Reviews of the Ephemeral

Posts Tagged ‘This Jealous Earth’

Interview with Robert James Russell (Sea of Trees)

In Conversation, Novella on August 6, 2013 at 2:00 pm

-Robert James Russell spoke to Ian Chung

Author Bio: Robert James Russell is a Pushcart Prize-nominated author and the co-founding editor of the literary journal Midwestern Gothic. His work has appeared in Joyland, The Collagist, Gris-Gris, Thunderclap! Magazine,, and LITSNACK, among others. Sea of Trees (Winter Goose Publishing, 2012) is his first novella.

Robert James Russell black and white

What inspired you to set Sea of Trees in Japan, and specifically, in Aokigahara?

The setting came to me before the story did, actually. I had read an article about Aokigahara and just found it fascinating – a place where the trees grow together so closely, where there are hardly any animals and that has this long and macabre history of death. As a setting – even as a character, which I think it ultimately becomes in the book – it was just too fascinating to pass up. So I did a great deal of research, read as much as I could about it as well as the epidemic of suicide in Japan, and the story formed around that, defined by a place just so magnetic and mysterious and eerie. As the story came together, it became about more than just death, but about relationships and communication (specifically the breakdown of communication in its many forms), and anchoring all of my stories in Aokigahara was the perfect way for me to do that: the fact that it’s very real, and all of the things that happen there – people killing themselves regularly, groups of people coming in to look for them, others there to collect their valuables – is far more unsettling than anything I could have imagined.

The main narrative of the novella is alternated with other short vignettes, recounting the stories of other people who chose to end their lives at Aokigahara. What prompted this structure? Would you ever consider expanding any of them into something longer?

Well, a couple things prompted it: When I first started writing the story, it was just the Bill/Junko narrative, and while that was the basis for everything, and their dynamic very important to what I was trying to say, I found that I really needed to break it up so it wouldn’t be too monotonous (you can only have so much walking around in a forest). I also think, since that is the main narrative, breaking up particularly tense sections with another story, giving your mind a rest, makes you think more about it and process what you just read, and that helps the story progress in a much smoother way. The vignettes ended up becoming some of my favorite elements of the book, truthfully, and are as important to me as the main narrative. I don’t strive to answer questions about why people commit suicide, or offer any solutions, but to open up a dialog about it, using the forest as a character, a mythic place they feel drawn to. And it is in these vignettes, I think, that you start to really grasp the magnitude of the place, the cultural reasons why people may choose to kill themselves, and you’re able to apply that to the Bill/Junko story – so some of the subtext becomes text and helps you understand Junko’s state of mind.

As far as expanding, it’s an interesting idea, but I probably wouldn’t. One of the reasons I tried to keep the vignettes short was so as not to dwell too much on death – I tried really hard to strike a balance of just enough characterization and death. Too much of the latter and I think it would have been too distracting. Too much of the former and you sort of forget the place of mind the characters are in and it loses its focus.

Could you say something about the process of getting Sea of Trees published with Winter Goose Publishing? Was there any particular reason you chose them?

I had actually submitted another book to them, and while they liked my writing, the book wasn’t quite their style, so they asked if I had something else. I did – Sea of Trees – and they were quick to respond with an acceptance. I ultimately chose them because from the very beginning they showed me an enthusiasm about the book and working with me that was very refreshing. Being in publishing myself, I’ve seen what some publishers don’t (or can’t) offer – some so bogged down that they can barely pay attention to their writers – so it was great to find one so eager and that so obviously loved books and writing and sharing all of that with an audience. That was very important to me, and really, it’s been an absolute honor working with them.

You are one of the brains behind Midwestern Gothic, and now, MG Press. Some time ago, I also reviewed the first publication from MG Press, Scott Dominic Carpenter’s This Jealous Earth, and interviewed him. What led to your selecting Scott’s work for publication? More generally, what sort of work are you looking for at Midwestern Gothic and MG Press?

Scott’s collection stood out to us as the exact thing we were looking for – not only is he wildly talented, but the stories are diverse and represent, even if not physically set in the Midwest, our sensibilities here. Part of our mission is not just highlighting people living here in the Midwest, but how the culture sticks with you no matter where you go – I’ve heard so many stories from folks who move away and can’t quite get the Midwest out of their systems, which fascinates me. I think that’s prevalent in Scott’s writing, and a testament to the uniqueness of the region. Moreover, his stories contain a breadth of themes and images – a little bit of everything – which we found works well with a collection to keep people reading. If every story was the same, for instance, I think it would be a much tougher sell/read. Last, his work was polished: it came to us in a wonderful state, fully-fleshed out, which I can’t tell you enough is very important when submitting.

