Contributor Spotlight: Jason Zeitler

May 1st, 2018

Jason Zeitler author headshotJason Zeitler’s piece “Remembrance” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Winter 2018 issue, available now.

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

I was born and raised in South Dakota. I’ve actually lived in other parts of the U.S. for longer than I lived in South Dakota, but I still consider myself a Midwesterner. If nothing else, I’ve retained the sensibilities and speech patterns of someone from the Midwest, and I think those things have bled into the content and rhythms of my writing. This is true even when the narratives themselves are set in places outside the Midwest.

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

The most compelling aspect is its expansiveness and the possibilities that implies. Take the Dakota plains, for example. The landscape itself is on such a grand scale. You look out and see endless grass or endless snow or endless sky. That expansiveness and freedom invariably affects your world view.

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?

Even in my fictional pieces, I find details about growing up in the Midwest creeping into the narrative: dogs I had as a child, hunting trips in South Dakota, teenage obsessions, etc. You can’t escape who you are or the experiences that formed you.

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

I write when something takes ahold of me. Writing is nine parts hard work and one part inspiration, but the process starts with inspiration. More often than not your writing is mediocre when your heart isn’t in it. The kinds of things that inspire me are usually dramatic experiences or images I can’t get out of my head, and in that sense the writing process amounts to an exorcism.

My ideal writing environment is at home with no distractions. When I get writer’s block, I do one of two things: (1) write through it, even if the result isn’t worth the paper it was written on, and then whittle away until I get what I’m looking for; or (2) put the writing aside and focus on something else until inspiration returns (which may mean simply going for a hike or a swim to clear my head, or it may mean not writing for an extended period).

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

I know I’m finished with a piece when I start fretting over the placement of commas and/or when I start reciting whole sections of text in my head for the pure pleasure of it. Usually shortly after one or both of these things happen, I stop thinking about the piece and feel inclined to move on to something else.

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

I like so many different writers, it’s hard to identify a favorite. In my late teens and early twenties, I was obsessed with Dostoevsky. At about that same time, I developed a fondness for the modernists and the anti-modernists—Faulkner and Woolf and Orwell and Steinbeck, respectively—because of what they taught me about fictional technique. More recently, I’ve found myself drawn to writers like Cormac McCarthy and William Gay and Michael Ondaatje because of their dark lyricism.

What’s next for you?

This is something I’ve thought about a lot lately, and I’ve come to the conclusion that continuing to write short stories and narrative essays is enough for me. Of course I want an audience and validation from writers and editors, but fame and fortune aren’t at the top of my list of goals for myself. If I ever run out of ideas for shorter pieces, I might try my hand at a novel, but for now, the only substantive goal I have with my writing is to get a collection of stories published, which would be a truly gratifying culmination to my work over the past several years.

Where can we find more information about you?

I live and write in obscurity, and I’d like to keep it that way. I suppose it’s ironic for me to say something like that and at the same time to publish personal essays (and to participate in this interview, for that matter). But there’s a reason why I don’t have social-media accounts or a cellphone: I value my privacy. In a similar vein, I want the stories I get published to be about the writing, not about me, even when, ironically, I happen to be the narrator.

Contributor Spotlight: Bruce Johnson

Bruce Johnson author headshotBruce Johnson’s story “All the Wild” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Winter 2018 issue, out now.

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

I was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, and lived there until I moved away for my MFA at age 23. Though I haven’t lived there for a while now, my stories draw upon a lot of the settings and experiences I was exposed to while I did, and I think some of the recurring preoccupations of my fiction—especially a skepticism toward traditional concepts of masculinity—grew out of my experience as a midwesterner who often didn’t fit in with other midwesterners. But more importantly, I think the matter-of-fact speech common in the region will always be a part of my writing voice at the sentence level.

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

I’m a little hesitant to generalize about the Midwest, because it’s such a large region and I’ve only ever lived in such a tiny sliver of it. But in the other places I’ve lived, different classes of people tend to self-segregate and often try to more or less ignore each other. That’s not the case in Lincoln. I miss seeing the coexistence of different classes in the same small space, and mingling with people from different economic backgrounds.

