Interview with Robert James Russell
and Jeff Pfaller of Midwestern Gothic
Interview by Sebastian H. Paramo
Could you tell us about the name Midwestern Gothic? There are few magazines it seems that focus on being region specific.
RJR: We had a very specific vision in mind for what we wanted to do with this journal—the niche we wanted to fill: to showcase Midwestern writing and writers, to paint a portrait of Midwest life—real life—good, bad and ugly (which has become sort of a mantra to us). In that sense, much like the Southern Gothic subgenre, we felt like this was the title that perfectly encapsulated everything we were trying to say about our mission as well as the writing we were looking for.
JP: It's also a nod to our approach to defining the Midwestern aesthetic. We don't just want one particular view. We want to explore stereotypes and perceptions and how they play with the reality of what life is like here. Sure, we'll get the view of folks who have lived here their whole lives, but we'll also tap into people who have moved away, moved in, or even just spent a summer on their uncle's farm and been struck by something.
Sounds almost intimidating! Should authors be discouraged by the name when they submit their work? What type of work are you looking to publish?
RJR: I hope no one’s discouraged! But we always invite people to check out our website, read about our mission and us…what we’re trying to do. I think that’s good practice for any journal you’re interested in submitting—and a great way to make sure you’re on the same page. As far as what we’re looking to publish, we typically say “literary fiction,” since we’re not necessarily looking for genre pieces. (Again, the real life aspect is so important to us—to help explore the Midwest region, its stories and mythos, the authors who live and travel through here.) We have published pieces that blur the lines of genre, though—literary-crime, for instance, or an ever so slightly magic realist piece that still retains the grounded setting we’re looking for—but they are few and far between.
JP: Never be discouraged! Honestly, for writers who are wondering what we're like, the best way is to read an issue. We strive for a range in each one, to make sure we cover a variety of themes and tones, from dark to nostalgic to uplifting to bittersweet. After a few stories, it becomes pretty obvious fairly quickly the type of things that resonate with us - and that goes a long way when writer's need to think about the best home for their writing. Fit goes a long way, and is honestly as important as the quality of the writing. Someone could write a HUGO award-winning piece of hard science fiction, and we'd pass because that's not our gig.
Being a region specific journal that focuses on the Midwest, do you feel your publication fosters community and if so, how do you nurture that community of writers?
RJR: I have never felt as much a part of the writing and publishing community as we have since we started Midwestern Gothic—and it’s wonderful. People really took to us, what our mission was, and every time we go to book fairs or have readings, we have people come up to us and tell us they really admire our mission and what we’re doing. That means the world to us, truly—that people are taking note of what we do and what we’re trying to do beyond the issues themselves. That we’re trying to shine a spotlight, a great big spotlight, on a region historically overlooked. And we have plenty of non-Midwesteners who are interested and appreciative too—again, I think it’s part of having a larger narrative and purpose that people appreciate. It’s really important to us, as well, to treat our contributors well—we’d be nothing without them. We try to set up readings all over the country for them, feature spotlights on our website, and do anything and everything to promote them and our work. Perhaps it’s the Midwesterner in us, but this community fostering is second nature. Why would you not do everything you can, you know?
JP - One of the defining characteristics of Midwesterners is their sense of community, and personally I wouldn't trade our contributors for the world. Without them, the journal would honestly be nothing. It's a distinct focus of ours to try and shine a spotlight on them, more so than on ourselves. That manifests itself in a lot of different ways, whether that's interviewing them for our spotlights, setting up readings for them around the region, nominating their work for awards or giving them a forum to promote their other work.
What's the literary background of your editors and do you have any Midwestern transplants?
RJR: I was born and raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan, have moved around the world a bit, but am now settled in Ann Arbor. So I’m a born and bred Michigander and I couldn’t be prouder. I received my Master’s degree at Oxford Brookes University and studied American modernism and regionalism (which helped really put things in perspective for what would become Midwestern Gothic). I’m a writer myself, had a book, Sea of Trees, published by Winter Goose Publishing in 2012, and I have a couple things on the horizon I can’t talk about yet.
