Contributor Spotlight: Justin Hamm

May 22nd, 2018

Justin Hamm author headshotJustin Hamm’s piece “Carrying Home the Feast” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Winter 2018 issue, out now.

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

My connection to the Midwest as a person and an artist is a powerful one. I’ve developed into an unashamed regionalist. I’ve lived in Illinois and Missouri my whole life, soaking up all the ragged beauty and frustration that implies. This region is Home with a capital H to me, setting and background to all my most vivid memories and formative experiences. My imagination developed here. When I first started writing poetry seriously, I made a conscious choice to pay attention to region because I had always avoided it—instead emulating southern writers. But “bringing it all back home,” as Dylan might put it, led to a flood of ideas I didn’t even know were inside of me. It’s been almost ten years since that change, and now I’m not always even conscious of the ways that Midwestern imagery or concerns arrive in what I’m working on. They just seem to be there as I follow the direction the poems suggest.

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

It’s hard to answer a question like this. The different visions of masculinity in the Midwest are particularly interesting to me. I think about that a lot and my poems definitely reflect it. But increasingly I’m also intrigued by simple landscapes. I’ve begun to put more time and effort into photography. I spend a lot of time staring out car windows at barns and fields and rusty things, and somehow that seems important right now. I’m sure at some future point my poems will reflect that, too.

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 do more than play a role—these experiences and memories are nearly always the catalyst and often the whole reason my poems exist. Childhood memories are especially powerful for me because I feel like I own that version of the world completely. I can write about it with authenticity. For example, I have a series of poems that all revolve around the idea of “First Lessons,” and they borrow heavily from my first memories of realization. Where meat comes from. What wars do to soldiers. The fact that all lives are essentially fleeting. So many of the images I’ve carried around since childhood end up coming out in these poems—mixed, of course, with adaptation and invention.

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

When I am writing consistently and well, I’ll write in my head all day and spend an hour or so right before bed scribbling into notebooks, a little longer on weekends. I work on two or three poems at a time, sometimes trading lines between them, until one seems to demand full attention. I’ll scan through old notebooks for discarded lines or stanzas that might spark something in the new poems. I generally only go to the computer when I have a draft that seems close to locked in, formwise. There I can tweak it until I get sense that the thing is as done as I can make it.

I’m inspired by just about anything. Music, paintings, old family photos, novels and magazine articles and other people’s poetry. American history. The field behind my house, a time I said something really terrible to someone, the books my mother read when I was a child—really, truly anything.

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

This is going to sound a little imprecise, maybe even hokey, but for me there’s an invisible latch that kind of clicks shut. I’m not sure if I perceive it through intellect or emotion, but it happens. I can’t always hear it when the poem is on paper, either—though sometimes I can—but when I read it aloud and it’s pretty good, and the ending is fully earned, I can perceive the poem locking into place. That doesn’t mean that it’s perfect or anything, just that I’ve discovered the way that particular poem goes. Once that happens, I might tweak a few words on the computer, but I know that the poem is, for better or worse, whole and as good as I can make it, and it’s time to face the judgement of editors.

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

There are so many, in so many genres. God, I love every kind of writing if it’s good, and I don’t understand people who discriminate based on genre. Neil Gaiman, Larry Brown, Annie Prouxl, John Irving, Cornelius Eady, John Prine, Chuck Berry. But there are two poets who sort of ground me whenever I lose my aim. One is Linda Pastan and the other is Raymond Carver. They’re both poets of personal experience. They’re both readable and richly rewarding. Many of Pastan’s poems deal with the passage of time, directly or indirectly, and I study her reflections on time not only to improve my poems but to learn something about how to live.

With Carver, it feels like the poet is right in the room with you, chatting you up and confessing in his own voice, sharing every possible vulnerability. I love the everyday nature of his poems, how they morph into something so profound. Reading them when I’m lost, or when my words are all blocked up, reminds me that poems should feel like they came from the heart of a real human being.

What’s next for you?

The new book came out early this year, and I’m still trying to con people into reading it. While I’m writing and trying to publish new poems, I’d like to do a book of Midwestern photos in the next year or so. I’ve had some luck selling prints and had even had a solo exhibition recently here in Missouri. I’d like to see if I can find a press who’d want to do a book of them. I also have a weird idea for a children’s book that exists in the earliest stages. I don’t know if it is next, but I’m going to pursue it one day.