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?

The Midwest is a very unique place to grow up, and that gave me a lot of rich settings to draw upon that many writers and readers aren’t privy to. Lincoln in particular was a great starting place for me as a writer, with its college-city feel and its proximity to smaller towns and the wide-open country. Those settings have an obvious influence on my stories set in the Midwest, but also on the stories that take place in other regions or countries. The distinctiveness of my experience growing up in the Midwest has helped me draw contrasts in order to understand what makes other places unique as well.

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

When I start a new story, it often feels like I need to forget everything I thought I knew about writing and figure out a new process that will work for that particular story. Sometimes I have a clear idea of what a story is about before I start it, other times I just have a first sentence I want to play with. Sometimes a story demands a quiet room to write in, other times weird industrial music playing in my headphones. And inspiration can come from anywhere; I have a long list of story ideas written down in my phone, and I don’t remember where most of them came from. I can’t say I experience writer’s block much, though. I’m always writing. It’s not always good, but throwing out bad work is part of the process.

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

It kind of depends on the story, but usually I can tell it’s finished when the changes I’m making are increasingly minor—fiddling with comma placement, for example, or re-inserting a sentence I took out the day before.

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

I read a lot of different types of fiction so my instinct here is to name a ton of different writers that I love, but that seems like a cop-out. So I’ll say Don Delillo, whose books I re-read more than those of any other author. His sentences are what draw me to his work.

What’s next for you?

I’m currently working on my PhD dissertation, which is a novel that follows a couple recent immigrants to Santiago, Chile. One of them is from Lincoln like me, so it will definitely have some Midwest influence in there as I tackle the collision of cultures that comes with any story of immigration.

Where can we find more information about you?

On my website at https://brucejohnsonfiction.wordpress.com/ or on Twitter at https://twitter.com/bruce2101.

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Midwest in Photos: Workers and Flowers

“You have, to dream things out. It keeps a kind of an ideal before you. You see it first in your mind and then you set about to try and make it like the ideal. If you want a garden,—why, I guess you’ve got to dream a garden.” – Beth Streeter Aldrich, A Lantern in Her Hand.

Midwest in Photos - Workers and Flowers by David J. Thompson

Photo by: David J. Thompson

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Views from the Heartland: Laura Migliorino

Laura Migliorino headshotMidwestern Gothic staffer Kate Cammell talked with photographer Laura Migliorino about her creative process, the overlooked diversity of suburban life, outside perspectives of American culture, and more.

Laura Migliorino was born in Cleveland, Ohio in an Italian–American family. Her background has been very influential her life, shaping her values and character. Migliorino spent a majority of her childhood in suburban Chicago after her family moved there when she was three years old. She has a B.F.A from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and an M.F.A from the University of Minnesota. She is a professor of Art at Anoka-Ramsey Community College near Minneapolis, MN. Migliorino has exhibited world wide, is the recipient of Jerome Foundation Grants, and several Minnesota State Arts Board Grants. Her work is in several permanent collections including the Walker Art Center, The Weisman, and The WareHOUSE Wieland Museum.

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

Laura Migliorino: I am a Midwesterner through and through, all along the Great Lakes. I was born in Cleveland, but moved to Chicago when I was three years old. Chicago has the greatest influence on my character and ethos. A hardworking, rust belt city where people talk to you at a bus stop and friendly. I love the line “I saw a man who danced with his wife, in Chicago” from that great song. It embraces a tenderness that I believe is at the root of Midwestern values. I now live in Minneapolis really the upper Midwest, true flyover territory. Minnesota takes the Chicago friendly to a reserved, but lovely politeness. When I first moved there over 30 years ago I sort of resented the politeness, but as we have become a rude and indifferent culture I appreciate the honesty and openness of the Midwest.

KC: Your photography is interested in exploring people’s relationship to place and boundaries. Has your work in the Midwest led you to discover anything particularly revealing about Midwesterners’ relationship to their region?

