Flash Fiction Round 1 Winner: “Uncle Soot” by Joshua Jones

August 13th, 2018

Midwestern Gothic Summer Flash Fiction Series 2018

During the summer of 2018 we continued our annual Flash Fiction Contest series, inviting authors to respond to three different picture prompts. You can read more about the series here. Round 1 submissions responded to our photo prompt with the following criteria: here.

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Round 1 winner: “Uncle Soot” by Joshua Jones

He lives at the edge of the development, on the other side of the creek. You can see his property between a gap in the trees. Overgrown weeds and thistles, and everywhere spiky metal forms: discarded lawnmowers; a rusting tractor; curved blades of iron or steel, like a row of scythes. They say he used one on Davey Jenkins the night he disappeared. Dressed up like the Grim Reaper. This is whispered in the slatted spaces of my treehouse, the one spot high enough to spy into Uncle Soot’s yard. We can just make out the burned husk of his house in the dusky twilight.

Davey’s bike was found half in the creek, they say, its frame a mangled wreck.

Uncle Soot would fix Davey’s bike, not ruin it, I tell them.

They stare at me, rabbit-eyed, and I show them the things I’d found at the edge of the creek, each a secret offering. The clockwork rabbit that hops when you wind it; the wolf that stalks it, its jaws made from an ancient grass whip; the brass-beaked crow that talks, its black eyes watching us appraisingly.

Uncle Soot made them, I say. Uncle Soot can fix anything.

The crow croaks, and they scramble down the ladder, tell my parents they want to go home, that they’re afraid of Uncle Soot. My parents shoot me a look and send me to my room and yell, No more ghost stories. I open my window and listen to the creek murmur and the flapping of mechanical wings.

You believe in ghosts? Uncle Soot asks. He’s sitting at the edge of his yard, filing a long strip of metal that glints even in the clouded day. His hands are blackened, covered in grease, but they never slip.

I’m in the creek, my bare-feet aching from its iciness.

It’s funny; people think you can’t see ghosts, Uncle Soot continues, that they’re invisible. He holds the metal strip up to his eye, tilting it this way and that in the light. He smiles a sooty grin, says, You’ll catch cold in the water. Come up here where it’s warm.

This is the week after they found Davey shivering beneath the bridge, his face and arms covered in black muck, like he’d been dipped in motor oil. He wouldn’t talk about it after school, not even after we sniffed him and smelled the reek of iron and rust. He rode a new bike, crimson-streaked with copper handlebars. He wouldn’t tell us where he got it, wouldn’t talk about the jagged scars sewn along his arms and legs.

Uncle Soot curls the metal strip about a rod. Curls it tighter and tighter until it’s the size of my fist. I take a step closer until I’m only an arms-length away. I ask what it’s for.

Not what, but who, he says, and the metal heart pulses in his hand, ready to come alive.

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Joshua Jones lives in Maryland where he works as an animator. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in CRAFT, The Cincinnati Review, Pidgeonholes, Split Lip Magazine, Monkeybicycle, SmokeLong Quarterly, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter @jnjoneswriter.

Kali VanBaale Interviewed at Bull and Michigan Quarterly Review

We have some great news to share with you all: Kali VanBaale has not one, but TWO new interviews about her book, The Space Between. Kali talked with Bull and the Michigan Quarterly Review about The Space Between, recently digitally re-released by MG Press.

First, Kali talked with the Michigan Quarterly Review about ‘book quilting,’ asking hard questions, and more:

“I think most literary fiction attempts to not only tell a story, but to also reflect certain aspects of society back at its readers.”Read Cameron Finch’s full interview with Kali VanBaale for the Michigan Quarterly Review.

Next, Kali discusses revisiting a story a decade later, her work to improve mental health treatment, writing about dark spaces, and more with Bull:

“It’s a quiet book. It’s often dark but never gratuitous. It’s a book that’s brutally honest…I think this is part of what I find most necessary about The Space Between: it’s never easy. It’s never trying too hard. It’s never trying to exploit tragedy or violence to sell a book. It’s not trying to fan flames of outrage or score political points. It’s not trying to glorify, vilify, or absolve.”Read Benjamin Drevlow’s interview with Kali VanBaale for Bull.

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If you still haven’t had a chance to get your copy of The Space Between in eBook format, buy it here.

You can also pick up a copy of Kali’s first book from MG Press, The Good Divide, which she briefly talks about in her interview with Bull.

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Interview: Amy Reichert

Amy Reichert author headshotMidwestern Gothic staffer Henry Milek talked with author Amy Reichert about her book The Optimist’s Guide to Letting Go, mother-daughter relationships, optimism, & more.

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

Amy Reichert: I’ve lived in Wisconsin my entire life. I couldn’t be more Midwestern if cheese and butter flowed through my veins. Actually, I think they might.

HM: To what extent do you feel that your Midwestern identity is reflected in your work? Is there a distinct perspective or style that is only captured from a Midwestern lens?

AR: I intentionally set all my novels in Wisconsin. I believe Midwesterners are special in their politeness, friendliness, and generosity. We are tougher than we look, and live in a place that is rich in beauty and tradition. I’d like to believe that my characters and settings reflect that. My characters do the hard work to solve their problems, keep their friends close, and their family closer. I want people to read my books and want to visit our state. When I wrote my debut novel, The Coincidence of Coconut Cake, one of my goals was to showcase how wonderful the city of Milwaukee is—it’s essentially a love letter to the city. Since then, I’ve expanded the scope to encompass the entire state.

HM: Your new book, The Optimist’s Guide to Letting Go, is your fourth novel. At this point in your writing career, have you developed a strict strategy for long-form writing, or does each new project bring with it new processes?

AR: Every novel is a different experience. With my first, I had as much time as I needed to write, revise, and revise again—which I did well over a dozen times. Since then, I’ve always had deadlines. Sometimes I plan more of the plot before writing, sometimes I write fast and loose, knowing that I’m going to need to rewrite a lot. I’m lucky that through it all, I’ve had a wonderful editor and writer friends who have helped me keep learning how to be a better writer.

The Optimist’s Guide to Letting Go book cover by Amy Reichert (2)

HM: The Optimist’s Guide explores the dynamic between three generations of women. What interested you about these mother-daughter relationships? What complexities did you attempt to capture?

AR: It all started with an article I read several years ago about “Ten Questions to Ask Your Mom.” I loved the idea of this, so The Optimist’s Guide to Letting Go is framed by ten questions—each question is a section with one chapter told by one of the three main characters (a teen, her mom, and grandma). Mother-daughter relationships seem extra fraught. As a daughter, it’s easy to only think of my mom as a “mom,” and not a woman who has had her own dreams and heartbreaks. As a mom, I want my daughter to know that I’m not just the enforcer, cook, maid—but a complicated woman. I make mistakes, I’m always learning and growing. This novel is my attempt to break down those walls and get mothers and daughter talking. I even asked my own mom the questions in the novel, I hope readers are inspired to do the same.

HM: The novel’s protagonist, Gina, owns and works in a food truck. How did your own experience working in the restaurant industry inform your approach to writing her scenes at work? How important is it for writers to have alternative experiences like this to inform their craft?