I read in The Next Weather series in Columbia, Missouri, recently, and one of the things the host, Marc McKee, asked is that we read something brand new. I had exactly one new poem, half-revised, that represents the direction I’m working toward now. It’s raw and kind of angry. I want to challenge myself to go there again, to find out if that’s the voice of my next book. In fact, I think it’s important for me to go there. But the truth is it takes a while to write a lot of poems like that. I can’t go to that place every day, or even once a week. That’s why it is so important to have photography to turn to. I can be more patient as I wait for these new poems to arrive at the pace that is best for them without going nuts.

Where can we find more information about you?

My website is justinhamm.net. You can find information about my individual publications, books, and photographs there. I’m also on Facebook, Twitter (@MWscribbler), and Instagram (jdhammphotography).

Contributor Spotlight: Carol Dunbar

Carol Dunbar author headshotCarol Dunbar’s story “The Boy Who Lit in the Bleeding Tree” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Winter 2018 issue, out now.

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

Never before moving to the Midwest have I been so concerned with the weather. I arrived to the Upper Midwest just weeks before the great Halloween Blizzard of 1991, and that was when I realized people weren’t joking when they told me Minnesotans plugged in their cars. I came here to go to school and stayed because I fell in love. In the summer of 2002 my husband and I moved off the grid where we continue to be at the mercy of the elements. Because we’re outside all the time, weather has become a major preoccupation of mine. It is the foundation for the structure of my first novel, and this region of northern Wisconsin where I live is in many ways a character in the book. I’ve become interested in how using weather and the environment in writing can help heighten/color/deepen the intense or even subtle emotional states of characters living on the page.

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

Growing up I had the privilege of experiencing many different climates. I was born in Guam, attended schools in Georgia, Rhode Island, Hawaii, and Texas. What I find most satisfying about this region are the extremes and subtleties of the seasons, the heat and the cold, the dormant versus the lush, and the dynamics of process in between. We go from ground frozen with eighty-below wind chills and mounds of snow, to ninety-degree days of sun and rain with so much drenching, my woods often feel like a rain forest. These extremes suit my mood and temperament because, like the weather, I also find that my creative life has cycles, and I really appreciate the reminder that it’s all a process with dormant times, stormy times, and other times when you’re full to bursting.

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?

You know, it’s funny, but for the longest time I was afraid to write about place. I thought that because I wasn’t really from anywhere, I didn’t have the right to speak with any authority about a place. That kind of bummed me out. Then I figured out that I didn’t have to write about the definitive experience of a place; I only had to write about my experience, or a character’s experience. The conscious decision to validate these experiences seemed to unlock my memories, so now I have no problem accessing them. I rely on them constantly when writing, enjoy sensory details, and often compare one place to another. A writing colleague once told me, “It’s because you aren’t from this place that you can write about it,” and I thought that was really interesting and really appreciated her saying that.

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

My process today has evolved quite a bit from my process of the past. Before having kids I had no schedule, no discipline, no process. During the early stages of motherhood, I had no room of my own and relied on headphones for privacy. I wrote whenever I could—a stolen hour here or there, often in the middle of the night. Also, because I live off the grid, there was always this problem of powering up the computer. But always I wrote, and I’m so glad I did. Now, I have an office and a laptop with an EnergyStar monitor and a view of the trees. I write every day, usually when it’s still dark. Inspiration comes from dreams, conversations, the daily news. I’ve never had writer’s block; my biggest problem is time. I tend to want to obsess on something until it’s done, but my life doesn’t allow for that. I learned from a friend who is a music teacher how to make marked progress during 20-minute sessions, and I’m so grateful to her for that lesson.

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

When I’ve taken a piece as far as I can go, I bring it to my writing group, or give it to a trusted reader. It is the feedback and questions from readers that helps me with the last 20 percent, or if I’m stuck before I even get that far, they can help me identify what a piece is really about. I also don’t submit anything until after I read it out loud, because doing that suddenly brings the reader/listener into the picture in a way that doesn’t happen when I’m just looking at the page. I listen to these recordings and that’s how I go through the final editing process.

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

I just discovered—through a colleague in my writing group—Elizabeth Strout. I’m drawn to her aesthetic and what she chooses to show us through the scenes she puts together. Her writing isn’t flashy; the art is in her ideas and the way her characters breathe on the page. I’m studying how she manages to write with such compassion and candor, evoking empathy for her characters, without ever being sentimental or grandiose.

