwest is in the middle of it, especially Chicago, with Laquan McDonald, and gun violence. I think these realities ground, and these ghosts haunt, the writing.

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

That’s hard for me to get a handle on, because I’ve never lived for more than six months outside the Midwest. But I think it’s the kind of space you have in the Midwest, and I think it’s something that affects the writing from beneath consciousness. Between the cities, there’s all this space—flat, green space, hundreds and hundreds miles of it. But even in urban areas, even in Chicago, even with gentrification, you get that sense. Like in the west side neighborhood of Austin, where I work, where there’s all these vacant lots and abandoned factory sites from closed plants like the old Brach’s Candy site. There’s still a ton of the space left blank by capital flight. And it’s verdant space: black, fertile soil—maybe a little more sandy in places like western Michigan. South Bend, where I grew up, used to be a swamp. Nature is always trying to take the vacant lots back. You see it when you fly in; how green the Midwest is.

It’s negative in the capital flight way—desolate, abandoned. But there’s still also this positive quality, a sense of spaciousness and possibility, like a writer’s blank first page of a new book she’s about to start. Or an unfinished story, that looks like it’s going to have a sad ending, but who knows? There’s room here to dream and imagine.

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?

Washington Street in South Bend haunts me. We were one street south, on Jefferson, which was ninety-five percent black by the time I was five. This was a ‘flight’ neighborhood—white flight and factory capital flight. They’re all over the Midwest: Flint, Joliet, Kankakee, Racine. Except our family was moving in the opposite direction, trying to re-integrate, for faith and political reasons. So it was also a very heady time—all kinds of movements and pride. There was this one area on the black west side they called ‘the Block,’ the intersection of Washington and Olive Streets. The ‘Groceteria’ was there and the barbeque joint, and the tin-ceilinged civil rights newspaper store front, that used to be a tavern and still smelled of beer, where my father volunteered as an editor. And in the middle of the Block, this old Polish bar called ‘Nykos’, hunkered down like the Alamo, with all these barred windows—even though nobody ever messed with anyone there.

Anyway, this is the setting for my first book, Move. The same kind of suffering and ugliness you find anywhere: racism, poverty, and young men coming back from Vietnam all torn up, but all this beauty and love and heroism, too. Crossing the color and class line every day to go to a white Catholic school, was like moving between two worlds. Especially, when I was about ten, and my father got essentially blacklisted by employers, and we ourselves became poor. It was race and class. You could see the flaws and virtues of both sides, but mostly it made me realize at how seriously privileged white folks take themselves—they honestly couldn’t see how exotic they seemed—we seem, to poor people of color. And I wouldn’t been able to see in that dual way, either, if I hadn’t lived where I did, and constantly crossed the lines. There’s this whole sense of humor about it that’s deeply egalitarian, that goes right at the goofiness of pretension. Now I live in Oak Park and work on the west side of Chicago, and it’s the same thing. My second book, Humboldt Park, is about the parallel class and race worlds of west side Chicago. I’m haunted by that gap, in an anthropological and literary way, and I try to write to help bridge it, at least from the white side. Of course, only writers of color can and should tell a lot of the stories. But I try to add my ‘truth’ too, because it’s a piece of the puzzle. Shawn Shiflett gets at this same theme in his recent novel, Hey, Liberal! , which is very compelling. What happens when you cross the lines on principle—however naively? What’s the cost? How does privilege work then? Reality is always more complex, not simply black and white, and movement people know this.

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

I started writing for mental health reasons—my organizing work is very conflictual and I work with people who are at the very margins of the economy, experiencing stuff I have to sometimes leave out of my writing because nobody would believe it. And we’re often moving fast in the organizing; it can be warlike. So I don’t have the time in the moment to really appreciate people. So I’ll circle back in the writing and create a character or composite character that honors them—their courage or integrity or just hard choices. An immigrant Mexican day laborer woman who escaped her abusive husband and lived for two weeks with her five-year-old daughter in Humboldt Park—the actual park. Amazing people. If you’re trying to create merciless choices for characters, there’s a wealth to draw on. Tons of inspiration. I honestly haven’t had writer’s block—yet anyway, because I’m always running to catch up with stuff I witness. I feel compelled to get it out, so that whatever local heroism I’m privileged to witness isn’t lost.

