My interview with Jason Kapcala, author of Hungry Town: A Novel

For fans of American Rust by Philipp Meyer and Ohio by Stephen Markley . . . comes Jason Kapcala’s Hungry Town (2022), a Rust Belt-set crime drama with serious literary chops. From the back cover summary:

"One October night in the depressed steel town of Lodi, Ohio, two police officers respond to a call about trespassers in the derelict Lodi Steel Machine shop. A chase through the crumbling cathedral of steel columns launches a chain of events that will test the officers' partnership and leave a boy to fend for himself in a decaying Rust Belt neighborhood choked by joblessness, boredom, and addition.

On the opposite end of town, a young woman steps out of a rust-bucket Grand Marquis into an all-night diner...She doesn't realize her ex-boyfriend has hired two brothers to track her down and bring her back, by any means necessary."

I was delighted to meet the author in person at AWP22 and even more delighted that he agreed to answer my questions about his novel—its literary (and culinary) influences, its Rust Belt influences, and more . . .

Jason, of course definitions of noir vary, but the crime genre’s traditional elements consist often of an outsider perspective, systemic failure, economic insecurity, and existential despair. To my mind, the Rust Belt feels like a perfect tableau on which to set a noir. I mean, take for example this description of setting, your novel’s fictionalized Ohio town of Lodijust stunning:

“Outside, night curdled into matte blackness, still and quiet, except for the breathy whine of motors on the hill, low rumblings as the delivery trucks downshifted on the steep grade and made their early morning runs into town.”

How did you come up with the setting for this novel? Which came first, the setting or the story? Can you talk about influences—in literature, film, TV, or other artistic mediums—for this literary crime novel?

It’s funny but I don’t know that I ever set out to write a noir. Of course, I realized, at a point, that I was working in that tradition, but I don’t recall sitting back and thinking about what makes a noir a noir, or from a definitional perspective, what I could do to adapt the noir genre to the Rust Belt setting. I just had this town—I knew it was a hard place where rusty steel meets barren farmland—and I had these characters who spent their days bearing the crucible of that place, and I followed that thread.

To that point, most of the authors who influenced me aren’t overtly noir writers. My biggest influence was Kent Haurf, particularly his book Plainsong. I love the way he uses language and image, how he ends a scene by cinematically pulling back from the characters.

For sure, Philipp Meyer’s American Rust is another novel I admire which opens with similar circumstances—an accident in an abandoned mill—but Hungry Town winds up being more related in spirit than in plot or style. 

Laurie Lynn Drummond’s Anything You Say Can and Will Be Used Against You is a story collection about women police officers in New Orleans, and I admired how much time Drummond spent establishing the little evocative details of being a police officer, some of them quite mundane, some of them anything but. 

Though it feels weird to say, I also remember thinking about William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying when I was working with the character of Stanley Peach. Faulkner opens with the little boy Vardaman who has just caught a fish and who is processing the fact that his mother has recently died. Both the fish and his mother are dead, and Vardaman simply says, “My mother is a fish,” conflating the two. In Hungry Town, Stanley knows that his brother has died. He also knows that the last place he saw him alive was in the mill, and so he begins to believe, on some level, that his brother now resides in the mill.

Cover design by Than Saffel / WVU Press

Did you know when you began writing that the inciting action of the novel would happen in an old abandoned steel mill? And can you talk about how you how you went about researching what a mill is like in order to describe it? Did your hometown influence your selection of the mill as setting?

You have an abandoned mill, a broken window at the end of the line . . . there’s really only a few places it can go from there.

I would say the setting and the opening action came as a package deal. 

I set all my writing in fictional locales—that freedom to manipulate setting provides a lot of freedom, but it still requires an internal coherence. Early on, in order to keep things straight, I drew a map of Lodi, the setting of Hungry Town, with the mill and all of the smaller boroughs located on it, street names, and so on. That helped ensure that I was remaining geographically consistent.

Even though the setting is imagined, I took inspiration from a few places I know well. I grew up not far from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and have family who live in that area. I’d go there with my dad and brother to get my hair cut as a kid at the old-fashioned barber shop and then we’d stop and get hot dogs at one of the local stands in the Lehigh Valley. So I’ve probably passed the Bethlehem Steel Works hundreds of times in my life, and that wound up being an important analog for the mill in my novel.

The Bethlehem Steel plant is not attractive in the way that a beautiful natural space is attractive—a forest or a mountain—but it has its own power of attraction, and I always found that frozen industry mysterious and intriguing, especially the Number 2 Machine Shop. It’s an immense building, a quarter-mile long and eight stories high, held up inside by a seemingly endless row of steel columns on each side. It’s practically a tunnel. I had a folder on my computer full of artistic photographs of the Bethlehem Steel Works that I looked at regularly while I was writing. You mention the big event that sets off the novel, and it sort of had to occur in that space. The mill was always going to be the key setting of the book just because of my fascination with it. 

In Hungry Town, there is also a recurring image of an enormous shattered window at the very end of the machine shop. I borrowed that from the film The Crow, which opens with the main character being shot and falling through a large, round window. Not that I set out to lift it, but I know that’s where the image came from—to my knowledge, there’s no window like that in the actual machine shop. It’s just one of those images that stuck with me for whatever reason and wound up finding its way into the writing. 

You have an abandoned mill, a broken window at the end of the line . . . there’s really only a few places it can go from there. I believe Ron Carlson calls that “building an inventory”—the idea that you gather up enough details, and images, and expressions, and you observe how they begin sticking together on their own to form Story. I always picture the story like it’s a hermit crab, scuttling along, adorning itself with whatever interesting detritus it comes across. That’s pretty close to how this novel started.