What’s next for you?

I’m working through the edits on my novel, and next is fall of 2018 when my agent will shop it around for a publisher. Meanwhile, I’m working on a collection of short stories about waitresses and people who serve. One of those stories, “Last Gleaming,” will appear in the fall issue of South Carolina Review.

Where can we find more information about you?

www.caroldunbar.com.

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Midwest in Photos: Tracks and Time and Summer

“All the lives I could live, all the people I will never know, never will be, they are everywhere. That is all that the world is.” – Aleksander Hemon, The Lazarus Project.

Tracks and Time and Summer by Dan LoGrasso

Photo by: Dan LoGrasso

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Interview: Nafissa Thompson-Spires

Nafissa Thompson-Spires author headshot

Photo Credit: Adrianne Mathiowetz

Midwestern Gothic staffer Laura Dzubay talked with author Nafissa Thompson-Spires about her novel Heads of the Colored People, the necessity of empathy for characters, structuring short story collections, and more.

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Laura Dzubay: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Nafissa Thompson-Spires: I came to Illinois when my husband took a job at the University of Illinois, and I also entered the MFA program there. Now we’re both professors at the university.

LD: As a setting for rich relationships and interactions, the Midwest is often underestimated. Are there any qualities or features of the Midwest that you find yourself coming back to, in real life or in your writing? How does it function differently, if at all, from other regions of the U.S.?

NTS: I haven’t really written about the Midwest at all yet. Illinois is particularly flat—geographically—which is a stark change for me as a native Californian. I may be interested in thinking about that someday.

LD: In your forthcoming collection, Heads of the Colored People, the stories illuminate their characters in a variety of different ways, from the mothers exchanging notes via their daughters’ backpacks in “Belles Lettres” to the religious conflict in “Wash Clean the Bones.” How do you investigate the nuances of different perspectives in your work, from the research to the writing itself?

NTS: I try to make sure that each voice I represent feels as real as possible. I’ve also found—and this something that I learned from Jacinda Townsend at Callaloo—that you can’t write well about a character without empathy. When a character feels really flat or one-note, sometimes it’s because we as writers haven’t occupied their perspective well enough and need to search for the empathy. That’s become one of my go-to strategies for revision and characterization.

Heads of the Colored People book cover by Nafissa Thomspon-Spires

LD: How do you go about developing an idea for a short story? Were these stories born in similar ways, or did they all grow out of very different processes?

NTS: Often I just have a line or an image in my head. With the titular story, the first line came to me, and I pursued it, to figure out who this Riley character was. Sometimes, I have an idea of the shape of as story I want to write, but often the story reveals itself to me during the drafting. There has to be space for both the discipline and organization (outlining, etc.) and the more metaphysical, subconscious parts of writing.

LD: Heads of the Colored People features some recurring characters, such as Fatima, as well as some that are unique to singular stories. In a series of stories that sometimes revisit familiar characters and sometimes introduce new ones, how did you make decisions regarding the structure of the collection? Did the order of the pieces come naturally, or was it something you had to think about a lot?

NTS: The order of the stories was the most difficult thing to figure out. The Fatima stories almost work as a small novella, and ultimately, it made sense to me and my editors and agent to put them together. For other stories, we wanted to vary the tone, not putting too may sad stories next to each other or too many male voices together, etc.

LD: How do your experiences or memories of specific places play a role in your writing?

NTS: I have strong visceral memories of many regions in California. I grew up in the Inland Empire (an hour east of Los Angeles), but commuted half an hour to private school every weekday. So I saw and passed through several cities on the commute. California is somewhat unique in that you can drive twenty minutes to an hour and be at the ocean, the mountains, lakes, or the valleys. I feel like the many different climates and natural sights I’ve encountered are part of the California experience, and I try to capture some of that in my attention to setting—though I could do a better job of it.

LD: In the past, you’ve written short fiction as well as essays and journal articles. How accurately does this experience reflect the types of genres you usually read? Do you prefer reading any genres over others, and do you find that what you’re reading influences your writing style?

NTS: I was trained as a literary critic though my PhD research, and still love and value that kind of academic writing. But my preference is for fiction—both the writing and reading of it. My work is in conversation with both other fiction and criticism. But nothing moves me the way that fiction does.

