Interviews

Tyler Barton on Minnesota and Writing Fiction Across Differences

A conversation with the winner of the Fall 2017 Arcturus Award for Fiction.

Every year, our sister site, the online literary magazine Arcturus, hosts a fiction contest. This year the contest was judged by Kathleen Rooney, who awarded Tyler Barton the prize for his story “The Orbit of Us.” Barton is a cofounder of Fear No Lit, the organization responsible for the 2017 Submerging Writer Fellowship. He is the creator of SHOW YOUR WORK, a podcast about flash fiction. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Gigantic Sequins, Passages North, Waxwing, Little Fiction, and elsewhere.

In this interview we discuss his inspiration for his award-winning story, the ways in which he balances humor with real psychological insight, and what it’s like to live and write in Minnesota.

Amy Giacalone

Where did the inspiration for “Orbit of Us” come from?

Tyler Barton

Unlike other stories, this one started with setting. My partner and I spent a day in Portage, Indiana on a trip from Minnesota to Pennsylvania, because it was right in the middle of our 17-hour drive. We drove around the big square of the town, visited the park, got out at the Portage lakefront, walked on the dunes—I kind of fell in love with the place. I had never seen a huge body of water (Lake Michigan) where, on its horizon, sat a huge city in the smoky distance (Chicago). In the hotel parking lot, the trees were letting off these big puffs of cottony seeds and it looked like it was snowing. I found myself taking a lot of notes. Through all the drafts of this story, there have been so many precious setting details cut out.

I think I knew that the next time I heard a strong voice for a character, I’d try to see if character lived in Portage, Indiana.

One funny thing is that, the day after publication, I got an email from a reader who needed to let me know that there is in fact no Arby’s in Portage. I messaged back, “That’s the nicest compliment anyone has ever given me.” But no, I didn’t respond. I love that though—people own where they’re from and they want you to get it right. I have now spent three separate nights in Portage. They have a Chipotle. Maybe Sabrina and Miguel should’ve gone to a Chipotle.

Amy Giacalone

A lot of your work seems to lean into humor, without being jokey. Can you talk a little bit about that balance?

Tyler Barton

Thank you for saying that. I can’t really write without humor. However, I don’t sit down at the desk and think, “how can I make a reader laugh?” What I do is try to catch a voice and just record what I hear that voice saying. 95% of the time I have no clue what I’m going to write about it until I hear a voice. Voice is what I prize most in writing, and I think that’s the source of all written humor. It isn’t funny to read setups and punchlines—it’s funny to listen to an observant and singular character describe their world. I don’t think there’s a more important quality in characters (or in humans) than being observant. I laugh the hardest when writers can describe something in perfect detail, especially if it’s something I have noticed before but never put in to words. For example, in this story, Sabrina uses the word “memwah.” If you’ve ever heard a midwesterner pronounce memoir in a “french” way, this detail will probably make you laugh. It just seemed like something Sabrina would notice and mock and also, kind of, secretly, love.

Amy Giacalone

“Orbit of Us” is told from the perspective of a young girl. Were there any challenges in adopting the perspective of someone different than you? How did you pull it off?

Tyler Barton

I didn’t change much about the way I normally write while drafting this story. Sabrina’s voice sounded clear to me, and as the story progressed I learned more and more about her. I tried to remain as honest as possible to her character, voice, and situation.

But, if I’ve ever written a solid female character, I have these people to thank:

  1. My partner, Erin, who is my first reader and always lets me know when I’m drawing an incomplete or slanted picture of a character.

  2. The many, many people who workshopped this story with me in class or one-on-one.

  3. My sister, Jenna, who is 4 years younger, with whom I fought constantly growing up, from whom I believe I learned something about teenage female angst.

  4. Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows

  5. Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen and “The Locked Room”

  6. Lindsay Hunter’s Ugly Girls and Don’t Kiss Me

Amy Giacalone

You’re one of the co-founders of Fear No Lit, the creator of the podcast Show Your Work, and you even host a radio show about writing! How do you find time to write, and how do these communities influence your work?

Tyler Barton

The majority of my work has been created over the last three years while I’ve been in my MFA at MNSU, Mankato. Though I have a grad assistantship and a part-time job, the program is structured such that I’m able to reserve writing time each morning and editing time each evening. This is a habit I picked up in my first year in the program, because I knew that being here (especially being here for free) was the biggest artistic privilege I might ever have, and I’d better not squander it. So I write for an hour or two each morning and edit for an hour or so in the second half of the day. Life obviously gets in the way, so maybe 5 or 6 days a week I meet this goal. 

As for the community building I’m involved in, I find nothing more motivating than supporting, promoting, learning from, sharing with, and working beside other committed writers. Every project I do propels me to pursue the writing life harder. I don’t care how corny that sounds. Community is essential and I’d be nothing if I were spending 8 hours a day writing alone in a room and that’s it. On a normal day, if I put two hours into writing, I usually put at least half that amount of time into projects that cultivate lit community. Also, I live with another writer who feels the same about community, and the work we do together is really important, so we always find time. We have Fear No Lit meetings on those 17 hour car-drives across the country, haha.

Amy Giacalone

It looks like you’re living in Minnesota right now. How long have you lived there, and has this place influenced your writing?

Tyler Barton

I’ve been here for a little under 3 years. Erin and I moved from Pennsylvania in the summer of 2015 so that I could pursue the MFA. This place has influenced my writing by teaching me craft and giving me a lot of time and space to read widely, but I’m influenced most by being in this excellent community of writers. It’s inspired me to develop a serious work ethic, think of my work as art, and learn new ways to be a literary citizen.

One of the greatest (and totally unexpected) benefits of living here has been volunteering to lead writing workshops for seniors at a local assisted living facility. I got involved through MNSU’s Good Thunder Reading Series outreach program, and it’s changed my life. And my writing. Twice a month I meet with 6-10 residents of the assisted living community to write and share work with each other. They’ve all come to writing for the first time through this project, and their stories knock me down every week. It’s taught me to be a clearer, more honest writer, and to have no fear of sentimentality or emotion. They also make me laugh really hard.

Amy Giacalone

What are you working on now?

Tyler Barton

I’m just this week printing out and turning in my graduate thesis, which is a full-length collection of short stories called Get Empty. I’m going to spend the rest of the spring working out some kinks with a few of the newer stories in the collection, and then I plan to start submitting it to contests and publishers. I know short story collections don’t sell super well and that a lot of editors want a novel to go with it, so I’ve also started drafting one. It’s set in an assisted living facility and explores spirituality, desire, death, Buddhism, and cults.

Really, in the last two months, I’ve spent more time writing cover letters and resumes than I have fiction. I’m trying to find a job in literary programming—doing events, or working for a conference, or assisting with residencies and retreats. My priority right now is to find a way to make building literary community my job.

*

Tyler Barton is a cofounder of FEAR NO LIT. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Gigantic Sequins, Passages North, Waxwing, Little Fiction, and elsewhere. He serves as a grad assistant for the Native American Literature Symposium. Find him at tsbarton.com or @goftyler.

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