I would say Dunkin Donuts—and Paris—are my ideal writing environments. I wrote two-thirds of my first novel—which I’m editing to publish now, at a Dunkin Donuts on Cermak Road in Berwyn, this blue-collar suburb outside Chicago, where we lived at the time. Half the folks spoke Spanish and everybody worked with their hands or if they were white collar, it was at the local Boost mobile store. I tried writing in the local Starbucks, but it’s a different vibe. You order a ‘medium’ and they correct you to ‘grande.’ Corporate folks setting up remote offices and talking loud on the phone. That kind of thing. For me, it’s a real spell-breaker. The ironic thing is that Starbucks actually treats its workers better, offers its part-timers insurance. Dunkin workers are joining Fight for 15 to get some justice. But Dunkin keeps you honest in the telling of the story. Some folks say a desk in a windowless room, but I prefer a buzz, I guess, which is a common thing, too.

And then I totally bought into the whole mythology of writing in a Paris. Finally, a couple of years ago, I was privileged to go with my wife and daughter, and they gave me the birthday present of letting me stay behind an extra week to write. And I found it just like the stereotype. I stayed near the Place de la Nation, further out, and it was more working class, with a lot of immigrants from Mali. I paid $400 in a week of rent in a small studio, and just wrote. The waiters work off wages, not tips, so they don’t care if you sit there all day, because a lot of folks do it—I heard cafes are like the living rooms because folks’ apartments are so small. A couple of times I went to worker demonstrations, and I was amazed at the lack of police. Not at all like Chicago, where they try to punk you out with tons of robo-cops before you get started. I was finishing my second novel, about day labor workers in Humboldt Park, and actually finished it early, it was such a good environment. Of course, it’s a bubble. The Parisian suburbs are where the real grit and oppression and hardship are, and there’s good art coming out of that world. But Paris might be the best of the bubbles.

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

People tell me. Also, internally, it’s a negative thing—the absence of a sense that I’ve cheated on the truth. Maybe I was clever rather than true. It’s that ‘first thought, best though’we talk about in Zen. If I come back to it fresh, I pay attention to the first gut feeling I have. I may not be satisfied, but I know I’ve honestly tried—I haven’t shortcut to be too MFA or NPR ‘on the nose’ or because I’m afraid of the emotional truth of going deep enough. Also, if my writers group is finding line flaws, rather than the meta-stuff, I know I’ve resolved most problems. I can’t imagine writers who write without a writers group. The more they dig into that surface stuff, the more I realize the underlying stuff is solid—they’ve run out of stuff at that level to critique because it’s mostly working.

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

I really admire Nelson Algren, because he wrote about the Chicago people who didn’t get written about. And his writing is really angry, in a cool-anger way that Malcolm X talked about. He never got over the injustice; he stayed mad. And for a long time, I said Nadine Gordimer, the South African writer who just died a few years ago. She wrote all the way from the start of the apartheid era in 1948 through the Mandela presidency. She’s out of political favor now, but I’ll defend her to the end. She had this uncanny ability to cross race and class lines in her fiction, and capture the movements, and was banned for a good stretch. Her Burger’s Daughter, about the daughter of a imprisoned radical white doctor was like a godsend to me, since I’m kind of a missionary kid, too. Now I’d say Vasily Grossman, the Soviet Jewish journalist who reported from Stalingrad and the liberation of the camps, between writing fiction and being persecuted by Stalin. His Life and Fate has been called the the 20th Century War and Peace, and I think it’s justified. He depicted and condemned both Stalinism and Nazism from a deeply humanist place, but could write chapters that read like Chekhovian short stories. On the American side, it’s Junot Diaz and the Toni Morrison of Beloved. I really like Philip Meyer’s American Rust, too. Beloved is the horror of slavery from the marrow out. I mean, could anything but fiction hit that hard? I’m a political and justice animal, so I like stuff with political themes and a real big picture, that embodies it all with good characterization and stories.

