Contributor Spotlight: Brian Zimmerman

September 10th, 2018

Brian Zimmerman author headshotBrian Zimmerman’s story “The Lucky Ones” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Summer 2018 issue, out now.

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

I was born in California, but my parents—both Midwesterners—moved us back to the region when I was two. I was raised in central Illinois. After spending a few wayward years in Florida in my early twenties, I returned to the Midwest to finish my undergraduate degree at Kansas State University. I went on to receive my MFA in fiction writing from Columbia College in Chicago. I continue to live and work in the city.

On a practical level, the region has deeply influenced my writing in that I most often put my characters in areas where I’ve lived. Sometimes I give myself license to write in settings outside my personal experience, but most often I feel compelled to revisit the places I know well.

I like to think of my writing style as simultaneously terse and generous. That’s also how I like to think about the Midwest.

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

This depends on how one chooses to interpret “compelling.” The weather is certainly compelling in terms of variety—we get heat waves, blizzards, and everything between. In terms of American storytelling, I think the Midwest is especially compelling as it serves as a sort of metonymy of the nation as a whole. As Barack Obama told Ta-Nehisi Coates: “Illinois is the most demographically representative state in the country. … If you took all the
percentages of black, white, Latino; rural, urban; agricultural, manufacturing—[if] you took
that cross section across the country and you shrank it, it would be Illinois.”

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’ve touched on this already, but there are some experiences in my life that I don’t feel I’ve fully wrestled with until I’ve probed them through fiction. There are also people I’ve met whose lives and personality I find incredibly interesting—I can’t help but write about them.

However, these are not simple recreations of people I’ve know on the page, but rather exaggerations with elements of one’s personality or circumstances amplified or ignored. I’ve been accused of “thinly-veiled autobiography” in the past, but I wouldn’t describe my work this way. There is more of a distance there. It’s more like removing pieces of me or those I’ve known and mixing them in a petri dish filled with other materials and seeing what happens. What comes out is never what actually happened in anyone’s life—most of the time it’s not even close.

Sometimes I ignore my past experiences and instead try to create characters from whole cloth (which I’m not certain is even possible). But even then, I mostly set these stories in places I’ve been. I admire writers who can fabricate entire worlds, but I just don’t think I’m up to, or interested in, such an endeavor. I tried to write a novel set in 1960s Chicago once. I know Chicago well, but just that change in timeframe made me feel untethered every time I sat down to write. I think some relatively strong writing came out of it, and I may return to the material someday, but I’m not sure I’ve earned the creative license to write about an era I never lived in. Research is one way to give yourself license, but it’s hard to manage when you’re working a nine-to-five that requires a lot of computer time and hours of research almost every day. One day…maybe.

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

I write on my lunch break at work and during the weekends. There’s a small room in my apartment that serves dual purposes as storage closet and office—it is my ideal place to write. My best advice for dealing with writer’s block is to just sit down and write anyway, even if it sucks or feels crappy. You’ve just got to lean in and write through that stuff. What I encounter more often than writer’s block is losing faith in a project. I often sit down to write and spend too much time invalidating, not revising, what I’d written the day or week before. It’s a challenge, but I try to trick myself into thinking whatever I’m working on, whether it’s bad or not, is worthy of the effort. Otherwise, nothing would ever get finished.

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

For short stories, I tend to write really long, meandering first drafts. Once I’ve got it condensed to a reasonable length, I send it off to a couple of friends whose work I admire, get feedback and revise from there. My rule is I have to be able to read through the story without cringing once before I can submit. But this isn’t full proof. Knowing when a story is done is primarily a visceral experience. You have to believe that you can’t possibly make the draft any better than it is. It will never be perfect, but you should feel that you’ve exhausted your writerly abilities trying to bring it to perfection.

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

This is such a difficult question. I’ll limit this answer to short story writers. I love the stories of Denis Johnson, Edward P. Jones and Amy Hempel for varied distinct and overlapping reasons. Hempel for her ability to punch you in the heart when you’re not looking; Johnson for his portrait of the human experience as shambling, tragic, and hilarious; and Jones for his ability to weave place and history seamlessly into character. There are so many other reasons I love these writers, but I’m not sure my vocabulary of admiration is sufficient or even accurate.

What’s next for you?

I’m currently working on a crime novel set in Chicago inspired by an experience I had visiting the trauma unit of one of the city’s safety-net hospitals on a work-related assignment. I’m also working on a short story set in Hannibal, Missouri—a place I’ve never lived but visited once as a child. Not sure how either will pan out.

Where can we find more information about you?

I’m an admitted social media luddite. I’ve recently—with great anxiety—entered the Twittersphere. Here’s the link (gulp).

