When I first began writing fiction, I lived in a shared studio apartment two blocks from Forest Park in St. Louis, a single room where the sound of the city’s MetroLink train rattling by the window marked the day in half-hours. I’d grown up in St. Louis and attended college in St. Louis and was working at the St. Louis Art Museum. One day, while sitting at my cubicle through lunch, I decided to take a weekly night class in writing fiction, something I’d never done. My first-ever short story centered on the Great Forest Park Balloon Race in St. Louis, one of the most magical weekends in my hometown. Hot-air balloons fill the sky in mid-September. Maple and oak leaves are just beginning to turn. That first story wasn’t very good, and I don’t even know if I still have it anywhere on file. It was the only story about St. Louis that I wrote for the next ten years.
When I finally entered an MFA program, I steered clear of writing about my hometown—or really about the Midwest at all. I wrote magic and surrealism. I wrote Alaska and Maine, and only one story about Ohio, where I ended up living for six years, the closest I ever came to writing about home. I didn’t want my work to be autobiographical, especially as a woman. I knew the first question often asked of female fiction writers would be Did this really happen to you? I’m sure I also internalized that the Midwest was boring, that I knew it too well. I wanted to explore other places and other worlds.
It wasn’t until I moved to Utah four years ago that I began writing about St. Louis again. As much as I loved the mountains and the red rock and the desert plants and the new animals and insects, I missed what I knew as home. Lush greenery. Humidity-drenched summers. The drone of cicadas. I began writing short stories about St. Louis, mostly about the city’s history so the work would remain distant from my own experience. And I began writing a novel set in St. Louis about a mass high school shooting.
Though the novel is very much about gun violence and its aftermath, it also ended up being a love letter to the Midwest and to my home. As the novel’s characters process their grief, they seek comfort, at times, in what they’ve always known as familiar. The St. Louis Cardinals. Riding up the Arch along the Mississippi riverfront. The reptile house at the St. Louis Zoo. The way their neighborhood streets grow dotted with porch pumpkins and lamppost scarecrows as Halloween approaches. The novel’s precipitating event– a mass school shooting—was so far from my own personal experience, but the setting of the Midwest was something I knew well. In addressing unfamiliar content that required a great deal of research and an even greater amount of sensitivity, a familiar setting drew the material closer and helped me understand the emotional weight this community was experiencing. I let my own homesickness and nostalgia for the St. Louis landscape – and the love I knew there – infuse the narrative.
While working on the novel, I also read a great deal of literature set in the Midwest. Lorrie Moore’s lush Wisconsin in A Gate at the Stairs. The magic realism of Dean Bakopoulos’s Michigan in Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon, the yearning of Iowa in Summerlong. The steel will of Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Michigan in American Salvage, the grittness of Donald Ray Pollock’s Ohio in Knockemstiff and the nostalgia of B.J. Hollars’s Indiana in Sightings. And in the recesses of writing grief, how William Gass’s In the Heart of the Heart of the Country nearly brought me to tears: “In the Midwest, around the lower Lakes, the sky in the winter is heavy and close, and it is a rare day, a day to remark on, when the sky lifts and allows the heart up. I am keeping count, and as I write this page, it is eleven days since I have seen the sun.”
Knowing that all of these authors had directly experienced these Midwestern landscapes, and reading the ways in which they’d still written away from fiction that resembled their own lives, emboldened me to enrich my own narratives with the vividness of a setting I knew intimately. I saw how the unique qualities of the Midwest – the environment, the weather, the culture – could interplay with the content and themes of the narrative. And I also felt the spark of seeing my own region of the country represented on the page. As a reader and a writer, I’d always sought other landscapes and other experiences as a means of exploring the world through fiction. But reading these writers’ work made me realize that seeing my origins represented in fiction also matters, and that writing the Midwest is anything but boring.
Having taken inspiration from all of these authors, and now having written two manuscripts about St. Louis, I understand the beauty of writing the Midwest, what I avoided for so many years. The Midwest is not solely a conglomerate of flyover states. I never thought it was, but I also never thought to write a landscape I knew so well into my fiction. Doing so has hopefully suffused my creative work with a richness beyond autobiography, a sense of region that–like all regions–is worth delving into, exploring, and setting down on the page. As Gass writes of the Midwest, “The shade is ample, the grass is good, the sky a glorious fall violet; the apple trees are heavy and red, the roads are calm and empty; corn has sifted from the chains of tractored wagons to speckle the streets with gold and with the russet fragments of the cob, and a man would be a fool who wanted, blessed with this, to live anywhere else in the world.” While I now live elsewhere in the world, so far from a studio apartment along the MetroLink line near Forest Park, I can live in the apple orchards and cornfields and cicada-choked summer nights of St. Louis, revisiting the Midwest on the page any time I wish to summon home.