Interview: Christian Winn

September 14th, 2017

Christian Winn author photoMidwestern Gothic staffer Audrey Meyers talked with author Christian Winn about his short story “What’s Wrong With You is What’s Wrong With Me,” following his own advice, the right time to write a story, and more.

You can read his short story here.

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Audrey Meyers: What’s your connection to the midwest?

Christian Winn: I am really a westerner, having grown up Eugene, Palo Alto, and Seattle, and then moving to Boise nearly twenty years ago. Boise is the furthest east that I have ever lived. Most of my fiction is set in the west – Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, California – where I feel most comfortable telling the stories right. Boise and Idaho overall are generally considered in the Intermountain West, but I think you can look at Idaho as perhaps the far west of the midwest. I have road tripped through the heart of the midwest a handful of times, can’t claim to know it intimately, but love the vast openness of it all.

AM: How has being a professor at Boise State University impacted your writing? What have you learned from your students?

CW: I really am always inspired by, and learning from, my creative writing students. Teaching fiction writing workshops, I feel, continually helps me evolve as a writer. Introducing contemporary short stories and modern classics to both young and experienced writers, I am constantly learning how to look at the fundamentals of storytelling in new ways because of the fresh takes my students offer to the workshop. As well, I am constantly having to ask myself if I am actually practicing what I preach as a writer. I suppose I can sound like I know what I’m doing most of the time, but I always try and ask myself if I am following my own advice, and the advice of the great writers that we read. Keeps me on my toes.

AM: What are the challenges and the benefits when writing short stories? How does this compare to writing longer forms of fiction?

CW: I love the short story form, in all its many forms. Short stories, I feel, are kind of the underdog of the literary fiction world, and often I equate writing and reading short stories and collections to listening to a slightly underground indie album, that band that not too many have heard of and I feel special to know. Both in writing and reading short stories I often feel like the insider, exposed and enlightened by shorter narratives that, when done well, are as impactful and memorable as any novel. I do love so many novels, and have now written a couple that are hopefully finding a good home soon. But, I have gravitated more to the short story in a manner beyond the novel thus far in my life as a writer, teacher, and reader.

AM: What are your techniques for conveying information to your readers in an efficient but clever way? And how did you utilize these techniques in your short story “What’s Wrong With You is What’s Wrong With Me?”

CW: In “What’s Wrong With You is What’s Wrong With Me” a number of my baseline tenets and techniques as a writer came into play – thorough characterization, sharp and unique voice, vivid setting, true conflict rising into crisis then resolution. In creating the protagonist, Samantha, as a snappy and slightly snarky woman in her early twenties, I was working to deliver a character who was putting up a kind of front in the face of a lingering and very-present tragedy – the loss of her older sister, Mary. I wanted to create an interesting and complex secondary character in her brother, Johnny, who was Mary’s twin and closest friend. As well, I worked to send them on a spontaneous quest – a road trip to their childhood home in Boise in a “kind of” stolen BMW that belongs to Johnny’s wealthy, older boyfriend. Then to ratchet up the tension, I introduced the heightened drama of their old house having been demolished to make way for the building of an apartment complex.

AM: When you get an idea for a story, how do you decide if it is the right time to write it?

CW: I’d say that this is really difficult question to answer for me as a writer because the process of story selection – when to write what – is so often shifting, morphing, evolving. Certain stories at certain times, they ask to be written, they need to be, and I do my best to get them written. But, there is definitely deeply rooted discipline in writing a story that tells you it’s the “right time” to write me. Sticking with those stories is not always easy because you don’t want to let them down, or tell them wrong.

AM: Why was it the right time to write “What’s Wrong With You is What’s Wrong With Me?”

CW: Well, it was a piece that I had begun writing, or at least had the initial idea for, a few years ago when a local church actually did buy a big piece of property and begin either moving, or demolishing these great 100-year-old houses in order to build an apartment complex. It made me think, what if one of those was the house you grew up in, and you returned to try and reconnect with your past only to find that this huge piece of your physical past had gone missing? I wasn’t sure what to do with the story from there until the voice of Samantha started talking to me one day, and the rest came piece by piece, scene by scene.

AM: As a writer, what is it like to see a familiar place through your character’s eyes? Did your perspective on Idaho change when writing “What’s Wrong With You is What’s Wrong With Me?”

CW: Seeing Idaho, and Boise in particular, through Samantha’s eyes allowed me to think about the state and city where I live from the point of view of a person who grew up here (as I did not), but also who has not returned to it for many years. The experience allowed me to take a fresh look at the neighborhood and city I walk, bike, and drive through just about every day of my life these last years. I wouldn’t say this experience opened up a fully “changed” perspective of Idaho, but it offered a few cool new angles.

AM: What did you learn about yourself when developing these characters?

CW: This is another tough question to answer without sounding too corny. But I feel I learned a further sense of empathy and understanding for siblings who have lost one of their own at a young age, another thing that fortunately I have not experienced. I certainly learned how Samantha and Johnny feel about the loss of Mary, and through that I hope that I was able to further understand how we work as humans at a baseline level.

