Laura Krughoff is the author of the short story collection Wake in the Night and the novel My Brother's Name.
Q: You spent a lot of time living in different parts of the Midwest, and while not all of your writing is set in the Midwest, those that don’t have specific settings often feel Midwestern. I even found a quotation from David Kaplan at Loyola University Chicago who compared your writing to the Midwest when he said, "This struggle for identity, self-definition, a place in the world, is another strong feature of her work, all captured in prose as spare and haunting as a Midwestern winter." How has the Midwest shaped your view of your characters and story?
I do think of myself as deeply Midwestern. I’ve spent all but the first three and the past four years of my life in Indiana, Illinois, or Michigan, so the landscapes and people and politics and pace of all those states have shaped who I am. You asked about how the Midwest shaped my notion of story and character, and I see I answered by saying how it shaped me, but maybe those are the same question, in some ways. I think the wide, flat stretches of land and sky in the Midwest are really beautiful, but it takes a certain kind of looking to see it. On a walk with my mom once, when I was a teenager, she said, “The clouds are our mountains,” and that has stuck with me. The beauty of a cornfield and a blue sky crossed by contrails isn’t as dramatic as the beauty of mountains or oceans or the geological or ecological exuberance of other parts of the country, but it’s its own kind of beauty nonetheless. I guess that appreciation of subtlety shows up in what I think constitutes enough drama for short story quite often.
Q: The notion of waking in the night in prominent in your short story collection, Wake in the Night. Characters, often women, can’t sleep. They are thrust out of dreams, lying awake, waiting for something to happen. Even in your story “Audra,” which isn’t in this collection but was published in Orchid: A Literary Review, a mother attempts to soothe her insomniac daughter. What compels you toward dreams and restlessness? Is there a connection, for your characters, between the inability to sleep and being female?
I’m a pretty restless sleeper, so I’ve got a lot of experience being awake when other people are not. I write mostly about women, so anything my characters tend toward ends up being something that women tend toward, but I’d never thought of sleeplessness as especially female, though perhaps it is. I think what I’m most interested in is the liminal space between sleep and wakefulness, and the way it’s mirrored by the liminality of the whole world when you feel like you’re the only one awake in it. Night has always felt like a time of revelation and insight to me, but it’s hard to know if those revelations and insights are genuine or tricks of the mind when it’s left to its own devices. It also feels like a time of danger/adventure, being up when ostensibly you should not be. Because my characters are who they tend to be, however, that danger/adventure is almost always solitary. I am much more interested in the night than in nightlife.
Q: Most of your protagonists are women. What I find particularly interesting are the female characters who grew up as members of previous generations, such as the WWII generation, when women didn’t have as many options when it came to choosing how they wanted to live. While many of these women characters aren’t passive, they are certainly more restricted, and their actions are sometimes subtle and maybe subversive. How do you go about writing stories about women who make smaller choices and maintain the tension of story while coming to some kind of feeling of resolution when the characters can effect little outward change?
It's funny, I almost never think about my characters as making small choices or being in states of stasis or without options, but people say that about my fiction so I believe it. What I do see, though, is that the transformations I’m interested in are very often deeply internal for my characters. I’m often most interested in what it means to wait, to be patient, to be watchful. These don’t seem like passive states to me, but I do think the tension in them comes from the fact that they cannot be permanent states. To wait or to watch always means to wait or to watch for something. I think narrative tension often comes from the reader joining the character in waiting or watching for whether or not that something arrives, or whether or not the character is ready to act when it does.
Q: You recently completed a novel, Halley's Comet, which is based on your Pushcart Prize-winning story of the same name. Can you say anything about this novel and how it thematically connects to your short stories?
In lots of ways it’s a very different project; it’s about two women trying to figure out how to order their lives as their nine-year relationship is unraveling just as marriage equality as an achievable political goal is on the horizon. The protagonist, Alice, and her (ex)partner live in Chicago, but Alice grew up in rural Indiana in the 70s and 80s, so in certain ways her life is at a right angle to the lives that unfold in Wake In the Night. The novel is similarly more interested in the interior landscape of these two characters rather than the politics unfolding around them. Access to marriage matters, of course, but the novel is really about what it means to love someone, and fail at it, and try again a little differently, and do better, maybe. Or maybe not. I’ve also learned, as I’ve written it, that it’s a novel about grief and love, about the fact that you can never have—or be in?—one without being vulnerable to the other.
Q: I want to end with a more general question about writing. Do you have a philosophy on literature? What should a writer strive toward? What should a story or a novel try to achieve?
I definitely do not have a philosophy of literature. The more I read it, and teach it, and try to write it, the more certain I feel that I don’t. I don’t think this constitutes a philosophy, but I do think I strive toward getting the details right. I think when I write, I’m striving primarily toward seeing the world clearly, seeing my characters honestly, seeing the moments that make a life in the sharpest possible focus. I know it does me good as a reader and a writer, as a human, when I’m seeing the world like that.
