A former substitute teacher, shelter worker, and home health aide, Phil Christman currently lectures in the English department at University of Michigan. His work has appeared in The Hedgehog Review, Commonweal, The Christian Century, The Outline, and other places. He holds an MFA from the University of South Carolina-Columbia. He is the editor of the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing, a journal sponsored by the University of Michigan’s Prison Creative Arts Project. He lives in Ann Arbor, MI. You can purchase the book (please do, you won’t regret it) here: https://beltpublishing.com/products/midwest-futures
Phil also has another essay collection set for release in February 2022 titled HOW TO BE NORMAL. You can pre-order that here: https://beltpublishing.com/products/how-to-be-normal
This is a special post for me. First, I plan to incorporate quite a few interviews with published authors on this blog to offer writers an inside look at the process and what it takes.
So, this is a special post in that it is the first of these interviews, but it’s also special because the author in this post is a friend and a wonderful writer.
Phil’s first publication is title Midwest Futures and explores Midwestern identity, past and present, in a series of deft essays. He uses a very personal platform to examine what it means to be from the Midwest, and offers a sharp and often hilarious sense of a misunderstood place and its people.
So, without further ado, here we go.
Chad Rhoad: What brought you to the mission of defining what “Midwestern” is? What history in your past as a resident of the region drove you to examine what it means to be that?
Phil Christman: Well, I first started vaguely thinking about the Midwest as a region at some point early in grad school, for the simple reason that I thought that it was weird that people could talk about “Southern” literature as a well-defined subject, and to some extent about “Southwestern” and “Pacific Northwest” and various other regions or areas, but not really “Midwestern” lit. “Chicago writer” was as close as people came to that. In those years I was the most obsessed Marilynne Robinson fanboy in the world, too, and I was influenced by the way she writes about the region in her work–she moved to Iowa in, I think, the early 1990s, and threw herself into learning about the history of the Middle West. That’s where Gilead and its sequels start from. It struck me as funny that I had never thought to do that, and I’m from here, dammit. (She’s from Idaho.) But it was all kind of a vague idea until Ashley and I got married in 2010, and then moved from the South to the Midwest three years later for her job. She had all these questions I couldn’t answer very well, except with cliches. Anytime you go to talk about your own experience and a cliche flies out of your mouth instead–a cliche that you know is a cliche–that’s something you should investigate and write about. Why can’t you see your own experience well enough to describe it? There’s almost certainly a story in that failure of vision.
CR: As someone absolutely obsessed with Southern Literature, that makes a ton of sense to me. And that’s a completely understandable reaction. The “midwest” has been such an integral part of the national conversation of America, but we’ve resisted any kind of strict definition on it or dedication to it. The reviews for this have been good. What kind of feedback are you getting from fellow Midwesterners?
PC: I have been really gratified by the reviews, yeah. My favorite one, in some ways, was by a friend of mine who was obviously seriously irritated by the book’s politics but said that he couldn’t help finishing it–that’s a kind of compliment that a person who totally agrees with you actually can’t pay you. And I know that feeling myself: “I want to fling this book across the room, but not yet because I have to finish the next page, and the next page, and the next page …” I feel that way about some of my favorite writers! And so it means a lot to have inspired that in someone else. I haven’t gotten a ton of hate mail, although occasionally someone writes to reprimand me for being too critical. The book doesn’t have that many readers, but most of the people who read it, even if they have particular things they take issue with, they recognized it as a gesture of love for the place.
CR: That’s a really smart way to look at that. I think aspiring writers can take a lot from that. A review that says “I loved it” may feel wonderful to see, but the kind of engagement you mention is the sign of a project well done. It’s a signal that you should think deeply about constructive criticism rather than having a knee-jerk reaction to it. The best books that I’ve ever read, and this probably applies to most people, are ones that make me uncomfortable, push me to examine things I may not want to or things I’ve placed in a pocket and promised never to look at. And, as you say, if people really don’t like your book, they won’t have that kind of engagement with it. What did your writing process look like? Research process?
PC: I originally proposed this whole thing as a book review of several Midwest-themed books for Hedgehog Review, which tells you how bad I am at planning my “career.” Barbara McClay, who is one of my favorite living writers, and who was then the associate editor at Hedgehog, said it should be an essay. I did my usual thing and dug around in the online catalogue of the nearest academic library till I found a few things that bore directly on Midwestern history and the concept of the Midwest, and then I went to those shelves and looked closely at every book around them, and I came home with a huge pile of books, and I started reading each of those books and finished the ones that were especially interesting or helpful. And I took a lot of notes, and I asked myself what hadn’t yet been figured out, what still seemed false or insufficiently thought-through in my own thinking, and I looked for specific answers to the specific questions that arose from that, and I wrote a long essay that got a decent amount of attention on social media and brought me to the attention of my publishers. Once I had the book contract in hand, I did the same research process again, but this time I set out to figure out what I thought was wrong with the original essay, what I had failed to talk enough about or explore fully. Which was pretty obviously the history of race and racism in the Midwest and the question of land theft. And I also wanted to think more about what climate change will ask of people who live in the region, because that’s a question that I feel ethically implicated in; it has direct bearing on how I live. (So does the question of racism.) I’m honestly still not very satisfied with my answers to the second question, though I feel like I got somewhere with the first one.
In MFA school I used to feel guilty for how much I read during the hours of the day that I had set aside for writing. I eventually realized that reading was my writing process, to a very large degree, and that I needed to be doing the kind of writing that allowed for that. If I return to writing fiction, it’s likely to be stuff that allows me to learn a whole lot. If I am not learning a bunch of random stuff all the time, I feel less alive inside.