AM: What genre or style of fiction would you label “What’s Wrong With You is What’s Wrong With Me?” Why?

CW: I would consider this story literary fiction, meaning that the characters – their conflicts, their voices, their takes on the world – are what drive the narrative, not simply the plot points, the setting, or the quest.

AM: How do you know when a story is finished?

CW: This definitely varies with every story I’ve ever written, but I’ll just speak to the ending of “What’s Wrong With You is What’s Wrong With Me” here. With this story, which pretty much operates within straight-up realism most of the way through, it wasn’t until I came across a writing moment that shifted wonderfully toward the dreamlike, the surreal, that I knew (or at least thought I knew) that I had my ending. I won’t divulge the specifics of the longer last paragraph that gets a little strange and hopefully poetic, (no spoilers!) but I will just say that Samantha is able to reach a kind of resolution and relative peace in a dream-layered story she will tell herself forevermore about her dead sister, Mary.

AM: What’s next for you?

CW: Well, this September a new collection of four longer stories, with the title story being “What’s Wrong With You is What’s Wrong With Me” will be released from Dock Street Press. As well, I have those two “incubating” novels, and a new collection of short stories I am shopping around. I’ve been writing a lot of poetry as well, and hope to get the poetry collections titled Stories About Girls, By Boys, and Every Day, A Gun out into the world soon. As well, I have the exciting privilege of being the 2016-2019 Idaho Writer in Residence and get to travel around the state giving readings, putting on workshops, and providing literary outreach to under-served communities.

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Christian Winn is a writer of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction living in Boise, Idaho. His work has appeared in McSweeney’s, Ploughshares, The Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row Journal, TriQuarterly, Gulf Coast, and elsewhere. His debut collection, Naked Me, is recently out from Dock Street Press who will be publishing his second collection, What’s Wrong With You is What’s Wrong With Me in September 2017. He is 2016-2019 Idaho Writer in Residence.

Contributor News

We’ve got a lot of incredible contributor news! Help us celebrate the accomplishments of our awesome contributors:

Jacquelyn Bengfort (Issue 22) has a story, “A Habitable Place,” that appears in Jellyfish Review. A poem of hers that previously appeared in Gargoyle will appear in an upcoming issue of Redux.

K. Chess‘s (Issue 20) debut novel, Famous Men Who Never Lived, will be published by Tin House Books in 2018. Find more information here.

Michael Fischer‘s (Summer 2017 issue) story, “Willie,” was recently published in The Sun and his story “Turn, Bend, and Spread” will appear in Brevity next year.

RaeNosa Hudnell (Summer 2017 issue) had her open letter, “Senator Kamala Harris is Black Girl Magic for the Month,” published by The Huffington Post recently.

Natalie McAllister (Summer 2017 issue) had her flash fiction piece, “Your Baby Boy,” selected for Glimmer Train‘s March/April 2017 Very Short Fiction honorable mention list. She also took part in the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop this year.

Carly Joy Miller (Issue 8) had her chapbook Like a Beast published by Anhinga Press after winning the 2016 Rick Campbell Chapbook Prize. Her forthcoming collection, Ceremonial, (which includes her poem “We Followed the River’s Loud Noise” from Issue 8) was the winner of the Orison Poetry Prize.

Leslie Pietrzyk (Issue 14) has a novel, Silver Girl, forthcoming from Unnamed Press in which her story, “The Devil’s Daughter” from Midwestern Gothic Issue 14, appears.

Heather Swan (Summer 2017 issue) has a book coming out in October titled Where Honeybees Thrive from PennState University Press. Find more information about it here.

Kali VanBaale (Summer 2017 issue) has an upcoming writer’s workshop at the Iowa Writers’ House Weekend Workshop in Des Moines titled “Revision Strategies for the Novel and Memoir.” Join her November 10-12!

Erika T. Wurth (Summer 2017 issue) had her book Buckskin Cocaine published by Astrophil Press this summer.

Huge congrats to you all!

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Contributor Spotlight: Jen Rouse

Jen Rouse author photoJen Rouse’s piece “Of Skeletons and Garden Parties” 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?

I grew up driving through cornfields in Iowa and South Dakota, lurching through the brilliant sun dancing in the dust motes, climbing into the sky. Cities excite me. I’m a little bit Virginia Woolf like that, but they’re not always good for me. My deep longing is always to come back for the honey gold of a Midwest fall against the vibrant brilliance of heartbreaking blue horizon. Also, I think there’s something a little Hitchcockian about the Midwest, ya know? It’s super quiet here. A lot of ways to see oneself in shadow. So many ways to be lost. And never found. Or found in an entirely different guise.