I was also inspired by Athens, Ohio, where I lived for two years during grad school. It’s a much smaller town, but it shared some attributes with Bethlehem—river running through it, train tracks, an industrial past (in Athens it was the brick company), and a hot dog stand where all the dogs are named after burlesque dancers. That inspired the dog shop that Harry Mulqueen opens in the book (though Harry’s hot dogs are more pedestrian).

Noir is often characterized by cynicism and fatalism—so much so in this novel that I think your setting rises to the level of full-blown villain. The reader gets a heavy dose of that here in one of the first few chapters:

“…for all his grim toughness, Harry had trouble resigning himself to a world where kids were out screwing in mills when they should have been at home sleeping. A world where kids died of senselessness, impaled on hundred-year-old pieces of scrap in the middle of the night.”

One of your main characters, Harry, an ex-cop, fights against the fatalistic sense of doom that pervades this town. Did you need him to leave the force to do this? Without spoiling the plot, do you think he succeeds?

A lot of people have commented on how dark Hungry Town is, and they’re right, of course, but for whatever reason I don’t think of the story as being that dark or cynical. The characters do treat the mill like antagonist—at one point, Mulqueen thinks of it as a place that consumes people—but there’s beauty in Lodi, just as there is beauty in the abandoned Bethlehem Steel buildings. It may be a town of limited opportunity, but the characters are resilient and they have moments of grace, I think. They may or may not escape their circumstances—I like to think the jury is still out.

Did Mulqueen need to quit the police force in order to retain his idealism or his sense of hope? Probably. That’s the sort of guy he is. That’s how he takes a stand. And his partner, Rieux—well, she had plenty of opportunities over the years to leave the force and plenty of reason, but she stayed and made her stand that way, because that’s how she’s built.

Your cast of characters is varied, but each is an outsider in his or her own way. Even the good cop, Rieux, is an outsider; for all her excellence over many years on the police force, she is often seen as a woman playing at a man’s game. Other characters are old and dying, are on the run, are criminals, are neglected children left to their own devices. One way I think you turn traditional noir on its head is by featuring two females in main character roles. Why was that important for you to do? 

I knew, from the moment I started, that I wanted to take the tropes of cop dramas and turn them on their heads.

When I’m writing, I honestly don’t have many axes to grind. In fact, I try very hard not to make the story be “about” anything in a larger, moralistic sense. I have nothing to sell you. No lessons to impart. No greater Truths about life to reveal. Just curiosity about the characters and their circumstances, and a willingness to follow them wherever they go.

Now, I say all that, but there is one exception that comes to mind. I knew, from the moment I started, that I wanted to take the tropes of cop dramas and turn them on their heads. I grew up watching cop movies—Dirty Harry and Lethal Weapon and so on—and they are great fun, but there are also a lot of problems with that mythos. The idea that a tough, anti-hero cop can take the law into his own hands, play by his own rules, sidestep bureaucracy, clean up a dirty town, and righteously mete out justice, all because his innate sense of right or wrong somehow remains intact on some higher moral plane—well, that’s starting to become less and less attractive as it ages. So I spent a lot of time thinking about tropes and how I could flip them or subvert them in interesting ways. 

For instance, there’s usually a jaded veteran cop who gets paired with a rookie. That veteran will likely check off a number of boxes demographically. He’ll be an old-fashioned tough guy who lets his actions do the talking. His sidekick may be more emotionally intelligent but will probably also be portrayed as overeager and naïve. Often, that neophyte cop will be minoritized in some way—a woman, a person of color, an outsider of some sort. 

In Hungry Town, I very intentionally chose to make the veteran cop a woman. Rieux is the gritty one, the one who’s just a bit jaded. She’s tough and instinctive. Mulqueen may be more physically imposing, but he’s the cerebral cop and the more sensitive of the two. They both take the work home with them, but Rieux drowns her bad feelings in alcohol whereas Mulqueen sits up all night feeling guilty and pondering whether or not Freud was right about there being no such thing as an accident. That inversion of stereotypes was a conscious choice and a part of the project itself.

I find titles terribly difficult. At what point in your writing of this novel did you light on Hungry Town. And what does that title mean for you?

I’m a huge fan of music, and I always put together playlist for every project I’m working on. I try to capture the feeling or atmosphere of the project in the music I select. One of the songs I chose for this project was “Hungry Town” by Chuck Prophet. It’s a great song with a killer line: “the devil eats for free in a hungry town.” I kept coming back to that. In the book, one of the characters, Bel, says something about there being a lot of hungry people in Lodi, most of them willing to do anything in exchange for a bite to eat. Her expression takes on a metaphorical double meaning that I like, and so I landed on Hungry Town as a title. 

What are you writing, right now? What are you reading? What can you recommend?

Currently, I am reading The Other Ones by Dave Housley, about a group of office workers who win the lottery. It’s a terrific book, funny but not without considerable depth. Next on my list is Neema Avashia’s Another Appalachia: Coming Up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place, Mike Ingram’s Notes from the Road, and Mark Powell’s Lioness.

I’m currently working on a novel that I’m calling “The Mourning Afters.” It’s set in the fictional ghost town of Stillwater, Pennsylvania, which I’m basing on Centralia, PA. There’s a mine fire that has been burning beneath the town for almost a decade, and the town is basically abandoned, most people having relocated to the neighboring town. 

The protagonist is a rock singer named Kev Cassady. About nine years earlier, he was the front man of a band called The Mourning Afters. They were on the verge of a breakthrough, had finally gotten the attention of a record producer in California, when there was a falling out. Kev skipped town with their demo tapes, took the opportunity for himself, and wound up squandering it all. 

