Contributor Spotlight: Samuel Piccone

October 2nd, 2018

Samuel Piccone author headshotSamuel Piccone’s piece “Impotence” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Summer 2018 issue, out now.

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

I didn’t spend a lot of time in the Midwest until my early 20s. I grew up in Colorado, and aside from spending time with family in Indiana, I was kind of on the outside looking in. The first time I really left home/was on my own was for grad school in Illinois, and then after that, bounced around until landing in Iowa for a couple years. It always felt like the first place I discovered on my own as an adult, and I think that’s probably why it’s something I write about so much.

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

The landscape, especially the plains, has always seemed a little magical to me. When I lived in Iowa, I spent a lot of time driving into the heart of it without any real destination, thinking it would be a good way to orient myself. But I found myself getting lost more often than not, and in a way that kind of scared me into paying attention to the world around me at a sharper level. The scale of everything changed. I’d stumble upon some small town and feel like I’d been found, then drive miles through farmland, get swallowed back in that void of being alone with the world, and feel really small again. I’ve never been anywhere else that could extract those feelings and mirror them back to me in such a stark way.

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?

For me, place is the seed where a lot of poems begin, but not necessarily where they end. It’s a key dangling above my head that unlocks the core of whatever I’m trying to get at, and the only way to reach it is to deal with it like any being that has problems, answers, needs, etc., and interrogate it. If specific memories or experiences regarding a place end up being the focal point of a poem, that’s great, it means they were supposed to. But I’m always hoping that those memories will reveal something stranger or take me somewhere else entirely. I think when the past becomes a backdrop or a counterpoint to a very different subject, it breathes new life into that memory, and my personal experience becomes a new experience for both me and the reader.

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

Joe Millar, a teacher of mine at NC State, gave me some simple advice that always works— “take time off the top.” Before dealing with work, errands, relationships, the general crap of day to day life, poetry comes first. Thankfully, my best/clearest hours are in the early morning, so I usually spend that time revising drafts that are close to being done, reading, jotting down some ideas to kick around in my head the rest of the day.

In terms of inspiration and writer’s block, there are a couple things I lean on. I participate in a bimonthly writing group with a bunch of friends, mostly from my time at NC State, where we write a poem every day for thirty days. I mostly end up with a pile of junk, but there’s usually an idea or two in there that I’m excited to explore. Also, I’ve found using form is a great way of getting over any kind of block. It makes my voice sound unfamiliar and lets me wrestle with language from a different angle.

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

I’m not sure if anything I’ve written is ever finished, but I know when a poem is overdone, so I kind of look for the breaking point of a poem and get as close to it as I can. If as I’m cutting a poem down to its essentials I hit a moment when it feels like I’ve lost something or taken wrong turn, then I’ll back things up and put the previous version of the poem away for a while. When I come back to it, I start cutting again and repeat that process until I can’t do anything else with it at the time. I’m either end up with something that feels as complete as I can get it or scrap material to take back to the drawing board.

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

Of course, I have a ton of favorites, so I won’t bore you with a list. I will say one of the most influential is Yusef Komunyakaa. He was the first poet I saw read in person, and thereby became the first contemporary poet I read on my own (outside of a classroom). His images never cease to amaze me. They do emotional work in the poem, they’re linguistically interesting and well-crafted, and they’re strange on some level. I think it’s tough to get an image to do one of those things, let alone all three.

Where can we find more information about you?

samuelpiccone.com

Interview: Simon Jacobs

Simon Jacobs author headshotMidwestern Gothic staffer Henry Milek talked with author Simon Jacobs about his book Palaces, getting lost in the city, book tours, & more.

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

Simon Jacobs: I was born in Dayton, Ohio, where I lived until I went to college in Indiana. When I was 21, I moved to New York. I was molded in the Midwest.

HM: To what extent—if at all—would you classify your work as Midwestern? In what ways does your connection to the region distinguish your writing?

SJ: I think my work has gotten more Midwestern over time: having some distance from the region for the last six years has allowed me to take a broader lens on it, I think, and to better inhabit its spaces whenever I go back. PALACES ends in New York because that’s where I was when I started writing it, but it reaches back to Indiana and Ohio, which are formative in the novel as they were for me. The novel I just finished, String Follow, is set aggressively in the kind of southern Ohio suburbs where I grew up, but I don’t think I could have written it any earlier: it took those twenty-odd years to seed. I’ve always been a slow, methodical, and deliberate writer – it’s a working style that comes from my mother, who’s a novelist, and from Ohio.

HM: Your new book, PALACES, follows two Midwesterners who head out east, much like yourself. How do you feel your origins in the Midwest changed your perception of New York? How did your own experience influence your story?

SJ: The narrator has my timetable (Dayton to Indiana to NYC), but that’s about where the direct connections end. I was new to NYC when I started writing PALACES, so I filtered my new experiences of the city through the narrator, especially in a sensory and spatial way. I have a terrible sense of direction, and when I first moved to the city whenever I traveled somewhere new I would carry post-it notes on which I’d written step-by-step directions guiding me there. If I strayed more than a block or two in any direction, I’d get totally lost. I’m sure that this found its way into PALACES.

