Contributor Spotlight: Renee Bailey

March 27th, 2018

Renee Bailey author headshotRenee Bailey’s piece “When to Buy a Gun” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Winter 2018 issue, available now.

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

I grew up in northwest Ohio and graduated from Bowling Green State University. I live in Mississippi for the time being, and I’m surrounded by the overwhelming identity of southern literature; yet, I can never seem to write it myself. Instead, there’s a quiet tension from the Midwest influencing my work. Often, I think of my hometown, Lima, as the grid I most refer to. When I write about the stars or the country or a neighborhood, it’s always from the perspective of a Ohioan.

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

The Midwest feels unsettled. It reminds me of the compost bin I used to have. I loved watching the bugs heave the dirt, food, and mold inch by inch. It’s an ecosystem working out a problem, and the Midwest feels that way. In the Midwest, conflicts thrive underneath the surface rather than on top of it.

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

This is a recent revelation, but I will never escape my Catholic upbringing. Lima’s riddled with a rich Catholic history, and of course, that comes with the painful past the Church has in the US. Honestly, it comes with the Church’s long history of abuse and power. I can’t run away from it. I think of the odd campus of St. Charles Borromeo—I went to elementary school there. Even today, my parents attend mass there. The memories of mass, the rosary, and the sacraments layer so much of my writing. Recently, I wrote a story about a woman who sleeps with her priest. That was fun and felt like I hit the iron perhaps when it was too hot.

I also think of flat golf courses. I played competitively in high school. Golf in the Midwest differs from anywhere else, I’d say, because of the long scope and the temporal nature of the game—winter abandons it. I think of sitting on a tee, examining the hole and its intention. The green landscape feels inherently Midwest. Something about the groomed nature of it exemplifies what I think of when I describe the Midwest. Isolated in time and momentarily quiet. A visual distance, long and pocked with tension.

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

My primary source of inspiration seems to involve strong women. They’re magnetizing and empowering. I find myself reading so much poetry, too, by marginalized voices. Often it’s an image that I think about, or a verse, something burdened by identity.

Writing in a bar or restaurant, for me, produces a lot of work. I’m not sure why, and it’s probably a cliché at this point. Usually I want a busy place, not necessarily the hole-in-the-wall, but something teeming with voices.

Writer’s block? I write the bad stuff too. I put sentences on my hard drive and shake it out. Sometimes, I take a shower, and come back to the piece after.

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

Perhaps nothing is ever finished, but recently, I completed a flash piece that I questioned if it was too brief. Except I had nothing else to say about this narrative.

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

Angela Ball for poetry. She just released Talking Pillow, and so much of it is about grief. Right now, I’m just stumbling out of a long period of grief, and these poems helped get me out of that tragedy. I read Han Kang’s The Vegetarian last summer and then I finished Human Acts a few weeks ago. She manages to take horrific displays of humanity and make them beautiful. I’m thinking of the protagonist’s deteriorating body and her love of having flowers painted onto it.

What’s next for you?

In the next half hour, I will take my dogs for a walk. In the next year, I will be finishing my PhD, and hopefully, wrapping up two manuscripts I’m working on.

Where can we find more information about you?

I’m a big fan of Twitter. It’s the best place to know what I’m up to: @renee_04chica

Midwest in Photos: Farm Living

“There was something frantic in their blooming, as if they knew that frost was near and then the bitter cold. They’d lived through all the heat and noise and stench of summertime, and now each widely opened flower was like a triumphant cry, ‘We will, we will make seed before we die.’” – Harriette Simpson ArnowThe Weedkiller’s Daughter.

Farm Living by Lacie Meier

Photo by: Lacie Meier

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Interview: Matt Young

Matt Young author headshot

Photo Credit: Tara Monterosso

Midwestern Gothic staffer Kate Cammell talked with author Matt Young about his book Eat the Apple, the art of passive aggression, the difficulty of writing about memory and oneself, and more.

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Kate Cammell: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Matt Young: I moved to Fort Wayne, Indiana when I was eight, lived there until I was 18, moved back to attend grad school in Ohio when I was 27, and then I left again. My wife and I go back once or twice a year now to visit family.

KC: Are there any memorable lessons you’ve taken with you from your time spent living in the region?

MY: I learned the art of passive aggression. My family tends to operate on a passive aggressive level anyway, but I think the Midwest amplified it. People are polite (for the most part—there are always exceptions) to a fault. Direct confrontations are rare. They cut you in other ways that are less expected.