Fast forward to the present, and Kev gets a late-night call from one of his former bandmates, Muzzie, who he hasn’t spoken to in years. He tells Kev that another member of the band has unexpectedly died. Kev decides to return to Pennsylvania for the funeral and winds up having to face all of the bandmates he left behind, including his drummer ex-girlfriend, Ramie Valentine. In the time since he left, she has raised an eight-year-old daughter, and Kev is trying to do the math on that to figure out if he’s the father. 

It all sounds very dire in exposition, but it’s actually supposed to be a comedy and the characters find themselves in one ridiculous situation after another. It’s a departure from Hungry Town, in any case.

I understand you did a lot of research into the culinary masterpiece that is the hot dog in writing this book. What do you take on your dog, and where can we find a good one if we’re in your neck of the woods in northern West Virginia?

I appreciate you ending with the most important question, and I’ve really enjoyed having a chance to chat about Hungry Town.

As I mentioned, I grew up not far from the Lehigh Valley where there’s a unique food culture and many excellent hot dog stands, so I’d been eating hot dogs a long time before writing this book. There, the hot dogs typically come with mustard and chopped onion on the bottom and chili on top. (The order of that is important.) It’s usually a thinner chili than you find other places. That’s how I’ve always taken my dogs.

When it came to writing the novel, I didn’t necessarily need to do any research, but a good writing friend, Renée K. Nicholson, found out about the project early on and offered to take me to different hot dog stands all over West Virginia in the name of research, and I figured, well . . . who am I to argue? 

We ate at a lot of hot dog joints. 

I’m going to use the fact that I am a state employee and therefore forbidden to offer endorsements as a way to weasel out of having to declare a favorite, but I will say this: if you like hot dogs and you’ve never had a West Virginia slaw dog before, you need to remedy that as soon as possible. Until my “research” trips, I had never had one before, and I quickly became a fan. Mulqueen probably doesn’t sell them at his hot dog stand in northern Ohio—at least, I never recall seeing them when I lived in Ohio—but they would be a welcome addition, for sure.

~~~

Jason Kapcala is the author of the short story collection North to Lakeville. His writing has been nominated for numerous prizes, including the Pushcart Prize. He grew up on northeastern Pennsylvania, near the ruins of the Bethlehem Steel Works, and now lives in northern West Virginia.

~~~

Hungry Town

by Jason Kapcala

$19.99 West Virginia University Press

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My review of RUNNING FOR HOME, Edward McClelland’s debut novel

For many years, the Lordstown Complex, a GM auto factory in Northeast Ohio, was a landmark along my drive home to family.

“Not long now,” I’d mutter to myself or say to my kids, if they were with me, and we’d marvel at the sea of cars in the auto plant’s gargantuan parking lot—and at the cars we couldn’t see, being made inside the plant’s operations. Lordstown, something like a prayer and a beacon both, calling me back to the place I still call home.

Poetical references aside, Lordstown was an economic hub for the area, for decades. In the 60s, when my dad first moved to the Cleveland area, met my mom, and married, that plant was making the Chevy Impala and then the Pontiac Firebird. And the people who worked on the line were making salaries better than anything my dad could make as a draftsman. But we all know what happened to auto-making over the next few decades. And, with each pass in recent years, that Lordstown plant held fewer cars in the parking lot, meaning fewer employees working fewer shifts making fewer cars. Last I remember in its history as an auto plant, Lordstown was the home of the Chevy Cruze. I hate to disparage, but how many Cruze drivers do you know?

It was with this point of reference—a familiar setting—that I came to Edward McClelland’s debut novel, Running for Home, out now from Bottom Dog Press. An accomplished journalist and writer of nonfiction—I loved his How to Speak Midwestern—McClelland has covered and written about the post-industrial Midwest, from which he hails, for a long time. This is the first novel for the Lansing, Michigan, native–and it hit home for me.

Running for Home opens on the Empire Motors body plant, “a permanent symbol of my hometown, as well as a gateway to opportunity,” says the narrator, high-school student and runner, Kevin. What follows is a story of the fall of industry in a place, coinciding with the rise of “a slight Midwestern youth,” our protagonist, in this coming-of-age story.

From the jacket copy: “In this moving new novel, [Kevin] deals with a rough high school and a vanishing factory town through a devotion to his running sport and his caring family. Aided by a spunky girlfriend, a humble-wise coach, loyal teammates, and his earned self-awareness, he learns the value of reliance and home.”

What sets this coming-of-age story apart? A narrator with a voice and a passion that ring absolutely true. And they should. McClelland ran track and cross country at his high school, across the street from a Fisher Body plant. McClelland creates a Michigan town setting that leaves no detail of the early 80s unexplored; from the fashion and games popular with teenagers—like windbreakers and Galaga—to movies and music—like All the Right Moves and The Sex Pistols. 

In this novel, the author doesn’t shy away from questions of economics and environmental concerns, things that are often at odds when it comes to industry. From Kevin’s perspective as a runner, we get a good view. There’s “the ever-visible rainbow slick on the river’s surface, the effluent of automaking” and the sweetly sick smell of chemicals on the air. Once the plant closes, Kevin both appreciates being able to breathe a little easier and knows life will be tougher, going forward. It hits home when his dad must take early retirement.

