Interview by Allyson Hoffman
1. As a Michigan native myself, I’d love to know more about your connection to the Great Lakes State. How does this connection influence your writing?
I spent the first 30 years of my life in Michigan. I grew up in Troy and attended the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor for my undergraduate degree. I worked in and around Detroit, for companies like WXYZ-TV Channel 7, Crain’s Detroit Business, and the Detroit Police Athletic League. The first time I “left home” was when I attended the University of South Florida for my MFA, and it was a different world. I had culture shock—hot and muggy all year round, incessant sun, tropical plants growing on the side of the road that only existed in the atriums of office buildings back home. I found myself wishing for crisp fall days, the spicy-sad smell of Michigan in October, the impossibly blue sky that only seems to exist over our mitten state. It was a special kind of homesickness that worked its way into my stories. Setting became a character, the middle class neighborhoods, strip malls, and all night diners I remembered from when I was growing up were the living places amongst which my characters worked and grew.
2. Can you talk about the origins of Love Letters to Michigan? What came first, a single story or the idea for a collection?
Four of the seven stories in the collection were a part of my master’s thesis, also called Love Letters to Michigan. Titling my thesis this way made sense—during my time in the program, I’d kept home close in my work. I wasn’t sure, when I started shopping the book around, if “Love Letters to Michigan” was also a good title for a collection of short stories. Two short story collections I love are Super America: Stories by Anne Panning and The Bigness of the World: Stories by Lori Ostlund, and I toyed with the idea of following their example and calling my collection Misspent Youth: Stories. But my mentor convinced me to keep the Love Letters title. “It just fits the work,” she said. And now that I see it in print, I think she was right.
3. In his introduction to The Best American Short Stories 2016, Junot Diaz writes about how he fell in love with the short story, a form that is often overlooked. How did you fall in love with the short story? What is it about short stories that captures you?
A short story is like a petit four—a tiny layer cake covered in seamless fondant and decorated with sugar flowers. A short story is a perfect piece of nigiri—a delicate slice of salmon over vinegared rice, a small dollop of wasabi hidden under the fish. This perfect bite of a story, layered and rich with meaning. As the short story reader, we are able to experience a character’s life, often a slice right from the middle. We watch the character struggle and grow for 10 pages, or 20, or 30, and then the piece ends, even though the story seldom does. I think the best stories, just like sushi or little cakes, are never quite enough. I’11 start the next story, or put the book down, but I can’t stop wondering about who the character was and how she continued to live her life off the page. And I hope that some readers feel this way about my work, too.
4. Some writers write daily and others write when the inspiration strikes. How do you approach your writing? What tools and tricks do you use to keep writing?
When in the middle of a project, I am a writer who writes every day. One way I am able to do this is with ritual: I write in the morning, I always drink coffee when I write, and I always listen to music, often a specific album or artist. For example, when I was writing the short story “Sisters” in my collection, I listened to Mater Eucharistiae, an album recorded by the Dominican Sisters of Mary in Ann Arbor. For me, part of the “work” of writing is facing the page even when I’m not feeling particularly inspired, and this ceremony, of coffee and music and time of day, helps me get into the right mindset for writing.
5. You write nonfiction as well as fiction. How does your writing process change and remain the same when writing in each genre?
Even though the genres are different, my writing process for both fiction and nonfiction is pretty similar—a focus on character, on setting, on the objects that make up our physical lives, is present in both my stories and my essays. My writing is made up of moments, pulled from either memory or imagination. It is my goal to tell the emotional truth of those moments—the vulnerability, the growth—and hope that something in the description resonates with the reader.
6. What role does teaching play in your writing process? What’s your favorite lesson to teach new writers?
My students are inspiring. Every semester I teach, I am surprised by my students’ wisdom and insight into the pieces we read in class. At a big school like the University of South Florida or the University of Georgia, my classes are comprised of 20 strangers who come together to form a writing community, even if it’s just for 5 months. I continue to be astounded by the care and compassion my students show each other during peer review and workshop.
My favorite lesson is one where we read three fiction stories anchored by a profession: this semester, it was “Bloodsport” by Thomas Lynch, “I Would Prefer You Not Contact my Previous Employer” by Dan Townsend, and “The Turkey Season” by Alice Munro. As a class, we discuss how the details of the profession inform the story and the reader’s experience. I then task the students with writing their own stories anchored by the details of a profession (or hobby) they know well. Through the assignment, I have learned about fencing, I have gotten to see behind the sales counter at Abercrombie & Fitch, and I learned you can buy amateur lock picking kits on Amazon.
7. You’ve cited Alice Munro as your “writing hero.” Do you have other writing heroes or writers you’re learning from? Who are you reading right now, and what draws you to their work?
I really admire Stewart O’Nan’s work, especially Last Night at the Lobster and Emily, Alone. O’Nan infuses his work with “stuff,” the objects in our lives that define us, that carry metaphoric weight. There is a scene in Emily, Alone (a novel about a woman adjusting to life as a widow) where the protagonist takes two suitcases that belonged to her and her husband and donates them to a church rummage sale. As readers, we experience Emily’s memories of the suitcases when she hauls them out of the basement, her unhappiness when the suitcases don’t sell and they’re tossed in the dumpster, and the discomfort Emily feels any time she sees the space in the basement where the suitcases used to be—a whole spectrum of emotions elegantly tied to one object.
8. What’s your latest writing project? What’s next for you?
I have two current projects, a second collection of short stories and a novel. Writing a novel has been interesting. The idea of such a huge undertaking was always kind of terrifying: “What if I get sick of writing it?” “What if I run out of things to say?” “What if I spend a year writing it and no one wants to publish it?” But I actually found the novel writing process freeing. There is room in a novel to let ideas grow slowly, different from the compact, electric nature of writing short stories.
And yes, Michigan again features prominently in both projects. I feel pretty good about that.
Allyson Hoffman is a Michigan native and MFA creative writing candidate at the University of South Florida. Her previous work has appeared in The Rumpus, Midwestern Gothic, The 3288 Review and elsewhere.
Christine M. Lasek holds an MFA in fiction from the University of South Florida. She currently teaches creative writing and serves as the Academic Professional for the Creative Writing Program at the University of Georgia. Christine's collection of short stories, Love Letters to Michigan, was published by ELJ Editions in 2016. She also has fiction and nonfiction published or forthcoming in literary magazines including Eleven Eleven, The Sierra Nevada Review, Tampa Review Online, VIA: Voices in Italian Americana, and elsewhere. She lives in Athens, Georgia, with her husband and their feline overlord, Chine. You can find Christine online here: http://www.christinemlasek.com/