On a lighter note, I also learned how to drive in the snow. I live in Western Washington now and have discovered snow horrifies people west of the Cascades—an inch grinds cities to a halt, people abandon their cars on the sides of roads.

KC: Are you conscious of any ways that the Midwest influenced your writing in terms of style or process?

MY: Understanding passive aggression has also helped me harness sarcasm and wit and snappy dialogue. It’s also a good way to build tension and complicated characters. I’m sure the way I think and write and the words I use and the images I focus on are all informed by how and where I grew up in some way as well.

Eat the Apple book cover by Matt Young

KC: Your first novel, Eat the Apple, a collection of flash nonfiction, was recently released. The stories recount your experience during your three deployments in Iraq. What were the most challenging and exciting parts of addressing your memories from this period?

MY: I didn’t set out to write this book. I initially pushed away from writing about the war and my time in the Marines. I’d tried fictionalizing my experience during my undergrad degree at Oregon State and the stories lacked reflection and nuance, the characters were arrogant and macho and bullshit and I came away from trying to write those stories feeling frustrated and unfulfilled.

When I did eventually write the first few stories for what became the book it was for a grad student reading close to five years after those first attempts at writing. I wanted to read new material and so I turned some bar stories into short nonfiction pieces for the event. The voice that came out was sad, and irreverent and disgusting and it got me hyped. I finished out that first year writing fiction and then that summer I dove into the nonfiction headfirst.

Dredging my past was not enjoyable. Whoever tells you writing is therapy is a cop. That’s utter crap. Writing about memory and yourself is difficult. It takes a lot of reflection and recall. It’s traumatizing to confront a traumatizing past. It was hard to keep that identity at arm’s length. I didn’t always do a good job.

KC: What drew you to the flash form to tell these stories?

MY: I am crap at writing long, for one. But also, I like lyricism and imagery and flash is a great vehicle for those things. Flash nonfiction also mirrors the way memory works—or at least the way my memory works. It’s fragmented and fractured and a lot of the time nonlinear. I do also feel like that form revealed itself; I didn’t go in with that plan. It just kind of happened and I let it happen

KC: Did you work on these stories while you were in Iraq, or did you need to give yourself distance from them and write them after?

MY: Nope. When I was in the Marines there didn’t seem much point in writing. Then, when I left the Marines I wanted to leave it all behind and lose myself in the woods, try and forget it all. I ran away to Oregon for college to be a fisheries and wildlife major. I had this romantic idea of isolation, that I didn’t deserve the comforts of humanity or some such shit. Of course the walking alone in the woods is not what scientists do. It was competitive and fast-paced and the students were very into it. People screeched bird calls in my face. I kind of hated it. Then an English professor suggested that I switch majors to English after I wrote a paper about Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat.” So I switched, started taking more lit courses and writing courses, discovered there was power in writing, tried my hand at crafting stories about my experience, and hated them, took more writing classes, applied to grad school, wrote stories about the Midwest (a couple of which were published here). Ultimately, I joined the Marines in 2005 and didn’t write a single true word about it until 2014. I needed time.

KC: As a creative writing teacher at Centralia College, you have the opportunity to influence budding authors. Do you have a favorite piece of advice about writing that you share with them?

MY: Mostly, I try to tell them not to be afraid to experiment and to read widely. The intro class I teach covers all four genres. Students tend to be ambivalent about whatever they’re unfamiliar with, but they usually concede that messing around with poetry helps their nonfiction become more imagistic, or memory recall exercises in nonfiction helps with story generation in fiction, or character creation in fiction helps their dialogue in drama.

KC: What’s next for you?

MY: I’m going to try and enjoy the next couple of months and the release of the book as much as I can. My wife’s due with our first kid in a couple weeks. I’ll be traveling and doing events pretty regularly for the next couple months and I’ll be at Miami University in early August to teach a nonfiction workshop and do a reading. Any free time I have will be writing. I’ve got plans but I don’t want to jinx them.

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Matt Young

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Contributor Spotlight: Melissa Grunow

Melissa Grunow author headshotMelissa Grunow’s piece “Train Gone” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Winter 2018 issue, out now.