What I’m reading can influence my writing. Other writers have said this (someone recently in Lit Hub; I can’t remember who), but reading backward into older centuries can have an especially useful effect on writing style and make it more unique. If you only read other contemporaneous writers, you’ll likely sound just like them and less unique.

LD: What is your writing routine like? Do you have any specific environments or habits you like to come back to?

NTS: At its best, my routine is quite disciplined, and I write on the days when I’m not teaching. I believe in the importance of messy first drafts and space for revision. I try to write what I can when I can and not worry too much about how it will take shape or the order. That’s what revision is for.

I also have to write with the television on. Music doesn’t work for me, or I will become very distracted, dancing and singing. But TV—like reruns of the original 90210 or ‘90s talk shows on Youtube—works like a charm.

LD: What’s next for you?

NTS: I’m working on a novel that features Fatima in her mid-thirties, so hopefully we haven’t seen the last of her.

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Nafissa Thompson-Spires earned a PhD in English from Vanderbilt University and an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). She is the author of the short story collection Heads of the Colored People (forthcoming 2018 with Atria/ 37 Ink in the United States and with Chatto and Windus in the UK) and has a novel under contract with the same publishers.

Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Paris Review DailyDissent, Buzzfeed BooksThe White ReviewThe Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly Journal, StoryQuarterlyLunch TicketEast Bay Review, and other publications. Her short story “Heads of the Colored People…” won StoryQuarterly’s 2016 Fiction Prize, judged by Mat Johnson. She currently works as an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at UIUC and is an alumna of Callaloo, Tin House, and a 2017 Stanley Elkin Scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference.

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Contributor Spotlight: Rebecca Berg

Rebecca Berg author headshotRebecca Berg’s piece “Taki’s” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Winter 2018 issue, out now.

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

Born in Ohio, grew up in Buffalo and St. Louis, and went to college in Ohio.

I’ve always been militantly against “write what you know.” When I started writing fiction, I couldn’t even imagine setting a story in the Midwest. Especially not in St. Louis, which felt absolutely unenchanted to me. I was very wrong about St. Louis, but I needed distance. I had to try my hand at other cities, other countries, other periods of history. After I’d spent many years learning to write from a place of not knowing, I finally brought this habit to bear on St. Louis. And was stunned by the lush, eerie, tragic place that it is.

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

Well, I’m not a booster, but the Midwest in its urban, rustbelt dimension will always be home. It’s compelling because it embodies the paradoxes of memory and time. As I get older, I often feel as if the past is being erased behind me. At the same time, certain physical remnants go on existing (old letters and photos, my own face in the mirror, the childhood houses I stopped living in decades ago). An abandoned warehouse is a ready-made metaphor for what Ursula LeGuin calls “the broken world the conquistadors leave behind.” So it’s personal and psychological, but the resonance also feels broader. It feels as if it’s about capitalism and racism. Sometimes it feels as if St. Louis, with its history of housing discrimination and its swaths of urban prairie encircled by ever-expanding suburban development, is a hole in the heart of the country.

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?

A few years ago, I returned to St. Louis and visited a grade school I attended there. The building was about to be torn down. Its gray-painted steel doors and mesh-covered windows were the same as they’d been forty years ago. I hadn’t noticed them consciously when I was a child, so I’d forgotten them. Now it was as if I’d never stopped standing in that schoolyard. The ancient past was leapfrogging over the recent past; the seven-year-old me felt more immediate than the person I’d been last week. Time felt both circular and implacably linear—because a do-over was not, had never been, possible. I suppose writing is an attempt to get around that iron law.

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

I write longhand. That’s the one constant. Oh, and I revise incessantly. Otherwise, every piece of writing demands its own process. In one case, that might be a kind of quilting: piecing the story together by laying out lots of fragments and deciding what goes next to what. In another case, a voice tumbles out of me. In the case of “Taki’s,” I woke up at two in the morning, suddenly obsessed by memories of a restaurant. I thought I’d jot a note about it and go back to sleep. Three hours later, I was still writing.

When I get stuck, I find it helpful to write lying down. Face down. I’ll free-associate words and sentence fragments. That removes the pressure to think in fully formed sentences. I used to write this way all the time. It did a number on my neck! I save it now for times when I’m truly in trouble—when what I’m writing feels shallow or untrue, or when I’ve been relying on my very conventional-minded executive function, or when I catch myself writing out of ambition or a desire for approval.

