4th Annual Midwestern Authors Book Giveaway

October 2nd, 2017

We’re thrilled to bring back our Midwestern Authors Book Giveaway, where you can win signed copies and eBooks from some of the best talent the Midwest has to offer! The best part is, all you need is a Twitter account to enter.

TO ENTER: Retweet the contest tweet from @mwgothic. That’s it! For each prize we’ll draw a winner (at random using Random.org) from the collected pools of entries.

CONTEST DATES: Monday, October 2nd, through Friday, October 6th

PRIZES: We’re giving away a slew of daily prizes, with bigger prizes at the end of the week.

The big prizes at the end of the week are:

Grand Prize: 1 Yearly Print Subscription to Midwestern Gothic (2 issues), and a bundle of MG Press books (Above All Men by Eric Shonkwiler, Autoplay by Julie Babcock, The Good Divide by Kali VanBaale, Tell Me How it Was anthology, and We Could’ve Been Happy Here by Keith Lesmeister).
1st Prize: 1 Yearly Digital Subscription to Midwestern Gothic (2 issues), and a pack of MG Press eBooks (Above All Men and 8th Street Power and Light by Eric Shonkwiler, We Could’ve Been Happy Here by Keith Lesmeister).
2nd Prize: A pack of this year’s Midwestern Gothic print issues (Winter 2017 and Summer 2017).

Not only does re-Tweeting the contest tweet put you in the running to win one of these prize packs, but it also enters you automatically into the drawing for a daily prize.

Daily prizes include:

Monday: 1 MG Press eBook (This Jealous Earth by Scott Dominic Carpenter), a bundle of books from Midwestern authors (The Baby that Ate Cincinnati by Matt Mason, Some Luck by Jane Smiley, and The Miles Between Me eBook by Toni Nealie), or a yearly digital subscription to Midwestern Gothic (2 issues).

Tuesday: Mystery box of books and journals, 1 MG Press eBook (Autoplay by Julie Babcock), or a bundle of books from Midwestern authors (When I Return To You, I Will Be Unfed by Christopher Bowen, The Baby that Ate Cincinnati by Matt Mason, Early Warning by Jane Smiley, The Soul Standard stories, The Telling eBook by Zoe Zolbrod, and The Mutual Admiration Society eBook by Lesley Kagen).

Wednesday: 1 MG Press eBook (Ghost County by John McCarthy), a bundle of books from Midwestern authors (Golden Age by Jane Smiley, The Miles Between Me eBook by Toni Nealie, When I Return to You, I Will Be Unfed by Christopher Bowen, and The Mutual Admiration Society eBook by Lesley Kagen), or Midwestern Gothic journal pack (Winter 2017 and Summer 2017 issues).

Thursday: Mystery box of books and journals, 1 MG Press eBook (The Good Divide by Kali VanBaale), or a bundle of books from Midwestern authors (When I Return To You, I Will Be Unfed by Christopher Bowen, Zero Fade by Chris L. Terry, The Telling eBook by Zoe Zolbrod, Juventud by Vanessa Blakelee, and The Mutual Admiration Society eBook by Lesley Kagen).

Friday: Grand Prize, 1st Prize, or 2nd Prize (see above).

The nitty gritty:

  • Once you retweet the contest tweet you are automatically entered into the drawing for the prizes for that day and the grand, 1st, 2nd and bonus prizes at the end of the week
  • Must have a valid Twitter account to enter
  • You get one entry per day—that means if you RT the contest tweet every day of the contest, you have a shot at winning all the daily prizes, and you get 5 chances to win the prizes at the end of the week.
  • Winners are chosen by Random.org random number generator after each RT is assigned a number.
  • Daily winners will be announced on Twitter, and only RTs from that day will count toward that day’s prize.
  • If you enter and win a daily prize, you can still enter, once per day, for the rest of the contest duration for a better shot at the final prize. You can only win one daily prize per twitter account.

