Editor Justin Hamm talks to Jeff Pfaller about the exciting things Midwestern Gothic is doing for Midwestern literature, including the upcoming first release from MG Press.
Thanks for taking the time to talk to us about your magazine, Jeff. Let me start by saying I’m a huge fan of the work you folks are publishing. But for readers who may not picked up an issue yet, can you tell us a little bit about where the urge to create Midwestern Gothic came from and what the journal is trying to do?
Both Rob and I are lifelong Midwesterners, which is where most of the love comes from. If you start in Chicago and drive in any direction, you’re literally driving through a cross-section of America. Within an hour you get an urban melting pot, suburbia, small town gems, run-down communities and sleepy rural farmland. But that’s not what people think of when they hear “Midwest.” They think country bumpkins, corn, and a vanilla culture in general. And while there are certainly immensely talented Midwestern writers (Bradbury, Franzen, etc.), they’re not thought of as regionalists. Not like Southern or Northeastern writers, anyway. And that’s really what the genesis of the journal was. We feel like our home is gorgeous, but overlooked. Midwestern Gothic is our attempt at capturing what life around here is all about.
Sure looks like you guys found that you weren’t alone in feeling as you do about the region. Once your mission for the journal began to get around, what was the response like from writers, readers, other editors, and so forth?
That was actually one of our earliest surprises, and one that continues to amaze me. In the beginning, we reached out to writers we knew and a few other channels to solicit submissions from people we knew and respected. I fully expected submissions to be 80% stuff we’d never consider, and 20% pieces we might legitimately be interested in. Turns out, it’s been completely the opposite. Sure, we get a few pieces that are just flat out “no” right off the bat, but the quantity, and the quality, of submissions we get has been incredible. Every issue, we leave behind fiction and poetry we wish we could publish. It’s a great problem to have, and it makes putting the journal together a true joy. We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again – we’re nothing without our contributors. They truly make Midwestern Gothic – we’re just lucky enough to curate it.
I’ve always been fascinated by voice in regionalism. I can’t remember where, but I’m sure I read one of my favorite poets, George Bilgere, describe a poem of his as typical of the flat or plain language of the Midwest. And I’ve been told that beginning newscasters are asked to emulate Midwestern speech because of its plainness and relative lack of accent. What commonalities do you find in the language submissions you read? Is it even possible to characterize the Midwestern voice?
Voice? I don’t think so. That’s such an individual, defining attribute to any author’s work – it’d be tough to nail down a timbre that was uniquely Midwestern. What we characterize as Midwestern comes from what common threads do work their way through a lot of the work we accept, in setting, character and theme. All three of those combine to form an aesthetic – a gut feeling that settles into our bellies when we read a piece. For me, it boils down to two things – the single characteristic I think defines Midwesterners is their pride. We might not have the most beautiful people, or the obvious grandeur of mountains or oceans. And some places are just downright ugly. But dammit, it’s ours, and we’ll punch you in the mouth if you say otherwise. As with all qualities of endearment, it’s also their fatal flaw. This pride causes us to linger on things longer than we should. To stick with something because we think it’s the right thing to do. The vast majority, if not all the stories we publish carry notes of that notion in some form or another.
I like that — using “gut feeling” to describe the aesthetic of the magazine. We feel the same way about the museum of americana — the work we want is going to give rise to a certain feeling in us and in our readers, and that’s how we know it’s a fit. But some journals intentionally avoid a specific aesthetic, insisting they simply want the best work out there. Besides getting to publish a whole lot of the regionalism you love, are there other reasons you prefer having a unified aesthetic?
Having a point of view is one of the few ways I think literary journals can differentiate themselves. Go to any conference, walk around all the tables and ask folks what their journal is about. When well over half of them say they are looking for the “best out there”, or only work that they love, it’s next to impossible to get a feel for what you’ll find inside the cover. Having a clear purpose and aesthetic is invaluable for us to connect with readers. When they walk up to our booth at a conference, visit our website or find us in social media – we feel like we and our contributors have a unique story to tell that can only be found in our Midwestern Gothic.
You’vedone some expanding recently. Tell us a little about MG Press and your first title, which I believe is set to come out early next year, right? It sounds pretty great.
MG Press is another way for us to deliver on our mission – publishing one or two select titles a year is incredibly exciting for us – focusing in one on voice allows us to show a much stronger, more cohesive point of view than we ever could with the journal. The first title will be coming next year, January 15th to be precise. The short story collection This Jealous Earth is by one of our past contributors, Scott Dominic Carpenter.
When both of us read it, we were floored. There was something in each story that rang true and connected with each of us as readers, which really set it apart from some of the other submissions. And the whole collection focuses on miscommunication and moments of transition – which is an interesting filter to view Midwesterners through. Stereotypically, they might be viewed as a people stuck in place, going nowhere. But there is a shift happening demographically, and it shows how those moments of transition transcend place to move the bedrock that some of these characters have built their lives upon.
Even though it doesn’t come out until January, the book can still be pre-ordered. It’s only a buck, and it’ll save readers 20% of the final list price. All the details, advance praise and recent reviews can be found on the Midwestern Gothic book page.
Thanks again for taking the time to talk about your projects with us. One last question for you: let’s say we and our readers want to become Midwestern literature buffs. The pages of Midwestern Gothic are obviously a good place to start, but can you give us a handful of books and writers we should be reading?
Jane Smiley and Saul Bellow are well known and an excellent place to start if you haven’t read some of their literature already. Walking through their catalog, you’ll experience the range that some argue is hard to pin down – from the open farmlands to the big-scale insanity of Chicago. Personally, I think Jonathan Franzen is an excellent example of a “now” writer who is widely read with deep Midwestern roots in his stories. Heading off the beaten path a little bit, the work of Bonnie Jo Campbell, Kent Haruf and Charles McCleod are all writers with a fabulous Midwestern voice, even though sometimes their stories aren’t necessarily set here.