by Abigail Fellin
We Could Have Been Happy Here, MG Press, can be found online on Amazon and in local bookstores.
A thick fog sat on top of the lake. The misting of rain throughout the day had turned into a drizzle as the sun set. It was the first true fall night in Storm Lake, Iowa, as Iowa writer Keith Lesmeister visited Buena Vista University to read pieces from his new book, We Could Have Been Happy Here, a collection of short stories all based in the Midwest. Keith Lesmeister is originally from Cedar Falls, Iowa, but currently lives in Decorah and teaches at Northeast Iowa Community College. He has been published more than 30 times over the last five years, with his first short story, “Looney Bin” being published in Midwestern Gothic in 2012.
The classroom quickly filled up with students, faculty, and a few community members, and Keith started by telling the audience he did not always plan to be a writer. He explained how he was originally a jock and it wasn’t until his late twenties that he started writing. He shared a couple stories of family and Midwest life and then began reading from his book. After reading the first half of “We Could Have Been Happy Here,” Keith answered some questions from the audience involving how he began writing, where he draws his inspiration from, and his experience with publication before bookending the event with another excerpt from “Today Call Me Lou.” Afterwards, a few students lined up at the front of the room to purchase copies of his book and to talk with him a few minutes.
The next morning, I had the privilege of being able to give him a tour of the campus. After seeing the sites and spending time looking at literary journals in the library, we found our way to an office suite where we sat on a surprisingly comfortable tan couch, and I was able to ask him some questions. A transcript of that conversation is below.
Abigail Fellin: Why do you write about the Midwest?
Keith Lesmeister: In part, it’s because of what I mentioned last night in that it’s where I’m from, it’s where I grew up, it’s what I know well, the location certainly, but also the people. There’s a certain practical pragmatic part of this too, which is I don’t want to travel to someplace to get a feel for that location to write about it authentically; but it doesn’t take much for me to travel around the rural northeast Iowa landscape and take in the sight and sounds and the smells, and I can render that authentically in my work. Not just because I’m from here, but I’ve grown up here and it’s just kind of part of who I am.
What’s your favorite part about the Midwest?
Well, its tough to pinpoint any one thing I like more than the other, but I guess for me personally, I like the open spaces. For example, Nebraska is as vast as a landscape as you could ever see. They call Montana Big Sky, but North Dakota or South Dakota or Nebraska could just as easily be called Big Sky. I have a friend that refers to that vast sort of expanse, and the way that big sky is as the Iowa Ocean. I’ve always liked that term. So I like the open spaces. It terrifies some people, it doesn’t terrify me at all. The other thing to, again for me personally, I like small towns. And I like small town ethos. I like the character of the people, the intentionality of community. If, for example, you go to the grocery store in a small town whether you are going for $200 worth of groceries or a gallon of milk, you’re probably going to be there for like 30 minutes, at least. Because you’re going to end up talking to everybody, for better and for worse. The other thing is that I can walk everywhere in Decorah. I walk from the very south edge of town to the very north edge of town in an hour. It’s about two and half miles. There’s something really great about that.
What is some advice you would have for young aspiring writers?
I would say don’t stop writing, read as much as you can, adopt habits and stick to them, and be resistant. When you’re going to get a lot of critique and criticism, you just have to have the confidence to keep going, the self-discipline to keep going, the unrelenting sort of attitude of ‘I’m going to get this finished.’ And just, keep reading, keep writing.
Do you ever struggle with writing?
All the time. Every single day. It is honestly something that I have never felt a kind of mastery for. Like every project is new, every short story is a different short story than the one before, so to say that writing them is like anything else you do, or any other story of the story before that is simply not the case. Every story is like starting some brand new all over again. Of course it’s built on the same ideas, the same language but yeah, I struggle with it all the time. I’m just as fearful and insecure and self-doubting as ever before. Even with the book out, but that’s just being part of a writer, learning to manage and deal with those insecurities and self-doubts and persisting in the face of those things.
What is the most challenging and most rewarding part of publishing your book?
I don’t know if there is a challenging part other than the process of going through all the edits with the editors. In terms of rewarding, think of how much great television is there is out there, how many great movies there are, how many great books there are. People have all of these wonderful options. You can hang out with your friends, you can sit and drink coffee and watch a television show. And then I hear about people who have taken the time to read my book, and its immediately sort of flattering to me, and I’m always surprised to hear when people engage with the book because there are so many other great things they could be doing with their time. So the fact that anybody takes the time to read it is a wonderful thing, and on some level maybe the most rewarding is hearing from readers who engaged with the book at a very deep and personal level.
Do you have a favorite book?
That’s a tough one. Let me just point out some individual stories and authors who helped shape my early writings. I would say “White Angel” by Michael Cunningham, “You’re Ugly Too” by Lorrie Moore, and Charlie Baxter’s “Gryphon.” Those were some of my early influences. I could name those and maybe even a dozen more whose stories and story writers who’ve shaped my early writings and have continued to shape me as a writer today.
After the interview ended, another student I took him to lunch, and then had the opportunity to speak with him in one of our classes. Experiences like these are both educational and fun for students who want to interact with people who are currently involved in the publishing and writing world, and are a great aspect of the experience students at Buena Vista get to have. I’d like to thank Keith for coming here and sharing some of his work with me, giving his time to talk to classes here on campus, and connecting with our literary citizenship initiative on campus.