Teague von Bohlen is a Midwestern man at heart, and his latest collection, Flatland, represents, both verbally as well as visually, the heartbreak, trauma, and desolation that embody the Midwest region where von Bohlen was born and raised. A Colorado Book Award winner, professor, and editor, von Bohlen and I had a week-long email conversation where I dug for the root of his inspiration, heartbreak, and what his hopes are for the future.
Teague von Bohlen is an associate professor of fiction at the University of Colorado Denver, where he serves as one of the fiction editors for the national literary magazine Copper Nickel. He works the literary, pop-culture, and commentary beats for the alt-weekly Westword, and his short fiction has been seen in venues like Hobart, Saranac Review, and Split Lip. His first novel, The Pull of the Earth, won the Colorado Book Award for Fiction, and his most recent book, Flatland, a collection of flash fiction and photography with Britten Leigh Traughber, is available to preorder now. Find out more here.
Hillary Leftwich: People know you from The Denver Westword, as a professor at University of Colorado Denver, and from winning The Colorado Book Award for fiction in 2007. But your latest book, Flatland, seems to dive into something completely different than what we’re used to seeing from you artistically. Tell me how you got the idea for Flatland and what direction were you wanting this newest collection to go?
Teague von Bohlen: The idea for Flatland came from two sources, the first being my growing affection for the flash fiction form. Flash seemed interesting to me in terms of scope, but it won me over with its minimalism. As a fan of Raymond Carver from way back, I appreciated saying big things in small ways. I started playing with the form little by little, telling the stories of the people in the heartland of the country where I grew up.
I was working in flash fiction here and there, and my cousin Britten Traughber was graduating from her MFA in Photography from Illinois State. She was doing these breathtaking pieces of Midwestern landscape. Puzzle pieces were matching up between those images and what I was doing with these flash stories, also set in rural Illinois. I made the trip to go to her master’s show, and the idea for me was born on her porch drinking Blueberry ale until the wee hours of an April morning.
I’m still a little obsessed with the place where I grew up. Call it the Midwest, call it America’s breadbasket, call it flyover country—we have lots of names for that part of the nation, and not nearly enough stories about it. So, it’s something I keep coming back to, not only because the place and the people are important—though they are—but also because it’s so universal. I do readings, and people from all over the country talk about how much they recognize their own small-town experience in the stories, no matter where they’re from in terms of simple geography.
There’s also some selfishness to it all too—I want my kids to understand the world I knew, this world that’s falling away in pieces. It does everywhere, of course, but so much of the rest of the world is mapped, marked, noticed. So much changes so quickly. So, there’s a part of me that wants to capture these lives and these places in print, to ensure their legacy in some small way.
HL: It sounds like both a selfish as well as an unselfish endeavor. I’m curious, tell us more about growing up in the heartland. Who was the biggest influence on your writing? How did you wind up in Colorado? Did this move impact your style of writing?
TB: My upbringing was essentially split into two eras: a very down-home early life in Illinois, surrounded by family and farm towns large and small. My cousins were more like brothers and sisters to me; I’d spend as much time with my grandma as I could in the summers. It was, looking back, idyllic in that respect, which is why my heart has stayed there to some degree. This was in the 70s and early 80s; I come from a multicultural family, which was tough then—lots of racism that was just fundamental. I got into my share of fights defending my brother and younger sister. But I was still only a witness to it; I could fight it directly, but I could also go to the mall and not have people look at me sideways just because of the shade of my skin. So, my idyllic childhood was probably just mine, I understand—my siblings would have very different stories to tell.
As for writing, I read voraciously as a kid. Won some Young Author contests in elementary school, one in fifth grade by completely re-writing (ripping off!) the storyline for the Fantastic Four comic book origin story. But I was always writing and reading. Loved Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends and Norman Juster’s Phantom Tollbooth, moved on to the Boxcar Children and Great Brain books, found Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series (if all you know about those books is Disney movie The Black Cauldron, do yourself a favor and read a kid The Book of Three. So good.) That led me into Dungeons & Dragons and Conan and Dragonlance and Ray Feist and Joel Rosenberg and Glen Cook and assorted fantasy novels for most of my pre-teen and teen years. During this whole time, I was also devouring comic books—mostly superhero stuff, but I loved Archie and Richie Rich and Uncle Scrooge as a kid—and fell in love with that medium. I credit D&D and comics (thank you, Stan Lee) for having a better vocabulary at thirteen than I would have otherwise.
I can trace a similar line from about twelve or thirteen up through my awakening to literary fiction—I honestly think it started with S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, which is kid lit but affected me enormously. I remember finishing that book in the lunchroom at my junior high, with Ponyboy coming full circle to the beginning, and being floored by that as a technique. That book led me to other books, and I read Poe and Dickens and a little Vonnegut and rediscovered Twain (when you grow up in the Midwest, a trip to Hannibal, Missouri, with a ride on a riverboat, is pretty much standard). I never understood how my friends were resentful of having to read these books in high school—Animal Farm and 1984, Fahrenheit 451, Catch-22, Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness, Moby Dick, Pride & Prejudice, Gatsby, and so on. They were all so good.