JP: I've circled the Great Lakes my entire life, living on the west and east side of Michigan before settling where I'm at now in Chicago. While I was at Michigan State, I complemented my advertising degree with as many English courses as I could - to the point where I came pretty close to minoring in creative writing. I write in the spare time I do have, and have been published in several places online and in print.
In my time following your publication, I've always admired your cover photos, could you talk about the process of selecting the art for each issue?
JP: All our photos come from submissions as well - capturing the ethos of the region visually has always been part of our mission. Obviously, anything we select needs to be visually striking and interesting, and I'd say there has to be some type of inherent tension in anything we pick for a cover photo. For example, the cover of the fall issue features the broad architectured shoulders of Chicago, juxtaposed against a roiling, organic sky. We think that tension is one of the main reasons the region is constantly in transition; all over you have places attempting to shed their past and reinvent themselves, more so than anywhere else.
Now that you've gone into the micro press business, in addition to your journal, what do you hope for the future of MGP?
RJR: Our goal with MG Press is to publish a small number of titles each year (no set amount) that really encapsulate what we’re trying to do. It’s another way for us to showcase Midwestern authors, and it’s something we’ve wanted to do from the beginning. The most important thing to us is that everything we put out we do so because we love dearly. We’re not trying to adhere to a strict schedule, because we don’t want to get in the habit of taking something in, for instance, we might not be crazy for just to make sure we have something in the pipeline. If we have nothing in the pipeline, and it takes us a bit to find something…totally fine. And I think people are seeing that with our publications so far…the care we put into them, the craft of the design and the texts themselves, obviously—that they’re worth the wait.
JP: Sharing our authors with a broader audience is a big part of what we're trying to do with MG Press - full length works by single authors tend to be more accessible and sought out by the public outside of what I'd call hard core literary enthusiasts. It's also a different way of exploring the aesthetic - where short stories and poems are burst of intensity, full-length works are a slow burn - personally I think there are lots of merits to both.
Could you name your five must-read literary magazine that should be on everyone's radar?
RJR: Hmm, this is tough. I’m going to avoid any “big name” journals, not because I don’t love them (I do), but because most people will have already heard of them and that’s no fun. So instead I’m going to choose journals that I absolutely love, that perhaps not everyone knows about (and if so, great!) but should: The Collapsar, WhiskeyPaper, Carve, Neat, and Sundog Lit. I love the design of each of these, they each have a niche they’ve carved out, and no matter what they do, they do it well.
JP: Booth is one of my favorites, I'm professionally jealous of everything they put out. Cursbide Splendor is another fantastic publication, and they're also putting out some of the best books in the indie lit scene. You can't go wrong with Hobart, Quiddity and Barrelhouse.
If you could give young writers sending out advice, what would it be?
JP: Be as serious about how you submit as you are about your writing. It's not about how many places you send your work to; it's about finding the right place to send it to.
RJR: I agree: Know your journal, know the fit for your piece. Don’t send out blindly, but do the research, get to know the publication. A lot of publications ask you to read back issues, not to make sales, but so you, the writer, have a better idea of what they’re looking for. This is often overlooked by young writers, and it shouldn’t be. I’d also add to make sure to follow the directions. Journals get all sorts of submissions, and if one asks you to do something a certain way, or to send specific information, it’s for a good reason—don’t be the person to ignore directions. We all hate that.
What's one question that you wish I could've asked? Answer it here.
JP: What's your favorite story you've published? Easy! "Spider on the Wall" by Abby Norwood. It changed the way I viewed my wife, and it's a wonderfully heartbreaking and bittersweet story. It's in Issue 4.
RJR: What’s one thing no one told you about starting a journal/getting into publishing? How much work it is. I’m not complaining in the slightest—I love it—but you really have to be passionate about putting out writing, putting a publication together, and having a mission. It has absolutely changed how I view every journal, print or online—these are all labors of love and that’s so wonderful.
Lastly, could you tell us, will you guys be at AWP and if not, where should people find you instead?
RJR: We will! We love AWP—a great way to meet contributors in person and see old friends.
JP: AWP or bust! We hear Minneapolis is especially lovely when it’s thawing out of what's sure to be a frigid, snow-blanketed winter.
For more information on Midwestern Gothic, visit: http://midwestgothic.com