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

There’s a subtle hum of routine about the Midwest, a thrumming that lives in the heart. We wait for the seasons to change. We embrace the mythology of living here. And each other. In a place where one might not expect to find rich vibrant arts communities, I have found, perhaps, the most amazing place to make art—in the middle of the Eastern Iowa corridor. People here are steadfast, sturdy, grounded, and that means they are also incredibly comfortable taking risks. Risks in supporting new art—plays, poetry, spoken word, visual art, mixed media, everything. It’s all here. And the artists are some of the truest, most talented people I’ve ever met. Build relationships in the Midwest, and those relationships will withstand almost anything.

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 summer I had to say goodbye to a place where I spent the most beautiful moments of my life, a cabin that belonged to my grandparents in Hackensack, MN. I spent every summer there growing up—swimming, creating skits with my little sister, playing cribbage on the porch, sitting quietly in an old fishing boat with my grandfather, hunting for shells with my grandmother. At night, we’d fall asleep to the weeping of the loons. The smell of pine and cedar rooting us to the earth. There was no technology. We laughed and told jokes. We saw each other. And all that love that passes between people who really know each other in a place. Though I don’t directly address this aspect of my life very often in my writing, it is everywhere.

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

I write a few times a year, a month at a time, with a wonderful group of writers from the east coast. I went through an MFA program at American University with one of these delightful writers, Paulette Beete, as well as my spouse, Eve Rosenbaum, and others in this group—like Susan Kay Scheid—have provided such deep rich attention to my work. We write in a private online blog. We support and respect each other as professionals. I wrote my first chapbook, Acid and Tender (2016) by Headmistress Press, while working with them. Such an incredible debt of gratitude to these women! Fierce writers, all!

Honestly, I don’t really think about writer’s block. If I am not feeling like writing a poem, I look at a group of poems and think, huh, I wonder if this is really a play? And, often, that will transform writing that might have felt stuck to me. I also believe in finding other ways to think about writing while not writing. Painting, cooking, going to a new place, embracing a new relationship—these are all things that will bring me back to the page.

I’m really inspired by the ways in which people grapple with belief. As a person of little traditional faith, I am drawn to others who find so much in their various versions of god. I find in people of faith a kind of hunger to connect, and, somehow, those belief systems provide those moments of respite. Even when they seem to question, they find their answers—or expect that those answers will come. (And, really, isn’t that a kind of poetry?) I find that kind of thinking fascinating. So, you’ll hear a lot of voices in my poems grappling with issues of belief, forgiveness, longing, and loss—and often saints and gods—always women, of course—turn up to offer them solace.

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

I always have a sense of the ending of a piece before I know where the beginning is going. It’s those moments of uncertainty when I write the opening lines that give me pause. I revise those most heavily. When those beginning lines live up to the end, then I know I’ve gotten somewhere.

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

I’ve recently been working on a collection of poetry about my relationship as a poet to the work of Anne Sexton, a complicated, brilliant, troubled figure. I’ve always considered myself a confessional poet, and there’s something tragically brutal and vulnerable in writing from that place. It also allows for incredible moments of joy. I think I learned that in studying Sexton’s work and in the fictional conversations I have with her in this new collection. Adrienne Rich, of course, was my hero. Is my hero. When I was younger, I was fearful of being a lesbian poet and sharing that voice outside of myself. But, then, I heard someone read “Diving into the Wreck,” and my life as a writer was forever changed. Never to be silent again. To write from the margins.

What’s next for you?

In some ways as a writer, I’ve been a kind of late bloomer. I began writing when I was 14, went through an MA and an MFA program in my twenties, but I was also taking care of a lot of people in my life during those years—so giving my full attention to a writing career or publishing wasn’t easy for me. But let me tell you at 44, I am ready for anything. I’m having a wonderful time. Publishing Acid and Tender with Headmistress Press last year was a delight. Exquisite women to work with, and they produced a gorgeous book. Because I’ve never considered writing my job, it has always remained my passion. Tonight, on August 11, my new play Conjure: A Cycle in Three Parts opens on the main stage at CSPS in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I have great hopes for this piece, and I hope it finds its way outside of our small community. I’m working on two new plays, and my latest chapbook Riding with Anne Sexton is making the rounds. Truly for me the greatest success is when a reader, a cast member, an audience member says, I needed to hear that, see that, play that role—I’m in your words, I can tell my story now. It’s ok to understand bravery a little differently. Never to be silent again. And when my daughter tells her grandmother that my cast, my writing, is important because people don’t always see themselves in writing or plays but they do in mine. I’ll come back to the page every time for that. Every. Single. Time.

Where can we find more information about you?

I am always happy to answer an email: jenlrouse@gmail.com
Twitter: @jrouse
Instagram: jenlrouse
Website: jen-rouse.com
Facebook: @jenlrouse

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Midwest in Photos: Ambitious of Blue Sky

“This was all she’d ever had, and it was enough.” – Kelsey RonanThe Union Makes Us Strong,”  Midwestern Gothic, Winter 2017.

