The Painted Forest (West Virginia University Press, October), a debut collection of essays investigating the myths we make about who we are and where we’re from; a lyrical excavation of rural Wisconsin, tourist towns, and the “under-imagined and overly caricatured” Midwest. Agent: None. Editor:
Derek Krissoff. First lines: “This tubby steel machine, this 1978 Chevy Malibu station wagon, careens a large family forward, makes tinny the sound of our quarrels and questions while highway approaches and then unfurls behind, approaches and then unfurls. It is from this wagon that we view the sculptures, the scrap metal forms welded at weird angles onto themselves, forms that groan at ground in the way of all heavy equipment, but forms whose slanted reaches skyward warp and mock the object of industry. Here, out of nowhere, in the middle of nowhere, stands steel impracticality, love or whimsy or thought made big and embarrassing, material and metallic. They are painted. They are placed, purposively, along the road. We view and evade them by continuing at fifty-five miles per hour.”
Before I wrote essays, I used to string together pretty sentences I’d call stories and then wait around for the world’s admiration. It was kind of like riding my bike through a parade in sunny weather but with a creeping sense that something wasn’t right. After college I discovered the essay and found a way into the real work—the hard work— I’d always wanted to do. I loved the
scrappy elasticity of the essay, loved spending time in this place where you bring everything along, where you can fashion your own complicated misfit from some combination of a wobbly first-person perspective and the bizarre raw materials of the world. I even liked how, for a while there at least, the essay was not really capital-L literature, or not quite pure. My position was: “If you need me, I’ll be in the shadows working on my bastard art.” Even now, writing essays gives me permission—to drag strange things home without explanation, to bring together disparate worlds, to live offline with my secrets.
When I started the earliest work from The Painted
Forest, I was writing from a series of questions about place and identity and myth and the stories we tell about who we are and where we’re from. I was raised working-class in a small town in rural Wisconsin. As I accumulated more experience of the world, I sometimes found I had to explain myself and my home to others, putting a complicated place onto maps where previously there’d been almost nothing at all. I became interested in the role of telling about a place, in talking back from the periphery to a more central cultural power, and in questions about who gets to make art and from what. The book sprang in part from a desire to sustain and express fascination for overlooked spaces and in part from an obsession with the complicated way we wed the power of storytelling to ourselves, our identities, and our communities.
After years of publishing in literary journals, I began to see which essays were speaking to each other and which weren’t. I sent out a manuscript to indie and university press book contests, for which it was sometimes a finalist.
Then I came upon West Virginia University Press and its In Place series, which publishes books about “the complexity and richness of place.” I sent my manuscript to the editor, Derek Krissoff, who began e-mailing me frequently and thoughtfully, a responsiveness that provoked mild confusion until it occurred to me that the book was being read, carefully, by the people who were going to publish and champion it. When I signed the contract, I felt more wryness than joy. Inside that long-awaited moment of satisfaction, I could sense the presence of the same old dissatisfied beast— the one who exists to demand more words and more work, more foolish attempts at making sense. It’s a short walk home, to what remains to be done.
I was raised working-class in a small town in rural
Wisconsin. As I accumulated more experience of the world, I sometimes
found I had to explain myself and my home to others, putting a complicated place onto maps where previously there’d been almost
nothing at all.