Interview: Emily Strelow

Emily Strelow author headshotMidwestern Gothic staffer Ariel Everitt talked with author Emily Strelow about her book The Wild Birds, her experiences as a naturalist, different types of love, & more.

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

Emily Strelow: I moved to the Midwest two years ago from Oregon where I was born and raised, but my Mom and Dad are originally from Michigan and Wisconsin, respectively. I have spent many summers visiting midwestern relatives and lakes and have always had an affection for the midwestern landscape and people. My husband Andrew grew up in Ann Arbor and now finds himself back in his hometown to finish the last year of his Masters in Landscape Architecture and Masters in Ecology at University of Michigan. So far, I’m really loving life in Ann Arbor. Shoveling all that snow in the winter not only helps keep a person warm, but kind of makes you feel like a badass.

AE: Your new novel The Wild Birds follows the lives of a mother, daughter, and lighthouse worker in the Northwest United States, and has been described as a sort of love song not only to nature, but also to the region. What do you take with you into your writing from the regions you visit, whether intentional or unintentional? What has stuck with you about the Northwest, and what has stuck with you from the Midwest?

ES: I was born and raised in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Starting out in the south of the valley I slowly roamed north. I came into the world in Eugene, then after a few years my family moved to Salem, then I moved to Portland for college where I also lived as an adult. Both my children were born in Portland. So when I first started writing The Wild Birds some 10+ years ago, that region was most strong in my mind in terms of its architecture of people, culture, and landscape. The main narrative of my debut is dominated by two characters, a young mother Alice and her daughter Lily living on a filbert farm in rural Willamette Valley. Salem has many hazelnut orchards in the vicinity and I used to go visit them as a teenager looking to be alone with her thoughts. The solace that I took in walking country roads and hanging out in picturesque graveyards, writing moody teenaged poetry about life and death made its way into the book. I’ve always loved the idea of a country goth, so I manifested one on the page.

The novel took me over ten years to finish, and during that time I lived in many different bioregions. I worked as an avian field biologist in differnt rural parts of the West including seven states, all four North American deserts, several mountain ranges, the coast, and rainforest. I observed these varied cultures of the West and wove them together in the novel as I moved from place to place for work. My plotting of the book was organic in the sense that I was writing and incorporating elements of my experience of the surrounding places and people. It was almost a way for me to process the various forms of life around me, by fictionalizing them and placing them in my novel in one way or another.

So while there isn’t anything about the midwest in my first novel, it’s bound to make its way into one of my next projects. In the midwest’s absence of mountains or ocean and the largesse that accompanies those bold geographical features, I find myself looking closer at little things, really getting into the subtlety of glacial topographies like kettles, and reveling in the intensity with which spring spreads across the landscape. The four seasons have really impacted my life in a positive way. There is always a sense of revelation when you move through that point marking a new season.

In the future, I expect I will find myself writing something mysterious or dark and brooding that takes a look at the understory of both the midwestern landscape and people. I’m a huge fan of Jim Harrison’s work and have always admired his ability to make prose that explores the beauty of a natural setting while also plumbing the depths of the human condition.

The Wild Birds book cover by Emily Strelow

AE: Many characters in The Wild Birds, like Lily, her mother Alice, and her friends, speak with a particular authenticity that really reflects the casual conversations and mannerisms of real people from rural areas. Do you have any advice on how to create great dialogue that feels so real and still does so much work to develop characters and push the story forward?

ES: My first bit of advice is just to listen. Listen to the nuances of greetings between both strangers and family. Listen to the funny little phrases from your region. Put them in your tool kit to use later. I’m just finishing John Byne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies and I think his use of dialogue is unparalleled and brilliant. There are so many lovely Irish turns of phrase, so much humor, and yet it never feels labored or staid. Each conversation is furthering the plot.

Any writer worth their salt knows that dialogue is not simply taken directly from life. That would be dull on the page. I had a favorite writing teacher (who coincidentally is a midwesterner herself) that told me “dialogue is conversation’s greatest hits.” Dialogue should do something, progress the reader’s understanding of the conflict. So I suppose my advice would be to listen and use those moments of dialect, but make sure they are taking the reader deeper into the story.

AE: Your descriptive talents shine through brightly in your settings in The Wild Birds, which contain numerous dynamic living things — from trees slowly overtaken by fungus to a blind bird hunting in the fields. Do you think your talent for outdoors settings is influenced by your work as a naturalist? What can a non-scientist who admires your lively prose do to write setting a bit more like a naturalist?