AR: Most of my restaurant experience came as a server, but I spent a lot of time with line cooks (and even jumped in a few times to help), and owning a food truck is like working the line, just in a smaller space with wheels. A huge component of any restaurant kitchen is organization, and a food truck requires that to the Nth degree. How do you fit everything you need in a small space, make it accessible, but not dangerously cluttered. For Gina, the ultimate list maker, I like to think she enjoyed the process of organizing and planning her truck’s interior.

While it’s nice for writers to have these sorts of experiences to draw from, I think it’s more important for them to do their research. Even if I have personal experience with something, I still do the work—you never know what little piece of information you might uncover that you didn’t know. For example, I learned a lot of about food trucks that never show up in the book—like that you need a certain number of sinks to qualify for certain permits. Rest assured that Grilled G’s meets all the necessary sink requirements.

HM: In the book, Gina struggles to find peace amidst various compounding family troubles. In what ways do you hope that your reader will find Gina’s struggles relatable? How did you accomplish this?

AR: Once of Gina’s biggest struggles is dealing with the loss of her husband. The loss of a spouse is complicated and their is no right way to grieve. Gina deals with it one way, her daughter another, and her mother, who is also a widow, in a whole new way. Grief is personal and different for everyone, and the key is to support that person as they find their way. As a society, we often feel uncomfortable with other people’s grief, filling the silence with (often unhelpful, sometimes insensitive) platitudes. I hope this helps readers find a bit more empathy when confronted with a loved one’s grief.

HM: Part of what makes the characters feel so real is your dialogue. How do you approach writing dialogue? Do you have a strategy or is it more based on impulse?

AR: Thank you! At some point in my process, I always speak my dialogue out loud so it feels more natural. I’m also conscious of cutting out extra words. In real conversations, people rarely speak in complete sentences and usually use contractions, so I try to reflect that. People that know each other well often develop a short hand, and lots of inside jokes. So I try to insert some history that way, too.

HM: As the title suggests, the book explores how someone with an optimistic outlook struggles to find peace in a situation with no ideal solution. Why do you think this is such an important idea to explore today? What do you hope the reader will take away from Gina’s story?

AR: People, particularly women, are pulled in so many directions in our current society. We work full-time, while being expected to volunteer at school if we have kids, or elsewhere if we don’t. We need to take fun vacations that we promptly post about on social media. We need to have clean houses, Instagrammable dinners, interesting hobbies, and be happy while we do it all. And if we do anything wrong, we are judged immediately and publicly. It is too much, and it’s important that people recognize that. Focus should be on what is really important—for my characters (and myself), that is family. I often ask myself what I will regret not doing when I’m on my deathbed. I guarantee it won’t have anything to do with cleaning or Twitter—but it will be about spending time with my loved ones. We can’t control everything in our lives, so we should focus on what matters most and let some of the other things slide. I promise the world won’t end if you work less than 60 hours this week or don’t dust the bookshelves.

HM: What’s next for you?

AR: I’m taking a bit of time to binge read some of my mountainous to-be-read pile and researching my next novel, which is set in the Wisconsin Dells.

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Amy E. Reichert, author of The Coincidence of Coconut Cake; Luck, Love & Lemon Pie; The Simplicity of Cider; and The Optimist’s Guide to Letting Go, loves to write stories that end well with characters you’d invite to dinner. A wife, mom, amateur chef, Fix-It Mistress, a volunteer baby snuggler, and cider enthusiast. She earned her M.A. in English Literature, honed her writing and editing skills as a Technical Writer for many years, and now serves on her library’s board of directors. She’s a proud member of Tall Poppy Writers.

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Summer 2018 issue – cover and contributor listing

Perfect to help cool you off at the beach, or keep you company under the shade of your favorite reading tree, we are so excited to show off the cover for the Summer 2018 issue of Midwestern Gothic!

Midwestern Gothic Summer 2018 Issue cover - full cover
 

The gorgeous cover art is by Chris Bigalke.

And this issue features fiction, poetry, and nonfiction by an unbelievable line-up of writers:

Midwestern Gothic Summer 2018 Issue Cover - contributor list
 

The Summer 2018 issue will be released on Thursday, August 23, 2018—mark your calendars! This 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: Julia Fine

Julia Fine author headshot - pc Nastasia Mora (2)Midwestern Gothic staffer Ariel Everitt talked with author Julia Fine about her book What Should Be Wild, books that inspire her, self-empowerment, & more.

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

Julia Fine: I’ve been in Chicago for over eight years now. Before I moved here, I was living in Iowa—I went to Grinnell College for my undergraduate degree. When I first got to Iowa I thought I’d maybe last a year before moving back East (I grew up outside of Washington, DC) but twelve years later here I am!

AE: Your new novel, What Should Be Wild, focuses on Maisie Cothay, an adolescent with the ability to raise the dead or fall the living by mere touch, and the Blakely women of her ancestry, as they all struggle with mysterious changes. Perhaps the key setting of this novel is a mystical wood beyond known space and time—where the Blakely women reside. You’ve said the novel takes place within a fictionalized England. Can you talk a little bit about why you chose a fictionalized England as the cradle for your story, and what influenced this setting?

JF: I always had a firm sense of setting for the Blakely estate and the village, but for a long time was reluctant to commit to an actual country of origin for Maisie. I worried about portraying a place accurately and doing justice to its traditions and culture, since I knew I was superimposing so much of my own creation. At the same time, I had been reading a lot of William Blake, whose ideas about division of self and the wild feminine were a huge inspiration. His writing is about England, but he gives his England its own Blakeian mythology. This felt like a nice way in—I could further emulate Blake and use the history of a real place and real situations women have been in over the centuries but make it my own. The history I pull from is British history—the Roman invasion of Britain, even the extinction of regional wolves—but the folk traditions and mythology I draw on come from all over Europe.

What Should Be Wild book cover by Julia Fine

AE: How did living in the bustling city of Chicago impact WSBW, which is set (for the most part) in an isolated rural area?

JF: I was lucky to be the Writer in Residence at the Union League Club of Chicago while I was working on this book—I got to work in their gorgeous library, which influenced the library at Urizon. Funny enough, I wrote a lot of the rural and historical stuff (including Alys in 600 AD) while living right downtown and looking out at the city. I did use music and art and, of course, reading to get into the right mindset. It definitely helps that I had art museums and live music and even green space right outside my door.

AE: In What Should Be Wild, Maisie gets most of her knowledge about the world from books—specifically, her father’s extensive library. How important were books to your own development? Which would you say influenced you the most?

JF: I’ve always been an avid reader. Many of my best childhood memories are of bookstores and libraries, and the books I read as a child definitely influenced What Should Be Wild, notably The Secret Garden, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, and, of course, the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales. Angela Carter is a huge influence on me as a writer—I’m inspired by how difficult it is to characterize her work, and how deeply she dives into discomfort. Her fairy tale retellings in The Bloody Chamber are true masterpieces. Shirley Jackson is another inspiration, as is Doris Lessing. Basically, I’m drawn to women writers who challenge their readers and have—to quote Shirley Jackson herself— an “if you don’t like my peaches, don’t shake my tree” attitude about their work. Right now Daisy Johnson, Carmen Maria Machado, Lidia Yuknavitch, Rita Bullwinkel and so many more are writing fiction in this amazing, no-holds-barred female space.

I also read a lot of non-fiction for What Should Be Wild: Marina Warner’s From the Beast to the Blonde, Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees, The Golden Bough by James Frazer, The White Goddess by Robert Graves.