Midwest in Photos: Kenosha, Wisconsin 3

“You know that old saying, Lake Superior never gives up her dead? She gave one up, Marit. It doesn’t matter who he is. She gave one up.” – Elsa Nekola, “Then I Will No Longer Be Me, But the Forest,” Midwestern Gothic Winter 2017

Kenosha WI 3 by Tara Reeves

Photo by: Tara Reeves

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Interview: Sharon Solwitz

Sharon Solwitz author headshotMidwestern Gothic staffer Meghan Chou talked with author Sharon Solwitz about her book Once, In Lourdes, the process of growing up, influential coming-of-age stories, and more.

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

Sharon Solwitz: I was born in Pittsburgh, grew up in Beachwood, a suburb of Cleveland, married and divorced a man from Chicago, remarried a man from Minneapolis. We raised our children in Chicago and still reside there, four doors north of Cubs Park. I seem to be Midwestern through and through.

MC: In Once, In Lourdes, four teenage friends—Kay, Vera, C.J., and Saint—make a pact to sacrifice their lives by jumping off a lake cliff, called the Haight, after they live the next two weeks to the fullest. What does their pact show about teenage friendships and stepping into adulthood?

SS: In adolescence, friendship supplants the interest in and reliance on adults. Your friends are your universe, and their opinions and tastes and love or lack thereof become the touchstone of yourself. I see adolescent friendships as an essential step on the road to adulthood. Teenagers have to relinquish their dependence on their parents in order to understand themselves. For some years they replace dependence and love for their parents with dependence and love for their circle of friends. There’s nothing wrong with dependence; we’re social beings and need one another. But to become an adult, you have to enlarge and vary your group, the wider the better. I see growing up in Jungian terms as a process of individuation, of gaining access to more and more distant or recalcitrant parts of yourself—which enables you to form wider connections with other people. There may be other paths for the human heart and soul, but I haven’t figured them out yet.

Once In Lourdes book cover by Sharon Solwitz

MC: How does the suicide pact change the way Kay, Vera, C.J., and Saint approach the supposed last two weeks of their lives?

SS: Good question. Really, the central question. It makes them daring—dangerously candid, self-revealing. If you only have two weeks to live, you are less afraid of telling the truth to your friends, enemies, loved ones. The only one who doesn’t tell the truth is Vera, with disastrous consequences. She was the one who started the process, who challenged them, but she never told the whole truth.

MC: While the four friends try to cement their friendship forever, America fights in the Vietnam War across the world. How do the events of the ’60s influence the tone of Once, In Lourdes, specifically on topics of violence?

SS: At first all the evils of the Sixties, the social injustice, assassinations, the pointless, devastating war, are background to the world these kids live in. Lourdes is a resort town, fairly wealthy, and even the least privileged of the four friends is safe from most forms of want and physical danger. Current events form a kind of bass line against the four-part upper register of the characters’ thoughts and actions. Although they occasionally refer to current events, they remain largely subconscious, rising only at the end to the level of actuality.

MC: Since Once, In Lourdes follows teenagers in the summer before their senior year of high school, one could categorize the book as a coming-of-age story. How do you feel Once, In Lourdes fits in with and differs from other coming-of-age books?

SS: Whoa! Beeg question. Coming of age requires an encounter with oneself and others. Books that accomplish this? Catcher in the Rye, Little Women, “The Bear” (from Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses.) All of these books place their protagonists in a situation where they have to come to terms with death. Holden Caulfield is sharp, humorous, suicidal and hates most of the world, at the end arriving at a kind of marginal acceptance. The sisters, distinct personalities, are obliged to face the death of one of their band while the Civil War rages on. Young Ike is made to witness not just the death of the seemingly all-powerful bear, but of the wilderness and the antebellum Southern life that the book depicts. In a way, all of these are my influences—Alcott’s four loving and questing sisters, Salinger’s alienated school boy. But Faulkner is my touchstone. I want to write something as monumental as Go Down, Moses.

