Interview: Richard Russo

June 22nd, 2017

Midwestern Gothic staffer Meghan Chou talked with author Richard Russo about Everybody’s Fool, remembering people through characters, broken ankles, and more.

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

Richard Russo: I should probably confess that with the exception of three years when I lived in southern Illinois—which many people seemed to think was the deep South—I don’t have much connection to the Midwest beyond literature (Sherwood Anderson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, or rather his narrator in Gatsby). People sometimes ask if I feel about the Midwest the way the way Jack Griffin’s snobbish parents do in That Old Cape Magic (“the mid-fucking-west,” they call it). No, of course not, but I’m more of a tourist there than an expert

MC: Nobody’s Fool, a now classic text published in 1993, has been adapted into a feature film and received great critical acclaim. Why did you decide, now, to write a sequel?

RR: The main character of Nobody’s Fool, Donald Sullivan, was based on my own father. Because my parents separated when I was young, I didn’t see much of him as a boy. I really got to know him only as an adult. Because he became ill and died relatively young, I never really got my fill of the man. Writing Nobody’s Fool brought him back to life, allowed the two us to continue our father/son conversation. Twenty-three years later, I think I must’ve been lonesome for him, or Everybody’s Fool wouldn’t have been written. I was also lonesome for Paul Newman, who brought Sully so vividly to life in the movie and who had died in between the two books.

MC: In what ways did Nobody’s Fool confine or give you freedom when writing Everybody’s Fool?

RR: I never felt confined in writing the sequel, though I had to reread the book and re-familiarize myself with its details. Obviously you want to preserve the continuity of the two stories as much as possible. What gave me the freedom I needed was shifting the emphasis from Sully to Chief Raymer, who was a bit player in the first novel. Many of the other characters—Ruth, Roy Purdy—had depths I never suspected when I wrote the first novel.

MC: How does the new protagonist, Raymer, compare and contrast to the protagonist in Nobody’s Fool, Sully, and what do these differences and similarities in character reveal about Sully?

RR: In most respects Sully and Raymer are polar opposites. Though he’s made his share of mistakes, Sully made a pact with himself long ago not to indulge in regret. By contrast, Raymer regrets just about everything he’s ever said and done. He is, in that sense, the fool of the title. But Sully’s refusal to regret, to just keep moving, is dangerous too. I suspect most people try to find a middle ground between admitting regret and not being overwhelmed by past mistakes.

MC: Reviewers note that Everybody’s Fool differs most from its predecessor through the way it acknowledges evil, especially through the villainous Roy Purdy. Roy Purdy, connected to Sully through complicated family ties, is released from prison. He was indicted, in Nobody’s Fool, for physically abusing his ex-wife, Janey, and for pursuing her with a gun, which he used to shoot up a house. How did you establish a villain as something more than just a caricature?

RR: Good villains must be understood. The why of their behavior is always important, often more important than the what. Roy beats on women because it satisfies some deep urge. As appalled as we are by his behavior, we don’t really understand it until near the end of the book when he remembers his father taking him to that diner. It’s there that Roy, just a kid, learns that woman—in the form of the waitress who takes his side—is the source of all evil and humiliation for males. He learns his lesson well.

MC: The dynamic between Sully and Rub, his sidekick, provides a great source of humor in the story to combat the hardships the characters face. What power and purpose did you envision humor to play in setting the tone of Everybody’s Fool and in developing relationships between characters?

RR: I grew up among people who used humor combat the realities of hard lives. Air, water, laughter—these things were free and necessary. Power? As Twain put it in “The Mysterious Stranger,” “Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.” We laugh about the things that worry us most—sex, death, our own foolishness in the matter of living.

MC: What’s the most important advice you gave your students while you taught at Southern Illinois University Carbondale?

RR: Many of my students at Carbondale were a lot like me—first generation college students from working class backgrounds and off the beaten track home towns. Which means they had stories to tell but were probably reluctant to tell them. Coaxing those stories out, convincing such students that their stories were as valid as stories about New York or Chicago or L.A. was Job One.

MC: How do you overcome rejections or failures during the writing process?