ES: Absolutely, I am influenced by my time in the field. I’m an avid birder, mycology nerd, and naturalist, so at this point I couldn’t stop noticing the natural world even if I tried. Observing the natural world has become ingrained. Once you have that lens it’s hard to shift your seeing backward. When I go to a place, the events of the natural world—the plants, animals, weather, soil, fungus and insects—all make their way into my experience of that place. In fact, I often find myself more tuned into the landscape than its people.

But landscape shapes people, whether they clock it or not. I have found that the people of a region often mirror the natural idiosynchrocies in their character. For instance, in Michigan, most everyone has a relationship with snow, the return of frog song and birds in spring, the changing leaves, the first fireflies of summer, and thunder storms. People can talk about these natural features of their living landscape in line for groceries, or waiting to see the dentist, and it is acknowledged, often celebrated, as part of the shared midwestern experience.

In terms of how my experiences as a naturalist tie into my descriptions in The Wild Birds, my lifelong love for hunting wild mushrooms played a big part. Not to give away any spoilers, but the presence of a chanterelle patch in the book plays an important role in uniting the narratives beyond the antique egg collection. I don’t think anyone needs to be a scientist or have credentials to observe and record the magnificence of the natural world. As writers, learning the names of things is great and can help a lot in establishing place. Each unique region or biome has its own set of features, so identifying those and braiding them into the story helps set your reader firmly down in the terra of your choosing. Beyond naming things, observing the way different species interact with one another and their landscape is always a good way of establishing the natural world in your writing. Just as someone who prefers to write about city life would describe the way the city hums during the day or night, describing the way the natural community interacts within itself helps bring a landscape alive on the page.

AE: Later in The Wild Birds, we get a taste of Alice’s past, and how she came to have her daughter, Lily. Alice’s relationship with her adolescent best friend Sal perfectly laid bare some personal and emotional roadblocks against which LGBT people have to push just to get a relationship off the ground. Can you tell me a little bit about how you constructed Alice and Sal’s relationship, how you plotted it, and how you hope it speaks to your audience?

ES: I hope their relationship brings hope to my readers. As I was writing I wanted there to be different kinds of love stories represented in the book, not just heteronormative love. Sal and Alice spoke to me and had different iterations of love and friendship in my mind over the years, but in the way that characters come alive and speak for themselves in a writer’s mind, it became clear at some point that the women were destined for love.

I grew up in Oregon in the 90’s, where several explicitly anti-gay ballot measures made it to the ballot. In 1992 in Oregon Ballot Measure 9 was put to vote, supported by a conservative group call Oregon Citizen’s Alliance. They had passed anti-gay regulation in the past with Measure 8, but Measure 9 was their largest and most hateful campaign. The measure would have amended the Oregon constitution to recognize “homosexuality, pedophilia, sadism and masochism as abnormal, wrong, unnatural, and perverse.” It would also prevent any “special rights” for homosexuals and bisexuals.

That same year in Salem, Oregon, where I was in school at the time, there were two murders of gay individuals because of a surge of racist and homophobic activity in the area, believed to be inspired by Measure 9. This affected me deeply and it was one of my first early moments of activism, going out and canvassing and talking to people in the community about why the measure needed to be defeated. It was narrowly defeated, with only 56% voting no. I’ll never forget how much of a wake up call that was for me. I saw with young eyes how much hatred existed in the world for LGBT people and I vowed to be part of the change.

It wasn’t until years later when I was part of a strong gay activist community in Seattle that I began to self-identify as bisexual. Even then I felt very tentative and afraid of labeling myself for fear of backlash. Writing The Wild Birds became for me a way of processing all the hatred I had experienced growing up and flushing it from my psyche. So when I say that I hope the story brings hope to people, I hope they experience the narrative with tolerance and appreciation for all the different kinds of love that exist in the world and see that even the largest obstacles can be overcome.

AE: How did you settle upon the structure you gave the novel, and the order of the chapters? Do you think there are any other arrangements that would have worked as well?

ES: I kind of touched on this a bit earlier in the interview, but the development of the plot happened over time as I lived in different areas of the West, so it was born of my own migrations. The timeline expanded as I researched the history of different places I was spending time for work in the field. I used the Oregon Historical Society and California Historical Society for a lot of the primary sources used in the historical sections. I’ve always had an interest in novels told in nonlinear time so I knew from the outset I wanted a nonlinear plot. When I decided on the alternating chapters format it was because that is the kind of book and narrative that I most enjoy reading. I’m a huge fan of puzzles, both literary and of the game variety. I also thought a reader might be able to read a single chapter at a time before bed, and still the story would eventually lock into place.

I enjoy the challenge of braiding timelines and stories together in my mind to create a whole, and I hope that my readers also enjoy that process. There is so much in the book about the interconnectivity of all life forms on the planet, and the alternating chapters speak to that kind of sweeping, broad connectivity. As far as whether there is a better order for the chapters, that’s something I can’t think about now that the book is out there or it would probably drive me to distraction.