MC: On sensitive subjects, such as suicide, how do you as a writer tread the line between honoring and exploiting the topic for storytelling?

SS: Frankly, I don’t think about exploiting, don’t try to avoid it or stay on the other side of it. My goal is simply to write the truth of my characters as honestly and fully and deeply as I can. So there is no question of exploiting the topic, no glamorizing, or making suicide seem like something other than a tragic mistake. The result of a confluence of mistakes.

MC: Once, In Lourdes takes place in Lourdes, Michigan, in the summer of 1968. Why did you feel the Midwest, particularly Michigan, was the most fitting setting for this story about friendship?

SS: In my central image for Once, in Lourdes, the four characters align on a bluff, holding hands, about to jump to their deaths. I once drove along the Michigan coast in search of a house I never found, and I came across a house with a peach tree in front. The backyard was high above Lake Michigan and at the same time eroding, grass that was once part of the lawn growing down the nearly perpendicular slope. It was uncanny.

MC: What sort of research did you perform to accurately portray this time period?

SS: Ha! Most of it came from memory. I was at Woodstock too. I lived on a commune and rode a horse through Afghanistan. Honest to God. As for research, I did some Googling, for Allen Ginsburg’s “America,” and for other famous figures in the battle of Chicago. Most of it got absorbed by the imaginary, though.

MC: What’s next for you?

SS: I’m looking for a publisher for Abra Cadabra, a novel in stories about a family in which a child gets cancer. I’m in the middle of work on Boy in Exile, which took me to Israel, where I may need to go again. In that book, 20-year-old Jacob goes to Israel and disappears, and his schoolteacher mom (whose husband has just left her), goes in search of him.

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Sharon Solwitz’s novel Once in Lourdes just came out from Random House (Spiegel & Grau). She has also published a novel Bloody Mary and a collection of stories Blood and Milk, the latter of which was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award. Awards for her individual stories, appearing in such magazines as TriQuarterly, Mademoiselle, and Ploughshares, include the Pushcart Prize, the Katherine Anne Porter Prize, and the Nelson Algren Prize. Her stories and essays can be found in numerous anthologies and creative writing textbooks, and in Best American Short Stories 2012 and 2016. She teaches fiction writing at Purdue University and lives in Chicago with her husband, the poet Barry Silesky.

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We Could’ve Been Happy Here reviewed by Rain Taxi!

We Could've Been Happy Here book cover by Keith LesmeisterEven months after the initial release of We Could’ve Been Happy Here, Keith Lesmeister’s outstanding collection is still heaping praise!

Rain Taxi recently published their review of We Could’ve Been Happy Here in their current print issue, and author Bret Farley notes the collection “assumes the straightforward, no-frills nature of the [Midwestern] region surrounding its characters.”

Here’s an excerpt from the review:

“The significance of such tiny [human] interactions, and how they change people and their circumstances, is the heart of Lesmeister’s collection, pumping its essence throughout each story and infusing it with life.”
Bret Farley, Rain Taxi

Purchase your copy of We Could’ve Been Happy Here and see for yourself what all the praise is about here!

And read the full review in Rain Taxi‘s current issue here.

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Contributor Spotlight: Heather Swan

Heather Swan author photoHeather Swan’s piece “Liberty” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Summer 2017 issue, out now.

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

Although I have lived on both coasts and in Colorado, and, for a while, Nepal, much of my life has happened in the Midwest. My work is threaded with aspects of the Midwestern landscape––what light does to fields at different times of the day, of the year, which birds are singing, the drama of the harsh winters, the ecstasy of seeing a crocus emerging from the snow in spring…

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

It’s always funny to me when I hear someone say that they find the Midwest to be lacking in natural beauty. While we don’t have mountains or oceans, we have undulating hills, gorgeous lakes of many sizes, prairies, forests, bogs, fens, drumlins, creeks, valleys full of Queen Anne’s lace and Black-eyed Susans…so much understated beauty, which I feel we need to work to protect.