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

I was born in Michigan and—with the exception of four years spent in New Mexico and a year in Ohio—have lived here all my life. It’s impossible for me to travel or meet people from other parts of the country and the world without automatically drawing contrasts and parallels to the life and mindset of Midwestern people. Place plays an important role in my work as my upbringing and sense of home is an inarguable aspect of my identity. Since I write creative nonfiction almost exclusively, my identity and my writing are often one and the same. I go camping a lot in the summer and often rent cabins in the fall and spring, so the immersion in rural Michigan also serves as a catalyst for my writing.

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

It’s difficult to choose just one, but I am most fascinated by the people. “Midwestern nice” is a real thing, and more often than not, it’s genuine. People are kind and friendly in the Midwest and when they ask how you are it’s because they really want to know.

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?

When I write fiction, the setting is often homes or apartments that I’ve lived in at some point of my life. My essays are rife with the unpredictable and often extreme weather in Michigan. I’m fascinated with rivers, lakes, trees, and trains, all staples of Michigan living, so they frequently function as metaphors in my work.

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

Inspiration can come from anywhere and often blindsides me, but it usually starts with a memory or emotion that I cannot shake. I’m a voracious reader, so inspiration can come from reading an essay or a short story that triggers a memory or scene in my head that I may not fully understand, so to find out what it means, I write about it. Occasionally, I am haunted (in that good writerly way) by a dream or a social media post, and it’s as though someone flicked me in the temple and said, “Pay attention. You will have something to say about this.” Most of my stories and essays start with a scribble on a Post-it note or the back of an envelope. When it’s time to write, I tape these notes on the edges of my computer screen as a way to help me stay focused and reconnect with whatever it was that inspired me in the first place.

I do most of my writing in my home office that I’ve set up in a spare bedroom in my house. I designed customized built-in bookshelves, sit at a desk facing a window to my backyard where I watch my dogs chase birds and squirrels. I also write on retreats and in rented cabins if I need to really shut myself off from the outside world, but writing at my desk has proven to be the most productive.

Writer’s block, to me, is simply the manifestation of the fear of failure. Writing is hard and time-consuming and there is no guarantee of any kind of pay-off. If I find myself struggling to work through a new piece, I put it away until I can understand why I’m stuck. Sometimes it’s because I can’t turn off the presumed voices of dissent, other times it’s simply because I’m not sure where the piece is headed, so I need to give it more thought. In the interim, I’ll do something else to let my mind reset its focus. I got into woodworking as a way to give myself some necessary distance. I’ll take my dogs for long walks and listen to podcasts like “Between the Covers” and “Lit Up,” both of which are interviews with writers, and it always helps to listen to other authors talk about their own writing processes and struggles.

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

I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to put your drafts aside and just let them breathe. You cannot—at least I cannot—see the flaws in a piece when you’re close to it. I often go through a few heavy revisions involve literally a printed copy into pieces and rearranging them. If I’m really fighting with it, I’ll ask a few of my fellow writer friends to have a look and see if they can pinpoint the problems. Finally, I read it aloud, let it sit some more, do some line editing, and read it aloud again. I only know a draft is finished when it sounds the way I want it to sound when I read it in my own voice.

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

Because my writing themes are so often centered around relationships, women’s identity, trauma, mental illness, sexuality and health, and displacement, I’m most drawn to (women) writers who deal with the same topics. The list is ever-growing, but current favorites are Lidia Yuknavitch, Melissa Febos, Lacy M. Johnson, Cheryl Strayed, and Meghan Daum.

What’s next for you?

I’m very excited to share that my second book is currently in contract negotiations with a publisher. It’s an essay collection titled, I Don’t Belong Here, and if all goes as planned, it will be released in 2018.

Where can we find more information about you?

You can find me at http://melissagrunow.com, www.facebook.com/MelissaGrunowAuthor, and on Twitter @melgrunow. I’m a big proponent of literary citizenship, and in turn, review books for The Coil at https://medium.com/the-coil. If you have a book you would like for me to review, feel free to contact me through my website.

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Midwest in Photos: July in Chicago

“Yet once you’ve come to be part of this particular patch, you’ll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.” – Nelson AlgrenChicagoCity on the Make.

July in Chicago by Michelle Pretorius
Photo by: Michelle Pretorius

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Contributor Spotlight: Alysse McCanna

Alysse Kathleen author headshotAlysse McCanna’s piece “Taking Up the Dock” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Winter 2018 issue, out now.