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

A piece of writing is never finished. Once something is published, I can’t go on revising, obviously. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to.

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

It changes, but right now there are two—Marilynne Robinson and W.G. Sebald. They have this in common: limber voice and a not overly engineered approach to narrative.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on a book. It’s part family memoir and part historical novel set in France during the sixteenth-century Wars of Religion. The two things are connected—at least, in my mind they are! Also, sixteenth-century France reminds me a little of the political situation in this country.

Where can we find more information about you?

https://www.lighthousewriters.org/user/24

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Midwest in Photos: Lone Prarie

“You loved so hard and hoped so much and then you ended up with nothing. Children who no longer needed you. A husband who no longer wanted you. Nothing left but you, alone, and empty space.” – Celeste Ng, Everything I Never Told You.

Lone Prairie by David Thompson

Photo by: David Thompson

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Interview: Jamel Brinkley

Jamel Brinkley author headshot

Photo Credit: Arash Saedinia

Midwestern Gothic staffer Kathryn Cammell talked with author Jamel Brinkley about his debut collection A Lucky Man, the challenge of writing a short story, how to overcome rejection, and more.

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

Jamel Brinkley: I drafted and/or revised every story in my debut story collection while living in the Midwest—in Iowa City and Madison, specifically.

KC: Your forthcoming debut, A Lucky Man, is a collection of fiction short stories about the interwoven lives of men and the nuances of their relationships with other people in their lives. What drew you to this subject matter?

JB: I didn’t set out to write about one specific thing, but I suppose I must have been drawn to my subject matter by my own experiences, memories, and obsessions. In my life as a boy and then a man, I’ve thought a lot about masculinity (especially black masculinity) and human relationships of various kinds. A Lucky Man is a work of the imagination, but really I wrote about the kinds of people I’ve known, whose lives are rich, complicated, nuanced, and full of love and loss.

A Lucky Man book cover by Jamel Brinkley

KC: What is the importance of short stories, especially when many short story authors are pressured to write longer works?

JB: I’m tempted to say that simply resisting the market-driven preference for longer works itself makes writing and reading short stories a virtue. But I won’t stop at that. The compression required in a short story, whether it’s five pages or thirty pages, presents a distinct formal challenge (for the writer) and pleasure (for the reader) that you don’t get from a longer work, which has its own challenges and pleasures. Whereas even good or great longer works typically have the freedom to slack off every once in a while, good short stories usually have to work from sentence to sentence, in a lapidary way. Also, and maybe more importantly, I think they tend to mirror how I, and maybe other people, actually narrate life, not as one long cohesive, plotted narrative, but as a collection of smaller stories, each one told as though at a bar with a friend: “Hey, let me tell you what happened the other day…” I like that stories tilt in some ways toward poetry, and I like the feeling that you can hold an entire story in your mind.

KC: The stories in your collection focus on luck and its absence, in the lives of men living in Brooklyn and the South Bronx: how did your own childhood growing up in those places influence what you chose to explore in your stories?

JB: As I mentioned, I don’t feel like I consciously chose to explore any particular thing in my stories. My childhood growing up in a particular place probably influenced me the way anyone’s childhood growing up in a particular place would. Toni Morrison said that “universal” is a word hopelessly stripped of meaning. She went on to say, “Faulkner wrote what I suppose could be called regional literature and had it published all over the world. It is good—and universal —because it is specifically about a particular world. That’s what I wish to do. If I tried to write a universal novel, it would be water.” I wrote about what I didn’t know about the particular things I know, and what I know is, largely, Brooklyn and the Bronx. If I managed to depict, even in an oblique way, a fraction of what life in those places has been like, then I can be happy with that.

KC: How do the places that you lived in the Midwest compare to Brooklyn and the South Bronx? Is there anything from your time in each place that you can identify as influencing your writing?

JB: The thing that struck me immediately about Iowa City and Madison is the quiet in those places, relative to where I lived in New York. Sure, there was the occasional band of frat boys hooting and hollering, or the sound of a car passing in the rain, but mostly my sense was, “Wow, it’s really quiet here.” I don’t know that this quiet influenced my prose itself, although maybe it did. Some stories, many of the ones I began in the Midwest, do have a quieter prose style than the stories I arrived with. Mostly, I think the quiet and relative lack of distractions just helped me get more writing done.