Photo by: Katelynn Bek

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Interview: Bao Phi

Bao Phi author headshot

Photo credit: Thaiphy Media

Midwestern Gothic staffer Kathleen Janeschek talked with poet Bao Phi about hatred from lack of understanding, approaching his work naturally, being a champion slam-poet, and more.

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Kathleen Janeschek: What is your connection to the Midwest?

Bao Phi: Even though I was born in Vietnam, my family fled and came to the Phillips neighborhood of South Minneapolis when I was a baby. I’m pretty much a lifelong Minnesotan.

KJ: How does the varied geography of Minnesota inform your writing?

BP: When I was very young, I remember my family had a lot more connection with rural people in Minnesota. I think because we came from a country that was still very close to agriculture. We would go out to farms fairly often, and buy vegetables and meat directly from farmers. And farmer’s markets every weekend. But Phillips, where I was raised and where my parents still live, is very much the inner city – Minneapolis’s largest, poorest, and most racially diverse neighborhood. The Little Earth housing projects is two blocks from my parent’s house, and the Franklin Avenue Library, where I learned to love books, about six blocks away. My dad would often take me on fishing trips, sometimes by a mucky pond by the highway, sometimes renting a trailer at Mille Lacs. Not for sport, but for food. I got to know the city by skateboard in my junior high days, and as I got older, I go out to Greater Minnesota, sometimes for work, sometimes as a tourist. My father always tried to instill an appreciation for nature in me, and I am trying to pass that along to my daughter.

KJ: In which ways do the people of Minnesota contrast with the landscape of Minnesota?

BP: It’s funny, in the old days, I felt like the people we met in rural areas of Minnesota were more open to us. They approached us with curiosity and were very friendly, whereas people in the city seemed really racist and violent and intolerant. Families like mine were often blamed for the Vietnam War, even though my father fought on the same side as the Americans – people didn’t understand, and back in the old days it seemed like most of that hate was in the city. In terms of the people and contrast – that’s hard to say, honestly. I’ve lived here so long that I’ve gotten to meet all different types of Minnesotans, so I find it difficult to generalize. I would say the perception of Minnesotans by outsiders, however, is that we are unsophisticated, boring, minor. I don’t think that’s true, obviously.

KJ: Your poems often switch between conversational and formal language. Is this transition intentional or something that naturally occurs in your writing?

BP: It’s a combination of how I write and what happens during the editing and revision process. It’s also probably about who I am – I went through a creative writing program, but as a spoken word artist, back when the idea of a spoken word artist going through a creative writing program was somewhat rare. I also often think of something the great poet R. Zamora Linmark advised me: “don’t edit the duende out of your poetry.”

KJ: Likewise, many of your poems include words or phrases from Vietnamese. What do you hope to achieve from this medley of languages?

BP: It’s just a part of who I am. I try not to force it – I tend to use it as I would naturally use it in real life, especially with the newer work.

KJ: In American discourse, there is often a conflation between the black experience, urban experience, and poor experience. How do you seek to challenge these narratives in your writing?

BP: First of all I think it’s tremendously important to lift up and support Black, urban, poor voices and art. Simultaneously it is important for us to challenge the dominant racist archetype of the Asian as the successful, overachieving model minority that doesn’t struggle against racism in this country, or against empire and colonization. I think the key word there is simultaneously – because often, we in America get caught in binaries and competition. Asian American struggle is often obscured by the model minority myth, but I want to make it clear that this is not the fault of Black people and Black voices. Those of us on the margins – Black, Native, Asian American, Latinx, Arab, Middle Eastern, Queer, Women, and all intersections of those identities – often get boxed into one or two simplistic narratives. My hope is to challenge and explode those simplistic, un-nuanced narratives.

KJ: How do your Vietnamese and Asian identities influence your writing? Do you ever find these identities at odds with one another?

BP: Tricky. I think Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of The Sympathizer, said it best: many of the contemporary Asian American movements are rooted in the collision of third world alliance, Marxism, and socialism, but many Vietnamese in America are here due to conflict with the Communist Party of Vietnam, and so a lot of Asian American liberation rhetoric can be triggering for Vietnamese people, especially of a certain generation. It’s a challenge that should be familiar to all writers: how do you stay true to your ideals and beliefs while not alienating your community – and how do you do that artistically? It’s a constant struggle.

KJ: You’re also a slam poet–and a two-time Minnesota Grand Slam champion and a National Poetry Slam finalist–so what has slam poetry taught you about written poetry?

BP: Urgency, passion, overcoming your fear, communicating difficult ideas and stories to an audience. But honestly that’s where my interest in poetry was before I slammed. I was in Speech Team, Creative Expression, at South High school back in 1992 and 1993. We were one of the few inner city schools that competed in Speech back then. So usually I was competing against suburban white kids who wrote funny essays, and here I was, this intense, awkward, Vietnamese refugee from the hood with braces and bad acne doing angry poems about racism. Sometimes it went over surprisingly well, and sometimes, well, you can guess some of the comments I got from the white suburban judges. You know, racism doesn’t exist, anger isn’t the answer, etc. But all of that prepared me to create armor for myself.