RR: I’m not sure you ever really do overcome rejection or failure. Sometimes it’s possible to accept them and learn from them. Mostly they’re beside the point. You failed? So what? It happens. In fact, it’s supposed to happen. They didn’t like your story? Okay, write another. Maybe they’ll like that one. You internalize what you know to be true across the entire spectrum of the arts; the more you practice, the better you get. (“I can’t go on; I’ll go on.”)

MC: What’s next for you?

RR: What’s next? Well a couple months ago I managed to break my ankle. At the time I’d been reluctant to begin a new novel because I had a lot of travel coming up that would interrupt it. But then there I was, sitting in front of my computer, trapped in my office, my foot in a cast. Why not write the first chapter? By the time the cast came off two months later, I had 150 pages, a very good beginning. I’m thinking about breaking the other ankle.

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In addition to The Whore’s Child, Richard Russo is the author of nine novels, most recently the best-selling Everybody’s Fool and That Old Cape Magic, and the memoir Elsewhere. In 2002 he received the Pulitzer Prize for Empire Falls. He lives in Portland, Maine.

Contributor Spotlight: Joanne Nelson

Joanne Nelson’s nonfiction piece “If Not for the Mess” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Winter 2017 issue, out now.

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

I was born and raised in Milwaukee, attended college in Eau Claire and Madison (BA, MSSW in Social Work). I currently live in the village of Hartland, which is between Milwaukee and Madison. Although I’m tempted to say that place—meaning the land, and the seasons’ effects on that land—is the biggest influence on my writing, I think that the truth is more about socio- economic status. In my neighborhood, the dads were laborers and the moms were housewives. There were lots of kids and parents stayed together. My parents divorced, my mom needed to work, and my two brothers were much older than me. I was the only kid on the block attending Catholic grade school, not to mention an all-girls high school. Let’s just say I didn’t always fit in. College was a continuation of this in many ways, as I often felt I was trying to catch up with what came easily to others about how to act. I think that juxtaposition of how we fit in and don’t fit in plays out in my writing.

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

What is compelling is how people can be counted on. Neighbors and neighborhoods are important. I think about this when I think of home. I can count on my neighbor to take care of whatever is necessary if I’m out of town. I can ask people I barely know on my block for help and it will be provided. Send one guy out to the yard with a chainsaw and soon a group will gather. Start shoveling your snow and someone with a snow blower is likely to come over and help. Get stuck in a drift and several people will soon be helping push. I guess a summary statement would be that we notice each other and what is going on around us. Perhaps this happens in many places, but I think that the change of seasons in the Midwest gives people an immediate discussion topic, and immediate reason to connect with each other.

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?

Hopefully place ends up being as much a character as anything or anybody else in my writing. Any particular story/memory that I’m telling ultimately couldn’t have happened in any other setting. Currently I’m working on a project that focuses on “up north,” the Door County area specifically. It’s about the ways we try to claim locations—in this case, places only borrowed and make them our own. That said, my writing usually starts with an action—someone does or says something that I can’t stop thinking about, that reminds me of something in the past.

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

Mornings work best for me. It seems like my head gets to full of the rest of life and I can’t sink into the writing if I try to start later in the day. Meditating as soon as I get up and right before I start to write has been the most valuable addition to my writing process in the last few years. I like to write in my basement office, a quiet, plain place. When possible I also like to get away for a few days to a small retreat center, The Bridge-Between in Denmark, WI, just north of my house and concentrate on writing for a few days. So far, writer’s block hasn’t been a problem, but time constraints certainly have. Well, getting in the way of myself by, for example, going on social media certainly also gets in the way. I did, during my MFA thesis semester finally beat my online solitaire addiction. It wasn’t easy.

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

Usually I have that, “Yes!” experience when I think I’ve found a last line that wraps things up (or doesn’t wrap things up if that’s what I’m going for). However, so much happens on the way to that. At some point in the drafting process I’ll ask a few trusted buddies to read my work and send comments. Off and on I’ve participated in round tables through Red Oak Writing, so I add that ongoing feedback to the drafting process also. My final steps involve fixing at least half of the fragments readers have commented on (I do love fragments!), reading my work out loud to see where I stumble, and using the find function to look for words I tend to repeat way too much.

It seems to me, that a piece can be finished in theory only. I don’t think I’ve ever reread my own work without changing something.