KC: Since having recently gone through the process, do you have advice for writers who are looking to get their books published?

JB: Try not to get too bent out of shape about rejection. My book was rejected by the vast majority of publishers who looked at it. If possible, try to choose an agent and an editor whom you instinctively trust, who push or nudge you as necessary but always show respect for you and your work and understand what you’re trying to do. Have people in your life who are also going through the same process you are, or who have gone through it. They will understand the very particular challenges and anxieties involved in the process. Regardless of what is happening, good or bad, keeping writing and reading so you stay connected to the fundamental joys that made you want to be a writer in the first place.

KC: What does your writing process look like? Do you have a specific environment where you find you work best?

JB: I always work at home, wherever home is, unless I’m at a residency or something like that. I’m not a writer who can work in, say, a cafe. I think my process is primarily character- and language-focused. I write first drafts slowly, asking lots of questions, nitpicking my way from sentence to sentence, but I try not to think too much about issues of craft or the kinds of things that usually come up in workshops. If I’m not under pressure from a deadline, when I’m done with a draft I let it sit for a while. When I look at it again, I start thinking more deliberately about craft: scene, point of view, dialogue, etc. I find Robert Boswell’s transitional drafts method helpful. Finally, I try to make sure I haven’t “crafted” the life out of the story. If I feel stuck, then I have trusted readers I can turn to.

KC: What’s next for you?

JB: I want to write more stories, and maybe something longer too. We’ll see.

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Jamel Brinkley was raised in the Bronx and Brooklyn, New York. He is a graduate of Columbia University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His work has received fellowships from Kimbilio Fiction and the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, and beginning this fall he will be a 2018-2020 Wallace Stegner Fellow in Fiction at Stanford University.

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Contributor Spotlight: Mattie Ganson

Madison Ganson author headshotMattie Ganson’s piece “Description of a Burning House” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Winter 2018 issue, out now.

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

I grew up in a little Chicago suburb, spent a lot of time in Wisconsin as a kid and then went to Beloit College, so my Midwesterness goes pretty deep. I think my aesthetic love for both kitsch and decay comes from having grown up in the Midwest, even though those aren’t uniquely Midwestern things.

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

I love the strange, funny and lovely things that turn up every time I take a long drive through the midwest. Two years ago I was driving up to my friend’s cabin in the UP and it had gotten very late and very dark and I looked over and the moon was this enormous silver dollar low in the sky and so I yelled “THE MOON!” and my girlfriend at the time snapped her head around to look and nearly crashed the car. When my mom and I went to go visit my nanie in Missouri there was this Steak & Shake we would always stop at, this lonely, shiny fast food beacon in the middle of nowhere that serves the best fries of all time. One time on the way to the Milwaukee Art Museum I really had to pee but when I pulled off into the rest area there wasn’t a shelter, so I went and peed in the woods and got a bunch of burs in my underwear. I love all the different ways that I’m surprised and charmed by the Midwest while going through it, especially when so many people only think of it as a place to pass through.

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

I’m really enchanted by the symbolic weight that I put into visiting places or missing places, like graves or old homes or familiar haunts. I’m most interested in what exactly it is that makes places special and what it means for a place to be special, whether that has to do with inherent beauty or subjective memory or senses of ceremony. I like the way that going to places is often a way of being close to something that isn’t about the place itself but what happened there and what that place means to one person or to many people.

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

My ideal writing environment would be a disgustingly comfortable chair on a sun drenched balcony 4-5 stories from ground level on a busy – but not congested – street in a part of the world where it’s 70 degrees all year round with 2 large plants to keep me company. Every 3 or 4 hours, someone brings me black tea, strawberries, and egg on toast.

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

The only way I can think of to answer this question is “I don’t know!!! Sometimes it feels finished in my Heart!!!” I spend a lot of time editing and sending my work off to friends to look at so after that process I usually reach a point where I’m happy with everything that’s going on and make the executive decision to not fuss with it anymore.

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

I dearly love Toni Morrison, Ray Bradbury, Maggie Nelson, and James Baldwin because they all write with such a heartbreaking tenderness for the stories they tell and the people in those stories.

What’s next for you?