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?

There are many places, and specific times, from my childhood that inform who I am in ways I can’t even comprehend, and I know that I am probably always writing to try to figure those things out. One example would be a barn we lived in with my mother when we couldn’t afford an apartment. We put hats on at night because there were so many bats living in there with us, and my mother didn’t want them to get caught in our curly hair. She named all of the insects and animals. Any bat was called “Angel” and the wasps were all called “Winthrop”…She did not want the nonhumans to be something separate or frightening. My identity has been shifted by that time and place, certainly. But more generally, I would say that the prairies and the woods of the midwest are where I feel most centered and connected, and where much of my writing happens.

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

I think I write around an idea or a question for a long time with poems which approach understanding it from a variety of perspectives. And the way I enter those poems is always a surprise. Like being on a treasure hunt and finding some clue as you’re walking around in your day and then thinking: Oh! That’s part of it. And then I write into that unexpected clue to learn what it has to offer, what part of the mystery it’s holding.

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

I think as a poem begins, however it begins, with an image or a question or an ache, almost immediately it creates its own parameters which dictate form and rhythm and diction. My own practice is to try to figure those out and then fiddle within that set of guidelines that the poem demands until it seems to be doing what it set out to do. And some poems stay unresolved for a long time. It requires both attention and distance, I think, to get it. I feel really lucky when a poem finally sounds unified and compete.

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

Hmmm…such a hard question, a bit like asking painters to name their favorite color maybe! I will say that one writer who has had a huge influence on me is Jane Hirshfield. When I discovered her spare, beautiful poems, years ago now, they spoke to me of the honest nuances of being human in ways that other poets had not. In person, she is generous, fully present, and wise as well. More recently, Ross Gay’s work has been crucial to me, as it as it so elegantly encapsulates both the great suffering and the miraculous beauty of being alive in our human bodies.

What’s next for you?

I am just finishing up two poetry manuscripts. One of them deals primarily with the relationship we (both human and nonhuman beings) have with pesticides. As I wrote my nonfiction book about honeybees, I became painfully aware of how many chemicals we interact with on a daily basis. I also continue to write nonfiction about environmental and other issues that we face in our current historical moment.

Where can we find more information about you?

My book Where Honeybees Thrive is forthcoming from Penn State Press in October, and I also have work at Edge Effects and other online and print journals.

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Midwest in Photos: Red Door

“He liked hearing voices attached to different lives, imagining the view of earth from their front door.” – Tyler Barton, “Boots on the Ground,” Midwestern Gothic Winter 2017.

Photo by: David Thompson

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Interview: John Smolens

John Smolens Author HeadshotMidwestern 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.

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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.

Wolf's Mouth book cover by John Smolens

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.

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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.

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Views From The Heartland: Dan Farnum


Midwestern Gothic staffer Ben Ratner spoke with photographer Dan Farnum about his creative process, the entwined history of words and pictures, and more.

Dan Farnum was born and raised in the blue-collar town of Saginaw, Michigan. His photographs address the American experience, landscape, and culture and have been showcased nationally in several exhibitions and galleries in San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. Dan received his MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute and BFA from the University of Michigan. He is currently an Associate Professor at The University of Tulsa.

He is the recipient of notable awards such as Best in Show in the Midwest Contemporary exhibition from Natasha Egan and Karen Irvine at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, an award from Ann Pallesen at Photo Center Northwest in Seattle, two prizes from the Paul Sack Architectural Photography Contest at the San Francisco Art Institute, and the Juror’s Selection Award given by Christopher Rauschenberg in an exhibition at the Center for Fine Art Photography. For his work included in the exhibition Landscape Interrupted at the Coconino Center for the Arts, Dan received an award from William Jenkins, curator of the New Topographic exhibition at the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House.