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

Oh boy, no way can I name just one—this list changes too frequently!

Favorites include Anne LaMott—especially her early work. I still recommend Bird by Bird to students, and they love it. I’ve learned a lot from Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s essays—she’s so funny—and return to those also. Other writers that I reread include Patricia Hampl, Abigail Thomas, and Brenda Miller (most currently The Pen and The Bell as I develop my own Mindfulness and Writing classes). When the new The Best American Essays anthology comes out each year, my favorite becomes each of the authors featured. Favorite essay of all time: “The Fourth State of Matter,” by Jo Ann Beard. Every time I read it I’m completely immersed in the narrative and learn something new about the creative process. I read Lee Martin’s blog posts nearly weekly, he’s a wonderful, down-to-earth teacher.

I like the work of essayists who are compelling, who take your breath away, and yet, who sneak in some drop dead funny lines in the most serious of situations.

What’s next for you?

I’m currently working on a creative nonfiction project about what moors us, what holds us to the base of who we are. I want to explore how specific places, how rituals—even the same conversation over and over—keeps us connected. I want to explore what I mean by the word connected in that last sentence! Although I’ve been at this for over a year and have a good number of pages, you can probably tell I still have more questions than completed narrative. I’m still intrigued by the project and enjoy working on it, so I’ll keep moving forward and see what happens.

In addition, I’m offering workshops and classes (online and in my community) on mindfulness and writing. I love the intersection of a mindfulness practice and the writing process. So much creativity is awakened at that juncture!

Where can we find more information about you?

I now have a website that lists several of the programs I run: wakeupthewriterwithin.com. Besides Midwestern Gothic, my work can also be found in Redivider, Consequence, Brevity, The Notebook, and at WUWM (wuwm.com/programs/lake-effect).

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Midwest in Photos: Union Station (abandoned), Gary Indiana, 2012

“The strangeness of Time. Not in its passing, which can seem infinite, like a tunnel whose end you can’t see, whose beginning you’ve forgotten, but in the sudden realization that something finite, has passed, and is irretrievable.” – Joyce Carol Oates, Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang.

Photo by: George Stein

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Interview: Bill Beverly

Midwestern Gothic staffer Audrey Meyers talked with author Bill Beverly about his novel Dodgers, the inescapability of weather, dreaming of L.A., and more.

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

Bill Beverly: Born and bred in Kalamazoo out of Illinois and Michigan parents. Grew up listening to Tom Hemingway calling Michigan football games. College in Ohio, couple years in Minnesota and Wisconsin and Iowa. Likes pie and animals and driving a car.

AM: How has the Midwest influenced your writing?

BB: Childhood shapes everyone’s writing, and mine was a Midwestern childhood. The weather and the light, the towns and the orchards, the big lake – the Midwest has its luxuries. The long evenings at the western end of the Eastern time zone.

AM: What about your move from Michigan to Florida sticks with you most? How did you adjust and what (besides weather) were the biggest differences between the two places?

BB: Well, there is no besides weather. There is no way we can disregard weather’s difference. Despite every effort to cement-mixer us together into one grand undifferentiated CNN-loving mass, the difference weather makes is intractable. It refuses to stay within parentheses. Minnesotans are never happier than when their bloody-hearted winter bravery is in high season. Shoveling out their cars brings them close to God. And the subtropical is an entirely different mode, even though you can follow I-75 all the way down from Detroit and never even have to take out a map. In the subtropics, the seasons are flattened out. It changes but not much. This affects everything, from architecture to the way you eat to your relationship with the bugs and the grass and the sky.

Florida is a strange case. It is lumped with the South, for cartographically obvious reasons. And north Florida is really South Georgia or east Alabama. But much of Florida is still being overrun by settlers, constantly. So tropically fecund is the land and water and even the air that the notions of frontier and of wilderness are never entirely obsolete there. Nature will grow on anything there. It will grow in your shirt if you leave it outside all weekend. If everybody just let Florida alone for about twenty years, there would be dinosaurs again.

AM: Since you grew up in the Midwest, what drew your interest to criminals in L.A.?

BB: Oh, the movies. In the movies, everyone in L.A. is a criminal.

AM: What inspired you to write about L.A. gangs in your latest novel Dodgers?