The author is also adept at dramatizing and characterizing the generational differences among auto workers, like the narrator’s father and grandfather before him. What did cars mean to men, especially, through these decades? To build one with other men on a line? What does it mean when your life’s work is sent elsewhere? Of course, what is done to a place is also done to the psyche of a place. From this book, I got an insider’s view, including of union operations—and what striking and winning or losing looked like in this era of plant closures and relocations.

What propels the plot, outside of the external forces of the town’s industry declining, is Kevin’s striving for success on the track. His passion is crystal clear: 

I ran because I was a runner, because running was my nature. I believed the fastest form of myself was the most perfect form of myself.

In writing fiction, we are often taught to have some kind of a “ticking clock,” to propel our plots and keep our readers turning pages. In this novel, the ticking clock is a stopwatch, and, race after race, we root for Kevin’s success in a sport where fractions of a second mean the difference between success and failure, between a scholarship to college or a ticket to an uncertain future.

What I liked the most—and you might guess by the novel’s title—is that this is not a story about success by getting out. That is an all-too-common trope. But it’s not only a trope in fiction. In an American era of urban sprawl and overcrowding, the post-industrial Midwest still has many places that lose more people each year, many young people among them, than they gain.

Leaving is easy. Just ask me. Staying, despite–or maybe because of–the odds is harder.

Do you have a favorite coming-of-age story set in your native place? Did you stick close to your hometown? Do you run? I’d love to hear about it. And, what are you reading or writing this week? 

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Running for Home

$18 Bottom Dog Press

A Different Kind of Beach Read: A Review of Dawn Newton’s THE REMNANTS OF SUMMER

“Know that you will never fall asleep on a beach again.” That’s what I tell would-be mothers when they ask what to expect of motherhood (because the books don’t tell you the half of it). Oh, of course I tell them the good stuff, too: an enlarged heart and sense of purpose and connection with a tiny body-and-soul that needs you like water, like everything.

And grief. To mother is to grieve–even if not actively–to know that one day this little being’s light will be extinguished. And we hope and pray that it happens after our own light is long gone, but we know that it will happen. Motherhood is carrying that knowledge around with us everywhere, while stoking our kids’ lights to make them brighter. To make them last.

In the coming-of-age novel, The Remnants of Summer, debut novelist Dawn Newton plumbs the depths of grief after our 14-year-old protagonist, Iris, falls asleep on the beach while babysitting not her child but her younger brother–who drowns.

“Iris is sinking.” So begins the novel’s summary, and Newton expertly weaves water into grief and redemption throughout this coming-of-age story set in a lakeside, working-class community in the 70s. It is grief-laden, this novel, but it’s also a balm–not only because the author taps into the nostalgia of youth, but because the author taps into the resilience of youth.

My best childhood days were spent at the lake. What better reward for lake-effect snow from December through March (and sometimes April) than summer at the water’s edge? The Remnants of Summer is set not far from Detroit, Michigan, but you’ll find your lakeside town in this story, I promise. You’ll remember the bike rides and trips for ice cream, the fishing and daydreaming. You’ll be reminded of the way the sun turns the rippling lake to sparkles.

Of course there’s a flip side to the idyllic lakeside story. The lake has taken Iris’s little brother the summer before, on Iris’s watch, and now the lake doesn’t shimmer like it always did. Her relationship with this place, her home, has changed; what’s more her relationships with her parents and older sister, Liz, have changed, too. Why won’t they blame her outright for her brother’s death, already? Instead Iris blames herself, over and over, and tries to keep afloat as she works a summer job and gets together with friends–but grief puts a shadow over everything.

Meanwhile, a serial killer has nabbed and killed several children in Michigan. This development is less a plot point than atmosphere–but true-to-history-atmosphere–and not germane to the story, except that it allows for Iris to ruminate on death and guilt outside her family situation. Likewise, she considers those soldiers missing and presumed dead–a neighbor’s cousin is MIA–in the ongoing war in Vietnam. These historical points set the scene, but I admit to wondering if this quiet coming-of-age novel was about to turn into a mystery. And I admit to thinking that a plot thread along those lines, woven through the family saga, might have been a good way to raise the stakes even higher.

When a neighbor’s uncle, a man about twice her age, makes a sexual pass, Iris considers new feelings, and new questions come burbling up: Did she want the attention? To feel special? Was she attracted or scared of him, or both? I was glad for these coming-of-age questions to round out Iris’s character and rescue her from her sinking grief.

I was also glad for the ending, which doesn’t wrap things up too neatly. Anyone who has experienced grief for a lost loved one knows there’s no wrapping it up. Grief ebbs and flows, and you ride it as best you can.

I won’t soon forget Iris. And I won’t soon forget the gorgeous prose the author uses to make this summertime story feel like it was mine for a time–language, characterization, and setting the novel’s strongest elements. One of my favorite passages, describing a summer concert on the water:

“…she told Iris she and her husband lingered around the edges of the circle the boats made in the water, listening for the faint strain of the pitch pipe, then the blend of the rich voices, from bass and baritone to soprano, voices mingling with those of complete strangers from the other side of the lake, in search of the harmony that hung in the air, waiting to be sung.”

How do you define “beach read” and what’s your favorite one? Got a favorite lake? Who writes your favorite settings the best? What are you reading, this week?

Looking for more Rust Belt book reviews, author interviews, and more? Check out my categories above, and find me on my FB page and over at Twitter as @MoonRuark

*Thanks to the folks at Mindbuck Media Book Publicity for sending me a copy of the novel for review! Pre-orders are available now, if you’re interested.