Dan’s prints have previously been exhibited at the Marin Museum of Contemporary Art, Black Box Gallery in Portland, Root Division in San Francisco, and at the Center for Modern Psychoanalytic Studies in NYC. Dan’s photographs have also been featured in multiple solo exhibitions in venues such as the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, Newspace Center for Photography in Portland, University of Wisconsin, and at Alibi Fine Art in Chicago. Dan’s photographs where recently featured in the Beijing based magazine called Vision and in TIME Magazine.

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Ben Ratner: What is your connection to the Midwest?

Dan Farnum: I grew up in Michigan and have spent the majority of my life living in the Midwest. I was born in Saginaw and lived there until I moved to Ann Arbor
for undergrad. I also lived in Columbia, MO working as a professor at the University of Missouri. I have been living in Tulsa the last four years and teach at the University of Tulsa. I also lived in Grand Rapids for a little while before moving to Columbia.

My hometown Saginaw really shaped the way that I view the world. Saginaw is an economically depressed auto-town. The city doesn’t get as much national news coverage as Flint and Detroit, but has parallel adversities. I grew up in a regular neighborhood, but spent most of my teen years hanging out and skateboarding throughout the city regardless of the condition of the areas. I also used to go skateboarding in both Flint and Detroit.

BR: What launched you into the world of photography?

DF: Skateboarding, the regional music scene, and road trips were my initial connections to photography. As I mentioned earlier, skating took me to a lot of different locations and brought me in contact with a diverse range of people. I started taking pictures of my friends and their tricks. I actually had a few pictures published in Thrasher Magazine early on. I loved skateboarding (still do), but wasn’t good enough to do anything serious with it. I started photographing that world to stay connected to it. My current photographic work is actually still influenced by those novice pictures I used to make.

Skateboarding was also very closely related to music for me. I mostly like indie stuff and some hip-hop. I used to listen to hardcore and punk more back in the day. I used to photograph at shows. I sometimes photographed for my friend Sikander’s hardcore band called Life Set Struggle. My friends and I would also go on road trips to skate and/or see shows so I documented those adventures.

When I was in college I started taking photography more seriously as an art form. I was lost the first couple years in undergrad in regards to a career choice. I had initially gone to the University of Michigan for engineering. That educational path ended up being very brief. Also, my father passed away while I was in school as a sophomore. His death motivated me to study and pursue something I loved. I started taking art classes. I found that photography was cathartic on a personal level. It also overlapped my other areas of interests that included youth culture, politics, and social engagement. My photographic practice grew into a way of seeing the world that was both personal and cultural. This was also partially informed by seeing Robert Frank’s book called The Americans. It was the first photo book I ever owned.

BR: What do you think photography as a medium can add to the literary profile of the Midwest?

DF: Words and pictures have a long history together. Whether it is in the journalism, literary, or fine art worlds they seem to compliment each other. Both images and text ask people to use their imagination in similar ways. Some parts of the Midwestern landscape tend to be subtle and nuanced. The details of these types of places and people can be brought out in creative fields through interpretive depictions. Places affect people and the way they think about their surroundings. This inevitably has an impact on the type of creative work that is made. I have been inspired by literature about the places I have photographed. I imagine that happens the other way around too.

There is also the possibility of doing collaborative work between writers and photographers. Alec Soth and Brad Zellar’s project called Dispatch was a compelling way to depict the lives of Midwesterners. Some of their adventures were based in other parts of the country, but their publications on Michigan and Ohio were a couple of their strongest releases. That series blended reportage, fine art, and subjectivity in fluid way.

BR: Your project The New Country is an attempt to break down the romanticized image of the Midwest as idyllic farmland and show how many Midwesterns live between past and present. Why do you think nostalgia runs so deep in the region? Do you think this false image might be self-created?