LM: I think the thing that stands out the most is we don’t care if we are fly over country and that the world doesn’t really know anything about the Midwest. Now I define the Midwest as Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio. Many of my friends laugh when the national news uses the term “midwest” when they are referring to Kansas. We know who we are, and don’t need to prove anything to anyone else.

Marigold Avenue
 

KC: Your project, The Hidden Suburbs, focused on capturing the often overlooked diversity of suburbs. You photographed immigrant, biracial, and same-sex families within Minnesota suburbs. What ignited your interest in exploring this subject?

LM: There are several factors that inspired The Hidden Suburbs. I live in the city of Minneapolis and teach in the northern suburbs. Like many city dwellers I thought of the suburbs as this monolithic, bland place full of white evangelical Christian Republicans. I saw them heading to a Mega Church on Sunday and homeschooling their kids. Suburbanites sought out a uniformity and familiarity that felt safe devoid of anything different. During my commute I saw the suburban boom, day in and day out. One day I thought about the people I know who live there, they did not fit into my stereotype of a suburbanite and that sparked by curiosity. I began my quest to find a diverse suburb.

KC: In this current political climate, this series feel just as relevant as when it was released. How has this heightened rhetoric about immigration played into the work you’re doing now?

LM: This is a great question because the demographics of suburbia are changing rapidly and are already showing a political shift blue. New immigrants are moving directly to the suburbs, skipping the traditional inner city enclaves of previous immigration patterns. They are seizing the American dream of a house in the suburbs right away. As a result areas that were once European and Christian are increasingly non – white, and non – Christian. The political impact is beginning to show as inner ring suburbs have become more liberal and tolerant of diversity.

Goodhue Street
 

KC: You’re currently in London lecturing to Kingston College’s American studies students about suburbia. How has it been getting to hear outside perspectives of American culture, has it challenged your view of suburbia or the country’s culture in any way?

LM: These students have a good understanding about the United States and are interested in the relationship between the US and England. They know that the American suburban idea is rooted in English country life, but we added an egalitarian component that cuts across class. The English manor house did not have that but over time the English and American suburbs grew to be similar. It is also what sets us apart from Europe, where the suburbs are slums and the inner city is posh and expensive.

KC: Is there a piece of advice that you’d wish you known when you were in your student’s shoes that you make sure to share with them?

LM: Yes I do. The creative process is a disciplined practice, not some spontaneous outburst due to mental illness, grief, angst etc… A successful artist works on a regular basis, making both good and bad art. They don’t wait for inspiration they seek it out.

Egret Street
 

KC: Where do you find inspiration for your photographs?

LM: Inspiration for my photographs come from what ever is capturing my attention long enough to hold it. Largely the work is a result of what I find interesting in a moment, and I am compelled to explore that topic. That said I am often attracted to architecture, buildings, houses, and how people relate to their shelter. In both The Hidden Suburbs and the following series Occidente Nuevo: Recycled Tijuana portraits were an integral part of the image. The work I am doing now is devoid of people.

KC: What’s next for you?

LM: I am currently working on a series of abandoned homes, called Absentia: Abandoned Past. The series Absentia: Abandoned Past explores spaces in a state of abandonment or unexpected departure, creating a feeling of being animated and inhabited but absent at the same time. I am interested in the in between period in the life of the house, the transition from one era to another in the lifetime of the place. Houses are like the human body; they are born fresh, clean, and full of hope. The home ages, adapts, and sags; occupants leave traces but take their memories with them. A house may be reborn and be rehabilitated; sometimes it dies and becomes a memory.

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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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Interview: Curtis Sittenfeld

Curtis Sittenfeld author headshotMidwestern Gothic staffer Kathryn Cammell talked with author Curtis Sittenfeld about her collection You Think It, I’ll Say It, the importance of place, adapting a classic, and more.

