Lean, Thirsty, Hungry: An interview with U.P writer John Smolens

RON RIEKKI INTERVIEWS JOHN SMOLENS

John_SmolensRR: Authors Beverly Matherne, Austin Hummell and Vincent Reusch claim that your opening chapter to Cold is one of the great all-time pieces of literature for Michigan’s U.P.  Why do you think it is so highly regarded by them?

JS:  The relationship between Liesl, a middle aged woman, and Norman, a young man escaped from Marquette’s maximum security prison, is based on a combination of fear, desperation and a deep sense of isolation.  Liesl lives alone in the woods, rather imprisoned by the deaths of her husband and daughter, which occurred some years earlier.  When she sees Norman, who has walked away from a work detail, emerge from the woods during a blizzard, she picks up her husband’s rifle—but she lets him into the house because he’s so cold.  This first chapter was written as a short story, entitled “Cold,” which was published in Columbia:  A Journal of Art & Literature in 1999; the final image haunted me for months, and eventually I began writing the novel.  I couldn’t not write the novel—the characters, the blizzard, they were knocking on my door, so to speak, and I had to let them in.  Place means a lot to me; that, and weather.  When I’m writing about a storm or Lake Superior, I don’t feel I’m just describing weather conditions or a geographical setting.  I can’t imagine writing Cold without having experienced winter in the U. P.

RR: Chapter one of Cold closes with this passage:

After a while Liesl closed her eyes against the incessant flakes.  Cold seeped into her back and shoulders.  Her arms and legs were outstretched as though she was floating on her back, and she tried to imagine a lake with the blue sky of a hot summer’s afternoon above her.  But it wouldn’t hold, and she opened her eyes again to the snow.  The cold had worked its way up into her ribcage, causing her to shiver.  She closed her eyes again and saw bearded men in robes and fur hats.  They spoke a foreign language and watched her with interest.  She smelled grease.  When the sharp thin needle stabbed into her anus, she remembered Gretchen’s birth.  But instead of descending, the pain ascended, moving slowly up through her bowels, her stomach, her lungs, her esophagus, the back of her throat, then finally, as she opened her mouth, the warm steel slid along the end of her nose, its bloody tip stopping right before her eyes.

Can you discuss the techniques you’re using here to successfully build to a powerful poetic end to that opening chapter?

JS:  It has to do with the mystery of images.  Who knows where they come from?  I think this is one reason we write:  because images are out there—they’re as invisible as this thing known as the Internet—and we hope to tune in a few.  A powerful image is a language unto itself; it can speak the unspeakable, define the undefinable.

I read a fair amount of history, and at some point I read about Vlad the Impaler.  He was a ruthless warrior, and the image in this paragraph is based on what he would do to his opponents—those who were unfortunate enough to not to die in battle.  He would surround his camp with hundreds of people—some historians claim thousands—all horribly impaled on thin metal stakes, suffering an agonizing death that often took days.  The sound these people made was said to be utterly terrifying, and it was intended as a warning to others who might consider attacking the camp.

As for technique, it’s really an exercise in description.  What Liesl imagines in this final paragraph is, to the best of my ability, a rather accurate depiction of what Vlad had done to his victims.  She has taken a fall in the woods and been left alone to die; she can’t move and is in pain, and to deal with the pain she thinks about those people impaled on stakes, taking some solace in the fact that there is pain that is more severe than what she’s experiencing.  Sometimes even the most brutal, gruesome act, when described with a dry eye, can lead to a visceral reaction on the part of a reader.  Ironically, this is sometimes considered “poetic,” which says something about the human condition, no?

RR: As far as contemporary U.P. authors, the old school big three are you, Ellen Airgood, and Steve Hamilton.  You probably write about the U.P. the least of those three authors.  Ellen and Steve are operating outside of academia.  Is this the reason why?  I’ve heard it worded that a person stationed on a military base, say, in Spain, is shut off from truly experiencing the country.  Does Northern Michigan University create a citadel so full-time faculty write about the U.P. only occasionally because they aren’t truly getting to experience the people of the U.P.?

Reciprocally, because you’re one of the top three authors in the Upper Peninsula and you’re the only one at the creative writing program for the region, I view you as the most powerful writer in the entire Upper Peninsula.  Can you talk a bit about the power that full-time creative writing faculty hold?  “Power” seems counter to your general demeanor as you come across as someone who feels humble, yet I’m interested in the realities of the stature you hold in the peninsula and how you approach the influence you have on future writers’ careers.