I’m excited to graduate college this Spring! If you know any publishing houses looking for an adorable and dutiful publishing sprite, send them my way.

Where can we find more information about you?

Follow me on instagram at mattieleighx or feel free to endorse me for the Fiction Writing skill on LinkedIn.

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Midwest in Photos: Tin Pails Portrait

“To conform is to lose your soul.” – Joshua Ferris, Then We Came to the End

Tin Pails Portrait by Kristina Shue

Photo by: Kristina Shue

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Interview: Terese Mailhot

Terese Mailhot author headshotMidwestern Gothic staffer Laura Dzubay talked with author Terese Mailhot about her novel Heart Berries, willful blindness, knowing when you’ve hit your voice, and more.

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Laura Dzubay: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Terese Mailhot: I fell in love with my husband, and he’s from Evansville, IN. He played football in that small town, his parents still live there, so I wanted to work close to them. That’s why I applied to the Tecumseh Postdoc at Purdue. I got it, and we rolled out of our little adobe house in New Mexico. We love it here.

LD: In terms of setting, Heart Berries is focused primarily on the Seabird Island Indian Reservation in British Columbia. How do considerations of place factor into your writing process? Are there some settings from your life that would feel more natural than others in the context of a memoir such as this?

TM: We call it Seabird Island Rez where I’m from. I just love the ring of that. I loved my rez and the life on it. The vibrancy of that place still thrills me, and I long for the old house I grew up in. That house burned down. My own uncle said it was cool to tear up the land, where my grandmother planted and cultivated so much beauty. So, I lament. I miss that place, and can never really go home again. For Heart Berries it was necessary to explore the meaning of home, and, for me, your home is about the land. The story of the land, and then how your family came to be, and how they cultivated that space for themselves.

Heart Berries book cover by Terese Mailhot

LD: In an interview with The Atlantic, you talked about “willful blindness” as a technique for resisting the rules and preconceptions of things you’re “supposed” to do. After thinking about this during the composition of Heart Berries, do you see it coming up as a regular function of your writing moving into the future?

TM: No. I think each book requires something. Heart Berries needed me to put the blindfold on and now I feel the compulsion to take it off. I’m not afraid to explore working outside of the rules that service good story. I want to take my time, and I used to feel urgency. I used to feel anger, and now I feel more. Also, the center and focus of my work has broadened. The content is different now, and it’s going to take, literally, more words to express how healing has worked for me. It’s a good kind of problem that’s asking me to write differently. Eyes open.

LD: As a memoir, this book has already been recognized for its fearless approach of difficult and traumatic subjects. When did you decide that this was a story you needed to tell?

TM: I think when I found myself consumed with the death of my father. I was always trying to express how his death felt. It took me a long time, but I was able to write that line, “My father died at the Thunderbird Hotel on Flood Hope Road.” Then it was on. It was all on, and I just wrote without relenting after that.

LD: Heart Berries is relatively short overall, but it’s also packed with emotion, creativity, and originality. How did your relationship with the idea of convention change during this project?

TM: I wanted to write a full book. I wanted to please everyone who believed in me, but I couldn’t. I just was writing and couldn’t worry about pleasing them, because what I was writing was worthwhile. I think you know when you’ve hit your voice. You know when you’re almost playing the music in your head, and you have to honor that voice. I knew I had to honor it, and revise according to that honor.

LD: Do you believe writer’s block exists, and if so, how do you deal with it?

TM: Yes. Writer’s block is part of my process. Some days I can’t write. As long as I make a note on my phone, or in my notebook, I’m okay. I also read when I can’t write, so that helps.

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

TM: It feels finished. You have to give it time, because sometimes it feels finished for now, and then you wait a few months, or a year, and you can go back and see if you’re right. That’s kind of how I work.

LD: What’s next for you?

TM: Book two. Sharing my success. Going back to my hometown when I get my first real check, and playing the slots with my brother. That’s the dream. My life is dreamy.

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Terese Mailhot is from Seabird Island Band. She graduated with an MFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts. Her writing appears in West Branch, Guernica, Pacific Standard, Elle, The LA Times, Longreads, Medium, and elsewhere. She is the author of the New York Times bestselling Heart Berries: A Memoir. She serves as faculty at the Institute of American Indian Arts and she’s a Tecumseh Postdoctoral Fellow at Purdue University.

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