Palaces book cover by Simon Jacobs

HM: PALACES is your first novel. What was different about writing a full-length novel compared to your previous shorter work?

SJ: It took much longer, which gave me more time to be wracked with doubt. The novel began as a set of fragmentary scenes that I knit together over 3 or 4 years, connected by tone, and they gradually became part of a larger framework. I was interested in exploring this tone – the second person perspective describing this insular, conflicted relationship – which I’d been working out for years in my short fiction. With the book, I felt like I’d finally realized its fullest form.

HM: Much of PALACES actually takes place in New York, where you portray it to be in a near-apocalyptic state. What was your strategy in crafting the city in such a distinct, original way? What effect do you hope this achieves?

SJ: I was trying to present a city that was falling apart in crucial ways, but where it wasn’t always totally clear which ways, because you’re presented it through the eyes of a narrator who’s convinced that everything around him is terrible and loaded with ominous significance. Through that lens, everything becomes a portent. It brings you into the recursive, paranoid headspace that the narrator occupies: the inner becomes the outer.

HM: There’s a sort of surreal blanket cast over the entire book—it takes place in the real world, but never quite seems to fit into it. How do you go about writing in this style? Did you ever worry about crossing the line where your work was so absurdly surreal the reader would get lost? How do you balance surrealism with reality just right?

SJ: Yeah, this was a very conscious effort as I was writing the book: I wanted to keep the reader tied as closely as possible to John’s insular perspective, so even as the book drifts away from reality I tried to cleave to the narrator’s physical experience and spatial sense, so that even when the action became opaque it was physically immediate, and the narrator remains embodied even as the world changes around him.

HM: You recently had a book tour where you performed several public readings of your work. Aside from being part of the traditional ritual of releasing new work, do you think that a book tour is an efficient means of reaching an audience in this day and age? Is it more difficult—or easier, even—for this type of thing to prove successful in the digital age, with digital distribution, social media, and everything else that entails?

SJ: I have no idea how successful my tour was in practical terms, but I loved doing it. It was definitely my favorite part of publishing PALACES, even if there were events where I was reading to just a handful of people. Performing is my favorite part of the process – after complete solitude for most of the writing, it’s refreshing to bring it out into the open and see how the work lands on live ears. It gives me an opportunity to interact with the writing in a new way, to find collaborators, or to play off other readers. I would continue to find ways to do it even if it was a terrible business decision.

That said, I do think a tour is still an efficient way to reach an audience, especially as a writer who’s published mostly on the internet: when you publish stuff online, you’re not tied to one regional community, and you can build up a lot more of a following that’s not necessarily tied to a book. I was lucky when I did my tour that for most events I was able to partner with local writers in the places that I visited, and most of these writers were folks who I first read online. You’re not writing in a vacuum, and doing a tour like this is a great way to try and engage with literary communities all over the place.

HM: Would you say you’re more influenced by your contemporaries, or by writers of the past? Which do you think is more important to read for those who hope to be a writer today?

SJ: Well, everything being written now responds in some way to writing that already exists, so truly there is no way of escaping the past. I guess I would say my reading is a pretty evenly split between past and present: PALACES, for example, was influenced as much by Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (in its structure, jokes, and obscure rules) as it was by Charles Burns’ Black Hole (in its tone, teens, and totemic objects), and those books are 150 years apart.

That said, I never read poetry or short fiction until I read them on the internet, so in many ways, the present can crack open the past: Margaret Killjoy or Ben Kopel could lead you to Ursula LeGuin or Patti Smith. Regardless, if you’re a writer I think the most important single thing you can do is to read as diversely as possible, to steep yourself in as many different perspectives as you can.

HM: What’s next for you?

SJ: I’m working on the edits for a new short story collection, Masterworks, which is due out from Instar Books in late 2018. I’m also slowly expanding my first book, Saturn, a collection of David Bowie stories that Spork Press first published in 2014, steadily transforming it into something new. Administratively, I’m questing for a home for the novel I mentioned earlier, String Follow, which is about a group of suburban Ohio teenagers who slowly become enthralled by a mysterious and occult force that winds its way through their community.

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Simon Jacobs is the author of the novel Palaces (Two Dollar Radio, 2018), and of two collections of short fiction: Masterworks (Instar Books, 2018), and Saturn (Spork Press, 2016), a collection of David Bowie stories. He is from Dayton, Ohio, and currently lives in New York City.

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Interview: Keith Taylor

Keith Taylor author headshotMidwestern Gothic staffer Henry Milek talked with author Keith Taylor about his book Ecstatic Destinations, celebrating nature, local writing, & more.

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

Keith Taylor: My family moved to South Bend, Indiana, when I was 11. For many years I had a terrible time – it was, after all, the late sixties; we had moved from rural Western Canada to a beat up Midwestern city in decline (Bendix, the largest employer in South Bend, had recently closed and all the factories were empty); and I had to get through my adolescence.