BB: It does have a gang in it. But Dodgers isn’t really a gang novel. The novel follows one character, a 15-year-old kid named East. He is part of a gang, but the gang is circumstantial to his story. The story is about him.

I don’t mean these last two replies to be flip. I loved L.A. from the time I got a first-grader’s idea of it. Who wouldn’t. It even sounds cool – Los Angeles. I grew up on Chinatown and Nathanael West and The Last Days of the Late, Great State of California and Blade Runner. Some kids dream of New York or Paris or Dallas, Texas. I dreamed of L.A.

AM: What kind of research was required in order to write Dodgers? How do you intertwine facts and fiction?

BB: As a graduate student at the University of Florida, I wrote a book called On the Lam. It’s about fugitive stories and how we tell them. Part of its research involved reading dozens and dozens of fugitive slave narratives. Some are bare-bones; some are highly detailed. And the similar stories they tell form, over time, like weight on wood, an impression. A consensus.

Those stories confirmed again and again that the landscape was dangerous. Everyday life was dangerous, but the land – which white Americans look at as a sort of birthright, a traveler’s medium – was a space where black Americans were visible, vulnerable. The landscape and the laws and the local manners were all mechanisms for controlling them.

A story that evokes the contemporary remnants of that paranoia is Richard Price’s Clockers, right at the end, where Strike leaves New Jersey into an America that is – what? The book ends before we find out. And that mystery is one of the germs of Dodgers.

AM: Do you consider yourself a narrative journalist? If not, how do you define yourself as a writer?

BB: No. I don’t consider myself a journalist in any way. I was trained, not altogether successfully, as a journalist, but I did not have the discipline of attention that a young journalist needs. I would cover a meeting and miss the point. I was too interested in various and sundry peripheral details. I was not long for that world.

There’s something nice about this sort of failure. Things are always surprising me, long after everyone else has already taken cover.

It’s early to define myself as a writer. Ask me when I’m dead.

AM: Since you’ve written other stories about criminals, what is distinctive about Dodgers?

BB: Dodgers is lucky to find an intersection between a number of American stories – it is a road story, a lam story, a story about family and about coming of age. I didn’t plan that intersection, but I am fortunate to have found it.

AM: What do you hope Dodgers accomplishes as a novel?

BB: I was taught to believe in my characters and give them moments of intelligence, courage, and grace. This is something a young writer is taught, but it’s also a spiritual task – to watch others with empathy, with compassion, with hope.

AM: Do you hope Dodgers will have an impact on the current controversies between African-American men and police officers?

BB: No. I think a novel is at best a very indirect way to make such an impact. Of course one would like to see this violence ease. But I don’t think fiction accomplishes this. I think building respect and community is far more direct.

AM: I think your choice to bring criminals from a west-coast city to Wisconsin is fascinating and thought-provoking. What writing techniques did you implement when personifying the characters that endure this cross-country journey?

BB: Brevity. Dialogue. Having one character through whom the narrator can see and speak, and letting that character be sharply observant.

AM: Since Dodgers is a piece of fiction about plausible circumstances, how do you make the unreal, real? How do you convince your readers to believe in your narrative?

BB: In any fiction, you have to build from a first brick. That first brick is a perception that is both surprising and obviously right.

AM: In the future, do you think you’ll continue writing within the crime novel genre? What’s next for you?

BB: Yes. But most novels are crime novels, aren’t they?

I don’t work fast. I have a day job and it’s a busy one. There are a couple of pots on the burners, and we’ll see which one steams first.

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Bill Beverly grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and studied writing at Oberlin College and the University of Florida. He is the author of On The Lam: Narrative of Flight in J. Edgar Hoover’s America and the novel Dodgers, winner of the 2016 Crime Writers Association Golden Dagger and John Creasey Dagger awards. He lives in Hyattsville, Maryland.

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Contributor Spotlight: Anita Koester

Anita Koester’s piece “Preserved Embryos” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Winter 2017 issue, out now.

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

I was born and raised in Chicago so I’m a city girl through and though. The grit and hardness of our sprawling metropolis definitely enters and alters my work, though since I became a writer, I’ve been fortunate to travel to residencies in Nebraska and Michigan and my time there connected me to the countryside. A month nestled in the flat cornfields of Nebraska in the middle of nowhere will tug the city out of you. There I felt my exoskeleton dissolving until I could simply experience the silent beauty of a starlit night or whittle away days writing in a dilapidated barn.