A Distance Not Too Far to Fathom: My review of THE DISTANCE FROM FOUR POINTS

book cover of THE DISTANCE FROM FOUR POINTS by Margo Orlando Littell, with illustrations of plants

Picture London, Paris, or New York. Got it? Now picture Iowa farm country. How about Main Street USA? Easily imaginable places all, even in fiction. Right? Well, you can have them. I’m here to laud the lesser-known and in-between places in books, the fringes, places where the present hasn’t caught up to a promising past, where things are undefined, even messy—and the characters are gritty, trying to make a place their own. I’m here for the settings that remain open to interpretation, invention, and story.

Take Margo Orlando Littell’s recent novel from University of New Orleans Press, for instance.  The Distance from Four Points is set in the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania, murky territory straddling the Rust Belt and Appalachia. Never heard of it? All the better stage for the author to play out that age-old question:

Can you really go home again?

Quick summary: “Soon after her husband’s tragic death, Robin Besher makes a startling discovery: He had recklessly blown through their entire savings on decrepit rentals in Four Points, the Appalachian town Robin grew up in. Forced to return after decades, Robin and her daughter, Haley, set out to renovate the properties as quickly as possible—before anyone exposes Robin’s secret past as a teenage prostitute. Disaster strikes when Haley befriends a troubled teen mother, hurling Robin back into a past she’d worked so hard to escape. Robin must reshape her idea of home or risk repeating her greatest mistakes.”

In Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, the poet says, “If your everyday life seems poor, don’t blame it; blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is no poverty and no poor, indifferent place.”

By this definition, Margo Orlando Littell is a poet. For me, it’s the setting of Four Points, a fictionalized version of the author’s own hometown, that makes the novel shine. Forty-something MC Robin’s hometown appears to her to be a “poor, indifferent place.” This setting is a lot like the places that dot the Pennsylvania landscape that separates my home in Maryland and my childhood home in Ohio’s Rust Belt, places where invariably my car radio loses NPR’s signal and tunes in only country music. Where tunnels through the mountains, tiled like giant bathrooms, are the highlight of the trip. Where mock-alpine ski resorts attempt to lure passersby off the Pennsylvania turnpike. I’ve happily sped through these places seeking finer points, the reinvented and cosmopolitan Pittsburgh, for one.

The author paints a picture of Four Points from Robin’s perspective: “It was coal country, or used to be, and it wasn’t always terrible. Long before she was born, businessmen made millions here, gaining wealth from the coke ovens in the foothills. Now the crumbling mansions…were barely audible echoes of the town’s better years.” This is a place many leave, but enough stay for unemployment to be high; a place old industry forgot and new-wave industry, like medicine, higher education, and tech, haven’t yet found.

Still, a place like this, steeped in the glories of a crumbling past, isn’t past—but is fully present—to the residents eking out a living there, today. And, upon her return to Four Points, this is a reality Robin has to face, and quick.

The novel starts off rather breathlessly, and we’re thrust into Robin’s predicament. Her husband died and left her with nothing to keep her and her daughter’s heads above water—except some pretty cruddy rentals in her hometown. A hometown she had tried her best to forget, living in a monied Pittsburgh-area enclave, where she’d remade herself—or fooled herself into thinking she had. A “decadence,” of forgetting where she came from and what she did to survive, the author calls it, of forgetting the “familiar equation” of “sex plus money.” This isn’t uncharted territory for women’s fiction—a salacious past comes to haunt the MC’s present—but the author handles it well.

The details of land-lording, re-making this human-built landscape with her smarts and own two hands, raises this bookclub novel to a higher level. Robin, who only recently wouldn’t be caught without her “Va-Va Vino” nail polish, takes to ripping up ruined linoleum in her tenants’ places with those nails, breaking them to the quick. This kind of work, needed to sustain herself and her daughter, does a lot to renew Robin’s sense of self, even in grief. Work, as it often does, has a way of teaching characters (and, by extension, us readers) about their capacity for living: “Tonight, the paint would dry, and in the morning the apartment would be whole. Not new, not beautiful, but ready to live in.”

The author exhibits a local’s keen sense of the distinct sights, sounds, and tastes of this place, where Sheetz and Walmart serve as modern beacons in the wintry gloom. But this is also the kind of place where communities still come out for parades on feast days and fill the same ethnic church pews their grandparents did; at home, old recipes, like Eastern European Halushki, are still passed down to the next generation. Maybe it is in such in-between times, teetering between ages—when will these hills experience their next Gilded age?—when we cling to the traditional foods that comfort, the language (all the “Yinzes!”) shared. Maybe it’s in these moments that we find grace.

I would have liked a bit more rumination in these pages on the grace found in this novel’s place. We get a brief mention of it, and there are fleeting prayers for Robin, who won’t budge from the necessity of sending her daughter to Catholic school, even when money is terribly scarce.

That touch of grace and Robin’s role as landlord reminded me of the biblical parable of the wicked tenants (Robin does have one or two), but more loosely about the need to be worthy “tenants” in this life leased to us here, in the earthly communities we call home. Will Robin turn her back again on her home, on a hard-won livelihood “cleaved to boilers and shingles, sewage stacks and electric grids.” Or, will she waste her gifts, trying to run away from herself again?

I’ll let you read to find out.