KJ: Are there any notable differences in your creative process when working with slam poetry or written poetry?

BP: No. I write poetry, and then I figure out what’s the best way to perform that poetry in front of an audience. The reading/performance of poetry is, in itself, craft.

KJ: What are some of your greatest influences in media other than writing (eg: film, music, art, etc.)?

BP: Everything – movies, television, comic books, all types of books (moving for me always sucks because of my book collection), music, table top role playing games, video games.

KJ: What’s next for you?

BP: I’ve been pretty much writing a poem a day for the last two or three years, though sometimes I take a “vacation.” I’m kind of writing a fractured memoir in verse, kind of writing some poems about a Chinese delivery boy who opens a door to an alternate dimension. I’m a single co-parent, so i’m trying to raise a kid while working as Program Director at the Loft and continuing my artistic practice. I have my first children’s book, A Different Pond, illustrated by the great Thi Bui and published by Capstone, coming out this summer, and my daughter has requested my next children’s book be about her. I’m looking at two bedroom domiciles for me and my daughter on one person’s salary which puts me in competition with dual income households with no children in a cutthroat housing market, which means I picked a bad time to get off anti-depressants.

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Bao Phi is a two-time Minnesota Grand Slam champion and a National Poetry Slam finalist whose poems and essays are widely published in numerous publications including Screaming Monkeys, Spoken Word Revolution Redux, and the 2006 Best American Poetry anthology. The spoken word series he created at the Loft Literary Center, Equilibrium, won the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits Anti-Racism Initiative Award. His second collection of poems, Thousand Star Hotel, was also published by Coffee House Press on July 5, 2017, and his first children’s book, A Different Pond, illustrated by Thi Bui, was published by Capstone Press in August of 2017.

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Contributor Spotlight: Natalie Teal McAllister

Natalie Teal McAllister author photoNatalie Teal McAllister’s story “If There Was Ever a Time” 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 connection to the Midwest manifests in a photograph of my great grandparents standing in front of their claim shack: just a one-room structure constructed rock by rock, the family smiling in front of it, a dog at their side. My grandfather told me stories about his father, who was a traveling Methodist minister in the panhandle of Oklahoma in the 1920s, and stories about growing up in a land where there was either too much or not enough water. Toward the end of his life, my great grandfather allegedly gave up religion by proclaiming to his family that he could worship just as well in outside in nature as he could in a church. He handed off his love of the outdoors to my grandfather, who in turn handed it off to my father, and of course, to me.

My dad and I moved to Kansas when I was 10, and although I’ve lived in Kansas City for seven years, I’m still drawn to the landscapes that are more sky than earth. Despite common belief, my corner of Kansas is far from flat. The line in If There Was Ever a Time about the hills like curled up coyotes–I’ve been thinking about that for a long time. I find that so much of my writing involves how people interact with the land they live on as well as how they interact with the history–the memories–of the place.

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

I’m fascinated by the lack of physical barriers here. And the wind, which never, ever stops. I actually spent my early childhood in the mountains of North Carolina, and it was a little disorienting to move to a place where you didn’t feel the landscape cradle you. The prairie as a landscape is punishing but full of color and movement. You see this in paintings and photography, too–it’s a landscape of sky, not earth. But this makes for an interesting backdrop to stories. How can characters survive the emptiness, the brutal weather, the persistent wind?

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?

They are everything in my writing. I’m obsessed with dirt and memory. A friend of mine calls my writing historical recursion, and I love that term. I’m interested in the ways we keep repeating what has already happened, and I mean this in big and small events. We tend to do the things our parents did, and their parents did, and so on. And I wonder how much of this is genetic memory and how much of it is a record player of sorts. In that regard, does the land hold memories, too? I’d like to know. Maybe that’s what we think of when we think of ghosts.

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

I need a place before I can do anything. If I can’t see the place I’m writing, I can’t put characters on it. I tend to start with a mental image of something strange–maybe a dog running down the road or in the case of If There Was Ever a Time, someone told me their dying horse had been spooked by their neighbor’s motorcycle. I work backward from there. How did that dog get on the road? What does it look like when a dying horse spooks?

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

This isn’t helpful, but it’s a feeling. That. That’s the word that comes to mind, anyway, when I know the story is where it wants to be.

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

Can I say something really cliche? I’m completely enamored with Hemingway’s short fiction. He has absolutely mastered the art of writing stories about nothing–like a cat in the rain–that are packed with sorrow and hope and humanity. And he makes it seem so simple. As for contemporary writers, I’m deeply in love with Denis Johnson’s work. I’m not sure I can point to a writer who can write a more beautiful sentence about the underbelly of society. I’m heartbroken there isn’t more from him to come.

What’s next for you?