I suppose my view of the countryside is entirely romantic while I turn a more critical and emotional eye on Chicago which for me is forever entangled and woven with my family history. Chicago is where my immigrant grandparents settled in early adulthood and worked hard to build a better life and a better city. My mother continued this tradition, but my father was corrupted by organized crime and perhaps by the way Chicago mythologized its criminals, he lived a secret life as a thief and bank robber until he was imprisoned. Those choices he made affected my life profoundly and I’m still trying to unpack all that hurt and loss through my writing.

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

For me, it’s the people, Midwesterners don’t care about how the outside world perceives them, our facades, when or if we build them, are half-hearted at best. Designer labels and the moneyed classes are not celebrated here, we’re more like people in a Frank Capra film, and I like that, it keeps me humble. It keeps me real. There is a healthy lack of pretension in the Midwest. There is also a lot of empathy here, I think Midwestern people in general are family oriented; they want to be there for the people they love. I don’t want to say that the dreaming here is smaller, because in America smaller is not always recognized as better, but Midwestern dreaming tends to have a limited radius.

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?

Well, it’s always the places I can no longer visit that I’m drawn to, like my grandparent’s home in Andersonville. I’ve been working on some poems about that house and how since it was torn down to make way for a new condo building it only exists in memories as this ghostly structure that once stood but no longer stands. I suppose in some ways that ends up representing my grandparents, and perhaps even their values, some of which are outdated.

I’ve come to realize many of my favorite poems involve houses, Neruda has this gorgeous poem where he describes a destroyed dining room where nevertheless roses are still delivered, indicating that someone still believes there is love or someone to love there. I tend to feel like my poems about places are like that, like a late delivery of roses. I think what people don’t always see in poems are that even when the poet displays hurt and anger there is a kind of devotion indicated by their act of writing that poem.

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

I have yet to write in my ideal environment, though some have come close. I wrote “Preserved Embryos” in an old Michigan farmhouse that butted up against a nature preserve. I knew I wanted to write about something I saw recently at a museum that had touched me, unsettled me, as well as stirred up my anxieties and there was this petite bedroom teeming with another writer’s books, it was this quiet sanctuary, a place in which you could feel a writer’s spirit, and in that room the poem came gushing out. It became my writing room for the rest of the residency. Now, if that window had overlooked a lake that would have been my ideal environment, the mysteriousness of water and aquatic life is always such a fitting metaphor for writing.

As far as writer’s block, I’ve been lucky so far, I think because I spent 10 years not being a writer even though it was this secret desire of mine, that since I started writing, I haven’t been able to stop. But if it does dry up, if I were to use up even the smallest nuggets of memory, then I’d better get living, or reading, reading usually works for me. I read for an hour and I’m anxious to write.

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

I’m the wrong poet to ask, I’m wrong about this too often. A poem for me is rarely done until it’s published in a book, and I’ll work on them right up until the galleys are done. I submit work I think is finished, but then a month later I see the flaws and I completely rewrite it. Though occasionally, there are these “ah, ha poems” that are usually written in one sitting and when I finish them I feel the urge to celebrate, and those are the rare poems I never rewrite. Those are also usually my personal favorites, not because I didn’t have to spend days, weeks, or months on them but because I knew they felt right, felt unalterable. Otherwise, I tinker and reorder and rewrite endlessly.

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

I have a lengthy list of favorite writers, so each year I focus in on the one or two who seem to be influencing my work the most. This year I felt pulled to both Larry Levis and Sharon Olds. Sharon Olds in part because I had the pleasure of workshopping with her, and when you have a chance to spend time with a poet you idolize, their work becomes more accessible. When I went back to visit her work I could actually hear her soft yet commanding voice as I read, I could hear that four beat rhythm and the way she pauses and says “hmm” just before she says something brilliant. I admire her ability to stay close to a single moment in all its exacting detail and yet retain the awareness of how her scene fits into larger thematics. I can only hope to one day be capable of that kind of nuanced recording of life.