JS:  I don’t care for the ranking of authors, in the U.P. or elsewhere.  It may work in sports but not in literature.  For a relatively small population, we have a marvelous literary culture.  If I’m considered a part of that, I’m truly grateful.  And I honestly don’t feel that teaching gives me any real “power”—frankly, what I get back from my students, their energy, their enthusiasm, helps me to keep working.  It’s interesting—and it’s no surprise—how many of our students remain in the U.P. after they graduate.  They love this place because it’s vast and wild and unpredictable, and because it gets inside you.  That’s a remarkable thing, when a place becomes a part of you, when its geography seems imprinted on your soul.  For some, it’s the rivers or the forest.  Then there’s the lake.  I love it when people tell me they have a spiritual connection to Lake Superior because I do, too.

RR: Speaking of, when I read someone like Vincent Reusch, who’s one of the big up-and-coming authors with U.P. ties, I see you hovering in his writing.  Can you talk a bit about what it’s like to read authors who you’ve guided into their careers?  Do you see yourself in their words?

JS:  The last thing I would want to do as a teacher is be an overwhelming influence on how someone writes.  Vincent, who’s from downstate Michigan, wrote a story about a fast-food joint in Kalamazoo.  I remember reading the first draft and feeling incredible excitement.  The sentences rolled down the page, the images were so fresh.  I can’t possibly recall what I said or wrote about each draft, but what I do recall is the workshop discussion.  This is where things come alive:  you get a group of writers in a room and you discuss something one of them has written.  I had my say, certainly, but if I’ve learned anything as a teacher over the years it’s this:  it’s most important to listen.  Listen to what each member of the workshop is saying; occasionally reinforce the things you think are particularly valuable for the writer of the piece to keep in mind.  And perhaps more important, don’t be afraid to express what you don’t know or understand.  I sometimes think I’m doing the best job when I’m the dumbest person in the room.  Ultimately, you don’t “teach” someone like Vinny Reusch.  But you do form a bond, you do try to make it clear that you are striving for the same thing, to produce a story or a chapter that works, that’s as strong as it can be.  This takes time; it’s a slow-cook process.  And this is why when we developed our MFA program at NMU we wanted our writers here with us for three years, whereas most other writing programs are two years.

RR: I’ve asked this question before and have had some great answers when the authors haven’t avoided answering, but do you read your critics?  When you’re writing reaches such a mass audience, criticism becomes nearly unavoidable.  Has any criticism of your work actually helped future writings?

JS: I won’t avoid reading a review, but I doubt it has any influence on what I write in the future, largely because you’re writing something different.  What you did “right” or “wrong” in the last one really doesn’t have anything to do with this one.  What I don’t read anymore is stuff on places like Amazon.  First you’ll see something written by someone who has something to say about a book, and says it well; and then the next “review” is by someone who can barely read, barely write, has an axe to grind, or often all three.  No time for that.

RR: I’m a big fan of medical writing.  Quarantine is in alignment with a genre of narrative I love—I think here of films such as Contagion and Outbreak, which were a bit hit-and-miss.  There’s automatically high drama involved, but it seems the genre would be most successful on the page, where the pace can slow down and the minutiae can increase the suspense.  What drew you to this story?  As you get older, are you drawn more towards themes of medicine, death, survival?

JS:  I suppose all novels are about death and survival.  One of the main characters in Quarantine is a doctor named Giles Wiggins who lives in Newburyport, Massachusetts, in 1796, when the town was devastated by a deadly fever which was brought into port by a trading ship.  I lived in Newburyport, which is north of Boston, for many years before coming to Michigan.  My first novel, Winter by Degrees, is set there, and, as I’ve mentioned before, I read a great deal of history, much of it about places like Newburyport.  The state of medicine in the late 18th century was dismal, more superstition than science.  The novel portrays two families that are affected by this sudden and mysterious epidemic; more than that, it explores how people respond when they’re threatened by extinction:  lawlessness prevails; opportunists engage in black market activities, while others fall prey to religious fervor.  It’s a novel about how thin the veneer of civility really is; about chaos.

And about mortality.  While writing Quarantine I sometimes felt that people at that time had a greater sense of mortality than we do today; now, we sometimes act as though we’re protected, that we’re exempt.  There’s health insurance, good doctors, good hospitals (if you can afford these things); we can be fanatics about diet and exercise; we can not only live forever, we can remain young and tighten up our abs.  There’s a lot out there to deceive you into thinking you’re immortal.  But then you lose someone to cancer, or whatever, and you realize, despite all these “advances,” we’re still the same human animals we’ve been over the centuries.  People don’t pass or pass on, they die.  Since my wife died three years ago, I don’t know how many times people have avoided using certain words in my presence—they’re afraid to say dead.  I understand and appreciate the fact that they’re being empathetic in some way, but let’s be clear.  People die.  There is no “closure” (nor should there be).  I was raised Catholic, so I’ve had ample instruction regarding notions about the afterlife.  As I said, my favorite poem is The Inferno, even though I don’t think that’s what awaits us.  When you watch your wife die, you simply don’t know where she goes.  You can believe in something, but that’s not the same as knowing something.  The only thing you can really know is she was alive and you can be thankful—very thankful—that you knew her.  She had a soul, definitely, and it still exists in those of us who knew her.