I would love to find a home for my first novel, which is a book about three brothers who may or may not have been involved in the death of a young girl. The core of the novel is their mother–like so many mothers before her, she’s forced between protecting her babies and accepting the consequences of what they’ve done. I have two small children, and the subject of motherhood is really raw for me right now. I’ve been working on flash fiction pieces about some of the more trying aspects of mothering.

Where can we find more information about you?

Twitter is a great place to follow my musings. I’m a marketing director by day under my married name–Natalie Jackson. It’s kind of like having an alter ego.

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Midwest in Photos: Hart One Room School, Frankenmuth MI

“and friends this is the realest place I know,
it makes me squirm like a worm I am so grateful,
you could ride your bike there
or roller skate or catch the bus
there is a fence and a gate twisted by hand,
there is a fig tree taller than you in Indiana,
it will make you gasp.” – Ross Gay, Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude.

Photo by: Cheryl Vatcher-Martin

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Interview: Olivia Clare

Olivia Clare author headshot

Photo credit: Aaron Mayes

Midwestern Gothic staffer Audrey Meyers talked with author Olivia Clare about her book Disasters in the First World, sentence-driven characters, feeling her way into an ending, and more.

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Audrey Meyers: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Olivia Clare: I lived in Iowa for two years while I attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for poetry. I’d never lived in the Midwest before. I remember anticipating encounters with cornfields, definitely, and I also knew I’d be joining a wonderful literary community in Iowa City.

I saw snow for the first time in Iowa. When I saw an ice scraper in the trunk of a friend’s car, I had to ask them what it was. I remember friends freezing while they smoked cigarettes on my back porch.

I was also a bit of a hermit, and much of my time was spent reading and writing. On some weekends I’d venture out on long drives. There’s a vastness in Iowa that allowed thoughts to come to the surface that hadn’t before.

AM: You’ve lived all over America from Louisiana to California to Texas. How have your travels impacted your writing?

OC: I’ve been fortunate to travel a good deal, and those places stay with me in my writing. For example, in June 2010 I went to Iceland just after Eyjafjallajokull erupted. I stayed in Reykjavik and in a rural dale called Skorradalur. I was in Iceland for about 6 weeks. After that trip, I wrote “Petur,” a story about a mother and son in Iceland just after the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull.

At the same time, travel and uprooting yourself over and over can be hard on the writing life. It’s difficult to establish a routine. My notes get lost on napkins or tickets or receipts. Or I’ll just neglect to write things down. So much of my writing happens when I’m feeling settled at my desk.

For the last 15 years or so, I’ve lived in about 10 different places, hopping around for various reasons. I once prided myself on being able to fit all of my belongings in my car. I’m settled in Texas now (I’m a professor at Sam Houston State University), and I’m very happy to call Texas home. I plan on some travel this summer.

AM: What is a disaster to you? How is this reflected in your book Disasters in the First World?

OC: Don DeLillo says that “catastrophe is our bedtime story.”

My story collection is thinking through what constitutes a disaster. Acts of nature—volcano eruptions, meteorites, droughts. But also: domestic disasters, individual disasters, personal—infidelity, anxiety, loneliness, estrangement.

Disasters in the First World book cover

AM: Why did you decide to write thirteen stories within Disasters in the First World? How does each piece of this structure relate to overall theme of the book?

OC: I originally had 14 stories, but I wanted to cut one of the stories in the end, and my editor agreed. I’ll admit that at first I was a touch superstitious about that; the number 13 felt ominous to me. But then I had a different thought: “unlucky 13” could be thought of as a disastrous number. Thirteen is a great number for the book, I decided.

AM: How do your characters represent humanity?

OC: My characters are constantly struggling with intimacy and how to achieve it—intimacy in friendships, familial relationships, romantic relationships. They struggle with their sensitivity and what to do with it.

AM: What aspects of human nature do you focus on in Disasters in the First World?

OC: I write a good deal about longing and the uncertainty that comes with it. Wanting to believe in things that aren’t there. Wanting to speak to things that aren’t there…a certain kind of longing that reaches to and past other humans. Those are the aspects of human nature I’m most interested in for the book.

AM: What genre or style of fiction would you label Disasters in the First World? Why?

OC: I think of these stories as character-driven. But they’re sentence-driven, too. The characters will often tell me where the stories need to go, certainly. Sometimes the sentences tell me the story, too. If I’m struggling with plot, I keep trusting the sentences, one by one. They’ll lead the way.

AM: How do you know when a story is finished?

OC: My background in poetry helps me with this. I often approach the ending of a story the way I approach the ending of a poem. Sometimes the ending will come to me in the rhythm of a sentence. I know the rhythm that I want, and I have to put in the words. I put my ear to work quite a bit in my writing, and that’s especially true for the ending. Sometimes I’ll know the tone of the ending before I know what words go there.

I often feel my way into the ending, and that’s a particular feeling that poems—reading and writing poems—have taught me. I think of it this way: sticking the landing, but giving it a little lift, too.