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

Curtis Sittenfeld: I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio; attended graduate school in Iowa City, Iowa; and have lived in St. Louis, Missouri since 2007. I’ve also lived on the East Coast and for a couple years in California. But I’ve spent more than half my life in the Midwest.

KC: In your personal essay for The New York Times, “Loving the Midwest,” you talk about your return to the Midwest region to raise your family after living on the East Coast. In the piece, you were able to explore and expose the complexities of the Midwest region, which all too often has a tendency to be dismissed as simple. Do you have tips on how to approach writing about a place and its people honestly without exploiting stereotypes and myths?

CS: I try to make my characters as complex as real people instead of borrowing from existing pop culture, which I think is where the stereotypes are.

KC: What is the importance of place in your writing?

CS: Place tends to be a backdrop and not what I start with, but it’s an important backdrop. I think feeling grounded in a distinct place—and again, in an authentic rather than fake version of a distinct place—makes fiction more alive and vivid for readers.

KC: Is there anything in your writing style or choices that you feel can be traced back to your time spent living in the Midwest region?

CS: I’m sure the plots and settings of my novels and stories have been influenced by where I live. For instance, my fourth novel, Sisterland, was set in St. Louis and based on an earthquake prediction made many years before, which attracted a surprising amount of media attention given its tenuous relationship to science. I learned about the prediction while in Iowa, chatting with a friend who’d grown up in Jefferson City, Missouri. So in the most literal sense, this is a conversation I probably wouldn’t have had if I lived in Brooklyn. At this point, my default is to set fiction in the Midwest—there has to be a reason for me to set it elsewhere.

KC: Your last novel, Eligible, is a highly-praised modern version of Pride and Prejudice. How did you find the challenge of reclaiming such a known plot and making it your own?

CS: I definitely saw what I was doing as homage or fan fiction and not my declaration to the world that I am the 21st century version of Jane Austen. Only Jane Austen is Jane Austen! With that outlook guiding me, I had a lot of fun existing in her world.

KC: Why did you choose to adapt this Jane Austen novel? Was there something about the plot and characters that spoke to you in particular?

CS: It’s more like the adaptation chose me. Two British editors reached out in December 2011 to see if I’d be interested in participating in what they were calling The Austen Project, or six contemporary writers telling modern versions of each of Austen’s six novels. How could I resist? They suggested that Pride and Prejudice could be the right fit for me, because my own work shares its focus on class and romance and family. I don’t think I’d have retold a different Austen novel—I admire them all, but, like many readers, I do feel a special affinity for P&P.

You Think It, I'll Say It book cover by Curtis Sittenfeld

KC: Your first collection of short fiction, You Think It, I’ll Say It, is forthcoming in April, 2018. What drew you back to the short story form after publishing fiction novels?

CS: I’ve always loved reading and writing stories, but I did get away from writing them after the publication of my first novel, Prep, in 2005. Once you gain a bit of professional traction in a particular genre, the expectation is that you’ll continue with that form. And I love reading and writing novels, too. But in 2016, after the publication of Eligible, I’d been busy promoting the book and not writing much, and I decided to try my hand at a story again as a way of returning to writing without feeling overwhelmed by the scope and ambition of a new novel. That story, “Gender Studies,” opened a sort of literary vein for me, and several more stories poured out relatively quickly.

KC: What do you find the differences to be between writing short fiction and novels?

CS: Um, novels are longer? Just kidding. But I do like how compact and contained stories are. I can write them more quickly, which means they can be more current or timely, and they also can contain an energy that I think is difficult to sustain over a novel.

KC: Is there something that short stories can do that longer works cannot, and vice versa?

CS: See above about what stories can do. As for what novels can do, they can be a truly immersive, intimate experience in another person’s life, even if that person is made-up. They can make us see life from a perspective not our own and go on a journey we wouldn’t otherwise have access to.

KC: What’s next for you?

CS: I’m writing a novel about if Hillary Rodham Clinton had met Bill Clinton at Yale Law School but never married him.