All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren is probably the book I’ve reread the most in my life. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson is a close second, followed, of course, by Harry Potter.

AE: Later in the novel, Maisie’s self-doubt in the face of (spoiler) being held captive perfectly expresses many of the insecurities young women can feel in the face of discrimination in a society that may hold them, too, captive in a similar way. What advice would you give a young woman who might be taught to blame herself for the bad that falls upon her?

JF: Because it’s 2018 and the #MeToo movement is now so visible, some people think that the societal structures that have long made women feel ashamed or responsible are breaking down. But no matter how you were raised or how consciously you consider yourself a feminist, you’re standing in the shadow of thousands of years of sexism and patriarchal control. I think when we know ourselves as liberated but still experience these subconscious feelings of inferiority or personal failing, we have a tendency to think deep down that it must be our fault. We’re faced with this crisis of self-understanding, where we want to be fully empowered but still have this history weighing down on us. Recognizing that these mixed feelings are okay is step one—even changing your own mindset takes time, and if you hate yourself for subscribing to ideas that have been passed down through society for centuries, you get stuck in a different kind of prison. My advice, is to be kind to yourself, read up on feminism and women’s roles throughout history, don’t be afraid to change your mind or reevaluate your previous assumptions, and recognize that everything you’re taught is just someone’s story about of the world. Stories are powerful, but none of them are objectively true. You can always write your own.

AE: You have said that each of the Blakely women stand in for a particular archetype of a woman’s role in traditional fairy tales. Do you have any advice about making whole characters, even when they are symbols? What strategies do you use to bring life to your characters?

JF: My strategy was not to consciously write any of the women as one particular archetype. I read up on the female fairy tale tropes—the witch, the naughty child, the old maid, the siren—but when it came time to write the Blakely women I started with time period rather than character traits. What would a typical woman’s life look like in 1815 or 1400 or 690 AD? What would she want, and what would she be denied? Once I’d done some research and had a sense of these women’s daily lives, I could start to weave in some of the fairy tale tropes. It definitely helped that many fairy tale characters can be read as commentary on situations and stereotypes actual women experienced. For a few of the women (notably Imogen and Emma), I had already written Maisie’s fable versions of their stories. I knew the basic structure of what their arcs would look like, and I got to flesh out these folktales with real historical details and full characters, which was a lot of fun.

Growing up, my first love was theatre, and though I was never a great actress, I did learn a lot from my high school acting class—namely that you can’t understand characters without tackling what specific things they want out of each scene and interaction. I try to be as empathetic as possible, which I hope helps readers find their empathy as well.

AE: Did you aim to reclaim these stereotypes of women’s roles in traditional tales, or to dismantle them?

JF: In a way I was trying to do both. A lot of the stereotypical female roles come from actual women’s lived experiences, and appear in stories that were originally told by women. They got distorted or appropriated by men—the Grimm Brothers, Walt Disney, etc.—but at heart were tools women used to pass down knowledge or make social commentary. What I really wanted was to bring nuance to these traditionally black and white archetypes. I’m interested in the cultural moments that led to the creation of these stereotypes, and how they still manifest today.

AE: You have described the chapters encapsulating the Blakely women as vignettes. What would you say is the power of the vignette in the novel form, and how was this different from writing your other chapters?

JF: In What Should Be Wild, the vignettes gave me a way into some of the themes I couldn’t tackle head on with Maisie. She’s very sheltered and the first person point of view is already limiting—I knew I needed to add in a different POV if I wanted to tell this full story. While writing this book and researching fairy tales I became extremely interested in the way stories shape our worldviews—how we choose which aspects of an event to include or exclude, the ultimate goal of the teller, the impact throwaway details can have on the listener. Maisie hears stories about the women who’ve gone missing in the forest, and I wanted to look at what actual events might have inspired the fables. Vignettes allowed me to jump straight to the moment of greatest drama, and ensured that the pacing of Maisie’s story wouldn’t suffer from too long an interruption.

I love a good vignette in a novel—often they feel like a challenge: you’re shaken out of the comfort of the chronological plot and dropped back in with a different perspective. A vignette can end up superimposing itself over the rest of the book, and when you read through the lens of this quick snippet or image, the novel becomes much more dimensional.

For me, the biggest difference in writing the vignettes versus writing Maisie was chronology—most of Maisie’s story (with the exception of the final scene) I wrote in chronological order, while the forest chapters were written more irregularly. In a way, the Blakely backstories were easier to write because I had the constraint of covering their entire lives in just a few pages—I was forced to be more economical and deliberate.

AE: Your prose is deeply confident. How did you come to develop and trust your writing voice, and what advice might you offer to writers who are feeling uncertain in the way they sound on the page?

JF: I actually think uncertainty is a good sign! I’d say that the best work has an element of vulnerability to it that can make a writer feel insecure no matter how gorgeous the prose sounds. I always tell my students to lean into what scares them about their own writing, and this can turn into a sort of exposure therapy for the fear of your own voice. You’re never going to please everyone, but if you can find what makes you tick, it’s likely that will resonate with someone. Stretching the muscle also helps—an exercise where you try to write the same few lines of your own work as if you were Virginia Woolf, or anyone else with a very distinctive style can help open your eyes to what a sentence can do, and how form and syntax will inform your project.

I’ve also honed my self-editing ability over the years; I tend to overwrite and lean a bit too far into alliteration and rhythm, sometimes to the detriment of everything else. Understanding this about myself has helped me develop a more careful eye. It also helps to have one or two great readers and editors whose opinions you totally trust—I’m at a point now where I can read over a draft and already pinpoint and fix certain elements that I know my editor or agent would jump on immediately.

AE: You have mentioned previously that you abandoned a previous novel to write What Should Be Wild, because you were more interested in and inspired to write it. How does inspiration play into your writing on a daily basis? As a writer, do you think it is important to write even when you are feeling uninspired?

JF: I’m actually not one of those people who writes every day, though I do sometimes feel guilty about that and think maybe I should have more self-discipline. I have a lot of trouble focusing if I’m not inspired or excited about a project, but once I’m in the zone my thoughts are never far from the work. A recent quote I read from Margaret Wise Brown (the author of Goodnight Moon) has helped me feel a bit better about my process: I’m paraphrasing, but she says that there are times of creativity and times of receptivity. It’s alright to spend some time away from the writing because, in some way, there is work being done. I should note, though, that this was in a letter she wrote to a friend complaining about her own inability to get anything down on the page…

AE: What’s next for you?

JF: Right now I’m working on my second novel, which is—surprise surprise—also shaping up to be a genre mash-up about inherited trauma and women’s bodies, with the added bonus of some history of modernist children’s literature. It’s a poltergeist story that takes place immediately following the birth of a couple’s first child, and may end up involving a museum. But it’s early stages yet, so don’t hold me to any of this!

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Julia Fine teaches writing at DePaul University and is a recent graduate of Columbia College Chicago’s MFA program. She is the author of the debut novel What Should Be Wild (Harper, May 2018). She lives in Chicago with her husband and their son. For more on Julia and her work, visit: https://www.julia-fine.com/

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Interview: Matthew Vollmer

Matthew Vollmer author headshotMidwestern Gothic staffer Jo Chang talked with author Matthew Vollmer about his collection Permanent Exhibit, editing being an exercise in curation, writing for an audience in real-time, and more.