AE: What advice would you give a writer who would like to write dynamic, evolving character relationships like yours?

ES: In line with the “listen” advice for the question about dialogue, I’d have to say “watch.” Watch the people around you—your family, friends, co-workers, baristas, doctors, bartenders, strangers, etc. Watch the way they come together and fall apart and learn from their paths and methods. Look below the surface but try not to make assumptions about people’s internal worlds. Instead, look for clues in behavior and speech that point to what lies beneath the surface. I always assume there is a veritable coral reef, a rich tapestry of emotions, below the surface of any person I meet. But like any coral reef, all you can see is waves and vague color forms from the surface. Bringing two characters into discovery of one another’s “reefs,” their discovery of what lurks below the surface, will bring that character relationship to life.

AE: Do you have any advice for people trying to balance writing with another passion (like science), or writing with making a living?

ES: As a mother of two young boys, 2 and 5, balance is something I’m still desperately, flailingly, trying to find. I think my other passions all find their way into my writing and that’s not something I need to change or balance. But time? Time by myself? Time by myself with the energy to write? That is something I struggle to bring into balance. If you, dear reader, can give me advice on that one maybe I can get my next book written before another ten years are up.

AE: Where do you prefer to write and where gives you the most inspiration? Is there anywhere you can’t write?

ES: I love to write in quiet places. I wrote part of The Wild Birds out in wilderness in the bed of my truck, by a campfire, in tents by the light of a headlamp. I also wrote part of it in an urban Portland writing studio overlooking the train tracks surrounded by storage warehouses. The uniting factor in these places was simply quiet. And coffee and tea. Lots and lots of coffee, herbal teas, and La Croix depending on where I’m at in the day. I could probably get a sponsorship from La Croix at this point. And I recommend coming up with new outlandish flavor ideas if you ever get a case of writer’s block.

Oddly, and counter to the stereotype, I simply cannot focus and write in coffee shops. Too many noises and too much action. I am easily distracted, not unlike a small dog. But I’ll admit they are a wonderful place to eavesdrop if you are stuck on piece of dialogue.

AE: What’s next for you?

ES: I’m working on a project that I’m absolutely loving right now, but like so many others, struggle to find time. The novel takes place on three different continents and deals with issues of climate change, immigration, the loss of natural monuments, the defunding of female reproductive medical care, the roadblocks wildlife face as their territories shrink, the legalization of weed, and the magic of the unknown. You know, just tackling the light stuff. But I feel compelled to write about these pressing political and scientific issues because it weighs heavily on so many people’s minds right now, including my own, in our country and beyond. Writing is how I process the trauma and joy of life on earth. Some people say Ride or Die, but I prefer Write or Die.

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Emily Strelow was born and raised in Oregon’s Willamette Valley but has lived all over the West and now, the Midwest. For the last decade she combined teaching writing with doing seasonal avian field biology with her husband. While doing field jobs she camped and wrote in remote areas in the desert, mountains and by the ocean. She is a mother to two boys, a naturalist, and writer. She lives in Ann Arbor, MI. The Wild Birds is her first novel.

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Contributor Spotlight: Aurore Sibley

Aurore Sibley author headshotAurore Sibley’s story “Summer at Quail Lake” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Summer 2018 issue, out now.

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

I was born in Milwaukee and spent the first eleven years of my life in Wisconsin, mostly in a small town outside of Madison. When I was eighteen, I returned to the area and spent a summer on a small farm there. I have moved a great deal and lived in many places since then, but have always associated the nostalgia of my childhood and a sense of home with Wisconsin. I also returned to the midwest as an adult and spent some time in Ohio and four years in Saint Paul, MN. I’ve lived half my life in California now, and also have lived in four other states and two other countries, but the midwest, and Wisconsin in particular, is still the place I think of when I think of belonging.

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

I love that the midwest moves at a slower pace than places on the east and west coasts. There’s a sense of being more relaxed and grounded somehow, at least for me. I love the humid summers and the snow in winter. And probably love it because I don’t live with it regularly anymore.

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 small Wisconsin farm where I spent just one summer has remained my favorite place on earth since I was there. There’s something about the land and the place that resonates with me and that I’ve carried with me and romanticized. Fireflies, abandoned train tracks, rolling hills and thunderstorms are food for my soul, and I daydream about returning to a place and a life like that one day.

