What’s your connection to the Midwest?
I was born in Madison and raised in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I haven’t lived in Michigan full time since I was a kid, but I spend as much time as I can here every year, especially in the summer. Maybe more to the point, though, it’s the landscape of my imagination. All the stories that haunt me are set here. They seem, actually, to rise of out of the ground here.
Favorite places or features of the region?
I’m entirely oriented by the water. I have a hard time knowing north/south/east/west or where I’m going when I’m too far away from a big lake like Michigan or Superior. While I’m very attracted to big cities, I’m easily overwhelmed by them, too. When I come back to my hometown, I take such creature comfort in seeing the earth arranged into lakes and trees and little houses in the way I’ve always known it.
It’s rare, too, to find such a beautiful place, such a long stretch of shore, that’s so free of tourists, so free of that surreal Epcot center vibe many beautiful places have because they’re so crowded with people performing their best human-in-nature tricks. It would be good for the local economy if there were more tourism, of course, but, man, I feel so lucky to be able to roam around outside without that nagging unrealness crowds bring.
What is your favorite season of the year?
Summer, because I get to come home. I’m fortunate my job has a nice break that coincides with the best weather in the UP.
Has the Midwest been an influence or inspiration for your work, and if so, how?
Oh, in every way. Besides the power of the landscape, which is directly linked to story for me, the Midwest has also shaped my politics, my inescapable accent, my humility and my false modesty. I’m very troubled that Michigan and Wisconsin went for Trump—it fills me with sorrow—but I’m not surprised. The toxic resentment that made his candidacy possible has been brewing for a long, long time in small towns like the one I’m from. I think I was running from that toxicity when I left to go to college. I knew I had to see it from the outside or I’d risk being swallowed by it.
I live on the East Coast now, and when I first moved there and lived about an hour and a half from New York City, I remember feeling very strongly: so THIS is the America I’ve heard so much about! The whole country has to hear hourly updates about every snowstorm rumored to be headed toward the east coast. A general American arrogance is stuffed inside a regional arrogance out east. Don’t get me wrong, I love Philadelphia, the city I live in, very much, but the character is very different, the tone.
I think in a very basic way my writing is a love letter to my home, a place I can’t live because it doesn’t tolerate much, if any, difference.
Pencil, pen, typewriter, computer?
All of the above, except the typewriter.
What’s the best job you’ve ever had?
The one I have now, teaching writing.
What’s the worst job you ever had?
I’ve been lucky, all my jobs have been pretty good ones. In high school, though, I got fired from a job at a busy gas station/ ice cream store because I couldn’t make change fast enough.
What do you do in your free time?
Play Candy Crush.
Favorite band or music?
Don’t make me say it twice!
Favorite food or beverage?
I’m really into sour beers right now. I suspect I shouldn’t admit that, but they are very compelling.
Do you have a pet?
I don’t but I still think about the two cats I had growing up. I would like to have a cat or a dog, but I travel too much.
What’s on your radar now? Current projects?
I’m reading Victor Lavalle’s The Changeling and it’s impossible to put down. I just finished The Haunting of Hill House which was super fun, too, until it was totally depressing. It’s summer, gimme a thriller.
Meanwhile I’m finishing up my third book of poetry, The Forthcoming Disasters of Gold River, which wildly fictionalizes and synthesizes a number of Midwestern historic events into a phantasmagoria of fires, pine trees, and murderous white women.
Some of the poems from Forthcoming are in a beautiful new chapbook out with Bloof Books which features actual scorch marks that editor and designer Shanna Compton made with various candles.