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Jo Chang: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Matthew Vollmer: I spent my first quarter as a college freshman attending a Seventh-day Adventist university in Berrien Springs, Michigan. I don’t think the sun came out once when I was there. I’m sure that can’t be true, but I seem to remember that there was some kind of precipitation every day I lived there–fog, mist, drizzle, downpour, sleet, snow, you name it. So, partly because of the weather, and partly because Berrien Springs was perhaps the loneliest and dullest place I’d ever lived–the highlight of the three months I lived there were the few trips out of town I’d taken with friends who had cars, one of which ended at Medusa’s, a Chicago nightclub which featured a statue of the eponymous snake-headed woman crucified to a cross–I transferred to another SDA college in midwestern Massachusetts. Eight years later, in the year 2000, I followed my wife to Lafayette, Indiana, where she began pursuing a PhD in Rhetoric & Composition from Purdue University. We lived in a duplex. Our neighbor was a sweet, toothless woman who smoked Mistys and cleaned houses. Across the street: an Apostolic church and school, and listened to them sing hymns on Sunday mornings. I taught composition, business writing, and public speaking to kids who’d grown up detasseling corn and who listened to bands like Staind and Linkin Park and Staind Puddle of Mudd. One summer, in an attempt to “clear my head,” I joined an entomology field crew and we drove all over Indiana, visiting stainless steel vats that had been inserted into corn fields and filled with antifreeze to attract and kill whatever bugs wandered by. My wife and I visited Chicago every February because my mom traveled with my father there for a dental convention, and suffered wind-burn as we negotiated the icy sidewalks of “Magnificent Mile.” Once our son was old enough to sit in a backpack, I spent hours every day walking–through rain and snow and sun and humidity–the streets of Lafayette, a town that initially I didn’t much like, but then began to find elements I could appreciate, like, for example, the Ben Hur tavern, with its life-size cardboard cutouts of NASCAR drivers and limited drink menu (Bud, Bud Lite, red wine); or the cobblestone streets of Highland Park, whose mansion-sized homes I liked to glance into after sunset; or the grotto behind the Catholic church, with its shelves of flickering or dead candles; or the mannequin heads inside the beauty college; or the bright red of McCord’s Candy shop; or the sushi place whose legendary owner might make you wait for an hour for an entree and ban you forever if you complained; or the Wabash River, whose waters I once paddled in a boat with my fisherman friend Henry, who persisted with his line and pole for over an hour to reel in a catfish the size of a grown man’s torso, and whose body, once it was drawn up to the surface, resembled the flesh of the Swamp Thing.

JC: You have ties to both the South (North Carolina, Virginia) as well as the Midwest (Iowa, Michigan). Have the regional differences ever come into play in your writing, in terms of finding inspiration, navigating new spaces, or anything in between? What do you carry with you from the Midwest?

MV: I think every story I’ve ever written–and every essay–is grounded deeply in place. Having grown up in a relatively isolated part of the country–southwestern North Carolina–and in a cove at the foot of a mountain that stood at the edge of a very small town–1600 people–place has always been very important to me. Back then, as a kid, I wanted nothing more than to leave the valley where I’d grown up. Other places–especially urban places–seemed somehow more “real” to me. Now it seems that the reverse is true: as soon as I step into woods, I feel comforted by the swaying limbs of trees, who seem to be saying: See? This is what it’s all about.

What do I carry with me from the Midwest? Long, straight highways. Storm systems. Tornado sirens. Farmhouses. Barns. Lone trees in soybean fields. Steakhouses with garish wallpaper and tassled lamp shades. Churches. Caramel apple pie. Library book sales. A local weatherman named “Buzz.” Tiny American flags. Immaculate lawns. Basketball hoops. Chain restaurants. Strip malls. Peyton Manning jerseys. Cubs hats. P. T. Cruisers. Wind. Snow. Sunburns. Elephant ears. Corn fields.

JC: Do you feel as if your experience as both an author and an editor has shaped and/or altered your creative process? Do elements of being an editor affect your writing process as an author, or vice versa?

MV: Yes? I mean, I don’t know how much “real” editing I’ve ever done, aside from the work of commenting on manuscripts of friends and students. The two anthologies that I worked on–Fakes and A Book of Uncommon Prayer–didn’t require the kind of line-by-line attention to detail or the eye-in-the-sky POV that I associate with editors like Karen Braziller, who I worked with on my story collection Gateway to Paradise. (Karen made it clear from the very beginning that even though the majority of the stories had appeared in magazines, that we were making a book, and there were extensive revisions that could and should be done, and in some cases, we ended up moving through a dozen or more drafts of individual stories.) Fakes and A Book of Uncommon Prayer were more like exercises in curation; material had to be selected and then arranged–the structure of the resulting manuscript had to “make sense.” Maybe the most apt comparison would be the arranging of a playlist. I suppose there’s some crossover there in terms of what I’m working on now: a longer, book-length narrative which is composed of many fragments. Figuring out what should go where–and how and when to juxtapose or put like kind next to like kind–ends up being a big part of the process.

JC: Your fourth and forthcoming book, Permanent Exhibit, is a short prose collection that was originally published as a series of status updates on a social media platform. The collection includes an array of updates that encompass everything from the playfully random to the serious and morbid, offering a new perspective on a portrayal of a “slice of life.” Where did you gain this inspiration initially, and for the book?

MV: One night, during the summer of 2016–on July 6, to be exact–I wrote a status update that I thought was a kind of anti-status-update. It was basically a mini-collage that represented some of that particular day’s events as well as some random thoughts I’d entertained: how surreal it seemed that, at this late date in history, homes were still being raided for marijuana; that I’d eaten a piece of pizza big enough to wrap around my face; that I’d seen, during a bike ride, a mother deer nursing her fawn in the middle of the road; that I didn’t get all the New Yorker jokes; that a chipmunk lived in my basketball; that Earth was a planet I lived on. I didn’t really think much of what I’d written; I was simply recording whatever images, thoughts and impressions that occurred to me at the time, partly as a response to every other status update I’d read, which had seemed, perhaps due to the outrage that fueled them, to be highly political, and very intentional. I then hit “POST” and went to bed. When I got up the next morning, I noticed that my most recent update had been liked nearly 100 times, which is about 95 more than I was accustomed to receiving. Intoxicated by this outpouring of admiration, and the spirit of renewal that comes with finding a new form in which to inhabit, I tried writing another essay, in a similar style and mode. In a post reacting to this second attempt, a friend and former teacher of mine–the writer Chris Offutt–told me to “keep going with this approach,” and another acquaintance–the writer Peter Cherches–asked if I was going to write a book in this manner. I said I didn’t know; a friend of mine I’d met twenty years before, during the summer I worked as a waiter at the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park, said, “I’m pretty sure you’re stoned and I like it” (I hadn’t been, but whatever.) I liked the attention and liked that I could curate–in a medium that seemed to be reserved, especially of late, for the outraged and the outrageous–a little space for meditation and reflection. So I kept writing a little essay every day, in a similar style, letting myself be led by association, not knowing what I was going to write about or where it would lead me, just making myself do it, and assigning myself to write one every day for ten days straight, which I did. One might think it would get easier as the days went by; it didn’t. Writing every day was one thing, but completing something every day–even if it was only about 1000 words–was another. The number of likes I was getting wasn’t growing, but I still had the sense that people were reading–in fact, people I knew who hadn’t “liked” or commented on the updates would comment on them in person, said they were reading them with interest. It felt sort of like a performance, like I was writing for an audience in real time, even though that wasn’t exactly the case. Still, the anticipation of those dopamine-inducing likes kept me going, and though I didn’t continue to finish an essay every day, I continued posting frequently over the course to the next six months. By the end of the year, I had a manuscript’s worth.