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

Writing for me is something I have always been compelled to do, (I loved writing as a kid, too.). I’m a single mother who works full time, and its not easy to carve out space for writing, but I manage to because I don’t feel fulfilled unless I’m productive with writing and music, and other creative practices. I love writing poetry, short stories and nonfiction essays. Usually an idea for a story just strikes me somehow, and it builds itself while I write it. If I’m stuck with a story, which definitely happens, I move to poetry or something that I can manage to get that sense of completion from, and then I move back to the story when I feel inspired to.

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

I have a tendency to write in spurts and then revise and revise and expand the story and revise and revise some more. It can be a laborious process but I love it, and there’s a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction when a story has reached completion. And if I go back and read it later, I will inevitably continue to revise it, so at a certain point it feels great to just let it go, and print it.

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

That is a very difficult question, because I have loved so many authors. If I were to name just one, Anchee Min comes to mind. I love biography and memoir and historical fiction and her writing is full of imagination and intimacy. Oh, and I have to add Dr. Oliver Sacks, because he might actually be my very favorite writer ever, but he does not write fiction.

What’s next for you?

I continue to slowly produce poems and hope to manage a collection before too long, I published a chapbook of poems last year. And I am working on something a little different for me, which has very been fun and might be considered to be in the mystery genre. We’ll see if I have a full book in me. Its very exciting to try.

Where can we find more information about you?

I am on Instagram and Facebook, and may decide to publish a writing-focused website at some point. I’ve published an article in Lilipoh magazine this month as well, if interested in another sample of my writing.

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Interview: Michael Zadoorian

Michael Zadoorian author headshotMidwestern Gothic staffer Henry Milek talked with author Michael Zadoorian about his book Beautiful Music, music, alternative mediums, & more.

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

Michael Zadoorian: I’ve lived in Michigan all my life. I am a Midwesterner.

HM: As a lifelong resident of Detroit, what would you say makes Detroit unique among American cities, and how has this influenced your writing?

MZ: Detroit is an enormous part of who I am as a person and a writer. I grew up in the city, got both my degrees at Wayne State University in Detroit, met my wife here, lived my life here, so it’s deeply ingrained in me. It’s home. I love it here and don’t want to live anywhere else. There’s a determination and spirit that Detroiters possess that you won’t find anywhere else. There’s something about being from a place like this that inspires creativity. Part of that is because of Detroit’s many troubles, from being a place that felt abandoned and broken, that the rest of the country mocked and derided. You worry less about “making it” here. You just want to make something.

HM: Detroit has a tumultuous history over the last century or so, from the automobile boom to the Civil Rights movement to the economic collapse. How would you say this history has influenced Detroit’s sense of identity – particularly in the arts? Why is it important for Detroit artists to tell stories of the city from their own perspectives?

MZ: Being from a place like Detroit affects you because the city has been on a fairly downward spiral for the past 50+ years or so. And in the last 20 or so, we’ve pretty much been a joke to the rest of America. Not long ago, if you told someone that you were from Detroit, you’d either get a look of pity or they’d expect you to pull a gun on them. Pathos or badass, that’s all we’d get. We were perceived to be a desolate, abandoned place, a broken city. And in many ways, we were. How can that not affect what you create?

That said, I think there’s definitely a Detroit aesthetic. I see it in the writing, the music, the art, everywhere. Living around here, you gain an appreciation for the imperfect, the forgotten, the broken, the abandoned, and it imbues your work. Artists from around here often find beauty in things that others may not find beautiful.

Detroit is very much a character in Beautiful Music since it is set in the years following all its violence and social unrest of the ’67 Rebellion. I have memories of that time. I was a child, so it was scary, though I’m not entirely sure I completely understood what was going on at the time. I don’t think my mother and father were letting me watch much of the coverage on TV. But I do remember seeing towers of smoke rising into the sky from all the fires. The air in my neighborhood was hazy and there were the cinders falling from the sky. There were constant sirens from police cars racing down Fenkell Road, not to mention the rumble of tanks or other military vehicles. We were lucky not to be in the middle of it, but still, it was chilling.

At a certain point, it was inevitable that all the racial tensions would be a big part of the book. That’s when it started to feel like it was coming together. The ’67 Rebellion casts a long shadow over this book. There is lingering evidence of the damage and after-effects on the city and the characters throughout.

HM: Your new novel Beautiful Music takes place in the Detroit in the early ‘70s. What was your thinking in writing in this setting? What attracted you about writing on the ‘70s?

MZ: One reason is that it was the 70’s when I came of age and I think in some ways, I wanted to do some detective work on my own past. Writing a coming-of-age story is certainly an excuse to look at one’s early life as a way to figure out how you arrived at your version of adulthood. When I started making notes for the book, as I was writing out all this high school stuff, I kept thinking: “What am I doing? Am I writing a YA book?” I have nothing against YA, but it was nothing I ever set out to do as a writer. Still, I decided not to worry about any of that and just to see where it would take me. I see now that I was kind of uncoiling my own past.