What’s next for you?

I’m working with an editor at a Chicago publisher to tighten up the story line of my first novel, Move, which I hope will be published in the coming year. It’s about two boys, one white and one black, coming of age in the civil rights movement of a Midwestern river city in 1967-68. Of course, it’s got a lot of autobiography in it. After that, I’m going to work to publish my second novel, Humboldt Park, which is about day labor agency workers in Chicago in the 2000s. And, of course, I putting more short fiction out there.

Where can we find more information about you?

Check my dad’s FBI file. Just kidding. The only other public stuff is on the Zen Life and Meditation Center in Chicago, where I teach. But I should be launching social media in the coming year. But please be on the lookout for my novel, Move, too, which I hope will be out in the coming year.

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Midwest in Photos: Navy Pier

“Here we are, trapped in the amber of the moment. There is no why.” – Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five.

Photo by: Philip Arnold

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Interview: Chris Forhan

Chris ForhanMidwestern Gothic staffer Megan Valley talked with author Chris Forhan about his memoir My Father Before Me, opening oneself up to language and its possibilities, not finding all of the answers and more.

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

Chris Forhan: I have lived here since 2007, when I took a job teaching at Butler University in Indianapolis. Before that, I lived in almost every section of the nation—the northwest, northeast, southeast, deep south, southwest—except the vast middle. However, I have some ancient roots here. In researching my genealogy as part of my memoir project, I discovered that my great great grandfather—the original Forhan who emigrated from Ireland in the 1850s—spent a few years in Ontario and then settled in Litchfield, Illinois, where he did railroad work. Then he moved fifty miles south to East St. Louis and worked as a railroad laborer there.

Other branches of my family, on both my mother’s and my father’s side, are from Missouri and Minnesota, so, although I was born and raised in Seattle, I am in important ways a product of middle America. After spending decades in the south, I moved to Indianapolis and immediately — oddly — felt at home.

MV: Prior to My Father Before Me, a memoir, you had published several books of poetry. How did you approach the two types of writing differently? Similarly?

CF: When I write a poem, I begin with no intention other than to open myself to language and its possibilities. I resist for as long as possible the temptation to decide what I am writing about. (I learned long ago that reaching such a conclusion too early can kill a poem in its tracks.)

With the memoir, I began with clearly defined questions that rose up in me and nagged at me in such a way that I knew I had to pursue them and that I could do so only in prose: What kind of person was my father, exactly? What led him to the point that, at forty-four, he could decide to take his own life, even though he was leaving behind a wife and eight children? Who were his parents, and who were their parents? What was his childhood like, and how might that have contributed to making him the man he became? In order to answer these questions, I needed to do research: to interview my mother and anyone I could track down who might have known my father, to scour census records and newspaper databases, to study at old photos. Although the memoir is ultimately an act of the imagination in that I had to shape the story and reenact events or speculate about them, the project began with me collecting material and analyzing it. For me, poems inhabit emotional or psychological spaces and gesture toward mysteries that cannot be fully comprehended. In the memoir, I didn’t want to do that. As much as possible, I wanted to discover facts about my father and piece them together in order to piece him back together.