I probably blamed the Midwest for many things that other explanations. I left as soon as I could, after my first year of college. I went to Europe on a one way ticket and stayed, mostly penniless, for the next three years
In 1975 I moved to Michigan, and things began to get better. Michigan culture – or at least the culture I first got to know – is focused on the Lakes. Those Lakes, the Great ones, anyway, share a border with Canada, and many of my ancestors had lived just on the other side of them. I almost felt as if I were home.

By 1979, after I had moved to Ann Arbor and married a woman from Detroit, I was seeing a larger set of connections in the region. As I got to know Detroit – then in it’s most difficult period – I grew to love it, too. The simple fact that within five hours I could drive from Detroit to Sault Ste. Marie, cross the bridge, and be in the northern forest of Canada that stretched all the way to the Arctic – well, those differences intrigued me. They still do. I like to think that they inform my writing.

At the same time I became a bookseller in a large book shop in Ann Arbor. The first and, at the time, the only Borders Book Shop. I had already read widely in the regional literature and both my employers and our customers began to expect a certain expertise about Midwestern literature. So I wanted to read this stuff and my job rewarded it.

The attitudes of Midwestern literature and the Midwestern literary life became many of my attitudes. Later, when I became a teacher at the University of Michigan, those attitudes shaped my teaching.

HM: You recently retired from a long career of teaching. Now that we’re few months past the end of the school year, do you have any final thoughts on the whole experience? Any achievements you’re particularly proud of?

KT: When I am asked how I got my job at UM, my usual response is that I went around back and climbed in through the bathroom window just before they bricked it up. I like to think I did a good job at Michigan, but I’m not at all sure someone like me could ever end up in a position like the one I had ever again. After all, I only have an MA from Central Michigan University. When I came in, I had a couple of very small press chapbooks, a fairly long list of mostly regional small press publications, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. Michigan’s English Department needed some help, and I could help them. There weren’t nearly as many unemployed MFAs around then as there are now. And then I didn’t screw up and I wasn’t completely self-absorbed; that was important. Even though it wasn’t great money, being a Lecturer at a university paid better than being a clerk in a bookshop. And (my teaching friends hate it when I say this) the work was a lot easier than selling books; the vacations were amazing; the benefits were good.

I was always interested in student work, undergraduate work at first and later that of the graduate students in Michigan’s MFA program. These students forced me to keep up with the changing patterns of contemporary letters. I was paid to stay fresh, and that was amazing.

And, of course, the greatest lasting pleasure of that work is reading the books by the successful graduates. There are probably more than a hundred people whom I worked with who are regularly publishing books, and I try to keep up with all of them. As a teacher I was more important to some than others, but I still think I added something to the process of their work, even if only by removing a tiny obstacle or two.

Books are important to me. I am proud that I could help a new generation of writers produce theirs.

At Michigan, just to keep myself interested, I reached out to other departments, other kinds of artists and thinkers. I worked with musicians, biologists, dancers, scholars of modern Greek, historians and others. I’d like to see some things I’ve helped create – like the undergraduate concentration in creative writing, or the writing course at the Biological Station, or the Bear River Writers’ Conference – continue.

All of that said, I’m not yet missing the teaching. I still feel kind of relieved I don’t have to live up the expectations of students and colleagues any more. It was getting harder to do, anyway. To misquote one of my own poems – I have fewer people to disappoint.

HM: You’ve been involved with a couple different programs through the University of Michigan that combine writing and nature, namely the Biological Station and Bear River Writers’ Conference. Why do you think it’s important for writer’s to work in such environments? How specifically does it help a writer grow?

KT: I’m typing these answers sitting at a picnic table on the south shore of Douglas Lake at the University of Michigan Biological Station. I’m not teaching this summer but have an appointment as their Artist-in-Residence. It will probably be my last summer up here, because other people, other artists, need to have the experience I’ve had here.

I’ve already passed the reins of the Bear River Writers’ Conference on to Laura Kasischke and Cody Walker, two remarkable writers who have had a long connection to the conference. I think the money situation there is in pretty good shape and the conference shouldn’t have to worry about things for quite a while.

Now I won’t make a blanket statement that an artistic experience of the natural world is important for all writers. I read and honor too many writers who don’t feel that at all, even some who make fun of those of us sometimes categorized as “nature writers.” I’m far too old to get pissed about that now.

But much of my most intense experience of the world is in the forests and on the waters that flow through wild places. I have spent much of my life learning the names for things and trying to understand the natural history and science of these places. I am comfortable here (even though I just swatted a mosquito).

Then there is the simple fact that the world, all of it, all of us, need these places to stay alive. Need clean water, need clean air, need to find a way to ameliorate the effects of climate change. If anything I write can reinforce these attitudes, even in only a tiny way, then I certainly think it is worth it. I cringe a little bit here because that sounds as if I have some non-artistic agenda, and I don’t really. This is the material that often moves me to the work.