Also I wanted to write something about music. It’s not a very literary thing to say, but I kind of wanted to write my own version of the Cameron Crowe film Almost Famous. I really love that film. I certainly didn’t want to copy it, but I knew there was a story of my own in that era that I wanted to find. I just kept thinking about rock music: all the joy it gave me in my teenage years and how it helped create my identity. I wanted to think about the music that my later adult self was sort of embarrassed for liking – Foghat, Blue Oyster Cult, Black Sabbath.

Beautiful Music book cover by Michael Zadoorian

HM: How did you approach writing a story that takes place in this period? What kind of research was involved in crafting an authentic recreation of the era?

MZ: I started by just writing things down, anything I could remember. There’s usually a reason why you remember something from decades ago. It made an impression on you in some way.

I’m also a bit of a pack rat, so I was able to look through a lot of the actual magazines and books I was reading at the time. I also did research, but it was kind of arcane research: I listened to the music I liked at the time, looked through yearbooks from that era, listened to voice checks of the disc jockeys of the time, scanned through 1970s Detroit newspapers on microfiche to find small, but exact things that were going on during the time frame of the book. I went to the main branch of Detroit Public Library and checked the 1970’s city directories of the area where I grew up in northwest Detroit. (It’s also Danny’s neighborhood). That sort of thing. During research, I certainly write many things down, but I also just try to absorb details. Not too difficult because all of this was very interesting to me. As I said before, it was like doing detective work on my own past.

In any case, details are important to me. I like to put in a lot of them, but I want them to feel natural and not obvious or crammed in. Still, details are one of my very favorite parts of writing a novel. I get to choose a world, and then I get to furnish it.

HM: Music plays a large role in the story, as it becomes a means by which protagonist Danny copes with the difficult world around him. What does this say about the importance of music – or art overall – in giving one a sense of fulfillment?

MZ: The book is absolutely a paean to music and its transformative power. Music pretty much changes everything about Danny in the course of the book. After Danny discovers rock, it becomes so important to him that he filters his entire world through it.

In the book, he talks about something he calls “The Fade,” which he experiences while listening to a song he loves, over and over again. After each listen, as the song fades out, he notices his joy slowly start to wane. He knows that he will never hear the song again with the same pleasure that he had listening to it for the first time. Eventually, “The Fade” becomes a kind of metaphor for his sadness. When something goes wrong, when he’s scared, when the world beats him up or bullies him, he feels “The Fade” crashing down on him. So music becomes a way for him to interpret his own pain.

While music is certainly his safe place, it also becomes a source of power for him. Music makes him believe in himself. It helps him take his first shaky steps toward being his own man, regardless of the obstacles in his path, be they absent father, unstable mother, bully or bigot.

That’s what I wanted to write about in this book: music as refuge in a hostile world. That special, secret hiding place inside the LP or 8 track or mixtape or CD or iPod or wherever, that place where you can seek refuge when nothing else seems to make sense. For Danny, it’s rock and roll. But it’s the same way for every generation of young person, whether they’re listening to doo-wop, acid rock, gangsta rap, death-metal or EDM. The melody changes, but the song remains the same.

MG: As a music lover, to what extent does music influence your writing process? Do you listen to music while you write, or is it more of an indirect influence on your process? Which musical artists would you say have been the most influential on your work and why?

MZ: I am a music lover. It’s always been a big part of my life. Like with the character of Danny, music for me was transformative. It changed me enormously and helped me to figure out who I was and how I felt about things. It changed me intellectually. (Which is kind of the opposite of what rock and roll is supposed to do.) Through music magazines, I discovered writers that I still love to this day – Hunter S. Thompson, Charles Bukowski, Jack Kerouac, Kurt Vonnegut, Lester Bangs, and a lot of others.

I can’t really listen to music while I write, but as I was writing Beautiful Music, I found myself often going over to my turntable to put on an old record just to remember what that felt like. I thought a lot about vinyl when I was writing the book. The whole ritual of it – of going to a store (Korvettes, in Danny’s case), looking at albums, choosing one, then buying it and taking it home. All the while, your anticipation is building. Everything you do is working toward that moment when you sit down with a turntable in front of you. That moment when you slit the cellophane on the LP, carefully pull the disc out to place it on the player, then lower the tone arm on to the vinyl.

There’s a moment where Danny, as he listens to an album over his earphones, is just staring at the center label of the record as it is spinning around and around, almost putting him in a trance. That’s another part of the ritual, completely immersing oneself in the music. It’s hard to do nowadays. We tend to multi-task as we listen to our music now.