Permanent Exhibit book cover by Matthew VollmerJC: Could you say something about the title of the book, and what it means in relation to its message?

MV: “Permanent Exhibit” is the title of one of the book’s essays. In it, I ruminate about the secret burial mounds of Cherokee Indians that my father told me one of his patients knows about, which leads me to “I don’t know how long you have to be dead before it’s okay for archaeologists to dig you up, but I like to think about in-the-future humans plundering my grave, wouldn’t mind donating my body to science, as long as my skull became a prop on someone’s desk, like the skull that used to sit on the desk of my Uncle Rick-Rick, who used it as a macabre puppet and referred to it as Mr. Bones. Perhaps I could arrange for my skull to be turned into a kind of permanent exhibit; using animatronics, the skull would live in a cube—in a museum? a cemetery? the family graveyard?—where its jaw would move, and speakers would play words that I’d written, and perhaps it would even read what I’m writing right now, and tell the story of the dead snake I saw on Catawba Road, and that I had seen it alive, in the same place, two days before: enrobed in lustrous black scales, and presumably attracted to the heat conducting properties of the asphalt, it had laid on the shoulder in a luxuriant tangle.” In this context, “permanent exhibit” is a literal thing: an exhibit made, after my death, of my bones.

“Permanent Exhibit” also seemed an apt title for the book as a whole, since its content was first displayed on social media. I don’t necessary think of Twitter feeds and Facebook streams as “permanent,” despite the fact that content lives on in archives, mostly because I–like most people, I assume–read one thing and then move on to the next. There’s this sense that anything anybody posts is “of the moment” and–like moments–passes away and/or is forgotten. I liked the idea of titling a book Permanent Exhibit, then, because it was and wasn’t true. We like to think of books as things that are more or less immortal, that “live on” after their authors die, but it’s also true that 99% of books published are completely forgotten. And even those who do achieve “immortality” will have to reckon with whatever ravages humans inflict on this planet, to say nothing of what happens when our sun, whose ever-increasing brightness will someday be enough to evaporate our oceans, scorches the last human out of existence, about one billion years from now.

JC: Since Permanent Exhibit utilizes status updates as an art form, do you feel like social media has influenced your development as a writer, such as acting as either a positive influence or a hindrance in your writing process?

MV: It’s definitely served as an influence. I don’t know if it’s safe to say that it’s a bad influence, even though it certainly has changed the way that I operate as a human (20 years ago I did not pick up a little rectangular piece of glass and chrome and aluminum and silicon and tap and swipe its surface for half an hour. My phone connects me to friends and family and news outlets and games and banks and theaters and investment companies and the weather and sports music and TV shows and movies and a program that can listen to and identify whatever song I’m hearing. That’s pretty cool. But it’s also a huge distraction. I don’t see writers writing about that experience enough. Think about opening Safari on your phone and seeing all the open browser windows. Right now, scrolling through mine I see news about my son’s friend who won the state tennis title, the for sale page for a weird local house I recently visited, an unsubscribe page for Carolina Beach Realty, a photo and description of a shoe in the style of the Air Jordan 2, a LIFE magazine from 1957 wherein a trip to a jungle to eat magic mushrooms is documented; a Facebook status update from a fellow colleague imploring us to vote in Virginia’s primary; a page displaying the lyrics to the hymn “How Great Thou Art”; a video of John Oliver lambasting Sean Hannity for generating the “S**ttiest Conspiracy Theory Ever”; an outdated weather report; a map for a nearby hiking trail; a recipe for “Middle School Tacos”; and a recap for Westworld, Season 2, Episode 7. What a weird conglomeration of things to scroll through! And yet these seemingly disparate subjects represent a history of things I’ve thought about and interacted with. What kinds of things could I write about if I could harness both the content and the actions associated with my life online? That’s sort of what I tried to do with the essays in Permanent Exhibit–and I found that following my associations not only seemed to legitimize my internet surfing, but also freed me from the kind of linearity that the narrativizing of one’s life imposes.

JC: Do you think utilizing social media will become a necessity for upcoming writers who wish to promote their work, as a promotional tool? Does social media compromise the fine line between the art and the artist? What long-term effects do you think this relationship will have, either positive or negative, if any?

MV: I hate that writers are expected to promote their own work via social media. I mean, that may sound weird, given the fact that I am publishing a book whose content first appeared on a social media platform, but sharing one’s writing feels much different than sharing the news about one’s writing. Or about one’s publications. Or awards. Or whatever. Many of my close friends seem to have unplugged altogether and I think this–the idea that you, as a successful user of social media, need to be constantly posting and re-posting and making steady and frequent contributions to whatever feeds you belong to–is the reason that they left. There’s a lot of noise. There’s a lot of outrage. And self-promotion. I usually feel worse after having visited Facebook or Twitter. And I think that was part of the initial impulse with writing the essays that make up Permanent Exhibit. I wanted to somehow use the power of social media for good. I wanted to do something positive, to approach the idea of the status update with earnestness, curiosity, and feeling–so as to make something worthwhile.

JC: What’s next for you?

MV: I’m working on another book, a kind of Permanent Exhibit 2.0 It’s an extended meditation on death, memory, replication, religion, mysticism, God, mountains, boarding school, church, family, reading, language, and story. It’s called All of Us Together in the End, and its refrain comes from the first lines of the Dhammapadda, which say, “we are what we think/ with our thoughts we make the world.” I guess it’s a narrative that tries to explain how, specifically, I have used thoughts to make my world, and where those thoughts came from–how I was raised in a church that taught me that I should reject the world, and then what happened when I embraced it. It’s coming together, but I have a long way to go.

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Matthew Vollmer is the author of two collections of short fiction—Gateway to Paradise (Persea, 2015) and Future Missionaries of America (MacAdam/Cage, 2009; Salt Publishing, 2010)—as well as a collection of essays—inscriptions for headstones (Outpost19, 2012). His work has appeared widely, in such places as Paris Review, Glimmer Train, Tin House, Virginia Quarterly Review, Epoch, Ecotone, New England Review, The SunBest American Essays, and The Pushcart Prize Anthology. With David Shields, he co-edited FAKES: An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, “Found” Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts (W. W. Norton, 2012), and served as editor for The Book of Uncommon Prayer (Outpost19, 2015), an anthology of everyday invocations featuring the work of over 60 writers. His next book—Permanent Exhibit—will be published by BOA Editions, Ltd. in 2018. He teaches at Virginia Tech.

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Summer 2018 Flash Fiction Contest – Round #3

Midwestern Gothic Summer Flash Fiction Series 2018
Round—and Prompt— #3 of our Summer 2018 Flash Fiction Contest here! (You can read all of our winners from 2015, 2016, and 2017 here.)

What is it? Our flash fiction series invites writers to write short pieces in response to photos we post.