I will be happy simply to celebrate it all. While I was trying to figure out the answer to this question, a ruby-throated hummingbird buzzed past my head and a loon called from the lake. I wish you could all hear this and hope your children have the chance.

Specifically? Working with scientists or having an in depth experience of the natural world helps a writer learn the names for things and processes that shape that world. A writers’ conference helps remind us all that we are not alone in the process of making things.

HM: On top of your academic career, you’ve been an active and prolific writer for years. How did you manage to balance your professional and creative life for so long?

KT: I was a writer long before I haphazardly assume “the profession” of teaching. It had already become the way I defined myself and the way I understood the world. I came from people who didn’t have a lot of money, so I always had to work. My reading and writing always fit around the day job – before, after and, yes, during.

All of my jobs, even teaching at the University of Michigan, came after and were incidental to the writing. The real work. Many times I was willing to sacrifice the job for the writing. After I became a teacher of writing, then the job didn’t seem as far removed from what I really wanted to do. A big university provides people a lot of resources to help pursue undefined ideas, and I took advantage of that. And there are those vacations – did I mention that? Long extended periods of time when I could read and write – the two greatest pleasures of my life!

I have gone through periods, never very long, when I haven’t been writing, but I’ve never blamed the day jobs for that. I’ve blamed my own lethargy.

Ecstatic Destinations book cover by Keith Taylor

HM: Your new chapbook, Ecstatic Destinations, is based around a very specific part of Ann Arbor. Why write about this? What did you hope to capture and share about the city with your reader?

KT: First, it started because I was moved to poetry by watching the skate-boarders at the local park as they did their thing so elegantly. I drafted that poem while sitting on a park bench across the park. It seemed that they were flying. When I looked up from that work, I saw that there were two used condoms lying down at the end of the bench. Then I thought that the poem wouldn’t be true if I didn’t have the condoms in there. That became the last poem in the chapbook. So there was a very specific occasion that began this.

I’ve often made noise about the necessity of the local, so I thought I would act on that idea as this book began to take shape. Lots of the good liberals in my sometimes overly precious little town are embarrassed by the place, the easiness of living here. I understand that entirely. Yet I live here, and I like it. I decided that in this small way I would exercise ideas I give lip service to. I would find the poems in my otherwise unassuming neighborhood.

If readers outside take something from this, I hope they can understand the appeal of some of things of that neighborhood. Or, at least, they might be sympathetic to the process of finding poems at home. For the people in my neighborhood, I hope they recognize the poems that are around them.

But this collection has smaller ambitions than some I’ve done. I’m happy to keep it in its little place. I was really happy that it was published by an Ann Arbor press, too. That seems right.

HM: Do you hope that Ecstatic Destinations connects more with readers who are familiar with its setting, as you are, or with those who are not, allowing you to introduce it to them? Might your chronicled experiences in the book apply to anyone’s experiences with a place they are intimately familiar with? Or would you describe it instead as a portrait of your experience alone?

KT: Oh, these are my experiences, my perceptions. I don’t think I’ll convince anyone to turn a little piece of unmaintained parkland into a sacred grove of biblical proportions. I don’t think anyone will find the hand of God writing cryptic messages in jet trails. Yet I hope some readers might recognize the possibility of this kind of perception.

This is a very small print run by a small press in a particular place where I have a few readers. I expect that most readers of this book will be in my town, where I’m lucky enough to have a small audience. If it reaches past that, won’t that be something! A very pleasant surprise.

HM: How does Ecstatic Destinations represent where you are today as a poet? Compared to your earlier work, for instance, what do you see having changed about your process or purpose?

KT: I don’t think the process has changed that much. I am moved toward a lyric poem, usually short, by a specific image or a series of words that have a distinctive sound to my ear. I work with that until something starts taking shape, and then I spend a good deal of time trying to determine if that hangs together.

By claiming my neighborhood as the place of these poems, it changes things a bit. I’m not our searching wild places and trying to understand the things there. I’m not sure yet if that’s actually a new direction or simply a short diversion. We’ll see.

Again, it’s too early to tell, but I’ve noticed that most of the poems I’ve written since Ecstatic Destinations have people in them, are centered on other people, tell their stories or find images in other people’s actions. That seems new, but I have no idea yet if it will continue.

I’m also working on two long poems, ones I imagine as 10 pages long or even longer. Poems I’ve had to do research for and think about over long periods of time. I have no idea if these poems will come to be anything yet, but I’m hoping. They will definitely be different.

HM: Looking back over your extensive list of collections and books, what do you find connects all of your poetic work? What are the core ideas and ideals that pervade your poetry?

KT: That’s a tough one, and perhaps it might be best to leave to someone else to answer, if anyone wants to spend that much time with my work. For most of the last half century, I have tried to define, imagine, and often celebrate my place in the world. I have tried to do that in language that is direct, unadorned, complicated when it needs to be but as simple as possible.

HM: What’s next for you?

KT: At the very least, I hope to continue reading and writing at the pace I’ve always worked.

