Steve Amick knows Michigan.
His first novel, The Lake, the River & the Other Lake, takes place in Weneshkeen, a fictional boat town on the western coast of Michigan. The novel is filled with scenes familiar to many Michiganders—the conflict between townies and summer people, between farmers and daytripping Fudgies.
His second novel, Nothing But a Smile, takes place mostly in Chicago at the end of WWII but features locations in Ann Arbor, including the Argus Building, where our interview took place.
So I asked Mr. Amick about important Michigan books--among other things--and he had a number of books of interest to share:
- Fireweed by Mildred Walker
- Whistle Up the Bay by Nancy Stone and Betty Beeby
- Short Girls by Bich Minh Nguyen
- The English Major by Jim Harrison
- Grab On to Me Tightly as if I Knew the Way by Bryan Charles
In addition to good books, we spoke about writing, humor, and the character of writers from the state.
THAT OTHER WORLD
Brian Short: Thank you, Steve, for coming into the studio and welcome. I wanted to start by talking about place. Earlier this week, Ann Patchett was on the Diane Rehm Show and she was talking about writing and setting. She told this story about talking with her editor, and her editor told her, You have to see Yemen, you have to go to Yemen, it’s so beautiful. And Ann Patchett said something along the lines of, Yeah, I’m never going to Yemen. But she also said that just because she wasn’t going to travel there didn’t mean that she would never write about Yemen.
I was wondering what the percentage breakdown is for you between research and personal observation and imagined material? How much of each do you use? Does it change with the project?
Steve Amick: I thought you were going to ask me about the percentage of Yemeni material that I use.
The percentage of real material that I use has changed over time. When I was a younger writer I tended to write more using autobiographical material. Not necessarily autobiographically, but make it a collage out of my own life.
Newer writers tend to write in order to explain themselves to the world. As you go along as a writer I think you often develop so that you are writing to explain the world to you. To do that, yes, I have to research things I don’t know. But I do find myself writing about things I don’t know. Not to the point of Yemeni. Yemeni? Yemen.
Less and less, it is about real material for me and more about, or at least not real material that has to do with me so much as stuff that I can look into a little bit. But it’s all about imagining that other world that is not mine now.
BS: How do you do that, how do you imagine that other world? How do you get yourself to observe details in a way that is useful for doing the really hard work of writing a novel?
SA: Well, I think that empathy key is really tricky. Because it does involve having to imagine how you would feel. At what point are you actually stepping away from yourself. If I have a strong enough character and I get them into a little bit of a situation, it becomes surprisingly easy and fun for me to continue down that path and imagine what happens next. What does he or she want, and that sort of thing.
So it’s really just putting one foot in front of the other in their shoes and pretty soon you’re in their world in a way that is very surprising sometimes.
WHY COMEDIES DON'T WIN OSCARS
BS: On Tuesday, we were both at Dean Bakapoulos’s reading for My American Unhappiness, his new novel, which is a comedy. And you made a comment that night about how writers who are funny as people sometimes shy away from putting that into their work. You have a lot of humor in your work—
SA: And I’m not so funny as a person.
BS: [laughs] So, it’s perfect! The theory holds.
SA: But I have funny hats.
I know a lot of writers who are just hysterical. Part of that is that they’re in a room all day long. I think they want to express that other side of them that’s more outgoing.
The really funny guys often write these really somber novels. It goes to that whole thing with the Oscars. The Best Picture is rarely a comedy. It’s so much harder to do anything funny, because when it doesn’t, work it doesn’t work. Drama is easy.
BS: Why do you think that is? Why don’t you think comedies win Oscars?
SA: Humor is a very fine-tuned thing and getting comedy to work is very precise. Whereas I think drama can work on a wider range. It can be bittersweet, it can be very intense and dark, it can be slightly funny. It’s a wider broadcast so you can hit your mark a little bit easier. I’m sure people will object to me saying this.
When humor and comedy works right, you’re saying some pretty intense things often.
BS: Are there comedians or people who make or write comedy that you find yourself consistently drawn to? That you seek out?
SA: There’s a writer in Canada who I just learned died last year, Paul Quarrington, who I thought was wonderful. I think he was fairly award-winning and established in Canada. He was with Random House Canada. We don't know his books down here, we don’t know anything about him.
William Kotzwinkle always consistently intrigued me, especially his satire of publishing from about fifteen years ago, The Bear Went Over the Mountain, about a bear who has a bestseller. Discovers it in the woods.
BS: [laughs] It’s funny already.
SA: It’s based partly on a true story that happened to Kotzwinkle and his wife.
As a younger writer, I was very taken with Kurt Vonnegut. I don’t think you see that in my work at all now. And boy, he said some serious stuff.
THE PENINSULA PERSONALITY
BS: I was wondering if you had thoughts about Michigan books, about iconic Michigan books, about important Michigan books. And maybe about the personality of Michigan books?
SA: Yeah, it’s kind of a roundabout thought. In recent years and lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the geography of Michigan and how it relates to our personality or our attitude as artists.
If you look at the state, it’s very unique in terms of its setup, unlike any other state really in the contiguous forty-eight. You don’t just pass through, there’s an intentionality. You have to decide to come up into Michigan.