How does it work? We’ll supply an image from our photo archive and invite writers to respond with flash fiction inspired by the photo, up to 500 words. Remember: You, or your piece, must have a Midwest connection. Each image will be open for submissions for just under 1 week, and we will take a few days for reading and balloting before beginning the next round. At the end of all three rounds, the top (2) entries we feel best represent the photos from each round will be published on the Midwestern Gothic website.

How long is the series? We will be doing this throughout the month of July and early August — which nets out to (3) rounds of images (three submission periods). Round 3 starts on Monday, July 23, 2018 (and ends on Saturday, July 28, 2018 before midnight EST); the prompt is below and will be posted on all social media channels, too. Winners will be announced and winning pieces (winner + runner-up) will be posted after the submission periods for all three rounds are finished, in the first week of August.

How do you submit? Send submissions to Ariel at ariel@midwestgothic.comUse the subject line “Summer Flash Round X – Author Name – Name of Piece.” For example: Summer Flash Round 1 – Joan Smith – “Eyes of the Wild.” Remember: Include a third-person bio of up to 150 words with your submission.

You can find all guidelines here, including how to submit (and where!). We can’t wait to read your work!

Prompt #3: Take a look at the following photo, and create a piece of flash fiction inspired by it.

Prompt #3 due date (before midnight EST): Saturday, July 28 2018

Prompt #3 winners published: Friday, August 10 2018

Prompt #3: “Mayan Mahem” by Joel DeCounter

Mayan Mayhem by Joel DeCounter

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Interview: Anne Champion

Anne Champion author headshotMidwestern Gothic staffer Jo Chang talked with poet Anne Champion about her collection The Good Girl is Always a Ghost, showcasing historically unknown women, politics in poetry, and more.

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Jo Chang: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Anne Champion: I was born and raised in Kalamazoo, Michigan. I lived there until I was 25.

JC: You currently live and teach in Boston, Massachusetts. How does this environment differ from the Midwest, if at all?

AC: I’d say one of the largest differences is political: Boston is simply a more liberal area. While Kalamazoo was fairly liberal due to it being a college city, I was met with conservative viewpoints regularly, which I rarely encounter here. There are vibrant activist movements here, and there is a broad diversity of people from all over the world. Even though Boston is relatively small, it has the big city feel that I never found in Michigan. With that comes a much higher cost of living—and that’s a huge burden. It’s becoming more gentrified and it is definitely pushing lower income people out of it year after year, becoming a city for the 1%. So, there are certainly pros and cons.

I miss some things about Michigan. In Boston, you often feel like most people are just passing through—for school or for travel or for temporary work until they move to a cheaper area—while in Michigan you felt like the community was fairly solid. And I deeply miss the Great Lakes, particularly Lake Michigan, where I spent a lot of my youth.

JC: Your forthcoming poetry collection, The Good Girl is Always a Ghost, is a collection of persona poems that gives readers a glimpse of the lives and struggles of various women figures from history. Unsurprisingly, given the historical weight of the book, you have stated that writing The Good Girl is Always a Ghost involved a lot of heavy research. Could you describe a bit about that process? How did you figure out where to begin, and how to showcase women who are not historically well-known?

The book began with women that are well-known that were pivotal in my child development. I was a feminist before I ever knew what a feminist was. I deeply admired my father, who was a pilot and served in the Air Force, and therefore I wanted to do what he did. I was always looking for women that did things like my father. My dad, who never identified as a feminist in my youth, unknowingly fueled my belief in women’s equality by introducing me to women like Annie Oakley and Amelia Earhart. I had a short curly wig and a leather pilot’s hat that I would wear to be Earhart and a toy rifle and cowboy hat to be Oakley. These women ignited my imagination. As I got older, beauty standards sunk their talons into me, and I was drawn to women like Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland—tragically beautiful to the extent that everything else about them was blotted out. In my 20s, I was a poet, and, like many young women before me, went dizzy under the spell of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton.

So, the poems began with them, but once I realized I’d be crafting a book to iconic women in history, I wanted the collection to be inclusive and diverse, and I wanted it to speak to women who history had not been as kind to, at least in America. I wanted women of a variety of ethnicities, religious backgrounds, ages (including children), and sexualities. I also wanted transgender women (and I included one transgender man) along with women with disabilities. That inclusiveness, as well as the diversity of accomplishments, was the most important thing.

Once I knew what I needed in the book, then I knew what to look for. It was often a process of directing my research to a specific country. For example, I directed my search to Afghanistan and found the feminist activist Meena Kamal, who was assassinated for her beliefs in the 1980s. I directed it to Japan and found Sadako Sasaki, a child who lived through Hiroshima, only to die of cancer due to radiation exposure years later.

I researched in a variety of ways. When I could, I wanted to watch documentaries or interviews of them, in order to get a sense of their voice or personality. But for many, this wasn’t possible, so it may have consisted of reading a book or some articles about the person and searching for the facts that pulsed until the inspiration blossomed.
The Good Girl is Always a Ghost book cover by Anne Champion
JC: The Good Girl is Always a Ghost uses multiple perspectives from various women figures in history. In order to write each poem in another voice, did you have to mentally prime yourself beforehand, in order to inhabit each new persona?

AC: Yes, sometimes, but not always. There are some poems where I’m trying to be more faithful to the voice of the historical figure than others. One example would be Christine Jorgensen, who was the first transgender woman to become widely known for having sex reassignment surgery in the U.S. She had such a unique, brazen voice that it was important for that to come through in the poem. Another was Plath—as a poet, you really can’t write a poem to Plath unless it’s going to be good, because her voice is already such a haunting, unraveling thread of the fabric of American poetry. In the times I needed to prime, I just spent excessive amounts of time with those voices, so that I could absorb what I needed before writing.

But some poems are more tied to my poetic voice, as the act of the persona is a process of empathy to me. In using speakers and situations that were not mine, I imagined the emotional circumstances for myself as a woman—I found the parallels that bind me to these women, and I tried to acknowledge and honor the paths that they worked to open for women everywhere.

Still, other poems are odes and not personas. There are some women who I didn’t feel confident inhabiting their voices, or I felt that they were more deserving of an ode. I wrote odes to Rosa Parks, Wilma Rudolph, Amy Winehouse, Marilyn Monroe, Sandra Bland, and others. There are even some poems that began as personas until I realized that there was something problematic in my attempt to inhabit the voice, so I would revise it to an ode.

JC: Like your previous poetry collection, Reluctant Mistress, The Good Girl is Always a Ghost also addresses the multifaceted concept of womanhood, in all of its complicated forms. What draws you to this subject matter—why is it important? Who are some of the women who have greatly influenced your life, and why?

AC: I was raised in a pretty conservative household, and feminism was not regarded favorably. Therefore, my sense of identity was pretty limited to what was “gender appropriate.” It wasn’t until college that I was first exposed to feminism (by a male professor! Bless your heart, Keith Kroll). In that exposure, I was liberated. I realized where so much of my unhappiness and angst came from: low self worth, low confidence, the daily micro and macro aggressions of sexism, years of patriarchal abuse in romantic relationships, a lack of role models, a lack of political representation, the list goes on and on and many of these things still plague me.

And yet, I was free. Because now I knew that it was the culture that was ill, not me, and I knew that I was capable in everything I did. It gave me a well of strength: I don’t know what I would have become if I didn’t have it.

In being exposed to that, I was exposed to many feminist poets and writers. That influenced me, and the intimate issues regarding womanhood—which are so often dismissed as trivial, crazy, irrational, or melodramatic—were what I needed to give voice to in my writing at the time.