I tend to rewrite things too much, so the structural conceit of the book–36 sections, each exactly 1000 words (I did word-count on each one after each edit and futzed around with the wording till it was right)–helped me not to undermine myself so much.
CR: I think that’s also a good tidbit for writers to show that sometimes books come from places we don’t expect. You keep picking at a project over and over, and it really becomes something good. That’s a nice way to say that people should keep plugging along at something if they’re passionate about it. I think it’s also really interesting for writers to see the writing habits of other writers. If nothing else, it proves that we’re all pretty weird about what works for us. I know you earned an MFA at U of SC. How do you think studying fiction helps make a book like this stronger? Or does it help at all?
PC: Oh, it helped a lot. It was during my MFA that I realized how important opening sentences and paragraphs are to me–I read submissions for the journal that USC publishes, and a lot of the stories that end up boring also start out that way. The writer has to take you somewhere right away. And I still try to do that, to establish a certain characteristic tone right from the beginning, even though I think sometimes my essay voice is ponderous in a way that I wouldn’t do in fiction. (My essays are often pondering Big Moral Questions in a fundamentally earnest way, so I think it’s OK to start off like that, but then you’d better undercut it fairly soon, before the reader has time to hate you.) The other thing about MFA school was that I spent a ton of time thinking and talking about structure and style. These things matter absolutely to the aesthetic success of a nonfiction book. Nonfiction can basically offer one of two things fiction can’t: insider info or high-level ideas that haven’t been revealed before, or the artful arrangement of a huge volume of facts and ideas. So, like, most bestselling nonfiction books by reporters are somewhere between mediocre and unreadable at the level of style, and so are most learned treatises by academic experts in some field, but we put up with it because they have stuff in them that we don’t know and need to know. I am not extroverted enough to be a reporter, though, and my range of interests is too wide for me to become a Ph.D. in one subject. So all I can offer is the second thing.
CR: That’s really good insight. I focus my editing and this blog mainly on non-fiction, so these are values bits of information for those writers. I’ve posted about this a lot, too. Readers need to be entertained as well as educated. The digital world has, essentially, given many of us the tools to find the research for something if we are so inclined. So, it’s vital that non-fiction writers focus on their writing as well. I would think many authors are in that second category with you, myself included. And I like that you mentioned it as an art because that’s exactly what it is. You can’t just list your research and let your reader hash it out. They generally don’t want to do that. And, let’s be honest, we pick up books on topics because we want someone with the ethos to do it to point us in the right directions, someone to cut through all the noise, for lack of a better phrase. Was there anything about the publishing process that surprised you?
PC: I recently made friends with someone who has access to BookScan, and what I’ve learned is the same thing that my publisher Anne has told me–the average book sells between 1000-3000 copies. Big press, little press; well-reviewed, ill-reviewed. If you sell over 1000–and I have, although just barely–you’re not failing. If you sell over 3000, you’re doing extremely well. By the time all this is over, hopefully word-of-mouth can help me crack that second number. The nice thing is that because I went with a small publisher who paid a modest advance, the book has made back the advance already–again, just barely–so I can at least feel like I’m not beholden to them. I don’t have to feel like they did me a favor by publishing me, although in fact I like all the people at my publishing house a lot and I do feel grateful to get to work with them.
CR: Man, once again with some great insight for new authors. I find managing expectations to be one of the main things I focus on with authors when their books get accepted to the press I work for. The publishing world has a reputation for millionaire authors living the good life. At the very least, I hear authors saying they want their book to become supplemental income to fund something else. So, it’s really great to hear someone who has been through this on the other side say the same things. Selling 1000 copies is good, no matter what you’ve heard or how it sounds. And 3000 is even better. The NY Times Bestseller list is probably a dream for us all, but the percentage of projects that end is crazy low. The EDJ Data Science project examined the NYT bestseller list and found some staggering numbers. Between 2008-2016 more than 100,000 hardcover books published . That number alone is scary. But EDJ found that fewer than 500 of those books made the NYT list, which is right at 0.5%. That’s some reality for you. And with Forbes suggesting that nearly 1,000,000 books are published per year, it’s easy to see what kind of competition we face. So, last question. What advice would you give to first-time writers?
PC: Do not try to force your writing process to resemble the writing process of someone you think is cooler than you are. I tried to do that for a lot of years. It doesn’t work. Instead, look at the last thing you successfully finished, the last thing you wrote that turned out better than you expected, even if it’s something you did for a class or something else that doesn’t feel like your “real” or “most serious” writing. Your process for producing that will probably resemble your process for the best, most personal, most whatever book you ever write in at least some ways. So start there.
CR: I think that is critical for all of us to remember. Find your own voice sounds so cliche to say and makes it seem like it’s easy to do, but it’s vital to success. The intricacies that make you are what drive your writing. Your perspective is what’s unique. Not your attempting at being “on the same level” as someone else.
CR: This has been a great chat with a lot of good insight for writers, Phil. I really appreciate you taking the time talk with me and offer this great insight to writers. Best of luck on sales and I hope the great reviews keep coming.
You can find Phil’s book Midwest Futures here: https://beltpublishing.com/products/midwest-futures
Phil also has another essay collection titled How to Be Normal, which will release in February 2022. You can pre-order that here: https://beltpublishing.com/products/how-to-be-normal