Right after I finished at the University, I decided that I would step up my book reviewing. I’ve always done it, but I think now I could do more. I have some good venues open to me that I haven’t always taken advantage of, mostly because I was too busy and they didn’t pay much or anything. I think an active discussion about books stimulates the literary environment, and I can help in a small way. So I will.

I have three large prose books I want to finish while I’m still here, in this vale of tears. We’ll see if that happens.
The poems will keep coming I think. I’m hoping to have a New and Selected Poems out when I’m 70, four years from now. The trouble is I don’t think my main press (Wayne State University Press) is much interested in that. I might have to find someone else to do it, and then I’ll have to negotiate rights. That won’t be much fun.

Although I hate the phrase “bucket list,” I do have a couple of big things on that, things that will necessitate some travel and that will cost probably more money than I an afford. It will be fun.

And I want to work at keeping my perceptions of the world fresh and open. I know there’s a complacency that comes with age. I’ve felt it waiting out there just on the edge of my imagination. Old folks sometimes try to say it’s “wisdom,” but I’m not so sure.

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Keith Taylor has authored or edited 17 books and chapbooks. His most recent, the chapbook Ecstatic Destinations, was published in 2018. His last full length collection, The Bird-while (Wayne State University Press, 2017), won the Bronze medal for the Foreword/Indies Poetry Book of the Year. His poems, stories, reviews, essays and translations have appeared widely in North America and in Europe. He has recently retired from the University of Michigan, where he taught Creative Writing for most of 20 years. He has received a Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and one from the Michigan Council for the Arts and Cultural Affairs. He has been Writer/Artist In Residence at Isle Royale National Park, the Detroit YMCA, The International Writers’ and Translators’ Centre of Rhodes, Greece, and the University of Michigan Biological Station.

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Contributor Spotlight: John LaPine

John LaPine author headshotJohn LaPine’s piece “today at lunch danez smith says nigga” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Summer 2018 issue, out now.

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

I was born in Detroit, and grew up in Michigan’s rural Upper Peninsula (U.P.). As a mixed race/black person, I’ve always felt somewhat out of place in my hometown, which is both very small and 91% white. In a small town, everyone is a celebrity, and this goes double for people of color; I stick out in a crowd, and am recognizable and recognized from across a room. During my time in high school, between the three grades above me freshman year, and the three below as a senior, maybe four black people went through our school. In fact, it was common for a class to have zero people of color. Microaggressions have influenced my work, from being told growing up that “You’re like the whitest black guy ever; you’re not like a thug,” to, as recent as last week, other locals assuming I’m not local: “You must have come here for school, eh?” I’m interested in the shared experiences of blackness and mixed race identity, and treat literature as an encounter with the other. If my writing can’t directly relate with someone who is similar to me, I hope it helps people dissimilar to me understand my human condition.

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

There’s a very particular charm and friendliness that permeates the entire region: I find myself saying “Excuse me” when someone bumps into me, and I think that’s emblematic of the Midwestern experience. The flip side: that outward friendliness remains, even when the inward thoughts are not so friendly, resulting in a weird, tense, passive aggression, where you’ll tell someone “We really need to hang out sometime,” even though you’d be happy never seeing them again, except you know you’ll see them in the same grocery store every week for the rest of your natural, God-given lives.

Everything moves a little slower here.

Shutout to Mike Lacher’s “Welcome to MidWestworld,” for a perfect depiction of literally the entire region (minus Chicago).

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

I’m a very visual person, and I think this comes through in my writing. I’ve always appreciated the “cinematic” aspect of writing: trying to show what’s going on as I’ve perceived it in my head, and rendering that view through words. At its core, that’s what all writing is: an attempt to transfer an idea from me to you via ink/pixels. For my writing, that comes out as strong imagery and a focus on visual elements. So I’ll rarely write a piece without a location in mind.

When I dream, they’re all about location: I’m in my old middle school, except it’s in the basement of my first workplace. Or I’m in my college bedroom, but it’s in my childhood home. I’m bad with directions (don’t ever ask me if something is north of here) but can use landmarks to navigate (It’s a couple blocks past the yellow building with the white sign, through the red light on the left), and I think that’s a result of my visual nature.

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

I place a high premium on engaging with other poets, writers, and artists in the community, drawing inspiration from their work, whether responding to a piece of visual art, or simply consuming poetry. I love open mic nights, readings and author events, and art museums, as well as poetry retreats, academia, and other privileged positions where artists gather and produce and discuss and consume alongside each other. I have only been writing poetry since 2016, so I am slowly building a group of trusted first readers and friend-editors.

But one of the fundamental properties of any writing—literary or otherwise—is that it is necessarily communication, so becoming part of and engaging with communities is required in order to keep producing art that is consumed and consumable by an audience.

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

This is a really hard question for me!

Is it a copout to say, “It’s finished when it’s finished?”

Is it a copout to say, “I know it when I know it?”

Is it a copout to say, “All my art, as with my life, is constantly under revision?”