DF: This project originated after reading Allen Ginsberg’s piece called Kansas City to Saint Louis. I was living right in between both of those cities in Columbia when I started my photo series. Ginsberg’s piece recalls driving through this stretch of Missouri where the news of current events on the radio intertwined and contradicted the small-town life that he was seeing along the way. My project called The New Country was a modern depiction of this experience. The photographs were mostly shot in Missouri, but also included some images from Kansas, Illinois, and Michigan.

Nostalgia for the past has become part of the identity of rural America. Places are frequently defined by their histories. Overtime that identity morphs and blends with the present whether people want it to or not. It is inevitable that things change, but it is understandable that people cling to notions of an idealized past. The way this manifests is sometimes contrived. Although, if the experience isn’t too distilled, some places can still embody unique characteristics that have genuine connections to the past.

One of reasons that the romantic notion of small town American still exists is an attempt at tourism. When I used to drive along I-70, I frequently remember seeing signs that said things like “Visit Historic Blackwater” or something similar. There was also a string of stores on that drive called Nostalgiaville, which sold cheap and stereotypical mementos. The impact of pop culture in these places was distinctly evident though. The way people dressed, the music on the radios, and the cars people drove did not fit the idealized image of the past.

Recreation in the landscape also started to play a role in the project. Camping, off road vehicles, float trips, gun ranges, and things like dune rides were common activities that I found. These activities quickly broke the illusion of the beautiful pastoral landscapes. I don’t think there was anything necessarily wrong with most of these activities, but they were evidence of modern life. They were contemporary ways of enjoying nature. People can get stuck in the past. History is important, but it can sometimes hold people back from also seeing the present. I try to be careful of using the word beauty, but my goal for the project was to capture the experience of embracing the past and present at the same time. It was necessary to deconstruct idealized notions of rural American to see what life is like now in those places.

BR: We have a few of your photos here from your Young Blood project that are new to the MG site. Can you take us through the inspiration behind the series? How did you come across each of these shots and what is it that they convey to you?

DF: Young Blood focuses on teens and young adults living in Michigan’s auto-towns. Some of the cities in this project include Saginaw, Lansing, Ypsilanti, Grand Rapids, Flint, Pontiac and the Detroit metro area. I see many of the issues happening in Detroit and Flint as being a regional crisis. Each city has its own specific hardships, but there are also larger overarching themes related to the demise of the auto industry. This project is scene through the faces of young people since they are a generation that can help bring change to the area or fall back into the cycle of hardship.

 

The portrait of the boy on the scooter was taken in Flint. This neighborhood was a few minutes away from the city’s water plant and was taken after the crisis was discovered. This spot was also in the driveway of a closed down school in a run down neighborhood. I was interested in how young this boy looked and that he was wheeling around on this scooter by himself. I also really liked the red laces on his shoes. Like many of the other national headlines about Michigan it’s easy to forget the individuals impacted by systemic failures of municipalities.

 

The picture of the guy with the backward red hat was also taken in Flint. This location was adjacent to the downtown river walk where I used to skateboard with my friends as a teenager. This image was also taken after the onset of the water crisis. The details of the text on the hat were of course the prime attraction to this person. I found the “Keep Calm and Get High” pin to be particularly interesting given what was happening in the city. My personal connection to this place made it easy to talk to this subject. I generally find that talking about skating and music helps my subjects identify with me.

 

This is an image taken in Detroit near the Woodbridge and Corktown neighborhoods. These are some of the areas of the city where I have photographed periodically for around 15 years. These neighborhoods are being quickly gentrified a few minutes away from this line of houses. This stretch has newer townhomes for low-income families and is a pocket where hipsters haven’t moved into yet. The work I have shot in Detroit commonly deals with the intersection of where new residents and original Detroit natives live in close proximity. This particular moment in this picture was one of those gifts from the photo universe where everything came together. It was shot with a large format film camera and originally did not have any people in it. I set up my equipment and had already shot a picture of just the scene. Then the boy with the red shorts walked up and agreed to be in the next shot. The other children happened to travel through the frame while I was waiting for the primary boy to relax in front of the camera. This picture will actually be on display at the Aperture Foundation in New York City this summer in an exhibition called On Freedom.