AM: What’s next for you?

OC: I’m finishing a novel that takes place in southern Louisiana, just after Hurricane Katrina. After that, I have plans for a book of linked stories about three sisters. It’s possible that manuscript will become a novel; if it does, I’ll have a manuscript of short stories going at the same time. I’m too committed to the short story to abandon the form for too long. New poems are underway, too.

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Olivia Clare is the author of a short story collection, Disasters in the First World, from Black Cat/Grove Atlantic. She is also the author of a book of poems, The 26-Hour Day (New Issues, 2015). Her fiction has appeared in Granta, n+1, Boston Review, Southern Review, and The O. Henry Prize Stories 2014, among other publications. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, Southern Review, London Magazine, FIELD, and elsewhere. She holds master’s degrees from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the University of Southern California, as well as a PhD from the University of Nevada. She is an Assistant Professor in Creative Writing at Sam Houston State University.

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Views From The Heartland: Sera Hayes


Midwestern Gothic staffer Ben Ratner spoke with photographer Sera Hayes about her creative process, the intersection of photography and literature, and more.

Sera Hayes was born and raised in the Midwest and graduated from Knox College in Galesburg, IL. She’s worked in the publishing and tech industries in Chicago and actively practices photography. Sera is available for freelance photography work and open to collaboration. http://serahayes.format.com/ Contact: serahayes@gmail.com

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Ben Ratner: What is your connection to the Midwest?

Sera Hayes: I was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, attended Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, and I’ve resided in Chicago for the last nine years. I’ve traveled to many different parts of the country but I’ve always thought of the Midwest region as “home”.

BR: What launched you into the world of photography?

SH: I’ve been interested in and actively practicing photography since high school when I first started experimenting with digital and Polaroid cameras. I’m drawn to film and visual art, but I’m not skilled at drawing or painting. Photography as a medium has always been an accessible and intuitive creative outlet for me. It feels like second nature at this point because it’s been essential to the way I process the world and my experiences for most of my life.

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

SH: I won’t pretend to be an expert on the literary profile of the Midwest, but I can speak from personal experience with Midwestern literature as someone who has roots in the Midwest (and a sense of its insecurities). I think there are a lot of misconceptions about the Midwest in general. It’s a region that sometimes feels overlooked by the rest of the country and the world in terms of interest/desirability. The landscape, though varied, doesn’t appear as dramatic at first glance here as it does in the East, West, Southwest, etc. I think the best writing about the Midwest exposes the subtle beauty in what might have been previously dismissed or overlooked–giving depth to a specific place and the people who live there. Photographs of the Midwest have their own way of telling these stories and can also express this sense of place and symbolism.

BR: If there is a common subject that runs throughout your work, it’s small-town America. What is it about this part of the country that captivates you so?

SH: When I was growing up, my family was a road trip family. I have memories of pulling off of the highway on the way to our destination to visit a diner, a historical marker, or a roadside attraction. I also lived in Galesburg, Illinois for four years in my early 20s and experienced living in a small town in a way that I hadn’t before. Small-town America visually resonates with me, partially because of these life experiences but also because it tends to be an aesthetic, thematic microcosm of bygone American eras. The manufacturing history, pastoral scenes, faded hints of a flawed American Dream through sometimes crumbling infrastructure–cracks in the foundation of capitalism. The kindness, strength, and optimism that can be found in people in spite of disenfranchisement, economic struggle, or personal tragedy. These things clearly aren’t isolated to these areas, but I get a raw sense of that history here and its connection to our present.

BR: I’ve noticed that neon signs are a recurring theme in your photography. Most of the time, however, they are unlit. Can you describe your intention behind this creative choice?

SH: I do have a bit of a vintage neon sign obsession. Re: lit vs. unlit, in all honesty sometimes it’s less of a specific choice and more a matter of the time of day that I’ve encountered something I want to photograph. I’m sometimes traveling by myself when I’m photographing these signs and many of them are in disrepair—they’re attached to old motels, etc. in areas unfamiliar to me in terms of safety. So I usually err on the side of caution (particularly as a woman) when I’m photographing things alone at night. However there are times when I specifically know I want to photograph a particular sign at a certain time. Time of day can completely change the mood in a photograph of a neon sign. If I want to capture a quiet, eerie, mysterious nighttime mood, I make that specific choice. If I want to show the weathered colors/bones of a sign as a signal of time passed, daylight works best for me.

BR: We have a few of your photos here that are new to the MG site. Can you take us through your creative process? How did you come across each moment and why did you feel the need to capture it?

SH: Choosing what I’m going to capture is pretty intuitive for me, so I don’t really have an extensive creative process. I typically have some type of camera with me at all times and I tend to seek out places that I know I’ll find visually interesting. For these moments specifically:

This is a diner in a small town in Illinois I stumbled across. It was meant to be somewhat Vegas-themed but there was also a hodge-podge of random nostalgic Americana/Hollywood imagery—Elvis, Batman, Frank Sinatra, I Love Lucy, etc. I noticed this group of people having breakfast together. I wondered about their stories and how they came together for the meal—perhaps they live in the town, maybe they were just passing through, maybe they’re related. I liked the contrast of this very real human scene with the cartoony, garish nostalgia surrounding them.