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Curtis Sittenfeld is the bestselling author of the novels Prep, The Man of My Dreams, American Wife, Sisterland, and Eligible, which have been translated into twenty-five languages, as well as the forthcoming short story collection You Think It, I’ll Say It. Her nonfiction has been published widely, including in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Time, and Glamour, and broadcast on public radio’s This American Life. A native of Cincinnati, she currently lives with her family in St. Louis.

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Contributor Spotlight: Chad Koch

Chad Koch author headshotChad Koch’s story “Lost Boys” 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 Whitewater, Wisconsin which is a small university town near Madison. The region has definitely infused my writing with setting. In the Midwest outside feels so different than inside. The sky is so big, the weather and climate so different. Often times when you go outside you are alone, you do it to get away from people.

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

There are so many towns – not suburbs. These towns are self-contained, not interconnected—they have one high school with the town mascot, the two diners that everyone goes to, and usually there is the one unique thing about that town that makes it just different enough from the town next door, like a really old water tower or some strange historical event. So many people in the Midwest spend their entire lives in these towns – seeing the world from television – it gives me claustrophobia. But I also think about their lives a lot. I think a big choice (perhaps more and more in the current generations) is whether to leave these towns/the Midwest for good after college or high school – I think a lot of Midwesterners face that choice at least once in their lives.

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?

Again I think the setting plays a big role, especially in my stories about childhood and adolescence. I can’t even imagine what it would be like growing-up in San Francisco – do you even get the same urge to leave – to move to something bigger – to see what’s beyond your town?

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

I’ve found that writer’s block can be cured by changing focus from “I need to write a story” to “let’s just write 1500 words today”. I was actually against this idea for a while because I thought I’d just be wasting time, but I recently did Nanowrimo and it helped me finish my novel. In a lot of ways just get something – anything—on the page moves things forward. Switching to word count also stifles your inner critic because now you measure yourself by a number of words which is black and white (you either hit your word count or you don’t).

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

That’s a fun question! Never? I find that as I write more and publish more, it becomes easier to tell. I do think it’s best to write a draft until you feel it’s ready and then wait a couple weeks. Then reread it and see it with fresh eyes.

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

I don’t know if I have favorite authors, just some that seem to speak to me more at different times in my life. For my novel Christie Hodges’ Elegies of the Brokenhearted really spoke to me as well as (more obviously) Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story. A continual favorite author to read is Junot Diaz and Yukio Mishima — very different from my own work, but they write stories in ways I can’t, and I always find it fascinating when someone thinks/tells stories completely different from you.

What’s next for you?

Currently, I’m working on revising my novel and rounding out my short story collection with two new stories.

Where can we find more information about you?

I spend a lot of time running my literary journal and press, Foglifter. We have our first chapbook coming out this year so we’re quite busy. www.foglifterjournal.com

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Midwest in Photos: Praying Hands

“There’s no answer that ends the search, you know. Obviously, there never will be. The artist seeks to capture the world because the nature of every single object is a mystery to him. The philosopher addresses human nature because he’s a stranger to every part of it.” – Ethan Canin, A Doubter’s Almanac.

Midwest in Photos - Praying Hands by Samantha Navarro

Photo by: Samantha Navarro

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Contributor Spotlight: Nora Seilheimer

Nora Seilheimer author headshotNora Seilheimer’s piece “The Breakup Cat” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Winter 2018 issue, available now.

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

I was born and raised in Saint Clair, Michigan (no, not Saint Clair Shores, that’s a different town entirely) and attended Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Michigan. After graduation I moved to Chicago where I taught high school special education and yoga for eight years before moving to New Orleans for graduate school. Even though my husband and I recently bought a house in the Upper Ninth Ward, I am still consumed by a very strong northward pull. My family is spread throughout Michigan and Wisconsin and my husband’s throughout Illinois. But I think that pull is coming from my Grandpa’s ghost. Save going overseas for the war, my Grandpa spent his entire life in Kalamazoo, and I sense his roots reaching for me often.