This picture is one of my earliest portraits from Young Blood. I recently found the scan of this shot on my hard drive and fell in love with the image again. This photograph was taken along the Saginaw River in my hometown. This location in Saginaw is where people from both the eastside and westside of town come together to hang out on nice days. The city of Saginaw is split by the river, which divides a really poor part of town from the slightly better off area. I really liked this portrait in retrospect because of the girl’s eyes and smooth smile. People in these types of cities are commonly shown as victims or as others. I felt that this portrait captured the sweet personality of the girl and had an endearing sassiness to it. This portrait has a presence to it that shows her individuality. This part of Saginaw is another place where I hung out as a teen.

BR: Is there a Midwestern author that speaks to your soul?

DF: I particularly respond to poetry. I really love Gina Myers’ work. Gina has moved around the country, but grew up in the same neighborhood in Saginaw where I’m from. She currently lives in Philly. I like all her books, but False Spring resonates the most with my photographs. This book was written when she moved back to Saginaw after living in New York City. I had a similar experience of circumstantially moving home after grad school in San Francisco. False Spring eloquently captures the experience of living in an economically depressed city through the lens of personal relationships and self-reflection.

Since I’ve moved to Tulsa the work of S. E. Hinton has played a significant role in my project called Rumbleville. The Outsiders was one of my favorite books and movies growing up. I’ve more recently been into Rumble Fish. Tulsa is a complex place, which was accurately reflected in Hinton’s novels. In many ways it hasn’t changed very much. Tulsa actually reminds me of Saginaw, but the specific histories are different. I’ve been shooting in the neighborhoods used in her books and from the Francis Ford Coppola’s movies. Tulsa is a city that is hard to categorize as part of a specific region of the country. It sits at the intersection of the Midwest, the South, the West, and the Southwest. Tulsa feels like both the beginning and end of the dividing lines of Middle America. This makes for a unique environment where diverse cultures, histories, and world-views collide. These qualities created an interesting setting for Hinton’s novels that I also utilized in my project. Recently I’ve also been getting into Ron Padgett, who was originally from Tulsa.

BR: What’s next for you?

DF: I have a few projects going. My portfolios tend to span several years. Sometimes this is because I don’t live where the photographs are being made and need to travel. Also, I sometimes need to take a rest from a project before I can resolve an idea. I’ll work on something else in the meantime.

I am headed to Michigan in a couple weeks to continue working on Young Blood. Whenever I think I am done, I have new chapters that come to mind. I am going to focus more on gentrification on this trip. There are already aspects of that theme in the project, but it is a subtopic that could be expanded. I am also going to shoot some more in Lansing. I had started photographing around Malcolm X’s childhood home on my last trip. I am in the process of putting something together to find a publisher. The project is pretty expansive at this point. I feel ready to put this into book form. A photo book will allow me to incorporate multiple aspects of my project into a longer edit in comparison to an exhibition.

I am still working on my project called Rumbleville in Tulsa and expanding into different parts of town. Recently I have been photographing more in North Tulsa. Black Wall Street was located there in the early 1900’s. The hundred-year anniversary of the 1921 race riot is coming up in a few years. Tulsa is unfortunately still very divided and there needs to be a contemporary look at the topic.

I have also been working on a project in Los Angeles called Syndicated. I’ve been making photographs in neighborhoods around Los Angeles that were used in teen movies and television shows. I just got back from a trip a couple weeks ago. This project is about the filming sites where regular people live that also serve as landmarks of collective childhood memories for millions of people. Some of the filming locations in the LA area were supposed to be situated in the Midwest in the Hollywood productions. Freaks and Geeks for example was supposed to take place in suburban Detroit, but was primarily filmed in Santa Clarita, CA.