In general, I think a lot of what I stated previously goes for what we’re looking for in Midwestern Gothic – stories don’t necessarily need to be set here, but be recognizable as Midwest-influenced. We don’t care if the story is light or dark, we just want real life, and this portrait we’re trying to paint of the Midwest is, ideally, represented by various voices, various stories and experiences, to better flesh our home. So as long as there is some connection here, even slight, we want to read it. I think I can say that the only thing we’re not specifically looking for is genre fiction – we have published some stories with slight genre bends to them, but nothing overtly so. The idea again is that we want to see real life here, good, bad and ugly, and while genre fiction is great and there is a place for it, we feel reality is interesting enough and really want to get to the bottom of that.

What is your next project as a writer and/or editor, and could you share something about it?

Well, we’re in the midst of working on our next MG Press title (a novel), which we should be announcing late summer/early fall – a lot of our energy is going into that right now, in addition to prepping Issue 11 of the journal, which is a Creative Nonfiction issue (our first foray into CN). Personally, I’m shopping around a new novel that I’m really excited for. In addition, I’m in the midst of a short story deluge (writing and submitting), so that’s been taking up a lot of time too.

What question do you wish I had asked, and could you answer it?

What is your spirit animal?
I wish I could say something ferocious like a lion or a black bear or an alligator, but I’ve taken a lot of online tests and I always seem to get a crow or morning dove. And those tests are always right.

[ED: Ian’s review of Robert’s collection, Sea of Trees can be read here]

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‘This Jealous Earth’ by Scott Dominic Carpenter

In Short Stories on February 8, 2013 at 1:05 pm

-Reviewed by Ian Chung

This Jealous Earth is Scott Dominic Carpenter’s first collection of short stories, and it is also the first title to launch for MG Press, the publishing arm of Midwestern Gothic. Both literary journal and micro-press share the same core values of ‘shining a spotlight on Midwest authors by focusing on works that showcase all aspects of life—good, bad, or ugly’. Carpenter’s collection also stays true to this in the variety of characters that it showcases, all of whom are united by what he refers to as ‘the question of choice: in each story characters arrive at a fork in the road, and they need to choose a path that will alter their future in important ways’.

This Jealous Earth by Scott Dominic Carpenter

The book opens with ‘The Tender Knife’, a story underpinned by the tension between youth and age, pragmatism and sentimentality. At his young wife’s insistence, Walter is steeling himself to cull the population of his koi pond. What should be an ordinary affair becomes complicated by his guilt at having to kill a bunch of fish ‘built to outlive him’: ‘What bothered him more than the killing was the parting, the leave-taking. Harder to sever than flesh were all those other filaments, the invisible ties that bound him like live nerves to those he loved.’ When Walter’s decision at the end of the story is to once again avoid the problem, having gone through one traumatic almost-botched koi beheading, it is hard not to sympathise with his wish to just be with his grandchildren, ‘escaping, however briefly, from this warm land with its bubbling ponds and its lies of eternal summer’.

As for title story ‘This Jealous Earth’, it serves up an interesting variation on the usual ‘end times’ narrative by presenting events from the perspective of Catherine, a young girl who refuses to let her blaspheming, unbelieving older brother be left behind, even at the cost of her place among the supposed elect. Midway through the story, there is a moment where Catherine keeps stuffing more and more items into her dress pocket, thinking to herself, ‘Her pocket felt heavy now. It weighed her down. This jealous earth didn’t want to let her go.’ Rather than taking the easy option of turning his story into a straightforward critique of the Driscoll family’s cultic beliefs, Carpenter instead uses the ending to demonstrate that in extremis, the bond of family may prove to be the strongest force of all, and it is really we who do not want to let each other go.

Alongside these short stories, Carpenter’s collection also mixes in a couple of flash fictions. Pieces like ‘Foundering’ and ‘The Phrasebook’ succinctly portray relationships in various states of crisis. The former contains this heartbreaking evocation of empty nest syndrome: ‘Even the children, it turned out, were only on long-term loan, and the departure of each cardboard box felt like another melon ball scooped ever closer to the rind.’ The latter matter-of-factly relates: ‘Something went wrong. The turns were too sharp. We were going too fast. We thought it was all under control. By the time we understood, it was too late. The collision was too violent. The damage had been done. Only the formalities remained, the paperwork.’ After this paragraph of relatively short sentences, the final ‘Please, I need to report an accident’ forms a sobering coda to the whole flash fiction.

It is a testament to the consistency of Carpenter’s narrative skill that I could have picked any story in This Jealous Earth and found something about it to recommend in this review. As it is, there is not enough space to say much about the surreally funny ‘Sincerely Yours’, beyond that as a one-time student dealing with utility bills, I completely empathise with the protagonist’s predicament. Or ‘The Death Button’, which despite its title, turns out to be a rather morbidly sweet love story. Or ‘General Relativity’, a story made all the more effective by its refusal to explain its fantastical element, in which the narrator experiences whatever he reads. So This Jealous Earth is packed full of surprising tales, and best of all, if like me, you read it and really enjoy Carpenter’s writing, you can look forward to his debut novel, Theory of Remainders, coming out later this year from Winter Goose Publishing.