Q: I’ve read a lot of your writing over the years: your novel They Become Her, essays, short stories, and, of course, poems. A recurring motifs that I find is the accusation of madness, particularly with women standing as the accused (the female speakers in Mouth Trap, Delia Bacon in They Become Her). Can you explain what draws you towards this theme and why it remains relevant, even today, a century after Bertha Mason was locked in the attic in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre?
I wish I could say that I am merely drawn towards madness as a theme, with the presumption of distance, a fascination informed by the power of the gaze. Madness for me, as it may be for many (particularly for women and those who have been historically disenfranchised), is more than observation, beyond investigation or a seemingly scientific attraction. There is something electric and physiological with madness made manifest internally in me. Externally, madness is always connected to containment and control of a perceived excess that must be measured, managed, and often made mute. What is the necessity of art if it isn’t mad against, and at, and from, the world that informs it? Bertha Mason remains, of course, very much alive. It is often imperative to burn our most unbearable beds and familiar confines, tear veils, scale walls, try to escape institutions that encourage a tragic demise.
Q: I often describe your writing as “dark and lyrical.” There are lovely turns of phrase and a developed musicality, but there is also so much sadness. I wonder if “despair” is the right word and if you believe there is a connection between despair and poetry. Is despair “that sickness unto death” that Kierkegaard writes about? In fact, when I read about Kierkegaarde’s description of humanity as various kinds of tension, I think of your poetry, particularly of Mouth Trap, which I always read as a collection about the tension between entrapment and bonds (Kierkegaarde’s necessities and the finite) and the freedoms of independence, even at the expense of loneliness (Kierkegaarde’s possibilities and infinite). I’d love to see an academic write this paper. Does any of this make sense to you?
I think that’s pretty perfectly put for Mouth Trap: “a collection about the tension between entrapment and bonds and the freedoms of independence, even at the expense of loneliness.” I’d love it if you, or anyone, wrote that academic paper! In terms of “despair” and its connection to poetry, this is something I’ve been thinking about for many years. A long time ago, a musician friend challenged me about creating from a space of despair or sadness, since he claimed that when he played or wrote music it came from a place of joy. At the time, I found this unfathomable, possibly because I was young and also tormentingly in love with this musician. I have often shared this story with creative writing students, particularly because I don’t think writing, or any art for that matter, comes from a singular locus, emotional or otherwise. I also don’t want to suggest that students should abide by damaging clichés about artists despairing interminably, because this can be extremely limiting. My poetry is inherently connected to despair, sure, but it is also concerned deeply with the bliss that can bear a body’s brightness.
Q: Another Rebbecca Brown attribute is density. Each word in a poem and word is thick with meaning; each word carries enormous weight. At the same time, this kind of density challenges the accessibility of the poems: a reader must work slowly when reading (or rather, I must read slowly and carefully when I read your poems). Do you consider issues of accessibility when writing? What is the poet’s obligation, if any, to a reader?
When I am writing, I don’t consciously consider the reader, who lies latent. I also don’t think about accessibility if this means providing a singularly clear, incontrovertible meaning, especially with poetry. I am often bored by narrative lucidity pointed precisely to where one must abide. One person’s ease is often another person’s torment. Instead, I guess what I am trying to do is explore unfamiliar linguistic terrains that jar and shock, surprising selves and senses into unfamiliar cognitive and emotional terrains. I’m less concerned about saying something directly than I am about the unexpected, the way a phrase you’ve never come across might evoke a visceral state, a pleasurable figuring of manifold meanings that only illusorily play at being dead.
Q: There is so much to say when talking about sound in your writing. Different kinds of sound repetitions are used, as well as image repetitions. At times, the poems sound almost like witchcraft, like a spell, and maybe we’re getting back into the realm of madness again. Can you describe what you are listening for as you write, and why?
It is sort of bewildering and bewitching—the sounds and rhythms I’m following as I write. I listen in on cadenced repetitions that often end in gerunds or rhyme, but I don’t know if it’s because I am also a musician whose head is filled with fragments of voices tuned toward a delight in the disharmonious. I do know that I like multiplicity and variety when it comes to all of those voices hallowing along the halls of my mind.
Q: I’ll end with an easy question. What are you working on now that you are most excited about?
I’ve been working on a new poetry collection entitled Too Many Fathers, which is written in response to sexist comments men have made to me specifically within an academic context. I’m especially excited about this book, since it feels like my most vulnerable, which also horrifies me, since this collection is possibly the most direct exploration of verbal and sexual abuse I’ve ever attempted. While it has been difficult to write because of what felt like re-traumatization, it also feels necessary, relevant, and possibly courageous. It definitely feels like a book that speaks beyond a mouth’s feeble trap toward our time.
While taking a much needed break from election anxiety, we interviewed author Patrick Crerand. (Hooray for the House, and special congratulations to Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Deb Haaland, Sharice Davids, Ayanna Pressley, Veronica Escobar, Sylvia Garcia, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and also to Governors Jared Polis and Lou Leon Guerrero!)
Patrick Crerand is the author of The Paper Life They Lead: Stories published by Arc Pair Press, 2018. His stories have appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Conjunctions, New Orleans Review, Ninth Letter, Indiana Review, Cimarron Review among others and have received special mention in The Best American Nonrequired Reading and Best American Fantasy anthologies. Currently, he is an Associate Professor of English Literature and Creative Writing at Saint Leo University in Florida, where he lives with his wife and three kids.
