Midwestern Gothic staffer Audrey Meyers talked with author John Smolens about his novel Wolf’s Mouth, writing from the point of view of the outsider, connecting imagination with research, and more.
Audrey Meyers: What’s your connection to the Midwest? How has living in Michigan impacted your writing?
John Smolens: My Russian and Irish ancestors came to the United States under dire circumstances; I’m the product of that great American immigration story, and fortunate to have lived in various parts of the country, never having to move because of my religion (as in the case of my Jewish grandfather’s family) or my farm was seized by the British army (as in the case of my Irish grandmother’s family). Where you come from is important; where you go is, too. I was born in New York, raised in Greater Boston, and at the age of 32 attended the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. In 1985 I began teaching at Michigan State University, and have lived in Michigan ever since. So I’ve now spent more than half of my life in the Midwest.
AM: What is interesting about the Upper Peninsula and how do you capture this in your writing?
JS: Everything. I’m not sure I do capture the U.P. in my writing. Certainly not all of it. I don’t know that anyone can. It’s not just that it’s “big” in the geographical sense; conceptually, it’s too mercurial to grasp. Sometimes a book can offer glimpses of this place, and I hope mine does for some people.
AM: Since Wolf’s Mouth takes place in the mid-20th century, how do you make historical accounts relevant to the modern reader?
JS: It depends on the reader, really. The novel spans nearly a half century, beginning in 1944 and ending in 1991. While writing the book I didn’t think that I was consciously trying to make it “relevant”; but I hoped it would be a fairly accurate portrait of the second half of the 20th century. The narrator, Francesco Giuseppe Verdi (who later in the story changes his name to Frank Green) is born in 1919, which is the year my father was born. I did this so that as Francesco’s story unfolds, his age in a given year is the same as my father’s. It made it easier for me to imagine Francesco, say, as a man in his mid-thirties in 1956.
AM: What inspired you to write Wolf’s Mouth from the perspective of a foreigner in Michigan during WWII?
JS: A lot of stories and novels are told from the point of view of the outsider, as well as the doppelgänger. Francesco/Frank is, to a degree, both. Working through a perspective of unfamiliarity seemed essential to this novel. When I began reading about the POW camps that were here in the Upper Peninsula, the initial news stories said that the majority of the imprisoned soldiers were German. I’ve never been to Germany, but I have taught in Italy, and have visited the country seven or eight times since spending a half year there in 2003. I don’t know that I could have written the book from the perspective of a German soldier. But Italian, it was worth trying. Furthermore, the tensions that arise in the POW camp at Au Train (which is about 30 miles from Marquette, where I live) aren’t really between the prisoners and their American guards, but between the prisoners themselves.
It was interesting that the Nazis, whom their American guards often called “true believers,” took control of the camps. They were in the minority; many German soldiers, and certainly the men from other countries, were not ardent followers of Hitler. But the “true believers” were adamant, and they utilized threats and intimidation. There were instances where prisoners were injured and in some cases killed. In one camp, a soldier who had developed an appreciation for American jazz was ordered to stop listening to jazz recordings; when he refused, his ears were cut off. For the most part, the American guards allowed the prisoners to run the daily operation of the camps, provided that they performed the work that was expected of them. In the U.P. camps, this meant cutting wood for pulp production. Wolf’s Mouth is told from the point of view of an Italian officer, who is both an outsider in America, and also in the eyes of the ranking German officer in the camp, who is adamant that all the prisoners adhere to Nazi principles.
AM: Through this unique point of view, did Michigan as a whole change for you? In other words, what did you notice or see differently about the Midwest while describing it in Wolf’s Mouth? Further, how are the themes of nature and regionality utilized in your novel?
JS: The first portion of the novel, Francesco is in the camp at Au Train, but after he escapes he remains in Michigan after the war. A small percentage of POWs did this; out of about 425,000 men who were brought to the camps in America (there were at least 170 camps throughout the country), approximately 2,200 men were somehow unaccounted for at the end of the war. Some fell through the bureaucratic cracks, I suppose, but a good number of them managed to remain in the United States; they changed their identities, and many lived for years here.
Francesco/Frank is a chameleon, and an astute observer. In order to survive in America, he learns to speak and look and behave like an American. By Part Three of the novel, he’s living in Detroit in the mid-fifties; he’s married, has a small business, and he’s a guy who after work sits at a bar, drinking Stroh’s, listening to the Tigers game on the radio. While writing this portion of the novel, along with reading news accounts, I gathered images from the period. Who called the Tigers games on the radio broadcasts in ’56? Who was in their bullpen? What were the popular songs that year? One of the hits in ’56 was “Que Serà Serà,” sung by Doris Day in Alfred Hitchcock’s movie The Man Who Knew Too Much. (Though the phrase is supposed to be Italian, meaning “Whatever will be will be,” the first word Che was changed to Que, because someone in Hollywood felt that an American audience was more familiar with Spanish.) I studied clothing, shoes, and cars. Because Frank has a small shop that sells lampshades (both retail and wholesale), I researched lamp shades. The name of his shop is Made in the Shade.
AM: What did you learn about yourself as a writer when creating a Wolf’s Mouth?
