Sharing the Pain, Sharing the Process: An Interview with Keith Lesmeister – Michigan Quarterly Review

Sharing the Pain, Sharing the Process: An Interview with Keith Lesmeister

Keith Lesmeister is an Iowa-based writer of fiction and nonfiction. His debut collection of short stories, published by Midwestern Gothic Press, just celebrated its Pub Day on May 16, 2017. I was first drawn to Lesmeister because of his connection with Midwestern Gothic, a literary journal and book publisher which strives to showcase the truths, the fictions, the folklores, and the beauty of the “flyover” states. As a Michigander myself, I find the journal’s mission to find great Midwestern voices incredibly important. Lesmeister’s retro-pink collection, We Could’ve Been Happy Here, is a beautiful addition to the MG Press gamut, as the twelve stories introduce readers to deceptively ordinary Iowan characters. We imagine them as our neighbors, our farmers, our children, our volunteer firemen, our returning war veterans—each with a home, each with their own traumas and baggage, each with a dream and a story to tell. Because I am one of those inquisitive humans who walks the sidewalks, silently imagining the lives of the people who pass me by, I found Lesmeister’s work immediately appealing. He was gracious enough to take time from his busy schedule to allow me to interview him for MQR.

Two overarching motifs of We Could’ve Been Happy Here are broken/dysfunctional families and “at-risk (to be killed)” animals. Both categories are shown trying to survive a hard-knock life. What do you hope your audience gains by reading your heartfelt and honest pieces about loss, love, and sacrifice? And how do these families and threatened animals especially allow you to dig deep into the real emotions of humanity?

Let me answer the last question first. I think people who read literary fiction want to be moved in some way. They want to feel; they want an emotional connection. That’s what I want as a reader, and that’s what I’m trying to accomplish on the page. To that end, I think I work best with people (and/or animals) who are at the end of their rope; who are in some way being threatened by themselves or someone else, and this dynamic—this exploration of vulnerable people and creatures—allows for meaningful, though sometimes difficult, interactions between characters that wouldn’t otherwise happen if everything in their lives was hunky-dory. In terms of the first question, I’m not sure. I try to stay away from “messages.” I personally don’t like being told how to think or how to feel about something, and in this way, I hope readers discover for themselves some connection with the stories and characters, even if that means they don’t care for them as people/characters.

Were any of the stories especially easy or difficult to write? Are there certain characters in the collection that have inherited traits or elements of yourself? 

I wish stories were easier to write. I find them difficult. Pain-staking. Each and every story in this collection went through literally dozens of revisions. I’ve never considered anything I write “easy” to do, mostly because I think trying to inhabit a character or persona is just so damn difficult. In terms of your second question, I suppose the characters here inhabit elements of myself in so much as I am flawed, weak, vulnerable, scared of myself, and unsure about everything.

The book’s first and last stories involve a character who is “farm-sitting” for a friend on vacation and loses a herd of dairy cows in each narrative. Can you tell us about the process of writing these two distinct, but connected, stories? Did they start out as one and separate organically? Did you know from the beginning that these two stories would bookend your collection? What drew you to this particular narrator’s story?

These two stories started off as one, but quickly turned into two. The first story, “Nothing Prettier Than This,” originally featured the narrator—Vincent—on the farm by himself. It was going nowhere fast, so I added another character, Katharine, and once that happened, the story took on a new shape and I was able to find its emotional center, which is that both of them are at some kind of crossroads in their lives. The title story has a similar history. In early drafts, Anya, the nine-year-old birthday girl didn’t ride along to herd cattle. Once I figured out that she ought to go along, the story pretty much wrote itself. It also allowed for added tension throughout the car ride. In terms of what drew me to this narrator, I think I was wondering what it would be like if I were estranged from my own family and had a host of other issues to deal with. While thinking about that scenario, these stories took shape.

You also live on a farm in northeast Iowa, right?

I never considered my house/land a “farm” until I got to grad school, in Vermont, and quite a few of the people in the program were from the coasts. They said, “You’re from Iowa? Do you live on a farm?” I said, “No, not really, just an acreage on the edge of town.” Then they asked, “Well, do you have a barn?” And I said, “Well, yes, as a matter of fact.” They said, “How about animals?” And I said, “Well, yes, as a matter of fact.” And they said, “You live on a farm!”

But compared to the thousand acre plots of land around here, my “farm” is nothing.

What keeps me living here? First of all, most of my family live here, and second, it offers a quiet, peaceful, low stress lifestyle where people concern themselves with what I consider genuine community. Plus, the area where I live has two colleges—a private school and a community college, the latter is where I work—and a rich artistic, musical, and literary culture. Plus, I can walk anywhere in town and be there within twenty minutes, at most.

You skillfully write prose from the perspective of an addict, a lesbian, a black volunteer fireman, an Iraqi combat veteran, and a handful of imaginative, naive children. What a range! What helps you find the exact tone and voice for each of these unique, complex characters? 

Getting to know a character is much like getting to know a co-worker or friend. You spend time together, ask him/her questions, and through these shared experiences you get to know him/her pretty well. I spent a lot of time talking to my characters, asking them questions, figuring out their wants, desires, insecurities, vulnerabilities, fears, loves, and once we shared our secrets with each other, I could hear them talking to me. Once I could hear them, finding that tone or voice was much easier, but only after spending months getting to know him or her.

A theme that appears in almost every story in your collection is the need for a role model, a confidante, someone to protect, and someone to trust. As humans, we crave the ability to share our dreams and our fears with another. We don’t want to be alone. I feel this is especially important in the career of a writer, too. Through your own journey as a writer, who have been some of your writerly role models—both for feedback and stylistically—and how do you seek the kind of community support writers utterly need?

I think I’m influenced quite heavily by everyone I read. Lately, I’ve been reading Marilynne Robinson, Jane Smiley, Alice Munro, Ron Rash, and Emily St. John Mandel, whose work—I can only hope—will influence my own. I mean, who wouldn’t want that? And I agree with you that “community support” is essential. It doesn’t need to be a lot of people, just a handful of trusted readers who will tell you honestly what’s working and what needs help.

You ruthlessly force your characters to endure grief, disaster, and abuse. Was it difficult to make your characters suffer? 

Not really. In fact, I became more engaged with them the more they suffered. In other words, I loved them more when we shared pain together.

What would you like your readers to take away from your stories’ open endings (those that leave you hanging, or wondering about what will happen next)?

I’m not as concerned about the endings or how people interpret them as I am in showing a change or shift—by the end of the story—in the characters’ hearts. Also, I think open endings require a little more work of the reader; that, when a scene or story is left open, the reader gets to imagine for him/herself how things might’ve turned out.

What are you working on now?

Short stories. It’s what I love to read, it’s what I love to write. Though today, for reasons unknown to me, I wrote a poem. Maybe it’s a prose poem. I have no idea. Maybe it’s an outline to a story or an essay. It’s something, though, I know that. What exactly? I’m not sure yet.

Cover photo courtesy of Iowa Soybean Association.

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