In a bit of life imitating art, the author also tried her hand at being a landlord in her hometown during the course of writing this book, and her expertise shows in her prose. You can read about that backstory and everything else related to The Distance from Four Points at her website: margoorlandolittell.com

Paris in springtime? Let’s face it: none of us is flying anytime soon. So, how about Four Points at the turning of a season—from the pages of this engrossing novel:

Robin left Four Points at five, the magical hour when the light over the mountains turned fiery and lit every branch on the maple-blanketed hills. The world was wet and weary, winter pulsing deep as blood, but in the pink sky and dripping ice from the bridges, she sensed spring. It really would come, softening those bristly mountains and coloring the sooty landscape of steel and coal. Another winter was breathing to a close…

From Margo Orlando Littell’s The Distance From Four Points

Anyone from such a place will tell you that harsh winters are worth it for the release of spring that follows—springs worth a whole book, and many more trips home.

~~~

Margo Orlando Littell grew up in a coal-mining town in southwestern Pennsylvania. Her first novel, Each Vagabond by Name, won the University of New Orleans Publishing Lab Prize and an IPPY Awards Gold Medal for Mid-Atlantic Fiction. She lives in New Jersey with her family.

Note: I received an electric copy of this book from the author’s publicist, in the hopes I would enjoy it, which I did. The book’s summary and the author’s bio, along with all the quotes, are from the book. The author was kind enough to supply photos (along with their captions) from her hometown.

Like what you read? Check out my categories above, with author and photographer interviews, essays, stories, book reviews, writing advice, and more. What are you reading and writing this week?

On Twins and Twinning in Life and Lit, feat. Domenico Starnone’s TRICK

Image shows a portrait of twin boys, one unhappy, one unhappy, with a shadow behind.
My twins, plus sinister shadow

As a June baby, I never gave much credence to astrological signs or birth stones, for that matter. (I mean, pearl, alexandrite, or moonstone. Really?) But back to signs: I’m a Gemini, the twin sign, and the “liveliest” of the air signs, whatever that means. I share this honor with dead Gems like Marilyn Monroe and live ones like Kanye West. So, I’m in complicated company.

Anyhow, this twin married another one just about 16 years ago. Six years later, we twinned Geminis had a set of actual twin babies. But even before they were born, I prepared myself to be a twin-mom. It’s a whole thing. I read (as I’m wont to do) the dos and don’t of twin-parenting, and I found that much of the emotional-care advice falls into two buckets.

  1. Do treat your twins like two individual people and not a BOGO deal
  2. Don’t fall into the trap of making twins into neat polar opposites for shock value or as a handy literary trope.

You know, as in good twin-bad twin, smart twin-dumb twin, funny twin-serious twin. It’s not only cruel but, in the case of good characterization (since this is a writing blog), just plain lazy.

So, I’m on the lookout for nuanced twin tales. Tell me what you’ve got in the way of literary fiction for adults and maybe YA, too, that features twins. I’m curious (and kinda self-quarantined, so I’ve got a little time).

I’m also interested in the way two characters who are not twins can be “twinned” in stories. Which brings me, a bit late (but really, we’re all self-distancing, so what else do you have to do?) to my latest read: Domenico Starnone’s novel, Trick, translated by Jhumpa Lahiri. (It’s true, she’s amazing in Italian, too.)

Image shows the cover art for Domenico Starnone's novel, TRICK, translated by Jhumpa Lahiri, from Europa Editions.
Cover image pulled from Europaeditions.com

A wonderful, surprising, and layered novel, Trick deserves an in-depth discussion–of setting, plot, inspiration, and characters. (In order, that’s Naples, Italy…grouchy grandfather babysits precocious grandson for a few days…a Henry James ghost story, card games, and more…and the aforementioned grandfather and grandson.)

Though separated by a 70 year gap in age, the grandfather and his grandson are twinned by Starnone, who breaks all the rules of twin-parenting while creating characters that are so real-feeling I half expected them to pinch me from the pages of my book. Indeed, Starnone treats the grandfather and grandson as a unit–in the Naples apartment, on the streets, and even in the bathroom where they take a pee together. (Never have I found a bathroom scene so endearing!) In conjoining these two disparate humans, the reader realizes how similar they are. (How similar we all are!)

Likewise, by showing the characters as dichotomies–old versus young, fragile versus agile, learned versus unlearned–Starnone illustrates how much we humans have in common. And this is true not only at the beginning and end of life (when frequent trips to the bathroom are necessary) but throughout the spectrum of our human existence on Earth. We all laugh, cry, yearn for love, endure pain, seek pleasure and distraction, and will die.

Starnone twins, or adds layers to, his characters using ghostly images–that pop up in the drawings the illustrator-grandfather makes and also in the older man’s imagination. The grandfather is also further layered by his memories of his dead wife, which cling to him–specifically his wife’s criticism. As a husband, he was distracted by his art, so much so that it made him at times into a “stranger,” a “tenebrous version of myself that had frightened her.” Perhaps he has always been someone with multiple versions of himself. As a child in Naples, “numerous me’s were in bud since early adolescence and yearned to assert themselves…”

Don’t we all have numerous me’s? It’s a trait sometimes foisted upon us Geminis, who are sometimes called two-faced. But shouldn’t we be many-faced–whether we were born in June, born singletons, or born twins? Isn’t this the kind of multifaceted characterization, which we readers and writers hope for? Why would we want life to be so much simpler, flatter?

Toward the end of the novel, Trick, the grandfather talks of clones of oneself, and the moment “you repel yourself.” That’s some trick, but the whole novel can be seen this way–as a sleight of hand, a trick of the eye.

Then there’s the “I” of youth, our youngest self. “How we love–all of us–our chatty little imp,” the grandfather muses. Which brings me to the climax of the novel. I won’t give away any spoilers here. But it happens that the grandfather and grandson are on the opposite sides of a glass door–and so ensues in the glass reflections a twin twinning. And everything is flip-flopped, when the “I” of youth saves the “I” of maturity–or does it?