So the two kinds of writing are, at least at their outset, very different from each other. However, as I kept working on the material for the memoir, moving from researching to outlining to writing sentences and paragraphs, I felt the experience of writing creative nonfiction was very similar to the experience of writing poems. In both cases, I find myself lost—usually happily—in a tangle of words and moods and ideas, struggling to shape a phrase or find exactly the right image or massage the music of a sentence—its cadences and vowels and consonants—so that it works just right. Poetry, in its use of diction, image, sound, rhythm, syntax, and the line, dramatizes internal experience; it enacts what it feels like to be human. With the memoir, I was working on a larger canvas, but, word by word, I felt myself confronting the same challenge: to make the language not merely communicate information but physically embody a thought or feeling.

my father before me

MV: Your father’s life and death are present in your poetry. What made you decide to dig deeper and publish a memoir?

CF: Probably my previous answer addresses this. For my own peace of mind, I hoped to unravel the mystery of my father once and for all, at least to the degree that such a thing was possible. In poems, I had investigated what it felt like to be his son. I have always written in order to ground myself, to feel connected to what is essential, so I knew that I needed to continue writing about my father, but it seemed that prose—with its natural capacity to operate narratively and discursively—was the only form that would work.

MV: How has Catholicism shaped your life and writing, both before and after the death of your father?

CF: In an important way, my life has been defined by my early rejection of Catholicism, the faith in which I was raised. I rejected it not in favor of another religious tradition but in favor of an experience of incomprehensible mystery unattached to theological dogma. I write about this in the memoir. Even if I had not been raised in a religious household, I might very well still have become a poet and still have developed something close to the sensibility I have. However, I suspect that my early struggle to pursue my own nascent personal metaphysics without shame or an impulse to conceal my thoughts was fuel for something fundamental in me: an ongoing fierce desire to defend the private imagination against any force—including coerced religious indoctrination—that would insult its dignity and inhibit its power to bring joy and meaningful order and wonder to a person’s life.

Much of the writing I was doing in my twenties and thirties, I realize now, was in response to having gone through this struggle—with having been brought up with the assumption that I would adopt certain beliefs about divinity and the human soul because they were the custom of the tribe. Few things make me more furious than witnessing someone, merely because of his own subjective notions about God, limiting another person’s liberties. I can get into an intense fit of indignation. Real high dudgeon.

Still, the symbols and rituals of Catholicism—the manger and sheep and chalice and host and crown of thorns and nailed palms and empty tomb—are deeply compelling, in the way a richly-textured dream is. My imagination was steeped in those images and structures, so I often find them informing the structures of my poetry: the shapes taken by my imaginings and rhetoric.

MV: How did you go about doing research for your memoir? Were you concerned about interviewing your mother?

CF: One thing that was important for me from the beginning was to be open with my family — my mother and siblings — about what I was doing and why. I hoped for their blessing, even their help. Each of them agreed to be interviewed, and those talks, especially with my mother, were essential to my ability to piece together a narrative of my father’s life and of our life with him.

I was concerned about interviewing my mother. She is a dignified and discreet woman, and many of the years she spent with my father were difficult ones. I knew that she would not enjoy revisiting them. Still, I hoped that she would feel some of the necessity of this project that I felt, and I think she did feel that — or at least she respected my own feelings about it. She is a very smart and loving woman, and I sensed that intelligence and love strongly as she shared her story, very candidly, with me. It wasn’t easy for her, and seeing the book published — and seeing her name, in the newspaper, attached to its publication — wasn’t easy for her, either. I owe her a lot.

The other research was deliriously enjoyable because I was learning things I had hungered to know for decades. I interviewed whomever I could find who might be related to my father or might have known him, and I looked wherever I could for information, such as census records, newspaper databases, and a trove of photos and other documents about my ancestors that I was given by relatives I hadn’t heard of before I started investigating. I visited cemeteries and traveled to East St. Louis and Litchfield, Illinois, to try to get a sense of where the original Irish immigrant Forhans lived in the 19th century. I was fueled by a kind of reckless curiosity that was rewarded over and over again. It was invigorating.

MV: How has teaching in Indianapolis influenced how you approach your own writing?