It’s not inaccessible. But there’s a deliberateness to people living here, or deciding to come into Michigan. That’s evident at the way we look at place within the state, and partly because of the wide variety of places in the state. I would suggest that there’s as much variety as there is in Texas in terms of economy, agriculture, racial differences.
You know, you’ve got Detroit which is arguably the most bombed-out city in America and you go fifteen minutes north and you’re in Grosse Pointe which, in my lifetime at least, was considered the richest per capita town in America. You’ve got St. Joe’s and Benton Harbor across the state, where there’s a huge difference of two towns across one bridge.
So I think people have a real sharp sense of different distinctions because we have a lot of geographical barriers, the rivers and the lakes and things, and the different climates. When people point to their hand and show where they are it’s significant here in a way that it isn’t if you put a story in the tri-state area, New York or something, and then a chapter might occur in New Jersey, or somebody drives into Philly, or whatever. There’s differences, but it’s not this black and white, rigid, where are you, going from one place to the other.
The other part about the state I think is really interesting is that, of the three states that are kind of separated from the other states—and I’m including Hawaii and Alaska—we’re the only one that isn’t inaccessible and remote. So we’re different, but we’re part of everything.
I say different, I mean just a very small amount of border. You don’t have to go through water or a foreign country, you know. It’s not like Ohio where you’re just drifting through or passing through. So those two more exotic ones have their own kind of world there. But we’re right in the Midwest, right in the heartland. We’re right in the heart of things.
And yet we can tell ourselves that we’re different. Maybe part of that is sort of us telling ourselves that. But I think we are slightly different.
That’s a great metaphor for, and a great breeding ground practically for the attitude or the personality of the artist in general and writer specifically, especially, I think, humorist. I’ve gone that far to think that the person who is part of society but is set off to the side and can observe it. They’re an average joe but not one of the group. And that’s Michigan. Physically, geographically.
And I think it’s really interesting when you look at the writers who are living here, who are from here, think about it. Even a writer that you consider contributing significantly to Michigan literature, Hemingway, who is not from Michigan. But you look at that, back in that time, they had to deliberately go by steamship to Petoskey and set up a whole household every summer in Walloon. It’s that deliberateness. And he was sort of not from there but sort of observing to write the up north stories.
And that actually kind of leads me to thinking of my favorite Michigan writer, who didn’t really write about Michigan specifically. But when I think about it this way, that Michigan is this person off to the edge at the party, I think of Ring Lardner.
The other aspect to the state, too, I think, personality-wise, is that we have always, even before these economic times, we have always kind of considered ourselves, or been kind of the oddball or the underdog. That aspect of being the underdog, I think, is huge in terms of creating a regional literary group.
If you think of the most significant [regional literary group], it is probably southern writers. They’ve had a history of impoverishment or whatever, some sort of downtrodden thing. We’ve had that recently but I think we’ve always been sort of on the outskirts or the oddball.
Americans love the underdog, rooting for the underdog. In writing fiction it’s really important because you raise the stakes the higher the conflict. I think we have that sense of increased stakes here. We always have. A little bit of conflict. We’re the underdogs. And it really lends to our personality.
RING LARDNER AND MIDWESTERN HUMOR
SA: Ring Lardner, I think, even though he did not really write that significantly about Michigan, just his attitude about being the common man and writing in this vernacular and being discounted for it. Being kind of treated like he’s fluff, he’s not part of the canon. In his heyday, he was the most successful writer in America. And that included his best drinking buddy, F. Scott Fitzgerald. I mean, he did well. But he was funny, and so he was discounted.
And he wrote in the vernacular. He wrote some of the most skillful lines that I’ve ever heard including the famous thing that’s been stolen from him but he originally wrote the line, “’Shut up,’ he explained.” Where he has completely taken his skills of language to describe a complete lack of skill of language. And it’s so insightful and brilliant of someone’s frustration in the moment of a discussion.
I just laugh when I think about Ring Lardner, and I think about his very Midwestern sense of humor, as other people would say. I think it’s just that in the Midwest we look at things a little bit off to the side and we don’t confront directly.
Someone once asked me about writing people who speak and are funny in “a Midwestern way.” I didn’t know what they were talking about. Particularly, a couple of characters from my first novel. And then I realized that’s just how people I grew up with speak.
It’s not a New York confrontational , What’s your problem, buddy? It’s more off to the side, a little acerbic, comments. We look at Ring Lardner in that respect too. He said in one of his mock literary writing essays, he said, ‘As for me, I am a Michigan boy and can only do my best work in a room full of live wolverines.’ So I think he is very much a Michigan boy.
You read between the lines that he’s somebody who grew up on a peninsula, you know. They’re set apart but they’re not part of the thing. I think it’s more than a metaphor. I think it really does breed this feeling.
BS: So if you had one book to shove into someone’s hand and say, This is the book, read this book and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about, this Michigan personality, this Michigan outsider-observer—
SA: I would say The Best Short Stories of Ring Lardner
BS: Steve Amick is the author of The Lake, the River & the Other Lake and Nothing But a Smile. Steve, thanks for coming in today.
SA: Thanks so much, Brian.