“I’d wanted to keep the horror,” the grandfather thinks, “that spread through the house, through the street, on the face of the earth, at a distance… Instead it stretched, it split at the seams, it suffered, breaking into shards.” What image–of ourselves or another, a child or an adult, hasn’t suffered such a split? We are all many more than one thing. More than one reflection, one opposite, one twin.

Do you abide by astrological signs? Do you know any twins? Give me your favorite set of twins from popular culture. What are you reading and writing to endure this period of self-distancing?

Stay well!

~Rebecca

This week’s tandem read…

I spent the loveliest Sunday celebrating St. Patrick’s Day–my own way. After Mass and brunch at a Greek restaurant, I found the sunniest spot on my porch, enjoyed a Bailey’s, and started in on this week’s tandem read: Pulitzer-prize winning (Cleveland, OH, native) Anthony Doerr‘s memoir, Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World and art historian and travel writer Laura Morelli‘s debut novel, The Gondola Maker.

Do you do much tandem reading?

Tandem reading provides many such textual mirrors and prisms. I highly recommend it.

Writer and Book-seller Michael Berger

This book pairing is pretty obvious: both are set in Italy (the first in the 2000s Rome; the second in 16th-century Venice), with all the inherent romance an Italian setting prescribes–from fine literature, art, and architecture to finely-honed craft and familial trades passed down through the generations. And there will be your standard romance to come–more in Morelli’s tale, I’m afraid, than in Doerr’s memoir. (Like Doerr, I suffered from sleepless nights due to twin boys, only not in Rome.)

What’s 400 years between stories? I’m enjoying the tandem view of Italy spanning centuries, geography, and outlooks.

So far, I’d recommend both books.

With humor and his trademark attention to detail, Doerr chronicles his family’s year in Rome, where he begins work on his novel ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE–when he’s not distracted by the writing of Pliny, the Elder; struggling with his Italian phrasebook; or carting his twin babies around an ancient city not meant for hulking twin strollers.

My favorite excerpt so far:

Jet lag is a dryness in the eyes, a loose wire in the spine. Wake up in Boise, go to bed in Rome. The city is a field of shadows beyond the terrace railing. The bones of Keats and Raphael and St. Peter molder somewhere out there. The pope dreams a half mile away. Owen blinks up at me, mouth open, a crease in his forehead, as though his soul is still somewhere over the Atlantic, trying to catch up with the rest of him.

In The Gondola Maker, Morelli’s expert research makes Venice more than a vibrant backdrop but a fully-fleshed-out character among the cast of this historical coming-of-age novel. I find her description of the craft and trades surrounding gondolas fascinating. (I’m eager to read her latest novel, The Painter’s Apprentice.)

My favorite passage so far:

I begin to absorb the unspoken language of Venetian boatmen, a complex set of hand gestures this cadre of men has developed over generations to communicate silently to one another across the water. Some of the signals are easy to divine: twirling fingers for “Let’s met for a plate of pasta at the midday meal” or a left thumb over the right shoulder for “incoming tide.”

Communication–through language spoken and unspoken–is another bright thread that binds these two books and makes this tandem read interesting and relevant to my writing right now. Tomorrow, I head to a writers retreat where I will continue working on my latest project, a multi-generational novel, featuring, among other related characters, a young woman who is losing her hearing–and must gain the ability to communicate in new ways. (Best advice to bear the long wait after querying agents about the first novel? Work on the second!)

Quick shout-out to my new followers who found this blog by way of my second WordPress Discover feature, My interview with Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas. And thank you for getting me past the 1,000 follower mark!

With other interviews, as well as book reviews, story excerpts, essays, and other musings on reading and writing the Rust Belt (and beyond), I hope you’ll stick around. See my categories above for more.

Now, it’s your turn. Are you a serial monogamist when it comes to reading books? Or, are you a tandem- or poly-reader? If so, what’s been your favorite tandem read so far? Comment away! I always respond.

My interview with author Amy Jo Burns

Bio Pic-1

Amy Jo Burns is the author of Cinderland, and her writing has appeared in Salon, Good Housekeeping, The Rumpus, Electric Literature, Tin House’s Open Bar, Ploughshares Online, and in Roxane Gay’s anthology Not That Bad. Her novel Shiner is forthcoming from Riverhead Books.

Amy Jo was gracious enough to answer a few questions from another Rust Belt girl–me–about her literary memoir, Cinderland, which I discussed in a previous post; about her Rust Belt upbringing; about juggling the responsibilities of writing and motherhood; and about her upcoming novel, Shiner, which I can’t wait to read!

Amy Jo–your memoir, Cinderland, is set in your hometown outside Pittsburgh. How did that particular post-industrial place inform your upbringing? Does your memoir’s title reflect the place in which you were raised, the abuse you suffered as a girl, both?

I chose the title Cinderland because it represents an inner fire that remains after old, unnecessary things have died away. I see so much of myself in the landscape that I grew up in. The abandoned buildings, overgrown lots, and empty warehouses of my youth were (and are) placeholders for new things to come, and they are so beautiful to me. The story of the Rust Belt is still being written, even if some people call it a dead zone. There is life inside! Rust and cinders aren’t dead things. They’re just in a state of transformation, and I think that became a powerful metaphor for me to explore my own coming of age in my memoir.

BURNS-Cinderland

In your memoir, you discuss your Christian upbringing and throughout the book use biblical allusions. (Your abuser you call Mr. Lotte.) In using the language of the Bible, did you feel like you were wresting some control over that part of your childhood? Something else?