CF: There hasn’t been a noticeable influence. I still approach writing as I always have: indirectly. I pluck a phrase or image or rhythm from the air, jot it down, then see if anything happens. I follow the scent of the language into the woods, where, if I’m lucky, I’ll find a poem.

I can nonetheless say that living here has altered, if slightly, the content of my writing. I lived for many years in places—all in the south—that, no matter their eccentric charms, made me feel alienated and alone. My poems often showed that; their energy was the energy of an imagination gasping for air. Indiana is a red state — it voted overwhelmingly, joyfully, terrifyingly for Trump. Still, I live in a little spot of blue within the state and generally don’t feel encircled by strangers, so those desperate feelings don’t show up in my poems as much anymore.

With these new dark days that are upon us all, that may very well change.

MV: You’ve said in a past interview that you were trying to figure out who your father was and what that meant for you, being his son. After writing My Father Before Me, do you feel as though you found the answer to those questions?

CF: I haven’t found all of the answers, but that’s because my father took most of them into the grave with him. Still, I feel much closer to knowing what it might have felt like to be him. Early in the writing, and more intensely as the writing progressed, I felt that the central subject of the memoir was silence: both its power to nurture and heal and its power to distance us from each other and from ourselves. I think there are important things that my father kept to himself and would have benefited by expressing and grappling with, however difficult that might have been. As his son, I live with this legacy, and I try not to allow my natural inclination to turn inward and go quiet to be used as a means of escape, not discovery.

MV: What’s next for you?

CF: Glory and riches.

Oh, just the next poem, and the next, and the next (“the next handhold out of the pit,” as my old teacher Charles Wright once said).

I have put together a collection of poems, half of which were written quite long ago — before the writing of the memoir — and half of which were written more recently. I hope it will find a publisher.

I am sometimes asked whether I have another nonfiction book in me. I don’t know. Writing the memoir was rewarding but exhausting; I wrote it in the first place because I felt I had to — I had no choice. Before I decide to embark on another such giant project, I’m waiting to feel that sense of necessity again.

**

Chris Forhan is the author of the memoir My Father Before Me as well as three books of poetry: Black Leapt In, winner of the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize; The Actual Moon, The Actual Stars, winner of the Morse Poetry Prize and a Washington State Book Award; and Forgive Us Our Happiness, winner of the Bakeless Prize. He is also the author of three chapbooks, Ransack and Dance, x, and Crumbs of Bread, and his poems have appeared in Poetry, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, New England Review, Parnassus, Georgia Review, Field, and other magazines, as well as in The Best American Poetry. He has won a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and two Pushcart Prizes, has earned a “Discover Great New Writers” selection from Barnes and Noble, and has been a resident at Yaddo and a fellow at Bread Loaf. He was born and raised in Seattle and lives with his wife, the poet Alessandra Lynch, and their two sons, Milo and Oliver, in Indianapolis, where he teaches at Butler University. For more: www.chrisforhan.com.

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Contributor Spotlight: Zhanna Slor

Zhanna Slor’s nonfiction piece “Clean Slates” 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 moved to Milwaukee from the USSR when I was five years old, so I spent most of my life in the Midwest; after Milwaukee, we moved around various southeastern WI suburbs from the age of 10-18 but I ended up back in Milwaukee for college. Then when I finished college I moved to Chicago for grad school, and I’ve been there ever since. Most of my writing, the nonfiction stuff anyway, takes place in the Midwest, especially in Milwaukee. I find it an interesting, downtrodden, sort of forgotten place that you don’t really see in literature very often. It’s also the most interesting place for me to write about because that time in your life—your early twenties—is so intense. All my feelings around what happened during those years are so complicated and so fun now to dissect. And I can’t get away from writing about the Midwest, since place is such an important factor.

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

The mood, I guess, which is hard to describe to people who haven’t been residents of the Midwest. It’s gloomy, and hard to live there, but also beautiful, in a way. And they have the best dive bars.

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?