I find that my writing hasn’t really found a home in the South yet. This is not to say anything negative about the South, but that is to say that my writing possesses certain qualities that don’t always land with readers here. It’s not as sad as it sounds. It’s valuable to see your writing through the eyes of someone who might not be your target audience- your work’s defining qualities surface much more quickly, giving you a clear idea of what you’re naturally working with every time you sit down to create. I have learned that my writing often tries to do a lot in a small amount of space, not unlike how Midwesterners stuff their summers with vacations, camping trips, music festivals, and the like before holing up for the winter. I’ve also learned that I use humor to connect with my reader, and that my particular brand of humor is often anchored in pain and the honesty needed to realize that pain is just another slice of the human experience, something that connects us all, something that we are not meant to dwell in, but that is meant to be our offering to others. To me this connection is like building lakeside bonfires in the winter with friends and family. How rewarding it can be to stare meaningfully into the flames together.

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

Now that I have lived outside of the Midwest for almost two years, I think the most compelling aspect of the region is its four distinct seasons and how each one inspires different energies within us. I can’t tell you how many times I have been chilling on a New Orleans front porch donned in shorts and a tank top and it takes me about half a beer to realize it’s January. I keep Chicago, Milwaukee, and Kalamazoo as destinations in my weather app on my phone. I usually finish the other half of my beer as I imagine my Chicago friends layering up for the El in the eight inches of snow it tells me are on the ground there and I am caught somewhere between feeling super lucky to be warm and almost half naked and super jealous that they get to experience winter energy enveloping their bodies regardless of layers of down jackets and Cuddl Duds. They get to relearn the importance of “grin and bear it” while surrounded by a community of folks relearning the same thing.

Also, beer.

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 grew up figure skating for the Port Huron Figure Skating Club in Michigan. I find that the ways in which the rink has groomed my outlook shows up in my work as a focus on movement. My workshopmates were the ones who pointed this out to me. My narrator describes the way other characters hold space, whether they stand with feet wider than their hips’ distance or if they make hand gestures closer to their own body or their listener’s face, but she also takes the time to describe what an emotion feels like as it journeys through her own body and how it might change the appearance of her setting. This technique can get trippy at times, so I have learned to balance it out with a focus on sound, whether it be a song I weave into the narrative or sounds coming from the setting itself, to keep the reader anchored. I believe this appreciation for the audible was instilled in me after many years of listening to my dad play guitar through the air vents of our house while writing in my journal. It seems I am always looking for a soundtrack.

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

Coffee helps. So do cats (when they sit still and NOT on the keyboard). If I am feeling stuck in terms of clarity or how to connect research to story, I’ll take my notebook to a place with free live music, preferably open mics. If I am feeling stuck in terms of my heart and the task of writing down what it’s telling me, I’ll take my notebook to a yoga class led by a teacher I trust. I also keep the notes app on my phone open while I sleep in case something comes to me in the middle of the night that I need to record.

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

I’m of the mind that a piece of writing, be it essay or memoir, is never finished because life is always evolving, research is always developing, our perspectives are always shifting. Every piece is like a never-ending road trip and a published version of that piece is just one destination you thought interesting and whole enough to stay there for a while. I suppose you might be happy enough with that destination that you decide to lay down some roots, but you’ll always wonder what a piece might have been if you had incorporated this new study or this new angle you’ve discovered within after gaining some time and space from the matter. This theory might trouble some writers, maybe even ignite their anxiety, but I find it liberating and spacious.

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

Eula Biss. She’s such a badass, I can’t get over it. The amount of research that she packs into one paragraph, sometimes even one sentence, is, in the original meaning of the word, awesome.

What’s next for you?

I am currently in the second year of my MFA at University of New Orleans. So I guess what’s next is thesis and comps? After that I will be transitioning from pretending to be a writer to actually being one.

Where can we find more information about you?

Folks can connect with me on Twitter @nslhmr

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Midwest in Photos: Ozarks Beauty

“Spring. The green dance, from the smallest roadside plant in a vertical upsurge, to trees bursting in leaf, swaying to morning skies woven in rainbows of returning birds, from the mystical white transformation of ice and snow in bays to the miracle and movement of water. I am stillness, I am dance; I am death, I am life. Know this for what you are. Everything moves.” – Norbert Blei, Door Way.

