We’re Still Doing Things Within the Realm of What We’re Fit For: An Interview with Keith Lesmeister by Linda Michel-Cassidy

Keith Lesmeister’s new collection of short stories, We Could’ve Been Happy Here, investigates the spectacle of the everyday. Set in the Midwest, his characters are relatable because of their wants, their bad choices, their ways of dealing with their lives. Lesmeister’s take is pragmatic, often humorous, and deeply felt. His attention to and honor for these created lives is evident in every word.

From “Nothing Prettier Than This”:

I had a family once. My son looked like those kids at the church—engaged and full of love. We hugged a lot. He smiled. We played catch. We’d fish off the side of the dock with night crawlers four inches long. We never caught anything, but we didn’t mind. I told him jokes while my daughter sat in a lawn chair and read a book. She only tolerated me, but I thought we were improving. And my wife, she was always there, doing her own thing. We’d catch each other, eyeing one another, and smirk at our dumb luck, our beautiful family. “We’re so lucky,” she said. “How’d we get so lucky.” The sun would set happy on those days. We were all trying. But as they say, sometimes trying isn’t enough.

First off, congratulations on the release of your first book. I feel fortunate to have seen many of these stories in their early stages. It’s exciting to see how they’ve deepened, and now shine as a collection.

In “East of Ely,” there is a great quote, one that not only is apt for the story, but addresses what makes your characters relatable, “Even at our most spontaneous, we’re still doing things within the realm of what we’re fit for…”. Talk a bit about taking your characters up to the edge of what they could do, and how well developed the character must be­—in your mind, in the reader’s mind—to make that boundary feel believable.

I think your first question is exactly what we’re striving for as story writers. That, if we can render a voice or character real and authentic, then we’ve done ninety percent of our work as writers. So, to answer your question more directly, I think a character must be fully, wholly developed for them to push up against any boundary—be it external or internal—and render it believable. Now, the question of how to achieve this authenticity or believability is a separate—and much more difficult—question.

How critical is the topography of the Midwest to your storytelling? By this, I’m thinking both in the literal sense, the geography, the wide openness, but also the social landscape. What is it about this place that demands that these stories happen here?

I think the stories do demand something by way of a geographic and social landscape, not least the fact that I grew up and still live in Iowa, and that history has deeply influenced the way I think, talk, and view the world. I suppose this place is part of me in ways I simply can’t explain, and perhaps that’s what other people, from other regions, might read in my stories and identify as “uniquely” Midwestern. They might tell me how that aspect of the book—the Midwestern-ness—shows itself.

I’m wondering how you write a place, or use place as character, where many readers will be familiar with the general area, but others, me for example, can think only of cornfields and wholesomeness?

I think this part is similar to how one might develop a character. Sure, we’ve got cornfields and wholesomeness, but we also have inhumane hog farms, meth labs, polluted drinking water, passive-aggressive and incompetent bosses, and religious nut-jobs. So, it’s incumbent upon me to develop the good, bad, and ugly, and to do so without slipping into stereotype, while still maintaining a “true” vision and version of the place where I live.

You nail the rounded, but still open ending, notably in “Today You’re Calling Me Lou,” “A Real Future,” and in the title story. I’m curious to know about your process in getting there, how to engineer an ending that feels both fulfilling and forward-looking.

Thanks for the kind words. I’m not sure how endings work. I really don’t. But I think it has something to do with your first question which is about finding that authentic voice, that character who you as author can embody so completely that you might as well be that person. I mention this because endings—or good endings—never wrap up neatly, and God-forbid the stick-on ribbon or bow. Rather, endings, as Amy Hempel says, should end on the verge of something. I think this ending she refers to emerges naturally through the full embodiment of the character.

I’m curious to know about your attraction to characters who are just bumping along, sort of riding on the edges of failure, but also still capable of getting together. Why do we find benign haplessness so endearing? I’m also thinking about how we as writers have to respect and love our characters who can’t stop making bad choices.

I’m not sure if I’ve heard the phrase “benign haplessness” and “endearing” in the same the same sentence, but I love it. I think it comes naturally with exploring the full embodiment of a character. I mean, we all carry some aspect of the good and some aspect of the “benign” or not so benign haplessness. Or perhaps even something more sinister. I don’t know. And while exploring these characters, I think it necessary to show the characters’ full selves.

You have a knack for honing in on the power of the everyday, as opposed to going for the sensational. I hate to go down that “write what you know” road, but there’s something to be said about creating characters whose lives are probable, likely even, and finding meaning there.

I agree, though I tried in this collection to write what I don’t know, thanks to Bret Anthony Johnston who challenged me to stray from writing about myself. I like to walk my dog, drink coffee, shoot hoops, read, and attend my kids’ soccer matches. That’s great for me. Horrible for writing fiction. Which is why in this collection I’m exploring addicts, suicidal grandmothers, military and combat veterans, and so on. But to your point, there is meaning in the everyday, no doubt.

I’d love to hear about your tactics for writing dialog. There’s a certain reduction that feels true-to-life. I’m also wondering about geography here. When writing other regions, there are certain ways to tweak the dialog, ways to mark cadence, certain vocabulary. But here (and know that I’m pretty much guessing about this), when you might want to capture understatement, maybe with a dose of buried passive-aggressiveness—how do you finesse such a thing?

I like understatement, but try to stay away from pass-ag as much as humanly possible—both in my real life and in fiction. I think pass-ag is boring and lacks vibrancy. In terms of dialogue, I’m not sure. I guess if I hear the character’s voice in my head long enough it starts to translate to the page in convincing ways, or at least I hope. Much of it is bits and pieces of conversations I’ve overheard. I’ll hear a person say something in just the right—or wrong—way and I’ll create a new character out of that voice or cadence or way of speaking.

At times, your characters get talked, conned, or bullied into doing things that are out of their regular behavior (rob a bank, chase cows, bean tiny animals on the head). Talk a bit about building these characters and about maneuvering your characters into these situations.

This, like creating authentic characters, is precisely what we’re striving for. Once we’ve found that person we want to live with on the page for a while, our next job as writers is to put them in difficult situations to find how they might act or react; or what they might say or do; or who or where they might turn to. This is how we find real-life action and conversations.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the writers that shaped your writing. Have your reading tastes changed as you’ve evolved as a writer yourself?

I think I’m influenced by everyone I read. Lately? Marilynne Robinson, Jane Smiley, Alice Munro, Emily St. John Mandel, and Ron Rash. The first two write exquisitely about Iowa and rural life and the ordinary every day Midwest people trying to get by. I love that, and hope—really, really hope—that they influence my writing in some way. I mean, who wouldn’t want their influence?

Thanks so much, and I look forward to seeing what’s next.

Linda Michel-Cassidy is a writer and artist living in Arroyo Seco, a tiny rural village in northern New Mexico. She has taught metalsmithing to jaded college students, mentored middle schoolers in creative writing and facilitated installation art with kindergartners. When all that isn’t going on, there is way too much skiing. She received an MFA (visual arts) from the California College of the Arts and is an MFA candidate in fiction at Bennington. She has published stories and essays in a number of small journals, and is a reader for some larger ones.

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