Terese Svoboda’s newest novel, Bohemian Girl, inspired by Willa Cather’s My Antonia, is the latest in a series entitled “Flyover Fiction,” from University of Nebraska Press. The concept is fiction set on the Great Plain: affectionately known as America’s Heartland, or dismissively referred to as a flyover region between the more “important,” interesting and sophisticated coasts. But if this ironic series name leads readers to expect a Midwest that’s folksy or sentimental from Svoboda, they’ll have another thing coming—her fans already know that fiction doesn’t get much more innovative, whip-smart or cosmopolitan in spirit. Like Ladette Randolph, editor of the venerable Ploughshares literary journal as well as an esteemed author of fiction oft-compared to Flannery O’Connor’s, Svoboda is also an ardent—if unconventional—feminist, and makes no bones about it in her work. When it comes to buzzwords that marketers usually don’t want to hear, “what’s worse, flyover or feminist?,” or so jokes Svoboda’s powerhouse publicist, Lauren Cerand. Here, these two fearless women writers, who happen to have set books in the Midwest, discuss their unconventional careers, grappling with their shadows, and whether there is such a thing as “Midwestern literature.” Is a novel different if it doesn’t take place on a coast—or wasn’t written by a man? If so, and the novel also happens to be by Svoboda or Randolph, it’s sure to be worth much more than a flyover . . .
Gina Frangello, TNB Fiction editor
Being Nebraskan, Female, and Literary, (NFL) do you feel any hulking shadows off-sides?
The opposition linebackers used to be huge and fierce for me. With age, I’ve found them to be still strong but pretty clumsy. The three I’ve had the most difficulty getting around are Self doubt, Who-do-you-think-you-are, and How-selfish-can-you-be. I’ve devised my own methods and strategies, of course, but the struggle doesn’t really end. And you? Do you feel hulking shadows off sides? Having left the state at an early age and finding strong mentors from the outside, I always imagine you on an entirely different playing field.
What? Those three linebackers run all the powder puff games. Leaving the state does not mean leaving the state, that of being NFL. Compensation—at least from ex-pioneer stock—means work, work, work. You’ve edited big-time for one of the largest university presses in the nation, and now for one of the most prestigious literary magazines while writing your novels, not to mention having a life, husbands, children, grand-children. You rock. How is being NFL an asset in the book business?
Interesting term, asset. I’m not sure I would have put it that way, but as you say, we’re of pioneer stock and we have a stubborn sort of work ethic. Stick with it (as one does with the land) and work even if the place dries up, the locusts come calling, and the wind howls. Nebraskans, especially those from rural backgrounds, have a strange sort of loyalty to what we’ve chosen. I’ve been willing to take chances and to believe in what I was doing in the same way my great great grandparents did when they settled in a dry patch of the Nebraska badlands in the 19th century. What about you? You’ve been a visionary writer, published numerous books of fiction and poetry, taught everywhere, traveled widely as an ambassador for contemporary fiction. How has being an NFL been an asset for you in the fiction/poetry biz?
Number 1: Being Nebraskan is like being from Timbuktu. In college, I was grouped with the exchange students, it’s exotic. People presume you have a subject, that your biography bristles with bronco riders and football stars. Of course I’ve lived in Sudan. Number 2: Females are notoriously invisible. Invisibility grows with age and it’s the perfect asset for a writer. When we’re young, we’re mute (or muted), no one hears us—but we’re listening. Number 3: Literary as opposed to commercial grants us the right to say how it’s supposed to be done. Here’s another question: If you were traded for a Male, Literary, New Yorker (MLN), which one would he be, dead or alive?
Your question really made me think, because, of course, trading places with someone isn’t at all the same as loving their work or being particularly influenced by them. I don’t really have much interest in trading places with any MLN, past or present, though there are MLNs I respect and admire. If forced to choose, though, I might say someone like Paul Auster simply because he seems to have carved out an enviable position as someone whose work is critically respected and yet who has some market appeal (which gives him a little autonomy, I imagine), who (at least from the outside) seems to rise above much of the more pedestrian debates and skirmishes. I realize this is completely an outsider’s viewpoint, though, and probably very wrong. The irony is that I wouldn’t count his work among my major influences at all. I think it’s fair to say (and this surprises me) I wouldn’t count many MLNs as major influences. And until you’d made me think about it, I don’t think I’d realized it. Oddly, the MLN I may admire most isn’t even a novelist or short story writer but that old-fashioned writer, Alfred Kazin, whose memoir Walker in the City is, for me, as lyrical and thoughtful a bildungsroman as I’ve come across. And I know it may not be very cool of me, but I still admire On Native Grounds (a book written when he was only 23). I admire his grasp of the history of American literature and his understanding of what various writers seemed to be trying to do within the context of their time and place, and even more importantly his ability to write literary criticism with such clarity and beauty. I think all writers really long for such thoughtful readers.