And Larry Levis’ work, especially in Elegy, gives me a kind of permission to allow more organized chaos into my work, let lines and images unravel, to be abstract or prosaic and then come back to the narrative or musical thread. There is this expansive quality to his elegies that makes each poem feel epic, symphonic really, and no matter how many times I read them they continue to excite me.

What’s next for you?

Well, I have two chapbooks coming out in the first half of 2017, Arrow Songs will be coming out with Paper Nautilus in the next few months, and Apples or Pomegranates will be out in the spring with Porkbelly Press. In the meantime, I will continue to write and sculpt my full-length manuscript and I hope that when I’m finally satisfied it will find the right publisher. I’ve felt so fortunate to work with such supportive chapbook presses, I can only hope that my full-length will find an equally loving home.

Where can we find more information about you?

I’m fairly good at updating my website – anitaoliviakoester.com! Thanks for asking!

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Announcing our Summer 2017 Flash Fiction Contest!

Midwestern Gothic Flash Fiction Contest Series 2017During the summer of 2015 we introduced our Flash Fiction contest series, and we’re thrilled to be continuing it this year! (And you can read all of our winners from 2015 and 2016 here.)

What is it? This is a collaboration between photography and writing. We’ll supply a compelling image from our photography archive, and invite writers to respond by writing short fiction inspired by the photo of up to 500 words. Each image will stay up for about one week and the top two entries (winner and runner-up) we feel best represent the photo in question will be published on the Midwestern Gothic website.

We will be doing this throughout the summer—which nets out to three rounds of images (three submission periods). Round 1 starts on Monday 7/3, when the first prompt will be posted via blog and social media. The due date for the first round will be Saturday 7/8 (before midnight EST).

A full list of guidelines, as well the contest schedule, can be found here (the main contest page). Winners will be posted (and linked to) on this page as well.

We hope you’ll think about submitting, and we look forward to reading your work!

 

Audible logoOur 2017 Flash Fiction Contest is sponsored by Audible. Get a free 30-day trial and 2 books, on us when you sign up. Start your free trial

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Midwest in Photos: A Traveler’s First Impression of Wisconsin Cold

“We are not separate, and I want you to know that. We are all part of one thing, and nothing good has ever passed or ever can pass away. There is no way out, but there is a way in, and when one person feels lonely like a ghost it touches us all.” – David Rhodes, Driftless.

Photo by: Gail Jeidy

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Interview: Sjohnna McCray

Midwestern Gothic staffer Megan Valley talked with poet Sjohnna McCray about his collection Rapture, dreaming of being a dance DJ, being raised by a Vietnam vet, and more.

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

Sjohnna McCray: I’m originally from Cincinnati, Ohio. It’s not a big city and it’s not a small town. I grew up in different working class neighborhoods: Colerain Township, Evanston, Pleasant Ridge, and Walnut Hills. I remember things like pawn shops, chicken joints, Oktoberfest, bootleg cabs, The Cincinnati Kool Jazz Festival, and local chili parlors. Cincinnati was diverse enough that when I went to college in Appalachia (Ohio University in Athens, Ohio) that I felt “urban.”

MV: Your debut poetry collection, Rapture, was selected by Tracy K. Smith as the winner of the Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets. What part of the collection are you most proud of?

SM: I’m certainly not the first, but I like the work being done in the latter half of the book. It tries to portray some intimate and middle-age aspects of being gay. More interior and less physical. Although, there is a poem dedicated to glory holes comparing a man climaxing to Athena springing from Zeus’ head. So, there’s that…

MV: What authors have been the most influential to your own writing?

SM: There are so many! It changes from week to week. I think of the poets that were given to me by professors when I was an undergrad. I would cling to these poets and carry them in my bag or check out all of their books from the library. I’ll just name a few: James Wright, Robert Kinsley, Sharon Olds, Robert Hass, and Louise Gluck. I loved how cerebrally easy Lucille Clifton’s poem read but how each word and line break was doing maximum work. One could probably say my entire early writing life was influenced by Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays”. Also, the poet Tom Andrews introduced me to Rita Dove. I remember going to the Little Professor Bookstore and standing in the aisles and reading “Grace Notes”. I probably couldn’t afford it so I would come back every other day to read little bits of it.