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

I grew up in Oshkosh and Appleton, two small cities in eastern Wisconsin. My family has a cabin on Washington Island, a rural part of Door County off the northernmost point of Wisconsin’s peninsula. I spent a lot of time there when I began seriously writing poetry, and creating in such a peaceful, productive place (swinging on a hammock, watching the waves of Lake Michigan) was a blessing. Even in a Midwestern city, nature is never very far away, and I know that as a writer I can venture into nature, wherever I am, to find inspiration and solace.

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

I’ve lived my entire adult life outside of the Midwest, and I still miss the people and the dialect. There’s a genuine friendliness to Midwesterners—they’re welcoming and generous. Also, I love the nasally lilt of Midwestern accents, and immediately feel a kinship with anyone I meet who speaks with one—plus, I know I’ve stayed too long at my parents’ when I start to speak with a UP drawl!

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?

Place-based writing can be immediate or might follow me around for a while, waiting for the right moment to reenter my consciousness. “Taking up the Dock” draws on specific childhood memories from the shores of Lake Butte des Morts in Oshkosh. My parents and I lived in a little house with a lush backyard, full of tall trees, that sloped down to the lake. Each spring my father’s many brothers would visit with their wives and kids and help put in the dock. In the fall, everyone would visit again and bring the dock up for the winter. This seasonal routine, and its eventual end when we moved away, rattled around in my brain for years before I found a place for it on the page.

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

I usually write best in the early morning with a cup of coffee, although inspiration can strike anywhere. While my academic writing requires silence and no distractions, my creative writing thrives on the interruptions of daily life. I wash a few dishes, fold laundry, walk the dog, or sweep the house to let ideas percolate. Physical movement allows my body to feel and occupy spaces in a way that can unlock the words for which I’m searching.

I don’t believe in writer’s block—I think there’s times of intense productivity and times where words on the page are few, but we’re always composing and editing and revising in our heads. We’re always storing memories, images, conversations, words. If I’m feeling stuck, I try to pay closer attention to the everyday—there’s magic hidden there, you know. If that doesn’t work, I pick up a book and read what someone else has written—it’s a guaranteed way to bring something to the surface.

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

I rarely feel that a piece of writing is finished! Sometimes a tight, concise poem can’t get any smaller, and I feel it’s as close to done as can be. Usually, though, I fiddle with my poems until submission deadlines approach—then I just cross my fingers and send them off into the great unknown.

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

I’m obsessed with the poet CAConrad. His last several books are what he’s termed “(Soma)tics,” guides to unlocking the oft-unnoticed, weird and wonderful intricacies of daily life. He’s wildly funny, heartbreakingly genuine, and completely unlike any poet I’ve read before.

What’s next for you?

After completing my required coursework in the English graduate program at Oklahoma State University next year, I’ll be studying for qualifying exams, then drafting my creative dissertation and preparing for defense. With any luck, I’ll receive my PhD in 2021!

Where can we find more information about you?

alyssemccanna.com, @alyssekathleen on Twitter.

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Midwest in Photos: Uneasy

“Yes. This is the place. / Where my shining treasure has been waiting. / Where my shadow washes itself in my fountain.” – Laura KasischkeSpace, in Chains.

Uneasy by Dawn Olsen

Photo by: Dawn Olsen

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The Space Between by by Kali VanBaale (MG Press)

Our next MG Press title is something that’s becoming more and more important to us, especially as current events in the country continue to unfold:the digital re-release of Kali VanBaale’s award-winning first novel, The Space Between. 

Due out June 12, 2018, The Space Between follows Judith Elliott, a mother in the Midwest who is going about her normal Valentines Day when she hears the news that her teenage son, Lucas, has taken a gun to school. He has killed two other students, a teacher, and himself. This novel was originally inspired by the Columbine tragedy, but recent events have made this story incredibly, and unfortunately, relevant.

We hope that Kali’s contribution to the discussion is something that inspires meaningful changes in whatever way it can; she is a phenomenal writer, and this novel won an American Book Award in 2007, so we couldn’t be prouder to be helping her continue to share her voice with the world.

From the back cover: 

Winner of a 2007 American Book Award

Recipient of a 2007 Independent Publisher’s silver medal for general fiction

Winner of the 2006 Fred Bonnie Memorial First Novel Award

Valentine’s Day in middle America. Judith Elliott fixes breakfast for her affluent suburban family. She kisses them all goodbye, tends to the house, makes plans for later with her husband. Then comes the news: her teenage son, Lucas, has taken a gun to school. He has killed two other students, a teacher, and himself.