Q: Right away, at the beginning of just about any Patrick Crerand story, one gets a sense of the fantastic, the magical, and the absurd. One of your stories, “The Paper Life They Lead,” was mentioned in a Best American Fantasy anthology. And, of course, like most literature, no matter the genre, there is often a more serious, human undercurrent about what it means to live in this world. But that isn’t easy to achieve with the style you are using. When writing in the realm of the absurd, one runs the risk of being too quirky, or too simplistic, or too gimmicky. Given the current moment of the world, how do you see stories of magical realism or fantasy fitting into the larger literary landscape? Is any bit of “seriousness” important?
As funny as it sounds given some of the premises of these stories, they all derive from some aspect in real life, something terrifying or troublesome that happened to me. And I think magical realism has always been rooted in the political. Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Kafka are the prime examples. But writers like Angela Carter, Rikki Ducornet, Aimee Bender, George Saunders (all of whom are much more accomplished than I am) they are all confronting real problems through different means than straight realism. When I first started writing, I tried realism but kept getting pulled into absurd premises that I realized I could take seriously and maybe I could say something about life easier than if I was writing about real life in a small town or a city, though there is nothing wrong with writers who do it. Cheever was one of those writers who could bounce back and forth, and I love his stories like “The Enormous Radio” as well as a more straightforward story like “Reunion.”
Q: Another element of a Patrick Crerand story is humor. The stories are funny, but as I recall reading once, humor often works because of its connection to the taboo. (I’m pretty sure my source is Portraits of “The Whiteman”: Linguistic Play and Cultural Symbols Among the Western Apache by Keith H. Basso. I remember examples about jokes that deal with dreams that work for the Apache only because speaking of dreams is taboo; they don’t work for “the whiteman” who doesn’t see dreams as a taboo subject. He simply doesn’t get the joke.) Yet, as any comedian knows, crossing too far into the taboo, or too far into political incorrectness, makes the joke crass, and it’s no longer funny. How do you balance humor with appropriateness? Is this something you think about?
I aim for funny before appropriate, for better or for worse. Jokes and stories often work on similar premises of confronting taboo or looking at a problem of language from a canted angle. Some of the humor crosses too far, I’d imagine, as taboo is sort of a shifting goal-line, depending on perspective. I remember once I caught my mom reading a section of a story I had written and just putting it down with a sigh and a disappointed look. I imagine she doesn’t like some of these stories, but her “taboo” is more restricted than mine is. In short, I do think about it though, and in early drafts I try to push as far as I can, though I do pull back sometimes.
Q: That leads me to your novel project. You’ve mentioned that you are working on a novel that involves Jesus. I imagine that raises a lot of eyebrows in some circles. Can you say anything about what this novel might entail?
My mother’s disappointment concerned a section of this book. So the novel presupposes a universe where Jesus is hit on the head during a stoning and forgets to die and ends up living for a very long time, until our current era. For the most part, he forgets he is God really, though some small, uncontrolled, and generally useless miracles do seep out from time to time. The book picks up after he somehow stows away on a cruise ship where he turns all men passengers’ penises into flowers and hysterically impregnates all the women. He is arrested in Florida and then hospitalized with heart trouble. Before he can be deported, Althea Turner, the dying head of a local fast food company called Snack-O-Ham, meets him, recognizes him as her personal savior, and bequeaths him her company. After Turner dies, her executor, Sharla Heck, a one-armed atheist accountant, is charged with protecting him from the interests of a CEO of a big hedge fund, an apocalyptic investigation from the Vatican, and the sadistic impulses of a local minister who runs a live-action passion play in Florida.
Q: I know you grew up Catholic. Does Catholicism, with its elements of the magical (in the form of Christly transubstantiation, or maybe even in the form of paganism and the kinds of magic associated with “heretics”), inform your writing at all?
Yes, very much so. It was my first introduction to magical thinking, mysteries of faith, incongruent symbols, etc. The magical always has real consequences, and I think that balance made sense to me. Maybe it still does. You raise Lazarus from the dead, but you can’t escape the Romans. You inspire a ticker-tape parade into Jerusalem with hundreds of people but can’t keep your closest friends from turning on you. I met a lot of people there with one foot in and one foot out, which is a perspective I’ve never been able to shake really.
Q: I want to end with a more general question about writing. Do you have a philosophy on literature? What should a writer strive toward? What should a story try to achieve?
I guess I don’t have a philosophy really, but the more I teach, the more I admire writers who invite readers into their work, no matter how different the world is from the one we live in. That’s something I try to inculcate in my students here, as many of them like to write about fantasy or science fiction or techno-thrillers. But no matter what we’re all dealing with humanity, whether or not the characters are human even. That’s the lens through which we see, so those common traits—fear of death, love, family, disappointment, humor—have to be in there no matter what where we are or how much happens. Dragons or AI robots or laser gun calibers are all secondary concerns to these issues. That’s the hill I’ve been dying on lately.