JS: I’m not sure how to answer that. It suggests that I take some kind of personal lesson or insight from my own books. Oddly (perhaps), while writing this book (and others) I’m of two minds (at least two, actually): I’m thoroughly steeped in the characters, to the point that they and the world they inhabit seem utterly real to me; and at the same time I feel quite distant from the whole enterprise. I don’t know if this is a matter of my own survival, or what. I do know I’ve read other novelist say how once they’ve finished a novel it’s like it’s not even theirs. I know what they mean.
AM: What genre do you think Wolf’s Mouth falls under? Why?
JS: I’m not fond of the notion that novels have to fit in a particular genre. Perhaps it’s easier to market them, but most novels contain elements we associate with several categories. Some—not all—of my books I suppose are considered “historical fiction,” simply because they are set in the past: the first months of the American Revolutions in 1775; an epidemic of a deadly fever in 1793; anarchism and political assassination in 1901; JFK’s assassination (1963) and the Salem witch trials (1692). Wolf’s Mouth is narrated by a man who is born in 1919, and it concludes when he’s an elderly man in 1991. Where does history give way to contemporary? For me, the fifties are contemporary; for a younger reader, the fifties is ancient history. I subscribe to the notion that the past and present are ineluctably linked.
AM: What research or references did you depend on for this book? How did implementing historical facts affect your writing, and were there any obstacles? How did you overcome them?
JS: I couldn’t write a book like Wolf’s Mouth without reading history, incorporating elements that I found in newspaper articles, interviews, books, etc. Some years ago, there was a novel (the name of which I forget) that won the Pulitzer Prize; it was set in a South American country (which one, I also forget), and when the author said in an interview that she had never visited that country there followed considerable criticism. Though I understand why there was such an outcry, the fact is she has the right to write about a place she’s never visited. A novel is, after all, considered a work of the imagination (“imaginative writing” is sometimes treated as an oxymoron, particularly by people with PhDs in literature). When I wrote about the American Revolution in The Schoolmaster’s Daughter, which was based on real events and, in some cases, people who lived in Boston in 1775, it was an exercise in the imaginary, regardless of how much research I did (and it was considerable). We can’t go back and visit the Battle of Bunker Hill. However, for me, attempting to find out what people were like during a given historical period is essential to writing a novel about that period. Diaries, letters, histories, articles, maps (I love maps)—I want to absorb as much as I can before I begin a book, and the search for material continues while I’m writing.
AM: What themes of Wolf’s Mouth resonated with you the most and why?
JS: One theme, really: survival. Jim Harrison thought all novels are about love, death. And perhaps food. I think some, including Wolf’s Mouth, are about survival.
AM: How do you make a tale an “American tale?”
JS: That’s an intriguing question. It’s not as easy as simply setting a novel in America. Some works of fiction have been set in other parts of the world and yet are truly American—which could also be said for British novels, maybe because England was an empire for generations. Think of E. M. Forester’s A Passage to India. As much as I love America, I don’t believe I’ll ever reach a point where I can say I know America. Perhaps that’s why I (and others) write about it? Actually, the older I get, the less I feel I know or understand who and what Americans are, and to pursue that line of thinking one would have to enter into an extended discussion of our current political and culture climate, and at the moment, as we are wont to say, I’m not going there.
Over the years, I read so many works of fiction with my students. William Carlos Williams’s short story “The Use of Force” and Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” are truly American stories. However, The Handmaid’s Tale, which is set in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and written by Margaret Atwood, who happens to be Canadian, also seems very much an American tale (though not exclusively so). E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime was on my syllabus several times. One might say that it’s an American novel, yet there is a palpable “foreignness” about it. So there is no easy answer here, and justly so. If we can clearly define America, and the American tale, we might not bother to write novels about America. That would be an American tragedy, so to speak.
AM: What’s next for you?
JS: This spring three of my earlier novels have been reissued in paperback and as e-books by Michigan State University Press: Cold, Fire Point, and The Invisible World. Later this year, another of my earlier novels, The Anarchist, will also be reissued. Having these books reissued is truly gratifying. My next new novel will be published (also by Michigan State University Press) in 2018; it’s what I consider a “sort of sequel” to Cold. It’s set in the U.P. and it’s called Out.
And beyond that, who knows? I tend to binge read—just find what I can about a subject and go at it. For a good while I’ve been reading about 1927. An amazing year. I suspect there’s a story there.
John Smolens has published ten works of fiction, most recently Wolf’s Mouth, which has been selected as a Library of Michigan Notable Book for 2017. Four of his earlier novels, Cold, Fire Point, The Invisible World, and The Anarchist, will be reissued in paperback by Michigan State University Press in 2017. His new novel, Out, which is a sequel to Cold, will be published in 2018 by MSU Press. His work has appeared in publications such as The North American Review, The Southern Review, The Massachusetts Review, The Virginia Quarterly Review, Columbia Journal of Literature and Art, The Boston Globe, The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post. He was educated at Boston College, the University of New Hampshire, and the University of Iowa, and he has taught at Michigan State University, Western Michigan University, and is professor emeritus, Northern Michigan University. In 2010, he was the recipient of the Michigan Author of the Year Award from the Michigan Library Association.