[You can read Ian’s full interview with Scott Dominic Carpenter here]

Interview with Scott Dominic Carpenter (This Jealous Earth)

In Interview, Short Stories on February 7, 2013 at 1:26 pm

-Scott Dominic-Carpenter spoke to Ian Chung

Scott Dominic Carpenter teaches literature and critical theory at Carleton College (MN), where he has written extensively on the representation of madness in the novel, political allegory, and literary hoaxes. His fiction has appeared in such journals as Chamber Four, Ducts, Midwestern Gothic, The MacGuffin, Prime Number and Spilling Ink. A Pushcart Prize nominee and a semi-finalist for the MVP competition at New Rivers Press, he has just released his first collection of short stories, This Jealous Earth (MG Press). His debut novel, Theory of Remainders is due to appear in May (Winter Goose Publishing). His website is at http://www.sdcarpenter.com.

1) How did your collaboration with MG Press come about? How does it feel for This Jealous Earth to be their first title?

It was a happy coincidence. MG Press is the brainchild of a literary journal called Midwestern Gothic. They’d been putting out excellent issues for the past few years, and one of my stories had appeared in their pages. Just as I was ironing out the last wrinkles in my collection, they put out their initial call for book submissions. I think they expected to be publishing a novel, but I managed to win them over with the stories—and I couldn’t be happier about it. MG Press is a class operation, and they provided more support (both in editing and promotion) than you’d get from presses many times larger.

Midwestern Gothic Press

2) What holds the stories in This Jealous Earth together as a collection? Are there any writers that have influenced either particular stories or you as a writer in general?

It’s quite a varied collection, featuring main characters of all backgrounds—men and women, old and young. No setting appears twice, and readers will find the gamut of emotions. However, the stories are bound together by the question of choice: in each story characters arrive at a fork in the road, and they need to choose a path that will alter their future in important ways. I try to show these choices in real time, and then illustrate the consequences.

Stylistically I find myself drawing on many authors, and much depends on who I’m currently reading. But special favourites are Paul Auster, David Mitchell, Arthur Phillips. I also love the short story greats of the nineteenth-century: Poe, Hoffmann, Gogol, Balzac.

3) In 2011, The Millions published an essay by Cathy Day, in which she argued that talk of the renaissance of the short story is reflective of the rise of creative writing classes/workshops and their preference for the standalone story or poem, rather than any actual shift in what people want to read. As someone with both a published collection of short stories and a forthcoming novel, what are your thoughts on this?

It’s an interesting theory, and there may be a grain of truth to it. The fact is that public taste shapes what people write at the same time that what we write shapes public taste. There’s give and take. The short story used to be a tremendously popular genre, then it subsided, and now it seems to be coming back. Given how marked our preference is for shortness (on the web, for example), I wouldn’t be surprised to see even more interest in short stories. That said, I don’t think the novel is in any danger of being knocked off its champion’s pedestal.

Scott Dominic Carpenter_headshot copyright Paul Carpenter

4) On your website, you note that you ‘came to creative writing rather late’. As someone whose academic background is in nineteenth-century French literature, what eventually led you to creative writing, and how has the journey shaped you as a writer?

In some ways, it’s the most natural of transitions: you spend twenty-odd years studying literature, and that gives you the tools you need to start writing it. It’s certainly true that reading is the best preparation for writing; I may just have pushed that formula a little farther than most. What’s been interesting to me is how my creative writing still revolves around the preoccupations I developed in my reading: the difficulty of expression, the search for transcendence, humour. I find myself drawing on my analytical background quite often, though in indirect ways.

5) What’s next for you? Could you say something about Theory of Remainders, your forthcoming novel with Winter Goose Publishing, and how it compares with This Jealous Earth?

As you say, the next thing up is the novel. Theory of Remainders is a wonderfully exciting project (they’re already trying to hawk the movie rights), and we’ve just finished the galleys. (It comes out in May.) Theory… is a literary novel with a well-honed edge of suspense. It deals with an American psychiatrist, Philip Adler, who seeks to resolve a trauma he suffered — the death of his daughter — over a decade earlier. Most of the story takes place in France, where Adler lived for several years, and it weaves together notions of insanity, language, and cultural difference in a tale that is both moving and touched with humour.

At the same time, I have other pots simmering on the stove: more stories, some travel writing, and another novel.

[ED: We’ll publish Ian’s review of Scott’s collection, This Jealous Earth very soon, so keep an eye out for it…]