Ozarks Beauty by Amy White

Photo by: Amy White

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Interview: Tom McAllister

Tom McCallister author headshotMidwestern Gothic staffer Elizabeth Dokas talked with author Tom McAllister about his novel How to Be Safe, media interactions with tragedy, social media and online life, and more.

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Elizabeth Dokas: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Tom McAllister: I lived in Iowa City for two years when I was in graduate school. Prior to that, I had only been as far west as Gettysburg by car, and had once skipped over the rest of the country to go to California with my parents.

I have fond memories of my time in Iowa City, though I was personally not doing well then: I was just out college, and in a long-distance relationship, and still not over my father’s death, and I was not emotionally prepared for any of it. Mostly what I did when I was there was drink cheap pitchers of beer and talk about what I would do with myself once grad school was over.

But I also got engaged in my Iowa City apartment, and I made a lot of great friends there, and I learned so much that didn’t actually register with me until years later, when I was ready to start listening.

I haven’t been back since, though I’d love to go. I have been to Wisconsin on four different occasions in the past three years, and have found it to be a really wonderful place.

ED: Your newest novel, How to Be Safe, is set in a small town. From a writer’s perspective, how is crafting a distinctly small town setting distinct from a larger city or even a slightly larger town?

TM: I grew up in Philly, and have always identified myself as a Philly guy, though I’ve lived in the New Jersey suburbs since 2006. My town isn’t small, but it’s small enough that I see a lot of the same people around now, and I wonder whether they notice me, or why they would even care. There are still enough people here that I can disappear and blend in, which is a relief for me.

When I was writing the small (fictional) town of Seldom Falls, PA, I was thinking about a place on an even smaller scale than this. Because I was beginning with a school shooting, one thing I wanted was for it to be in a place that’s small enough that everybody knows everybody. Or they think they know everybody. Or they know just a little bit about most of the people. It doesn’t make the event any more tragic than if it happened in a major city, but it feels even more weirdly personal to the people there. It wasn’t just some teenager who died, but Sara, the girl you know from around the corner, whose mom is nice and works at the deli. I really liked the idea of integrating these little bits of biography into the book, and I think that’s an essential part of a small town’s character.

How To Be Safe book cover by Tom McAllister

ED: How to Be Safe revolves around many modern political and social concerns, with gun violence at a school taking center stage. Did you have a particular situation in mind when exploring this type of gun violence (school shootings), or did you want to separate the narrative arc from real life occurrences? Why?

TM: I started working on this just after the Sandy Hook shooting, but I didn’t want to hew too closely to any specific event. I read Columbine by David Cullen and One of Us by Asne Seierstad, and I had always closely watched the real stories of mass public violence. They all tend to follow very similar patterns, which we sadly know so well by now. I didn’t want to too closely imitate any specific news story, but they all influenced it. One non-shooting story that had a big impact on this book was the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, when people on reddit tried to solve the case by zooming in really closely on blurry photos, and nearly ruined some poor kid’s life by declaring he was probably the bomber. That really helped me to find the entry point to the novel, as Anna is falsely accused, for no good reason, of being involved in the shooting at her school.

ED: Much of this book also explores how issues of gun violence in society interact with the media, often butting up against issues of representation, skewing of facts, and victimization — of actual victims or not. What about media interactions with tragedy felt integral to you in portraying that tragedy?

TM: This ritual we go through is insanity. It’s incrementally worse every time. As I type this, a prominent conservative media figure is being boycotted because she taunted a literal child on Twitter because she’s angry at him for protesting guns. But even before David Hogg made gun people lose their minds, the media cycle was destroying us. There’s this desperation to churn content as quickly as possible, so after the shooting, the media descends and just chews people up and moves on the second there’s a new tragedy. They look very serious while they’re doing it, but they’re picking the bones of the town clean. It’s horrible to watch. I wanted the novel to address that dynamic clearly and directly, not to blame the media for the crimes, but to really dig into the ways our media culture is ruining our brains.