I moved here to Denver to start a life and a family; Colorado was a great reconciliation between what I loved from both Illinois and Arizona—it was dry like Arizona but had seasons like Illinois. The way of life fit me, and I was able to land a job at the University of Colorado Denver, in 1999 and work my way up through the different academic strata. I feel fortunate for a lot of things but one of those things is having been able to build a life and a career here in Denver.
All that said, living in Denver didn’t just impact my writing. My experiences here have given me the great opportunity to support myself through teaching and journalism while giving me space to write fiction about places 1000 miles to the east. This is a great town for creativity; that Denver has hosted my development as a regionalist—regionalism of a place specifically not local—is testament to that.
HL: Ah yes, S.E. Hinton should be required reading (though why anyone would think of her writing as required is beyond me) in every child’s life. Elaborate on how you were looking for more. Do you still feel that need, even now? What is your favorite piece in Flatland, and how is that title an intentional (or unintentional) play on “heartland”?
TB: I think I’m always looking for more; more of what the greats wrote, more techniques they employed, all of that. I think all writers and academics—and maybe just readers in general—do. It’s what keeps us going, that sense of discovery. I’ll never get around to reading everything that interests me. There’s a beauty in that; on an endless journey, the journey itself more easily becomes the point. It reminds me of that great episode of The Twilight Zone with Burgess Meredith as the voracious reader who survives a nuclear blast—he suddenly has all the time in the world to read all the books he always wanted, and then he breaks his glasses. It’s the usual twist-ending that Rod Serling was so brilliant with, but that ending always gutted me. Bothered me to no end, even as a kid. In my head, I fixed it for him: there’s a ruined Lenscrafters across the street. There. Now it’s all better.
HL: I laugh about that ending myself. It’s a great example, for those of us who adore books, of our shared nightmare.
TB: “Flatland” is just one of the many names that the great plains of the Midwest goes by, but yeah, it seemed to fit the stories I wanted to tell, and what my cousin was doing with her photography too. Not as a pejorative, of course—and explaining how I saw the “flat-ness” of that part of the country was one of the reasons I wrote the titular story in the book. I see the flat as deceptive; flat seems to suggest simple, but it’s not, just like a linear horizon can trick you into thinking that it’s smooth. But nothing is as plain as it seems, and the Midwest has as many secrets and complexities as anyplace else in the world.
My favorite piece from Flatland—that’s a tough question. It changes every time I read it. I have to break it down by category to some degree—I love “Now Hiring at the Hog Trough” because of its humor. I love “All His Shirts” because I wrote it for my partner, and I can’t get enough of the smile she has every time she hears it. I love “On the Passing of the Last Small Farmer” because it’s one of the most personal stories in the book—it was originally an elegy for a great uncle who was the last of my grandfather’s generation to pass. That story has already been read at three funerals back home that I know of, and I’m deeply humbled that so many families have seen themselves in that story so much that they read it as a goodbye to someone.
HL: Goodbyes are always hard to forget, at least the good ones. I’m curious, why did you decide on Flatland as the final title if there are so many more names? Does this tie into the collection rather than, say, “Heartland” would?
I also want to know if you would consider “On the Passing of the Last Small Farmer” is the key story to your collection—and if not, what do you feel is the root or the heart of these pieces?
TB: It’s a good question; I think part of it came from the idea of the linear horizon being prominent in so many of the early photos, of which the cover shot was one. And the “flat-ness” of place there was something I wanted to play with. The other names were either too on-the-nose or too commonly used somehow. “Heartland” is too direct a metaphor; it’s also the name of a community college back home and a popular Canadian TV series, so it rings as overused. Flatland … I don’t know … there’s inherent poetry there—and it’s a title that raises questions, just like the ones you’re asking, that I hope make people want to read the book.
I think that story is key for me, yes, which is strange because it came late in the writing of the collected stories. But that’s the beautiful thing about a short story collection; it’s not up to me as the author to decide what the key story might be. Resonance is a very personal thing. I’ve had readers claim different stories as their own, and I love to hear why. One woman at a reading came up to me and told me that she couldn’t stop reading “Two Twenties” because it was so romantic. Everyone brings different perspectives to these stories, and readers get to attach to them in their own private ways. Happens with all stories, novels included, but short story collections set out a much larger buffet.
HL: Resonance is a very personal thing, not one to be questioned (or explained). But you do it so naturally. One last question: What one piece of advice would you give your younger writer self you wish you knew then but know now?
TB: Don’t overthink it. Just write. The rest will come.
Hillary Leftwich earned her MFA in fiction and poetry from the Mile High MFA at Regis University in Denver. She is co-host for At the Inkwell Denver, a monthly reading series. Her first book, Ghosts Are Just Strangers Who Know How to Knock, was published by Civil Coping Mechanisms in October 2019. Find her online at hillaryleftwich.com.