Luke Rolfes interview, with Meg Tuite
Thank you for sending these three powerful flash stories, “Midwest America,” “Bunny Man Bridge” and “Come Together.”
“Midwest America,” is structured in vignettes and each one ties seamlessly to the one before it.
“In March, hundreds of thousands of traveling snow geese use the Loess Hills as a guide on the Central Flyway migration route. When the geese prepare to take flight or land, it looks like torn pillows blowing from nowhere and everywhere at the same time.”
You grew up in the Midwest. This piece is so visual and yet unleashes the underbelly of the population. How important is place to your work?
When I was twenty years old and writing stories with edgy, first-person narrators, all I cared about was voice. Now, place seems like the most important thing.It draws me in. I can’t get enough of how place influences the surrounding residents. I love books like The Coast of Chicago by Stuart Dybek that give readers a clear sense of what it’s like to live, breathe, and die in a specific corner of the world. I have a pretty long commute on my way to work, so I spend a lot of time staring into the open spaces of Midwest America. The Midwest is different. It’s not traditionally beautiful like the coastline or the mountains. It doesn’t have as much energy as a city, but there’s something remarkable about it – the way the highways cut through the fields, maybe; the symmetry of soybean rows; or the way that wildlife travels across the plains without anybody knowing. Midwesterners have their own identity. We know the difference between good sweet corn and mediocre sweet corn. We care a great deal about the weather. We know what it smells like after a hard rain. We argue about things like heat index and wind chill. Stuff like that captivates me.
“Bunny Man Bridge,” is a disturbing memory of peer pressure in a haunted locale. Another perfect setting for a story that speaks of that crossing over to find oneself amidst dissent as a teenager. What was your inspiration for this one?
“The wind blew hard for March that afternoon. There was a cold sting behind it, a little more than a whisper. You could tell winter was chasing our footsteps, playing dead maybe, waiting for us to let our guards down and admit spring had finally arrived before showing its last teeth.”
On Halloween, my class and I challenged ourselves to write a story after an urban legend. The Bunny Man Bridge in Clifton, Virginia is a ghost tale that unnerves me. I feel like urban legends demand a declaration of disbelief – the legends want you to stick a flag in the ground and promise you don’t believe in ghosts. Reading urban legends reminds me of junior high. Being a teenage boy seemed to be a parallel experience. Teenage boys are obsessed with proving that they are, in fact, real men -- men unafraid or something like that. It seemed like all the teenage boys I knew kept demanding the same two things: “Prove you aren’t scared. Prove you like sex.” Teenage boys and Bunny Man seemed to fit together somehow.
“Come Together,” is another flash piece that reveals so many layers: the loss of innocence no matter where you are in the line-up; a life lived alone to marriage to having a kid and yet finding some security within those unspoken, quiet moments that enlarge life. I felt like each of these three pieces passed through a life. Do you have any thoughts on this?
“One day this boy will ask me to explain why a man would jump from a bridge, how a man could lose his mind only to catch it in a piece of literature.”
When I think of flash fiction, I think of a snapshot. You open your eyes for a brief moment and see somebody or something, and then it is gone. Flash fiction reminds me of overheard conversations, strangers sitting next to each other on a train, or maybe even standing in line for a few minutes alongside someone talking on a cell phone. It’s a glimpse into another life. You get a hint of a whole new set of priorities, fears, dreams, and aspirations. And then it goes away. When writing flash, I try to replicate that moment.
When did you first start writing for yourself and how did it move in to sending your work out for publication?
I used to crank out epic fantasy novels when I was a kid. I’d fill up notebooks with them. I didn’t send any stories out for publication until grad school. I wanted enough confidence to face rejection. Nowadays, when I get to the point that I don’t want to work on a story or an essay any longer, I send it out to magazines or stuff it in a drawer. It’s either ready, or it’s something that “future me” can hopefully fix.
Any mentors that really moved you to follow your voice?
Writing friends are some of the best friends you could possibly have. Roger Sheffer and Diana Joseph were important mentors to me. My writing friends pushed me to be better. Also, my two favorite fiction collections mentored me in a way: The Watch by Rick Bass and Who Do You Love? by Jean Thompson.
How does editing ‘The Laurel Review’ affect your writing, if at all?
I love reading the work of others. I’ve come to understand that writing is just as much about reading as it is putting words down on a page. I try to maintain a wide aesthetic, but sometimes the stories I read challenge me to try new concepts, narrative styles, and themes. I think, too, being an editor gives you a “tougher skin” in terms of your own publishing, but it’s also humbling. The prose I’m reading is somebody’s hard work – it’s a piece of “self” another writer offered to the world.
I totally agree with you, Luke. It’s an honor to be able to read someone’s hard work before it moves out to a larger audience. Who are you reading at this time?
I’ve been on a creative nonfiction kick lately. I just read Bronson Lemer’s The Last Deployment: How a Gay, Hammer-swinging Twentysomething Survived a Year in Iraq. There’s a David Sedaris audiobook in my car.
I just saw David Sedaris reading the other night. He’s brilliant and hilarious. My cheeks hurt from snorking. I love that keeps a pencil in his pocket and makes changes to each piece as he reads it out loud. Never stops editing. If you could spend time with any writer past or present, who would it be and what would you want to ask that writer?
That’s such a hard question! It would have to be somebody from the past. I’d love to go drinking and hunting with Hemingway and ask him something about being a man. I’d love to look out a window with Emily Dickinson and ask her what she sees. I’d sit in a smoke-filled jazz lounge with Ralph Ellison and ask him what the meaning of life is. I think he knows, probably, but I don’t think he would tell me.
Great choices and questions, especially Emily Dickinson. Any special quote that speaks to you that you might share with us?
I just read a quote about writing the other day from Elissa Bassist: “You can’t dismiss an experience because there have been worse experiences.” I think it’s pretty wonderful, especially for those of us who appreciate and write the quiet stories over the incendiary. This quote offers value to the soft voices. People like me.
You have quite a voice! Thank you so much, Luke Rolfes, for this exceptional interview and for sending some of your amazing work to Connotation Press.
Thanks so much for letting me be a part of your wonderful publication!