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Our Views from the Heartland series is a new series we started to give some recognition to the incredible photographers who submit their photos to us regularly. In it, we talk with some of our favorite photographers who we feel capture the essence of the Midwest in their incredible photos. Each month, we’ll post a new interview with a photographer in which we discuss their creative process, the intersection of photography and literature, and other fascinating topics.

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Contributor Spotlight: Michael Fischer

Michael Fischer’s nonfiction piece “The Spelling Bee” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Summer 2017 issue, out now.

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

My father was born and raised in Chicago. My sister went to college here and never left; she got married and has a two-year-old. I moved here right after my niece was born so I could be near her, so now my father, my sister’s family, and I all live in different parts of Chicago.

The Midwest’s influence on my writing—as someone born and raised in the spin machine of the West Coast—has been to allow me to make a mess, so to speak. For me, the Midwest is about dispensing with the bullshit, the inauthentic, the illusion of the tidy life with the tidy ending. That makes it a great nest to write from.

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

The weather. I like the fact that a generous slice of the population would never live in the Midwest because they either can’t stand the summer, can’t stand the winter, or can’t stand either. It’s a place for people who want to be here, who are stubborn and don’t care whether the landscape is trying to spit us out or not. The Midwest pretty much says, “Look: If you want to be here, great. Be here. If you don’t, then get the fuck out.”

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 write a lot about my time in state prison, so my memory and experience of that very specific place is the spine of that work. It’s a fascinating challenge because I’m dealing with an environment of enforced boredom, a monochromatic life in every way. But it still has to have vitality. The setting insists that I learn how to stretch what I have to work with on the page—which is exactly what prison life forces a person to do, in order to survive.

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

When my family would come visit me in prison, it almost felt like being in a one-man show. I didn’t want them to be scared or sad for me, so I would list words down my arm—short phrases, just to jog my memory—that would remind me of the stories I wanted to tell them. I would just sit there and spin these prison yarns for my family’s sake, so they would have a decent time at the visit and go home feeling like things were more or less okay.

So when I write, 90% of the time I’m writing for my sister or my parents. I’m trying to write what I think they would find funny or entertaining. The spelling debate that takes place in my piece for Midwestern Gothic was my sister’s favorite story from my time in prison. She thought it was hilarious​, even at the time​. So I wrote the essay for her.

I write while sitting on my bed. No distractions or music, and no one else can be around. I also never force myself to write. If I’m not feeling it, I don’t do it. I’m very streaky. I won’t write for weeks and then I’ll write twelve pages in a sitting—things like that.

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

I’ve only been writing for about a year, but I read for two literary journals, so I’m getting pretty tuned in to what a piece needs. It’s never going to be perfect obviously, but I just revise until I can’t see any glaring holes. Then I put it away for a while, and if I still don’t hate it when I revisit it, it’s gone as far as I can take it in that moment in time.

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

This is an impossible question but I’ll say Julian Barnes. I love The Sense of an Ending especially, but all of his work—fiction and nonfiction—has an unflinching emotional life and some of the sharpest diction I’ve ever read.

What’s next for you?

Being a full-time student, twice over. I’m in a low-residency MFA program, but I never graduated college. I want to go back and clean that up, so while I’m starting the second year of my MFA this fall, I’ll also be finishing up my bachelor’s degree at a different school. I want to fill that gap and keep my educational doors open, in case I decide to move on to a PhD, etc.​

I’m also a Luminarts Fellow for this coming year, and I’m very excited and proud to be a part of that. It’s a great foundation that supports artists under thirty who live within 150 miles of the Chicago Loop. I’m hoping to get everything I can out of being involved.

Where can we find more information about you?

​I don’t have a website and I don’t ​have​ any social media except Twitter, so…Twitter.

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Midwest in Photos: The Bean

“I could be any of them, I could be all of them, I could be anywhere. I am here.” – Jessica Kashiwabara, “In the Middle,” Midwestern Gothic Winter 2017.

Photo by: Janice Davis

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