My process is varied (and probably—okay, definitely—still developing). A poem usually begins with either a title that I plan to build around/expand upon, or an image or mood I want to depict. From there, I seek a “larger issue” to connect to the original image, or find a different image/idea to juxtapose to the initial idea. Sometimes the “larger issue” is obvious, but often I don’t find it until I’m well into the writing process. During revision, sometimes that original image or idea becomes the scaffolding that props up the “actual” poem, and I can remove the scaffolding once the rest is in place.

I composed “today at lunch danez smith says nigga” as part of my thesis; I knew I would be writing about the intersection of race and gender, and this piece speaks to the polarities of mixed race identities. I literally started with the title, and wrote my way into the final image, which might be obvious given the rather linear narrative form. I didn’t have the graffiti image in mind when I wrote the title, but I discovered it as I wrote. I knew the meat of the poem would be my ambivalence around saying the word, and the “who can say it” argument, which I’ve had many times with many different people of many different races—Kendrick Lamar brought the argument back up in a very public forum this spring during a concert—but many of the images higher up in the piece came through revision with my wonderful thesis advisor, Matthew Gavin Frank.

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

Obviously, Danez Smith has been a major influence on me; the way their poetry is informed by and informs race, gender, as well as politics is inspiring. Their latest book eschews super traditional form, which is something I am always excited about, without detracting from the language, which is rarely done well. I believe in poetry as protest, and as potential ground for encounter with the Other, and Smith thrives at this while remaining accessible; they are poet, business person, and personality all in one.

Other authors: Hanif Abdurraqib whose blend of poetry and nonfiction speaks to me, Richard Siken whose work is consistently beautiful and devastating, Anne Carson whose work transcends this world, Jericho Parms who made me believe art is romance (and vice versa), Maggie Nelson who is a vital critic, Mary Ruefle who sees things others never will, Lindsay Hunter whose fantastic voice produces wonderful fiction, Angela Pelster whose essays changed my life, Maxine Beneba Clarke whose work on race is necessary, Eve Ewing whose work on diaspora is enlightening, and Eula Biss, Claudia Rankine, and Roxane Gay who are all contemporary classics and visionaries in their own individual rights.

What’s next for you?

I am working on producing a podcast called Queer Americans (QueerAmericans.com, or on Twitter at @QueerAmericans), which seeks to document lived, queer experiences as they relate to art, religion, day-to-day life, multiple comings out, and life growing up. I have conducted around ten interviews for Season 1 (all fellow Midwesterners). They’re unique voices who I believe need to be heard. I have begun editing audio, and am in contact with a queer-identifying composer to do the music for the project, hoping to launch late summer/early fall.

In August, I must (unfortunately!) leave the Midwest for the West—Sacramento—where I will begin teaching English at Butte College. I’m looking forward to working with students in the first-year writing program, and grateful for my opportunity to also teach intro to poetry and intro to literature in the Spring 2019 semester.

Where can we find more information about you?

I am on Twitter and Instagram at @johnlapine

My website is johnlapine.wordpress.com

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Contributor Spotlight: Rae Hoffman Jager

Rae Hoffman Jager author headshotRae Hoffman Jager’s piece “Spite as an American Value” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Summer 2018 issue, out now.

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

I was born and raised in the Midwest, but I don’t think of myself as a “Midwestern Poet.” With that being said, the Midwestern cities I have lived in have influenced my work and perhaps even my language in certain ways—but overall, I think other qualities influence my work more, like the time I am living in, the Jewish culture I was raised in, my gender identity, and the art I enjoy.

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

It’s incredible just how far you can drive through the Midwest without leaving it. I once fell asleep in Kansas (on a long road trip from Kansas to Arizona) and woke up eight hours later in Kansas still. If I had to choose what was most compelling about the Midwest, I’d say the Ohio River—how it was a symbol for those seeking freedom and how at the same time, storms sometimes don’t cross over it.

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

Woof. This is a big question! I am afraid when I write about memories, they come out only a version of the truth. I am convinced there is no way to revisit a memory accurately, so instead, when I am writing about my own childhood/city/memories, I focus on the minute details in the hopes that the overall gesture is true.

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

I don’t have a space designated for writing; however, the places I have been most prolific are very loud, too tiny coffee shops, this old man’s house my dad is friends with who invented the ceramic magnet (his house is a haunted old tutor house, decorated like it’s 1965), and right after I’ve had a dream. I deal with writer’s block by crying and reading. One is definitely more effective than the other.

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

I think this question is as hard to answer as “How can you tell when you’re an adult?” Each poem is its own little universe that needs balance. Sometimes it never finds that—sometimes it finds that balance on the second edit.

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

Dean Young forever and always for how he masters humor, surprise, and magic.

What’s next for you?

I am currently working on a book about football, violence, birth, and America. That sounds really complicated and ambitious. I’m in way over my head.

Where can we find more information about you?