ED: How do you write a narrative about political issues that doesn’t devolve into political caterwauling, or a rehash of your own political views?

TM: This was really hard for me. Because I didn’t want to write a book that amounted to propaganda. I wanted it to be complex and compelling and difficult and all the other things you want from a novel. But also I have really strong feelings on all these issues. For me, the solution came in centering on this one specific voice, this woman who is specific and weird and funny (I hope) and angry. It let me channel some of my own anger and anxiety through her, but also forced me to shape the story around her and focus on narrative. I had to get deeply into her story and be faithful to it, wherever it took me. I don’t think I could have pulled that off if I’d gone with an omniscient narrator; I needed some constraints to make it work.

ED: Much of How to Be Safe explores how feminism and misogyny function in our society, and the main character, Anna, is a woman. As a man, did you find writing a female main character difficult? Did you find writing about experiences she had specifically as a woman difficult?

TM: It took me a long time to settle on the POV character and the voice for this book. Once I found the rhythms of Anna’s voice, I still resisted it, because I was very afraid of totally screwing it up. I’ve read and loved many books by and about women, but wasn’t sure I could do it myself.

When I’m deep into a project, I talk to my wife about it a lot, and in this case, I often ran scenarios by her to understand how she might perceive a situation differently than I would. When we walk into a crowded room for a party, what things does she notice right away (especially things that I might miss or take for granted)?

But also, the most important thing was Twitter, and social media in general. Just logging in every day, following smart and funny women, resisting the dumb urge to constantly respond to them, and just listening. Learning about the various indignities most women face day to day. Especially listening when they shared stories of male writers totally misunderstanding the internal lives of women.

ED: What did you find important about writing a female character to experience these conflicts? What was more potent, to you, than featuring a male main character in the same setting?

TM: It took me a long time to realize that school shootings alone aren’t the thing that’s upsetting to me; it’s a question of vulnerability. It’s about power and helplessness and being afraid in public. I’m a member of a lot of privileged groups, and so, even though I feel that vulnerability, I experience the world differently than lots of other people. I thought a women’s perspective would give me more access to this conflict, and also be a more honest telling of the story.

ED: What were your inspirations for this novel? Are these issues that bother you personally, or did you pull it more from what the larger public is concerned with? How do those inspirations affect your writing?

TM: This book is a big bundle of my obsessions and fears rolled into a weird little ball. Parts of the How to Be Safe chapters were pulled from an essay I’d worked on and abandoned years ago. The stuff about gun violence has always driven me crazy, especially since I teach at a large state school where something like this could happen any day. The randomness of a public attack (with a truck, gun, bomb, whatever) is terrifying to me, and I can’t find a way to feel okay about it. And the overheated rhetoric of the book, the push toward absurdity, comes from spending my life immersed in the hot take cycles of online life.

ED: What’s next for you?

TM: I have about 11 pages of a Word document written on something I’m refusing to call a novel until it turns into something else. I’ve struggled with it so far; it’s one of those things where I had a basic idea, but every time I try to get it started, it’s just not working. It’s also possible I’m avoiding seriously working on it because I don’t want to commit to another big project again.

I would really like to be able to write a book of nonfiction, but a) I only have the vaguest ideas for the focus of it, and b) I’m not sure anyone will let me do it. But I really enjoy exercising that part of my brain, and it’s been a while since I’ve worked seriously on longform nonfiction.

This is an unsatisfying answer, I realize.

**

Tom McAllister is the author of the novels How to Be Safe and The Young Widower’s Handbook, as well as the memoir Bury Me in My Jersey. His shorter work has been published in Best American Nonrequired Reading, The Millions, The Rumpus, and Hobart, among others. He co-hosts the Book Fight! podcast, and is nonfiction editor at Barrelhouse. He lives in New Jersey and teaches at Temple University.

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