Places play a huge role in my writing. Most of my writing thus far has been about either experiences in Milwaukee or memories I have of the Soviet Union (and often how the two intersect). Even this piece revolves around all my experiences in Israel, and how it too feels like a home now, even though I only visit every year or two. I don’t think anything I’ve ever written could be moved to a different location and not totally lose its coherence. Especially that underlining gloominess, which, even if I don’t attempt to put it in writing, always ends up there in a piece about the Midwest. It’s probably the weather. It’s always raining or snowing or just plain dreary in my stories.

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

I usually work in coffee shops—and actually, this is one thing the Midwest has beat. I love Midwestern coffee shops—the smaller the town the better. My favorite kinds are in very old buildings where nothing matches and their music selection hasn’t yet met the 21st century. The grumpier the tattooed baristas are, the better the coffee usually is. To date, I still love Milwaukee’s Fuel Cafe the most, if only for the nostalgia factor; I used to go there nearly every day in college, back when I smoked and you could still smoke inside. Milwaukee has the best coffee shops all around; I’m not even sure I could explain why. Lately though I’ve been spending nearly every day at Bridgeport Coffee Co. in Chicago, which is a few blocks down from my house. It’s a close second. (Actually their baristas aren’t grumpy at all and the coffee is addictively good, so maybe that theory no longer holds.) I travel a lot, and I keep a list of all the coffee shops I’ve been writing in for the last year and a half, and it’s somewhere around fifty places now. Does that make me a connoisseur?

Anyway, I’m not sure why, but I find it easier to concentrate there than being at home—my husband is a professional saxophone player so it can get very loud and distracting there. I also constantly find ways to procrastinate if I’m at home. If I’ve gotten as far as doing the dishes, I know I’m just procrastinating, which is probably the closest I get to writer’s block. I don’t really believe in it as a concept. I make myself write every day no matter what, and any time I feel blocked and start doing dishes it’s either because I don’t like what I’m working on or because there’s something wrong with it and I don’t realize it until I find myself procrastinating. If I go on a long walk and think, or talk it out with my husband, who is very good at unraveling problems, I can usually find my way.

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

Well, I can’t. I think it’s finished about a hundred times before it is. Usually I only know for sure when an editor tells me it is or when a piece has been accepted for publication.

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

That is a really hard question to answer! It changes all the time. Two people come to mind at the moment, for different reasons. Jonathan Franzen, because I believe he is the best writer of this generation. Every book of his is better than the last, which is a hard thing to accomplish. It’s not the case at all with most of my favorite authors from five, ten years ago, where every book seems to be more and more of a departure from what I originally enjoyed. And Franzen’s books are all brilliant. I really don’t know how he does it. He’s like a wizard to me, and I am so far away from his skill level that I can’t even remotely analyze his work. This also creates a sense of detachment though, like there is something in his work I probably can’t quite grasp.

The author I most connect to, who is also brilliant, is a friend of mine named Jessamyn Hope, whose debut novel, Safekeeping, came out last year. When I read her stuff, it’s like being enveloped in a warm hug; sometimes it feels like I could have written it, or that it came out of my brain. It’s truly bizarre. I rarely feel like that with other writers, even ones I admire. We have a lot in common—like a bizarre amount of things—so that could explain it.

What’s next for you?

I’m finishing edits on my novel, which is coming out at the end of the year, but I can’t officially announce where yet (even though I really want to)!

Where can we find more information about you?

I post all my publications here: http://zhannaslor.tumblr.com/

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Midwest in Photos: Riding Out the Storm

“Love, it’s such a night, laced with running water, irreparable, riddled with a million leaks. A night shaped like a shadow thrown by your absence. Every crack trickles, every overhang drips. The screech of nighthawks has been replaced by the splash of rain. The rain falls from the height of streetlights. Each drop contains its own shattering blue bulb.” – Stuart Dybek, The Coast of Chicago: Stories.

Photo by: Leah Angstman

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