You can follow me on Twitter and my website. www.raehoffmanjager.com

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Contributor Spotlight: Cathryn Essinger

Cathryn Essinger author headshotCathryn Essinger’s piece “Everyone’s Sweetheart” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Summer 2018 issue, out now.

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

Although I have not lived in the Midwest all of my life, it’s hard to think of a Midwestern state that I have -not- lived in, We have moved around a lot, but have always defaulted to the Midwest. We raised our kids in Ohio and our pets are buried here, so I guess this is home. Ohio is an interesting mix of cities, small towns, and farmland. I explain to friends who live on the coast that what they call ocean, we call CORN. On some spring days, you can look out over a freshly planted field and imagine a straight line all the way to Kansas. The land is that flat and easy to till. Corn and soybeans make up most of rural Ohio, but there is always a truck farm, or a field of saffron and sunflowers just to make your eyes pop.

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

The green of Southwest Ohio is pretty unrelenting, sort of like the people, who just seem to keep on being farmers and grocers and small town people. It’s not unusual to meet someone who is running a family business in its third or fourth generation, often keeping it going “for the kids.”

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

The poem in this issue of Midwestern Gothic was written after visiting our local post office close to Valentine’s Day. The postal clerk greets all of her customers with endearments that might offend, except that she is so consistent! Everyone gets called “honey,” or “sweetie,” or some equally inappropriate comment, but no one objects. It’s just how she gets through her day. The young man at the counter really was mailing a box of Sweet ‘n Low to his girlfriend in California, and you could feel everyone in the post office rooting for him, hoping that such a sweet, funny gesture would not be rejected.

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

I think this poem is typical of most of my narrative work. It usually begins by watching people or listening for a phrase that has some resonance and appeal. I like the sound of a Midwest voice and often include dialogue in my poems, which I hope invites the reader into the poem, because then you are not just reading, but listening as well. People are still the best act in town, and poems are always about people, even when they look as if they are not.

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

A poem is done when you have opened a door for your reader and invited him to come in and finish the story for himself. I think it’s wise to remember that whatever the reader sees in a poem is probably there! (Ok, the student who wrote that Emily Dickinson was on a riding lawn mower when she wrote about the snake in the grass is WRONG.) But, once a poem is published, it really doesn’t belong to you anymore. With luck, it may toddle off and make its own friends and occasionally, it may come home again and tell you where it has been.

What’s next for you?

I am currently marketing a new manuscript titled Deconstructing the Moon. I have a website where I talk more about that project: cathrynessinger.wordpress.com

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Interview: Julie Schumacher

Julie Schumacher author headshotMidwestern Gothic staffer Henry Milek talked with author Julie Schumacher about her book The Shakespeare Requirement, poking fun at academia, Shakespeare, & more.

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

Julie Schumacher: I am an accidental midwesterner. I moved to Minnesota thirty years ago with my spouse, when he landed a job in the Twin Cities; we intended to return to the east coast where we both grew up, but got too comfortable here and decided to stay. I love the Twin Cities. I just wish we could have an ocean here.

HM: You’ve written eight novels, several short stories, essays, and even a coloring book. Where does all the inspiration come from? How do you keep things fresh? Do you actively change up your process or style?

JS: For me, changing things up is essential. When I begin to write something new, I need to feel I’m engaged in a low-stakes experiment. Nothing too serious — I tell myself I’m just messing about. That was the attitude I brought to writing novels for young adults; it was also the impetus behind Dear Committee Members (written entirely in the form of letters of recommendation) and Doodling for Academics, an academic coloring book. On the one hand, discipline — sitting down at the desk — is crucial; and, on the other hand, I want to remind myself of why I began to love to write in the first place: because it involved open-ended possibility and a sense of play.

HM: In your experience, how does a writer best start working on a new idea? Is there such a thing as an ideal first draft? If so, what does it look like? If not, then why?

JS: An ideal first draft, I suppose, is one that has some structural integrity and a sense of purpose — without being too embarrassing to read. Only once or twice have I managed to live up to that standard. More often, my first drafts are hideous things: bits and pieces of mediocre and meandering prose. The challenge is to keep writing through the lousy passages and not impose high standards on early drafts, but instead to allow for failure and to keep going.

HM: Your latest novel, The Shakespeare Requirement, is a follow-up to your bestselling novel Dear Committee Members. Did you always know you wanted to write a sequel to that book? What drew you back to that world and characters?

JS: Some people who read Dear Committee Members found my main character, Professor Fitger, incredibly aggravating. But I realized I loved him. He is aggravating, of course, but he’s also a champion for so many of the things that I care about — literature and the humanities, the state of higher education, undergraduate and graduate students. After the first book was published, I kept thinking about him. He was so thoroughly alive in my mind; I wanted to bring him back for another academic year.

The Shakespeare Requirement book cover by Julie Schumacher

HM: What exactly is different about writing a sequel rather than a completely new piece? What is the advantage to having the world and characters already established? Are there new challenges that come with continuing a series?