But you have to ask yourself, if there is no reward after this life, if there is no punishment, if only the great Nothing awaits us, why do we behave at all while we’re here?  Why make and observe laws, why open doors for each other, why have a kind word for a stranger?  That’s the real mystery.  I don’t have the answer but I suspect it’s at the core of why we’re human.  Every day we read and hear about tragic, horrific events—war, pestilence, plague, massacres, hundreds of abducted girls in Africa, disappearing airplanes, sinking ferry boats.  Why wouldn’t it make you want to pray for a better life in the next world?  But every time there is a moment of generosity or an act of true kindness, doesn’t it indicate what humans are capable of?  Such acts aren’t performed out of fear or hunger or need, but out of empathy for another human being.  That’s our strength; that’s what we should cling to.  In Cold, after Liesl lets Norman in out of the blizzard, she chains him to the kitchen radiator, puts down her rifle, and cooks him scrambled eggs.  At the end of Quarantine, which I’ve been told is a pretty grim story, a young man named Leander Hatch, who has lost his entire family, takes on new responsibilities which will allow him to build a new family and help his town recover from the horrors of the epidemic.  My hope—my prayer, if you will—is that there will always be such people who show us what we’re capable of, those who will attempt to rise up from devastation and the ashes.  Because we will have the ashes; we will always have the ashes.

RR: As you get older, how is your relationship to story and to writing changing?  Are you a completely different writer from your days of Angel’s Head and My One and Only Bomb Shelter?  What are those key differences?

JS:  For years, for decades, writing has been the center of my life.  I don’t know how I would have gotten through it without the written word.  Sometimes I joke with my students about how we’ve all got the disease, that there’s no cure, and it’s fatal.  But none of us would have it any other way.  If I could find something else that helped me cope with the world and my time in it, I’d give it a try, but for me putting words on the page is the thing.  Call it a religion, a drug, a disease—it doesn’t matter.  It keeps me in touch with what’s important, what’s essential.

Yet what’s curious about this thing is that it’s not about me.  I’m not an autobiographical writer.  When I’m at the desk I’m lost, I lose myself, literally.  Call it an out-of-body experience, if you want.  My dear friend and mentor of many years, Andre Dubus, who died in 1999, used to say to me, back when I was 20-something, “When I read something good or I’m writing, I forget my own name.”  It’s a good thing, a healthy thing to get lost in the language, the sentences, the characters on the page.  Andre also told me that “Failed writers walk different than you and me.”  He wasn’t talking about not finding success in terms of sales and fame, he was talking about people who quit, who, for whatever reason, stop writing.  They don’t have time; it’s too hard; there are too many sacrifices.  Writers who continue to work, who make the effort—often at a great cost to their lives, not to mention their families—he admired them greatly.  If I hadn’t spent all these years getting up in the early morning, sitting at the desk, and writing well over a thousand pages to find a novel that’s maybe 350 pages, I don’t know who I’d be or what my life would be.  But, ironically, you have to learn to lose yourself in those pages; let them take you where they want to go.

As for how I’ve changed as a writer, there’s an old Paul Simon song that has a line that says something like:  “After changes and changes, we still remain the same.”  Amen to that.

RR: Do you get pushed towards writing sequels?  By fans, agent, publisher?  If so, what character(s)—out of all you’ve written—do you think might come back in future novels?

JS:  Characters?  Probably not, though never say never.  I have great admiration for writers who can keep working with the same characters, but my writing brain thus far keeps finding new characters and new places to write about.  But I am currently revisiting a place I’ve written about before (this is not to be confused with a sequel).  I’ve been working on a novel about four people who are brought together during a fierce blizzard in the U.P.  The working title is Out.  I like the connotation of the word when it’s used in the U. P. to mean that somebody lives outside of town, out there in the primeval forest…they live out, and that little word says it all.

When not working on that, I’ve been writing very short things.  I like the concentration of a short story.  Some days I’ve even written a few lines of poetry.  All this is, really, a form of prayer.  I’ll spend hours working on a few lines, a page or two at most.  Afterwards, I’m exhausted, but it’s kind of like the exhaustion you feel after a good workout.  It makes you lean, thirsty, and hungry.

Ron Riekki‘s books include U.P.: a novel (nominated for the Great Michigan Read and by National Book Award-winner John Casey for the Sewanee Writers Series) and The Way North: Collected Upper Peninsula New Works (2014 Midwest Book Award finalist, Foreword Book of the Year Award finalist, Next Generation Indie Book Award finalist, and selected by the Library of Michigan as a 2014 Michigan Notable Book).  His next book will be released by the Michigan State University Press on May 1, 2015. He has also published an essay in the Great Lakes Review’s Narrative Map series

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