Rock and Roll certainly influenced me, perhaps not so much in the way I write, but in the spirit of what and how I write. It probably taught me about letting go, and letting what you’re working on take you away, and perhaps to not think so much. If something feels right, it’s probably right. I think rock music is more about instinct than intellect.

I think the musical artists that influenced me most as a writer are probably jazz musicians. Not that there’s some sort of jazziness to my style of writing. I write in a fairly clear, straightforward way, but I had to arrive there through years of work. I do strive for a kind of intentionally canted quality to my work, like you might feel when you listen to Thelonious Monk. If I could write the way Monk plays, I would be happy. For me, it’s that detail or moment in a story that makes everything unsettled, slightly crooked. The note that feels wrong, but is actually right.

HM: Why is it important for writers to take influence from other mediums, such as music or film? Are there particular insights to writing that you feel you’ve gained by taking in alternative mediums?

MZ: I think it’s important to look to other mediums. I learn about writing from music and films, but other places as well. The way a good comedian crafts a joke is extremely interesting to me. I’ll listen to comedy podcasts and hear the way comedians talk about writing comedy and how just altering a word or two can change everything about how a joke goes over. The power of silence, the well-placed glance, the tag at the end. Sometimes it’s about knowing when to stop and when to let the audience fill in what happens next.

HM: Your last novel, The Leisure Seeker, was recently made into a film. What was that like, both the process of how the book became a film and the experience of seeing your work play out on the big screen?

MZ: The best word I can come up with for the experience is surreal. It was something I never expected to have happen. I was amazed when it became a book, so for it to end up as a film, was simply beyond the ken. It’s always been so difficult to just get a book published, so to even expect anything like that to happen was just plain surreal.

As for the film itself, I don’t think it’s surprising when an author wishes that some things hadn’t been changed or added. For instance, in the film, the characters of John and Ella are from the Boston area. I really wish they had remained from Detroit because the Midwest is terribly underrepresented in films. In American films, it seems like most characters are either from New York/Boston or Los Angeles, instead of the so-called “flyover” states.

And when I first read the script, I seriously wondered why there was political content in the film. I think they took a story that could have felt timeless and universal and made it strangely specific by placing it in the middle of the most contentious election in American history. It seemed completely unnecessary. The critics agreed.

That said, the film looked beautiful and I enjoyed the tone of it. Many critics felt that the film couldn’t make up its mind whether it wanted to be a comedy or a drama, but what was interesting was that no one ever said that about the book. People liked that the book had humor in it. Of course, the performances from Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland were wonderful. Best of all, since it was an Italian production, I don’t think that it ever occurred to the director or the writers or producers to change the ending, which some people found controversial or at least quietly shocking. If an American studio had made a film of The Leisure Seeker, that probably would have been the first thing they discussed: what to do about the ending?

All in all, it was thrilling to see it on screen and best of all, there were twenty new translations of the book, so my work was exposed to many new readers all over the world. Hard to beat that.

HM: What’s next for you?

MZ: I just sent my new novel to my agent for him to read. So it’s that nervous period of waiting to see what he thinks. There were nine years between my first and second novel, then another nine years between my second and third, so I’m trying very hard not to let that happen again. We’ll see.

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Michael Zadoorian is the author of three novels, Beautiful Music (Akashic Books), The Leisure Seeker (William Morrow) and Second Hand (W.W. Norton), and a story collection, The Lost Tiki Palaces of Detroit (Wayne State University Press). A motion picture of The Leisure Seeker starring Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland was released in 2018.

Zadoorian is a recipient of a Kresge Artist Fellowship in the Literary Arts, the Columbia University Anahid Literary Award, the Michigan Notable Book award, and the Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award. His work has appeared in The Literary Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, American Short Fiction, Witness, Great Lakes Review, North American Review and the anthologies Bob Seger’s House, On The Clock, and Detroit Noir. He has worked as a copywriter, journalist, voice over talent, shipping room clerk, and a plant guard for Chrysler. A lifetime resident of the Detroit area, he lives with his wife in a 1937 bungalow filled with cats and objects that used to be in the houses of other people.

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Contributor News

Once again, we have some awesome contributor news to share with you all! Check out these recent achievements from our Midwestern Gothic alumni!

Katie Kalisz (Midwestern Gothic Issue 18) has a book, Quiet Woman, forthcoming from Main Street Rag Publishing Company in January 2019. You can find more information and pre-order for a discount here.

Caves of the Rust Belt book cover by Joe KapitanJoe Kapitan (Midwestern Gothic Issue 4 and Issue 9) has a collection of Ohio-based short stories, Caves of the Rust Belt, that will be published by Chicago-based Tortoise Books this October.