Most of my work is feminist to some extent, but my more recent work as branched out more in the political sphere, as I’ve engaged in peace activist work and I’ve devoted myself to writing about Palestine, capitalism, and U.S. policy in Latin America. Though, womanhood always comes up in those poems as well.

The historical women who most greatly influenced my life are in the book, and even the ones who I discovered while writing all became a part of me—I absorbed their stories and I carry their lessons with me. The women in my real life who have most influenced me are my sister and my close friends—I am surrounded by strong, talented, funny, creative, and inspiring women. Sisterhood is a powerful form of life support.

JC: Your poems address topics at the intersection of various political topics. Did you find your own political inclinations (perhaps unconsciously) influencing your poems?

AC: I find my political inclinations to influence my work very consciously. I don’t see any way around that.

But my poems are not advocating for any political party—quite the contrary actually, because I’m critical of both. I lean left, but I’m much farther left than the democratic party, whose policies in my lifetime have always been very center.

For example, I wrote a book of poetry about my time in Palestine witnessing the devastating military occupation and the effects of people living in an apartheid state. It’s impossible for me to see what I saw and write about that without it being seen as “political,” but both parties have allowed billions of taxpayer dollars to support the injustices I’m writing about.

In my view, my writing is centered on human rights and compassion, not politics, but in the political world, the denial of human rights and apathy are often what’s being advocated for. So, in that sense, my poems become political.

Even in writing feminist work, we feel as if we are only writing about our human experience, but more conservative people see the humanizing of women as a political thing that they disagree with and would like to legislate to suppress.

JC: Do you think that poems are political?

AC: Yes, I think all poems, and even all forms of art, are political in some way. I always tell my students that reading is an empathizing process, and we cannot be good critical thinkers that pave a future or make decisions about the world without our sense of empathy sharpened. A poem about nature becomes political when it makes a reader feel protective over the environment. A poem about motherhood becomes political when it makes a reader understand the ways women’s labor has been made invisible and not given value. Even a poem designed only to make us escape this world with something funny or supernatural becomes political once we realize why we need this reprieve and what we need to get away from.

JC: When you first began publishing poetry, did you ever struggle with the feeling of hyper-visibility? If so, do you have any advice for young poets who are scared of baring themselves to the public?

AC: No, never. I’m a poet, so I mostly feel invisible! (That’s a joke, but it’s also kind of true). Honestly, the things I write are the things that I feel unable to express and that I deeply want to be heard. I have always been more articulate through writing than I am through speaking, and that has always hindered my ability to communicate. I have also needed the page as a place to process the world around me. And, as a woman, my very existence feels like it’s something that’s, at worst, deeply hated, and at best, trivialized or objectified. I wanted to write because I wanted to process and have a voice, not be drowned out by the injustices in the world, whether those injustices were directed at me or others.

That said, a good amount of my writing is pretty personal, and I get this question a lot. I never know how to answer it: I guess I have no shame? I was always influenced by people like Sylvia Plath, Sharon Olds, and Anne Sexton, so the idea of shame was trained out of me. As a reader, I get the most out of radical honesty, so I’d tell young poets to think of the impact that this kind of writing can have on an audience and weigh if that impact is more important than their fear.

But I also don’t always write about myself, and I don’t think writers have to. We need poetry of witness now more than ever. If baring yourself feels traumatic or if you aren’t ready to do it just yet, then there are so many other creative pursuits to give your talents to in poetry.

JC: What’s next for you?

AC: I have a collaborative collection of spell poems written with Jenny Sadre-Orafai called Book of Levitations that comes out next summer with Trembling Pillow Press. I finished a book about my experience in Palestine called Graveyard of Numbers, and I am currently looking for a press to publish that. I did a peace delegation to Cuba and I’m going to Nicaragua in August to continue my research about U.S. policies and their damage to Latin American countries: this research serves my current creative project, which examines the effects of capitalism in America and abroad and responds to our current political situation: the book is tentatively titled When the Flag Becomes a Shroud.

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Anne Champion is the author of The Good Girl is Always a Ghost (Black Lawrence Press, 2018), Reluctant Mistress (Gold Wake Press, 2013), Book of Levitations (Trembling Pillow Press, 2019), and The Dark Length Home (Noctuary Press, 2017). Her poems have appeared in Verse Daily, Prairie Schooner, Salamander, Crab Orchard Review, Epiphany Magazine, The Pinch, The Greensboro Review, New South, and elsewhere. She was an 2009 Academy of American Poet’s Prize recipient, a Barbara Deming Memorial grant recipient, a 2015 Best of the Net winner, and a Pushcart Prize nominee.

She holds degrees in Behavioral Psychology and Creative Writing from Western Michigan University and an MFA in Poetry from Emerson College. She currently teaches writing and literature at Wheelock College in Boston, MA.

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Summer 2018 Flash Fiction Contest – Round #2

Midwestern Gothic Summer Flash Fiction Series 2018

Round—and Prompt— #2 of our Summer 2018 Flash Fiction Contest here! (You can read all of our winners from 2015, 2016, and 2017 here.)

What is it? Our flash fiction series invites writers to write short pieces in response to photos we post.

How does it work? We’ll supply an image from our photo archive and invite writers to respond with flash fiction inspired by the photo, up to 500 words. Remember: You, or your piece, must have a Midwest connection. Each image will be open for submissions for just under 1 week, and we will take a few days for reading and balloting before beginning the next round. At the end of all three rounds, the top (2) entries we feel best represent the photos from each round will be published on the Midwestern Gothic website.

How long is the series? We will be doing this throughout the month of July and early August — which nets out to (3) rounds of images (three submission periods). Round 2 starts on Monday, July 16, 2018 (and ends on Saturday, July 21, 2018 before midnight EST); the prompt is below and will be posted on all social media channels, too. Winners will be announced and winning pieces (winner + runner-up) will be posted after the submission periods for all three rounds are finished, in the first week of August.

How do you submit? Send submissions to Ariel at ariel@midwestgothic.comUse the subject line “Summer Flash Round X – Author Name – Name of Piece.” For example: Summer Flash Round 1 – Joan Smith – “Eyes of the Wild.” Remember: Include a third-person bio of up to 150 words with your submission.

You can find all guidelines here, including how to submit (and where!). We can’t wait to read your work!

Prompt #2: Take a look at the following photo, and create a piece of flash fiction inspired by it.

Prompt #2 due date (before midnight EST): Saturday, July 21 2018

Prompt #2 winners published: Wednesday, August 8 2018

Prompt #2: “Fallout Shelter” by Caroline Gerardo

Fallout Shelter by Caroline Gerardo
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Interview: Lucy Tan

Lucy Tan author headshotMidwestern Gothic staffer Laura Dzubay talked with author Lucy Tan about her novel What We Were Promised, the importance of exposing oneself to new spaces and places, chasing inspiration, and more.

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Laura Dzubay: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Lucy Tan: I lived in Madison, Wisconsin for two years as a graduate student in creative writing. I wrote almost the entirety of my first novel there. This fall, I’ll be returning to UW as a fiction fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, so it looks like I’ll be writing my second novel in the Midwest, too!

LD: In what ways has the Midwest influenced your writing?