The Bible was my first introduction to language, so it felt very natural for me to use biblical references as a way to represent how I see the world. This was such a good question for me to consider, because I just realized in borrowing some of that language, I was actually able to release some control over the painful parts of my past. For so long I tried to manage what had happened to me and my grief over it, and it only ended up suffocating me. I was afraid to let it be what it was.

Sometimes I think “religion” tries to manhandle who God is, and having faith is the opposite: letting God be God, and finding rest because of it. For me, that meant letting Mr. Lotte be held accountable for what he did. It was not “Christian” for me to try to hide away his transgressions, even if some people in my community swore it was. When I was writing the book, I came across this verse in Proverbs 17:15:

“Whitewashing bad people and throwing mud on good people are equally abhorrent to God.”

I’d never heard that before. It’s not an exaggeration to say it changed my life to see that God has no interest in camouflaging a man’s true character for the sake of fake peace.

You were a student of ballet, growing up. Had you known the true story you present in your essay, “Body on Fire,” of Emma Livry, a young ballerina whose costume caught on fire during a performance at the Paris Opera in 1862, or did you come upon it more recently? Can you talk about this idea of burning or “consuming” of women with respect to today’s #metoo movement?

I came across that story about two years ago, and I still can’t stop thinking about it. Emma Livry had GUTS as an artist and as a woman, and I think she probably felt just as frustrated to perform for an audience full of men she didn’t trust as so many women still feel right now. Livry’s biographer, a male, seemed to suggest she was a victim of her own making, that it was her own vanity in wanting a certain kind of ballet skirt to wear that ultimately killed her when her tutu caught fire. I call foul! I think she knew her patrons saw her as nothing but a body for consumption. She fought to dance the way she wanted– wearing what she wanted–for herself, first and foremost. She paid a price for it. Livry wasn’t spared because of her talent or her drive. Instead, she was treated like a piece of machinery. That’s what resonates for me with today’s #metoo movement–she was blamed for choices that were never really hers to make.

Have you changed as a writer since becoming a mother, besides having less time and energy to write?

Yes! I wanted to finish Cinderland before I had children because I thought parenthood would make me overly sentimental. I didn’t want to write about my own childhood with too much nostalgia. It’s funny, though, because the opposite has been true. I’m much more raw as a person and as a writer now that I’m a mother, and I like it. My sense of self has totally shifted. I’m constantly becoming someone I’ve never been before, which is weird and wonderful and a little scary. There’s a new urgency to what I write now, like I’m trying to capture each meaningful truth before it disappears.

Also: now I write while Paw Patrol plays in the background. I gave up on trying to find the ideal working environment. It doesn’t exist. That helps me value my writing time without letting it become too precious.

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Throwback Thursday: Why half the world should read IN ZANESVILLE

index

Even if you’ve never been there, you’ve heard enough to know the American Midwest isn’t sexy. I’m hardly the first Midwest native to admit to being from a Regular ‘Ol American Place.

The Midwest is “flyover country”–its detractors call it–between the glittering East Coast and shining West Coast. Yep, no matter how many Northeast Ohio boosters try, most of the U.S. will never be convinced of the beauty that is the “North Coast.” And that’s okay.

But…the insult that really stings: “Ohio is flat.”

It stings–not just because it’s a blanket generalization and untrue of my rolling Ohio hometown. (In fact, it stings more than memories of the same thing being said about my 6th grade chest–and that stung.)

It stings because flat is sameness. And don’t we (even States–if States had egos) want to feel special, unique, memorable: the opposite of same, boring, forgettable?

I am more than a home state booster; I’m a home state narcissist. You see, I picked up Jo Ann Beard’s novel, IN ZANESVILLE (pub. 2011), thinking it was set in Zanesville, Ohio.

It’s not. It’s set in Zanesville, Illinois, which, I sheepishly admit, is pretty much the same. In fact, it’s the sameness, the universality of the experiences of the novel’s fourteen-year-old narrator, that makes this novel so special–and yet relate-able to any reader who is or was ever a girl. And that’s about half the world. Read more

AMERICAN RUST, restless ruin: a book review

9781742374772American Rust by Philipp Meyer, reviewed.

Ah, America. Rags to riches. Dream fulfilled country, right?

Nope.

Without spoiling too terribly much, this is not that book. This is not romance.

American Lit. nerd time-out: in his Criticism and Fiction, realist writer of the 1800s, William Dean Howells, argued that a story where “all grows naturally out of character and conditions is the supreme form of fiction.” Down with the sentimentality of romantic fiction! Realism was best suited to express the spirit of America. Then, real got real-er, and naturalist writers like Theodore Dreiser and Jack London showed what happens when natural forces overwhelm us silly humans.

American Rust is real-natural in that way. And I like it. Realism has always appealed to this Rust Belt native for whom romantic lit. often feels at best, false, and at worst, dangerous.

For me, this debut novel’s strengths are in the real and natural way Philipp Meyer’s dark story grows out of the ruinous conditions of its modern Appalachian Pennsylvania setting: post-industry, post steel money, post employment, though still (or again) naturally beautiful.

This is a story of two very different young men from the same place. Isaac is small, awkward, and MIT-smart; Billy is handsome and strong, a former high school football star. One night, the friends get caught up in/perpetrate an act of terrible violence, just as restless Isaac has decided he must head to Stanford to put his genius to work. Post-crime, Isaac makes good on his promise to leave their hometown, and Billy stays. Each man suffers for his decision, Isaac on the road and in train yards where lawlessness reigns, and Billy in prison. The men’s families become entangled in the tragedy, as does the local police chief, Harris, who must weigh his job as a lawman against his love for Billy’s mother, Grace. All suffer in the aftermath of one violent mistake.

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