Sara Ryan‘s (Midwestern Gothic Summer 2018) hybrid chapbook, Never Leave the Foot of an Animal Unskinned, was just released by Porkbelly Press. In addition, she won the Grist Journal‘s Pro Forma contest.

Aurore Sibley (Midwestern Gothic Summer 2018) had a poem called “All These Little Remonstrations” that placed in The Shadow Award addition of The Molotov Cocktail Literary journal. You can read it here.

Jason Zeitler‘s (Midwestern Gothic Winter 2018) novella Like Flesh to the Scalpel will be published through Running Wild Press as part of an anthology. You can find it on Amazon and Powell’s starting in November 2018.

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Contributor Spotlight: Sanda Coleman

Sanda Moore Coleman author headshotSanda Coleman’s piece “Two Miles Northwest of Lebanon (KS)” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Summer 2018 issue, out now.

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

I was born and raised in Kansas, and spent most of my youth dreaming of leaving it. It wasn’t until I’d actually lived in other places that I understood that geography gets into your bones, into your DNA. I’ve lived in a village in Pennsylvania, in the suburbs of the city of Boston, and on an island off the coast of Massachusetts, and while I loved all those places, I came back to Kansas with my husband to raise our daughter. The bravest, most independent artists and people I know live in the Midwest. I want to write about all of them.

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

Absolutely the sky, or the big blue bowl, as I like to think of it. It’s the sense of space, of being able to breathe deeply, of the Rothkovian horizon line that separates the expanse of blue and the long stretch of golden fields. And when full moonlight touches those same fields, it is such a powerful, primal sensation, to be under that light, out in it, part of it.

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?

Every place I’ve ever lived or traveled has been part of my work. I am interested in how words describe images; for me, images are the story, and it is my work to use words to translate those images.

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

I write early in the morning, when the house is quiet. I like to write in silence, just birds and pets and the various house noises—and me, sometimes saying the words aloud, to make sure I like the music. Usually, I get an idea about something that interests me, for whatever reason. I let it stew awhile in the primordial soup of my creative brain, and after a bit, I try to see what there might be to say about it. If it catches fire within me, that’s the project I’m working on. Writer’s block can go two ways—it might just be writer’s reluctance, which is the habit of avoiding writing for no good reason. I find this always goes away if I make myself sit down and write a couple of sentences. If it’s actual writer’s block, I try not to let it make me anxious. Most of the time, after I’ve completed a longer work, I’m hollowed out, drained, and I just have to give myself time to let the well fill up again. I write commentary on theatre for public radio, which has been great for keeping up the habit of writing during times that are less creatively flush.

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

For me, I just come to a place where I know, I know that I’ve told the story that I wanted to tell, whether it’s a poem, a short story, an essay, or whatever. If I get to the place where I thought the piece would be done, but it doesn’t feel like it, I go on. I love ambiguity, and I distrust endings that are too tidy, so one thing I have to be careful of is the tendency to be too subtle, to withhold information. It’s easier for me to know when the first draft is finished than to decide when the revisions are done.

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

For contemporary poetry, I love Lisel Mueller. Her “Why We Tell Stories” is one of the best poems ever written, and “Moonfishing” is a brilliant re-telling of an old folk tale that finds resonance still in the modern world. Also Naomi Shihab Nye, who is probably a genius. I never read anything by her that doesn’t make me say “I wish I’d written this!”

What’s next for you?

I just finished writing a play, which was a fantastic experience. I’ve written comic sketches and adapted fables and folk tales for high school students to perform, but this was the first time since graduate school that I sat down to write a full-length adult story for the stage. I’d like to see it performed in the coming year, or at least in shape to be performed. I have a couple of novels that are waiting to be finished, and I’d like to conquer at least one of them over the summer. Poems arrive on their own time.

Where can we find more information about you?

I suppose I’ll have to make a website. You can find my theatre commentaries at kmuw.org/term/stage and also on iTunes.

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Contributor Spotlight: Scott Dorsch

Scott Dorsch author headshotScott Dorsch’s story “Holes or Tunnels” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Summer 2018 issue, out now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s next for you?

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

Where can we find more information about you?

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

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Summer 2018 issue is here!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shop now for the Summer 2018 issue of Midwestern Gothic.

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

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Interview: Ruth Joffre

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

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

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

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

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

Night Beast book cover by Ruth Joffre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AE: What’s next for you?

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

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

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Contributor Spotlight: Sara Ryan

Sara Ryan author headshotSara Ryan’s piece “13 Horses in Michigan” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Summer 2018 issue, out now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s next for you?

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

Where can we find more information about you?

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

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