LT: The natural beauty of the Midwest is a pretty strong influence. Sudden and fierce summer showers, the intense greenery of summer, the fiery colors in fall, the unrelenting snow in winter… I know I’m in the minority when I say that I love places where the natural world reminds you who’s really in charge. When I was living in Madison, ice used to collect inside my bedroom window, which was right up against my writing desk. I’d have to microwave my coffee every fifteen minutes. So, I guess you could say that the Wisconsin influenced my writing process in a very real way.

But what has been the strongest inspiration are the small towns in Wisconsin. Small towns breed tight, distinctive communities, and there is such pleasure in squirreling observations away for use in later work. I’m working on a project now that is set in the Wisconsin Dells because I took a trip there and was completely fascinated by it. I feel similarly attracted to Spring Green. I wish I could interview everyone who ever grew up there.

LD: Your new book, What We Were Promised, focuses on a family that has returned to China after spending several years living in America. What prompted you to tell this story?

LT: Here, too, investigating communities was a big motivator for me. China has changed so much in the past fifteen years, and Shanghai has exploded as a metropolis. It’s a city in which people from all different backgrounds have come to live and work. When I was living there in 2010, I became obsessed with chronicling the ways people from different social classes interacted with one another. Years later, in my MFA program, I wrote a story about one specific interaction: two hotel maids accused by a wealthy tenant of having stolen a bracelet from her bedroom. This eventually became the opening to my novel, which, in its longer form, explores conflicts between a range of communities: rich vs. poor; local vs. international; and single vs. married life. I wanted to capture Shanghai as it was in a specific moment in time—where there is the hope of China becoming a major world power, but when it is nonetheless weighed down by its complicated social and political history.

What We Were Promised book cover by Lucy Tan

LD: Much of the important backstory in the book is revealed gradually, like Lina’s relationships with Wei and Qiang. How did you handle maneuvering between different time periods and places while you were writing?

LT: I knew I was setting a hard task for myself by writing a novel that demanded a reader’s interest in two parallel storylines which shifted between multiple perspectives. Though it takes a while for my characters’ backgrounds and relationships to be fully revealed, I hoped that the tension in the beginning (the bracelet theft and arrival of Qiang) would be compelling reasons for readers to want to get to know my characters better.

I wrote the chapters in the order in which they appear, often not knowing what would happen in the story beyond a chapter ahead of what I had written. Of course, I had a vague idea of the relationships between my main characters, but certain details and actions didn’t crystallize in my mind until they happened on the page. Writing the novel out of chronological order felt strangely natural; I didn’t overthink the ordering of the scenes, though I’m sure I must have shuffled things around upon revision. Because so much of the novel is told in backstory, which can sometimes slow pacing, I was careful about making sure each scene set in the past advanced the reader’s understanding of the story told in present day. I wanted it to be clear that although these two storylines were taking place in different time periods, they were part of the same narrative.

LD: The Zhen family is forced to adapt first when they move to America and later when they arrive in Shanghai. What do you think is the importance of telling a story that navigates multiple settings and cultures?

LT: For many people with international backgrounds, the question, “Where are you from?” is an increasingly complicated one to answer. When growing up in America, I never felt very American—I felt Chinese, because my physical appearance and upbringing made me different from those in my community. When I was living in China, I felt very American. I suppose it’s always easier to spot the ways in which you feel different from your surroundings. Being exposed to multiple settings and cultures is a nice reminder that everybody is an outsider somewhere.

I also think that when you live in one place and in one community for too long, it’s easy to stop questioning what you do or why you believe certain things. When you meet someone with a different background, it’s an opportunity to re-think the beliefs you took for granted. When I lived in China, I always loved these moments of self-reckoning. I like to think that traveling (in life and within the span of a novel) can offer readers a chance to take a closer look at their own belief systems.

LD: What We Were Promised gives a lot of attention to characterization, using the space of the novel to go into depth exploring each character’s background and personality. As someone who also has experience writing short stories, how does your approach to detail in characterization change depending on the length of your story?

LT: In short stories, it’s often important for a single sentence to serve many purposes at once. It might give a character depth, it might contribute to heightening the tension of the plot, it might reveal something about a relationship, and it might contribute to the tone of the piece or atmosphere of the setting. Because there are only a few pages in which to establish an entire world, the writing must be concise, and as a result, my experience building a character in short fiction feels more orchestrated than it does when writing a novel. When writing a novel, I’m able to enter a character’s head and stay there for longer periods of time, getting to know the ins and outs of their pasts and personalities. The process feels more immersive—like I’m living alongside the people I’ve created rather than switching between being in the room with them and watching them from above.

The other main difference is that a short story is usually concerned with one or two main events that change a particular aspect of a character’s mindset or personality. Therefore, the characterizing details I choose will illuminate this specific change. Generally speaking, in a novel, there’s room to do so much more—to have multiple events change characters in large and small ways over a longer span of time.

LD: The book also focuses on the differences and similarities between the affluent Lina and her housekeeper, Sunny, and on the significance of “objects of luxury” like Lina’s bracelet. What do you think is the importance of taking class into consideration in a story like this?

LT: I think what’s considered “luxury” isn’t always consistent across social classes, but one thing everyone can agree on is the luxury of time—and not just the abundance of free time, but the richness of spending your work hours doing something you feel has value. Though Sunny is born into a poor farming family and has been given few opportunities in her life, her self-reliance and resourcefulness allow her to approach work with a sense of purpose. While Lina, on the surface, has every conceivable form of privilege, from travel opportunities to education to expensive material goods, she feels unfulfilled because she’s spent her life letting others make decisions for her. I think it’s those of us who live with intention that feel the wealthiest, no matter what our social backgrounds may be.

LD: Do you believe that writer’s block exists, and if so, how do you deal with it?

LT: What is often neatly referred to as “writers block” feels much more complicated to me—and thank goodness, because that means there’s more than one way to move past it! Inspiration has many channels, and it’s rare that every single one is blocked at the same time. I’ve gotten better at knowing what I need to do to become unstuck. For example, if I can’t get a character’s voice right, I’ll try watching documentaries or reading interviews. If I’m not sure which scene should come next in a novel, I’ll read or work on something else and wait for fresh possibilities to occur to me. If I’m having a crisis in confidence, I’ll try to remember that there are more answers to be found at the end of a draft rather than in the middle of one, and that there’s incentive to keep writing until I reach an end. Many times, dealing with writer’s block simply means not giving myself hell for it and trusting that the block will pass.

LD: Are there any habits you like to keep or writing environments you often return to while you’re working?

LT: I work best in cafes, where there’s a lot of human activity. Since the act of writing is so solitary, I like being in places where I can look up and be reminded that there’s a whole world moving around me, even as I’m almost completely existing in my own head. I also find I get the best writing done when I change my environment often. In other words, I’m literally chasing inspiration.

LD: What’s next for you?

LT: This fall, I’ll be returning to Madison. I’ll spend the year working on my second novel and teaching fiction at The University of Wisconsin as the James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow, an opportunity provided by the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing. It will feel good to be back in the Midwest again.

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Lucy Tan grew up in New Jersey and has spent much of her adult life in New York and Shanghai. She received her B.A. from New York University and her M.F.A. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she was awarded the 2016 August Derleth Prize. Her fiction has been published in journals such as Asia Literary Review and Ploughshares, where she was winner of the 2015 Emerging Writer’s Contest. This is her first novel.

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