Keith Lesmeister’s work might be familiar to readers of the museum. His flash fiction, “Under the Cottonwood Tree” appeared in our Midwestern-themed Issue 5, and we’re thrilled to include Keith in our latest milestone Issue 25. In Keith’s story, “Oakes,” a mixed-race man traverses uncertain territory in a COVID-ravaged North Dakota town, and in this third installment of interviews with our Issue 25 prose contributors, Keith shares the uneasy cultural moment in which the story was written, how nature informs his settings, and the regional contradictions that have inspired his recent stories.
Your story, “Oakes,” captures a cultural moment of 2020: the devastating spread of COVID-19 in North Dakota, the anxiety around the presidential election, and the racism compounded by four years of a Trump presidency. We’re curious, was the story written during this period, or after, and could you tell us how it came about?
I was in rural Minnesota a week after the election of 2020. I’d been genuinely frightened by the anger on display by the Trump cult (from reading various news outlets), so I purchased an American flag hat because I knew I’d be traversing parts of rural America where the flag represents patriotism, and the Trump followers (along with most Republicans) value patriotism over most things. I knew I’d made the right decision after I was walking through a rural gas station sporting my new hat when I passed a guy wearing a red MAGA hat. He looked at me, looked at my hat, then looked back at me and nodded, said “Hello.” I smiled and returned his pleasantry.
You portray the story’s North Dakota setting with an eerie beauty—its natural landscape, and the manufactured one—the minimarts, apartments, and gas stations. The contrast produces a mood that is highly particular. Can you tell us a bit about setting in your work?
I’m enamored with settings of all kinds, but I’ve been particularly taken with North Dakota since first visiting there back in 2006. I’ve been to Fargo, but I’ve also been to some of the state’s rural areas, and they’re quite beautiful—large flocks of snow geese, swaths of prairie, a big sky—and the isolation of the place along with the wild elements are attractive to me. My hope is to develop a setting in a way that’s compelling enough for it to emerge as another character. If I can come close to that, then I feel as though I’m utilizing the setting to its fullest.
The story looks at a contrast of cultures—one is stereotypically Midwestern, and white, and comes up against the speaker’s mixed-race experience. Can you tell us your thoughts about writing the Midwest in this cultural moment?
I’ve been exploring race relations more so in my writing now than ever before. I’m not sure if that’s a reaction to the previous president who, according to his own party, is a “race-baiting xenophobe,” and made racist remarks throughout his campaign and presidency, or if it’s simply because I’m interested in exploring these dynamics. I think it might be both, especially as we see the growing rural and urban divide with regard to politics (and race).
I’m also interested, culturally, in the lies we tell ourselves. In Iowa, where I live, we are good at believing our own lies or at least not living in reality. Iowa is, for instance, a huge beneficiary of government money (through the farm bill and other farm subsidies), but those same people who are taking that money to the bank are also the ones who spout off against “socialism”—whatever that means. This dynamic is endlessly fascinating, frustrating, and a mark of some kind of era we’re in whereby people’s thoughts don’t line up with the reality they’re living in. Again, this is a fascinating dynamic and one I’ve been exploring through writing fiction.
You founded EastOver Press with Denton Loving (also a museum contributor!). What’s it been like launching an independent press during these last couple of years?
Denton’s story in the museum is one of the best flash pieces I’ve ever read. It utilizes setting in sophisticated ways and it’s also humorous. And what a pure delight to laugh out loud while reading. Speaking of delight, that’s how I’d describe launching an independent press. It’s been nothing but invigorating and delightful. Along with Denton, I’d be remiss not to mention our co-conspirators Walter Robinson and Kelly March. I think I can safely speak for all of us when I say we’re all having fun.
Can you share a favorite recent read, and tell us what you’re working on now?
I’ve been re-reading My Antonia by Willa Cather. Speaking of setting. Wow, what a stark and desolate yet intensely beautiful landscape—the plains of Nebraska. Her writing is so fluid and rich. And like windbreaks, sloughs, and fencerows that organize parcels of land, I just love how the book is sectioned out into these tidy little chapters so rich with details and adventure.
As far as what I’m working on: still writing short stories. I love to read them. I love to write them.
Read “Oakes,” here.
Keith Lesmeister is the author of the story collection We Could’ve Been Happy Here. He’s an editor at Cutleaf, co-directs the Luther College Writers Festival, and teaches at Northeast Iowa Community College.