What your question really prompted in me, Terese, was a survey of the writers who have mattered to me, and that’s an entirely different conversation.
Back at you. Which MLN would you most want to trade places with?
I’d trade places with Don DeLillo, a writer who knows how to really write a sentence. His Underworld says so much without being reductive. I envy his knowledge. Major influence? I tried to learn something about tone from him. Back to the huddle and most importantly, is Cather one of your stars?
I thought about DeLillo as the writer I could see trading places with and for exactly that novel. (I’m not in love with some of his other novels). Underworld is a tour de force.
Willa Cather wasn’t one of my stars. Strangely, I came to her work rather late (she wasn’t promoted in the schools when I was a kid). I liked her when I first encountered her, but I can’t say I loved her. There were certainly moments I loved (and still love). I’ve definitely come to appreciate her more as I’ve grown older. My stars (after my earliest infatuations with European and English writers, probably many of the same writers you loved as a young reader), were the Canadian Plains writers: Margaret Lawrence, Alice Munro, Sinclair Ross. I felt an immediate kinship with their unadorned prose and the landscapes and people they were describing. For very different reasons I also love Canadian Robertson Davies (or did when I was younger; it’s been awhile since I’ve read his work). I felt a jolt of recognition when I read Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, OH for the first time. But I write within a realist tradition and very differently than you do.
Has Cather been important to you as a writer (besides being THE Nebraska writer)? Has Wright Morris been an influence? Are there overlooked Nebraska writers you admire? What writers have been an influence for you? You’re working in such a different tradition that I am, I’m curious about what and who shaped you as an artist.
Not a word of Willa Cather in the formative high school years. Was the text too sacred? Did the teachers, even then, sense a lesbian in their midst? I devoured Bess Streeter Aldrich, the more wholesome prairie writer with such happy endings. I read Mari Sandoz in my twenties and loved her rawness. I was getting a BFA in Canada at the time—and also read those Canadians you speak of, but only last year came upon the genius Canadian Mavis Gallant.
But I arrived at prose via poetry, both my cross and my creed. At school, we were directed toward the European rather than the American writers. I was particularly impressed by Michaux, Supervielle, Ponge, Cortazar, Carpentier–writers who tend to crossover, using the muscle of prose with all the possibilities of poetry. I adored and adore Cuban writers (I never recovered from my crush on the exotic) and am especially fond of Reinaldo Arenas. It’s his ungovernable emotion, rather than intellect, that forces him into experimentation.
Wright Morris reminded me of Robbe-Grillet without the cachet of being experimental. This is not to say that I don’t appreciate the realist tradition but for me it so often telegraphs rather than builds. Give me Nabokov or even Graham Greene! That said, Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping still makes me happy. Is it possible to have poetic realism?
The most overlooked Nebraskan poet was too cosmopolitan to be claimed–Weldon Kees. He captures best the estrangement of being the wrong person living in such wrong place, perfect for the adolescent angst that propels young Nebraskans out of the state—but you won’t find much of him in their anthologies. Too saturnine.
Absolutely, Weldon Kees. An early fascination for me. As much for his life as for his work. Such a strange man. Unlike you, I feel there’s something about him that is, for me, quintessentially Nebraskan, and I can’t exactly articulate why I say that. I loved the way he could be at the center of so many important movements in the arts at mid-century and yet walk away and go on to the next thing without looking back. People may want to dismiss him as a dilettante, except he seemed to distinguish himself among his peers in all of his artistic endeavors: fiction, poetry, criticism, art, music, film. A tormented man, brilliant and unsettled, and as you say, perfect for angst-ridden youngsters (not only those from Nebraska).
I have no idea why Cather wasn’t part of the curriculum in my high school. It seems too obvious not to be purposeful, but one never knows. Nebraska suffers mightily from self-loathing and Cather may have simply been too much OF the state to count at that time with educators. I saw more interest in her work later among high school English teachers. I think I was slightly horrified by Sandoz’s Old Jules, though I loved her Crazy Horse. I never fell for Aldrich for some reason. But I did think after sending my list of influential writers that I’d omitted Robinson’s Housekeeping. A book I adored immediately and still adore and feel has been influential.
I have a new novel coming out with the University of Nebraska Press, Haven’s Wake. I’m doing final edits this summer, and I believe it’s due out in the Fall of 2012. Set in eastern Nebraska, it’s about a troubled Mennonite family of organic farmers.
What’s the future like?
The business feels a little frenzied at times, and that’s both exciting and bewildering. I want to make sense of right now is this new craze of writing about the paranormal. What do all these zombies and vampires and werewolves mean? And why are serious literary writers adopting these themes? Is it just for the market? Is it silly to try to find meaning in these artistic choices? What do you make of this? Are there other trends that interest you right now? What do you make of the state of contemporary literature?