This is a camera/photography store in downtown Chicago that was founded in 1899. I’ve always loved the sign and the fact that it’s stood the test of time–with modern skyscrapers built just around the corner. I’ve heard that it was frequented by Vivian Maier. I specifically intended to take a photo of the sign itself, since I’ve always admired it, but wanted another level of visual interest in the scene. So this is a case where the “decisive moment” came into play for me, since I waited for multiple people to walk by before deciding to capture a person walking their dog. I wanted it to evoke the street level bustle and activity this camera shop has seen over the years.

Sometimes I choose one specific location and challenge myself to take photos that represent a sense of the place. This is one from a series of photos I took at an old bowling alley in the middle of the day. It was almost completely empty. I captured this moment because I liked the juxtaposition of the “Service Desk” lettering with the pose of the person standing below it. There’s also a hand-written “CASH ONLY” sign on the register juxtaposed with the cell phone being held, offering just a hint of modern technology. I love that back wall because it offers so many signifiers of time and place.

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

SH: Most recently: Peter Orner, Chad Simpson, and Toni Morrison.

BR: What’s next for you?

SH: I look forward to working on personal photography projects and continuing to capture the Midwest.

Contact: serahayes@gmail.com

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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: Tanya Seale

Tanya Seale author photoTanya Seale’s story “Dissolving Lori” 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?

I was transplanted to the Midwest as a young woman, hoping it would be a stop on the way to somewhere more exciting. I’ve birthed and reared two pretty remarkable human beings, earned two degrees, experienced love, heartache, friendship, betrayal, heartbreak, and great loss here. I’ve also made lifelong friends whose heart and soul are the Midwest. I’ve taken trips, and I’ve come home – what has become home – again. So I suppose I’ve created a life in the Midwest that, for me, has held some pretty exciting moments. These are all wells for my writing – the places, the people, the remembrances. When it’s time to move on from here, I can see myself being nostalgic in many ways, knowing that this stop has served my imagination well.

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

When I first moved here, it was the four distinct seasons that made me love the Midwest most. And even still, the wakening in spring each year stuns me; the foliage in fall makes me catch my breath. Plus, we get just enough snow in winter and plenty enough heat in summer. But also, there are great characters born here. Midwesterners are smart, scrappy, traditional salt-of-the-earth. Each year, the river crests and the levee breaks, but not before the sandbags appear.

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?

We all tell stories about places we’ve been and the people who have shared those places and spaces, whether we’re reenacting a pickle jar disaster scene we saw on aisle 4 at the Shop ’n Save, or attempting to relay the exquisite beauty of an extraordinarily colorful sunset. I grew up in West Texas, and then I grew up again, even more, as mentioned above, in the Midwest. Those two regions smell and taste and look and sound and feel different from one another. They each have their own voices, and their own characteristics, and so naturally, they play a very important role in my storytelling. For writers, our places and spaces should become authentic characters that actively participate in the story.

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

My process is as confusingly ethereal as anyone else’s, really. I often experience writer’s block, and I often choose to cook, garden, invest in a new Netflix series, exercise, scrub toilets, anything to avoid the task at hand. But discipline is at least half of the process, isn’t it? If I can’t think of anything else to say, I make myself write about having nothing to say. Usually that gets old after a few minutes. There is never an ideal environment, there is no inspiration. There is only this chair, this laptop, this empty page, and these few moments.

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

A piece is finished when I am making it different, not better.

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

It’s really hard to choose a favorite. You all know that, right? I read a whole lot of plays (because I also write plays) and I read quite a bit of young adult fiction as well. But I like Chekhov, Faulkner, Gabriel García Márquez, Jhumpa Lahiri . . .. I could go on. The only book that has ever knocked me off kilter for weeks, though, was Looking for Alaska by John Green. The first time I read it, I was on a road trip home to visit family in Texas. I finished the last pages in the car on the way there, and I could do nothing but weep covertly for hours, staring out the passenger’s side window. I spent the entire trip thinking about how perfect that book is, and how devastated I was that I couldn’t even talk about it, because no one else in my non-writerly, real-life world had read it or would be interested in reading it.

What’s next for you?

I just finished writing a full-length dramedy called Homesick about recent empty-nesters Karen and Rick, whose marriage is on the verge of collapse. In this play, I break the fourth wall and use the audience as a marriage counselor. It’s sort of a nod to Ibsen, but with contemporary subject matter. I will be sending that out for development and/or production opportunities, and I will be cooking, gardening, investing in a new Netflix series, exercising, scrubbing toilets beginning a new project.

Where can we find more information about you?

You can find me at tgseale.com

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