“Putting off-the-map oddities at the center of the universe”: An interview with Krista Eastman

credit.Sharon Vanorny.jpgKrista Eastman’s new book The Painted Forestdescribed by Publishers Weekly as “thoughtful and elegant”—is now available in West Virginia University Press’s series In Place. Here the author talks with series coeditor Jeremy Jones.

Jeremy: “What strangeness, I asked, is this?” This is the question you pose to yourself walking around the Painted Forest—the fraternal society hall covered in murals of, among other images, a man riding a goat. It’s a good question. So good, I’m pointing it back at you. There’s so much beautiful strangeness in your book. Were you looking for strangeness when you found places and experiences to write about? Was that a central criterion for these essays?

Krista: I hadn’t thought about it that way but the attraction to strangeness is definitely there. I do thrill to weird things. I look at something as deeply strange and antiquated as fraternal societies and I can’t look away, but mostly because I see in all of it this arresting proof of our collective strangeness, as well as proof of how bizarre and byzantine we will all look one day, how wrong we’ll have been, how obviously conflicted we all were (are).

My writing does have a tendency toward putting off-the-map oddities at the center of the universe. When I was working on that essay about the fraternal society, I was doing a writing residency so I had to tell a lot of strangers, briefly, what I was working on. I’d say, “I’m writing about a fraternal hall in Wisconsin painted by an itinerant artist more than 100 years ago.” I discerned from their reactions that I wasn’t working on the hot new thing.

I would say, however, that it was never a conscious effort to make strangeness a central criterion. Like a lot of writers, I don’t really know what I’m doing while I do it. I think I write because it approximates in some way my experience of reading as a kid, when I read indiscriminately, with no filter whatsoever. In my relative newness, I didn’t judge anything or possess a system for valuing some writing or some topics more than others. I still associate writing with that same place of prejudgment, where every single little scrap of the world is free to make its way in, where curiosity is a resting state.

Jeremy: That essay, in particular, calls to mind Eudora Welty’s great advice: “Write what you don’t know about what you know.” You write early on that you’ve gone home to “find some mystery there again.” You let that resting state of curiosity take aim at your own Wisconsin. Some other essays in this collection, however, take on other people’s views of home and the region of the Midwest more broadly. You write that the Midwest, “like many of the earth’s places, tilts toward the under-imagined and overly caricatured.” What’s it like to write about a region—and from a region—that is easily typecast (especially during political seasons)? Do you feel a drive to push back against these stereotypes of “under-imagined” takes or do you ignore them and search for your own mystery?

Krista: When I was writing the earliest parts of this book, I hadn’t yet moved back to Wisconsin. I’d been mostly away from the Midwest for some time, working abroad as well as “out East,” which is what we in Wisconsin call basically everything east of Ohio. But I also came from a background—small town, white working class, dairy industry ties—that was quite close to the imagined Wisconsin, the one people think of from afar. It was kind of like if you only had one friend from Florida and, yeah, okay, she just happens to be a professional gator wrangler.

Having had to complicate people’s ideas about a place that is routinely caricatured, I became really interested in how we talk about place, and about what literature is read as “regional” and which gets marked as universal (i.e., New York City apartment ennui). There was also a tension at the heart of telling-about-Wisconsin that immediately interested me. On the one hand, who was I to authoritatively claim Wisconsin-ness? J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and WVU Press’s critical response to that book, Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegylay plain the thicket of problems with using a personal narrative to represent an entire region.

On the other hand, my upbringing, my home place, was not and is not often thoughtfully depicted and I felt some responsibility to playfully interject. I saw and still see a ridiculousness in the nebulous way in which the word “Midwest” is deployed, the ways in which it’s used to signal so many things, from simply meaning all of the earth between the east and west coast to more conceptual signifiers, like “the place where culture goes to die.” In alarm I’ve clicked on headlines reading “historic tornadoes are sweeping the Midwest,” only to discover that “Midwest” in this case somehow means northern Texas and that these tornadoes are a mere 1,000 miles away. I am safe, for now.

That this moving blob of a “Midwest” should then be used to explain how Donald Trump won the US presidency concerns me, especially as the preoccupation has played out, with tons of attention to yet another “Midwest” synonym, the “white working class”—people that, in this particular iteration of mythmaking, are somehow most authentically American, or are somehow free to occupy the heavily mythologized heart of an America built especially for white people. This roving definition of the Midwest, one that’s usable for any day’s project or purpose, almost always ends up serving someone’s interests and we’d do well to examine what those interests are.

And yet I’d say most of this work is not driven directly by the need to respond to the elastic, meaningless, or coded uses of “Midwest.” Some of it also, as you eloquently put it, “searches for its own mystery,” even if (and maybe especially if) that mystery lives somewhere that art isn’t supposed to.

Jeremy: One of my favorite things about this collection is its playfulness. It’s not unserious: it’s earnest but never too full of itself; it’s fun and inventive without being gimmicky or silly. (I’m thinking, for example, of the imagined conversations between your [mythic male] ancestor and Aldo Leopold in “Insider’s Almanac.”) Were there choices you made in writing any of these essays that surprised you—places where you wondered, “where did that come from?”

Krista: As a reader, I’m drawn to work that is inventive without feeling forced. I get really excited when writing is freed up by its innovation or play. After having a kid and securing front row seats to his imaginative life, I’ve really come to see my writing as an act of deeply focused play. When moments of playfulness or invention sweep into and overtake my work, I feel the whole project expand, the people and ideas in it taking breath. These moments can feel unexpected but, at the same time, deeply correct.

It surprised me when, in my essay “Insider’s Almanac,” my mom and grandma started gossiping in Latin. It didn’t surprise me when I decided to make up stories about Werner Herzog in an essay partly about how he wielded his myth-making power and status in a documentary of Antarctica. Looking back, it seems like I was probably always going to turn the “camera” back on Werner Herzog, from the moment I first saw him working. There’s definitely some subversion in the playfulness you mentioned. One way to level differences in power might be to make strange things happen on the page.

Jeremy: Not all of these essays are about home—about Wisconsin or the Midwest. You write about sharing space with Werner Herzog in Antarctica and about dealing with your American-ness in rural France. How do you think all of your travels changed the way you see Wisconsin?

Krista: My approach to travel has always been annoyingly studious. Most places I’ve gone, I’ve gone there to live or work, to squat for a long while, 10 months or so. I read everything I can before going and while there. All this to say that travel, for me, has always been an extension of reading and that travel has changed my work in the same way reading has, almost as if they’re two modes of the same kind of discovery.

I think this is common to a lot of writers but I’ve also found that being away from a place somehow permits me to write about it, as if the story more easily takes shape when it’s loosed from its native terrain. I also think distance makes or has made me kinder. Now that I’m again living in Wisconsin, my regular day-to-day life involves confronting the troubling things about this place that I wasn’t spending as much time on the first time around. I’m physically back in Wisconsin but of course I enter the work from a different place now.

Jeremy: I know this is awkward for a writer to do (but we writers are, after all, awkward). Would you pull out one of your favorite lines from the collection to close our interview—a line that sticks with you long after you wrote it, a line that you hope sticks with readers, too?

Krista: Yes, this is awkward. But thank you for this and all your thoughtful questions.

Here’s something:

Homeward, I thought, is a journey burdened by bright new lies.

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