Judith, an ordinary wife and mother, must suddenly grapple with extraordinary grief and horror. As reporters gather and lawsuits loom, society shuts out the surviving members of the Elliott family—including husband and father, Peter, and daughter and sister, Lindsey—who are as blindsided by the tragedy as anyone. Judith struggles to be the center of what remains of her family but finds herself plagued by doubts and unanswerable questions that may eventually disrupt her life more completely than the initial tragedy.

In this digital rerelease exclusive, Kali VanBaale’s award-winning first novel examines the aftermath of this modern nightmare with a clear-eyed dramatic precision that will leave readers wondering what does indeed lurk in the dark, unknowable spaces that exist between even the most loving of family members.

Praise:

The Space Between is a heart-rending, unflinching, lyrically powerful look into events both extraordinary and familiar, and an exploration of a family’s collective soul — how it trembles and aches and struggles to recover. By poignantly rendering the characters’ lives, what VanBaale reveals is as shocking as it is comforting: the space between us is an illusion, so we’re all in this together.”
Bret Anthony Johnston, author of Remember Me Like This, and Corpus Christi: Stories

“Kali VanBaale slices straight to the heart of a mother’s agony and guides us through her journey toward self-revelation; the triumph of this debut novelist lies in her compassion for those who suffer tragedy and learn from their mistakes. This is an important novel for parents and teenagers, for anyone who cares about what’s happening in our schools and homes. I read straight through the darkness into the morning hours that shimmered with new light.”
Bev Marshall, author of Walking Through Shadows, Right As Rain, and Hot Fudge Sunday Blues

“… every parent of a teenager in America should read this book.”
— Jim Barnes, managing editor of Independent Publisher

Pre-Order:
In addition, you can pre-order a copy of the book for only $3.99 and save 20% off the cover price (reg. $4.99) when it launches June 12, 2018.

Read more about The Space Between 

(Cover design by Lauren Crawford)

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Contributor Spotlight: Mario Perez

Mario Perez author headshot

Photo Credit: Zach Boyer

Mario Perez’s story “In a Rundown” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Winter 2018 issue, out now.

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

I’m a South Side Chicago guy just like Stuart Dybek. I left the city for China in my mid-twenties, but many of my stories are set in those blocks I scissor-kicked through as a kid. Chicago is constantly a returning character in my pieces.

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

People ask me about the Midwest on my travels. They don’t know much about the area as they do about the East and West. It has this duality to it: long stretches of flat nature or sprawling cities that thrive on the backs of the people. Chicago is the most compelling city in the states. It has an essence that generates stories which stir people when they read them.

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

Every story has a piece of the writer contained within. If you want to know more about me you just have to read my stories. Honesty bleeds through my fingers when I write. I think the more attached you are to what you’re writing, the more intriguing it becomes. People want to see that mirror being held up.

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

At night and sometimes small spurts sprinkled in the afternoons. I have bursts and it can be tiresome sometimes. If I am struggling mightily, I’ll move to a spot outside and stay there till I get enough pages done. I’m in Mexico right now so there’s always a cool breeze and a few mosquitoes keeping me company.

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

The common saying goes a piece is never finished. Short Stories are a bit easier for me to push away and say enough. I’ll send them out and see which one’s stick. The one’s that get rejected, I’ll look at them again, or send them to my editor Emilie Cherlet for some extra comments and suggestions. I highly recommend finding another set of eyes for your work. Don’t just pay for someone though, you need to find someone who can read YOUR work well and who offers productive and trusting advice. I am lucky to have her. This is hard to find.

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

Right now I am devouring all of Murakami’s early novels since I love his jazzy narrators and his weird magic realism techniques (I have actually caught on to a trick he does recently). I borrow from Roberto Bolano as well, I’ve read The Savage Detectives three times, when it comes to novels and Janet Frame, her short story collections are amazing, when it comes to condensed tales.

What’s next for you?

If you mean writing wise, I’m working on a novel set in China (I spent five years there) and I am still shopping around my first novel set in 1992 Chicago.

Where can we find more information about you?

I have a Twitter @Famous_PlumerM but I don’t find myself on it a lot. Many of these social media darlings are banned in China and I am more of an outsider when it comes to internet presence. I can try and fix that.

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Midwest in Photos: Converse

“It was one of those humid days when the atmosphere gets confused. Sitting on the porch, you could feel it: the air wishing it was water.” – Jeffrey EugenidesMiddlesex.

Converse by Shay Appold

Photo by: Shay Appold

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