JS: Yes, an interesting question: there were advantages as well as challenges. I already knew my main character and the world in which he lived; but I had to be careful to adhere to and be faithful to that world and its many details. While writing The Shakespeare Requirement I found myself re-reading and combing through Dear Committee Members to make sure I didn’t get anything about the setting or the minor characters wrong. I have a new respect for writers who produce a series — but I don’t think I’ll go beyond these two related books, myself.

HM: Between this series and your coloring book Doodling for Academics, you have a history of poking fun at academia. What drives you to return to this topic? Why is it necessary for someone within academia to call it out for its flaws?

JS: I don’t know that it’s “necessary”; and I’ve probably returned to the topic of academia because I’ve been immersed in it myself for decades. I didn’t set out to poke fun at higher education at all: I wrote Dear Committee Members as an experiment in form (wondering whether it would be possible to write an entire novel as a series of recommendation letters), and it emerged as a satire. It has been strange to find myself called a ‘satirist’ and a ‘humor writer’; but I’m very happy to know that the books have made people laugh.

HM: The Shakespeare Requirement follows protagonist Jason Fitger through various crises, including his struggle to get an out-of-date professor of Shakespeare to retire, prompting backlash as his actions are interpreted as an attempt to eliminate the teaching of Shakespeare altogether. What prompted you to take the story in this direction? What interested you about the questions this particular plotline poses?

JS: When I was just starting to write the second book, thinking about Jason Fitger’s second academic year and what it might entail, I was casting about for some sort of structural hook on which to hang the plot. And then one day during a lull in a faculty meeting, a colleague mentioned to me that at her previous university, the faculty had engaged in a year-long battle over a Shakespeare requirement — whether Shakespeare would or would not be required for the undergraduate English major. I felt a little bell ring somewhere at the back of my brain. I count on those sorts of fortuitous moments.

HM: The promotional material for the book is filled with Shakespearean language and references. Can you tell us a bit more about the role Shakespeare’s work plays in the story, as well as how it influenced your own writing?

JS: I am not a Shakespeare scholar. I majored in Spanish as an undergraduate, and never took a dedicated Shakespeare class. Like Jason Fitger, I’m a fiction writer in an English department. So I had to do some research in order to create my Shakespearean, Professor Dennis Cassovan, who is immersed in that field. Though Cassovan has no patience whatsoever for Fitger, I wanted them both to be sympathetic and appealing. I created an undergraduate in the novel who runs into trouble; despite their enmity for each other, both Fitger and Cassovan care deeply about her, and set politics aside to help her along.

HM: What’s next for you?

JS: I am doing some daydreaming, casting about for the next experiment.

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Julie Schumacher is the author of ten books (including a coloring book, Doodling for Academics). She is the first and still only woman to have won the Thurber Prize for American Humor — for her best-selling novel Dear Committee Members. Her newest novel is The Shakespeare Requirement, published in August 2018 by Doubleday. She is a member of the MFA Creative Writing faculty at the University of Minnesota/Twin Cities.

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Contributor Spotlight: J. F. Pritchard

J. F. Pritchard author headshotJ.F. Pritchard’s poem “Snuff” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Summer 2018 issue, out now.

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

I was born in East Liverpool, a city forgotten by most, but remembered by some as once the world’s pottery supplier. I was a baby in an old farm house in Negley, Ohio that burnt down. I lived in a trailer that was sold in a violent divorce. And I moved in with my stepmom and her kids, one of whom recently passed away from tainted heroin. My dad is buried in this soil, my stepmom is buried in this soil, my brother’s ashes are in this soil, and I grow my ideas in this soil.

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

I can only speak for myself and my life in NE Ohio, but I’d say how pain manifests itself. Whether it’s addiction, disability, the wear and tear of a 9 to 5, or something entirely unique, I’ve witnessed triumph and failure. Life is pain, after all.

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

My poem “Snuff” draws directly from a single road at the feet of the Appalachian Mountains. It’s a road I visited often—still visit—where I fished, hunted, made friends, crashed bikes, and met my wife.

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

I meditate on an idea for days, I let it stew, I flesh it out while falling asleep or strolling around town. When it’s done it’s done, and I write it down, let it rest, revisit it, edit, and repeat. I’ll write at the bike trail, an area of wetlands down a ways, or a graveyard beside my place. When there’s nothing to write, I read and interact with locals for inspiration.

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

I first write a thing just to get the feeling/idea down. I let the poem rest, harden. Then when I edit, I bust off the obvious chunks, and I carve until the piece looks best like the feeling/idea. “Snuff” was three years of carving.

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

Maj Ragain (poet). Maj was a friend of mine who passed recently. He lived in Kent, Ohio and taught there. We sent each other poetry and talked on the phone, often. His poetry always shows me the hidden side of people and places.

What’s next for you?

Work towards my MFA.

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Contributor Spotlight: Brian Zimmerman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s next for you?

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

Where can we find more information about you?

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

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Interview: Emily Strelow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wild Birds book cover by Emily Strelow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AE: What’s next for you?

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

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

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