MV: In Rapture, you explore your father’s experiences in Vietnam. How does that backdrop work with how you bluntly present human bodies in all their imperfection?

SM: Blunt is a good word. What I know of war is filtered through my father’s experience — through his body. He would probably say, “John, it was so f—ked up over there.” And yet, he met my mother and probably had the best sex of his life. There were so many physical and internal conflicts. He was drafted and served his country but when he came home Vietnam Vets were not considered heroes. He told me of instances where soldiers were spit on. The war changed the way he related to the world. Also, he was black and there were still civil rights battles. I suppose being raised by such a damaged person made me see things in a more lyrical way. It’s like being raised by a tragedian.

MV: What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer?

SM: I actually love teaching and creating safe spaces for dialogue. It’s a skill to create an atmosphere where students feel comfortable enough to share their thoughts and opinions. Listening to students, I think, keeps me young. I love when they begin to discover ideas for themselves. The “ah-hah” moments in class are golden.

However, in my secret heart, I’d love to be a globetrotting, electronica, dance DJ. The kind who spins records with no shirt on, a big gold chain, a Kangol hat, and Adidas track pants! I’m working on my Brawny paper towel, hipster, lumberjack beard.

MV: While your poems stand on their own, the way they’re presented in Rapture follows a chronological narrative. Was that always the intention when you began working on the collection?

SM: No. The book took several different shapes before it settled into a more chronological narrative. I was shortsighted and wanted to be dramatically lyrical and arrange the book like a mix tape moving from one poem to another based on mood. Finally, I had a moment of clarity and my revision brain told me what to do.

MV: In your essay “The Marble Queens,” you recount your time as an undergraduate when your professor, Henri Cole, said your poem seemed to be the work of a “flowery, pretentious decorator.” Now, with a highly regarded collection under your belt, how do you hope your readers characterize you?

SM: Recently, I was talking to a friend of mine. I told her, I felt like we were living in a highly charged political time and writers were doing some serious work and heavy lifting. I didn’t feel like one of these poets. My poetry is kind of like meatloaf or comfort food. I hope my readers feel the way I have always felt reading poetry; it’s comforting to know another human being is out there being empathetic to the world. Documenting existence. Being thoughtful.

MV: What’s next for you?

SM: I’m finding that tackling a second book of poems may be more challenging than the first volume. I have a book of memoir-like essays that I need to finish. It talks about growing up with a severely schizophrenic mother and being closeted and gay in the Midwest.

**

Sjohnna McCray was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio. He was educated at Ohio University and received his MFA from the University of Virginia where he was a Hoyns Fellow. He has a master’s degree in English Education from Teachers College, Columbia University. McCray was the winner of the 2015 Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets. He lives and teaches in Savannah, Georgia.

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Midwestern Gothic at Printers Row Lit Fest 2017

chi-printers-row-lit-fest-2013-20130520Once again, Midwestern Gothic will be at this year’s Printer’s Row Lit Fest in Chicago (Saturday-Sunday June 10-11).

We’ll be setting up shop in the Book Fort, Tent M, so if you’re in the area, please stop by—we’ll have back issues of the journal at a reduced cost, deals on subscriptions, and more!

This is a fantastic event that celebrates small presses and journals all over the country and is definitely worth checking out. For those who don’t know, “the Printers Row Lit Fest…is considered the largest free outdoor literary event in the Midwest-drawing more than 125,000 book lovers to the two-day showcase.” So don’t miss out on this incredible event!

For other information (including directions), check out the Printer’s Row website.

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Keith Lesmeister Interviewed by Michigan Quarterly Review

Keith Lesmeister Author PhotoMake sure to check out another interview with Keith Lesmeister, now up on Michigan Quarterly Review‘s blog site! Keith discusses We Could’ve Been Happy Here, emotional connections in literary fiction, sharing pain with characters and more. WE COULD'VE BEEN HAPPY HERE by Keith Lesmeister book cover

Here’s a quick excerpt from the interview:

“Getting to know a character is much like getting to know a co-worker or friend… I spent a lot of time talking to my characters, asking them questions, figuring out their wants, desires, insecurities, vulnerabilities, fears, loves, and once we shared our secrets with each other, I could hear them talking to me.” – Keith Lesmeister on finding a character’s voice

Read the full interview here.

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